Archive for June, 2010

Bending to my curiosity, I fired up a ten day free trial of The Burning Crusade that is offered to “former or current” players of World of Warcraft.  I took the opportunity to start up a Blood Elf Paladin and a Draenei Shaman so I could look around and take a bunch of screenshots.  Totally unpredictable, I know.

Mournful lack of originality aside, I realized that I could also play my old friend Padgi for a few more days.  So, I fired up another random dungeon and found myself in Blackrock Depths.  The players I wound up with were decent, and things went smooth enough, despite the occasional death.  Once the Warrior tank got his Force of Magma (I should have rolled Need on it, but didn’t… Ironaya‘s stick is still good enough for me.) from Bael’Gar, he and his Hunter buddy dropped the group.  The Mage and Shaman healer soon flitted off as well, leaving me alone in the depths of a hot and Dwarf-infested place.

So naturally, I wandered around and took some pictures.  One must make the most of situations, hm?

While watching the Dwarf patrols, I wished I had four other Druids with me.  We could sneak around as kitties, picking and choosing our fights with surgical precision, looking to bust some allies (er, Hordies?) out of the deepest, darkest prison.  There’s just something deeply appealing to me about a party of Druids, supremely flexible, going all A-Team on a dungeon.  (Pretend for a moment that you could split up and accomplish cool things for the group without being attached at the hip.)  I’ve played through enough “old world” dungeons to start feeling like they are all pretty much the same.  Pull group, let the tank secure aggro, shred some backs, lick wounds, loot, lather, rinse, repeat.

I’m probably doing it wrong, but it really does just seem like the same thing over and over again, just with different window dressing and loot.  It’s fun enough to play through these dungeons at least once, but still… I wish I could play with an elite team of Druids, handling problems their own way, rather than doing the Same Old tank/healer/dps dance.  I know, I know, the game isn’t designed for that… but sitting in a corner as  a quiet, deadly ninja kitty… I had a glimpse of what I wanted to play, and it was glorious.

Pity I can’t have it… but alas, that’s life.

Yes, yes, I’m sure I could find a Druid guild somewhere, but that’s just part of the equation.  The “split up and orchestrate a devious plan of attack” bit is what really appealed to me as I lurked around in the ‘Depths.  Yeah, we could come back as level 80 monsters and totally outclass the hapless Dwarfs, but where’s the fun in that?


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This is a mix of several ideas… and something that I was prompted to put into writing by Brian “Psychochild” Green’s recent design article:

Design: Elemental Advancement

I’m following Brian’s lead here, in that this is a collection of ideas that you can build on or use outright, if you feel so inclined, not so much a proper design document.  Since I currently lack programming skills and the independent wealth to hire someone with said skills, well, I probably won’t be making a game with this anytime soon.  So, have at it, and if you can make it better, well, so much the better, aye?

The core notion here is to make magic in a game creative and explorative, trying to evoke the flavor of a magical researcher with a degree in MacGyvering their way through game world problems.  Most games that use magic are very, very constrained, effectively giving magical equivalents of tech trees rather than letting magic be wild and variable.  Players always know what their magical school can do, since the spells are always the same.  Individual magic spells tend to have one use and one use only, with far too many of them slotting into Damage Per Second (or per fight) min/maxing.

I’m looking to push the boundaries a bit.  I want players to be able to weave magic into new shapes, not unlike how Dumbledore crafted wholly new magical spells here and there, or how Voldemort was able to do things wildly beyond that universe’s “standard” spell set taught to the students.  In my mind, magic is wildly creative (even when dangerously destructive), a practice of curious individuals who seek ways to warp reality and go beyond what merely is into the realm of what may be.  Pushing and pulling at threads of magic in the tapestry of a magical reality can and should produce new and interesting effects.  I’d like to invite players (more Psychochild and Rampant Coyote!) to indulge in a bit of creativity within the game world’s magic system.  I’d like to let them play and have fun.

