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Archive for January, 2012

The guys over at the Ironman Mode: The Blog sent a random email to me over the weekend, asking for a bit of airtime.  (Or whatever the digital blog equivalent is.)  I don’t usually care about such requests, but this one is worth writing a bit about.

I’m actually not all that interested in Ironman challenges in my own gaming, but I appreciate their aim of blogging about self-imposed hardcore gaming and trying to use that as a platform for some humor and Child’s Play donations.  It’s nice to see players playing games their way instead of following the golden path, and doing a bit for charity en route.  I’ve thought about doing a “MMO travelogue” blog before (gotta use those 5000-and-counting screenshots somehow, right?), so I can totally understand the impulse to get out there and share a themed blog.

And hey, Minecraft is their most popular title so far, so that’s some bonus points right there.

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A couple of thoughts on subs and F2P business and MMOs, today guest starring Tobold, Spinks and Raph Koster.

Tobold’s I Would be Happier with Free2Play

Spinks’ WoW Thought for the Day

Raph Koster’s F2P vs. Subs

I’ve long been a proponent of making WoW F2P and even offline or in W/JRPG format simply because subscriptions never offer me enough value for me to bother with them.

…and yet, I have a 60-day time card that I’ve had for almost a year and a half and a handful of 30-day time codes from the WoW VISA card I use for big purchases and emergencies.  I have the time codes (and one unscratched card), ready to use, already paid for, but the flubbernuggin’ time-limited monetization scheme still doesn’t feel like good value to me.  I don’t want to use those codes since I have too much going on to devote sufficient time to playing to get good value out of them.  Similarly, I have a Steam code for 30 days each of FFXI and RIFT, but I haven’t activated either of them.  They are paid for, ready to go, but I hate the idea of locking myself into a monogamous game experience just so I can squeeze the most out of it as I can before the time stops ticking.

I hate gaming on the clock.

…and on the other hand, I’ll happily sink a little time into the newly F2P Star Trek Online every morning sending my Duty Officers off on missions and maybe run a story arc mission in the evening.  The cost of activation is really low, so I go play when I feel like it.  I’m considering spending $15 or so to get a new ship that I would then be able to use whenever I darn well please for as long as the servers are live.  That’s value I’ll pay for.  That’s how I approach Wizard 101, too; I bought Crowns to unlock areas that I’ll get to someday, and in the meantime, I’ll play when I feel like it.  I’ve spent money on Puzzle Pirates for the same reason; I bought a ship that I can sail around and pirate with, but I don’t have to keep paying just to play on the occasions when I make the time for it.  I’d readily pay for a single purchase SWTOR.

Would that translate to WoW?  In my case, absolutely.  I’d log in and do a few quests here and there, and toss them money to unlock a dungeon or the ability to make a Dwarf Druid or make my own guild comprised entirely of my own characters without the need to recruit other players or some sort of service that lets me bypass some of the extremely poorly paced crafting curve.  I’m definitely not averse to giving Blizzard money, I just want to pay for things that offer me good value.  WoW is still a fun game to play, even with all its warts and weirdness.  As it stands, though, I can’t exactly send them a financial message about the parts that I care about, which is one of the weaknesses of the subscription model.

…I can, however, offer to sell my time codes.  Anyone?  Maybe trade for some titles on my Steam Wish List?  Oh, and I still have some coupons and COGS and World of Goo if anyone wants them.  Nobody took me up on the snowflake contest, so I’ll just throw them to the winds.  (Another interesting take on value, perhaps…)

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I just wanted to point out a few excellent articles and make a pithy comment or three about this SWTOR game that is much-ballyhooed of late.

First, Raph Koster’s excellent article on Narrative:

Narrative is Not a Game Mechanic

EDITED TO ADD Koster’s followup post, Narrative Isn’t Usually Content Either

Then there’s Richard Bartle’s take on SWTOR:

Bartle’s Notes

aaaand then there’s this little snippet from the WoW guys, who apparently concede that linear, heavily scripted and directed gaming might not be the best approach.

Blizzard Seems to Think That Cataclysm Was Too Linear

I’ve written about these things before.

