Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘education’

A little while back, Syl mused about how World of Warcraft has changed her in an article thisaway.  Others chimed in like Victor, over here, and Rakuno over here.  I figured I’d jump in, since I haven’t done enough navel-gazing lately.  To dig into what MMOs have done to me, I need to go back to the 90s, before I did anything with them.

I work in the game industry.  I play games.  A lot of different games.  MMOs are just a small slice of my game library and vocabulary (though they tend to consume a disproportionate amount of time), but they have had some significant effects on me over the last 6 years or so.

My background is primarily in RPG games and tactical games.  I’ve played RTS, FPS, driving, fighting, puzzle, and other games, but most of my gaming time before MMOs was with epic RPGs like Final Fantasies, Chrono Trigger, Star Ocean 2 and the like.  Back in… 2002? or so, I remember seeing an advertisement in a magazine for the upcoming World of Warcraft.  It wasn’t the first online game I’d heard of (Sierra’s The Realm gets that honor, I think, and I was aware of Ultima Online), but it looked really good, and I liked the Warcraft IP, having spent many fun hours with Warcraft and Warcraft 2.  That was the draw, really, the ability to prowl through the jungles at ground level as a single character, rather than the third person nonentity I was in the Warcraft RTS games.  In short, I was captivated by the idea of exploring the WORLD of Warcraft.

Of course, the blasted thing is an online game, and the only place I had internet access was at school or work.  Those were the only places I had a computer capable of then-modern gaming as well.  Yes, I spent a lot of time with classics like Master of Magic, Master of Orion 1&2, X-Com (the old, good one), Privateer and the like well past their heyday.  I’ve always been a late adopter of games, really.  It’s better on the wallet.  Anyway, while WoW looked appealing, there was no way I was going to be able to play it, so I ever-so-slightly wistfully pushed it aside and ignored it.

In the meantime, I graduated from college in 2003, then got a full-time job that let me buy a then-powerful laptop that I fully intended to play games with.  I still didn’t have an internet connection (and to this day, I still think the darn things are too expensive), but I had a computer that could finally play Morrowind.  I was hooked, finally happy to be wandering through a fantasy world that was so much more interesting to me than my FPS experience in Wolfenstein (the old one) and Doom (also the old one).  I got lost along the shores outside of the starting town, died a few times, and then downloaded a few hacks.  I found I wasn’t all that interested in playing the right way, I just wanted to putter around in a fantasy world.  Imagine that.

It was while I was working in that first post-graduation job that I ran into someone actually playing that World of Warcraft thing.  He played during lunch, mining, mostly.  I watched him maneuver his zombie-ish guy around some barren-looking canyons, mining some sort of rocky nodes.  I think, looking back, that it was maybe in Thousand Needles, one of my favorite locations in the game before the Shattering.  He showed me around a little, noting that his “real” character was an Orc Shaman.  He offered me a ten-day buddy key to try out the game, and I graciously accepted.

I still didn’t have an internet connection.

So, I installed it on my office computer and played a little during lunch like he did.  Yes, we played games at work.  We were working in the game industry, and every one of us were gamers.  One guy played Magic the Gathering Online for lunch, and sometimes we all played the actual card game for lunch.  And it was good.  The bosses didn’t play games as much as we did, but they didn’t mind us playing, even with company assets like the computers and internet connection, so long as we got all our hours in and got our work done.

Anyway, I had ten days to play, only during lunch, only at work.  It was little more than a taste of the game, really.  I fired up a Tauren Shaman and puttered around.  I learned what the WoW notion of quests were, and I followed some breadcrumbs around the hill to a small Tauren town, then made my way up the road to Thunder Bluff, still my favorite capital city in the game.  I learned Skinning and Leatherworking, charmed with the ability to make my own gear.  It felt like my Tauren was a self-sufficient adventurer in a larger world.  It was good.

The game’s reality lurked in the wings, though.  I wanted some more backpack space since I kept winding up with lots of junk I picked up off of the critters I killed, but I couldn’t buy anything from the auction house and vendor bags were too expensive.  I figured I’d use Leatherworking to make some kodo hide bags, since there were kodos just downhill.  Silly me, I figured it should be easy.  Just go kill and skin a few kodos (they are huge, and should have plenty of leather apiece) and then stitch together a bag or four.

…the last three days of my trial were spent trying to make those stupid bags.  I had to skin several dozen critters to qualify for skinning kodos.  I had to kill dozens of kodos just to get one scrap of kodo leather.  I needed six such pieces to make one bag.  I stuck with it because it was my “endgame” goal for the time I had.  I never actually did finish even a single bag.

