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Archive for February, 2010

Will it blend?

Combine three parts Guild Wars, one part Legend of the Five Rings, and one part Battletech and what pops out?  In this recipe, I’m hoping for a great Episodic Massive Multiplayer Online… game.  (Which should be EMMOG, but “leggo my EMMOG” just doesn’t flow that well.)

Guild Wars has a lot of great features, but the ones I want to emphasize here are the 8-skill limit, easy respecs, and the business model.

Players are stuck with only 8 active skills at one point, but can potentially choose those 8 from hundreds of skills.  This allows for variety and focus in builds and makes choice and specialization important, without gutting customizability.  The easy and free respecs make this limit work, since players can change their skills and even class focus for free in any town.  (Primary and secondary class choices are permanent, but almost everything else can be changed.)  Fairly quick missions and map travel (instant travel to any hub you’ve visited before) allow for short play sessions, and if a skill build isn’t working, it won’t take long until you can shuffle skills to try another idea, or long to get back where you were.

The GW business model is a thing of beauty; you buy the game, you play the game.  No maintenance fees, no subscription, no microtransactions.  There are optional things to buy, sure, but nothing necessary, and still, no subscription.  As long as the servers are up, you can play.  (That link is highly recommended; Shamus pontificates on online activation and server life… relevant for MMOs, as well.)  It’s a lovely throwback to simpler times when gamers and publishers weren’t in a DRM arms race, and subscriptions were for magazines.

There are expansions to the game as well.  These aren’t exactly sequels in an overarching storyline, but more like standalone novels that occur sequentially, set in the same fictional world.  Players can have a rollicking good time in any of the standalone expansions, or play all of them together, cross pollinating and cherry picking the best parts.  It’s like buying ice cream and then buying a chocolate pie.  Either is great alone, but together, they can be more than the sum of their parts.

Legend of the Five Rings is a multiplatform game world celebrating its 15th anniversary.  The tabletop RPG and CCG in the L5R world are both interesting, but it’s the CCG that I want to look at for this recipe, specifically the player-designer interaction.

The L5R collectible card game is much like many others, in that it is comprised of a large collection of cards that were released in different sets.  Players buy various products that have a small semi-random collection of cards selected from given sets.  One product purchase will not give the whole game library, then, but usually, an entry-level “starter” set will give players enough to actually play with.  Other cards from the entire product line add depth and strategies to the game.  Again, you buy it, you can play it, no permission necessary, no logins, no recurring fees.  Buying more products tends to open up gameplay options, but players can have fun with a single purchase and never spend another dime.

So much for the CCG business model, though it should be noted that the semi-random purchases tend to prompt further purchasing, thanks to the unholy fusion of the collector’s gene and the gambling gene.  In practice, people don’t usually stop at the starter… but it’s definitely possible to play the game with the starter alone.  This doesn’t track especially well in MMO design, but it is certainly possible that a publisher could sell in-game skills in “booster” packs, not unlike CCG boosters.  Single skills could even be microtransaction sale items… but that’s not a direction that I’d advocate.  The randomness of the CCG business model really does put off a lot of people, myself included.  (Though I do adore MTG Drafting and Sealed Deck… and GW has experimented with Sealed Deck-type mechanics for PvP… but that’s another article.)

The most interesting thing about L5R for this particular experiment is the way that the game incorporates players in its design.  Characters, lore and events are built at least partially around player choices in tournaments.  Players register in tournaments by swearing fealty to a particular clan in the game.  Their tournament play affects their clan in future expansions of the game.  Devs even plant certain cards in sets to see what players will do, planning stories around what might happen.  These stories then have a significant effect on future card design.  In a very literal way, the players have become important actors within the clan stories, and the interaction between the devs and the players makes for a more immersive sort of gaming experience.  Player choices matter beyond the immediate match.  Factional differences actually mean something.  Your clan matters.

That interplay is what I really want to see in this EMMO recipe.  Player action in aggregate, changing the direction of the game design in future expansions.  To be sure, crafting a CCG is a very different animal from crafting an MMO, but the design ethos of letting player choices matter beyond immediate combat is what I’m getting at.  Those of us who live in the real world tend to leave a stamp of our passing in one way or another, even if it’s on the road less traveled.  The world is changed for our presence and our actions.  An MMO that offers a living world, indelibly changed by its inhabitants, not just the devs, may well be worth exploring.

