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Archive for April, 2010

GW2 Manifesto

Hat tip to Syp:

ArenaNet talks about the design manifesto behind Guild Wars 2.

I’m looking forward to this one, and I love this quote:

It all gets back to our basic design philosophy. Our games aren’t about preparing to have fun, or about grinding for a future fun reward. Our games are designed to be fun from moment to moment.

Imagine that. (…and then weep a little for a sector of the game industry where such a design ethos is atypical.)

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Ed Catmull, resident genius and president of Disney and Pixar animation (yes, the guy behind Catmull-Rom splines, beautiful tools for computer animators everywhere) gave an address at my alma mater a while back, describing how his companies were trying to create a third Golden Age for Disney animation.  I wish I had the talk on tape, since there were a LOT of great thoughts in it.  For the moment, though, a few words on his comments about goodwill and B-work.

The Disney Direct to DVD division (DDTDD?)  has been able to make money from such fare as Cinderella 2 and Jungle Book 2… but they just aren’t much to speak of as far as movies go.  (Let’s also offer a moment of silence for the Land Before Time Neverending Sequelitis, shall we?  It’s not Disney, but the same principle applies.)  That’s what Mr. Catmull calls “B-work”, and not only is it bad for the soul of the artists and producers, but also the audience.  Unnecessary sequels of beloved movies can taint the rose-tinted glasses that are a core component of our goodwill.  I’m sorry, but John Goodman just can’t compare to Phil Harris as Baloo, and Herbie the Love Bug should have stayed in the 60s.  (Not that it was all that fantastic to start with… but Lindsay Lohan?  Really?)

Oddly, though I don’t like Goodman’s Baloo, I actually liked TaleSpin.  It was on the tail end (ha!) of the golden age of Disney TV (DuckTales is still the best TV cartoon I’ve ever seen), and thoroughly enjoyable.  I’d have loved to have a cloud surfer… thing.  Well, that, and a parachute.  Perhaps TV is “B-work” compared to film, but in their realm, DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, Gargoyles and TaleSpin were A-list productions.  Modern animated fare doesn’t even compare; it’s like Yogi Bear vs. Scrooge McDuck, George McFly vs. Mike Tyson, Runescape vs. WoW.

B-Work can be profitable, to be sure… but it is soul-destroying mediocrity.  In Mr. Catmull’s words:  “B-work is bad for the soul.”

One of the key ideas that Mr. Catmull noted is that despite being decidedly subpar, B-work can still be profitable.  Cinderella fans buy the sequels for their children on the strength of the name.  Slapping “Disney” on the side of a movie almost guarantees sales… at least, for a while.  Mr. Catmull suggested that those B-work sales are active withdrawals against the goodwill banked in the Disney name.  The spectacular successes of Beauty and the Beast or the emotional heft of Up increase the value of the Disney name. Tarzan 2 callously cashes in on the appeal of the original and contributes nothing to the brand or parent name.  It makes money because the original succeeded, and wouldn’t stand on its own as anything but the B-work that it is.

I’ve seen more than a few pundits suggest that Blizzard could put horse feces in a box and sell it for $60.  They can sell a digital horse for $25 without even selling a box with it, and time will tell if StarCraft 2 is crap (only $100 for the Collector’s Edition of 1/3 of the game), so there’s some truth to the joke.  Blizzard can bank on the goodwill generated by its history.  It might be noted that they could have sold WarCraft Adventures, probably in record numbers… but they decided to scrap it because it wasn’t up to their internal demands.  It’s hard to cut something like that with promise, but like pruning a slightly rotting branch on a tree, sometimes it’s necessary to maintain company health and brand reputation.  People would still have bought the game, but it might have wound up being profitable in spite of its own quality, by withdrawing money from the goodwill banked in the Blizzard and WarCraft names.  Blizzard did salvage the story from the game, both in a novel and as canon to the setting of WoW, so they didn’t totally throw that work away, but the choice to kill the game release was likely a hard one.

We can’t be sure, true, but it’s an interesting case study and comparison to the awful offal that sometimes comes out of the Disney Direct to DVD grindhouse.

We might also look at Turbine’s DDO “offer wall” slipup and subsequent retraction, as well as Mythic’s WAR billing fiasco and apparently repentant offerings to those affected.  Compare that to Allods Online and their item shop pricing sucker punch… and how it wasn’t fully retracted and went downhill from there.  (Yes, yes, the shop prices are merely economic Darwinism in action, and not really evil in themselves, but they weren’t managed well despite some glowing beta testing reports.  That’s where the goodwill broke down.)

