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Archive for September, 2009

OK, this might be better as “You Can’t Keep A Good Writer Down”, but since I love zombies so much around here, any excuse to write about them is good, right?  Besides, ghost writers are so boring.

Saylah of Mystic Worlds has poked her head up over at Tipa’s West Karana with some posts about Aion.

Aion:  Living the Dream in the Ghetto

A Weekend in Aion

I can totally understand not wanting to maintain a blog, and writer’s burnout.  I wished Saylah well with her self-imposed “fade to black“.  Still, it’s good to see her writing again and having fun with a game.  Or at least, writing about it.  (And of course, I still wish her well.)

It also appears that even Hobbits like to look for adventure now and then, too.  Jedioftheshire has fired his blog up again with a few walls of text, and it’s good to see what he’s coming up with lately, too.  My favorite of the three is the most Unique one.

And then there is Erin Hoffman, the lady who kicked the doors off of frustration with the game industry as ea_spouse and who currently maintains Gamewatch.org.  Maybe I’ve just not been paying attention, but I haven’t seen her write as much as I used to.  So when I saw her new article over at The Escapist, I had to pop in.  It’s a doozie, and well worth a read:

Why Your Game Idea Sucks

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Merely Magical

The Rampant Coyote touched on an interesting subject a while back:

When Magic Becomes Mundane in RPGs

It’s a great look at a storytelling aspect of game design that lies near to my heart.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing stories, both in short fiction and in outline form (for novels or game implementation).  I’ve done a ton of research on world building, including science, history, sociology, psychology, politics, math, and whatever else comes my way.  I firmly believe that game design needs to embrace a gestalt philosophy.  (I feel the same way about education, actually; learn to see the big picture and how everything connects, and you’ll have greater capacity for intellect and wisdom.)

Tangent:  Go check out Mike Darga’s article How A Designer Thinks for a bit more on gestalt design.  Not only is it highly relevant here, but it’s a seed for another article I intend to do once I can take the time to scrounge up the visuals.

RC suggests that magic needs to make sense.  On the surface of it, that’s silly, right?  Magic is fictional, and doesn’t have to bend to known laws of logic or sensibility.  That’s sort of the whole point of being magical.

Well, yes and no.

Again, RC’s article digs into it nicely, so I’m just echoing sentiment here.  Magic needs to make sense in a given game world since it’s part of that world.  It need not necessarily make sense compared to our Internet era sensibilities, but if magic within a story or game doesn’t make sense in its own framework, you’re going to run into problems.  Magic’s function may become completely arbitrary and fall prey to inevitable contradictions.  It may “break immersion” purely for game design reasons (thereby killing the setting).  It may become so completely mundane as to be boring.

The “boring magic” endgame is where a lot of games wind up.  In D&D parlance, no longer is that Fiery Sword of Oober +1 an amazing artifact gleaned from desperate adventures, it’s just a placeholder for the eventual BIS (Best In Slot) loot drop.  The inherent magic and wonder have been trivialized by a combination of redundancy, treadmill expectations and the Syndrome effect (among other things).

Magic can come in different strengths and different commonalities, and those can and should deeply affect the game world.  Neal Hallford wrote about it in his Swords and Circuits book, describing another of those game design Punnet squares:

PunnetMagic

Worlds where magic is common and weak might be those where everyone knows of magic and thinks nothing special of it.  It’s used almost everywhere, and is just as natural as we think of technology in our modern day.  This is where most game design winds up.  Everyone likes the shinies, after all.  There is something lost in the bargain, though.  The sense of wonder that magic can evoke is one of the greatest things that fiction can offer, precisely because it’s not how our real world works.  A common/weak magic world can still be interesting as a whole, but magic itself will likely be somewhat bland.

Worlds where magic is common and strong might be more interesting places.  When nearly anyone can get a hold of significantly powerful magic, it would change social structures.  It would change politics.  When anyone can pop off and do tons of damage, people would probably wind up more polite, if only as a survival tactic.  After all, when Barb in Accounting can literally blow her top if you give her the wrong data, you’re more likely to keep her happy.  It’s the Cold War all over again, but on a very personal level.

