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Archive for May, 2010

Caster

Caster is an interesting little game, reminding me of a land-based Magic Carpet 2, a game I loved while I had the time to play it.

And hey, Caster currently has one of those “pay whatever you’d like” sales going on. Gotta love those!

Hat tip to the Rampant Coyote, indie game promoter and developer.

Oh, and Sleep is Death is on sale now, too.  Hat tip to Nels Anderson for that one.  It’s a wildly different game from Caster… but maybe that’s a good thing.  If nothing else, it’s worth looking at to see what it does.  (I’m still digging into it… think two player tabletop RPG with a graphical client… sorta.)

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I’ve written before that I’d buy an offline WoW and have fun with it.  It would be the ultimate solo WoW experience, maybe even something roughly approximating one of those weird Role Playing Game things.  I do think the world of Warcraft has some interesting things to offer, and it can serve as a stage for some good gaming that need not be of the MMO variety.

But then… what is an RPG?

Such a question has been bandied about for some time now, so I’m not going to rehash much of it, but rather ask:  What would a WoW RPG (offline, solo) look like?

Ignore for the moment, the tabletop version, another interesting iteration of the IP in itself, and yet another flavor of RPG, but not quite what I’m looking for here.  This is, of course, all whimsy and conjecture, and is completely incomplete.  Addendums are welcome, bearing in mind this is more about curiosity than anything I’d expect Blizzard to actually do.  A few thoughts, then:

  • First and foremost, it strikes me that a translation of the existing game would almost certainly be a Western RPG rather than a Japanese RPG (WoWWRPG?).  As in, more Neverwinter Nights (make your own character, make your way in the world), less Final Fantasy (assume a role the devs crafted and go through a story they tell).  The difference between the two styles is significant, and the existing game leans heavily in the Western direction.
  • But why translate more or less directly?  Why not make an entirely new RPG, perhaps even a JRPG-styled tale of a key character or band of characters within the WoW IP?  That would open the floor to big, sweeping changes, which may indeed be the healthiest route overall, but since it could take a LOT of different forms, here I’m mostly wondering about a game that is more of a mild translation of the existing game design rather than a new game.  There’s certainly room to imagine a completely new game within the world, but I’ll save that for another experiment.
  • With the increased focus on player agency and a largely seamless world of a Western-flavored WoWRPG, the balance between authorial direction and player agency is almost diametrically opposed to the tightly controlled Final Fantasy XIII or even tighter Heavy Rain.  (Tangential:  Is Heavy Rain even one of those RPG things?  You assume roles of characters who already exist and pilot them through a story with a few branching options and different endings, clearly heavily Playing Roles in a Game… but there isn’t much in the way of levels, loot and assorted “character progress” mechanics that some associate with RPGs.  How many thorns and petals can you remove from a rose before it’s just a stick?  How many games could easily be RPGs if it’s just about playing a role?  But I digress…)  On the one hand, that’s great for people just looking to noodle around in a cool world, but on the other hand, a good story under a strong directorial hand is more preferable.  The WoW IP could do both, but not so much at the same time.
  • WoWMMO is designed (perhaps obviously) for many players, from the group content to PvP to the player economy.  A single player offline version would either need to drop group content or provide henchmen, like Guild Wars or Dragon Age.  Solo-control party-based RPGing isn’t anything new, but neither is it something that exists in the WoWMMO.  Curiously, this might make it easier to teach players how to play with a group and teach the holy combat trinity, since the game could have tutorials that show the finer points of group dynamics without the unpredictability of real people monkeying around.  You could even make combat pauseable (even if only in tutorials) to make teaching easier.  It seems to me that educating people is a better long-term idea than making games so dumb and easy anyone can sleepwalk through them.  If we wanted that, we should make movies.
  • …and yet, why bother with the trinity when you only have one player?  The trinity assumes that multiple parties are in combat, so WoWRPG would really need to either make henchmen or dump the trinity.  (OK, snarky aside about Paladins and Druids being able to do everything goes here.)  It’s hard to say which would be harder to actually implement, but henchmen fit into the current design structure, while the trinity would be much harder to excise.  It’s the foundation of WoW combat, combined with aggro management and crowd control.  Lose the trinity, and all sorts of content would be suddenly skewed, and you’d have to lose most dungeons and instances.  Add henchmen, and the WoWRPG could offer offline players almost all WoW content.
  • Ultimately, that’s what this is about, by the way; content and the world of Warcraft’s lore, not the play experience itself, since that would necessarily change significantly.  MMOs offer a play experience that offline games just can’t do.  Offering a WoWRPG would be a way of getting the WoW content and lore to more players, thereby building the brand.  …if that matters.  It may not, which is why this is more of a thought experiment than anything else.
  • What of Altitis?  Some RPGs have toyed with multiple protagonists, like the Saga Frontier series, but those haven’t really been the movers and shakers of the RPG genre.  There are some interesting things that you can do with storytelling when you can bounce between viewpoints (especially between factions) and have different characters illustrate varied angles of an in-game event.  (Say, have low level Alliance players actually take part in the smallish Alliance invasion of Durotar, rather than just having that little outpost south of Orgrimmar be a mob spawn point for Alliance mooks for low level Hordies to attack repeatedly.)  That starts poking into JRPG territory and significant changes to the game… but it could be interesting.
  • Speaking of which… storytelling could change significantly.  Time could actually proceed… perhaps even while the player is off doing something else.  The world could feel more like a world again (gasp!), as the game moves out of the perpetual now twilight zone that MMOs are stuck in.
  • Persistence. This one is huge.  If you don’t have to recycle the world for every Tam, Dick and Ratshag, you can actually have bad guys stay dead, rather than respawn every few minutes.  This, of course, could run at cross purposes to the notion of letting players advance an Alliance character and a Horde character in the same universe (instead of their own instanced storylines), but at the same time, if you do let players bounce back and forth, and keep persistence, suddenly you’ve made the finite state machine go into overdrive… but also given yourself a TON more knobs to tweak for making the game interesting and telling an interesting story… or letting players tell a story by changing the world.  The scope could get out of hand quickly, unfortunately.
  • Phasing could still have uses, but the changes implemented could be more permanent as the storyline actually moves on.  Still, if alts enter the same world where things have happened and stay… happened… phasing might be a tool to let them replay some content that a predecessor had already gone through, if that were ever needed, then let them rejoin the “real world”… almost like a mobile, personal Cavern of Time.
  • Questing and the Yellow Brick Road… there are many, many small storylines in WoW, often tied up in quest chains.  Even so, there aren’t many larger, overarching stories.  A WoWRPG with persistence and a properly functioning arrow of time could bring those overarching stories into greater focus, and let the grindy tangential stories slip back into the shadows.  Kill Ten Rat quests could actually tie into a bigger story, rather than be something you do to level up so you can go kill ten bigger rats ad infinitum.  That, or quests themselves could be rarer beasts, especially if the XP curve is revamped…
  • Pacing could change significantly.  Instead of needing to grind in an area to qualify for the next (or extend subscription time), the XP curve could be tweaked to allow players to naturally proceed through zones as they follow larger stories, pillaging along the way instead of grinding in a zone to prep for the next.  To be fair, this is something that many other RPGs, Western or Japanese, still have issues with.  Even offline RPGs have grind in them… but structurally, they don’t need it nearly as much as a sub-based MMO.
  • Speaking of grind and quests, perhaps a WoWRPG could omit some of the obnoxious time sink quests (FedEX quests that take you back to areas you’ve already been, kill quests that only count critters killed after the quest starts instead of the pile of corpses left on the way to the quest hub, running all over the continent, that sort of thing)  that do little but extend playtime (and paytime in a sub model).  It really is OK for a game to be short if it’s fun all the way through.
  • Saving would be new; MMOs “save” all the time as they communicate with the server.  Offline games need to be saved… though that could be automated.  Still, if you allow saves, you introduce the Save-Load system where a battle that went bad can be replayed, and players effectively become Time Lords, able to rewind and replay at a whim.  That would be a big shift in how the game would play, for better or worse.  (Perhaps a little of both.)
  • Crafting could be either maintained (almost necessitating alts if you wanted to dig into everything and be self-sufficient, or let NPC henchmen in a party-based system also craft), or characters could be allowed to learn any number of crafting skills.  I’ve always thought that the two-skill limit (barring Cooking, Fishing and First Aid) was a silly hammer to try to force player interdependence, so I’d certainly lean to opening the system up.  We don’t often see a robust crafting suite in an offline RPG, so this is one area especially that WoWRPG could shine.  That, or crafting could be cut completely as another time sink and unnecessary appendix, since a lot of crafting does wind up fueling the in-game economy.
  • The game’s economy could either be a static beastie with NPC vendors as the currency fountains and skills and gear being currency sinks… or it could be a bit more dynamic and AI driven, like the economy in something like X3.  Either would function to make the game playable, but neither would be anywhere nearly as interesting as the multiplayer economy.  This and the multiplayer dungeons would probably be the biggest losses in taking the game offline.
  • Respeccing could be interesting.  I’ve long argued that a full and complete respec (even all the way down to the class) should be easy and cheap.  WoWRPG could offer this function with a lot less fuss than the MMO would see.  Of course, if you’re able to swap classes easily, you’d want a larger bank to keep the many, many potential “offspec” treasures that you collect.  The alternative would be to make the game less gear-centric… and that’s not likely.  Final Fantasy games have wavered between strict classes and very flexible systems, so there’s precedent for both… though it’s notable that strict class-based systems tend to introduce party members to keep a bit of flexibility as an organic party, if not a very mutable single character.
  • But why a WoWRPG over something like Morrowind or Oblivion, or even Fallout 3?  What does the WoW IP offer that those games don’t?