I’ll admit to being significantly influenced by the description of magic in books like Sabriel (a great book on necromantic magic and how it might work for good) and the Dragon Knight series (whose lead character, a timelost modern scholar in a medieval Englandish land, is stuck with learning magic and devising unique solutions to problems).  Those iterations of Magic are creative, hardly a list of spells that a stereotypical Mage memorizes and then casts while adventuring.

I’m also influenced by the SquareSoft classic Secret of Evermore, which had a magic system built on “alchemy”, with reagents to mix for various effects.  It was somewhere in between, with alchemical spell recipes and little room for experimentation, but a conceptual foundation of using real materials for magical effects, and elemental combinations that produced different effects.  (This also forced players to choose between spells that shared ingredients, a curious tactical layer.)

It’s fair to note that many game players don’t necessarily want to be creative, they just want tools to blow up the bad guys, and an overly complex research and exploration system just bogs that sort of player down.  Still, the mindset of a creative scientist/mage isn’t something that players often get to play with, and, well… it interests me.  Perhaps there’s something viable in here, perhaps not, but since a large part of what I do here is explore, I may as well do so.  I love to create game systems that let players explore and dig into possibilities.  Less Team Ninja, more Sid Meier, as it were.

So, a few core thoughts I’m building on, though certainly not the only way to run this:

  • Magic is comprised of different ingredients, not unlike how matter is comprised of elements found in the periodic table.  As such, magical ingredients mixed in different proportions and in different ways will produce a wide variety of effects.
  • Magic can be used for combat, utility, creation and destruction.  Whether a high or low magic world, magic is pervasive, and used in everyday life. A blacksmith uses magic as readily as an archmage, albeit in different ways and to different ends.  The spectrum of creativity, power and efficacy is probably wide, but magic itself is neither unusual nor inscrutable.  It is almost a science, approachable by anyone with the will and intellect to master it.  That said, mystics and religionists do cloak it in pomp and secrecy…
  • Magic uses both reagents and mental components (willpower, incantations, emotion, whatever), sometimes together.  Totemic magic tends to be a mix of the two, for example.  Pure material magic is mostly scientific, just with an expanded periodic table compared to what we’re used to.  (Not unlike how dilithium in Star Trek’s magic, er, science fiction system is a variant of quartz with a subspace component… at least, according to some books that try to explain Trek.)
  • Magic underlies everything in reality, and as such, nearly everything can be manipulated by a sufficiently talented mage.  Interconnections abound, and effects may be far-reaching, spatially or chronologically.  The “fabric of reality” is literally envisioned by some, and manipulated as one might manipulate cloth, whether in gross maneuvers of grand sweeping curtains or subtle tweaks of single strings that touch others.
  • Magic is a form of energy, and is subject to magical laws of thermodynamics.
  • Magic can be seen, tasted, felt, heard and even smelled.  A magical “sense” also exists, functioning as a gauge and locator.

Example Game Idea:  Music Mage

You play as a Muse, a Music Mage trained in the ways of summoning, channeling and conducting.  You use music to control your minions. Changing the music changes their behavior. Perhaps dissonant music is destructive, and harmonious music is healing.  Tempo and volume control other aspects of behavior, and conducting different sections of your personal orchestra have different effects.

Say, in one combat, if the orchestra is harmonious and the woodwinds are strongest, a healing wind helps you and your neighbors in an Area of Effect heal spell… but as the woodwinds tire out, you let their volume drop and make the brass section suddenly dissonant.  Nearby foes are consequently blasted with summoned shrapnel.  Most fall to the assault, but a few runners threaten to call down reinforcements.  You quickly get the percussion ramped up to give yourself a speed boost, and shift the dissonance to the strings section for some shrill ranged attacks to take down the runners.  Alternating between minor and major keys shifts your defense/offense balance, not unlike balancing speed, weapons and shields in an X-Wing from a central power pool.

Maybe altering the composition of your orchestra sections shifts elemental properties (more cellos, fewer violins means a slight Water edge to string attacks).  Altering the balance of your orchestra (more woodwinds, less percussion) effectively shifts your combat focus.  Enemy status attacks can alter this on the fly by targeting sections of your orchestra; you can be hamstrung by losing a few percussionists to a targeted sleep spell, for example.