It was stupid.

That, in a microcosm, is the WoW experience, I think.  Fascination with the world and its potential, ownership of your own little avatar in that world, seeing new sights and new monsters… then running face first into the soul-crushing time sinks that the game uses to suck people into that next sweet month of subscription money.  I learned enough about the game to know I still loved the idea of the World of Warcraft, but that the game itself got in the way.  Even if I had internet access at home at that time, I still wouldn’t have bothered with the game because of the absurd subscription business plan… and to be honest, I did want to keep playing, but I was already getting burned out a bit, just because of the stupid grindy pacing of the crafting system.  It was probably good that I didn’t keep going at that point, since I was still on the edge of still liking the game for what it could be, and could go on pretending that it was exactly what I hoped it was.

Soon after that, I found Puzzle Pirates, and it was like I had found a home I never knew I was missing, and I didn’t have to pay a sub for it.  It’s still my MMO home.  I was hooked there by the gameplay, not so much the sense of the world, though I did love “memming” the ocean solo, still scratching that Explorer itch.  It helped that I was pretty good at the game (skill is more important there than time investment), and that I got my own ship without reaching some arbitrary “endgame”.  I didn’t much mind that I was missing out on the WoW craze.  I had something that fit me better, and really, it still does, seven years later.  In fact, last night I finally won my first Swordfighting tournament.  Sometimes it’s the small goals that make the most fun.  It is also the only MMO that my wife has played with me for more than a half hour.  She gave Guild Wars a good try, but it just didn’t stick.

It wasn’t until… 2008 or so, when the ten-day passes were obsolete and anyone could just sign up for a ten day trial, that I tried the game again.  I played another ten day trial, this time with my home desktop and internet connection (albeit a cheap one, which made the game laggy… which didn’t help).  The game still looked nice, and it was fun to make a new character, hoping for good times.  This time I did a little more research on the game and fired up a Druid.  I’ve loved Druids ever since.  I have a soft spot for Hunters and Shaman still, but I’m a Druid player at heart.  I had fun, learned Bear form, messed around a bit shifting between forms as necessary… then my time ran out.  I still mostly liked the game, but still wasn’t going to pay to keep playing.  I was mad enough that I had to pay $50/month for the internet connection.

The wider world of MMO gaming had been opened to me, though.  I tried a bunch, from Dungeons and Dragons Online to Guild Wars to Lord of the Rings Online to Atlantica Online to Star Trek Online to Allods Online to Wizard 101 to Neosteam to Free Realms to City of Heroes to DC Universe Online to my latest experiment, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and others in between that I’m not remembering at the moment.  I (quickly) grew tired of the DIKU grind, always chasing levels and loot.  I decided that playing with others can sometimes be OK, but that I’m still a soloist at heart.  I studied game design, business models and the game industry.  I found some MMO blogs as I studied the silly things and their communities, and eventually started a blog of my own.  This is why this blog still has a backbone of MMO analysis, but it’s not devoted to any one game or even stuck solely on games at all.  I came to this blogging world because of MMOs.

I may not be a MMO groupie, but I still find value in the sociality involved with the games and blogging in general.

So that’s what MMOs have done for me.  They have introduced me to bloggers I consider friends, they have increased my knowledge of the game industry and game design, and given me well over 6000 screenshots that I can use for inspiration (I’m an artist, after all).  My knowledge of games, my chosen career, has been enhanced by the wider world of the internet and how games work in that shared social space, whether or not they are designed for it.

My life is richer, not necessarily for having played MMOs, but for what they have led me to.

…but I still hate subscriptions.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been spoiled by hyperlinks.

They have changed the way I research and the way I write.  I’ve spoken many times to different people, noting that education is fostered by the human brain making connections between disparate data.  That was sort of the “Sherlock Holmes” schtick, pulling arcane data from pockets of his memory to make connections nobody else did, thereby properly fitting together the puzzle in front of him.  We learn more when we make connections.  (Incidentally, that’s true socially, which is why this blogging thing has value beyond just blathering.)  It’s even biological.  Neurons function by making connections, that’s how the brain functions and how memory works.

Once upon a time, back in junior high and high school, I wrote a lot of papers.  I learned how to write to a specific length instead of write what the topic needed, how to use bigger and more words when smaller or fewer would do, how to use paragraphs and carriage returns to get a little extra length, and as Calvin notes, that  the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! To this day, I’m sure it could be argued that I am rather more… verbose… than needs be, and that I parse things a little differently than most, but I do blame this more on the vast amount of reading I’ve done than the excruciating amount of writing for assignments that I’ve done.  By the time I was writing for my college Technical Writing class, I was actually cutting back on what I wrote so I didn’t go over the required length by 25% or more.  Of course, being a Technical Writing class, it was still about obscuring data and sounding educated, rather than educating the reader.  We certainly can’t have those uneducated people actually understanding what we college educated folk do.

