Archive for July, 2010

Financial Times, of all places, has a great article up on “German” board games:

Why We Still Love Board Games

Here’s the money quote for me, from Klaus Teuber, quiet genius behind The Settlers of Catan:

It is a part of mankind to play games. We played in the Stone Age. We played in Roman times. It’s an escape from the everyday grind. Every day we work hard and we make mistakes and we are punished for those mistakes. Games take us to another role where you can make mistakes and you don’t get punished for them. You can always start another game.

Games are experiments, ways to tinker and noodle around with thoughts and actions, all in a place where risk is minimized.  That’s part of why I keep working on game designs; I think they serve a purpose that other entertainment and education forms don’t.  Play, after all, is healthy.

And you can always start another game.

It really is OK to put down that MMO treadmill and try something new (though Altitis can be a good middle ground, leading to new experiences as BBB notes).  Sometimes, I really do think we lose some of the joy and promise of games by insisting on perpetual progress and persistence, constantly comparing ourselves to others and their achievements in an effort to validate our time spent, rather than just… playing.

Bonus reading:

Greg Kasavin’s classic review of Chess

Above 49’s Of Mice and Dice, more on “German-style” board games.

The Escapist:  Digital Cardboard and Electric Dice, and a good quote…

In my games, I’m always looking for a very simple set of mechanics or rules that lead to these complex situations,” says Creative Director Jay Kyburz. “I enjoy games where everybody understands how the game works, and has a simple set of decisions to make, but find themselves with lots of interesting problems to solve because of how the players are interacting within that simple rule system.


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The Escapist has a good article up on Foozles; those Big Bad end bosses in the majority of RPGs.  Certainly, there is a place for a Big Bad villain to serve as a strong antagonist in a narrative, but what can you do without one?

I’ve been writing an “alternate history” sort of book/series for a while now, sort of a mix of Steampunk ethos and Dinotopia with a fair dose of Norse-inspired whimsy.  It’s not in any sort of publishable form as yet, but as I’ve been crafting the world and its history, I just haven’t been able to find a good place for a singular Big Bad.  The scope of what I’m angling for is more political and sweeping than would be served justice by a single criminal mastermind.  (It’s worth noting that Dinotopia is the single strongest influence in this project, and that excellent book is most about exploring an amazing world, not a Heroic Journey needing resolution.)

One alternate that I’ve toyed with is the sort of thing that Kirk dealt with in The Doomsday Machine; a totally nonsentient relic of a forgotten war.  Of course, it would serve as a singular menace akin to a Big Bad, but it also has elements of a force of nature, in that it simply functions; there is no malicious deviant at the helm.  Even so, that just isn’t terribly satisfying to me, and if I go that route, it’s going to be a wheel within a wheel.  The notion of a singular Big Bad just seems too… simple to me.  Too… neat of a solution to a world where factions and contentions aren’t merely black and white.

That doesn’t mean that it’s bad to have a clear singular enemy.  Darth Vader has his fans, and in some ways, he really makes the movies.  Simplicity isn’t a bad thing either, especially in a relatively straightforward morality tale.

So, singular iconic villains aren’t a sign of incompetence… they just aren’t the only way to create conflicts for heroes to overcome.  In a lot of ways, heroes are made by a lot of little choices, not by the singular defeat of a true monster.  Sometimes it’s the quiet moments that are the most important; the choices that don’t save the world, but define a soul.

The Escapist article floated the notion that games have indulged in Foozle hunting for a long time, and may yet for a long time.  Perhaps games are too simple a storytelling medium to do much else… or perhaps our writers (and players) are too immature.  Maybe the mainstream of games will always be a Foozle hunt (whether in the Big Bad mold or the “kill ten foozles” mole)… but I believe there’s a place for something a bit more subtle.

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What exactly is a “Ranger”, anyway?  One who ranges?  One with a home on the range?  One who rang?

Whatever the case, I’m really looking forward to playing a Ranger in Guild Wars 2.

Is it bad form to want to name my bearLittle John“?  R.I.P.,  Phil Harris.

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Cipher Prime is currently having a “moving sale” for their company.  I’ve been waiting for just this sort of thing ever since Fractal was released.

So, until July 30th, you can get Fractal and/or Auditorium for $5 each.  These are great games, well worth the cost.  I’m stingy, so I’ve been waiting for a sale, but these have been at the top of my “pull the trigger and buy” list.