To be sure, much of this particular design is just the Same Old stuff in a new cloak, what with elemental properties, ranged vs. melee combat and so on, just wielding a conductor’s baton, but it could prove interesting and even educational.  It doesn’t all need to be about combat either, since environmental puzzles can be built around using music the right way.  It’s almost like Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, where the titular Ocarina had magical effects… but in this case, you’re riffing on the magic musical spells as you go, weaving in new effects by changing the music.  These changes can be subtle or gross, and need not even affect other effects.  The strings can keep up a ranged barrage even as you use the brass and woodwinds to do different things.

Further, you can use music in different ways to deal with environmental or social puzzles.  A soothing melody might make diplomacy easier (or a looming dissonant theme might make an ally more threatening to bluff through a situation), and a turbulent woodwind blast might clear a path through the brush.

OK, so that’s one game idea.  How about another?

Example Game Idea 2:  Master of the Magical Gathering

Will it blend?  Master of Magic and Magic the Gathering?  More specifically, what would MoM look like if your wizard were more Mark Rosewater (MTG’s lead designer, a guy with a LOT of great articles to share on game design and design in general, including this one that touches on the role of an artist), less Civ disembodied mayor?

Mr. Rosewater has made mention before of the various “knobs” that they have to tune their card designs.  Mana cost and color are perhaps the biggest ones, but there are a whole host of mechanics and effects that get used on cards.  Even the notion of card speed is a key knob to turn when considering combat resolution and priority on effect resolution.  If those knobs were put in the hands of the player in a magical 4X game, where magic spells can be crafted and tuned based on a logical underpinning of constraints and components, you might see something a bit more creative than MOM, though with similar ends.

For example, a 2 mana spell using 1 Life mana, 1 Ether mana might create a Fate Runner if it’s a creature spell, but if it becomes a construction spell, it might be something like a Divine Presence enchantment, making local churches more effective.  Same ingredients, different ends, all in the application.

That’s more of a prebaked recipe than creativity, though.  Imagine then, if Life mana always served to make construction quicker, healing stronger, and creatures better defended.  Tossing a spare Life mana into a particular spell you’re casting might not unlock a wholly new preconceived recipe, but it will have an effect on whatever it is you’re doing.  It might enhance your efforts, or subtly shift them.  Say, a Life mana rider on a Water/Fire creature summon; the creature doesn’t change its core form, but will be different from other creatures of the same species, say with a bolstered Faith attribute or better inherent leadership.  A summoned creature with a Death mana rider might be more menacing, since it inherits a mild Fear aura.

Maybe location matters, too, and spells cast near a mana node are inherently more powerful, or perhaps they are more unstable (or both) due to some resonating interference in the magical leylines or some such.  Perhaps sympathetic mana is enhanced by local leylines, and conflicting mana is diminished.

Further, if you can use that magic in various ways, say by molding the landscape and even interpersonal charm spells and such for the diplomacy segment, you step a little bit out of the “magic is for combat” mindset.  If there are alternate win conditions, even constructive ones, magic might be used to bolster the methods to reach those ends.  Imagine a mage who spent his time and research on new ways to build efficiently, and keep his people happy, earning a civil victory or some such, all the while befuddling or charming the socks off his neighbors (something MoM allowed, but the tools for that path were pretty limited).  Magic could be bent to serve many different ends if it were sufficiently flexible.

Of course, devs might have to provide a set of “baseline” spells for players to use if they aren’t inclined to be creative.  They would function like the various Mech chassis designs in BattleTech, letting players jump into the action… but rewarding those intrepid game explorers who min/max the living daylights out of complex systems.  It does seem that 4X games tend to attract some of that sort of player, and complexity is more of a feature, less of a roadblock.

Interestingly, magic that is built from ingredients rather than recipes need not always behave predictably.  Cooking in the real world sometimes produces unintended effects as ingredients intermingle in weird ways.  Timing can also be an issue.  Throw that Fire magic in early and the artifact sword infilcts a damage over time “slow burn”, but throw it in late in the forging and the sword carries a flame aura that chars (debuff) or flat out disintegrates targets.

