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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

I’m just ruminating a bit, spurred by a pair of excellent game design posts I read last week.

First, there’s Syl’s post about Why Storytelling in MMOs is Overrated.  I love her article, and I’ve wished for a long time now that MMO devs would ease off the reins and let players tell the story.  (Tangentially, Brian “Psychochild” Green’s work on Storybricks looks like a good step in that direction.)  The developer-driven narrative in these MMO things is a mismatch for the game design from the conception, and the devs seem to cling to their sense of authorship too much.  I can understand that, as a creative sort.  I’ve done a bit of Game Master work in tabletop RPGs in my day, though, and ultimately, the game always seems to run better when the players feel like they are in control.  The GM has to keep everything together, but player agency is the heart of games.  Even if it means they do things the GM doesn’t anticipate or even desire.

Second, there’s this gem from The Rampant Coyote, From Whom Much is Given, Much Is Demanded.  The discussion there about graphics and how cutting edge technology tends to create absurd demands rings true to my experience both in games and when I got my college degree in computer animation.

Today, I stumbled across this interesting tech demo from Activision.  It’s, well… creepy.  It’s very impressive, but it’s still not quite right.  Here it is on YouTube:

That Uncanny Valley looms large.  This is one of the huge dangers of chasing the tech edge.  Yes, in theory, with enough money, processing power and artistry, it’s possible to make artificial life that can pass for the real thing.  The cost is huge, though, and that Uncanny Valley is big.

Also, most importantly, it’s relatively easy these days to make artificial life look good in a still frame, but the real test is when it moves.  Motion is ridiculously hard to make, and exceptionally easy to break.  We have an instinctive understanding of how living things are supposed to move and behave, from physics to biology to exceedingly subtle emotional cues.  (See: Lie To Me, Sherlock Holmes, psychopaths, etc.)

This, perhaps more than anything, is what I really dug into when I was in college.  It’s at the heart of the Disney films I always wanted to make, The Illusion of Life that really makes animation work.  (By the way, I highly recommend that book if you have any interest in animation, along with a more recent tome, The Animator’s Survival Kit.  If you can only digest those two books, you’ll be a long way to understanding the core of animation.)  Ultimately, it’s possible for a skilled animator to make a broom or sack of flour (or even a paper airplane) seem more alive than the latest Final Fantasy CGI characters.  Or, as I noted over at Syl’s place, animators try to be conscious of the silhouette, making sure it’s readable at all times.  You can get a lot of mileage out of just the silhouette, as the XBox LIVE Game LIMBO shows:

And really, a lot of what gets communicated has to do with what isn’t seen.  (For a funny riff on this, there’s this take on what LIMBO might play like when you can see more information… but again, selective reveals are what sell the humor; it’s the juxtaposition of what you expect vs. what is “really” there that makes it humorous/scary.)

If you haven’t seen Paperman, go watch it.  Seriously, go watch it and then come back.  (Or watch the embedded one, sure.)

And then watch this, a video about some of the tech behind it.

So, for a relatively simple-looking bit of animation, there’s a lot of tech under the hood.  Some of it is obviously CG, at least to me, having spent as much time as I have watching and producing art and animation, both traditional and computer-assisted.  Still, there’s a lot of work going into this… and it’s all to make a stylized bit of art.  As with the style of The Incredibles, stylization goes a long way to making something play well.  It short-circuits our instinctive evaluation systems, and the errors in animation that pop up are kind of fudged away, filed in mental gaps that we don’t wind up caring about, largely because we have already internalized that these characters are not real, and we don’t expect them to be.

This is how we perceive motion in film and animation in the first place, per the Persistence of Vision theory.  The 24 or 30 frames per second that flicker by don’t cover the infinitely reducible time frames that reality can be split into, but they happen fast enough that our brain accepts them as continuous enough to be believable.  In fact, sometimes less information works better, as evidenced by some of the kerfluffle around the new-fangled 48FPS The Hobbit movie.  All we really need to know is enough to fool our brain into accepting something as real or believable, and then let our imagination and subconscious do the rest of the work.  Perhaps we could call it a “Persistence of Cognition” theory when it comes to storytelling and lore; the reader/viewer invests headspace in imagining the fictional world and how it works, or how they could work within it.  It’s all about leveraging the strengths of the end viewer/reader/player, making them a partner in the experience.

This is why a lot of the high end stuff fails.  It tries to do too much.  Our brain takes it at its word, holds it to a higher standard, and finds it lacking.