Goodwill is a currency, albeit a fuzzy one, and managing it can be the backbone of a company’s health.  Daniel James of Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates) has argued that love is the heart of modern game sales in this article that I’ve cited more than once for good reason.  (Tangentially, Mr. James was also writing about DRM, and for one great example of how DRM affects goodwill, need we look further than Ubisoft?)

The trick is to make great products that are profitable and deposits to the goodwill bank.  Pixar has managed to do this very well, without a stinker in their library.  Sure, some of their movies will appeal to some people more than others (I still don’t particularly like Finding Nemo, but I like it better than 90% of other movies), but I don’t think that any of their offerings have been an active withdrawal against the Pixar and Disney names.

It’s no accident that Pixar and Blizzard are giants in their fields.  They deposit more than they withdraw from the goodwill bank.

…there are all sorts of political, sociological and interpersonal parallels that could be explored there, but I’ll leave that to the imagination.

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Blizzard Bingo

I had a few minutes for lunch break, and whipped this up… sleep deprivation does funny things to people:

Blizzard Bingo

What?  You think you get a free space in the middle?  This ain’t no subscription game, n00b.  $25 or go QQ to the choir. ***

*Yes, I have some real articles in the pipeline… they just aren’t done yet… in the meantime, what else can we put in the grid?  This works for Blizzard as a whole, even with the WoW slant… but what about a Turbine version?  Sony?  StarCraft?  Diablo?  Blogging?*

.

.

.

.

.

***

OK, OK, here’s your Free Space.  As with the pony, I’m sure it didn’t take much time to produce.  In fact, I can testify that it took all of 15 seconds.  That’s what, 0.2% of my budget?  Don’t worry, it’s just a skin you can slot in over the real thing, purely cosmetic.  If you need someone to do that for you, please contact our handy dandy customer support at not.going.to.happen@gmail.com, and remember, if someone comes to you with an unsolicited AddOn to splice in the Free Space, they are probably phishing.

We aim for pleas!

Blizzard Bingo Free Space

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Does the U.S. Second Amendment cover this?

“Why do you have a pair of pistols?”

Sometimes it’s fun to leave a webcomic alone for a while, then you can come back to it and read a bunch at a time.  Sequential Art is good stuff, and I’m glad that Cap’n John has a link to it over at his place.  I’ve migrated to Chrome and lost some of my old bookmarks.  SA was lost in the shuffle, and it slipped my memory (leaky like a sieve as it is these days).

Not any more.

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OK, so $10 for a horse is apparently the harbinger of the apocalypse.  If Blizzard gives it wings, what then?

Is it OK when Blizzard, the holiest of the holy subscription games, dips its toes into mount sales?  Are they an Item Shop game now, further tainted by that pesky capitalism stuff?  *cue rabid fanboy ranting*

Does anyone think that Blizzard isn’t going to make money with this?

Much as I think fussing about this sort of thing is spitting into the commercial winds, I’m with Darren on this in one way; I’ll spend that $25 on a complete game, thankyouverymuch, and play it forever.  I can probably pick up Lost Odyssey for that on sale somewhere, or a few more Steam sales…

I don’t mind that this pretty, pretty horse exists, not at all, I just won’t be getting one.  Ripples of the commercial Cataclysm I keep suggesting, perhaps?

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Ostensibly, “F2P” is an acronym for “Free to Play”.

In practice, the term can cover a couple of different types of MMOs that don’t monetize via subscriptions.

On one hand are the Item Shop games, say, Runes of Magic, Allods Online or Puzzle Pirates.  RoM and AO are post-WoW DIKUMMOs (PWDMMORPGs?), but Puzzle Pirates is an entirely different animal that uses a microtransaction dual currency system.  RoM and AO have taken heat for goofy pricing and design that spurs purchases, some of it rightly so, some of it ill-informed and incompetently reasoned.  Noting that Puzzle Pirates functions quite nicely as an Item Shop game, might I take another moment to note that while business and game design are inextricably linked, incompetence in one need not mean the other is equally busted?

On the other hand, there are Subscriptionless games that monetize by selling content and convenience.  Look to Guild Wars, DDO and Wizard 101 for this sort of game design.  Content is sold with perpetual access, and players need not continue to pay a subscription.  These games tend to be constructed differently from the Item Shop games, earning money most like offline games of yore, by providing a valuable experience out of the box.