It’s also worth noting that at some point, sure, you’re dealing with database management and the finite world of game development.  Also, sufficiently dedicated players will datamine everything and post it in a FAQ.  That said, in the meantime, players who want to experiment on their own will have tools to do so, and I want to encourage and reward that sort of experimentation.

At any rate, that’s just a pair off the top of my head, more brainstorming than polishing off a real proposal.  There are certainly other directions to run with this.

One key might be to balance complexity with playability.  It’s also important to avoid feature creep, with too much going on to be fun.  Still, BattleTech, MoM, MtG and other games show that complexity isn’t antithetical to good design.  Certainly, it has to make sense and serve the goals of the game, and the game should be playable without being a rocket scientist, but it really is nice to reward those players who want to dig a bit more into game systems.

Where would you take this and run with it?  Is it possible to let players be chefs, playing in a magical kitchen to make crazy Rube Goldberg fun?  Is it worth trying to develop that flexibilty when the mass market just wants WoW and God of War clones?  I’m very curious to see what Elemental winds up doing, as a spiritual successor to MoM.

Magic really could be more… magical, and I think that a deeper, more flexible, more creative magic system might be an avenue worth exploring.

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This is just a quick observation I noted whilst engaging in a little navel gazing as I thought further on the implications of WoW as an offline RPG, and how that has intersected with my recent play of Final Fantasy XII and Blue Dragon.

I find that I spend a good third or so of my time in WoW just looking around and taking screenshots.  Maybe it’s because it’s still pretty new to me (I’ve not played it much because of the subscription model), maybe it’s because I love photography, maybe it’s because I like making desktop images, maybe it’s because I like to show my family cool stuff they might have missed when I played as the kids sleep, maybe it’s because I take pictures to look at for later dissection as a game artist or inspiration for sketching.  Maybe I’m just weird.

Whatever the case, I have a lot of control over the camera in WoW compared to the typical console RPG.  And then there’s that magnificent little button in the upper right of the keyboard:

Print Screen

I love that button.  I spend more time playing PC games rather than console RPGs simply because I can’t take screenshots on the console.  In WoW (and DDO and Allods and LOTRO and W101 and Puzzle Pirates and RoM and…) I can take screenshots of the game to my heart’s content… and my hard drive’s limit.  I have literally thousands of screenshots across a handful of games.  I do still have more pictures of “real life”, thanks to my handy dandy digital camera, but still, I take a LOT of pictures of things around me.  Observation runs deep in my artistic and scientific blood.

I can’t do that with console RPGs… and honestly, it makes me a bit sad.  You can’t take it with you, but sometimes, memories can be cemented a bit better if you have a picture to look at for more than the fleeting second that the event is “live”.  This can be especially important in something like WoW, and my most recent “thirty days free with the box purchase” that I played through as the dauntless Tauren Druid Padgi.  I can’t go back into the game until I pay for it again (pfft), so I took a lot of screenshots while I had access.  As cool as the mapviewer is, you just have to get some things from the real game client.

Since I don’t have perpetual access to that, screenshots help satisfy any curiosity I may have about how Blizzard crafted the game.  I can’t just fire up the game and look around any more, but I can look at my screenshots.  (And yes, it’s probably ironic that I don’t do much with graphics around here.  I keep meaning to change that with some art tutorials, at least… and y’know, slide shows of “my vacation in Azeroth” never seem to be all that popular.)

I can live with the pictures when the game itself is off limits.  After all, I’m getting about a third of my usual WoW alt experience that way for a tiny fraction of the price.  Value is in the eye of the beholder after all.

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A further thought or three on server segregation and walled communities:

Why not offer legitimate private servers?

Also, tangentially, last time, Dblade noted (rightly, I think) that Role Playing servers are particularly susceptible to an influx of unwashed heathens.  Would those who are really concerned about their little corner of the RP world be happier if they could just keep everyone out who didn’t have a club card?  I mean, there are weirdos all over the place in these MMO things, you can never count on those other people doing things the right way.  (Syp had me at “Sliders”.  I loved that show’s early seasons…)

Of course, I must point out that with private servers, the sub model makes less sense once again.  One may as well play with some mates over a LAN or just use someone’s spare desktop as a server.  I’m sure many of those people already do so.

