Archive for November, 2010

‘Tis the time of year that many people gather in groups of family and friends to celebrate assorted things.  I’m of the American and Christian persuasions, so it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas for me and mine, but there’s no apparent shortage of celebrations for diverse tastes.  Maybe being cooped up together out of the snow means we either party or kill each other.  I do prefer the former, though the latter might be easier sometimes, especially when awkward situations arise.

I’ve noted, with no small amount of whimsy, that I could map certain classes or roles we might see in World of Warcraft to people I see in these gatherings.  They don’t map perfectly, since socialization is PvP (Player vs. Player) rather than PvE (Player vs. Environment), and threat doesn’t work the same way, but there are some interesting parallels nevertheless.

The Roles


This guy wants all the attention, and will make efforts to control the direction of conversation and protect weaker conversationalists from the ire of dissent.  There are, of course, different different tanking styles, but all have a variety of tools to deflect tangents and monopolize crucial conversational pauses.  A bombastic or otherwise “large” personality or presence greatly benefits the social tank, even if it is ultimately of little substance.  Maintaining the focus of attention is key, not presenting a cogent argument.

DPS (Damage Per Second)

These are the guys who actually move a conversation along.  The Tank has to spend so much effort keeping a conversation on topic and heading off tangents that he has to rely on the DPS conversationalists to move the chosen topic along.  They will usually do this with supporting anecdotes or witticisms.  Some are blunt force conversationalists, seeking to make progress by sheer magnitude of presentation, while others are precision specialists, doing the most with a few carefully timed words in the right place.  Occasionally DPS teams will form and act in concert to magnify their efforts.  They must be careful not to steer the conversation, though, since they don’t have all the necessary tools to direct the conversation away from tangents and deflect dissent, and may occasionally be leveled by a precise counterpoint.

Some DPS conversationalists might specialize in Crowd Control, a nearly lost art of taking down tangential threats on the periphery of a conversation.  Since this is a job best done without drawing much attention, it is often unsung, but no less important, especially in large gatherings.


These are the peacemakers.  When tensions get high, these conversationalists seek to defuse the situation with placation, humor, distraction or food.  This tends to require a soft touch, lest the tank lose control of the underlying conversational direction.  The Healer doesn’t so much seek to change the conversation’s direction, but rather, to manage its tone, keeping things moderate and keeping contentions down and therefore make the Tank’s job easier to manage.  This tends to be easier when they have food to offer, so careful pacing of meal courses and foresight in management of non-conversation resources will benefit the healer.  Desserts are a powerful wildcard in the healer’s arsenal, and many healers will come prepared with a wide assortment.

The Classes


A social generalist, the Druid can Tank, DPS or Heal as necessary, though they must specialize in one to be as effective as a specialist.  They smoothly shift between roles as a conversation unfolds, filling in gaps left by inattention or mistakes.  They might tank at close quarters and then shift to backstabbing at a moment’s notice, or they might lob comments from afar, or even bring some snacks to the table.  Since none of their tools are very strong, though, they must try to anticipate the social scene’s intricacies correctly and use precise timing as leverage to maximize their efforts.  More than most, Druids need to understand the ebb and flow of the nature of social situations and all the varied aspects so they can shift their own position.

Death Knight

These guys are well known for their ability to kill a conversation and then revive it under their control.  Well equipped to deflect criticism with thick disregard for insult and having very strong presence, they work well as Tanks, or they can fill the DPS role well by making heavy handed points as they make others uncomfortable with implications.  Likely to be depressed and depressing, and possibly harboring conversational grudges from past parties.


Careful conversationalists, Hunters function in a pure DPS role.  Some prefer to snipe from the periphery, offering precision arguments.  Others bring a companion for distraction while they chime in with timely comments.  Yet others lay careful conversational traps and quietly guide others into making mistakes.  Hunters are often used by Tanks to initiate a conversation with offhand comments, which they then follow up on with their unique talents.


Another pure DPS class, Mages have a few distinct styles.  Some prefer fiery rhetoric with lingering implications.  Some prefer the cold shoulder technique (sometimes called “wet blanket”), heavy on control tactics that help the Tank.  Some prefer broad spectrum wild generalizations and arcane statements about irrelevant factoids, reveling in confusing the foe.  Mages love to flaunt their intelligence in one way or another, often trying to outsmart opponents for the sheer joy in doing so.


