Archive for March 27th, 2009

(Note:  This started as a tangent in the Tired of Killing article, but for organizations’ sake, I’m splitting it into its own article.)

I’m a fan of Puzzle Pirates, and I’ve not been shy of that.  I’m also looking forward to Gatheryn, which looks like a fun riff on Steampunk themes.  Interestingly, it’s also going to be a bit of a minigame suite.  This has caused a bit of miffed kerfluffling here and there among those who were hoping for a more “traditional” (read: DIKU level loot grind) MMO design.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to that notion.  Steampunk is fertile ground for gaming, but is poorly represented in the MMO genre.  Wizard 101 has a great little steampunk “world”, NeoSteam takes a magical tack on the theme, and even WoW has steampunkish elements.  It’s just… there’s no “hardcore” (heavy Victorian steam-driven) steampunk themed game out there.  That seems like a curious oversight to me, and I definitely think there’s a call for such a game in the market.

At the same time, I’m very, very tired of the DIKU loot lust model, built with combat as its backbone.  And there’s where we come to the title; the combat minigame.

As far as I’m concerned, combat in these games is little more than a highly specialized minigame.  MMO combat, just by the nature of the beast (internet connection, time>skill) isn’t nearly as involved as what we see  in the God of War games, Kingdom Hearts or Prince of Persia.  It can’t be.  It’s been distilled to an autoattack/special attack veneer on top of the prototypical RPG “dice roll” combat resolution engine.  Modern MMOs have polished it to a nice sheen, but as pure combat gaming, it’s just not in the same class as Dante in Devil May Cry or that scary dude in Mark of Kri.

So, when I see people complaining about the minigame nature of Gatheryn or Puzzle Pirates (or even Stargate Worlds with its Archeologist class hacking and research minigames) while extolling the virtues of WoW or the like, I can’t help but see a little irony.  (And no, Saylah, you’re not the only one in this boat; many people are dismissing Gatheryn for the more social, minigaming focus.)

To be fair, reskinning Bejeweled and jamming it into a large multiplayer lobby and calling it an MMO isn’t all that fulfilling, either.  If that’s all Gatheryn has to offer, it will indeed be unfulfilling… but at the same time, people DO play PopCap games or MSN games for hours, and giving them a persistent world where that indulgence can mean character progress beyond a high score leaderboard or Kongregate trophies might just be a winning formula.  It won’t appeal to the WoW crowd or the Darkfall denizens, but that was never the goal anyway.

Puzzle Pirates does well by having a series of minigames that are a bit more involved than the Flash-based PopCap fare.  For one, their games tend to have a bit more depth than those venerable gems.  Even Sailing, a Dr. Mario riff, has target platforms that change the dynamic of the game for the better, and Bilging is more than a mere Bejeweled clone, since you can make swaps that wouldn’t immediately cause a match, and it changes the gameplay significantly.

Beyond that, though, these minigames are integrated into the world.  Minigames on board ships contribute directly to the function of the ship, and the player at the helm winds up playing their own minigame that is a sort of metagame of balancing the crew’s efforts (working with people, for you who love sociality in games) while attending to their own duties.  Out of combat, captains have a Navigation minigame (unlike any other match three game I’ve played, and great for it) that multiplies Sailing efforts and can indirectly modify combat frequency, and in combat, the Battle Navigation (BNav) minigame incorporates a new subset of players who run the Gunning minigame, as well as an isometric tactical board game where the “deadly dance” of intership combat is played out, either to sink, engage crew-to-crew, or dodge until escape is enabled.

Once crews board their opponent, a round of Swordfighting or Rumbling (fisticuffs) ensues, which is a multiplayer Puzzle Fighter variant or Puzzle Bobble variant.  The simple innovations of sword strikes in SF or dual shooters and two directions of attack in Rumble mean they are more than their progenitors, and the multiplayer dynamics make for yet another layer of skills to learn and employ efficiently.

You can not succeed in Puzzle Pirates by relying on autoattack and a “shot rotation“.

