Archive for September, 2010

OK, OK, more game design goodness in the queue (tomorrow morning and beyond… there’s a lot of game design stuff I really want to dig into, from tabletop mini games to MMOs to Candyland), but I wanted to throw this one out there and get it out of my system.  What if a politician ran on a platform with the tenets espoused by Mr. Denninger here?

A True Path Forward?

Talk about Hope and Change.  (Anyone else find it interesting that Obama’s splash page is a commitment to vote?  OHai, Big Brother, ya man, here’s my info, rock on!)  I’m idly curious if such a platform would gain any traction in a political climate that all too often wins by promising the moon in as vague of terms as possible, with no actual intent to deliver.  Mr. Denninger’s tenets are altogether too… specific, dramatic and pragmatic.

I like that.  I also find myself oddly reminded of that Dave movie, where an accountant or some such who looks like the President finds himself doing the job.  I found it funny that he’d actually take time to work on cutting spending and balancing the budget.  What a weird notion.  I mean, austerity, pfft.

I find myself detached from any real politics these days, though.  Maybe that’s because the politicians are detached from the people?  Interesting times, these.  If I wasn’t living through them, I’d find them utterly fascinating to study.

Disclosure:  I didn’t vote for Obama… or Bush… or McCain… or Kerry.  Can’t stand either party, or most politicians in general, no matter the country or party.  At least gamers have the courtesy to keep their megalomania restrained to fictional worlds.


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While money is on the discussion floor hereabouts, I wanted to share this gem from Karl Denninger.

Avoidance Will Not Work

His site might be a bit on the gloomy side, but there are some very real problems with the economy at large.  It’s wise to pay attention to these larger issues.

And maybe get some food storage.


More data to chew on… A Warning to the Political Parties

It all boils down to math and sustainability.  It’s not even ideological or demagoguish at this point, just the cold inevitability of math.

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One of the arguments I see often in favor of the subscription model is that it’s “affordable”.  This is often paired with an argument that a movie and a dinner is more expensive, or that a $50 game has a mere six hours of gameplay, and that MMOs offer more than either of those options for a lesser price.

That may be true for some, but not as a universal constant.

The trouble is that “value” is a variable.  More than that, it’s a derived variable, a function of cost, time and personal preference.

See, I can afford 15 dollars a month for gaming on the whole.  I’m not rich by American standards (though by worldwide standards I’m most certainly above the median), but I am blessed sufficiently to make enough to take care of my family, prepare for the future and have a little left over.  Some in my position spend that money on fishing or hunting or some other hobby, some spend it on booze, I choose to spend it on games.  A bit of discretionary spending is a luxury I’m grateful for… though it might be noted that I have enough games to keep me entertained for a lifetime already, given the replayability of many games, both digital and traditional.  I need not spend more money on games, and indeed, as I spend more and more time creating games, the balance shifts further.

However, according to some loan sharks, I can also afford a new car and a $300,000 house.  Though I can afford those luxuries according to some calculations, there is little wisdom in making purchasing decisions based on what I can afford.  That’s a rather nasty trend that has had significantly negative repercussions for the national and world economy.  I prefer to look at value.

I happily pay for things I can use when I please, for as long as I please.  I’ll even pay a premium for that right.  It’s why I bought my car outright (used, of course) rather than lease.  Yes, it cost me $3200 up front, which might be a year or so worth of a lease on a comparable (if newer) vehicle, but I own that car.  I need not finance it further (other than feeding and care, of course).  I intend to drive it to the ground, and in the long run, I will get a great deal of value out of that purchase.  Even counting inevitable repairs (and ignoring feeding costs since a new or leased car would eat just as much), that car will cost me less than purchasing a new car or leasing a car for the duration of time that I’ll be using it.

…and that’s the key behind why MMO subscriptions are of very low value to me.  They are a price for access granted for a chunk of time.  I do not get many hours of MMO play in a month.  Some do, and for them, certainly, the price per unit of play approaches nicely low numbers to give a sense of value for their purchase.  For me, however, when I can spend $15 on something like Recettear that gives me easily 40 solid hours of play or more, which is naturally spread out over perhaps six months, a subscription doesn’t even come close to comparing.  World of Goo, a game I purchased on sale for $5, has given me and my family hundreds of hours of play over more than a year.