A Paladin is a hybrid like the Druid, capable of filling any of the significant roles.  They can’t shift between roles as fluidly as Druids, but they are better equipped at all times to deflect dissent.  Their reduced flexibility is balanced by their defense.  They tend to specialize in one of the roles, but all will have a sanctimonious air that is offputting to foes and encouraging to friends.  They tend to direct conversations to The Truth when possible, and have particular and peculiar talents that keep dead conversations down.


The quintessential Healer, Priests share the sanctimony of paladins, but wield it much more effectively.  They might play the pariah or simply call for repentance, or they might simply offer a constant stream of calming platitudes with little substance to argue about.  Some will simply keep bringing food to the table.  A few will step into a DPS role with biting chastisement or darkly portentious comments.


Rogues serve only their own interests, but understand that hiding behind a Tank (or better, hiding behind their opponent) is a safer place to be.  They are pure DPS conversationalists, seeking primarily to make a point, and if possible, to make it hurt.  They converse from the shadows, sometimes seeking to slowly erode an opposing viewpoint, sometimes acting swiftly and mercilessly to cut down a line of thought.  They are remarkably direct, and everything is personal with a Rogue.  They may serve a team goal at times, if circumstances align, but are unmistakably their own person with their own goals.


Adept at sensing the nature of conversation, Shaman tap into social undercurrents to work their magic.  Some will Tank in lighter encounters, but most will either fill a DPS or Healer role.  Uniquely equipped with trinkets and tools with which to make conversational points via object lessons, they tend to be masters of minutiae and trivia.  This can serve to further a conversation or manage its tone.  Shaman are hybrids, adept at filling holes in a team, though they aren’t as agile as Druids.  Shaman tend to be relatively immobile, but versatile.  They are excellent team players, with a wide array of support tactics.


Pure DPS in every form, a Warlock can’t help but be caustic, and is inordinately fond of veiled insults that result either in lingering shame or self-doubt.  May or may not have companion in tow, appropriately attired for maximum distraction, whether employing fear or more… amorous (though cruel) intentions.  Master of snide asides, arch allusions and faux British accents.


Blessed with an uncomplicated approach to life, Warriors tend to either master a Tank role or a DPS role.  Heavily defended from conversational dissent with a heady mixture of ignorance (pretended or not) and thick disregard for insult, Warriors often serve as rallying points for friends.  In the occasion that they step out of the center of attention, they either rely on fast, furious assaults or heavy precision strikes to further a conversation.  They can wield nearly any conversational tactic, but work best in direct confrontation.

It’s no great surprise to me to find that I can most comfortably identify myself with the Social Druid, though I have pretty solid Hunter tendencies, too.  (Never mind that I wrote this, I tried to make them at least somewhat fair.)  I’m especially fond of my brother-in-law who is a fantastic Social Warrior.  Maybe it’s because he’s a military guy?  He plays the Tank and DPS roles very well, leaving me to do my own thing.

These are somewhat… loose categorizations at that, and might be applied similarly to Your Favorite MMO.  (I really ought to do a Guild Wars version of this, but Longasc and Nugget might be better suited for that task…)

Whatever your game of choice and celebration of choice, though, Happy Holidays and good luck socializing!

Oh, and don’t stand in the fire.  It really hurts in the real world.  The cooks might not be very happy with you either.


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My daughter loves movies.  I’m still hoping I can parlay that interest into teaching her about animation and how to create it, since Couch Potato still isn’t a real career, unemployment reform attempts notwithstanding.  Still, she loves animated movies, as most children are wont to do.  My own childhood fascination with animation turned me early to the part of art and creativity, and despite my lifelong fascination and competence with math and the sciences, I simply find it more personally satisfying to do something artistic with my time.

I’ve had more than one occasion to wonder about the nature of work and welfare, and to wonder just what it is that I should be doing with my peculiar and particular talents.  As I watched a bit of Disney’s Beauty and Beast with my little ones, I found my love for books framed in a new light.

As the Beast and Belle build their friendship/romance, Beast shows Belle to the castle library and tells her reverently that it’s now all hers.  There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of books there.  It’s a great scene, as Belle adores books, and Beast clearly wants to do something nice for her.  Beast is starting to understand the joy of giving, even as Belle takes in the sights.