Most of the time, especially with art, story and anything that really hinges on the viewer getting emotionally involved and engaging the imagination, less, to a certain degree, actually is more, simply because you’re letting the viewer breathe and take a bit of ownership, which tends to be a multiplying factor in the efficacy of a presentation.  It’s part of that “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s so important to get people to buy into what you’re doing.  There really are reasons not to go into obsessive hyperdetail, not only because it’s a time and money sink, but because it’s also less effective.

Artists tend to understand this instinctively after some practice, since it’s entirely possible to put too much into a piece of art and thereby ruin it.  Hinting at detail is often far more effective than rendering it.  Even Daniel Dociu’s incredible art, which tends to look really complex, is largely suggestive, relying on the viewer to infer a ton of detail that really isn’t there.  Just look at the actual brushstrokes in one of his pieces and compare it to what you thought was there at a glance.  Dociu is a master at implying complexity.  He’s making your brain do the heavy lifting.

Similarly, as any avid reader can tell you, “head canon” and “mental visualization” of words on the page can never compare to a moviemaker’s craft.  They simply function differently.  That’s a good thing, and creative types really need to leverage the supercomputers in viewers’ brains to do a lot of the creative work for them.  It takes trust, and knowing just what to imply and what to make explicit… but there’s a lot of strength in letting the viewer in on the process, even if it’s only on a subconscious level.

They will fill the gaps, if you can learn what to leave up to them.

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I love photographs of old, broken stuff and places.  I’m not sure if it’s the photographer in me or just a pining for the past I never knew, but modern photographs of old or broken things are some of my favorite visuals to study.  They make for great story fodder and reference material, too.

I find photos of failed construction projects to be similarly fascinating.  This, for example, is a composite shot of a failed building project near my home.  This is one of two giant apartment/business combo buildings that was started during the housing boom.  It was never something our community even needed in the first place, but the housing bubble broke and the construction company simply ran out of money.  (They were counting on preselling $1,000,000 condos to finance the construction… in our community where $200,000 will buy a good sized family home and the average salary is $45,000/year or so.  Yeah, they didn’t really understand math.)  It’s a blight on our main thoroughfare, a testament to bad economics and stupendous lack of foresight.  And yet it remains.  Unfinished, untended, unnecessary.

Failed Building Construction

I wrote about this before in my Falling Apart article.  I highly recommend going and checking that out, as it carries the bulk of the philosophical rumination I might offer in this vein, and better, some really cool photos and links.

In the meantime, I’ve been collecting links to other fascinating collections of photographs in the same vein; busted buildings, urban decay and varied displays of the ravages of time.  Some of it may be politically or socially charged, at least in the implications, some of it might simply be due to the inexorable march of time.  Some of it, like the Chinese ghost cities, the ruins of Prypiat or the Winchester Mystery House, is ripe for storytelling, whether digging into the actual stories or riffing on reality for fictional fun.

Much of it is somber, sad and even tragic.  Sometimes it’s creepy, and the realities can be appalling.  Still, it’s fascinating, and it invokes musings on mortality and the meaning of life and why we do what we do.  Is it more important to have lived well or to have left something behind?  What is the most important mark of our passage in this mortal coil?  …is it important at all?  What if death were unhinged, what then?  What can those who have gone before teach us today?  Do we care, or do we keep making the same dumb mistakes, only to see our work on the scrap heap of history?

China’s Abandoned Wonderland

via Washington Post

via Reuters

via National Geographic

Chinese Ghost Cities

via Business Insider

via Ritholtz

via Time

New South China Abandoned Mall

via Skyscraper Page

Abandoned Asian Architectural Wonders

via Web Urbanist

Prypiat and Chernobyl

via Village of Joy

via Retronaut

Yugoslavian Monuments

via Flooby Nooby

Winchester Mystery House

via Wikipedia

via the ‘House’s own website

Surreal places in the Real World

via Quora.com

Decay Photography Challenges

via Digital Photography School

via The Photo Argus

Weathered

via The Photo Argus

Dark Stores (abandoned stores and malls)

via Brian Ulrich 

via Urban Ghosts media

Randall Park Mall (huge, empty mall)

via Flikr

also via Flikr

And just for fun…

Decaying Victorian Buildings… in LEGO.

As in, this Mike Doyle fellow built these to look broken down.  Crazy stuff.