The L5R game isn’t entirely built on player choices, since the devs have some pretty clear ideas what they would like to do in the game, but it incorporates player choice far more than a typical MMO, what with the “perpetual now” they have to use to make things technically feasible.  An EMMO would by definition be developed in episodes, not unlike L5R sets, to allow for devs to take player choice and do something fun with it between expansions.  Players could play any given chapter of the story, or all of them, and each chapter would have its own “perpetual now”, but the world itself would advance in time in between chapters, and the way it advances would be at least partially influenced by player choices in the previous chapter during the window of time in the “real world” where the devs are working on the next game chapter.  So a player playing chapter 1 might not affect chapter 3.  If you miss the influence window, the game moves on without your input… though you can still reread and play older chapters.  This means devs don’t have to craft a wholly dynamic world, but can still let player actions mean something when the world’s timeline advances.

This is crucial to making this actually feasible, by limiting the scope of the project by limiting what players actually can do, and what devs need to allow them to do.

The Battletech contribution to this particular delicacy is the separation of the pilot and the vehicle, where the vehicle is the main gameplay avatar, but the pilot is the player’s presence in the world.  Separating the two allows for the flexibility we see in EVE, where the player’s character isn’t stuck with a class choice at creation that they are locked into for the life of that character.  If players playing an MMO are playing characters who can switch between ‘Mech weight classes and models between missions, they can tailor their approach to the particular situation they are playing in, rather than find situations that they can shine in with the only hammer they have been given.  This also allows for a separation of gameplay mechanics (combat, specifically) and the political game.  The mercenary life of many MechWarriors is a great place to tinker with the meaning of allegiance and what it means to the interaction between immediate gameplay and long-term citizenship in a game world.

So, add these five key ingredients to a bowl, blend it up with a fine tooth comb, sift out the bugs, cook at 40hrs/week for a few years.  What are we left with?

Things really could go in a few different directions, and the frosting on the cake (the lore and setting) could be any of a couple different flavors.  What I’d hope to see is the following:

  • Player choice drives future development
  • Flexible approaches to mission-based gameplay
  • Bring the player, not the class (whether this means role swapping on the fly or a classless system, either is fine)
  • Episodic content, where time actually moves on, and some stories have a real end
  • Location matters, and allegiance has gameplay ramifications (more than a faction rep grind and unlocking vendors)
  • One-time monetization of chapters (like Guild Wars expansions), and the ability to play any as standalone games or mix and match

I’d wrap these up in a Steampunk-Battletech lore cocktail, m’self, but that’s more a matter of taste than functionality.

What think ye?  What are the best ingredients of an episodic MMO, and how would it be presented?

Oh, and what if this sort of thing (the reclaiming of Gnomeregan) were built on player actions?  At my office, we’ve talked about flow tracking, where devs can take a look at where gamers tend to play and how long they tend to do so, especially where they have problems or memorable moments.  I doubt that Blizzard is unaware of such technology, but who knows if they are using it on WoW.  BBB also suggests that the Trolls could get a capital; what if that were determined by where Troll players have been playing and how long they did?  By aggregate Troll player reputation, either social or faction rep?

There are all sorts of subtle (or gross) ways like that to take player choices into account, whether in aggregate or high profile individual player or guild choices.  Not only could that make the game seem alive, but also make it more interesting.  (Though maybe more addictive, though, which isn’t always the best idea, duly noted by Callan in the Home Town Pride article’s comments.)

Still, it seems like a good way to make the virtual world more interesting, increasing the quality of feedback between players, devs and the world they share.

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In Soviet Russia, item shop pwns you.

…and yes, I’ve read reports that the prices for Russians are an order of magnitude cheaper.  Funny, that.  One for the home team, I guess.

Guys, this is not how you monetize a microtransaction game.  I know capitalism is hard, just like math, but this… is an order of magnitude beyond ill-advised.  I thought it was an honest if spectacularly embarrassing mistake, but as it turns out, it’s more like a faceplant.

Ah, well.  I hear WoW is still a good game, for a subscription game.  (Imagine the italics there dripping with disdain.)  All those who have been whining about AO either in-game or on blogs will surely find Blizzard waiting with open arms.

In the meantime, I maintain that the art direction of Allods Online is solid, the core game is fun (if nothing revolutionary in the DIKU mainstream), and the ships and their mechanics look awesome.  The game is good, even great in places.  The business plan… not so much.  (Curiously, my precise reaction to WoW, come to think of it…)

Oh, and I can get a six-man (actually seven-man) ship in Puzzle Pirates for $5, and I can solo it.  Guess who gets my money?