I had to wonder… what if I had a library like that?  What if I were a monarch, with a castle full of retainers, trained to cater to my every whim?  What if I had no real purpose in life but to consume and be coddled?  Would I spend all my time in that library?  I think I would spend a lot of my time there, though I’d want a nice science lab next door and perhaps an orrery and observatory in the highest level of the library, maybe a foundry for some nice steampunk experimentation a little ways off, next to the wood shop.

I love books.  I devour data, and am almost always reading a few books at a time.  I love learning and thinking, finding new interconnections between bits of data.

And yet… I don’t think I’d be content with a life of pure consumption.  At some point, the itch to create would grow unbearable, and I’d have to go paint, draw, build, sculpt or write.  I just can’t life a life only comprised of taking, I have to give; I am driven to create, to contribute, to turn my energies to constructive ends.

Like Gordon’s “word monkeys”, the thoughts and ideas that are prompted by the education represented by consuming those books just have to go somewhere other than the recesses of my grey matter.  This is why I blather at length about game design (and other tish tosh) rather than just letting myself get sucked into WoW or the latest Civilization game.  Sure, I like consuming well-crafted pieces of gaming almost as much as I love reading… but I have a deeper itch to give, rather than take.

And sometimes, I have to wonder if perhaps games, of all forms of entertainment, might not be the best suited to scratch both itches at the same time.  Ours is an interactive medium, after all, and we really can let the player do extraordinary things in fantastic settings that just couldn’t happen elsewhere.  To me, that’s the strength of games; the ability to facilitate exploratory and investigative thought in situations that might not otherwise be available.  Perhaps we might not harness gamer impulses to cure cancer or Save the Universe… but I do think it is very possible to let games foster creativity and constructive impulses rather than be mere passive entertainment.

This is why I write here on the blog, it’s why I pontificate about making new games and explore new ramifications for fictional constructs like magic, it’s why I’m not working on movies like I was trained to.  I see something here in the medium of games… and I want to explore that potential.  I want to contribute something positive to the world and my posterity, even though I’m a mere artist with delusions of adequacy.

Time will tell if I manage to do so, but in the meantime, please forgive my protracted blathering here and there; I’m muddling my way through like any good muggle with only a foggy view of the more expansive reality around me.  Here’s hoping I can poke through to the light here and there, and show others some of the sights.

In the meantime, thank you for all of your comments and conversation.  As much fun as it is sending these blog posts out into the digital ocean in little WordPress bottles, it’s gratifying and humbling to see when someone lobs a message back, and all of us learn a little more.

Best wishes for Thanksgiving, if you celebrate it!  If you don’t, well, here’s hoping you have a good weekend anyway!

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Rock, Water, Tree

It’s not quite the same dynamic as Rock-Paper-Scissors.  Specifically, I think Rock is losing this one, and while it looks like Trees lost some previous rounds, they are going strong at present:

Rock, Water, Trees

I think I’m going to place my bets on Water, though.  It seems to have better long-term potential.

Gratuitous closeup:

RWT Closeup

I took these pictures a few weeks ago in Provo Canyon, a few miles from home.  I was going to post them earlier with the other tree photos, but I forgot… so hey, bonus belated blog post!

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As Mr. Mark Rosewater notes on occasion, “restrictions breed creativity“.  Minecraft has a somewhat restricted visual design thanks to a lower global resolution (almost everything is built from 1 meter cubes), but it’s precisely that restriction that has led to a minor renaissance among gamers with an itch to create rather than consume.  (Also seen here with Azeroth in CivV, tangentially.)

Doom was a significant First Person Shooter game some years ago, but for all its impact on the genre and gaming industry, it had some constraints due to then-modern technology and game design.  As this interesting article notes, those constraints made for a very different game from modern FPS games.  Doom effectively played in two dimensions; there were bits of the level that had different elevations, but weapons autoaimed to compensate, and you couldn’t ever have a level where you could traverse the same X/Y Cartesian space at two different Z elevations.  (So no bridges you could both go over and under, no spiral staircases, no multilevel buildings.)  That’s a huge limitation for a game that gives an impression of 3D, but the Doom guys managed to work wonders within that canvas.