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In news which should come as a shock to absolutely nobody, apparently Star Wars The Old Republic, the new Bioware MMO, is pretty much World of Warcraft with a different coat of paint and voiceovers.  Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a great article up thisaway:

Hands On The Old Republic, Part One

The part that sticks out to me is the notion that SWTOR’s “kill ten rats” quests are different because we somehow care about what is happening.  (Have you ever noticed that the argument is almost always “it’s different this time”, and how uncomfortably close that is to the rationale for going back to an abusive relationship?)  To which my natural question is:

When did you stop caring about what happened in your old MMO?

Y’see, there are quests in WoW that have emotional resonance.  It’s just that the second time through, the effect is diminished.  …and when you get tired of the same old mechanical aspects of the kill and fetch quests.  Then there’s the whole gear-loot scheme that pretty much short-circuits the motivation for questing.  “Yeah, yeah, sure, old man, I’ll go fetch the remains of your lost family by slaughtering owlbears and digging through their remains for a while, but what’s in it for me?

Long story short, I suspect that the quests in SWTOR feel different pretty much only because they are new.  Let’s see how they feel on your third Jedi alt, or after 200 hours of play.  Let’s see how emotionally involving it is to down that raid boss for the fifteenth time because he just won’t drop your wristguards.  At some point, the honeymoon wears off and you realize you’re mechanically doing the same thing you’ve always done.  The emotional resonance wears off because you see behind the curtain.

Window dressing really can go a long ways to selling something, it’s true.  It’s just that there has to be more to a game than the trappings.

I should note that this doesn’t mean that SWTOR won’t be fun, rather, I’m just noting that there’s not a lot there to be terribly excited about, at least mechanically.  It’s more of the same.  That’s not bad either, if that’s what you’re looking for.

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What would a world without death look like?

There are many answers, though, and as always, chasing through implications and ramifications and unintended consequences can make for some very interesting thoughts.  Story hooks abound, and fictional universes can be built around tweaking death, like nudging the cosmological constant or the boiling point of water and seeing how (or if) life evolves in parallel universes.

A few links to start with, though:

Merely Magical – An old article of mine digging a bit into magic and what sort of effects it has on storytelling.

Ravnica – Magic the Gathering’s city-plane where some of the spirits of the dead are stuck and cannot pass on, so naturally, many become politicians, er, gangsters, while another group embraces undeath as a way of life.

Valkyrie Profile – Where Japanese writers plumb Norse myths for RPG fodder, winding up with a game where most characters are introduced at their death, and only then does the adventure start.

Gameplay and Story Segregation – In a world with FullLife materia, why again did Aeris die and stay dead?  Because Story is inviolate, and CRPGs tend to be noninteractive movies gated by grindy gameplay.  Speaking of which…

Final Fantasy X’s Farplane – People who die in Spira leave their bodies and move on as spirits that eventually turn into pyreflies.  They populate this odd place, occasionally taking spirit form when loved ones come to call.  They aren’t gone, exactly, but they aren’t what we might call alive or undead either.  Oh, and if someone actually dies without accepting death, their stubborn spirits will likely become fiends, or monsters.  Interesting origin story for monsters, that.

Death is a significant component of our mortal life, so it’s understandable that fiction would experiment with it.  Even something like necromancy, a fantasy staple, has Sabriel (a fantastic book) standing in the wings, toying with expectations.  And then there’s the zombies.  Oh, the zombies and their amazing culture.  And let’s not speak of vampires and their form of undeath/immortality/inexplicable popularity.

And yes, there’s the concept of immortality.  What if there really is no death at all, instead of a multitude of mulligan mechanics?  Forget the Life spells, what if nobody could ever die in the first place?  Would there be population problems?  How in the world would assassins make a living?

…speaking of which, in a fictional setting where death is cheaply and easily overcome, it strikes me that skullduggery of all sorts, from political to passionate, could prove a tricky thing indeed.  Of course we don’t think of that instinctively, but really, there are implications that would change a lot of behavior, religion, customs and even art.

If you found yourself in a world where wars were literally unwinnable by human asset attrition, how would one actually get anywhere?  Would peace be more likely, or would truly determined fighters just find new fronts to fight on?

How would thrillseekers get their rush?  Would skydivers even bother with parachutes?  Would they have crater competitions?

Would ancestor worship change if one could simply talk to them instead of praying to them?  How would the ancestors feel about being worshipped?

Would people even have children or would the population be static?  Is age a component of immortality of this sort?  Would aged people wind up with dementia for millennia?

