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Archive for March, 2009

So, let’s see… there are the Oscars (Academy Awards), Emmys (I worked extensively on Lemmings, a short film that got a student Emmy a few years back), Peabodys and Nobels.  Before today, though, there were no Teshes.

I hereby present the first not-quite-annual-really-whenever-I-feel-so-inclined Tesh awards for fine bloggery and upstanding personality.

Yup, this is another story of how I took a meme that someone tagged me with and bent it to my own slightly less than nefarious designs.

The parties at fault here would be Ysharros and Pete, a fine pair of writers who alternate between reading my mind and making me wonder what they were thinking.  (In the best possible way, of course; that’s merely a comment on the sometimes bewildering shifts between topics I wholly agree with, and those that I never would have thought of, but am happy to read.)

Apparently, I’m supposed to thank my taggers (thanks, you two!), and then list others who I think do a great job, and then tell others to do the same.  These things could run the risk of going the Oscar “navel-gazing-pat-yourself-on-the-back” route, but I’m taking this as an opportunity to thank some people and offer some recommendations for fine reading.  (And plug my new Merc page, which uses the logo design below for some merchandising.  Yay for commercial tie-ins!)

First off, there is the basic level of the Tesh awards (Teshes), which is merely the Tesh Seal of Approval.

Tesh Seal of Approval

Tesh Seal of Approval

If you’re on the blogroll over there, you get this award.  You wouldn’t be there if I didn’t like your work.

A step above and beyond that, though, nets the coveted Golden Tesh award.

Golden Tesh

Golden Tesh

These are hereby awarded to the following authors for various reasons:

Big Bear Butt, Phaelia, Wolfshead and Muckbeast for the inspiration to start blogging in the first place.  BBB really started it all, expressing appreciation for a bit of moral support I offered some time ago in a comment thread.  Phaelia also engcouraged me to write, and Wolfshead and Muckbeast share an irrereverent critical take on the MMO genre that has prompted many of the thoughts that I’ve expounded on hereabouts.  We’re all coming from different directions, but without these four especially, I’d probably not have even bothered with this blog thing in the first place.

Chris and Capn’ John for being early adopters, as well as their continued good humor and kindred thoughts.  These are the guys I’d have a blast playing volleyball with… even if they can’t play (I don’t know if they can, actually, so it’s the thought that counts).  That’s high praise, actually, for those who don’t realize it from how… pithy it looks.  These are the guys that I count as friends, or at least kindred spirits… and that’s not something I do lightly.

Big Red Kitty and Phaelia for their recent rededication to their families, at the cost of their blog.  They have give much to those in the WoW blog world, (and WoW gave back to Phaelia in a great way), and their works will be appreciated.  Even more than that, though, I heartily applaud their respective choices to put family first, and I wish them very, very well.

Tipa and Saylah for their tireless championing of Wizard 101, and their challenges to the DIKU establishment.  Also, it’s always a pleasure reading their work, on whatever subject.  (Tipa’s comics are a great bonus, too.)

Ysharros and Wiqd for prompting the most interesting thoughts that have changed my own personal game design projects.  Alpha Hex is only the start, and if it works, well… there’s more to do.

So yeah… apparently I’m supposed to also tag others to do the same sort of thing, but that’s never been my strong point.  I’m an evasive Explorer, not a Hunter-Killer.  If this sort of thing appeals to you, by all means take it and run with it.

Oh, and there’s a third thing… I’m supposed to write ten honest and/or interesting things about myself.  Again, I’m evasive, so I’ll just point out that I’ve probably written at least that many things over the last few months here on this blog.  For those latecomers, though, here’s a cookie crumb:

I’m a technical artist in the game industry by trade, and my Bachelor’s degree is in Computer Animation (Pixar-level stuff).  I could be working for Rhythm and Hues (they wanted me for the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe movie) and maybe even Pixar (they love my alma mater) by now, but I will not live in California.  So, I work in games at small local studios close to my extended family.  I’m an artist, scientist, writer and teacher.  Maybe one of these days, I’ll find out how to get paid for all of them at the same time.  In the meantime, I just write and think about game design, which I find is a bit of a mishmash of all of them.  Renaissance thinking makes me happy, and finding ways to express and utilize all of my interests makes me happier.