Also importantly, the lower “resolution” of the game tools helped the modding community take off, and there were a TON of player-generated additions to the game.  Modders didn’t need to work in true 3D and have hugely expensive tools like Maya or 3DSMax that took years to master.  They could get by with some simpler tricks and more streamlined level design, leading to faster development with quicker iteration that could lead to better design in shorter order.

Minecraft is a modern iteration of this pared-down design ethos.  The game world is actually 3D this time, but the lower resolution, both geometric (the world of cubes) and textural (16×16 textures for said cubes) means that potential modders can focus more on the bigger picture rather than burning their time on normal mapping and pixel shaders.  They might make a few relatively simple changes (to the textures or peaceful/monster mode) that affect the whole game world.

Of course, players don’t have the ability to tweak values as easily as Notch might, as the programmer of the game.  Even thinking of his tools, though, depending on how he has the simulation code set up, he could theoretically tweak a few variables and quickly have some very different worlds.  We see a little of this with his biome design, where segments of the world take on different climate properties and block generation ratios (a desert area with dunes and cacti neighboring an alpine mountainous snowy area, for example).  Imagine if players could tweak those variables and make their own biomes.  (This isn’t to say that said biomes were just a few lines of code, but rather that they could be controlled by a few variables that could provide significant changes with little input, one of the beauties of procedural content generation.)

Perhaps more importantly, though, players can do a ton within the game itself.  You can tear apart the world with your bare hands and rebuild it almost any way you want to.  Maybe you prefer big buildings or maybe you’re a Star Trek devotee or Lord of the Rings fan.  Maybe you love BioShock, its sequelsimple computers or just want to go see the sights that the terrain generator churns out, always providing “just another mountain” to see.  In the highly malleable Minecraft world, you can scratch a lot of different itches.  Play it multiplayer, and you can even show off.  (It scratches an itch that MMOs haven’t bothered with, despite having firm footholds on the tactical terrain.)

In a way, it’s like a piano.  The instrument only has 88 keys, but the music that has been made over the centuries with it is incredibly varied.  Or better, a guitar or violin; six or four strings can do miracles in the right hands.

Of course Minecraft won’t appeal to everyone, and it won’t win a beauty competition with Source and better out there in the wild.  Still, coloring with crayons sometimes can bring out a lot more creativity than working in Painter, simply because it’s easier to work with the tools.  Like building with LEGOs, there’s a fairly simple learning curve that allows for more time creating, less time gearing up to be creative.  Even though I work all day with high high end art tools, I still love just whipping out my sketchbook and a ballpoint pen to do my own work and see what crazy ideas pique my interest.

When all you have is an ore pick, the whole world looks like a mine to be dug.  When you can build with the stuff you dig up and put your own stamp on the world, crazy, wonderful things can happen.

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From the silly and almost defiant (or is that plaintive), where the post title comes from, to the far more serious (Larisa struck a nerve with this one), from the individual to the cultural, I’m struck on occasion by the human element of these online games.

Who knows what private pains people deal with in life?  (Ardol speaks eloquently to Larisa’s comments thataway.)  Games can be ways to escape trouble just as easily as they can be ways to find trouble.  They might be a meeting place for people who might not otherwise have the chance to be friends in any other venue.  (Big Bear Butt has a heart to match his largish ursine physique.)  They might be the last thing that makes someone happy. (The game mattered to Ezra, though interestingly, mostly to spend time with his distant father.)  Games matter, sometimes in the most curious ways.  (Wolfshead’s tribute to Red Shirt Guy.)  The community matters.

People are sometimes the worst part of online gaming, but are most often the best part.

Those are people out there.  Not rejects, not NPCs or henchmen, not morons or slackers.  People who deserve common courtesy and might just be in pain of one sort or another.  Call me a bleeding heart conservative, but please remember that even in the most fantastic and fictional of games, people are still people.

Treat them well.

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My Perpetuum

I want to like Perpetuum, I really do.  It has stompy robots, EVE-like thumbing of the nose at MMO traditions, and pretty visuals.

It’s just… I can’t run it.  OK, technically I can, mostly.  I’ve been through a couple of early tutorials (fairly nicely done, actually), but it’s slow, visually inconsistent (with texture resolution wildly variable) and a bit laggy or unstable (I’m not sure which, but at least it hasn’t crashed).

I should stress here:  I think this is almost entirely my computer and connection’s fault.  It even has some trouble with WoW, of “runs on a toaster” fame.  Quite naturally, Perpetuum, a more demanding game, will have trouble, then.  I was hoping to be able to play anyway, but it’s just not working well for me.  I bear no ill will toward the game for this.