Would they want to die?

I’ll admit, death is a pretty big thing to change, but even just changing that single thing can have significant repercussions for a fictional universe.  Interconnections abound in any sufficiently complex world, and it can be difficult to track down all the tangents.  Life is complex.  So is death.  Perhaps that’s why they are so fascinating.

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The Professor Layton games are fantastic pieces of work.  (If you don’t want spoilers for their stories, though, please go play them and then come back.)

The first game quickly establishes some quirky characters and ground rules for the Layton game world, notably the preponderance of puzzles and people who love them.  Smaller puzzles are nested in a larger mystery, though curiously, the player doesn’t solve that mystery so much as tag along.  We’re introduced to a world that is oddly modern and yet antique at the same time, and a twist in the story introduces futuristic technology.  It isn’t beholden to any particular time setting, so it can be “modern” for many players for years to come.  The story is ultimately about the love of a father for his daughter and a test of character for our heroes.

The second game pokes a bit more into Sherlockian waters by forcing the good Professor  to find scientific explanations for some rather mythological and mystical mysteries.  It steps back a little from the impossibly intricate technology in the first game, but still has absurd architecture and weird science.  The underlying story is one of love lost, selfishness and sacrifice, reconciliation, and hope for the future.

The first two games have heartfelt stories with surprisingly honest emotion, but the third game is even better.  Yes, all three have tons of puzzles, and each gets progressively better with smarter puzzles and better controls… but here I’m talking about the good Professor himself.

Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is Hershel Layton’s story.

It’s heartrending, chilling, poignant, cautionary and engrossing.  Not bad for a collection of puzzles on a handheld gaming platform.

As further prelude, may I recommend a great article from before the third game from the gentlemen at Experience Points?

The Mysterious Identity of Professor Layton

The Unwound Future doesn’t answer much about the good Professor’s racial or ethnic identity (which I consider a good thing, after all… I’d rather measure a man by his actions than his inheritance).  It doesn’t explain why Luke tags along like a leech-puppy hybrid.  It does, however, explain a great deal about the Professor’s curious hat, his gentlemanly mannerisms, his nemesis and his almost single-minded devotion to solving puzzles.  (Even more spoilery spoilers after the picture, fair warning!)

image shamelessly copied from the link under the photo, gamrfeed

Simply, Hershel Layton is a broken man, and The Unwound Future kicks him while he’s down, teasing him with hope and then removing a piece of his personal puzzle… again.  Layton will be forever broken, forever searching to piece his life together, always frustrated.  Solving other puzzles are his only solace, his only outlet for closure and resolution.  In this, he is one of the most human characters in games that I’ve seen in a long time.  He is damaged, but he soldiers on, hat firmly on his head.

To be sure, there are other broken characters in the game.  The primary antagonist proves to be a severely traumatized and sympathetic character, even after he engages in some domestic terrorism with a death toll likely in the thousands.  The secondary antagonist is revealed to be almost as deeply wounded as the Professor, and far from an evil man.  A villain from the earlier games is revisited and made far more sympathetic.  The true villain of the story never receives his just rewards, and his story is left open.  These political implications have strong connotations in today’s political world, and the game doesn’t grant fictional justice.  Every character is asked to step up and accept painful truths and then be strong anyway, even when the world is hostile.

Further, there’s a twist to the knife.  The concept of time travel is presented as another mystery to be solved, and in true Layton style, a grand conspiracy and coverup are revealed.  Time travel is revealed to be a scam… and then, agonizingly and astonishingly, it is revealed again as a reality.  The Professor is granted a few precious moments with the love of his life, only to have her knowingly go back in time to her death.  After convincing everyone that time travel isn’t possible, he finds that it most certainly is.  After telling everyone to accept that they need to move on, and demonstrating that he’s willing to forgive even in the face of great loss, he is teased with the possibility that history could yet be changed, and that maybe, just maybe, the “bad” guys were right.  The axis of his world is shifted, ever so slightly, and the careful pretense of rationality that he has held to is undermined again by the delayed results of the very event that shattered his life.

In the ending sequence, after displaying a somewhat ungentlemanly bout of agony and emotion, he is not offered solace or peace, but rather told (gently and kindly, but painfully) that in the face of his most heartbreaking loss:

“You’ll be strong… because that’s what a gentleman does.”