Also of note are the hybrid games.

Wizard 101 allows for subscriptions, content purchases and item shop purchases.  It monetizes all sorts of demand and lets all sorts of players play together, hopping servers willy-nilly almost at will.  It’s a beautiful game that plays extremely well, carving out its own identity with unique game mechanics and quirky writing.  The Harry Potterish feel is almost certainly part of the appeal, but it really is a solid game under the hood.

Puzzle Pirates has microtransaction servers and subscription servers.  Players cannot change server, and their economies are largely unique.  Doubloons (the microtransaction currency in their brilliant dual currency system) are tied to the account, not a server, and so may be spent on any “green” (microtransaction) server, but “blue” (sub) and “green” servers are isolated.  Still, players can play on any server, and can find one to suit their finances.

I think there is a critical distinction to be drawn between Item Shop games and Subscriptionless games.  I’ve argued for selling content instead of time for a while now, and I firmly come down in the Subscriptionless camp.  Whether this is sold in large bites like Guild Wars or smaller bites like Wizard 101 or DDO, it doesn’t matter much, but there is a clear difference between this model and the Item Shop model.  RoM and AO and their kind walk a line between selling stuff that’s useful and selling stuff that breaks the game, between impulse purchases and wallet-busting stupidity.

Both games can rightfully be presented as “Free to Play”, inasmuch as the acronym itself really only suggests that there is no subscription.  (Though it is a curious thing when a product is defined by what it lacks rather than what it has or is…)  We really have misnomers on top of misnomers abound in the MMO market, so this is no surprise, but it isn’t useful to take something like Allods Online’s messed up Item Shop (or your favorite game used as an example of the apocalypse) and paint an entire swath of games with a disdainful “F2P” epithet.  Games need to be taken on their own merits, balanced against their monetary and time costs, and evaluated for fun.  Blind prejudice against games roughly defined by a marketing acronym that doesn’t have consistent meaning doesn’t really help anything.

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The first time I played World of Warcraft was almost five years ago.  The most recent time I played WoW, the game was more than five years old.  The newbie experience has… changed a bit.  Digging a bit into the newbie experience of WoW 2005 vs. WoW 2010 vs. Allods Online, it’s interesting to see where things have gotten better… and perhaps, where they haven’t.  These observations are mine alone in the newbie areas of the games.

These are relatively uncontrolled nonnormalized experiments, so this is far from scientific, but it has still been interesting to me to see the differences and changes.

Years ago, playing as a Tauren Shaman, I got the sense that the game was approximately 70% running from place to place, sometimes carrying various body parts for a quest.  The remaining 30% was either combat or waiting for combat, since those were days when I waited for named critters to respawn.  Ah, when the lowbie areas were populated, eh?  I didn’t mind it much, since most of what I do in these games is look around at stuff and take screenshots, but I did get the vague sense that I wasn’t progressing very quickly at all.  That only mattered indirectly, as I needed to level up and get better gear to go different places.  It was a 14-day “buddy key” trial, but even so, I never even got far into the Barrens.  I walked up the hill from the Tauren lands into the south end of the Barrens, got stomped by some giant purple Kodos, and then went back to roam the grassy plains for my remaining time in the game.  It felt grindy even then, since leveling was fairly slow and new tricks and tools of the Shaman trade never did present themselves.  I was just an anthropomorphic cow, casting spells and whacking monsters with a stick.  I only remember getting one totem.  It was a neat little trick, but I had hoped to see more of what the class had to offer.

Five years later, there are all sorts of new toys for the newbie.  Sure, I was playing Mortiphoebe, a Forsaken Warrior, but leveling seems considerably faster.  Critters have cursor-hover tooltips that tell me if they are part of a quest and whether I still need their body parts to complete my quota.  The map has an integrated quest tracker, complete with locations conveniently marked to tell me where I should be, what I should kill, where critters roam, what fiddly bits I need to collect, and what the questgiver promised in return.  I can even reread the quest text right there in the map.  (The official quest log is still there and useful, but going through the map is simply a lot more informative.)  Popup tips seem to be more common and descriptive, but that’s especially hazy, peering back into the distant plains of 2005.  All in all, though, the game has a higher level of polish, is easier to understand, and as such, more fun.  There is less running around blindly (except when I want to go off in the wilderness), more doing stuff.  It also seems like drop rates of body part collectibles has been altered for the better.  There is still some weirdness with liverless wolves and the like, but it seems like I can get the requisite components more frequently than I did years ago.