From what I’ve seen though, I can make note of a few things about game design:

One, there are a LOT of choices to make in character creation.  Since I have almost no way of knowing what those choices will mean in the long run, I leaned to energy weapons (I love PPCs in BattleTech) and mining/crafting (I was curious to see if one could make a career in that instead of combat).  There winds up being nine “classes”, I think, if the “spark” choice is indicative of major gameplay focus, but plenty of knobs to fiddle with under the hood to make yourself a generalist or specialist.  The sequential nature of this series of choices is a bit tedious if you want to go back and change some aspect of your character, but without knowing what any of them really do to the play experience, I didn’t really bother much with a lot of tweaking.

The game itself doesn’t do a good job of explaining what it actually is, or what you’re expected to do.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing for a sandbox type game, but Perpetuum does seem frontloaded with decisions with no measure of what’s really important to gameplay.  Not having experience actually making those choices work, I’m not sure if any build is viable or if there will be one or two “golden path” builds.  I’d like to think anything can work, though; otherwise, frontloaded decisions like that are a Bad Idea.  It stinks to require a third party wiki doctorate program to understand character generation.  (And of course, if you can respec, it’s not a big deal, but they make it a point to point out a few immutable choices, like the Spark that I’m roughly equating to a class, fairly or unfairly.)

Two, built on the first, is the system of character progression.  Apparently, your account gets the equivalent of XP (or skill points, rather, that get spent on training) based purely on time.  Also, any character on the account can spend those points.  As near as I can tell (though I’d be happy to be wrong on this), spent points cannot be refunded, even by deleting a character.

This does a few things.  First, early adopters win.  At least, if skills are important.  I presume this will be like what I understand of EVE, though, where skill points are mostly just a baseline and player skill and planning are the real key to progress.  Second, altitis hurts.  If you want to try out all nine “classes”, or even just different builds, making alternate characters to tinker can suck up those account points quickly.  Maybe.  Again, I’m not sure, not having spent a lot of time with the game, but again, this seems to benefit those who plan far ahead and/or can live with whatever uninformed choices they make on creation.  If the game is flexible enough and/or playable with low skill points spent, that’s not likely to be a big problem, but if it’s easy to make a deeply flawed build and/or it’s expensive spending skill points to get to playable states, that’s going to be an unfortunate limit in the game.

Three, the UI isn’t like DIKU MMOs much at all.  I’ve read that it’s like EVE’s UI, which would make sense (yes, I still need to try out EVE, but that probably won’t happen until next year).  Looking at it in a hypothetical vacuum, it’s a complex beast, but it seems to be laid out fairly well.  You can move around most elements of the UI, which is a great feature.  It does come across a little like Windows on top of a game, so it’s not really high on the immersion scale, but that doesn’t bother me too much.  All in all, the UI seems complex, but clean and usable.

Aaaand that’s about all I’ve got at present.  I do wish I could have a cockpit view, like a MechWarrior, but that’s more a matter of taste than anything else (and maybe I just missed it).  The basic robot I started with couldn’t jump, so Guild Wars haters take note, but I didn’t really expect it to.  Controls are clean enough, standards WASD/mouse controls… though A and D strafe rather than turn by default.

Anyway, the game is still in open beta until November 25th, I think, so if it’s interesting to you at all, you may as well check it out. They aren’t planning on wiping characters at the end of the open beta, so if you like it, that’s a bonus. EDIT:  I just got an email from them announcing the launch, and I was wrong, they will wipe characters and experience. I do recommend at least investigating it, as it seems like it has a lot of potential.  I’m curious to see how the progression scheme settles out, and whether or not those character generation bits really matter.  That could make or break the game.

As much as I’d like to like it, though, it’s just not going to be a game I can play much at the moment, and with a $10/month subscription impending, it’s not likely to be a game that I can play later if I get a better machine.  Still, I wish the Perpetuum guys well, both for their own sake and in hopes that their success can pave the way for a MechWarrior MMO.  It really does look like a good game that I’d have plenty of fun with, it’s just not going to work out.  Maybe it will for you.

Other voices chiming in:

EVE + Battletech?