…and then we see him cry.  A gentleman, hat in hand, beseeching the heavens for peace he knows he will not see, even as the “what if” questions continue to eat away at him.

What more can any of us do?

How many of our sorrows are ignored by throwing ourselves into distractions or puzzles that have solutions?  Is this not one appeal of games, that there are solutions to the problems in-game, if only we play enough or well enough?  The character arc for Hershel Layton stands in contrast to that very nature of games, intentionally subverting his oft-repeated refrain “every puzzle has an answer”.

These games have a lot of heart, especially for what could have been thinly veiled Brain Age-like games.  While I find I disagree with the choice to hurt the good Professor the way they did in the third game… that I care at all is testament to the character and story.

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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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My wife and I went to James Cameron’s Avatar for her birthday recently.  I just had a couple of things to mention about it:

  1. My wife liked it.  She really liked the 3D aspect; it reminded her of the fun of experiencing 3D movies as a kid in Disneyland.  She’d like to visit Pandora, albeit via an Avatar, perhaps, for safety’s sake.
  2. tvtropes has plenty to say about it.
  3. I consider it to be Art, but don’t think highly of it as a film.  I still like it.

Let me expand on 3 a little.

I really like what they did with the visuals of the movie.  The 3D was good when it wasn’t broken, since it was more atmospheric and spatial than a mere gimmick.  The art direction is solid, with consistent visual appeal.  The world is lush and interesting.  The characters are actually my favorite part, because they feel plausible.  The animation and characterization is excellent; they don’t feel animated, they feel alive.

Compare the characters to those in the Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within movie.  The difference in static appearance isn’t much (stills from either film read pretty well compared to each other), but the Avatar characters move more plausibly, complete with imbalances, personality and body language.  I’m not sure whether this is a leap in motion capture or animation technique and technology (or just more money thrown at an issue), but there is a marked difference between Jake Sully’s Big Blue and Aki Ross.  Dodging the Uncanny Valley by using not-quite-human characters also probably helped significantly.  Either way, this is why I tend to stress that animation itself is more important to selling the sense of life than high resolution textures and 3D glasses.  The Disney animators tend to believe similarly.

Pandora, the movie’s fictional world out thataway somewhere in Plot Space, looks like it could be a real place.  It’s interesting and pretty.  The floating mountains are especially awesome in my eyes, though the biophosphorous neon jungle might be more appealing to some.  I can only imagine that an IMAX viewing of the show would be rather exhilarating, especially in the flight scenes.

So… it’s all very pretty.  The story is almost paint-by-the-numbers, though, and it really clashed for me.  It’s been compared to Dances With Wolves, albeit with blue body paint and technogeek body swapping (the titular “avatar” technology).  I could certainly nitpick a LOT of things in the film, but it’s not really worth it.  It’s not a bad story, exactly, but it’s nothing all that spectacular, innovative or interesting.

Then again, one might wonder if the market really wants innovation?

I had a similar reaction to Cameron’s Titanic, actually.  It was pretty, and the visuals of the boat sinking were spectacularly crafted.  The story, though… cut it out, and I might like the film as a whole.  It would have made a great documentary or historic dramatization, sans DiCraprio and the naked chick.  (Is it terrible of me to find it funny that Global Warming nut DiCaprio effectively froze to death in that film?)

Similarly, Avatar would have been a great artistic tech demo (Picasso’s early Cubism could be considered a tech demo, and it’s considered Art), or even a fantastic game, sans the caricature story and almost-romance with blue almost-naked almost-people.  It’s not a terrible film, and it’s a pretty good “experience”.  It looks really good.

I guess that’s enough to make money, though.  Why do we even care about innovation, again?

I mean, there’s got to be something more importan… ooh, sparkly blue thingy!!!


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Erwin Schroedinger may or may not have liked cats.  Considering his famous thought experiment, one might detect a bit of antipathy towards the critters, as he willingly thought of them in mortal peril, but then, we don’t really know until we open the box and find out.

Do we really know what Star Wars: The Old Republic will be like?  Do we really know what the next Final Fantasy will be like?  Do we know what the next blockbuster game will be that shapes the game industry?

The future is in a bit of a quantum uncertainty state, especially considering the economic stresses and a lot of shadow play behind the financial scenes.  The game industry as a whole is juggling concerns of used games, digital sales, DRM, legal wrangles, censorship, business models and economic viability, and a butterfly over in the Federal Reserve can create storms for the industry at large.