My family is the most important thing in the world to me, starting with my lovely and wonderful wife, two beloved children, and extending to my extended family.  They are why I work where I do, and why I work as hard as I do.

…and ultimately, it’s thinking of them that made this post even relevant.  See, a week and a half ago, I taught a bit in church about “Finding Joy in the Journey“, and was reminded once again just how important it is to connect with the people you love and respect.  I quote from that article:

“Send that note to the friend you’ve been neglecting; give your child a hug; give your parents a hug; say “I love you” more; always express your thanks. Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved. Friends move away, children grow up, loved ones pass on. It’s so easy to take others for granted, until that day when they’re gone from our lives and we are left with feelings of “what if” and “if only.” Said author Harriet Beecher Stowe, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”

If you care about someone enough to let them know, if wish to offer gratitude, if you feel any impulse whatsoever to offer a bit of kindness, do so.  In a world sometimes gone mad, it’s the little kindnesses that will keep people alive and well.

Thanks, all, for stopping by, and for your kind and thoughtful comments around here.  May your lives be a bit brighter every day, and may you find ways to share that light.  Even if you have to put your tongue in your cheek for a bit, or dance around the “sentimental stuff”, the kindness will come through, and we can all use a bit lot more of that.

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OnLiving

Another insightful post on the themes behind the OnLive service:

Wrong on Cloud Computing

I’m deeply against this sort of thing in the first place, because I’m a dinosaur that doesn’t want to connect to the internet to play a game, or request permission to do so, leaving my choices in hands not interested in my best interest.  OnLive may be the next Big Thing, but they will have to pry my games from my cold, dead, reptilian claws.

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A Word of Warning

Brian “Psychochild” Green has run afoul of the WoW pirates.  Thing is, he’s pretty careful about this sort of thing:

I can’t believe it happened to me…

I consider this a cautionary tale, one worth noticing, as Brian isn’t exactly a noob when it comes to the internet, MMOs or even security.  It looks like this story has a mostly happy ending, but it’s best not to even start this sort of thing.  Congrats on the recovery, Brian, and good luck with the future.

(And yes, I do like the delicious irony of the cancellation timing.  I’m also suspicious as to whether the pirates knew about that somehow, and hoped to take advantage of someone who planned on leaving…)

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(Note:  This started as a tangent in the Tired of Killing article, but for organizations’ sake, I’m splitting it into its own article.)

I’m a fan of Puzzle Pirates, and I’ve not been shy of that.  I’m also looking forward to Gatheryn, which looks like a fun riff on Steampunk themes.  Interestingly, it’s also going to be a bit of a minigame suite.  This has caused a bit of miffed kerfluffling here and there among those who were hoping for a more “traditional” (read: DIKU level loot grind) MMO design.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to that notion.  Steampunk is fertile ground for gaming, but is poorly represented in the MMO genre.  Wizard 101 has a great little steampunk “world”, NeoSteam takes a magical tack on the theme, and even WoW has steampunkish elements.  It’s just… there’s no “hardcore” (heavy Victorian steam-driven) steampunk themed game out there.  That seems like a curious oversight to me, and I definitely think there’s a call for such a game in the market.

At the same time, I’m very, very tired of the DIKU loot lust model, built with combat as its backbone.  And there’s where we come to the title; the combat minigame.

As far as I’m concerned, combat in these games is little more than a highly specialized minigame.  MMO combat, just by the nature of the beast (internet connection, time>skill) isn’t nearly as involved as what we see  in the God of War games, Kingdom Hearts or Prince of Persia.  It can’t be.  It’s been distilled to an autoattack/special attack veneer on top of the prototypical RPG “dice roll” combat resolution engine.  Modern MMOs have polished it to a nice sheen, but as pure combat gaming, it’s just not in the same class as Dante in Devil May Cry or that scary dude in Mark of Kri.