Death Grip on the Reins

and then there’s this oldie about the business model:

SWTOR Cost?

and my old huge article on MMOs with endings:

The End of an MMO

Y’see, I consider the narrative-heavy “fourth pillar” to be a Bad Idea for MMO play.  To quote myself from Klepsacovic’s place:

Yeah, I should clarify. There’s no problem with devs telling a story, but the structure of MMOs is about playing off of other people in a persistent world (whether through direct or indirect interaction). The most interesting parts of that (the parts that drive interest and retention) are going to be the stories that players are enabled to tell because it’s a unique part of the genre. Those ephemeral moments of Awesome or Weirdness are what sell these MMO gamespaces as somewhere worth visiting.

Sure, you can get your watercooler/blog discussions about how your Smuggler handled that one moral choice in SWTOR, or how your guild downed the Lich King, but you could get much the same thing talking about an offline game. MMOs simply have the potential to *function* differently from other games, so it’s baffling to me that devs seem to want to put the experience on rails. It bothered me in WoW, it bothers me in the core design ethos of SWTOR.

It doesn’t bother me because the dev stories are bad, either (though they may be), it bothers me because they aren’t letting players *play* in these great potential playgrounds. They are just pushing them through the motions.

So when I say that MMOs *should* be about player stories, it’s because I think that’s the unique selling point and strength of the genre. That doesn’t mean devs should be forbidden to tell stories, just that they might be missing the point if they can’t let go of the reins.

Then again, this is a problem I have with game design on a larger scale; way too many devs seem to be frustrated filmmakers, not really *game* makers. It’s a different sort of entertainment, this “game” animal, and it can’t really be expected to function the same way. It’s a spectrum, though, not a binary “sandbox/theme park” dichotomy. *shrug*

There’s a place for barely interactive movies.  There’s a place for story in MMOs.  I just think that MMOs work best with greater freedom and a more malleable world, largely because it’s those crazy moments out in the game’s world that really make them unique.  That’s the legacy of tabletop RPGs that I think MMOs could be poised to inherit.  You can get great scripted narratives in something like Uncharted 3, and that works fine… but it’s not really the point of MMOs.  As Koster notes, there’s a difference between an experience and a game.

There’s a place for great narrative, grand epics and stories with endings.  I just don’t think that place is in MMOs, especially not subscription MMOs that almost of necessity need to be built around grinding and the sense of neverending play.  There’s a strong case to be made that such isn’t really what is best for games in general, but that’s how sub MMOs work, for better or worse.

I don’t want SWTOR to fail (though Scarybooster is right, some have that mean attitude), but dagnabbit, the stresses inherent in shoehorning strong narrative into the MMO mold shouldn’t have been hard to see.  It should be no surprise that players are “finishing” the game and moving on, or that the focus on the storytelling might mean a weaker effort on the “retention” schemes that makes the subscription system work (good comments over at Yeebo’s place).  This is what BioWare does, it makes single player games.  Even if SWTOR as it is might make for a stupidly grindy single player game (hattip to Chris at GameByNight)… I enjoyed Disgaea and several Final Fantasy games, so a long game doesn’t scare me.

…and yes, if they sold SWTOR as an offline game or even series of games, I’d still probably buy in, as I noted in that SWTOR Cost article from months ago.  The game might be grand as a single player game, it’s just… trying to be something it isn’t.

Oh, and incidentally, MMO Melting Pot has a good roundup of some of the commentary, too, found thisaway:

Is SWTOR Screwed?  The EA Stock Fall Edition

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Ostensibly, the much-ballyhooed “SOPA” means “Stop Online Piracy Act”, but I prefer to think of it as “Sack Our Pathological Administrators”.  Not that such will happen, mind you, but one can dream.

As near as I can tell, SOPA is a thinly veiled statist control grab, all in the name of stopping piracy.  Guess what, guys?  Piracy can’t be stopped.  And no, the varied and vehement denizens of the internet don’t trust you with power.  To echo a famous pithy quip:

“Orwell’s 1984 was a warning, not an instruction manual”

It does strike me as odd, though, these “going dark” protests.  The problem is that the U.S. government weasels want to control the internet, possibly censoring it, and the answer is to… take your ball and go home?  Effectively self-censor?  It seems like a weird message to send, but with big ol’ sites like Google and Wikipedia in on the action, at least it’s calling attention to the stupid potential policy.  (Though curiously making it a little harder to research said policy.  Again… odd.)  I do like XKCD’s take on it, found at this convenient link.  Sam and Fuzzy’s author comments briefly on it as well thisaway.  Shamus of Twenty Sided has a good article up on it, too, and I like the Rampant Coyote’s take.