Each individual game that we don’t know about can be said to be in a similar state.  Until each one of us takes a long, hard look and observe something, can we really be sure what it is?  Perhaps most importantly, do we know what it is for us?  Observation and objectivity are kissing cousins, but in the absence of omniscience, all we have is a set of probabilities and guesstimates, measurements of trust and “weighing the options”.  Numbered “reviews” are just one shallow, biased tip of the informational iceberg that constitutes an informed purchase.

For example, I love the Valkyrie Profile games.  I played the original on a whim, since it was developed by Tri Ace, the guys behind Star Ocean: The Second Story.  (A game I picked up on sale and counted myself lucky to have done so.  It’s a great game.)  I picked up the second Valkyrie Profile (Silmeria) a year or two ago, and have enjoyed it as well.  Prowling around Goozex, I happened to notice a third game in the series, a tangential Tactical RPG for the Nintendo DS.  Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume looked interesting, since I’ve been enamored with Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre of late, so I put in a request for it, and wandered over to GameFAQS to check out the reviews and comments on the game.

It doesn’t have a lot of press exposure (a perpetual problem with the VP series), so there are just a handful of reviews.  They tend to fall into two camps, not unlike Schroedinger’s superimposed cat.  Reviewers tend to either really like the game or really dislike it.  There’s another divisive set of opinions, and it’s curious to me that they don’t perfectly intersect with the “like/dislike” split.  Some reviewers think the game is abusively hard, while others think it’s too easy.  There are very few opinions in the middle.  Some like hard tactics games, but think CotP is too easy, so they rate it poorly.  Some like easy games, but think it’s hard, so they rate it poorly.  Some like hard games and see it as hard, so they like it, and some like easy games and see it as easy, so they like it.

It’s actually a lot like genetics, with a Punnet square mapping out the probabilities of player response to the game across the two axes:  Like vs. Dislike, Hard vs. Easy.  Any given player will have their own phenotypical reaction to the game that can only be experienced firsthand, and is entirely dependent on the player.

I find this sort of review set to be more useful than a universally hailed game that nearly everyone drools over.  The smaller sample and clear delineation of opinions is more useful to me in determining my possible reaction to the game than a few hundred mini reviews worshipping something like GTA3, which I hold only in contempt (due to the subject matter rather than the structure).  Of course, clear writing and explanation of why those scores are what they are is a huge help.

At any rate, even though there is a nice set of quantum probabilities for CotP, and I had a fairly good bead on where I’d sit in the Punnet square, I still had to observe firsthand what the game held before I could really know for myself what my response would be.  I found myself looking forward to what I thought the game would be, and hoping for certain specifics.  The game was in a state of quantum flux, or at least, my observation of the game was in a state of flux.  I was cautiously excited and optimistic.

Sometimes, this is the best part of gaming.

It’s interesting to me that sometimes I like that period of anticipation and imagination better than the experience of actually playing a game.  It’s certain that I have more control over my perceptions at that point, and the game is more a product of my imagination than the developers’ work.  It can be everything I dreamed it to be and more.

This is not coincidentally how game development works as well.  Devs have great ideas about what they want to do, and it’s only as the project moves on through time that the quantum states settle down… sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.  This is why the concept stage of a project can be far more exciting than the production phase.

Hype machines, like that built around SWTOR, are the game equivalent of a flux capacitor, framing the experience in such a way that people can superimpose their own wishes and aspirations on the game and get excited about it.  Even though no two people will have the same genotype, they can still get excited about what the game might be when that box is opened.  Good hype magnifies the flux, letting players rush ahead with their own imagination.  Great hype keeps the capacitor from overloading by injecting just enough stabilizing reality to keep expectations within the reach of the developers, or at least within a few percent of reality.

Of course, with all of this, reality doesn’t always comply.  It’s wise to temper expectations, since reality doesn’t usually measure up to our wishes.  This is why sometimes the heady rush of “what might be” is more exciting and fun than the mundane realizations about “how things really are“.

This is why I love being a creative sort of person.  I spend a lot of time thinking about the “what if” and “if only” aspects of life.  Then I go out and create, making imagination into reality.  It’s a nice mix of dreaming and work that I find very satisfying.

This is also why I keep wishing that games would allow players to control more things about the game, making more choices with consequences that reflect the player’s actions, rather than their reactions to dev-imposed ideas.  The reality of a tightly scripted game on rails doesn’t mesh well with the freeform expectations of many players who succumb to the hype machine.  If a game is designed to give players control and mold the game’s reality into something more closely approximating the players’ dreams, it has a chance of forging a deeper connection with the player.