So, when I see people complaining about the minigame nature of Gatheryn or Puzzle Pirates (or even Stargate Worlds with its Archeologist class hacking and research minigames) while extolling the virtues of WoW or the like, I can’t help but see a little irony.  (And no, Saylah, you’re not the only one in this boat; many people are dismissing Gatheryn for the more social, minigaming focus.)

To be fair, reskinning Bejeweled and jamming it into a large multiplayer lobby and calling it an MMO isn’t all that fulfilling, either.  If that’s all Gatheryn has to offer, it will indeed be unfulfilling… but at the same time, people DO play PopCap games or MSN games for hours, and giving them a persistent world where that indulgence can mean character progress beyond a high score leaderboard or Kongregate trophies might just be a winning formula.  It won’t appeal to the WoW crowd or the Darkfall denizens, but that was never the goal anyway.

Puzzle Pirates does well by having a series of minigames that are a bit more involved than the Flash-based PopCap fare.  For one, their games tend to have a bit more depth than those venerable gems.  Even Sailing, a Dr. Mario riff, has target platforms that change the dynamic of the game for the better, and Bilging is more than a mere Bejeweled clone, since you can make swaps that wouldn’t immediately cause a match, and it changes the gameplay significantly.

Beyond that, though, these minigames are integrated into the world.  Minigames on board ships contribute directly to the function of the ship, and the player at the helm winds up playing their own minigame that is a sort of metagame of balancing the crew’s efforts (working with people, for you who love sociality in games) while attending to their own duties.  Out of combat, captains have a Navigation minigame (unlike any other match three game I’ve played, and great for it) that multiplies Sailing efforts and can indirectly modify combat frequency, and in combat, the Battle Navigation (BNav) minigame incorporates a new subset of players who run the Gunning minigame, as well as an isometric tactical board game where the “deadly dance” of intership combat is played out, either to sink, engage crew-to-crew, or dodge until escape is enabled.

Once crews board their opponent, a round of Swordfighting or Rumbling (fisticuffs) ensues, which is a multiplayer Puzzle Fighter variant or Puzzle Bobble variant.  The simple innovations of sword strikes in SF or dual shooters and two directions of attack in Rumble mean they are more than their progenitors, and the multiplayer dynamics make for yet another layer of skills to learn and employ efficiently.

You can not succeed in Puzzle Pirates by relying on autoattack and a “shot rotation“.

Beyond that, there is a complex player-driven economy, where commodities are foraged up (with another minigame) and shuffled into a fairly complex market, where all but the most simple of goods are crafted via a suite of crafting minigames.  These aren’t interconnected like the shipboard games, but the economy as a whole is built on the back of players doing the crafting labor (playing minigames) to make items available.

As a result, the game world is very much under the influence of player actions.  If players don’t step up to the plate and Distill up some Rum or Blacksmith up some cannonballs, other players can’t go out and sail the high seas looking for combat.  If the combat-heavy players don’t hit enough of the spawned enemies, that primary currency fountain dries up, and the crafters don’t have anyone to sell stuff to.

This fairly extensive economy is fairly simple in that it demonstrates the interplay and symbiosis between the crafters and the combatants.  Each type of player (or a player who just likes both and meanders around) can do what they like, and find ways to contribute to the game as a whole, their fellow players, and have fun while still earning a bit of coin for their effort.

We see rudimentary aspects of this in WoW and the like, but crafting there isn’t so much a minigame as a metagame pursuit of ingredients and then sitting AFK while your avatar puts things together.

And maybe that’s the point.  Ixobelle wrote a while back about crafting interfaces, and the notion that crafting itself should be an active part of the MMO.  In other terms, a minigame.

Getting players of all types involved in the game world is part of what I’d like to see in my ideal MMO.  Giving them minigames is one way to do that, as it allows for greater involvement and player skill.  The combat minigame is certainly fun for some, but if it’s the only real way for players to get involved and display even a modicum of player skill, the game will naturally be limited.

Of course, at the same time, a game that demands skill and involvement from its players will also be limited, since not everyone wants to deal with actually playing all the time; they like that you can go AFK for a while and still get things done.  I’ve felt this myself at times.