Really, just go play their demos (right on the web, no download) and see what they are.  Auditorium especially really needs to be experienced, and Fractal is a rock-solid bit of fun hex-based puzzling.  I was sold on the demos… but now that I’ve played the “full” game for each (at least, in breadth, if not depth), I’d recommend them even higher.  The demos are good fun, but the full games are fantastic.

Disclosure:  I have no material connection to these guys and receive no benefits from promoting these games.  I just think they are great games, totally worth playing and buying.  If nothing else, go check them out, and if you like ’em, spread the word!  That’s part of how the indie game development world works; we can’t rely on publishers to make or break our games.

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It’s a perpetual dance in game design.  Give the players freedom to go do crazy things, or put them on rails so they don’t break your game (or play it the “wrong” way)?  It’s a fine line that “live” games (MMOs, MTG, Warhammer, even) are especially wary of, since they are constantly on the edge between broken and brilliant… especially since that line is different for different players.

So, while the RealID kerfluffle is also stirring troubled waters between freedom and control, the game design of WoW is also testing the waters in the “control” side of the (kiddie?) pool.  I fall squarely on the side of freedom, exploration and experimentation in games.  To me, that’s the point of playing a game; to try something I can’t do in real life, and tinker in new and unusual ways.  That’s my “theory of fun“; messing around, looking around, taking control as a player and seeing what happens.  That’s why my articles on game design are more about giving the player control, not controlling the player.  (It’s also why I consider failure itself punishment enough, and don’t particularly care for “death penalties” and other punishment mechanics.  Just let me play the game, already!)

So, Blizzard wants to take the reins and make class talent trees more like immutable pillars or mini-classes, less like… guidelines.  The goal seems to be to make the newbie experience better, and give class trees their own (dev-defined) identity and playstyle earlier in the leveling curve.

OK, the goal of improving the leveling game and newbie experience sounds good to me so far, and entirely in-theme for the renovated world we’re getting in Cataclysm.  The newbie experience is crucial to getting the game to “stick”, and letting players have a taste of what they can do later is a great idea.  (It’s played differently in things like Metroid Prime… which I’d actually prefer, but that’s not terribly likely here.  Pity.)  The sooner a Warrior can feel like a Warrior, or a Hunter can feel like a Hunter, the better (which is why pets at character creation is a Good Idea, while we’re talking class identity).  It might even make grouping pre-endgame better, as players learn their roles earlier… if you care about that sort of thing.

Thing is, I’d have done it by making the trees more synergistic, rather than locking players into one progression path.  (The very least that I’d do is make respeccing free and easy like Guild Wars, if we’re going to be stuck maxxing a tree before experimenting, and make Dual Spec very cheap and offer it early, say level 20 at the latest.)  Rather than lock players into a choice of one of thirty subclasses and telling them to get used to it, I’d give them more choices and make them all interesting and useful, letting player playstyle dictate direction.  I know, I know, that’s more work, but hey, it’s not like Blizzard’s a charity, hm?  That sort of experimental playstyle also pretty much requires frequent respecs.

I like that a leveling Warrior can pick up a few Arms talents and a few Fury talents and go to town.  As time goes on, generalization tends to be less powerful than specialization, but more flexible.  I love that balance, and much prefer the option to sacrifice some power for flexibility.  That’s why I play a Druid.  (Insert rant about how hybrids are as good as two or three “pure” classes all rolled into one, if you so desire; I think there’s a good argument to be made for making “pure” classes undeniably best at what they do, while still keeping hybrids viable.  I know, I know, in a world where 3% improved crit rate is worth investing three talent points, even a hybrid at 95% potential is going to feel like it’s nerfed… that’s one of the problems with only having three combat roles and 10 classes…)

So yeah, I’m a bit ambivalent about this talent tree overhaul.  All in all, I can’t really find much but personal preference to base complaints in, and I do strongly believe that options are the heart of games.  I don’t like the straitjacketing that the changes represent because I tend to explore and tinker rather than just go with the flow, and yet… the streamlining is probably a Good Thing overall, since it may well make learning the trinity easier earlier, and learning your class more entertaining (rather than only coming to fruition at the endgame).

As long as WoW is stuck in that class-trinity rut, they may as well teach it well.

For now, I’m going to say:

“OK, Blizzard, I detest your business practices with the deepest, hottest fire of a grumpy dragon, and this Game Design thing you do, well, I think it needs work, too, but since you’re dedicated to a path I’d not choose, you may as well do it right, and this change, well… that’ll do.”