Allods Online’s newbie experience is similarly streamlined.  You’re rushed through some carrier quests, a few kill quests, and leveling is fast… for a while.  You get useful gear much quicker than you do in WoW, even today, but that makes sense since AO is even more gear-centric than WoW.  You wind up geared to the teeth pretty quickly, at least giving the illusion of power earlier than you would in WoW.  The pace of character ability development is still pretty glacial, though.  You do have more tools earlier than in WoW, but once you’re out of the newbie zones/instances, things are pretty slow in both cases.

The AO map is more descriptive than WoW2005, but less useful than WoW2010.  To be sure, this especially will be a matter of taste, as some players want to explore and wander the woods, while others just want to know where to go.  I find myself ambivalent, since I do like exploration… but it’s also nice to have pointers when I just want to get moving.  It’s worth noting that even with a superdescriptive map, I can still wander around if I feel like it, but without a useful map, wandering is pretty much a given, whether or not it’s welcome.

AO has no minimap, though, which is actually pretty annoying.  Once you learn an area, or get used to popping open your full map every minute or so, you’re OK, but I’ve always seen the minimap as a way to compensate for the lack of peripheral vision and good spatial cues.  Scale is way off, with simple building doors being easily 15 feet or so tall… but then, we get that in WoW, too.  It’s a stylistic choice, but it means instinctive spatial cues are skewed.  There are  glowing icons that show you what direction vendors and such are in, which is extremely nice when you wander into a busy town, albeit a wee bit visually cluttered.  Good UI design dances a fine edge between too much and too little information, but I tend to like UI that leans to “too much” rather than “too little”, especially when the spatial and directional cues of a game world aren’t what I’d like.

Speaking of UI, though, major bonus points to Guild Wars for being almost completely customizable out of the box.  Yes, WoW has addons and scripts, and Allods Online is moving in that direction, but when you can change your UI without third party nonsense, that’s a thing of beauty.

At any rate, it’s fairly clear to me that AO benefits from being a part of a generation after WoW hit the mainstream, and similarly, that WoW itself has made good moves over the years, trying to make the newbie experience better.  Some will certainly call this the “dumbing down” of the genre or WoW in particular, but it’s my experience that getting newbies up and running with the fun stuff as quickly as possible is a good idea.  Making new players grind through twenty or more levels before the game starts being fun isn’t good design.

Speaking of which, however, I’d like to see a couple of changes for Cataclysm.

Hunters should be able to tame pets from the beginning. Apparently, there’s a not-insignificant number of characters who never get past level 10.  Ignoring for the moment that such data tells us all of Jack Squat about retention, conversion, monetization or anything truly useful to the financial guys, and that there are probably many bank alts and the like clogging the data, there are some game design implications.  Level 10 is when you first start to understand the Hunter class since you can finally tame a pet.  If you never get past level 10, it’s entirely possible that your impression of a Hunter is of a gun/bow-wielding, weak melee, sting-y… mess.  Those first ten levels are completely wrong for getting a handle on the long-term interest of a Hunter.  I call that Bad Design.

Similarly, Druids should get Bear Form and Cat Form before level 5 or even earlier. The core of Druid appeal (at least for me) is shapeshifting and flexibility.  Why make the first ten levels of a Druid be Just Another Caster?  You may as well play a Mage.  (Shamans are lame in the early levels, too, before totems, but not quite to the same degree.)  Sure, keep Treeform and Moonkin form deep in their talent trees, Aquatic and Travel forms are fine where they are (better as early as they now are than as late as they once were, though), but the core “caster/healer-tank-melee DPS” flexibility of the Druid really should be embraced as early as possible.  It’s a matter of getting a bead on the way a class will play over the long haul as quickly as possible.

Also, I find it weird that some professions are available at level 1, but others require level 5.  If I can manage to explore my way to the capital cities where I can find NPCs to teach me professions, let me learn them already, whatever level.  Sure, keep the Expert crafting and such for those who have spent some time learning the ropes, but Journeyman professions can and should be opened to all.  (Of course, I’d also let anyone learn as many professions as they like, but that’s probably pushing too far.  Then again, it’s not like the economy really functions with all those level-capped characters throwing around their gold.  The scale of the economy is pretty crazy at times, too.)