Would there be a market for legitimizing that segment of the player base?  Or maybe, just maybe… sell the game like Guild Wars and let people play locally with friends (even solo… gasp!) without an internet tether to the mothership?  Blizzard already subcontracts players as torrent bots for their download service, why not subcontract servers?

Sure, there will be layers of verification if someone plays “off the grid” and then wants to jack back into the matrix, but they could either just say “once on a private server, you stay there” or set up verification code in the private server sale package.  (I know, I know, that’s not a trivial problem to solve… but hey, if you’re charging for the privilege of playing privately, there’s some money in the offering to pay for solving it, methinketh.  I know we’ve blown the whole “cost-value” thing out of the water in MMOs, but still, using money to make the product itself better has a bit of history in commercial ventures.)

It is impractical, perhaps, for LOTRO or WoW to change that significantly… but might we see something like that in a future MMO?  Really, if players are going to complain about those other players, the much-ballyhooed M for Massive in the acronym is already more like MIWFYQ rather than any sort of truly open, massively accessible world.  (Maybe If We Feel You Qualify)

Maybe it should be My Multiplayer Online game.

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Scope is a tricky thing in game design.

When I design a game, I want it long and deep enough to be interesting, but not so long and deep that it tires players.  I want it accessible, but not infantile.  I want it to be easy to learn and fun to play on a superficial level and/or by inexperienced players, but have enough complexity and intricacy that mastering it takes effort and feels rewarding.  I want enough features to justify making the game in the first place, rather than a tech demo.  I want to explore the implications of design choices without making busywork for the players.  There is a sweet spot to hit where I have enough in the game to satisfy those admittedly vague goals, and doing too little or too much design detracts from the play experience.

Might I recommend a few references on the subject?

“Good design is as little design as possible.”

I cannot recommend Mr. Rosewater’s articles enough.  His archive is a treasure trove of game design considerations.  Yes, he writes about designing a card game, but as he asserts in the Top Ten Principles articles, Good Design is Good Design, and some principles are universal across mediums.  I agree, and it’s nice to see someone articulate it as well as Mr. Rosewater does, and as well as Mr. Rams does.

This is why, here at my workplace in a small game dev studio, we occasionally have game nights, where we play board or card games.  Understanding why offline games work (with a side order of game theory, explicit or not) is valuable information when we get around to designing our video games.  We have to understand the tools of our trade, and how design works.

One of the hardest things to learn is restraint.  If I may, since art is the medium I’m most familiar with, a few thoughts on this notion as it’s found in the art world:

Art design ranges from minimalist to overwrought hyperdetail.  Brushwork might be exceedingly sparse in some of these lovely Chinese bamboo paintings…

…which contrasts starkly with the laborious process that produced something like this.

…which is itself dwarfed by some of the more elaborate hyperrealist paintings.

(Never mind that once you get to that level, we’re talking about a bizarre devotion to the craft of “doing it because I can” instead of just taking a photograph.  It’s sort of like the artist equivalent of a No Sphere Grid Final Fantasy X game, or climbing Mount Everest carrying a grumpy rabid wombat in your pocket.)

Each can work nicely as a piece of Art, but they tend to evoke different responses.  Some of that is strongly based in how much of the experience is left to the consumer, something that game designers should be intimately familiar with, seeing as how our medium is interactive by nature.  (Which doesn’t invalidate it as an art medium, by the way.)

There comes a point in art where enough really is enough.  One more brushstroke, one more visual element, and the composition changes, especially when working in sparse formats like the bamboo paintings.  Sometimes that change is for the better, taking the piece in new directions, but many times, going just a wee bit too far makes the piece weaker.  Sometimes it can even totally break the mood and aim of the piece.  I’ve tossed away many of my sketches that I overworked.

This is part of why I enjoy sketching with ballpoint pens, and why I encourage other artists to do so as well.  When you have to account for every move you make, as there is no erasing, you learn to carefully gauge what you do, and either make the right choice the first time, or learn to roll with mistakes and incorporate them into your work.  These are valuable tools in an artist’s toolbox.