The World of Warcraft is an interesting, largely attractive place.  It’s a grand stage to tell stories on, and I do wonder occasionally what it would be like if it were initially developed as a single player RPG rather than an MMO.  MMOs are almost always kind of schizophrenic in their approach, a function of appealing to a large player base.  Might a more focused goal (a great story-based RPG) have changed it for the better?  Could the world still have some sort of tangential story-based RPG to offer?

The WarCraft universe did come from a pair of Real Time Strategy games, after all (possibly based on tabletop games and Tolkienish flights of whimsy), and it’s not unheard of for an IP to bounce between game genres, even the venerable Final Fantasy series (though that’s less about maintaining a consistent world-based IP as a brand name).  WarCraft even had an Adventure Game iteration once upon a time.  MMOs and RPGs are different, but not so different as to make such a tangential game impossible.  Whether or not it would fit into the WoWMMO timeline proper is perhaps a significant question, but it’s my rambling opinion that Azeroth has a lot to offer.  Even though the WoW live team tends to selectively interpret lore to various ends, there is still a LOT of lore out there to explore… and it might be satisfying to explore it in a slightly different vehicle.

…or a very different vehicle.  If the WoWRPG were more of a Japanese RPG, with strongly defined preconceived characters and a directed story, you’d lose a lot of what makes WoWMMO playable, but perhaps gain a much more focused experience that could tell a better story.  I can see a place for both approaches, actually.  All in all, I think that a translative approach that maintains much of the existing game would be more feasible… but I might be more inclined to play a well-crafted JRPG-ish WoWRPG that really digs into the world of WarCraft, finding some meat on the bones of the IP that is often only hinted at in the MMO.

Of course, in actuality, I’m more inclined to play Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey or Infinite Undiscovery than pick up a WoWRPG… but it would almost certainly make it on the list.  The world of WarCraft really could offer up a couple of games that aren’t merely WoWish subscription skinner boxes.  Blizzard has shown at least a vague interest in that sort of diversification before, and it might be good to see them branch out again.  I’m not an unabashed Blizzard fanboy, but I do see potential there.

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A thoroughly and wholesomely retro piece of wonderfulness, and a delightfully campy satire on the Achievement absurdity of modern game design that so worried Chris Hecker (echoed in this presentation from Jesse Schell, albeit with a bleak Big Brother twist).

Flash games can be fun.

Oh, and Fractal is awesome, albeit a different flavor of awesome from its predecessor, Auditorium.

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The Play This Thing article on Mythoria questions the value of games, specifically a video game that would work well as a physical game.

The notion of making money by selling real, tangible stuff is one that I’ve toyed with, and it’s interesting to see it noted elsewhere.  I still need to finish Alpha Hex‘s video game iteration, but I’ve long had ideas for making it a physical card game as well.  I printed up some cards to playtest it during design, and it proved to be very helpful… and it plays fairly well in tangible form.  I’d love to use the Game Crafter to sell a base Alpha Hex set and expansions if occasion permits, but leave the digital version free and open source (if they ever support hexagonal cards, I’ll jump on it).  I’ve even made card designs for both formats, and written some story and lore with an eye to making physical card-specific art, not unlike that MTG thing.  It might even be a “wheel within a wheel” for some other game designs I have in mind.