Even so, I can’t help but feel more involved when I play Puzzle Pirates, and I feel that I’m actually playing more than I am just existing when I go about doing things in the world.  You can certainly just exist in PP as well, say by walking around on the islands or building up and furnishing your dream home, but actually playing the game, as opposed to playing WoW, is more fulfilling for me, as it asks more of me.

WoW certainly abstracts the combat minigame a bit, integrating it into the world and spatial concepts, so it’s not a completely shallow thing.  No, it’s a fairly highly polished minigame in the suite that is the WoW MMO as a whole.  As I wrote earlier, though, it’s just not all that satisfying in the long run, and having a suite of other minigames to round out the world and the interaction therein would seem to be a good thing, at least in my experience.  It increases involvement and emotional investment in the game world, and makes for more time playing and keeping things fresh, thanks to a whole suite of things to do, rather than just a fairly binary choice of “kill stuff” or AFK craft stuff.

As always, I’m not talking about excising the combat, merely adding other things on top of it.  Providing more choices and more ways to play is part of what I aim to do around here, after all.

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Tired of Killing

I’m tired of murdering murlocks, slaying slimes, and attempting genocide in my gaming.  Perhaps it’s ennui, perhaps it’s moral, perhaps it’s just rebellion against “more of the same”… but as fun as it can be to stick the pointy end of weapons in the squishy things that scream and bleed, it’s getting old.  It’s not coincidental, then, that the games I’ve spent the most time with the last few weeks are Puzzle Quest Galactrix, World of Goo and AudioSurf.  (Though I’ll admit to a mild itch to pick up Burnout: Revenge here and there.  The primitive hunter/gatherer in me wants to rack up a few more satisfying crashes.)

Since I write about MMOs a fair bit around here, though, there’s a problem.  Most MMOs are built almost completely on the combat minigame.  (Most RPGs and action games are, too, so it’s not something that we only see in MMOs.)  If I want to play a pacifist character in WoW, for example, well… there are limitations.  For those who try to bend the game to their will, it’s an uphill climb.  All is well and fine as long as you play on the rails, but try something different and, well… good luck with that.

That’s just not satisfying in what I want out of MMOs.  I want living, breathing dynamic worlds, not murder on rails.  To be sure, some players do want that, so I don’t disagree with including the combat minigame, I’m just pointing out that it’s not a satisfying world that only offers new and unique ways to kill stuff and raid corpses.  There are so many more things that could be done to make an interesting world.

Ysharros spoke about it a bit here:

Dessine-moi un mouton

and here:

Progression, brass rings and horizontality

and Wiqd dove in here:

It’s My Party and I’ll Craft if I Want To

Crafting is perhaps the easiest direction to expand into, since it has natural hooks into the economy and non-combat players.  I don’t think it’s the only direction, and indeed, Wiqd also writes briefly about scholars who explore the world and derive new knowledge from perusing ruins and extinguished battlegrounds.  Gevlon the Greedy Goblin writes fairly extensively about playing the MMO market, which is a sort of “secondary minigame”.  He can do that because the Auction House in WoW is half decent, but that could really be fleshed out even further for those market wonks.  There could be political minigames, toying with NPCs and even players, not unlike EVE’s shenanigans.  (Though griefing could be an issue, of course.)

Bottom line, these MMO things, to my mind, should be alternate realities where players of any stripe can find interesting, fun niches to play in, and ways to feel like they are making personal progress as well as affecting the world around them.  Channeling everyone through one “golden path” of gameplay (the combat minigame) does work, for many people, but it’s just so… shallow (and ultimately static), compared to what this genre could really offer.  In other terms, it’s just one (highly burnished) facet in the gem that a spectacular MMO could be.  Without polishing the other facets of the gem, it’s only going to look spectacular from a few angles, and even those angles will suffer for the low-luster background.

MMO players have a wide variety of motivations, but the gameplay support for varying motivations often falls by the wayside because of a focus on combat.  It’s easy to design and implement, and players love the monster pinatas and ever-increasing gear numbers… but MMOs really could be more than they are.