As for me, well, I’m going to go work on Zomblobs!, which will be released as a Free to Play tabletop tactical wargame.  The ruleset will be free in PDF form, but you can buy nice printouts.  The PDFs will come with units, maps and tokens you can cut out and play with, or you can go buy models from my Shapeways store or maps from The Game Crafter.  Play a fully functional if vaguely unaesthetic version for free with a little elbow grease, or upgrade a bit to a nicer version for a little cash.  Seems simple to me.

It’s evidence of my mindset; create something that’s fun to play and offers great value, create a relationship of trust and goodwill, and hope that some kind souls are willing to chip in a few bucks for the experience.  I won’t be able to make a living off of the scope of what I’ll be offering (though Three Rings does with their games, notably Puzzle Pirates, and they have a similar philosophy), but I’ll still be offering something I consider to be valuable.  Giving, not controlling, sharing, not stealing.  …and perhaps sneakily, monetizing actual, tangible stuff rather than the digital parts of the game.  Sure, my work is copyrighted, but again, pirates can’t be stopped.  I prefer the carrot approach rather than trying to find a bigger stick.

Seems to be a better way for me to conduct my business.  I’m the sole proprietor of this site, Alpha Hex and Zomblobs!, so I’m going to do what I want with them, and that’s try to get as many people playing and having fun with them as I can.  I think I’ve made some fun games, and while I’m no Raph Koster, Klaus Teuber or Wil Wright, I’m just confident enough in these games to want to put my work out there for consumption and feedback.

Rally ho!

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I’ve written about magic and its function before, most notably in my Merely Magical and Mix and Match Magic articles.  I’m a scientific fellow by nature, but magic is so useful for fiction that I’d be remiss in ignoring it.  Beside that, it’s fun to think of the intersection between magic and science.  Cue Arthur C. Clarke’s quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So lately, I’ve been wondering… how do magic spells with conditions work?

I work with computers all day long, as an artist, true, but I understand a little bit of programming.  There are programs that are constantly looking for input that is then acted on.  The computer has to constantly run routines that ask “is anything happening now?” and “how about now?” or “maybe now?”… it’s always paying attention, ready to spring into action.  This takes processing power.

How about magic?

I’ve been watching the Pirates of the Caribbean movies again lately, so I’ll use those as an example (here there be spoilers!).  In the first one, the Aztec curse is lifted when the gold is returned and the blood debt repaid.  Is there an ancient Aztec spirit checking DNA?  Maybe it’s just checking with its fellow spirits in a vast Aztec post-mortal spy network.  They are always watching, dun dun dun…  The gold would be a bit easier to explain as it’s a simple count… but how to know if they are the right coins?  Again… Aztec ghost spy network, or maybe just a ghostly assayer working with the DNA specialist.

What about the whole Davy Jones myth (in the movies)?  He was cursed because he wasn’t faithful to his ladyfriend… but how did she know?  Maybe that one is easy to explain with a bit of mindreading and/or scuttlebutt, but what of the apocryphal Will Turner variant?  According to what I’ve read online (yes, I was curious, hush), Will isn’t stuck on the Flying Dutchman at the end of the third movie because Elizabeth was faithful to him, and he to her.  Who checks on these things?  Who or what is watching, and how does one get privacy in such a world?

Perhaps magic itself has a level of sentience?  At least enough to run simple “pass/fail” monitoring checks at a low level all the time?  If so, how much does magic think?  How smart is it?  Can it be fooled?  How much power does it take to run these checks?  Are there limits to its perception, whether temporal, spatial or something else?  Can it be blinded or deafened?

And what if the rules change?  Is magic capricious?  In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, why could Balthazar and Dave drive through their own reflection to escape a magical mirror trap, but Horvath needed external help to escape the same sort of trap?  Does one need a certain velocity to just blow out of the trap (shades of Back to the Future, where the tech may as well be magic), or some other quirky condition?