To me, having a physical game, ready to play if the digital world goes offline, is a valuable thing that I’m willing to pay for.  There’s a retro appeal to buying stuff with my money, instead of… digital, ephemeral… nonstuff.  (Especially when draconian DRM means the providers can deny me the privilege of playing at a whim.)

My wife and I have collected many board and card games, and many times, they are more fun to play than popping in another video game.  We don’t need electricity or a connection to the internet, just some light, a level surface and somewhere dry to play.  There are no patches, no permissions, no waiting for the Dungeon Finder to work its magic. That freedom can be good for the soul, even if it’s just a periodic thing, another tool in the toolbox of the larger world of “gaming”.

I’ve designed three board games and two card games in the last year or so, and I’d love to get them out there and make a bit of money from them.  There’s even a place for making one of my board games into a nice hardwood coffee table offering… even if it’s just something I do for Christmas gifts.  (Though it would be great if they were commercially viable.)

These video game things can be good fun, to be sure, but sometimes, it really is great to hold game cards in your hands, to move pieces on a board, and to play with people face to face, rather than through anonymous filters, monitors and cables.  It can even be instructive when trying to design games for the digital realm.  Offline games have been designed and played for thousands of years; there’s a lot of good data there to sift through with an eye to why games work.

Paper Dragon Games has a tangential take on things; their headline offering, Constellation, is a game that is designed to have a “board game” feel, but is entirely digital.  We can certainly automate setup and some mechanics digitally, making some game mechanics easier.  The digital version of Alpha Hex benefits from automated ownership tracking and attack resolution, for instance, and the XBox Live version of Settlers of Catan is far easier to set up than the board game.

It can be very useful to make a game digital… and it can be useful to go the other way, too.  It’s harder to pirate a card game, for one.  Sure, photocopiers work, and I’ve even offered a PDF version of Alpha Hex, but if the cards offered for sale are of sufficient quality and the game is good, there will still be a market for the “real thing”.  I probably won’t ever make a living purely on card game sales, but it’s worth offering the option to anyone interested in the game.

There is certainly room in the “game tent” for both digital and physical games, sometimes even different iterations of the same game, as with MTG.  When I look at monetizing my game design hobby, though, I can’t help but think that it might be a good outlet for me to take some of my game designs that could work in either format (or both!) and offer a physical version.  It’s one more way to break up the demand curve and reach out to different people.

Parallel product lines can also help build a brand, which can be useful for indies.  We even see things like the merchandising efforts of the Blizzard WoW team, what with the card game and the miniatures game.  They didn’t pan out to be as popular as their parent game, but they are solid offerings, and likely at least partially profitable for Blizzard.

Sometimes, it pays to make the game real.

…even if it’s only because you get to use house rules…

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Some more information has been released from the NinjaBee secret vault.  Microsoft is allowing devs to create costumes for avatars, and we’ve taken the opportunity to make some fun stuff, themed around the pending A World of Keflings (sequel to A Kingdom For Keflings):

A World of Keflings Avatar Store Preview

(this graphic is copied from there, but it’s worth clicking through for some extra details)

A World of Keflings Costumes

…and some of the pieces of those costumes are found here.

It’s a curious thing, this new MS policy, allowing devs to have a bit more to offer in the avatar customization arena.  Not only is it a way to maybe monetize interest a little more, but it’s also advertising of a sort, not unlike branded t-shirts.  It’s also fun; I can’t wait to see someone meandering around in a NinjaBee costume.  I think it’s a good thing, and I’m very curious to see where things go.

Beyond this being an announcement for my company, though, I get to show off some concept art that I did for the male Arabian-flavored costume:

Arabian Male Concept

I spent a fair bit of time painting this costume over a generic avatar, offering this as a proof of concept for what we might offer for avatar costuming.  The final male Arabian costume doesn’t quite match up with my original concept, but it’s fun to see that it’s at least similar to what I dreamed up.  It’s especially fun that they kept the little trim decoration design.  I doodle that sort of thing all the time in my notebooks and sketchbooks, and it’s fun to see it get through the production pipeline.

