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Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

Crowfall

Just in case you haven’t noticed this, but there’s a new big MMO Kickstarter presently running with a full head of steam.

Crowfall

It seems good, and some of the pedigree is great (Raph Koster, J. Todd Coleman are ones that caught my eye).  It picks up on ideas I’ve written about before, and would still love to see in a big MMO.  It looks great, more like Wildstar, WoW or perhaps Torchlight rather than FFXIV or Guild Wars (I like dodging the Uncanny Valley, but I do love GW2’s more painterly art direction).  It could be a great game.

I want to be excited about it, but I’m feeling sort of amputated from the game world.  I worked there for almost ten years, and still love game design, but since I have almost no time to play and I’m sort of retired from the industry due to circumstance, it’s all just sort of… attenuated.

Still, Crowfall could be really good.  Go check it out.

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I’ve written about finishing World of Warcraft before, and I’ve written about business models more than a few times.

Alternative Chat has a good blog post up ruminating a bit on the potential that Blizzard has to take the existing World of Warcraft and blow it up, starting over with all the bits they want and jettisoning the cruft of the last decade.  They did a version of this with the Cataclysm expansion, which I’ve also written about a few times.

So, I just wanted to put my finger in the stream again and post pretty much the same thing I noted in a comment over at Alt’s place, and something I’ve written here before…

If Blizzard really wants to shake things up and leave the old WoW behind for a brave new world, they should branch the game.  Cut everything that’s presently in the game off from the dev teams (save for bug fixing), package it up as a “buy to play” subscriptionless game in the vein of Guild Wars, and bravely stride off into WoW 2.0 as their premiere flagship subscription game.

It’ll never happen, just like Vanilla servers won’t happen and Pre-Cataclysm servers won’t happen, but hey, I can dream.

Edited to add:  This amuses me.  As Jay over at The Rampant Coyote points out, “Buy Once and Play” is making a minor comeback.  As if it’s something radical.  This industry is weird.  Even Forbes just can’t resist the satire.

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Having been unemployed now for the better part of a year, scrambling for odd jobs and attempting a career change, I’m more sensitive than ever to the cost of things.  There are a great many rants that I could indulge in, but at the moment, I’m in a contemplative mood.

Y’see, payment models are part of these MMO games that I write about here and there.  Syl has a new post up that’s tapping into a bit of the blogging hivemind, which is buzzing about money again.  I’m of a mind that the subscription model is a very poor value for me, F2P is a bit better when it’s not annoyingly restrictive or weirdly monetized, and “buy and play” of Guild Wars and Wizard 101 is still my favorite model.

Thing is, what little gaming I do these days is either on my smartphone with something like Slingshot Braves (which I’m still not spending money on, though I’d like to, in a way) or Flight Rising on my PC.  In the former, I’d probably pony up a few dollars if I could buy specific gear I want, and in the latter, I don’t mind advertisements as the monetization vector.

It makes me wonder… has an MMO toyed with advertisements in their major cities?  As noted in Darths and Droids, of all places, games actually can benefit from some verisimilitude by having sloganeering or even advertisement in big cities.  The setting has to make sense, of course, and advertising isn’t always really a big money maker, but it seems like something someone might have tried, or could have tried.  The Secret World, or The Matrix Online, maybe.

Anyway, I certainly don’t begrudge devs their money.  I have my own money problems, and won’t pay for something that doesn’t offer me good value, but, as with Humble Bundles, I’m OK with spending money on games.  I’m not a whale, I’m a stingy consumer.  Offer me something worth paying for, and I probably will.  Try to manipulate me with stupid things like lockboxes, slot machines, subscriptions or other obvious ploys to get money with little effort, and I’ll just move on.

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This should have posted on Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday.  Sorry, I’ve been busy.

Martin-Luther-King-01

I believe that games are uniquely and exquisitely suited to explore content of character, since games, as a medium, are all about choice.  That’s the nature of an interactive medium.  It saddens and disappoints me that so many discussions of character in games begin and end at the character creation screen, with a Politically Correct checklist and identity politics.

Games as a medium deserve better.  Gamers deserve better.

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9 of 10

I didn’t realize it until I ran into this latest study/poll making the rounds, thanks to TAGN’s post on the same, but I’ve been kicking around in Azeroth for 9 of the 10 years that World of Warcraft has been live.  I’ve had a few accounts over the years, so I don’t know my total /played time, but I suspect it’s probably not much compared to most who have had as long of an association with the game.  Still, my first blog post here (aside from the “Hello World”) was about WoW, so it’s not like I’m a stranger to the game, either.

Tangentially, this was an interesting find, as I was perusing my archives.  Just in case you needed a little more navel gazing.