…and yes, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the game design and the business design.  They do affect each other in unhealthy ways, but credit where credit is due, after all.  The WoW devs do have a few good ideas here and there.  I do not agree with their apparent core philosophy of control over freedom, but they are at least making a few good changes to make their game better… even if I’d have made a very different game.

It’s like the Cataclysm on the whole; I think it’s a good idea (and I called for “old world” renovation a year before they announced it), but I’d have made the game world more dynamic from the start.  They are doing decent design for their goals and within the box they put themselves in.  Perhaps that’s a bit of “condemning with praise”, but so be it.  I do think they do good game design, but it’s increasingly a game that I don’t particularly like.

A few other thoughts from bloggers with a bit more… class:  BBB, Larisa, SpinksChastity, PvD, Copra

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One of the tangential thoughts I’ve seen a few times about this RealID thing is that people with unique names will be easier to stalk.  Even though it’s not all that hard to track [RandomDude719], unique names make the heavy lifting easier.

So, I wandered over to HowManyofMe.com to see just how unique I am.  Y’know, just in case.   The Twitter, XBox Live and WordPress accounts may not cement my fame.

…or maybe I’m just looking for validation.  Anyway…

Turns out I’m the only one of me.  309,633,291 people in the U.S. according to the site, and I’m the only one with my first and last name.  In either order.

I’m a pretty, pretty snowflake.

Tish Tosh Tesh Flake

Too bad I’m already famous.  Otherwise, I might be concerned.

OK, OK, Ysh, here’s the nondoily version:

Tish Tosh Tesh Nondoily Flake

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So… kiss and make up, or is the honeymoon over?

I’m no psychologist, but I can’t help but wonder how this might parallel an abusive relationship.

Party A:  *pulls stupid stunt*

Party B:  Forget it, we’re through!

Party A:  I’m so sowwy, I didn’t mean it!

Party B:  OK, you’re so hot I can overlook the stupid crap you pull time and again, here’s my credit card, let’s go party!

Repeat as necessary.

When do the blinders come off, or do inertia and sex appeal perpetuate the cycle?


Hattip to Sev over at Ysharros’ place

Oh, and I love the escape clause:  “at this time”

Party A:  Don’t worry baby, it won’t happen again

OK, OK, silver lining, they are responsive to complaints.  Granted.

That said, may I take a moment and remind people that this was still a stupid jerk move in the first place, and recanting after people get pissed doesn’t tell us that they have changed, or that they are sorry, just that they dance well.  They never should have done this in the first place, and their claim that they have been thinking about this for a long time should tell us that they are still either incompetent or arrogant.  That doesn’t change with a slap on the proverbial wrist.  They aren’t sorry that they tried this, they are sorry they got called on it and that their revenue was threatened.  There’s a world of difference.

Oh, and this was a textbook example of goodwill withdrawal.  They might yet staunch the blood flow, but the point remains that this was a totally unnecessary and avoidable self-inflicted wound.

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…have good reason to outweigh the needs of the many, Spock’s heroic sacrifice notwithstanding.

Y’see, as Uhura rightly points out in Of Gods and Men, the balance between the needs of the many and the needs of the few and how it guides choices hinges on who makes the choices.  It’s the difference between communism and community, between fascism and freedom.

When the individual chooses to sacrifice for the many, it’s noble and heroic.  When the group sacrifices for an individual, it’s heartwarming and constructive.

When the group tells the individual to sacrifice for the sake of the collective, it’s a short hop to Big Brother Statism and all of its ills.  When the individual demands the group sacrifice for them, special interests can control society over the voice of a silent majority.

…and yes, I just used Star Trek and a fan film as a springboard to obliquely refer to a game company’s statist behavior and warn against fascism clothed in feel-good stated intentions.  Yes, I think that Blizzard using RealID as some sort of “the community needs to be a better place” excuse, while stripping away the defenses of people who would rather be anonymous for non-trolling reasons is firmly on the wrong side of the balance of this “needs” philosophy.  I won’t bother with political applications of this principle at the moment, but they exist.

While I’m at it, here’s an interesting take on how the Federation might just be a giant, scary cultish mess (the second video, unfortunately it’s a bit mouthy, but he makes some solid points).

Too much geek for one day?

Did I need to throw a KHAAAAAAN! in there?  I mean, really, fiction and games can’t possibly have anything useful to say about real life, can they?