Y’see, concepts don’t always come out in the final game as intended or originally conceived.  Larisa lamented this a while back, wherein I responded with a bit of a peek into the dev process in the comments section, here quoted for completion’s sake:

Might I chime in as a game artist with a background in film production? I’ve worked with some fine concept artists, but inevitably, given engine or time constraints, the final implementation of concept art will not match the concept perfectly.

Some companies do try to match it as tightly as possible, and others use concept art as mood pieces to set the emotional tone for a piece of the game. Still others are mere color studies, a great many others are merely experiments, and it’s even likely that the bulk of concept art is merely sketch work. It’s impractical to polish it all up to “museum” quality. I’d go so far as to say that we’re not likely to be seeing even 5% of the concept art created for the project, and what we do see is likely a cross section of varied types. Straight up production pipeline concept art almost never makes it out of the studio.

Even if it did, probably only 10% of that art is faithfully represented in the game down the most granular details. There are simply too many compromises to be made in the translation from fine art to game art, most especially in the change from 2D to 3D.

If the final game art can match the mood and spirit of the concept art, evoking the emotional response that the devs desire, even if some details are lost along the way, the production is successful.

Think of concept art as a sketch (as so many of them are for various reasons; trying to make the equivalent of the Mona Lisa in 3D would be ridiculous in game production schedules) that must be translated into something playable. Much as the translation from vision (or reality) to painting can lose fidelity, translation from concept to final can lose fidelity.

The best production pipelines don’t sweat that loss. They find the most important parts of the art and focus on those and let the unnecessary bits go. That’s where the artistry and skill comes in on the production floor, making the choices on where to spend time. That’s where the art director steps in and keeps both the concept artists from going too far and the production artists from endlessly chasing miniscule details. It’s a matter of scope… and a LOT of game devs don’t do that well, to be blunt. That’s an article in itself, though.

To be sure, it’s possible to take concept art and match it to a high degree of fidelity, as in a Pixar movie, but the practical realities of game production mean that a different approach is necessary. (This, both in the production cost and the lack of prerendering… Pixar’s 30 frames per second are typically rendered over the course of DAYS, while we have to render in real time.)

So, concept doesn’t always translate directly to the final product, for a number of reasons.  I also intend to dig into this a bit more with Yet Another Artisty Article over at the official NinjaBee blog… but I’m not done with that article yet, and it might need to fit into the promotion schedule.  I’ll mention it when it comes up.  There’s only so much detail I can get into for a variety of reasons, but I really want to show a bit more about how things go from concept art to final game asset.

Until that time, then…

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Puzzle Pirates has a deliciously useful way of letting players pay with time or with cash.  Their dual currency microtransaction model lets players either buy doubloons with cash from Three Rings directly, or from other players with in-game gold via the in-game blind currency exchange.  It’s a great way to let players either pay for their stuff with cash or time.  (Yes, that simplifies it a bit, and every single doubloon has to be purchased with cash at some point, but still, it’s a great, fungible system.)

Out here in the real world, gamers who have paid in time (patience, really) can get their hands on a couple of great games:

Valve’s meme-tastic Portal is free until May 24th

MechWarrior 4 is now available for free

Sure, your anguished cake jokes will be a little stale these days, but in many ways, these are games worth playing, years after release.  That just costs a little… time.

It was worth the wait.

Edited to add:

Oh, and Myst Online: Uru Live is now open source, an interesting take on the “death” of an MMO.

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Previously I wrote a bit on the games in politics.  This can be flipped around to look at the politics in games, specifically MMOs and the player-dev relationship.  There are a few good angles to come at this from, notably the following:

Gordon’s Politics MMORPG

The Political Power of Games from Experience Points

Egomania and Civilization

Games with political and social subtext, like Phoenix Wright or The Redistricting Game (OK, not MMOs, but tangentially interesting)

Jack Thompson and any other ill-bred political crusader using games as a whipping boy (I’m not linking anything on this one intentionally; if you don’t know Jack Thompson, you may be better off, but if you want to chase him through the internet, it’s easy enough.)

As the Experience Points guys note, game devs “work within an immensely powerful medium”.  We are effectively the deities of our game worlds, able to rewrite the fabric of our little reality at a whim (more or less).  Players conform to our design parameters in most traditional games, simply because, despite the interactive nature of games, playing by the rules is often the only way to get through a game.