That’s the heart of many of my articles; MMOs have a fair dose of fun in them as they are, but they could be more than what they have become.  Wasted potential always makes me a bit sad.  (And, just so it’s not a moral soapbox, it also means that I don’t spend money on games that provide the same old killing machine.  There’s a very real monetary impetus for expanding horizons, especially in MMOs, of all games.)

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It’s been a while since I stopped in at 8-bit Theater, but browsing the latest strips yesterday, I happened across this one:

Lex Luthor, Hero

Strangely, Black Mage has a point.  Maybe not a stunningly good one… but this might explain why I’ve never been a big fan of Superman.  I’m definitely not a fan when he goes all Brian Singerish or forgets that the Earth’s rotation can’t change the flow of time.

Edited:  For some dumb reason, the link is broken and I can’t seem to find the page again.  Bleh.  In summary, BM was saying that Lex was a hero because he was fighting against the superior alien of perfection by showing that mere mortals could aspire to greatness, even when they are the underdog.  Old Supes is pretty much perfect, and it doesn’t always make for good storytelling, or good role modeling.  Of course we can aspire to be better people, but there’s no way that I’ll ever realize the dream of flying or stopping bullets with my eyes.  At least, not more than once.

Edited again 1/8/10:

New link, this one should be working.  Thanks to tvtropes.org for this one.  Shame it took me an hour of random link tracking to get there… that site really is a black hole.

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Shifting Winds

mpb has an interesting post up on the shifting dynamics behind the copyright system.  With OnLive rattling around in game dev news after the GDC flap, I really do have to wonder how things will play out.

What Will Happen After the Copyright Model is Gone?

Shamus pontificates about OnLive

I’m not really sold on OnLive, as I point out in the comments on Shamus’ site.  When I buy a game, I expect to be able to play it whenever I blasted well please.  That said, the technology is interesting, it just needs a better use.  Like curing cancer or making the Star Trek sick bay.  (No, the holodeck doesn’t count.)

Reading this article that mpb originally linked to, I couldn’t help but see parallels with the economic meltdown we’re living through.  Way too many people are still drinking the koolaid, hoping for the stock market to signal “all is well” again, that they may eat, drink and be merry.  They ignore the systemic cancer that caused this mess, hoping that bandaids and steroids can get the party started again.

The times, they are a’changin’.  Mind yer sails, now, and don’t forget to tack.

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Sony AIG?

Apparently, Sony is freezing “non-managerial” wages in what looks like a cost-cutting maneuver.  It’s not quite the same thing as AIG’s insane bonuses on this side of the pond, but it’s still boosting the managerial staff, when what should be happening is either a broad spectrum freeze or managerial cuts (or pink slips with no parachutes).  These are the guys, after all, who led the company merrily into red ink.  In a honest meritocracy, that sort of thing is a call for replacement, not shifting the burden to the cubicle drones or taxpayers to pay for bonuses or raises.

It’s a good time to be a manager, though.  I’m definitely in the wrong hotseat, at least if all I cared about was the money.  Even so, shafting the people who actually produce the goods isn’t a viable long term strategy.  It’s popular, but stupid.

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Thanks to Tipa for noticing this and posting about it:

W101 Player Housing

My wife has more than once suggested we check out working for King’s Isle.  Unfortunately, they aren’t hiring artists at the moment.  Still, these guys seem to get it better than most MMO devs.

I can’t help but think “if King’s Isle can do this, why not Blizzard?”  I’m sure excuses can be made, but man… King’s Isle is earning their keep.  Keep at it, lads!

…I wish I were at the GDC.  It’s a lot more appealing than E3 or PAX.  Then again, I’m the sort that wants to go to the SIGGraph classes, rather than prowl the product floor looking for free loot.

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WoWAR Funnies

First, who says retribution is only for Paladins?

Advertising Tomfoolery

And then this crazy bit of writing, brought to my attention via the crafty little Gnome over at Mystic Chicanery.

Scourge Chat

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