Not all games can work like that, but I think that the best games will try to give players as much control as possible.  It’s why storytelling in games is more about how the player acts and reacts, and less about what the devs created.  It’s one thing to “play” through a barely interactive movie, it’s quite another to mold a game world to your whim.  (And notably, even in something like FFX or FFXII, players are given significant control over how their characters develop.  That is no mistake or coincidence, and without that control, the games would be significantly weaker as games, and may as well have been movies like Final Fantasy: Advent Children.  It’s a different sort of storytelling.  Both are certainly valid and valuable, but will scratch different itches.)

We may not be able to hold on to that “what if” Schroedinger dream state as we go through life, but the more power we have to make the most of what reality does come our way, the happier we are likely to be.  That usually just means controlling ourselves in the real world, and our reactions to events.  In games, though, where “what if” is a key component of how games work and how the narratives function, players can have extraordinary power.  It is a blessing and a curse of games, part of their unique potential and power, and it needs to be exercised carefully.

*Addendum*  I wrote this in bits and pieces, and since starting it, writing about Role Playing has rippled through those blogs that I frequent.  Wolfshead has a great article up, and Psychochild wrote another great one earlier, and even the Rampant Coyote chimes in, each linking to other ones worth reading.  This is tangential to those concerns, but some of the themes of Role Playing intersect neatly with the ideas here espoused.  Namely, player imagination and power to change the world, since those tend to be huge tools for the player interested in playing a Role within one of these MMO worlds.

I’ve actually always thought that would be the draw of these games, to be able to assume a new identity within a completely fictional world, taking part in and changing things aggording to those “what if” questions.  The reality to date has been somewhat… different, and ultimately, underwhelming in my eyes.  I’m actually not all that disappointed, since such design might have the potential to be even more distracting from the real world, and the current generation of these games is plenty deleterious as is.  Still, current MMO design is so underwhelming compared to what I imagined for the genre years ago (reading ads for Ultima Online) that I can’t help but just be less than interested in playing them much.  Designing them, now… that’s another thing entirely.

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(With apologies to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita.)

Sendoku isn’t Vishnu, but as a newly minted Death Knight, subject of the Lich King, he is a harbinger of death, one who uses terror like a madman’s cudgel and fear like a torturer’s scalpel.

Early in his career, he was told that the hunger gnawing at his soul could only be sated by killing.  His very first fight set the tone for his existence, as he was told to fight a fellow initiate to the death.  The later massacre of scores of soldiers was only a mild escalation in his ultimate task to eradicate all life on Azeroth under the direction of the Lich King.

He is not quite alive, having been reanimated to serve in thrall to the Lich King, nor is he truly dead or undead.  He and his brethren are at least somewhat mortal, as some have not survived the Lich King’s war efforts.  So he’s understandably confused about his existence, and the suggestion to focus on obedience to the will of the Lich King and the tasks at hand undoubtedly help efforts to ignore exisistential musing.

All his homies agree he really looks good in black, and he’s got a really cool hat.

Even when he will eventually break free of the Lich King’s will, as foretold by this oracle, he will still serve Death, and be a slave to his eternal hunger for killing and destruction.  He will turn his blue, glowing eyes to the North, pushing forward with his kin, looking to bring death to the Lich King.  …who is already dead.  Sort of.  And who wields Death for fun and profit.

Death Knights aren’t exactly the sharpest cutlery in the rack, but they may well be the angriest and the angstiest.  (Three Panel Soul is highly recommended.)

———-

Short story long, the Death Knights are a mishmash of most emo and necro tropes, complete with big old honkin’ swords that glow like Azerothian lowriders, proving their utter dominance over all things edgy and cool.

Like any other WoW character, they enter the world with a nicely done flyby with a narrative to convey some backstory, and then they look around for questgivers with gold exclamation marks over their heads, positively itching to go kill stuff, but unlike other characters, they kill stuff with Death!!!  (Or a big old honkin’ sword, diseases, and maybe a pet Ghoul or three.)  Of course, they look better than other newbie characters, as the beneficiaries of years of refinement of Blizzard’s art assets and rendering engine, and they enter the world in full plate armor, at level 55, far more dangerous than a level 1 character.