Dead Again: Five Year Old Noob

Anyway, for posterity’s sake, here are the study’s questions and my responses.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I have a love/disgruntled relationship with WoW.  Great art direction, animation and world design, decent game design, lousy monetization.  It’s a game I keep coming back to, but then, I play a lot of games.  It’s never a place I could “hang my hat”, as it were.  I have too many other things to do than be tied to one game.  Still, I love the sense of place in the game, and I think on balance, I like it more than I dislike it.

Why did you start playing World of Warcraft? *

2005. I was interested when I saw the original magazine ads, but the subscription model kept me away. That is a recurring theme.

What was the first ever character you rolled? *

A Tauren Shaman. I loved Tauren in WarCraft 3, and was looking forward to playing one up close and personally, as it were. The Shaman looked flexible, so I figured I’d give it a shot. My main today is a Tauren Druid (er, that I just changed to a Worgen… still getting used to that), my only level capped character, but just below that is a Dwarven Shaman, and I love them both.

Which factors determined your faction choice in game? *

I started Horde because my friend was playing an Orc. Turns out it was pointless since he was level 58 or so, and we couldn’t even group up anyway since I was just on a trial account. Since then I’ve played both factions, though my core love is still the Tauren people. They are close to neutral philosophically in the Warcraft mythos, and I appreciate that. I don’t buy into the faction pride… contention… thing.

What has been your most memorable moment in Warcraft and why? *

Trying out Flight Form. There’s just nothing else like it in the game. My favorite place to explore is Northrend, but there are a great many beautiful places to explore in WoW, and flight form facilitates exploration in ways no other mechanic can. (And BASE jumping from Dalaran or other high spots, popping Flight Form at the last second, that just doesn’t get old.)

What is your favourite aspect of the game and has this always been the case? *

The world itself; always has been, always will be. I’ve always appreciated Blizzard’s art ability, and the world of WarCraft is what always interested me about the game. I enjoyed the WarCraft games, and really wanted to see what the world looked like from the ground. And in the air.

WoW might not have the highest resolution graphics or 3D meshes, but they make the most our of what they have with the strongest art direction in the industry. Others are catching up or edging ahead, most notably Guild Wars (albeit in a different style), EQLandmark and Wildstar, but Blizzard was there first and still manages to look great, even on low end machines (which is important).

Do you have an area in game that you always return to? *

I used to perch my Tauren Druid on the center totem of Thunder Bluff often, since capital cities allow me to conduct business and get rested. Now that he’s a level capped Worgen, he’s not really grounded, but I’m still fond of Northrend, especially Grizzly Hills.

How long have you /played and has that been continuous? *

The longest continuous streak I’ve played was two months. I’ve had a foot in WoW for about nine years, but I can’t stand the subscription model, so I just pop in on occasion when there’s something of note that I want to see.

Admit it: do you read quest text or not? *

The vast majority of the time, yes. Sometimes I’ll skip to the quest goals, but I read fast enough and like reading enough that I only do that if I’m feeling strongly pressured for time.

Are there any regrets from your time in game? *

Nothing strong. Sometimes I wish I’d played more, sometimes I wish I’d played less. I don’t regret spending time with the game, only money.

What effects has Warcraft had on your life outside gaming? *

It’s a significant component of why I bothered to start a blog, and I’ve met friends that way. The audience there also led to an audience that has given me a bit of a headstart on some Kickstarter successes, so that’s nice. Beyond that, it’s also been nice to know a bit about the game since I worked in the game industry and can talk intelligently about game design considerations based on the game. It’s an occasional cultural touchstone, too, which can be handy in some conversations.

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Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been a month since I deleted Marvel Puzzle Quest from my smartphone.  I played the game for almost six months and had a decent roster of characters built up.  And yet… almost every single change that the developers made during the time I played the game made the game less appealing.  I finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to like it any more, and gave up.

The sad part is that the core gameplay is actually really solid.  The puzzle combat isn’t finely balanced, but I’m fine with that, as I don’t mind a bit of imbalance.  It is well crafted and adds some nice twists to the Puzzle Quest formula.  If the game can be taken purely on its combat, it’s a fine addition to the pedigree.

And yet, the progression scheme and monetization scheme (intricately tied together, but even without monetization, the progression would be awful) just kill the game in the long run.  Of course, that’s “kill the game for me”, since it’s apparently still live and gathering clients, but I would really love to see some numbers on what sort of churn they are seeing.  It is very much a “winners win more” game, with elements that skirt the dreaded “pay to win” area.  Some of the judgment on the latter depends on how you define the phrase, but for me, it’s clearly designed to give an edge to those who spend inordinate amounts of money on the game, in no small part because of how glacial the progression system is, and that you can pay to speed it up.

This is not anything new in the F2P arena, to be sure, and it’s less grievous than being able to flat out buy victories, but it does undermine what could be very satisfying PvP combat puzzling.