Worlds where magic is common and has a wide range of strengths may well wind up a fractured society based on a hierarchy of magical power.  Politics would bend there, too, warping around those individuals who literally have power, rather than those who merely have money and influence.  (Heaven help the world if a tyrant has all three.)  When the prime personalities of your world can literally single-handedly take down entire armies, the world won’t look like anything we’re familiar with.  Sure, the teeming masses of underlings might have some power of their own, which could also cause a lot of trouble and intrigue, but as in games with a wide power band, PvP would stink.

Worlds where magic is rare and weak will likely be a rather bland place.  Sure, the archaelogists and explorers will get the occasional rush when they find a Pottery Shard of Mana here and there, but since it doesn’t have a significant function that changes the way people live, it’s not going to be a big world shaper.  Perhaps political dynasties could be built out of some interesting heirlooms with minor effects granting luck or dexterity, or a family line could be excellent blacksmiths because of the power in the land where they make their home.  (The magic need not be observed and measured, either; tradition and legend already have significant effect on people.  Even if that’s backed with real power, it may just appear as part of the legend.)  Shamans and hucksters could take advantage of superstitious people with a bit of sleight of hand and some real magic to back it up.  Even though rarity enhances perceived value (and strength), magic isn’t likely to be a key to gameplay in such a world.  At least, it’s not likely to be something that players wield carelessly.  It can certainly provide some interesting stories when it’s used as the key to or muscle behind otherwise nefarious plots.

Worlds where magic is rare and strong are potentially crazy places.  Not only do you have the trouble that comes with individuals with real power, but they don’t have the threat of masses of low level magic users to counterbalance them.  The social and political imbalances would be even stronger than in a world with common magic.  As noted in the Swords and Circuitry book, players coming across a magical artifact that could literally explode with power in their hands would be a heady thing.  They wouldn’t normally have solid experience with such things, and may just as likely make their hometown a crater as establish themselves a hero of the nation.

It’s this sort of world that many ancient storytellers embraced.  Magic was wild, rare, unpredictable stuff, more often a problem than a tool.  People feared the Faerie Folk and their magics, and Merlin wielded terrible power (that he thankfully tended to use responsibly).  Magic was creative, unusual and dangerous, something best left alone by the average man.  Perhaps those were darker, more ignorant times, but at the same time, magic meant something.  It was mystical, unknown, fascinating like the flame to the moth.

And it shaped people and worlds.

Excalibur wasn’t just a wet Longsword +1, it was an agent of change, altering the destiny of a nation.

Magic can still mean something, if you let it.  To be sure, great stories can be told in any of those worlds, as in worlds without magic.  Still, there are ways to make magic more magical than picking talents from a spec tree and maximizing DPS output.  If magic has more consequences than just shiny ways to kill stuff, your game world can be much more interesting.

Put another way, why have magic at all?  What purpose does it serve, and how does it shape your world?  How does magic work, and what does that do to the world?  Even if you don’t lay all that down explicitly to the players, if it all makes sense to you as you’re building the world, the consequences of magical actions, abilities and artifacts will naturally flow in your storytelling.  That’s worth pursuing.

There are other obvious things that this can extend to as well.  If your world really has Undead, that changes a lot of things.  What sort of Undeadness is it, anyway, and how will that change things?  Can people hold on to their dearly departed even as they hold on to sentience and sanity?  At least for a while?  What does Death mean in a world where it can be reversed by the local workman necromancer?  (Who moonlights as the undertaker.)  What if necromancy is an honorable profession, respected by all, feared only by the fringe elements of society?

Does magic come in different flavors?  What if your world’s magic is only usable by animals?  What if magic only works when its user is asleep?  What if magic is only usable via totems?  (What sort of economy would that make?  Precious metals are already kind of crazy in our world, what if they were also magic batteries?  Would the industrial complex win out over the mages?  How would that shape the Industrial Revolution in that world?)