Yes, it could easily be argued that those are different games, but then I look at Guild Wars, also purchased for $5 on sale, and note that I have gotten dozens of MMO-ish gaming hours over a year, and at no further recurring cost.  In many ways, I even consider Guild Wars to be a superior game when compared to something like WoW or LOTRO.

So while I can technically afford a subscription to something like WoW, LOTRO or EVE (the three most likely games I’d sub to), such a purchase would not give me good value for my money.  Undoubtedly some do get good value out of a sub, but I do not.

I believe that the further splintering of the MMO industry into various business models is a Good Thing for the continued health of these games, as the demand curve is padded out and more customers bring in revenue that would not be captured at a single price point.  The business model inevitably affects the game, and just as item shop games have warts, sub games have warts… they are just different ones.  No game will be a perfect fit for everyone, but if the market on the whole has sufficient variety, nearly everyone can find something they like and are willing to pay for.  Smart devs will find niches that aren’t served well and make a fair living.  That’s a healthy market.  A smart game will diversify itself across that demand curve, like Puzzle Pirates or Wizard 101 do.

I think that the MMO industry cannot afford not to diversify.  We’re seeing it already.  Doubtless we’ll see more. Just as the actual game design has to keep changing, the business has to keep changing.  It has to reach out to the spectrum of valuation and affordability, rather than try to shoehorn everyone into the same mold.  Individual games would also be well served by spreading out across the demand curve.  Arguably, that’s what DDO did, and did well with, and LOTRO and EQ2X are angling for the same dynamic.

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I want to see the Cataclysm.

Yes, it’s WoW, not my favorite game, and I still detest the sub model… but I want to see what an old game world does to revitalize itself, especially since I called for a revitalization of the “old world” way back before it was announced.  I want to see whether it works out or not, especially since CAT has the potential to splinter the playerbase in new and interesting ways.  TBC and Wrath split people off into the expansions, but CAT is touching nearly everything, so I’m curious to see what it winds up doing.

Note that I’m not saying “I want to jump on the WoW bandwagon” so much as “I want to understand CAT’s ramifications and take a look around at the shiny new world”.  Because, well… those guys really do make pretty worlds.

At any rate, I find myself approaching that exploration in a way eerily similar to the way I approached BattleTech ages ago.  Y’see, back then, I read up on ‘Mech specs and all sorts of tech, then built myself the perfect ‘Mech that would allow me to tinker with as much of the game as possible.  Yes, it was a Mad Cat.  Imagine that.  I also dabbled a bit with Lance design (five-unit battle squad) so I could play around with different combat roles and see what the different weight classes had to offer in a group setting.  (Mad Cat, Firemoth, Vulture and Raven looking for Kodiak, PST…)  It was my ideal BattleTech party, an A-Team of hardened mercenaries, geared to handle any mission.  Of course, this was all on paper, since I didn’t have anyone to play with.  I was just digging into the game mechanics and exploring possibilities in my mind.  And, y’know… I liked it.

So now I find myself in a curious position of trying the same thing with WoW characters.  I’m pontificating the best race/class matrix to see as much of the game as I can.  I already have the Tauren Druid covered with Padgi (my only highish level character at 52), but who to pick for the Priest?  Who should be the Shaman?  Do I care about role-playing potential or my traditional counterculture trend of choosing the underrepresented combos?  (Dwarven Rogue?  Whee!)  How many cool sounding unique names can I come up with?  How can I see as many starting areas as possible, and tinker with as many class mechanics as possible in the one month I’ve allotted myself to play?  (And yes, it would be awesome if I could run with a self-driven posse like I can in GW, just me and my Heroes, er, Alts, under script control, prowling the world with me, myself and I.)  How can I distribute professions to make my little team as self-sufficient as possible?  How will I ever survive without Heirloom gear?  (Gasp!)