—————————–

Postscript:  I’m not trying to be snarky about those who, like BBB, tried Allods Online and found their interest waning.  It really just won’t scratch the same itch as WoW, especially for someone who is used to the endgame and doesn’t want to drag a character up through the leveling grind again.  That’s more a function of the age of games and how we get used to things, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My ire here is mostly with the businesswonks of Allods Online, with a small slice reserved by those who are cheering for the game’s failure, including those who are blindly prejudiced against the business model.  This is a failure of execution, not concept.  DDO, W101 and Puzzle Pirates do it right.

The actual game devs have crafted some great work, for which I applaud them.

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In a sense, are we not all MMO tourists?  We don’t really live lives as citizens of a virtual world, we just punch the clock and reel in the loot, saving the real citizens who just won’t stay saved from threats that just won’t go away. (Does the Lich King have Joker Immunity?)

Some MMOs have player housing, but for the most part, that housing is less a measure of citizenship and more of a trophy room or Simsish minigame.  Some games even use housing as a currency/time sink, charging “property tax” for the privilege of maintaining the place.

What is citizenship, though?  What is the point of taxes in the real world?  What do they buy?

Perhaps oversimplified, I view citizenship as a state of being where people who live within a community take an active interest in that community.  It is a mixture of responsibility and reward.  Citizens are not only interested in the people but also the place and the governing policies of the local politics, likely also the history of their chosen locale.  This is manifest in simple ways like picking up the trash as you walk past or cheering for local football teams, and in more significant ways, like taking part in politics or local business.  There are very good reasons to “buy local” and support your neighbors, since you’re stuck with them if the larger political structures collapse.

This sense of spatial importance is one significant thought process where rivalries and wars tend to stem from.  After all, few things are more visceral than protecting your home turf.  Personal insults can slide, but challenges to your space are immediate and tend to elicit stronger responses.  Barbarians or undead at the gates tend to prompt action.  It’s also easy to demonize the “other” who lives over thataway.  If there’s not someone somewhere else to criticize, we may have to own up to our own flaws.

Taxes are a way for the government to respond to those threats, imagined or imminent.  Not everyone wants to serve a stint in the military, after all, or work on infrastructure.  Taxes are the cost of living somewhere, and they go to maintaining, protecting and improving that place.  (…at least in concept.  The reality doesn’t always correlate, but I’m not really angling to flame broil well nurtured beefs with taxation and representation today.)

So, what exactly is the point of maintenance costs on MMO housing?  What does it do beside keep the place impossibly clean and perfectly locked in a pocket universe?  Maybe that’s all that it needs to do, but what if property tax in an MMO actually were tied to a place, and players had more citizenship within those places?  What if it meant something to the rest of how you played?

To be sure, the lion’s share of that concept weighs on the shoulders of the players.  Still, if there were game design mechanics to make place matter, and give players a reason to take up citizenship in certain places, what might that do for factional warfare and immersion?  Could there be local politics, either NPC or PC based, where elections have a real impact on gameplay?  Could home town pride make PvP more interesting and impactful?  What if you could raze enemy players’ houses to the ground, and rebuild your own when the inevitable retaliation hits?  What if that were subverted by paying taxes, with an NPC security force?  What if you had to pay the salary of Stormwind guards?

…some of that sounds pretty onerous, actually.  Not unlike really being a citizen and giving a flying feline fiddly bit about politics.  But what if a game could capture the good parts without the costs?  Is it possible to make location an important thing again in these MMO worlds, beyond just finding the sweet grinding spot or binding to Dalaran so you can get to the best vendors?  Can PvP be interesting and tied to a location without being a huge inconvenience and griefing tool?

Do we care where we are in MMO worlds, or are we just passing through, looking for the next sweet loot drop?

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Gibberling Gibberish

This is Tish, Tosh and Tesh, my Gibberling Psionicists in Allods Online.  They champion justice on the Nezeb server, League side.

Tish Tosh Tesh Tower

If you happen to spot them, don’t be alarmed if they happen to be spouting gibberish; it might be my kids playing with the keyboard again.

Waving with a toothy grin

See you around!

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I’m of mixed opinion on Allods Online, but I am mostly favorably inclined toward the game.

What they do well, I really like, namely, the lore, the visuals, the interesting class design and character progression, the good writing, the fun exploration, good combat, and perhaps most of all, the business model, at least what I’ve seen of it so far.