The lore and art on these Death Knights is very tightly designed, and very well rendered.  I make light of it a bit, but that’s because I’m not a fan of the theme of the Death Knights.  As an artist in the game industry, I can look at what they are doing with these guys and applaud their art direction, animation and the very strong story and theme that Blizzard has developed, and I give credit where it’s due; the Death Knights are among the best designed characters in the WoW universe, both artistically and mechanically.  I personally find the overbearing (even if occasionally lampoonish) focus on Death and Destruction to be distasteful, but I’ll readily concede that even that is extremely well presented.  (Is it too punny to give Blizzard brownie points for execution?)

That said, the Death Knights do get bonus points for being honest.  Any WoW character embarks in the world as an agent of death, with a long career of slaughter in front of them.  Sure, it’s handwaved aside by saying that Druids are “maintaining the balance of nature”, or some other way of villainizing various critters and humanoids (it’s a war, after all, right?), but mechanically, the bulk of the game is about killing stuff.  (A point my wife has remarked about on more than one occasion, and really, from the outside, it is pretty silly.)  Death Knights know what they are all about, and they embrace it wholeheartedly.  That’s not a virtue, especially since they are just out for revenge and killin’, rather than any noble goal, but at least they are honest about what they do.

So what?  Do the Death Knights shake off the “monster pinata” complacency that most of us have slipped into?  Does it really make a difference when your “kill ten rats” quest turns into “kill 100 soldiers”?  Should it?  It’s just a game, right?

Hyperbolic German reactions aside (as Longasc points out, German leaders are coming down hard on violent gaming), desensitization is real.  The Death Knights are told to kill human characters who will cower and beg for their lives, innocent people who would otherwise be content to see to their village’s need for wood or hay.  It’s all very much in theme for the Death Knights, and Blizzard has carefully crafted the experience to give a sense of what a Death Knight’s existence is all about.  Does any of that sink in as players just go about, completing quests and killing stuff?  Do they think about it, or just go on with the business of prepping a new tank for raids?  Do they care even if it does sink in?

Again, it’s extremely well crafted, but I find the subject matter doesn’t sit well with me.

If Blizzard would take this level of work and turn it to a more noble pursuit, I’d be more impressed overall.  Of course, they aren’t really trying to impress me, so I doubt they care.  That’s just my take on things.

As I’ve noted before, the DK starting quests are very nicely designed, with a clear sense of progression, great spatial location, excellent art direction, and smart teaching mechanics.  (The flying eyeball recon quest at the start is a fantastic way to show people around in a low stress manner.)  Players don’t get a “this is an optimal DPS rotation” tutorial, but jumping in and playing a DK is a very smooth and forgiving experience.  (Ironically so, perhaps, since such would seem to benefit newbies more than vets who have qualified for DKs by having a high level character somewhere.)

The Phasing technology gives a nice sense of progress along a timeline, and really sells the storytelling.  It’s still not Hemingway or Shakespeare, but it’s a LOT better than what any other new character will see in WoW.

The Runes and Runic Power system is an interesting mutation of a mating between the Rage and Rogue Combo mechanics, and I found that it nicely promoted optimization of DPS rotations just by how it works, considering the cooldowns of runes and the gradual building of Runic Power.  It seems complex at a glance, and it certainly has the potential to be so, but getting up and running with it was a smooth experience.

So, I’ll add my voice to the choir saying that the Death Knight design and starting area is awesome, and that Blizzard really did a great job on them.  I won’t sing the praises during the chorus, when the theme is embraced, though.  I’m very glad that I had the chance to see a bit of the DK experience first hand, and I have some good screenshots to study… but I can’t honestly say that the experience was a pleasant one, on balance.  It was downright uncomfortable, and not something that I’d really want to do again.  (Which is not unlike the Arthas novel, actually… well crafted, unappealing characters and theme.  It works for some, certainly, just not me.)

The Death Knight experience offers some of the best work that Blizzard has done to date, and if dark magics, necromancy, Death and Destruction don’t bother you, the DK starting zones may well be the best part of the game.

A final note, though… I do wish that Blizzard would turn their eye to crafting this sort of experience for single player games.  If this sort of thing, complete with Phasing and a renewed focus on storytelling, is the future of the MMO genre (including SWTOR), I’m really going to be miffed that they didn’t just make a brilliant single player game.  More and more, I’m convinced that storytelling just isn’t meant to be a major component of MMO design.  Players should be telling their own stories, and all that effort crafting great narrative really should be in single player games, or even films.  But that’s another post…

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