You could also work digitally, and use the almighty Undo command and History panel, and work with layers, which give you incredible control over your artworks if used properly.  Many artists wind up working both digitally and traditionally, since both offer distinct advantages.  I often sketch in pen, then scan it into the computer for the coloring with Painter or Photoshop.

Back to games, then, I’ve often seen Portal lauded as being a great game, even as it’s noted as being a short game.  It’s just long enough to give players the chance to experiment with the implications of Portal mechanics and the various puzzle elements, and it’s not padded out with excessive repetition for the sake of making the game seem somehow meatier via time sinks (which are really just bloated fat, not real gaming meat).  It hits a sweet spot of playability and proper exploration of game mechanics.  It’s flat out, concentrated fun, even though it’s not a mega-epic sixty hour post-apocalyptic snark opera.

On the other hand, we have Final Fantasy XIII, known for its somewhat extensive tutorial.  To be fair, they are different games with different ends, but the time spent differs by an order of magnitude.  A significant difference like that needs to be something done by design and for a good reason, not just to pad out playtime.  Whether FFXIII succeeds in that regard is arguable, but the argument is more vociferous than a similar argument about Portal’s scope and focus.

Portal tends to leave players itching for more, while FFXIII has some players crying to just get on with the game!  MMOs can be even worse.

Oh, and scope might be one reason why we don’t have a Magic the Gathering MMO, while we’re talking MTG, MMOs and game design.  The game is intricately and beautifully designed as it is, and trying to shoehorn that into an MMO makes for uncomfortable compromises.  It’s possible to bend the MTG themes, lore and other assorted IP into an MMO, perhaps, and such crossgenre game design is possible… but doing so would mean effectively building a totally different game from the ground up, just with an existing IP.  That doesn’t always work out.  It means a different scope, a different focus, and ultimately, a different feel because it really is a different game.  That can alienate fans of the existing lore, even as the existing lore already limits the audience if there are strong feelings about it among gamers or nongamers the product is trying to entice.

It might also be worth noting that stories are easier to tell when the storytelling format is a bit more focused than a series of grinds with cutscenes in between.  At least, if story is important.  It’s also worth noting that stories can have a fair amount of cruft and bloat in them as well, and one of the hardest parts of learning to write well is learning when to shut up, similar to how the best skill conversationalists learn is how to listen.

It’s a lesson I’m still learning, obviously, in writing and game design… but it’s one worth learning.

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How to Durid with a Stick

I want my Tauren Druid to do this while tanking.

I never thought they would take my old suggestion even remotely seriously… but this has potential.

Well, either that, or now the wildlife is even more dangerous.  Either way, fun for Wednesday!

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What with all the fuss over LOTRO’s impending renaissance (or doom, depending on your crystal ball), I’ve been idly wondering what server segregation might do to assuage the fears of the fans of gated communities (M.o.B. is asking for some civility there; he’s not one of the snoots).  <snooty>One must keep the heathens out, after all; imagine what it might be like if they outnumbered the veteran “real players”.  They don’t even play the right way.  Maybe we should just autodelete all the noobs every week.  At the very least, we should tell them to go home.</snooty>

Puzzle Pirates has separate “subscription” and “microtransaction” servers, for instance, and it seems to serve them well enough.  Each server has its own community, politics and economy, though there is certainly cross-pollination on the master forums and players who play on multiple servers.  Incidentally, the microtransaction servers have been most profitable for Three Rings, though they happily maintain both flavors.  Players play on servers that match their finances; happy customers are a valuable asset.  Even if they aren’t subscribers.

On another hand, you could go with a “scarlet letter” approach, as I noted over at KTR, if you’re working with an integrated community, and make it visible to one and all how players are paying for their gaming.  Maybe that would make the Old Guard feel better, as they get their warm fuzzies by denigrating the little people.  <snooty>Sit in the back of the boat, you, you… casuals and tourists!  Respect my subscription-granted Authority!</snooty> I mean, we already have GearScore and Achievement segregation in WoW and other pecking order mechanics in other MMOs (“I can’t believe she’s wearing that gear, what a noob”), what’s the difference, right?