Of course it’s dorky to plan ahead that way, but when I’m not free to just go tinker in the game (thanks to the subscription model… *spit*), I tinker with possibilities beforehand so I can hit the ground running.  I’m even considering that WoWPro leveling addon (tut, tut) to maximize my ability to go places, since darn near everything is level-gated to one degree or another.  (Now, if I could have a flying mount at level 1, that would solve a LOT of problems.)

And then I stop and wonder… wait, whut?  Why?

Why should I overplot my potential experience and potentially even follow a glowing yellow arrow once I actually am playing?  I love to go off the rails, and I believe that offers the best game experience.  Sure, I’m plotting all this to facilitate exploring, but it’s like a vacation that is planned to the minute.  There’s no room for spontaneity, for discovery off the beaten track.  I always hated those sort of vacations as a kid.  If I wanted a schedule, I’d go back to school, thanks.

Answering myself, I came up with the following:  “Self, you’re plotting and planning, exploring the potential because that’s all you can do at present.  Your’e deriving fun from one of the only exploration avenues open to you without actually playing the game. You’re also trying to maximize the value you’ll get out of the limited time you know you’ll have.”

That Self, he’s a pretty hard-headed guy, but even he saw the wisdom in that supposition.  He admitted to spending more time exploring the WoW wiki than actually playing the game over the last five years.  He admitted to spending time trying to help BBB plan his latest Raid event and doing promo art for it, even though he’s not likely to actually be in-game for the thing (again, sub model *spit*… let me pony up $2 or something for the single day event and I’d do it, and maybe sneak in a bit of Gnome and Troll events).  He admitted to spending more time than is probably warranted thinking about WoW’s game design and how to make it better.

And then he reminded me that:  “If the flibberdygibbit thing didn’t have a blubberblinkin’ subscription, I’d already be playing and experimenting in-game, and this would all be academic.”

At that point, sensing something of a mildly hostile stalemate, my real life alt stepped in to remind us all that there are other games to play that don’t have subs (holding Wizard 101 up as a fine example, quietly shuffling that game’s alts to the side), and other things that really should be done before any sort of gaming in the first place.  Everyone grumbled a bit, but ultimately agreed.

And so, my alt puzzle settled… for now… I’m painting illustrations for a children’s book my mother wrote.  I’m as yet undecided whether it’s a good thing I’m using the computer to paint since it keeps the thing busy and therefore not-gaming, or whether it’s a bad thing to be using the computer since games are only an Alt-Tab away, and Recettear is on my thumb drive…

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Player control over game avatars (of whatever sort, from the Galaga ship to Sora to a WoW avatar) is part of the User Interface.  It’s not what we might typically think of when addressing UI design, but the mechanics of control are nevertheless crucial to making a game work.  The GUI (Graphical User Interface) is usually what we see and think of when talking interface, but it’s only part of that user-game interaction.  We need to be able to actually control the game with some sort of input.

One of the recurring pet peeves I have with games is where I’m expected to direct my avatar rather than drive them when the gameplay itself doesn’t work best that way.

A Kingdom for Keflings (by NinjaBee, the company I work for) brought this dichotomy into sharp focus for me.  The game was originally released on the XBox as a Live game (downloadable), but we also made a PC port for it.  The design goal for the PC port was to make it purely a mouse-driven game, and if possible, single-click.  The XBox version uses a gamepad controller, and it has a lot more buttons to work with, though much of the actual gameplay tends to use just one button.  (An “interact” button, effectively, though we also needed a “cancel” button for menus and assorted GUI.  The PC port uses the keyboard for some of those other functions.)

Making the game mouse driven means that there is no parallel to the control stick of an XBox controller.  The player avatar (a giant among Kefling villagers) simply follows the mouse cursor when prompted to (via a click or drag mouse function).  The player directs the avatar’s actions.  This is in stark contrast to the XBox version, where you drive the avatar with the controller, their motion controlled by the analog stick.  For me, it is easier  and more fun to play the XBox version because of this precision, and ultimately, it just feels better.  It’s the exact same game with the same core game mechanics, but the sort of control I get with the XBox just works better for me.  The core game is still fun, but the method of interaction on the PC isn’t something I like.