The Looking for Group webcomic is one I’ve wondered about lately in that regard as well.  The first minor arc in that comic has our central hero incinerated (into ashes!) and then revived by a local priestess, whole and healthy.  Later, that same priestess can’t revive her adopted father, merely because he had suffered some sword slashes to vital arteries.  Similarly, she couldn’t fix her uncle’s lost arm (though an artificer managed to make a perfectly functional magical metal one).  Did she lose power?  Are ashes easier to revive than a whole corpse (albeit minus some blood)?  Did magic’s function change?  Is this just the Power of Plot changing the rules in the name of Pointless Drama?

I know, this is overthinking things, but I believe there’s merit in having consistent rules that magic function by.  That sort of logical underpinning can make a world more interesting.  It need not be boiled down to a quantifiable science (though that might be interesting), but a bit of logic and consistency can go a long way in selling something as fantastic as magic, something that inherently goes against our intuition.  Even if the end player/reader/viewer doesn’t get these rules explained explicitly, just the fact that they are there and that the creators use them is a boon to the presentation.

On the other hand, capricious, chaotic, unpredictable magic has its place, too.  I just think that authors, game designers and worldbuilders should put a bit of thought into how and why magic does what it does instead of just making random stuff up and changing the rules as they go.  Maybe that’s a level of Batman-crazy preparation that we typically only see in someone like Tolkien and his linguistic and historic backgrounds of Middle Earth… but I think it’s worth it.  It seems to me that having that sort of underlying superstructure makes a magical world cleaner and more interesting, if only because it’s easier to be immersed (you’re not always asking “wait, what?” as you play along) and easier to expand (known rulesets are easier to follow, or break as occasion demands).

If nothing else, looking at how things work can provide story hooks and opportunities to delve into a fictional world and issue exposition in new and interesting ways.  It’s a good thing to have readers/players/viewers wondering “how” and “why” if the answers exist and help build up the world… and it’s a bad thing if those questions just lead to plot holes and lazy craftsmanship.

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The original X-Com is on my short list of favorite games.  It was my first foray into tactical games, and since then, I’ve steeped my gaming sensibilities in other masterpieces such as Master of Orion 1 & 2, Master of Magic, Civilization, Front Mission, Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea and Ogre Battle.  I never did play Laser Squad Nemesis, but the Gameboy Advance game Rebelstar: Tactical Command captured a bit of the old X-Com magic.  One of the first projects I worked on here at NinjaBee/Wahoo was our little gem Band of Bugs.

Similarly, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about tabletop tactical games like WarHammer and WarMachine, and I’m developing one of my own I’m calling Zomblobs! that may well wind up being a sister game to another one I have in mind (the sooper sekrit *redacted* project), not unlike the mesh between WarMachine and Hordes.  I have a lot of ideas for tactical games, and it’s been a blast to try to make one and see if there’s something to those ideas.

Let’s just say that I love tactical and strategic games.  They run deep in my gaming DNA.

So when I heard that the BioShock guys were making an XCOM game, at first, I thought “great, a resurrection of the fantastic tactical game by some guys who have no small amount of game prettification experience!”.  After a bit of cursory research, though, my response was pretty much the same as Shamus’ over at Twenty Sided and Jay’s over at The Rampant Coyote.  In short, it wasn’t quite the Darth Vaderish “NoOoOoOOO!”, but it was pretty close.  I had to go and play the original (I bought the whole bunch of them on sale over at Direct2Drive, also available on Steam, and conveniently on sale today), just to wash the 2K out of my brain.  Shamus later followed up with this lovely extended rant, and I found myself nodding along.  Seriously… this just bugged me so much I had to ignore it or slip into mild-mannered nerdrage.

…tangentially, I find it interesting that my flavor of nerdrage expression was to buy the original game in protest, even though I still have the CDs for the first two games in my library somewhere.  That probably borders on ineffective.  This might also be why my efforts to resurrect the Chrono series by buying ‘Trigger on all platforms and playing the OST for CT and CC every week isn’t doing so well.  Anyway…

Yesterday, it was with much happiness that I found out there is a team of intrepid indies working on a game they call Xenonauts, a little gem that looks to be nicely faithful to the original X-Com.  While I haven’t bought in yet, Minecraft is the only other game I’ve spent money on while it’s still in development, and I’m sorely tempted here.  Maybe I’ll get it after passing on a few more junk food runs (my gaming budget is what I might have spent on junk food).