Beyond that, there is a complex player-driven economy, where commodities are foraged up (with another minigame) and shuffled into a fairly complex market, where all but the most simple of goods are crafted via a suite of crafting minigames.  These aren’t interconnected like the shipboard games, but the economy as a whole is built on the back of players doing the crafting labor (playing minigames) to make items available.

As a result, the game world is very much under the influence of player actions.  If players don’t step up to the plate and Distill up some Rum or Blacksmith up some cannonballs, other players can’t go out and sail the high seas looking for combat.  If the combat-heavy players don’t hit enough of the spawned enemies, that primary currency fountain dries up, and the crafters don’t have anyone to sell stuff to.

This fairly extensive economy is fairly simple in that it demonstrates the interplay and symbiosis between the crafters and the combatants.  Each type of player (or a player who just likes both and meanders around) can do what they like, and find ways to contribute to the game as a whole, their fellow players, and have fun while still earning a bit of coin for their effort.

We see rudimentary aspects of this in WoW and the like, but crafting there isn’t so much a minigame as a metagame pursuit of ingredients and then sitting AFK while your avatar puts things together.

And maybe that’s the point.  Ixobelle wrote a while back about crafting interfaces, and the notion that crafting itself should be an active part of the MMO.  In other terms, a minigame.

Getting players of all types involved in the game world is part of what I’d like to see in my ideal MMO.  Giving them minigames is one way to do that, as it allows for greater involvement and player skill.  The combat minigame is certainly fun for some, but if it’s the only real way for players to get involved and display even a modicum of player skill, the game will naturally be limited.

Of course, at the same time, a game that demands skill and involvement from its players will also be limited, since not everyone wants to deal with actually playing all the time; they like that you can go AFK for a while and still get things done.  I’ve felt this myself at times.

Even so, I can’t help but feel more involved when I play Puzzle Pirates, and I feel that I’m actually playing more than I am just existing when I go about doing things in the world.  You can certainly just exist in PP as well, say by walking around on the islands or building up and furnishing your dream home, but actually playing the game, as opposed to playing WoW, is more fulfilling for me, as it asks more of me.

WoW certainly abstracts the combat minigame a bit, integrating it into the world and spatial concepts, so it’s not a completely shallow thing.  No, it’s a fairly highly polished minigame in the suite that is the WoW MMO as a whole.  As I wrote earlier, though, it’s just not all that satisfying in the long run, and having a suite of other minigames to round out the world and the interaction therein would seem to be a good thing, at least in my experience.  It increases involvement and emotional investment in the game world, and makes for more time playing and keeping things fresh, thanks to a whole suite of things to do, rather than just a fairly binary choice of “kill stuff” or AFK craft stuff.

As always, I’m not talking about excising the combat, merely adding other things on top of it.  Providing more choices and more ways to play is part of what I aim to do around here, after all.


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Tired of Killing

I’m tired of murdering murlocks, slaying slimes, and attempting genocide in my gaming.  Perhaps it’s ennui, perhaps it’s moral, perhaps it’s just rebellion against “more of the same”… but as fun as it can be to stick the pointy end of weapons in the squishy things that scream and bleed, it’s getting old.  It’s not coincidental, then, that the games I’ve spent the most time with the last few weeks are Puzzle Quest Galactrix, World of Goo and AudioSurf.  (Though I’ll admit to a mild itch to pick up Burnout: Revenge here and there.  The primitive hunter/gatherer in me wants to rack up a few more satisfying crashes.)

Since I write about MMOs a fair bit around here, though, there’s a problem.  Most MMOs are built almost completely on the combat minigame.  (Most RPGs and action games are, too, so it’s not something that we only see in MMOs.)  If I want to play a pacifist character in WoW, for example, well… there are limitations.  For those who try to bend the game to their will, it’s an uphill climb.  All is well and fine as long as you play on the rails, but try something different and, well… good luck with that.

That’s just not satisfying in what I want out of MMOs.  I want living, breathing dynamic worlds, not murder on rails.  To be sure, some players do want that, so I don’t disagree with including the combat minigame, I’m just pointing out that it’s not a satisfying world that only offers new and unique ways to kill stuff and raid corpses.  There are so many more things that could be done to make an interesting world.