I’ve seen players who intentionally ignore or act directly opposite of a game’s tutorials… gaming counterculture hippie rebels, as it were.  It’s a valid way to play, certainly, but unless such experimentation is the point of the game (say, in a sandbox game), dev-sanctioned “progress” comes slowly if at all to someone who runs against the grain.

Even so, when a game is live and constantly mutating, as an MMO is, players can have some influence on the design.  Just look at all the tweaks in the average WoW patch, and how the ever-shifting balance between classes creates storms among the players and the class/race population distribution.  The Blizzard devs aren’t obligated to listen to any given forum, but they would be foolish not to at least try to understand how their design is perceived and processed by players.

An MMO is not a democracy (though running one as if it were might prove… enlightening).  Devs aren’t at risk of being kicked out of office due to a savvy political campaign or article of impeachment.  They are more like a hyperpowerful dictatorship that players pay to be a part of.  The coin of the realm isn’t merely popularity contests and elections, it’s real world money.  Games that don’t manage to stay ahead of their consumers and keep things interesting and enjoyable react largely to the “pure” elections of wallet voters.

To be sure, there’s a dose of goodwill currency manipulation as well, and some political games involved therein (complete with spin-infused marketing), but for the most part, MMOs live or die by their financials.  If people aren’t happy enough to keep paying the bills, the game can have problems.  If the MMO’s design relies on a critical mass of players, the stakes are raised even further.  None of this is astoundingly insightful, but I’m underlining the need for devs to understand their players and react well to them.

This is especially important when you’re relying on the constant stream of subscriptions to finance your business.  People must be happy all the time, at least above the “cancellation” threshold.  They don’t need to always be extremely happy, so the entertainment value isn’t as dense as, say, that of a movie, but they do need to always be “happy enough”.  Devs can’t rock the cart too much… but neither do they constantly have to provide astounding moments of awesomeness.

Even the much-ballyhooed “Cataclysm” in the World of Warcraft isn’t so much a radical shift in game philosophy as it is a mild mutation and facelift for existing mechanics and art assets.  Cataclysm is a good idea, methinketh, and indeed, I called for that sort of renovation before it was announced, as did BBB, but I’m not imagining it to be a Brave New World so much as Cheers with a paint job.  It really can’t be anything radically new; that would risk losing too many people.

So what about the players?  Are there forums for players to organize themselves into powerful blocs or unions to wield power over game development?  I’m not familiar with any, but I do have to wonder what an MMO might look like if it did have such metagame factional input.  Perhaps the Ryzom open source experiment will be an interesting tangential look at what happens when players get power.

Still, as Nels Anderson notes, Player Generated Content isn’t always the best idea.  It has potential, sure, especially at smaller scales and with tight dev control, but when you’re dealing with large groups of people, things can get dicey fast.  It’s a good idea for the devs to have a steady hand on the reins.  Much like the notion that a true democracy can be a dangerous thing (effectively degenerating into mob rule), a faceless, anonymous horde of gamers can be a dangerous thing, at least if game stability is an issue.

It’s easier to give players a lot of control over things that don’t actually matter.  That sates the player need for authorship, and keeps the game from being polluted by too many diverse opinions.  This is the heart of why cosmetic options and talent specs are so valuable to MMOs.  (Dear Blizzard:  appearance tabs already, aye?  Housing, maybe?)

Devs are closer to deities than senators, but money still talks.  Follow the money, and understand why it goes where it does, and you can siphon off a living.  Divert the stream too much (not the same as crossing the streams), and you run the risk of upsetting the flow, such that your living (or the health of the MMO) is at risk.  Keep things even and smooth enough, though, and everyone can be happy.  It might mean a little compromise here and there, and actually listening to each other, but it pays off.

Sort of like politics.

When the players or the devs start feeling entitled or start ignoring the valid concerns of the other party, acrimony builds, and can undermine a game world.  I’ve argued before for more player input into these MMO things, and I think it could be a good thing… but it wouldn’t be wise to push things so far that players have more power than the devs.  There’s a balance to be struck, more in MMOs than any other class of games.  Rather than pitting players vs. the developers (that link is to an excellent blog), perhaps some cooperation and compromise would make an MMO stronger.  Maybe not… but, like a democratic MMO, it’s worth thinking about, if only as a thought experiment to confirm that the way things currently run is the Best For Now.

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