And yet, they have some notions about game design that I find rather… unsatisfying, namely, the open world PvP (I detest ganking), the same old DIKU trinity backbone (though it’s more EQ than WoW, what with group focus and crowd control classes) and the use of ships as endgame content reserved for groups.  I think the ships are one significant key to making the game stand out in a saturated market… but I’ve belabored that point already.

In the balance, the game is still fun enough that I want to play it once it goes live (Open Beta starts tomorrow!), and I’ll probably find a good way to give them some money (here assuming the item shop isn’t a complete failure).  It’s just… I can’t help but wish that the game hit all of the high points that I’m looking for.  I wish that it would be all chocolate, no bacon.

And yet… maybe I won’t find a game that does that.  That’s perhaps the biggest problem with a mass market game; it’s designed to appeal to a lot of people, and it’s almost inevitable that any given player will find something that they don’t like.  The trick is to find ways to devour the yummy, yummy bits that you like, while avoiding the greasy, nasty bits.

Of course, that’s all a matter of taste…

In the balance, I’ll be playing Allods Online until I run out of things I find fun, or am overwhelmed by things I don’t like.  I think it will last me a while, though, and for that, I’m grateful.  I wish them well, to be certain, and I maintain that it’s a good game, well worth checking out.  Just… don’t expect perfection.  Look for the good parts, and savor them.

The game will be throwing open the floodgates in their Open Beta February 16th.  Race for the good names!  You wouldn’t want xXKillStealr69Xx to be gone by the time you sign up!

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I’m not a big fan of numbered reviews.

For one, the numerical scale is arbitrary.  A 94/100 doesn’t differentiate much from a 9/10 or a 4/5.  Yes, those are technically different (I do understand math, after all), but the increased granularity of a percentile or base ten model doesn’t change much from the basic five point model.  It’s still just variations on “really like, sorta like, neutral, sorta dislike, really dislike” spectrum, but those are statements of fuzzy opinion.  We can’t have that when Metacritic is waiting in the wings.  (And insanely, some game studios tie bonuses and even salaries to Metacritic scores.  This industry is so messed up…)

Two, the numbers tend to be inflated.  A normal distribution of scores would suggest a bulge in the middle of the data set, but game review scores tend to exhibit this data bulge around the three quarters mark.  A game that scores in the middle of a number scale, a 5 or 50 (or bizarrely, a 2.5 in a five star system… why bother with halves?), will be seen as a failure, when it is precisely in the middle of the possible scores.  Maybe that means the game gets a resounding “meh”, but that’s neither a “retch” nor a “rapture”.  Some may well like the game, despite its warts, while others can’t get past the small bra size.

Again, it often comes back to the simple “like-dislike” scale, but since the numbers are arbitrary and weirdly shifted, they don’t correlate well to a simple scale like that.

More than that, though, there is also the concern of personal preference.  I happen to really like Cogs, a brilliant little sliding tile puzzler I picked up from Steam for $2 during the Christmas blitz.  Its Metacritic score of 73 puts it squarely in “meh” territory in the typical scoring of games.  Braid, a game that seemed poised to bring about the second golden age of gaming simply by its mere existence, has a nice 90 score on Metacritic, but it gets a resounding “meh” from me.  Grand Theft Auto IV and Halo proudly wear their “Universal Acclaim” badge bestowed by Metacritic (complete with breathless fanboy reviews flooding the internet, tallying to 98 and 97 scores, respectively), but I can’t work up more than a resounding “retch” for either of them.  Maybe they mean “universal” the same way that Miss Universe is always an Earth human, or the World Series is pretty much just a United States thing.

Far more useful to me are well-written reviews that clearly state opinions and facts about a game.  I may not agree with them, but if they are well-written and clearly reasoned, I can get a fair bead on what the game offers, especially if I read a spread of favorable to unfavorable reviews and parse the commonalities.  I wrote about this a little bit when I suggested a Punnet Square of difficulty, and how it colored player reactions to Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume (a game I really liked).

Even some “real” journalists don’t seem to like numbers, but wind up using them anyway.  What good is a system that doesn’t accurately convey information, and that the users don’t trust?

So, henceforth, if I’m going to be pinned down to giving a particular game a “rating”, I will be using the following system:

Games I really like will be given the rating of “Fudge

Games I sorta like will be given the rating of “Peach

Games I am ambivalent toward will be given the rating of “Celery

Games I sorta dislike will be given the rating of “Onion

Games I really dislike will be given the rating of “Chitlins

If you don’t like my particular choices, well, perhaps it’s just a matter of taste after all.