Ysharros spoke about it a bit here:

Dessine-moi un mouton

and here:

Progression, brass rings and horizontality

and Wiqd dove in here:

It’s My Party and I’ll Craft if I Want To

Crafting is perhaps the easiest direction to expand into, since it has natural hooks into the economy and non-combat players.  I don’t think it’s the only direction, and indeed, Wiqd also writes briefly about scholars who explore the world and derive new knowledge from perusing ruins and extinguished battlegrounds.  Gevlon the Greedy Goblin writes fairly extensively about playing the MMO market, which is a sort of “secondary minigame”.  He can do that because the Auction House in WoW is half decent, but that could really be fleshed out even further for those market wonks.  There could be political minigames, toying with NPCs and even players, not unlike EVE’s shenanigans.  (Though griefing could be an issue, of course.)

Bottom line, these MMO things, to my mind, should be alternate realities where players of any stripe can find interesting, fun niches to play in, and ways to feel like they are making personal progress as well as affecting the world around them.  Channeling everyone through one “golden path” of gameplay (the combat minigame) does work, for many people, but it’s just so… shallow (and ultimately static), compared to what this genre could really offer.  In other terms, it’s just one (highly burnished) facet in the gem that a spectacular MMO could be.  Without polishing the other facets of the gem, it’s only going to look spectacular from a few angles, and even those angles will suffer for the low-luster background.

MMO players have a wide variety of motivations, but the gameplay support for varying motivations often falls by the wayside because of a focus on combat.  It’s easy to design and implement, and players love the monster pinatas and ever-increasing gear numbers… but MMOs really could be more than they are.

That’s the heart of many of my articles; MMOs have a fair dose of fun in them as they are, but they could be more than what they have become.  Wasted potential always makes me a bit sad.  (And, just so it’s not a moral soapbox, it also means that I don’t spend money on games that provide the same old killing machine.  There’s a very real monetary impetus for expanding horizons, especially in MMOs, of all games.)

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It’s been a while since I stopped in at 8-bit Theater, but browsing the latest strips yesterday, I happened across this one:

Lex Luthor, Hero

Strangely, Black Mage has a point.  Maybe not a stunningly good one… but this might explain why I’ve never been a big fan of Superman.  I’m definitely not a fan when he goes all Brian Singerish or forgets that the Earth’s rotation can’t change the flow of time.

Edited:  For some dumb reason, the link is broken and I can’t seem to find the page again.  Bleh.  In summary, BM was saying that Lex was a hero because he was fighting against the superior alien of perfection by showing that mere mortals could aspire to greatness, even when they are the underdog.  Old Supes is pretty much perfect, and it doesn’t always make for good storytelling, or good role modeling.  Of course we can aspire to be better people, but there’s no way that I’ll ever realize the dream of flying or stopping bullets with my eyes.  At least, not more than once.

Edited again 1/8/10:

New link, this one should be working.  Thanks to tvtropes.org for this one.  Shame it took me an hour of random link tracking to get there… that site really is a black hole.

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Shifting Winds

mpb has an interesting post up on the shifting dynamics behind the copyright system.  With OnLive rattling around in game dev news after the GDC flap, I really do have to wonder how things will play out.

What Will Happen After the Copyright Model is Gone?

Shamus pontificates about OnLive

I’m not really sold on OnLive, as I point out in the comments on Shamus’ site.  When I buy a game, I expect to be able to play it whenever I blasted well please.  That said, the technology is interesting, it just needs a better use.  Like curing cancer or making the Star Trek sick bay.  (No, the holodeck doesn’t count.)

Reading this article that mpb originally linked to, I couldn’t help but see parallels with the economic meltdown we’re living through.  Way too many people are still drinking the koolaid, hoping for the stock market to signal “all is well” again, that they may eat, drink and be merry.  They ignore the systemic cancer that caused this mess, hoping that bandaids and steroids can get the party started again.

The times, they are a’changin’.  Mind yer sails, now, and don’t forget to tack.

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