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Posts Tagged ‘control’

Apparently Facebook doesn’t like Tobold.  Google+ probably doesn’t like him either.  Zuckerberg thinks it has to do with integrity. I say it’s about revenue, and “integrity” is just a pretty facade to hide behind.  It’s harder to monetize a handle (yes, I wrote about this before, just in a different setting).

In a world where we still judge someone by what they look like instead of what they do, and where appeals to authority are more persuasive than logic, and prejudice fuels hate crimes, face value is a… flexible thing.  Identity is similarly flexible.  Choosing what face you present to the world seems to me to be something best left to the individual.  Until Wikileaks takes an interest in you, anyway, all in the name of “disclosure”, another pretty euphemism with delightfully Patriotic overtones to browbeat dissent.  Because really, only the bad guys have information to hide, right?

If nothing else, even the “circles” design of G+ stands as testament to letting the user control the flow of information, though their iteration of RealID doesn’t (link to an excellent article, by the way).  Certain conversations and information simply isn’t meant for everyone; even if it isn’t really sensitive and “private” (and not really belonging online anyway), different circles of acquaintances won’t care about everything the same way those in other circles will.  That said, G+ is about revenue as well, even though they talk a good game about trying to keep discourse civil because, hey, who can object to civility?  They market information.  The services need to be monetized somehow.  Of course your identity has value, and they will tap that as well as they can.  You can’t complain much about a scorpion, after all.  Maybe that’s “lazy nihilism” to recognize that fact, but I prefer to call it pragmatism.  Much like you can’t realistically expect a politician to refrain from lying (though they might call it “discretion”), you can’t expect a business to operate as a charity.  Charities operate just fine, but businesses are different things.  (Not that profit itself is a bad thing, to be sure.  There are good businesses out there.)

In the meantime, though, for those like Samuel Clemens, Lady Gaga or even J. K. Rowling, the best solution seems to be to avoid those channels where your choice in identity is ignored.  Certainly those of the faceless masses with petty prejudices won’t mind if you simply step out of the flow of society; you’re easier to ignore that way.

I’m idly curious about transgendered people… how do they fit in?  What about the girl with the obviously Muslim or Jewish name?  What about the guy who can’t seem to escape the melanin in his face?  What part does choice have to play in identity, and are some choices more approved than others?  It always seems to me that these social paragons have suspiciously squishy standards.  Massaging the message by silencing certain undesirables that don’t share your worldview is certainly the prerogative of an information broker, but that doesn’t say much about “integrity” in conversation.

But then, this never really was about integrity.  It’s about the value your face has, and who gets to control that value.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, I’m going to say:

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

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

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

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

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