Gremrod’s Terminal Chat

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Yay, we have another slippery slope bit of HWFO to keep November interesting before Deathwing dominates blogs.  (Yes, those are icons I created for Puzzle Pirates.  Whee for self-promotion!)

Oh, right.  Context.  Here, have a few links.  (These cover a range of opinions, so I’m not endorsing any particular viewpoint but my own.)

RaviousSyp, Arkenor, Spinks, Tobold, Hunter

So apparently, Warhammer Online intends to sell a thingamawidget that lets player characters advance a single level (out of 40 possible), completely free of grind.  Naturally, that means the sky is falling.  (OK, OK, not everyone is saying that, but what good is a slippery slope argument without a little hyperbole?)

First of all, levels in a PvP game are a Bad Idea.  Player skill should be paramount in PvP, not avatar level grinding.  WAR is broken on a fundamental level because of this.  Not to be too pointed, but I think it’s actually a Good Thing to get everyone up to the level cap faster, since that’s where the playing field is more level… class imbalances aside, of course.

Secondly, this is pretty clearly a nonexclusive item.  Players who get riled up about someone getting ahead can just go grind to catch up.  As such, it’s not about the sale item itself, it’s about someone else having something that you don’t have yet… or in the case of level capped characters, it’s whining about someone else not having to walk uphill barefoot in the snow to reach the vaunted upper echelon of the game.  If you’re not having fun with the game, and have to denigrate someone else to feel superior, grow up.

Thirdly, it’s a single-use item, best used by characters in the apparently mind-numbingly slow endgame to bypass some grind.  I just don’t see it actually doing much.  Yes, this might set a precedent for selling advancement, but…

Fourthly, I’ve argued before that games like WoW should sell level-capped characters direct from the factory (conveniently with low overhead).  If the “game starts at the level cap”, why in the world are they forcing players to monkey around for months before they play the real game?  If someone wants to raid on day one, let them.  And charge them for it, naturally.  (Does anyone really complain about the dollar cost of the sub time that it takes to get a character raid-ready?  I don’t see it, but maybe I’m not reading the right places.)

Fifthly, I’m tired of the “those dirty capitalists” arguments, whether they are leveled at the producers who are running a business or those dirty, dirty people who have money to burn and want to spend it on games.  This is how markets work; they naturally evolve as demand and supply tease each other, and customers and providers jostle to get the best deal.  Funny thing about that; it tends to also improve the product offered as well, as honest competition makes everyone bring their best product to the table at the lowest price.  There are naturally growing pains as a market matures, but mature they do, even if some of the customers don’t.

Sixthly, for all the arrogant arguments about “a subscription is cheap if you can afford a computer and an internet connection” or “it’s cheaper than a movie and dinner” or whatever other knee-jerk mindless defense of the cost, there is an inordinate amount of moaning about how other people spend their money.  The same people who will look down their nose on other people not wanting to pay a subscription have no restraint in whining about other ways money gets spent, as if it’s any of their business.  Apparently it’s only OK to spend money the right way, which is to say, the way we do it.  Get over yourselves, folks.  The market is expanding, and your gated communes aren’t sacrosanct.  (Though I also support private servers for those who really want those gates.  Live and let live, I say.  Of course, that might cost you more.  This also applies to an argument Dblade rightly made at Spinks’ place, that advertising spam and item shop sales intrude on subscribers’ immersion.  Private sub servers should be able to have all that static turned off.)

As Spinks notes, this is possibly the clearest measure yet for how much time in an MMO costs in real dollars.  That cost has always been there, but it’s hugely variable.  I, for one, welcome a clearer basis of comparison.  That benefits the consumer looking to spend their money and the producer who wants to better understand what to sell.

Until we have a socialist utopia where MMOs are developed for the Good of Mankind with no eye whatsoever on the monetary side, we’re going to have to deal with the business of games.  More choices are a Good Thing, as they have a refining effect.  It’s entirely possible some incumbents will be burned in the high stakes game.

It’s about time.

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It seems to me that games are built on choices.  I wrote at length about making mistakes a while back (still one of my favorite articles), and how that affects game design, but I wanted to run another tangent today.

Candyland is billed as a game, but the only choice you have is whether or not to play (barring metagame choices, of course).  Once that deck of movement cards is shuffled, the game is set in stone.  There are no choices to make in the actual gameplay.

So, what if we make some?