It really is interesting how these MMO things tinker with sociality.

Some also bemoan the rise of soloability, occasionally with similar utopian fervor.  In my mind, though, the continuing democratization of the business models and game designs of these MMOs is a Good Thing.  That’s how the free market works, ideally; innovation and experimentation provide for variety, and the most profitable ideas rise to the top.  Sometimes, they even prove to be the best ideas, too.  We’re not quite a meritocracy, but a varied market does tend to work better than One Size Fits All economic theory… ditto for game design.  I mean, Turbine couldn’t possibly be paying attention to the industry, could they?

But hey, it’s a free world, right?  If people want gated communities, they should be free to pay for them, right? Let the market decide, perhaps.  There’s money to be made making people feel special… especially if those people will pay handsomely (through the nose) for prestige (For the Horde!).  Conspicuous consumption, indeed; <snooty>what good are expensive toys if you can’t show them off and make other people feel inferior?  What good is it to be a member of the subscription elite if you can’t lord it over the inbred masses of free to play tourists?

Why play with other people if you can’t be better than them?  Even segregation only matters inasmuch as players know that there are other places they could be, but they don’t qualify because they aren’t as good as someone else because of how they pay for the game.</snooty>

Pfeh.  Lovely post-prejudice society we live in, eh?  It’s very interesting to see long-held but long-repressed opinions come out of the woodwork.  Funny how time and stress do that to people; candid opinions are far more informative than processed ones.  It’s especially curious to me that the prejudicial cancer of the LOTRO community is based on things that haven’t even happened yet.  As such, the real problem for the community isn’t really an undefined nonpresent boogeyman, but the attitudes already held by those already in the community.

It almost makes me wonder what the response would be to a zombie apocalypse.  Sometimes, it’s the survivors that are the monsters

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I’ve played Puzzle Pirates for a couple of years now, and I’ve played Wizard101 since the open beta, though I’ll play both in fits and spurts.  Both have puzzle minigames, and both are a ton of fun.   There is one niggling little thing about W101 that bothers me, though.  At least one of the minigames is machine solvable.  (Yes, Tipa complained about busted minigames ages ago, and I actually started this article around then, but I’m just now polishing it off… since I forgot about it.)

The games in question are Diego’s Duel and Potion Motion.  The part that made me think this are the score tables with obscenely high scores and even duplicate scores (see Tipa’s screenshot for Diego scores), as well as the perfect predictability of upcoming events.

As a Puzzle Pirate veteran (and one-time Tetris addict, and everything in between), I’m pretty good and fairly experienced with puzzle games.  I had the second highest score for the Sorcery Stones W101 minigame for a while a month or two after release. This isn’t just sour grapes on my part, this is something that looks and feels like someone manipulating the game.

I also had the #5 score in Potion Motion until someone consistently filled the high scores with the exact same score of 12345.  (Which has since been surpassed, of course, but I doubt those are legitimate either.)  That was a very high score for the time, and I soon thereafter hit just over 10000, so I know that it’s possible to be legitimate, but to score exactly the same score seven times in a row, at the top of the charts, and with no clear outliers like a 12300 or 12450 just screams “hack” to me. (Oh, looky there, one of the hacks is documented.)

It’s been noted more than once that with online games, the client is “in the hands of the enemy”, who often can and will abuse it.  Cheating in offline games doesn’t usually affect other players, but cheating online is a problem if competition is important.  Thankfully, competition in W101 minigames is just for high scores (which do little), but they do act as currency and item fountains, which has effects on the interplayer economy.

W101’s minigames also differ from PP games in that at least some W101 minigames (Potion Motion and Diego’s Duel) are completely predictable.  New pieces in Potion Motion always come in in the same order, so it’s possible to learn the pattern and set up obscene combos and optimized move routines.  (At least, they used to be… I’ve not tried it in months, so please forgive me if this has since been changed.)