All of these things will change the fictional universe in significant ways, and your creativity will be enriched if you take these thoughts to heart.  Some of these questions will lead to nonsense (and some are nonsense), but that’s OK, because you can change it or jettison it.  The more cognitive dissonance there is in a world, the less enjoyable it is.  (OK, at least to a Western audience.)

It’s not unlike the Chaos Effect of a butterfly’s wings.  A well designed world will really need to function, or it can all fly apart.  As such, nearly everything will affect everything else.  (Cue plea for player actions to mean something in this meticulous, fascinating world that you make…)  Consequences born of logic are a natural part of the arrow of time, an unavoidable part of living in a world where there is no QuickSave slot.  Instilling even a bit of that in a game can be powerful spice.

Search out the consequences of your setting.  Think about how individual people would react, how history would be shaped over the years, how society would evolve.  You need not go all Tolkienish and invent new languages and histories… but if you do, or at least put a little thought into thinking things through to their logical ends, your world will make more sense and be more interesting.

Even if it’s merely magical.

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BrainHex

Prowling through random blogroll links, I found Indigo Static.  It looks like there are some good articles there, and I’ll be going back, but I wanted to note this one:

BrainHex Test

As a hexagon fan, how could I pass this up?  It turns out the test itself is a sort of post-Bartle, post-Yee classification system for gamer psychographics.  It’s a half decent test, but I think some of the conclusions are imputing motives that don’t track well.  Specifically, I’m an avowed solo player, but the system thinks that such tendencies are more of an indicator of antisocial tendencies rather than asocial ones.  There’s a world of difference between “not a Socializer” and “Killer”, and the test doesn’t seem to make that distinction well.

Perhaps that’s a limitation in the questions or the interpretation, but either way, it underlines the danger in assuming motives based on behavior.

Still, it’s another twist on studying gamer motivations, and as such, it’s worth taking a peek if you’re interested in that aspect of game design.

Below are my results, if that’s any help (the “No Mercy” Exception being what I take exception to – I don’t worry too much about offending other players, but it’s because I don’t often play with others… but when I do, I’m one of the nicest guys you’ll play with):

Your BrainHex Class is Seeker.

Your BrainHex Class Your BrainHex Sub-Class is Seeker-Mastermind.

You like finding strange and wonderful things or finding familiar things as well as solving puzzles and devising strategies.

Each BrainHex Class also has an Exception, which describes what you dislike about playing games. Your Exceptions are:

» No Mercy: You rarely if ever care about hurting other players’ feelings – mercy is for the weak!
» No Fear: You do not enjoy feeling afraid, preferring to feel safe or in control.

Learn more about your classes and exceptions at BrainHex.com.

Your scores for each of the classes in this test were as follows:

Seeker: 19
Mastermind: 18
Daredevil: 13
Conqueror: 4
Achiever: 2
Socialiser: 0
Survivor: -4

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4XMMO=?

Runescape is a game that gamers love to hate.  “Real” MMO gamers (WoW fanboys) loudly deride its lower quality graphics and weird business model (not the gospel $15/month), and “those other MMO gamers” (Puzzle Pirates, W101, etc.) look at it as a grindy mess like all of those “big soulless” MMOs (WoW).

So, it’s understandable that the buzz for the company’s next project, MechScape, isn’t as big as, say, the hoopla around BioWare’s Star Wars The Old Republic.  Still, they look to be doing some interesting things in the MMO design space, and for that, I applaud them.

This really has me scratching my head, though:

4X gameplay in MMO format as a goal for MechScape

Now, I love ‘mechs as much as any other Battletech geek, and I really like 4X strategy gaming (mmm, Master of Orion/Orion 2/Magic, Civilization), but I’m having a hard time seeing how this could work in an MMO setting.  I love Exploration, too, and the notion that an MMO could be built more around the 4X model than the DIKU model makes me very happy.  So, I’ll be happy if they pull this off and make lots of money doing it, maybe even reshaping the MMO genre.  It’s just… you wouldn’t make Mario and Bowser the stars of a JRPG, would you?