How about a simple one to start with?

Instead of taking the top movement card and obeying its prescription, you take the top two and choose which one to use, and the other is ignored and discarded.  (Alternate:  put the unused card on the top of the deck to add a layer of memory.)

This is still pretty rudimentary, but it does give the chance for players to look ahead and make an informed choice.  It’s a meaningful choice as game designers sometimes ask for, because you can only choose one of multiple options, and the choice is irrevocable, but it’s an informed choice.

So, how about removing some information?

Draw two cards and choose one without looking at either.  Move accordingly, then discard both cards.

Now it’s getting interesting.  It’s still a meaningful choice, but now it’s an uninformed one.  It’s still enough to make the game unpredictable because of player choice, and it gives a veneer of player autonomy… but it’s still largely random.  This isn’t much better than the core “game”, but the act of choosing at least starts to feel a bit more like the players have control.

So, maybe add a little Monty Hall flavor?

Let’s Make a Choice.  Draw three cards, reveal one, then choose one of the three cards as your move for the turn.  (Alternate:  Have the other player take Monty Hall’s position as arbiter of the cards and really play this parallel to the hilt.)

Well, well.  Now we’re digging into a classic game perception paradox, and really making choices matter.  This is a semi-informed choice, with a bit of “playing the odds” for spice.

Layering some complexity on top of the bare bones of the Candyland game gives a lot more potential for choices to be made.  Increasing the complexity doesn’t always help, of course, since giving players the choice of four or five cards with two rounds of choices is technically more complex, but in practice, it’s not really going to add much to the game.  The initial addition of choice to Candyland scheme has a much stronger effect on the game than simply pushing that implementation deeper for the sake of complexity.  The diminishing returns of that sort of increased complexity is something to be aware and beware of.

Alternatively, or in addition to any of these, one could splice in some chaos, and shuffle the deck after each turn.  This wouldn’t have a huge effect on the actual choices as individual events, but it would make the underlying game potential more chaotic.  The game state is no longer decided and set in stone at the game’s start, it’s in flux.  As far as any individual semi-informed choice is concerned, that flux is largely irrelevant (unless you start putting non-chosen cards back in the deck to be shuffled instead of discarding them), but the game on the whole has more going on “under the hood”.  That bit of churn adds ever so slightly to the game.  (Though probably not enough to justify actually taking the time and effort to shuffle that much.  The principle is more useful in digital games where “shuffling” is very low cost, relatively speaking.)

Such uncertainty imposed by randomization is a huge part of most card games, games that use dice, and even most computer games where there is a RNG under the hood fudging the predictability.  That’s usually a good thing, as randomness brings the potential for even more choices to a game, if harnessed properly.  When you have to constantly shift tactics and strategy in a game, it changes the choices you make.  Sometimes that’s desirable, sometimes it isn’t, but most games incorporate some sort of randomization.

Of course, randomness has to be bounded somewhat (another old favorite article), lest the design get completely out of hand.  Complete randomness makes choices all but useless, as a completely uninformed choice may as well not be a choice at all.  Without at least a vague sense of predictability and consequence, there’s not much to a choice, and not much to be learned.  Again, too much chaos pushes a game design into useless flailing.

Even too many choices can be paralyzing.  As useful as choice is to making a game a useful and fun tool of experimentation and learning, too many choices can paralyze or confuse players.  Too much intricacy and interconnectedness between choices can also cause trouble as players don’t really take the time to understand their own choices or don’t have sufficient feedback to understand what their choices mean.

Certainly there is room for complexity and chaos, but they must be wielded carefully.  Choice is, in my mind, a backbone of gaming, but it, too, can be used ineffectively or unhelpfully (and it may not even really be choice a lot of the time).  A little of all of these is perhaps necessary for a really great game, but finding the right mix is what makes game design an art… one that I appreciate and enjoy as both a gamer and a game designer.

It’s not an art that I’ve mastered, but I am learning to appreciate agency, psychology and creativity the more I dig into these things.  That’s part of why I believe games have a lot to offer… if they can manage to be more than exercises in foregone conclusions, railroading players or overly random gibberish.

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Forget that voting nonsense, this is the big news from yesterday:

A Kingdom for Keflings on sale

Why bother electing someone to push you around when you can do the pushing?  Be a giant, control the masses of mindless servants!  For $5, complete with two map packs (XBox DLC), this is a pretty sweet deal.