The newbie experience is crucial to pulling new people into your game world.  The intro cinematics of WoW, with a flyby through the live world (I showed my wife how other players will occasionally run through the scene in these flybys, and she was impressed; that’s the magic of these MMO things after all), really set the scene well.  Going from that (even as old as it is) to a pedestrian “kill ten rats” just isn’t going to cut it any more.

I can’t help but wonder if the MMO genre could benefit from some Metroiditis.  Metroid Prime and even Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (so it’s not a new trick) start you with a powerful character, letting you play with a lot of toys right at the beginning.  The player soon loses access to many of those options, but at least they have been teased properly, and the player knows what to expect later… and they itch to get there.  MMOs that dump you in the world as a dude with a stick are perhaps more “realistic” (whatever that means in context), but they are also downright boring at times.  Yes, this does seem to pull more to the “gamey” than the “worldy” design I’m so fond of, but that’s just working in the current framework; I’m talking of MMOs that are indeed more “game” than “world”, and they may as well play to their strengths.

Is it any wonder that we get the refrain “the game starts at the level cap”?  That’s when everything comes together and your class reaches full potential.  I’ve argued before that WoW could sell level-capped characters for immediate raiding (not unlike the instant level-capped PvP characters of Guild Wars) if that’s the part that really keeps players invested.  Sure, that won’t be everyone, and you might need some restrictions on them, like making them raid-and-capital-only (no open world ganking on day one), but sometimes it’s nice to let players have more toys when they start playing, rather than doling them out via a drip feed of leveling.  There’s a fine balance there, to be sure… but in a saturated market, you need to get people interested and having fun fast; you can’t tell them to wait for a month before it gets fun.  Arguably, WAR did that, with early public quests and PvP craziness.  They have other problems, but they do get up and moving fast, to their credit.  Age of Conan’s best part is the first twenty levels (or so I hear, not having played it m’self).

Yes, I’m pretty powerful at level 1 compared to equal-level critters in WoW, but I’m boringly powerful.  Cracking skulls with a stick while mild-mannered rats nibble on my toes just doesn’t give a fair representation of what the game will always be like.  At least, not for everyone.

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I finally purchased an XBox 360.  I’ve avoided doing so for almost four years now for a few reasons, primarily among them the expense and glut of M-rated games (and concurrent dearth of games I actually want to play).  I will not buy or play an M-rated game; it’s a personal choice that I don’t expect is terribly common (or even popular), but it’s a significant factor in my game purchases.  Beside that, I still have good games I want to play on my trusty PS2 that I haven’t made time for yet.  I really don’t need a new console and more games.

And yet, there was a good deal on Amazon (an Elite model with LEGO Batman and PURE, two games I’d want anyway, for $300 with a $50 gift certificate), the IRS returned some of our money, and I really want to be able to play A World For Keflings when it comes out (hopefully soonish!).  I’ve been working on XBox Arcade games for three years now, and I worked on Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 for the 360, but I’ve only ever played them at work when testing things.  It will be nice to be a “mere” gamer, seeing my games from the other side, playing them because it’s fun, not to break things.  My wife and little girl like Keflings, too, and it’s instructive to see how they play the game (I can’t get away from researching games, after all).

I will dearly miss the dev cheats and unfettered control camera, though…

I can also admit that I want to try out games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, Infinite Undiscovery and Final Fantasy XIII.  Thanks to XBox Live Arcade, I also finally got my hands on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a game that I’ve wanted for a decade, but didn’t ever manage to get for the PlayStation.  The machine was still expensive, and I still don’t have a lot of time… but I’m actually pretty happy, if decidedly spoiled, to have my own little XBox.

Quite expectedly, my gamertag is “Tish Tosh Tesh”, for anyone interested in stalking me in the world of Keflings.  I can even show you which parts of the games I built.  They are my babies in a way (I see them more than my own kids during crunch time), so I want to show them off a bit.  :)

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One more day on the sale for our A Kingdom for Keflings game on the PC!

It’s good to see some of you having fun with it, especially when kids step in.  It really is a great game for almost any age.  Thanks for liking it!

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I’d like to think this is the work of parties other than those who crafted the game itself (which I maintain has some good ideas)… but I just don’t know for sure.

Syp’s Picture of the Day

I do know that my uninstaller works.

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