Sometimes, predictability is a good thing, as in Diego’s Duel, effectively a pattern recognition almost-platformer.  NES players wouldn’t have ever finished Ninja Gaiden if it were random.  Though notably, it’s possible to design a machine that plays Mario perfectly… the skill isn’t in learning to master a dynamic system and make good split second tactical decisions, it’s in memorizing the timing and patterns, then executing perfectly.  Potion Motion, on the other hand, would benefit greatly from randomized piece generation.

Puzzle Pirate devs go to great lengths to design their minigames to avoid machine solvability.  They are built on random piece generation and player choices, meant to maximize benefit within the constraints of an unpredictable system.  Game pieces behave predictably, and the game mechanics themselves don’t change, but the pieces of the playing board change.  Without foreknowledge of the pieces to come, the games are not machine solvable.

Of course, the puzzle minigames in PP are the backbone of the game, where in W101 they are little more than a diversion and health/mana refill. It’s understandable that their respective devs would have different priorities.

Still, if you’re designing a game in video format, and multiplayer competition is relevant to what you’re doing, it’s a good idea to avoid machine solvability. Someone will abuse it, and blow up the scoring curve.  Random puzzle piece generation can be a pain sometimes if the game board is prone to locked positions (sanity checks help, but those can be expensive), but even that can be dodged with savvy design.

In other words, it’s good to give players choices.  If their choices degenerate to locked boards with no moves, or One True Path that was devised by a computer (and executed best by one), you’ve destroyed player choice.  Client hackery is one (bad) thing, but a game designed in such a way that machines can find the best way to play them in the first place isn’t much better.

Yes, players will always seek to optimize their play (like an optimal build and damage rotation in WoW, something that Elitist Jerks are dedicated to), but it’s not ideal to make it easy for the cheaters to ply their trade.

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I’m sure that the Turbine announcement of LOTRO’s impending Free to Play mode will generate a fair dose of trolling out there over the weekend (“oh, noez, the game is dying!” or “yayz, the game is dying!” or “we’re going to be overrun by MMO tourist trolls!”), but I’m going to echo Ravious on this one and be optimistic overall.  I think it’s probably a wise move for the longevity of the game in a shifting market.  That said, I’m still not sure when or even if I’ll be revisiting the game.

I don’t quite have the humorously adversarial relationship with the game that Shamus does, but LOTRO and I, well, we have history.  Y’see, it’s the only video game that has the distinction of traumatizing my daughter.  The cave troll that busts out of the wall in the Dwarf starting story had her convinced that a monster would break through her bedroom wall.  Dumb daddy (me) lets her sit on my lap sometimes as I play games, but that wasn’t the… wisest time to let her in on the LoTR IP.  She and I slept on the couches in the front room for three weeks until I convinced her that the Dwarves had moved into our neighboring mountains and had made the trolls go away.

I love kid logic.

Anyway, LOTRO isn’t a bad game, but neither is it really the MMO that I’m looking for, or the LoTR game that I’d most like to spend time with.  (That honor goes to this title that I’ve had on my shelf for years… yeah, high priority.)  Sure, I’d like to spend some quality gaming time in Middle Earth, it’s just that I can’t do that in DIKUMMO games since I have to spend too much time grinding before I can just look around without fear of being torn asunder by grumpy trolls, dire pigs, giant spiders… or whatever.

Still, it’s more tempting now than before, and they have a better chance of earning money from me like DDO did.  I’ll chalk that up as a win for the LOTRO guys, and I wish them well.

Anyone calling the date for when WoW finally does the same thing?  All I see in my crystal ball is Bobby Kotick, and I’ve seen my share of trolls for the day.

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Hattip to Larisa for this one.

Avatar Days is an interesting short film about a few WoW players.  It was made in four days.  I really have to applaud what these guys have put together.  I’ve worked on short films (albeit completely digital), and it really does take a fair chunk of work.  There’s nothing earthbreaking here, but it’s a fun spin on the documentary format, and a nice look at some relatively sane WoW players.

Well done, gentlemen!

I can’t help but wonder what a longer piece of work might look like, with less polygonal models and tighter animation matching.  Pity that the Tauren Druid (yay!) didn’t shapeshift.

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