Oh, and this sort of kerfluffle is precisely why many “pundits” such as myself write so much about the business of games in addition to the games themselves.  They inevitably affect each other, no matter how much we want to mentally isolate the game world from the real world.

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If you don’t know the reference, you can start at this link.

Quoting Dr. King, then:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

THAT is what anonymity allows in a world that still isn’t colorblind:  The ability to be judged by your actions and your speech, the content of your character, rather than what you look like, where you come from, or what your name is.  Until men and women can learn to debate the substance of ideas rather than malign the source in an effort to ignore the facts, anonymity is perhaps the only true way to get honest feedback and conversation.

That is why the internet has become one of the last great bastions of intelligent conversation, free from Big Brother media and mainstream spin.  Is it also a cesspool of idiocy?  Of course, but that’s because of idiocy itself (as Chastity notes at that link), something that some people just can’t seem to give up.

Freedom comes with the risk that someone will be an idiot.  It’s a small cost to allow people to dodge prejudice.

Blizzard’s RealID isn’t the end of the world, but neither is it wise.  It is a step away from my dream of a meritocratic community and an interesting game world.  It is yet another piece of the puzzle of the bizarre corporatocracy in our fraying country, and a look at the arrogant mindset of those who make the rules and who have the money.  The strangest part of all this isn’t that Blizzard is doing this, it’s that they honestly don’t seem to understand the implications.

Or, perhaps the scariest part is that they do understand the implications, and are simply seeking to make a buck, and think the risk is worth the reward.

I disagree, and it will be interesting to see where things go from here.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I find much to like about the Austrian school of economics.  It strikes me that anonymity is valuable for free markets to work as well.  Honest feedback is generated from simple demand and supply, where business relationships are defined by the simple feedback loop of “purchase” or “no purchase”.  Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market” is concerned most with what people do, not with what they look like.  Actions, not prejudice, seem to produce the most productive results in a positive feedback cycle.

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Alternate title:

What Value, Identity?


In simpler terms, we pay for our entertainment in one way or another.  So-called “Free to Play” games (F2P) tend to either ask for money in bite-sized chunks (microtransactions) or ask you to earn your goodies by playing for a longer time than other players (paying with time), or maybe even “offer wall” points from a third party or some such gibberish.  Some games ask for both money and time.  A rarer game might try to be advertisement-based, running with a network TV/Google approach to monetization; get the eyeballs in and inundate them with advertising spam.

Perhaps now we get to see another way to pay for our MMO crack, er, service:  with your identity.

Apparently, identity theft is a pretty big industry, er, crime.  There is even a counterindustry built around protection rackets, er, protecting your identity, like the Lifelocks of the world and their competitors.  Your identity has value. It’s really no surprise that there would be those out there in the unsavory world of business, er, crime, that might be trying to find ways to unlock some of that value.

Welcome to a Brave New World of cataclysmic proportions, where paying for a product, er, service, isn’t merely a business transaction, it’s personal.

Next up?  DNA authenticators and paying with a pound of flesh.  (With discounts tied to the Big Brother international registry of BMI, of course.)


Acerbic slippery slope aside, I do officially register a complaint about this Bad Idea.  Hatch, Larisa, Dwism, Ixobelle (x2!), Ratshag, Klepsacovic and Spinks cover it pretty well, though.

Oh, and if we’re honestly going to talk about cleaning up the forums, might I suggest the following?

Forum Mute

Combine that with a /complain function and no nonsense moderation, and you’ll clean things up without all those nasty, tricksy unintended consequences and Facebook diseases on the way down the slippery slope.


More from Ysharros, Spinks, BBB, Copra (as cited by Longasc, he’s right that this is about building a brand and a business… the concerns of the little people aren’t relevant), KIASA, Lum, Chastity, Gnomeaggedon, Melfina (yay for a rational feminist perspective), br3ntbr0 (with a video, no less), Jason and Tobold.  This even teased Ryan Shwayder out of his slumber.

Bonus points to Stabs for finding this little gem.  Oh, and this really shouldn’t surprise anyone, either.  This is somewhat… alarming, too.

Ooh, shiny!  Channel Massive (hi, Jason!) has a nice roundup of a spectrum of responses.  As usual, I disagree with about everything Darren says (the man has no common sense), and TAGN has a good post up.

…oh, and Syp totally called it; whenever he’s away from the shop, something big happens.  It’s eerie, I tell you!

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