I also find that making the avatar control more abstract as it is in the PC version puts another conceptual layer between me and the player character.  The XBox version uses the Microsoft player avatars, effectively putting the player’s persona into the game.  The PC version doesn’t have that option, but even then, the pure mechanics of the controls sets the player further back into a role of a director of a giant who then directs Keflings, as opposed to the XBox role of a giant directing Keflings.  To be fair, both really are you as the player directing the giant, as in any game, so the levels of abstraction are at least similar, but mechanically, when the giant (player avatar) in the PC game is following an element of the GUI to interact with the game world, that’s one more small distance between you and the game world, one more subtle push out of the suspension of disbelief.

On the other hand, our Band of Bugs also started on the XBox, and was also ported to the PC.  That game works well with either control scheme (mouse/keyboard or controller), since you’re never actually driving your characters to start with.  The XBox and PC controls are different, and have different pros and cons, but they feel pretty similar in the long run.  That’s one nice thing about a tactics type of game where it’s all about direction in the first place.

I think this is also why some MMO players complain about the “click to move” control scheme found in some MMOs (usually Asian ones, like Atlantica Online) as opposed to the keyboard WASD movement scheme.  The former has players directing their avatars in the game world by telling them where to go (and a pathfinding AI takes over), the latter has players driving their avatars around the world.  It’s a more visceral level of control, and it seems to be more satisfying.  (Tangentially, I am curious about the cultural implications of this difference, but have little data to examine.)  This is also tied to the oft-repeated complaint about Guild Wars characters not being able to jump.  Many players just want that control.  They want to drive.

The difference between the two is also what I believe to be a major factor to why I think Amorphous and Recettear‘s combat have significantly different feels to them.  Andrew rightly noted the similarities between the two over here (rightly complaining about some of Recettear’s warts), but I’ve tried to describe why I don’t see them as being all that similar in gameplay.  The Amorphous avatar just follows my mouse cursor, but I get to drive Recette’s dungeon diving compatriots.  It’s a subtle thing, but it makes a world of difference in how a game feels to me.  (And tangentially, the default keyboard controls for Recettear aren’t good, remapping is silly… but with a gamepad it reportedly “just works” and works very well.)

There are also games where the whole point is to direct the character, intentionally abstracting the controls to allow for different functions, like Aquaria or Machinarium, and others where you’re not really meant to have a high level of individual control, like Lemmings.  Still, the control interface really can have a pervasive if subtle effect over how a game is played and how it feels.  Neither directing nor driving is the solution in all places, and indeed, applying one where the other would be more appropriate can be a problem.  It may not be a gamebreaker, but it can be important to the tone and feel of a game.

Also, as these guys note (adeptly and humorously), when you’re in the driver’s seat, it changes a lot of things.  The abstract director role lets you internalize things differently from the driver role.  (And similarly, playing “yourself” in a holodeck would push things even further and have different psychological implications.)  Matching game mechanics to storytelling intent is something that most games just don’t do well.  Matching storytelling to UI can be even trickier because there’s less to work with, but it can be more important.

UI design is a tricky, sometimes subtle thing.  Still, I believe it’s crucial to get right, or else a game just won’t work right.  Giving players control is key to making games work, and if the controls don’t work well, all the pixel shaders and voiceovers in the world won’t make a difference.  Games are interaction, and if that interaction is inept, a game can crash and burn, and it may not even be clear why.

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First a quick pair of plugs:

Above 49 (Nels Anderson) and Some Accounting on the Cost of Making Games

The Rampany Coyote, tireless advocate of the Indie scene and indie dev in his own right.