Then this morning, Firaxis pulls a vaguely mean move and announces their own resurrection of the X-Com name.  I like Firaxis.  I trust them, at least for now.  I think they might actually understand X-Com and be able to bring it into the 2010s.  That sure has the potential to put the bootheel of Bigger Business on the Xenonauts team, though.

As ambivalent as I am about Firaxis maybe poaching indie efforts, both teams really are poaching the X-Com name in the first place, so I can’t get too fussy about it.  If anything, the competition between the two could be a healthy thing, making for better games.  I do hope that the Firaxis effort doesn’t destroy the livelihood of  the Xenonauts team, but mining nostalgia is a dangerous game.  (Never mind the IP legalhounds and shenanigans that come up with things like the Chrono Resurrection project.)  The squishy territory covered by tribute, homage, mimicry and plagiarism is a minefield.

May the true inheritor of the X-Com throne rise up!

…but if they both flub it, will someone else please try again?

…and I dearly hope that the 2K iteration doesn’t become the most successful one.  That would just be… sad.

UPDATED with more info at the following pair of articles,

Why Firaxis Loves X-Com

First Screens and Details

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Steam has had a fun little promotion going on for the holidays again this year.  I didn’t spend much money on games, since I already have most of what I want and far more than I have time for.  Still, it was fun to see what they had up for sale, and to try some of their challenges for their promotion.  I even wound up tying Sanctum (that I purchased a while back in an Indie Royale sale) to my Steam account to try for that Achievement, hoping for a useful coupon (I got the Solar 2 one that way).

Short story long, I now have a handful of coupons and a pair of games to give away, and nobody obvious to give them to.  (I’m keeping the lumps of coal.)

Steam Stuff

For the next few hours, Terraria and the Portal games are on deep discount (and I highly recommend Portal and Portal 2), so those coupons aren’t much use at the moment, but they will be someday.

So… how to decide who to give them to?

Well, for Cogs, a great little sliding tile puzzle game with delightful steampunky overtones, how about this?  Whomever makes the gearflake that my panel of elite judges likes the most will win Cogs.  Instructions for how to make a gearflake are in my Steampunk Snowflake post from a little while back, but don’t just take that pattern, try something new, a variation on the theme of “gears and snowflake”.

For World of Goo, a fantastic puzzle/building game, I’m looking for a good practical way to make some goo of my own, for some Zomblobs! promotional experiments.  The person who finds me the best recipe for homebrew goo suited for my use will win the game.  Specifically, I’m looking for some sort of goo that’s partially translucent, mostly gelatinous, but able to hold a shape well enough that it could be used as a board game piece, about the size of a standard chess pawn.  Sort of a stronger, more durable JELL-O, nontoxic, of course.  I’ll need to be able to put it into a mold for shaping, so it will need to be mostly liquid but be able to “set” and be removed easily from a mold (so the final surface can’t be sticky, and it shouldn’t stick to a plastic or ceramic mold).

As for the coupons, as specific as they are, it’s probably best to just say that whomever speaks up first for a specific coupon will get it.

Entries for the Cogs and World of Goo contest should be sent to my contact email, tishtoshtesh in the gmail system.  If you’re the first one to speak up for a coupon (speak up here first, then if you’re first, email me), please send your Steam handle to me at that same email, and I’ll get in touch.

For all of these, it looks like I’ll need to be logged into Steam and so will you to perform the trade (really just me giving you the widget), so it may take a few days or so to get the timing right, just because of scheduling, but I’ll do what I can, again, communicating via that gmail address.

Entries for the game contests have until January 15th, but the coupons are up for grabs immediately.

Happy New Year!

2012 should be a good year.  It’s either the end of the world or the release of Zomblobs! and either should prove interesting.  (I’m still formatting the rulebook PDFs for the Zomblobs! beta.  I meant to have it done last week, but circumstances prevented it.)

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