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Torchlight has a fantastic game mechanic that it borrows from its ancestor, Fate.  Players have a pet that not only serves as a combat companion, but also a handy remote access to shops.  Specifically, you can load the critter down with vendor trash, and send it on its way to go sell the junk.  It will bring back cash and empty pockets to start the cycle again.  You need never leave the dungeon whilst adventuring to take care of the “inventory management” vendor dump timesink minigame.

I want a pet like that in these MMO things that I play.  In fact, I think they would be a perfect Item Shop sale.  It’s an anti-timesink mechanic, so subscription games won’t likely bother (WoW’s vendor mounts and Jeeves being the obvious exception, though notably only present now that the game is older), but for nonsub games that monetize via convenience and vanity items, it strikes me that these convenience/combat pets would be a hot seller.  Games like DDO already sell bigger backpacks, so the philosophy of monetizing the inventory management minigame is there.

So, icanhazpet?

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The most insidious message of class-based sociality, whether it’s MMO design or classist notions in “real life”, is that people only are, and can only ever be, what someone else has pigeonholed them into being, or what they chose to be once upon a time, long ago.  Once you’re labeled, your entire raison d’être is defined, your fate sealed.  There is no learning, no evolution, no enlightenment.  Only a dammed populace, stuck in ways of thinking and action that were determined long ago.

If, on the other hand, everyone is self-sufficient, capable of stepping up and doing whatever needs doing, social interaction changes.  Old roles might be seen for the blindered workhorses they are.  Communities that are self-sufficient need not lean on imports to survive.  Countries that build their own abilities and resources need not pander to external agendas, slave to those who do not have their best interests at heart.

It’s no accident that airlines demand that you put your own oxygen mask on before helping others in the case of an accident.  If you are incapacitated, you are of no help to anyone.

So why do we accept being pigeonholed and crippled in MMOs?  Why do we accept a single role in the abstracted sociality present in group combat?  Why are we content to be the Best Darn Widgetmaker In The Plant, when we have the potential to be so much more as players?  When presented with the option, why do players embrace hybrid class design?

I posit that it is against our nature as beings of aspiration and potential to merely settle for mediocrity and mundanity, ever doing the same thing, never improving our varied talents or exploring other interests.  To be sure, gaming isn’t the epitome of human expression or progress, but it really shouldn’t be a surprise when some people want to do a little more in their entertainment than color inside the lines.

It’s no accident that I have played with other players more in Puzzle Pirates than I ever have in all other MMOs combined, forced grouping or otherwise.  PP lets me step up and play in any capacity that the ship or economy needs.  There are social structures and game mechanics that prevent me from taking the helm whenever I please on someone else’s ship, but I have unprecedented agency to fill whatever station I choose, if it’s available.  I’m limited by my own skills as a player (and perhaps a C.O. who doesn’t want me moving around), not my avatar’s level, gear or class.

I can solo my own ship with the help of a few NPC swabbies, or bring on other players who can then fill whatever role they feel like.  I don’t need to spam a chat channel looking for a Carpenter class.  I can take anyone on board who is willing to make an honest effort and do their best.

That is more social than any class-based trinity MMO could ever be, and it’s all because I have more options, and can choose how I approach the game.  When I have the choice to be social or not, but still make all the progress I care to, I have a tendency to be more social.  When I’m forced to group up to progress through the game, I kick against the impositions from on high, the ivory tower design ethos, the mandate that “MMO means playing together, noob!”

When I can do anything that the game might need, anything that the group might need, I’m far more willing and able to step up to the plate and actually play with a group.  When I’m self-sufficient, I’m more social.

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Allods Online opened up the game to anyone with a free gPotato account until February 10th.  They aren’t exactly calling it the Open Beta, and there’s no word as yet of a pending wipe, but hey, you don’t need a beta key any more, at least for a while.

Have at it, y’all!

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The company I work for, NinjaBee, has announced our newest game.  It is the best sandbox game that I’ve had the privilege of working on, and well worth looking at if you have a chance:

A World of Keflings

The official company blog announcement

IGN’s preview

And various bits of concept art from the NinjaBee blog.

It’s been a fun game to work with, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it in its final state.  Here’s hoping you all enjoy it too!

(Of course, the irony here is that I still don’t even have an XBox.  I guess I have to play it at work.  I’ll call it… testing.)

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