In a nutshell, then, indie games can still be expensive to actually produce, but they can still be fantastic pieces of work.  I’ve worked for two game studios now, one a cog in the EA machine (then Headgate Studios, now EA Salt Lake), one a plucky independent developer (NinjaBee/Wahoo).  I’ve liked both, albeit for different reasons… but honestly, I like where I’m at now considerably more (NinjaBee/Wahoo).  It’s more risky, developing games without a patron like EA holding a financial net under our trapeze act, but at the same time, it’s also liberating in that we have a lot more control over what we do with game and art design.

So when we come up with something like A World of Keflings, know that it took time and hard work, and isn’t just something cooked up in a garage somewhere as an experiment or cheap sequel.  In many ways, it’s a labor of love, but since we think it’s a great game and has a lot of fun to offer, we also think it’s a great product and a worthy successor to the original A Kingdom for Keflings game.

Similarly, it looks like Recettear was a labor of love not only for the original Japanese developers, but also the intrepid localization team of Carpe Fulgar.  They believed in the game enough to carry it to term and throw it to the wilds of the internet.  It’s a great game, a curious mix of shop sim and dungeon crawler that manages to be more like fudge mixed with peanut butter rather than anchovies mixed with onions.  It came out of left field for me, but is a very welcome addition to my game library and a lot of fun.  That I can play it from a USB thumb drive is icing on the cake (yay for Impulse).  As Tipa notes, it’s well worth the $20.  (There’s a demo, but as fun as it is, it just scratches the surface.)

These smaller indie games tend to live or die largely on riding waves of interest and word of mouth.  As Nels notes, 10,000 purchases are a rounding error to the EAs of the world, but the lifeblood of indie gaming.  In an age of “social media”, spreading the word is easier than it used to be, but it’s still important.  The cost of sharing a recommendation can be very low, but to those of us trying to make a living making interesting games instead of Big Box clones, it’s a boon that we’re grateful for.

…so yeah, go check out Recettear and if you like the demo, it’s a game well worth buying!  Similarly, when A World of Keflings comes out, try the demo and if you like it, please buy it!  (It will be an XBox Live exclusive for a while, but we have promised a PC port like what we did for A Kingdom for Keflings.)

And if you like ’em, please tell people!  Digital distribution and social media keep the indie scene alive and cranking out great games.  Speaking with your wallet and recommendations speak to us, nice and loud.  Without big box market overhead and publisher static, the signal is clearer.


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It’s coming!  This winter, we’ll release the sequel to A Kingdom for Keflings, aptly named A World of Keflings!

I built a lot of buildings and a smattering of other things for this game, and I’m excited to get it out there and start playing with it.

I’ll also have an article up digging a little more into what I do as a game artist here in a little while, using this game as an example.

In the meantime, we have a trailer on YouTube for the game.  Our office PR guy Andrew did a great job with this, so here’s hoping you enjoy it and spread the word!

A World of Keflings

Oh, and then there’s Doug Kefling on FaceBook if you’re one to follow things in that venue:

Doug Kefling

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Well, it’s not exactly a poke in the eye, but this system is certainly taking a clooooose look at some eyes.

Iris Scanners

Orwell had his timing off a wee bit, but really, is this sort of thing inevitable?  And perhaps most importantly, when will ActiBlizzard make iris identification the new account security feature?  I mean, people are already posting photos of themselves on FaceBook, so this is just a hop, skip and a jump for RealID.  Besides, eye scanning is better than a literal poke in the finger for ID testing.

This makes me want to play Monopoly, or maybe just indulge in some graphical design.

Rebranding U.S. Currency

Do you think putting Puzzle Pirates Ringers on the money would be a bad idea? Cleaver for the $100… Nemo for the $50!  Maybe World of Warcraft key characters?  Ah, the debate:  Thrall or Jaina for the $100?  Maybe one of each with concurrent Horde/Alliance crests and graphical design… collectors’ items!  Alamo for the $50?

This sort of explains it all:

U.S. students don’t understand math, science or history because they aren’t being taught

So my next question is:  When do we get to apply for citizenship of Azeroth?  Forget this pansy Real World thing.

I’m reserving my Tauren Druid now.

Bonus reading if you want something a bit more… fiesty.