Oh, wait… (yes, that’s an important distinction:  the characters made the transition, but they changed the game design pretty significantly to shoehorn Mario into FF-Lite)

OK, so maybe this is a better example of design pulling in different directions, and the business model causing further problems:

Hellgate

You just can’t make every game type into an MMO.  I’m all for innovation, and I wish Jagex well on MechScape, but sometimes, the best intentions can still go awry.  Here, I’m voicing concern over both the “will it blend” approach to game design, and the annoying trend of making every game an online monstrosity (as if slapping on the “MMO” label makes roadkill sausage into top sirloin).

I guess time will tell what settles out of the mix, but for now, I’m cautiously optimistic, hoping that they will find a great niche for massively multiplayer 4X gaming.  There’s certainly potential there for would-be galactic emperors.  It’s never going to hit the same sweet spot of marketability that WoW did, but if they can manage to concoct a solid game, it’ll be one that I definitely look into for a while.

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I earned my BFA degree from the school of Industrial Design.  I wound up working alongside guys doing art for concept cars and others experimenting with materials science.  This is the sort of thing that I’d love to have seen in the labs:

The Airless Tire

Of course, since I’m a hexagon junkie, they have a certain artistic appeal to me as well.

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HWFO is an acronym coined by the CEO of Three Rings (the brilliant minds behind Puzzle Pirates), Daniel James.  It stands for Hand Waving Freak Outery, and is often used on the PP forums as a disparaging remark to suggest that someone is overreacting.

Karl Denninger does his fair share of HWFO over at the Market Ticker (a fascinating blog about the markets and their dysfunction of the last several years).  But hey, overreacting is what bloggers do.  If we wanted dry, rational reporting on facts, we’d turn to the impartial, accurate, professional media.  I mean, that’s what they are paid to do, right? *cough*

Anyway, KD’s on a tear lately, with a bit more vitriol and urgency to his commentary.  It’s worth a perusal of his archives if you want to get a bead on what the markets are doing, and how the economy is functioning (or not, as the case may be).  You could be excused for mistaking his latest articles as the rants of an anti-Obama nutter, but the curious fact is that he voted for the guy and made a big deal out of pointing out the fact.  He wrote a few times about liking Ron Paul’s stance on the economy, but ultimately voted for Obama.  So remember that when you dig around and find him ranting and waving his arms about the problems he sees.  He wanted Obama to succeed (and probably still does; who really wants chaos and social breakdown?).

So, his take on the 9/12 gathering in Washington D.C. is interesting less for the inherent HWFO, and more for the observation that it’s not a big deal elsewhere in the media.  No, the big news of the day is about Kanye West behaving badly.  A million or more people marching peaceably on the capital in protest of government spending would be big news in a sane society.  (Though, really, some of the protest posters are way over the top.  Hyperbole doesn’t help make a good case.  Of course, when the people in charge are telling us that they Must Pass This Bill Right Nao!!1! or The World Will Collapse!!11!!!1, it’s not like everyone is behaving rationally.)  People are tired of the nonsense from both parties, and the economic abuses that we’re all dealing with.  (Remember Enron?  Bernie Madoff?  Chuck Ponzi?  When the regulators turn a blind eye to this sort of activity, or actively support it, the guy working for a modest salary can be excused for being a bit peeved at The Man.)

Also, KD’s article “An Address To Our Schoolchildren” was interesting.  Rather than more partisan HWFO about the President speaking to kids in school, he took the opportunity to point out a few key ideas that our kids really should be told.  As a bloke who detests current educational thought on math education, namely the blight that is Investigations Math, I really like telling kids how numbers really work.  Math is really simple; it’s pure logic.  The math behind the economy doesn’t add up to “All is Well, Party Hard”.