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I’ve suggested it in a few comments recently on other blogs, and I’ve argued it for a while in one form or another, but I wanted to put a fine point on it for posterity.  Let’s not call this a prediction, since I don’t think Blizzard will do this (it’s potentially a lot of work and has a few wrinkles to iron out), but I’d recommend it.

The Cataclysm expansion is a perfect time for Blizzard to jump into the wider MMO market by diversifying their business model.  The recent trend of formerly subscription-only MMOs converting to item shop microtransaction business models isn’t a surprise, nor is it a move of desperation.  It’s realization that the MMO market is diversifying and maturing, and that the old ways of doing business aren’t going to work forever.

World of Warcraft is a bastion of subscription gaming, a behemoth that operates by its own rules, seemingly independant of the overall market.  Be that as it may, ignoring customers served by the so-called “free to play” or F2P games is effectively conceding strategic ground in the larger market.  It’s often suggested that converting WoW to one of these F2P critters may well not be more profitable for Blizzard, so it’s not likely.  I’m not convinced of that, but even conceding that as a given, as someone recently noted (Bhagpuss, I think, but please forgive me for remembering incorrectly if not), companies don’t always make moves for immediate profit.  Sometimes it’s about claiming market share or positioning themselves for future projects. *

* This is one counterpoint to my recommendation, actually.  Blizzard might be angling for the wider market with their next big MMO project.  Since that’s likely not imminent, though, I’m setting that aside, because the market is changing now, and Blizzard is oddly reticent to keep pace.

With that in mind, the release of Cataclysm provides a perfect excuse both in lore and in business to make a significant change to the WoW business plan.  What better time to break up the world than when a dragon is doing it for you?

Specifically, I would recommend that they take the Old World of Warcraft (the content from level 1 to 60, sometimes called “vanilla” WoW) and break it off into its own product, literally breaking the game into pieces.  They should then sell this like Guild Wars, as a single purchase that can then be played in perpetuity.  They should then keep the “live” Cataclysm-era world going for subscribers.  Players can upgrade from the Old World to the Live World, but not migrate backwards (maybe with some restrictions to keep gold sellers down, like no money migration).

This could neatly corner the F2P market by outflanking the other big movers in the field, including EQ2X, LOTRO, DDO and even GW and GW2, while still providing the subscriber experience that current users are accustomed to.

There are problems, to be sure.  There’s the possible need for two dev teams and consequent potential for divergent evolution.  There’s the need for new servers and the potential to confuse customers (who apparently don’t know how to spend their own money, the filthy proletariats).  There’s the likelihood of subbers just playing around in the Single Purchase Old World and losing some part of the WoW money pump.  There’s the banshee chorus of haters and fanboys who would proclaim the doom of Blizzard for deigning to let those people play the game.  There’s the work necessary to make things actually work.  There’s the question of what to let current players do.  (I’d suggest that anyone wanting to go to the Old World can do so, but it would be a complete reboot; everyone starts from scratch.  Current subbers who want to sidegrade can start new characters on the Old World servers like anyone else, without needing to purchase the game again.  They would have to pay a sub to play in the CAT era on CAT servers, but could play in the Old World without a hiccup, just starting over on the new servers.)  There is risk involved, as even WoW may not be able to function in its own shadow.  (But that’s a concern for their new MMO, too.)

Still, the timing is right for such a move, a grab at owning the best of both worlds.  In retrospect, perhaps, this will be obviously wrong, depending on whatever they do with their next MMO, but for now, looking at the market and the state of WoW, I’d say it’s an obvious move, and a smart one.  (This is, of course, totally ignoring the larger question of whether or not more WoW domination of the market is good for the players.  I think that could be argued either way, though, so maybe I’ll save that for an exercise later.)  There’s even room for more mutations, like true “classic” servers and private, gated communities for discerning customers, but one step at a time…

Of course details would need to be ironed out, and suits would need to be convinced.  Kotick would need to be bribed or something.  I’m convinced it’s not an intractible problem, though, and this may be the best time for such an earth-shattering, industry-shaking… cataclysmic business move.

…though I must admit, if it didn’t prove to sell well, just like if Blizzard’s new MMO doesn’t do well, leaving WoW as the clear aberration that I think it is, well… I’d laugh.

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