In the end, though, it wasn’t any single huge change that made me uninstall the game.  It was a death by degree.  The poor progression scheme.  Nothing worth spending money on (which saved me money, but it was still what I thought of as poor design).  New characters introduced fairly regularly… but predominantly at the rare tier, so recruiting them was a crapshoot with their slot machine sort of character acquisition.  (Almost everything in the game is tied to a random chance of acquisition or absurdly overpriced… sometimes both.)  The change in healing so that it was limited to the combat of the moment.  Damage persists after a fight, limiting the ability to play multiple rounds in succession unless you heal in the fight or pay for refills between fights.  You get a few free refills, but they don’t last long if you’re in a heated race to top the competition boards to get some character you’d like.  You can buy refills or wait for them to recharge, 1 every 35 minutes, and you can hold 5 at a time.  (With 3 characters in combat, that’s not a lot of healing to go around.)  Competition is mostly PvP of a sort (never against other players; the AI just takes their team and runs it), which isn’t terrible, but PvP really needs to be balanced to be fun, and when character levels can be as disparate as they are in the game, it gets old when you play a few successful rounds and then get matched with an overpowered team you have no chance of beating.  Normalized PvP (like Guild Wars) where skill and team composition rule would go a long way to making the game better… but that sort of level playing field is harder to monetize.

Playing the moment to moment combat was still good fun.  It’s just… everything else isn’t, and the combat alone isn’t enough to save the game.

On the other hand, there’s Slingshot Braves.  It’s sort of a weird mix of PS1-era graphics (so it still looks good; I’m playing on a phone for crying out loud), Squids and Angry Birds, with a gear upgrade system that feels a bit like Puzzle & Dragons (consume hundreds of little pieces of loot to level up your gear) and a newly introduced gem/slot system that is a bit like socketed gear in a Blizzard game, but you can also level up the gems by combining several of a kind, and you can move some gems around, so it has a slight FFVII flavor.  It’s simple, but the five weapons are fairly elegantly designed, each with its own niche.  Leveling gear is slow, and the only way to make your team stronger, but it feels just fast enough to be acceptable.  Marvel Puzzle Quest’s character leveling is very, very slow by comparison.

Acquiring gear is only done via very rare loot drops or by the “Gacha” system.  It’s effectively a gear slot machine.  This is a bit annoying, but the game provides you with enough “gems” (the currency you can buy directly or earn via play or the occasional promotion) to get the occasional new bit of gear in that system.  Gear is in four tiers (C, B, A, and S, increasing in value), and you’re guaranteed at least a B level bit of gear in the Gacha.  It’s a bit annoying in that the best gear seems to be in the Gacha gamble, but at the same time, you can level up your gear and evolve it to a higher tier with enough little loot drops, so you can grind into some good gear eventually.  It’s slow, and annoying to get great new gear that you then have to level up, but that’s the quirk that comes with leveling gear in general.  It’s still much faster than MPQ’s system, and less frustrating.

I’m not sure there’s much that offers good value for real money here, either, but at least progress in the game isn’t as tedious as is is in MPQ.  You can buy gems, which allow character renaming, larger loot libraries, Gacha “pulls” and stamina refills (each mission you play consumes stamina, which recharges slowly; a standard F2P throttle).  Still, it’s not necessary, and most importantly, buying gems doesn’t have a huge effect on your success or pace of progress.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the only multiplayer system is a cooperative one, so it’s OK if someone else is stronger than you.  You both win faster that way.  There is some light competition among scoring leaderboards on some events, but the majority of the time any reason you have to care about the gear other players have is in how much it helps you, not how hard it is to beat.  That’s a huge underlying shift in assumptions and goals, and it makes a world of difference.

…and is it telling that the progression scheme is the first thing I write about?  That’s really where these games live or die, since that’s where they monetize, usually.  It’s also where things get annoying, and where MPQ got worse as time went on, SB just keeps getting better.  Loot drops have been made more frequent, promotions give people more goods to work with, the gear Gacha was split into a weapon Gacha and an Armor Gacha (anything that increases player control over the slot machine is a Good Thing for players), and the new socketing system makes gear more flexible.

But how does it play, moment to moment?  Largely like Squids, where you fire your character in a direction and watch it bounce around the arena, beating on foes or careening off of your ally unit or the walls.  Maybe it’s just the billiards fan in me, but I love that a good eye for angles and thinking ahead pays off in the game.  It’s a simpler game than MPQ, but it still seems to reward player skill, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most in games.

So, while Marvel Puzzle Quest’s fortunes in my library sank, Slingshot Braves has risen to be the game I most prefer to play at the moment on my phone.  Tiny Dice Dungeons is another great contender, but it hasn’t seen as many “live” changes.