Short story long, not only is the economy broken in fundamental ways, but people are starting to understand it, and that has some significant long term repercussions.  We’re not yet dealing with a Network moment of national breakdown, and Soylent Green isn’t being served in elementary schools, but ultimately, we really shouldn’t need to have the Apocalypse in our back yard before learning to pay attention to social mood or political winds.  Whether or not we’re on the cusp of a real economic Depression (or something worse or something better), it’s smart to pay attention and be prepared.  Better to have a bit of extra food on the shelves and nothing crazy happen than to think everything is OK only to have a run on the grocery store tomorrow and be caught with your pants down.

Call it a Blue Ocean social strategy.  Pay attention to the news that isn’t in the mainstream media, and you might just find something interesting, and worth doing something about.  HWFO has its place, but it’s the quiet, subtle shifts that are often most important.   If you’re just paying attention to the big flashy stuff, you’re likely to miss a key point.  That’s how magicians work, after all.

Disclosure: I did vote for Ron Paul as a write in vote for President, and am thoroughly disgusted with the political parties, the establishment, and the media.  I’m nonpartisan; I can’t stand any of them.  This mostly caught my eye as an indicator of what is happening out there in a populace that isn’t happy with a broken economy.  When prevailing social mood shifts, it’s good to be aware of what is happening.  I’m not saying that this is The Most Important Moment in Time, but then again, we don’t often recognize history until after the fact, and social change tends to move in small steps rather than big leaps.  It’s best to try to figure out where trends might go when there’s time to plan ahead, rather than trying to react when the train wreck is imminent and unavoidable.  Some may call long range analysis a bit of HWFO, but I call it strategy.  Also, I’m not advocating any politial position here, just encouraging people to pay attention and to be prepared for the long term, however you want to do so.  It’s not Big Brother’s job to take care of your family, whatever party he’s coming from.  That’s your job, so do it.

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Our home access to the internet died a while ago, and once the company fixed it, it died again a short while later.  We wound up with no internet access for about 3 weeks total.  (Of course we’re not getting our money back for that time, even though the errors were entirely the company’s fault.  Go, go subscription service business model!)  At first, it was an annoyance, but it did coincide with my dwindling interest in MMOs, so we really only lost out on email access and bloggish stuff.  More than once, my wife noted that she wasn’t as bothered by the loss as she thought she would be, and that she actually kind of liked it.  (Facebook detox can be rough, but it’s worth it.)  I concurred.

During this time, I dived into some offline games I’ve been meaning to pick up, namely Final Fantasy 12, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume and Disgaea.  I have thoroughly enjoyed them, and I’m more annoyed than ever that I have to check in via internet to play some games that I own.  (Even my beloved Guild Wars could and should have an offline mode.)

Specifically, when my daughter wanted to play World of Goo and Audiosurf (her favorites), she couldn’t, because I got them via Steam, and while we were offline, Steam wouldn’t cooperate.  Yes, there’s an offline mode for Steam, but we happened to be behind the curve on updating the client (thanks to being offline), so it refused to start up, even in offline mode, because it wanted to be updated first.  This was deeply annoying, and I’ve made it a practice to leave Steam in offline mode as a result.  As it happens, even that doesn’t help, though, since *any* connection to the internet lets Steam do a little backdoor checking (even in offline mode), and if it needs an update to the client, it refuses to work until you restart it in online mode and update it.

This ticks me off.

A lot.

And honestly, how fantastic is that deal when I’ve got to pony up almost $50/month for internet access just so I can play a game that functions perfectly without the internet?  I just have to verify that I’m a legitimate customer and get permission to play.  …for a game that I paid forThat doesn’t need the frikkin’ internet.  Seriously, this isn’t exactly DRM, but it’s pissing me off almost as much.  I’m no pirate, but I sympathize emotionally with those looking for CD hacks or private self-hosted in-house WoW server tech.

Good Old Games does it right.  No DRM, no hassle, no checking in, old games reworked to function on new machines “out of the box”.  Valve might make impressive games, but Steam stinks.