Hypocrisy on Display: Islam

It’s always interesting to me to find the good and useful points in a reasoned rant.  Sometimes, rants are simply anger incarnate, but more often than not, there’s something real under the hood, something worth thinking about and deciding where your own opinions lie.  For me, the take-home thought this time is “what do you do when compromise with someone who wants you dead isn’t an option?”  Plenty of storytelling seeds in that one.

Anyway, it’s not like game bloggers ever rant without having a good reason, right?  Sure, sometimes you have to dig to find it, and sometimes it’s just kicking up a storm for attention, but that’s just part of this silly “internet” thing.

…and now I wonder what Freud would have done with the internet.  Can you imagine the psychoanalysis he’d come up with prowling the web?  Would he get stuck on the tvtropes website, too?  Would he get stuck endlessly trying to correct people? Would he have a FaceBook and Twitter account?

@Freud: Have returned from 4Chan foray. Paper forthcoming. … I need a cigar.

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That’s the money quote from this article from the Guild Wars 2 devs:

A New Way of Looking at Healing and Death

Why should we debuff you, take away experience, or make you run around for five minutes as a ghost instead of letting you actually play the game? We couldn’t think of a reason. Well, we did actually think of a reason–it just wasn’t a good one. Death penalties make death in-game a more tense experience. It just isn’t fun. We want to get you back into the action (fun) as quickly as possible. Defeat is the penalty; we don’t have to penalize you a second time.

(emphasis mine)

Yes, this won’t sit well with everyone.  Neither will the lack of a dedicated healer class.  Or the intentional departure from the holy combat trinity.  But hey, characters can jump this time.

Here are a couple of pages where the ArenaNet guys dig a little more into the issues:

Q&A 1

Q&A 2

As Shamus says, these guys are “walk(ing) off the edge of the map” in the MMO design space.  They are going into “here there be dragons” territory.

I’m looking forward to the journey.

Bonus reading:  Klepsacovic’s excellent article about death and wanting to die. It’s not quite the same thing, but it seems to me that the sentiment is similar; make the game fun to play, rather than having annoying time sinks around the weird sorts of “death” we get in MMOs.

Edited to add:  Also, Rohan’s article on Death Penalties… in the which one commenter fusses about being nigh-invincible in Heirloom gear.  The solution requested?  Epic zones while leveling.

…as if you couldn’t just go somewhere of a higher level, or take off the friggin’ heirloom gear.  Who is it again that is asking for the world on a golden platter?  It’s almost always very easy to make a game harder on yourself, if that’s what you really want.

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I’m one of those odd sorts that plays a game like WoW as if I’m a citizen of a world (a role!), rather than as a race to the raiding treadmill.  I make up minigames for myself, or just go wandering around looking for the perfect screenshot (I still need to set up a Picasa portfolio for sharing, come to think of it…).  I even have a Goblinish trend, happy to tinker in the markets, which so far has been supplying the Horde AH with Deadly Blunderbusses with an Orc Hunter Engineering alt… nothing huge, but a fun little way to make some profit fairly easily at a low level.  (I’ll leave the misanthropy to Gevlon, though.)

So when a quirky little game like Recettear comes out and embraces a different aspect of these RPG things, in this case shopkeeping, my interest is naturally piqued.  Tipa mentioned the game a while back, and I’ve been keeping an eye out for a sale.  At present, it’s available via Steam and Impulse for preorder for $18ish, 10% off.  I’m sorely tempted to get it, but for now, I’ll be playing the demo.  Maybe I’ll get the whole game in the next few days, depending on how the demo goes.

Still, I applaud these Japanese indie devs for tackling something in a new way, and the intrepid localization team for bringing it to my side of the pond.

It also has me itching once again for some more interesting noncombat options for “careers” in MMOS… but that’s another article for another day.

Update: I went ahead and preordered the game through Impulse.  I think that’s the first preorder that I’ve ever done; usually I wait for sales.  I’m impressed with the game, and I’m even going to use it to teach my four year old a bit about capitalism.  Score one more for the indies!

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