I find it striking that MPQ made most of its changes to try to squeeze out more monetization, and it’s obvious.  SB wants more money too, certainly, but their changes have almost uniformly felt like they were improving the progression scheme, and occasionally the combat engine.  My visceral response to the two development teams couldn’t be more opposed.  The more I see each in action, the more I like SB, and the less I like MPQ.

In a world where games can mutate and adjust over time, I think it’s critical that the changes feel like they are making the game better, and that’s really the difference between these two when it comes to whether or not I play them and recommend them.

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OK, not so much “morbid” as… depressed, but that would have killed the alliteration.

For a little bit of context, I was laid off or downsized from the video game company I worked for just about two months ago.  It’s been… stressful.  Really stressful.  It’s part of why I haven’t posted here for a while.

For a bit more context, there’s this fellow’s insanely large video game collection that hit the news:

Guinness World Record video game collection

Anyway, there’s also this article from Kotaku that made the Facebook rounds recently:

Why Game Developers Keep Getting Laid Off

It’s a decent article, but I wanted to chase down a couple of implications that they didn’t get to, and tie a few things together.

As might be noted by the Kotaku article, or by speaking with veterans of the industry, there is a lot of churn in the video game production world.  Staffing woes aren’t uncommon in many industries, so it’s not like we’re super special snowflakes or anything, but it’s worth noting that the industry isn’t a stable one.  It’s a wildly profitable one on the whole, an entertainment medium that isn’t going away, but it’s not financially stable, nor is a career in the industry going to be a stable one.

I read an article a while back (though I can’t find it now), and this thread seems to echo the same thoughts, that careers in the video game industry are short on average.  As in, five years short, or about two big game dev cycles.  It’s true that we don’t live in a world where you get one job right out of college and stay at it until you retire or die, so again, this isn’t all that unusual, but it’s somewhat sobering.  Or it should be.

I’ve worked in the industry for eight years.  I’m an old hand at it, in some ways.  That’s… weird.  (Not as old of a hand as some, but still, it’s weird to think of myself as statistically over the hill, career wise.)

Anyway, this does have effects on the industry beyond what the Kotaku article notes.  Because companies are always fluctuating around, “redistributing assets” and such, there are convenient excuses to drop older, more expensive employees and pick up fresh meat from colleges.  The passion in these younger, unattached employees (mostly male) is exceptionally easy to exploit, as I’ve railed against before, and as the EA Spouse kerfluffle illustrated all too well.  Conditions haven’t improved much since then, though some managers do a good job.  Death marches and crunch might be the backbone of a production schedule, but they aren’t healthy.

Tangentially, this explains a fair bit of the “boys’ club” mentality of the industry, for those of you who are up in arms about Blizzard’s recent public relations black eyes.  People who grow up (and actually mature, unlike the ESRB’s definition of the word) and want stable careers for their families don’t last long in the industry.

This is part of why the indie scene is important, as veteran developers try out new ideas that would never fit into the studio or megaentertainment company mentality.  Games are an important artistic medium, but they are hobbled by the realities of the industry.  Indies are opening up the scope of the medium, but like so many artistic avenues, it’s not really a solid career choice.

I could get bitter about this, but really, I’m just noting the realities of the industry as a voice of… not warning, exactly, since I still see great value in games.  It’s more of a voice of pragmatism.  The industry is not a place for long term stability (relevant to those who wish to make games), it’s not a place for actual maturity (relevant to devs and gamers), and it’s not going away.

I’ve been applying to studios around the world, but have no real leads.  I may well be out of the “official” video game world now, more or less “retired” by circumstance, and left to do indie games with friends on the side as I scramble for other work, whether freelance art or some other art position somewhere.  Again, this isn’t a desirable position to be in, but it’s not too surprising or unique.  I’m disappointed, but then, as I noted in that NBI article, I believe that a job or career is just something you do to pay the bills so you can afford to do what you really want to do in your spare time.  I don’t have anything yet, but even if I pick up a new video games job, I can’t really see myself in the industry for decades, just because of how it works.

I’ll work on indie games because they interest me.  I’ll make my Shapeways, Zazzle, Kickstarter and other projects because I just can’t stop creating.  I may well wind up with a completely irrelevant job, but games, art and creativity are something I will always be involved in.

But… yeah… I’m busier now than I ever have been, working hard on a lot of different things, but making very little money.  This blog, as great as it is to write here, isn’t my priority.  I’ll be here now and then again, still, I’m not closing shop, I’m just busy.  Really busy.  I’m updating my portfolio (seen over here), working on my own projects (novels, games, art, photography, all sorts of things) and looking for freelance opportunities.  If any of you have leads, I’d certainly love to hear about them.

See you around!

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