Back to MMOs, though, I’ve argued strenuously against the subscription model before, and will probably do so again, because it doesn’t offer me good value.  I don’t doubt that it’s good for some people, but it’s not good enough for me.  There isn’t enough “value added” to these MMO things to make it worth the aggravation and costs, and that’s just to actually play the blasted things.  Never mind all the idiots that are online that make gaming a pain oft times anyway (LFG IQ>72, PST).  Or the weak storytelling and stupid treadmill design.  Or the atrocious time sinks that they have to be to keep people paying for underwhelming design so that they can pay back the investor sharks who thought they could get in on the next WoW cash cow.

So yes, I’m happy to be gaming offline again.  I’ve discovered an interest in tabletop Warhammer and Battletech (though it’s stupidly expensive for those dumb little plastic miniatures and paints so I’m not buying in, I’m digging into the rulebooks and finding all sorts of interesting game design… I’ll make my own minis if it comes to that, thanks).  I’m working on my own games more (and the illustrations for my mother’s book).  I’m having more fun with my family.  And when I do play video games, I play on the DS more often than not, and the liberating freedom of being away from the internet permission overlords (and the desk!) is refreshing.  It helps that the DS has a lot of good tactical RPG games.  Disgaea is the latest one I’ve been playing, and there are a lot of good ideas in that game.

So when I see something like this, complaining that StarCraft 2 will not have LAN play and is toying with DRM, I shake my head, and go dig up some of my Good Old Games (OK, mostly in boxes on CD, but some from GOG that I never have to bother them for past the initial purchase and download) or just work on the Bee Hive board game that I’m making with my daughter.  I’ve lost touch with internet gaming, and while I agree that aspects of the battle.net revamp and lack of LAN are exceedingly stupid, and has likely cost them my patronage (even though I loved StarCraft and played it a ton), I doubt that Blizzard cares about that loss.

So I think to myself, why should I care either?

Aion, WoW Cataclysm, SWTOR, EVE, Jumpgate Evolution, Star Trek Online, Guild Wars (even the sequel, despite how awesome it looks), Puzzle Pirates, Wizard 101… it’s all just so much static now (even the games I love on that list).  And you know… it’s nice, tuning it all out for a bit.  There are still things about those that interest me as a cog in the gaming machine (I work in the field, so it’s good to keep up to date), but as a gamer… not as much as they once did.  Oddly enough, they would interest me a LOT more if they were offline games, especially SWTOR, Cataclysm, GW2 and EVE.  (I do love Privateer and Freelancer.)  They just don’t offer me enough value in their “onlineness” to make them worth getting riled up too much about or feel like paying a sub for.

Will that change what I write about here?  And how often?  Probably.  I never said this was just a place about MMOs, that’s just what I’ve written about so far (more or less).  I think I have some interesting things to say still about game design (board, card and digital) and art (traditional, digital and photography), so that’s probably what I’ll get into a bit more.  If I do get into Cataclysm as a result of the Arthas contest, I’ll probably have fun with it for that month, and I really do want to look around at the world changes (and take pictures, lots of pictures) and write up a few articles about the experience (not unlike the Death Knight articles), but I’m certainly not signing in for a long haul.  Though Blizzard, if you do make an offline “Old Azeroth” retail box, I promise to buy at least one. It’s the perfect time to do something like that, after the Cataclysm… there’s a strong nostalgia streak out there.

You could call it “burnout” if you want, but I take a critical look at the genre as a whole, and just don’t see that it offers me anything that I want enough to put up with the aggravation or the costs of playing online.  Perhaps it never really did (I never did dive into WoW even when I first played it years ago), and it just took a bit more experimentation to confirm that.  It should probably be noted that for the duration of this blog, I’ve never been all that happy with the status quo.  This isn’t really all that radical of a mindset shift, it’s just… shifting gears a bit.

And y’know… it feels like a weight is off my shoulders.  I wish current and future MMO players and devs well, to be sure.  I’ll certainly play W101 a bit here and there (yay, Access Pass business model!), maybe dabble in DDO, and will probably pick up GW2 when it goes on sale in 2012, so it’s not like I’m /ragequitting the whole shebang.  It’s just time for something else for me, at least as a major focus of what I do around here, at least for now.

Maybe more pretty painted pictures.  :)

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