Ahemhemhem.   Tangential diatribe aside, noting that sarcasm and tone don’t always carry over the interweb tubes, I’d note that blogging and writing in general are all about communication.  If you’re writing to show you’re smarter than the reader, well… that’s communication, but it’s pretty rude.  I know, I know, it’s just how textbooks work, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or even useful.

Anyway, back to linking (tangents are part of the concept of linking, incidentally; they are one way to pull in relevant information and expand your knowledge base), I’ve done a LOT of writing, and most of the time, I needed to cite my references.  Usually that was done with footnotes or endnotes.  I’ve fallen headlong into habits of citing my references, parenthetical asides and running tangents.  I’d like to think that’s good practice (the citations, at least), but it really can get a wee bit messy sometimes with all the superscripts or subscripts.  These days, though, I don’t use those, I just put in a hyperlink where it’s relevant.

If anything, this actually cuts down on my parenthetical asides.  I just plow on through my topic at hand, plugging in links where I’d previously have needed to explain something for a paragraph or so.  I can just trust that what I write makes sense on its own to anyone sufficiently well versed in the topic, and those who aren’t have a handy dandy link there to go catch up with.  It’s a sort of conversational shorthand, a way to appeal to a wider audience without breaking the flow of the text, and without indulging in full blown pedant mode, explaining everything in excruciating, formal detail.  This actually makes teaching in person harder… I get into a habit of assuming my audience knows what I’m talking about, and when they clearly don’t, I don’t have the time in real time to tell them to go read a link, I have to go back and explain things.  I’ve mentioned before that the persistent, asynchronous nature of blogs is a good thing, right?  I could explain everything, as I am very familiar with teaching methods, the scientific method and realllly tedious term papers, but I’ve found that writing is much more entertaining and flows better when I’m not stuck in “explain everything” mode.

Links are a crucial reflection of my thought process.  Perhaps that means I’m unfocused, but it really is my experience that chasing tangents and making those intellectual connections is the backbone of how I manage information and retain it for future use.  I loathe memorization, as a rote series of data points with no context is little more than GIGO, just data to regurgitate for a test somewhere.  It’s only by placing data in context with other information that I begin to care about it and retain it.  To this day, the only thing I remember of history before high school is memorizing the U.S. presidents and their dates of service.  I don’t remember the list, I remember how much I hated memorization.  (This song would have made it so much more fun.)  It was only in high school that teachers finally started putting the pieces together and teaching context, and boom, suddenly history was fascinating.  It all started making sense because of the links between disparate bits of data.  We chased down implications and unintended consequences, we looked at political ripples, we chased down echoes, sometimes hundreds of years later.  That’s all awesome stuff, but it gets lost in the memorization shuffle.  As kids, we were ever learning (and forgetting) data, never learning wisdom.

So, while links on the internet can and often are merely traffic-inducing plugs, for better or worse (as Wilhelm humorously notes), I think they are a great reflection of how the human mind works.  I also have to wonder on occasion if this whole ADHD craze is unfortunate sometimes.  I think it’s healthy to flit between topics and chase down implications and connections.  The trick may be to pull it all together in the end, but if we’re not mentally flitting about a bit, we’re not going to see the bigger picture.  My fourth grade teacher taught us how to “brainstorm” and see where our associative processes took us.  In retrospect, that was a very valuable lesson to learn at a relatively young age.

In a way, the “blogosphere” functions like a sort of shared brain.  Ideas can spark between writers, each bringing a different viewpoint to the process.  Links between blogs and references are like the connections between neurons, and since blogs are more or less persistent, once those links are forged, there’s a good chance that at least some of us learned something, and perhaps most importantly, that someone can come to it later and also learn.  Perhaps we can think of it as the wetware Skynet or something.

So, if you’re new to blogging, use those links!  Leverage the hivemind, jack your voice into the conversation.  When you’re reading someone else’s blog, chase some of the links sometimes, and see what’s out there to learn.  Learn how to read fast and think faster, making those links in your own brain.

Read Full Post »

What is a game, exactly?

There are a lot of different types of games, to be sure, but to my eye, the heart of what makes a game is the possibility of making choices.  Games are differentiated from passive entertainment like TV or film by allowing the end user to have some input that changes the experience.  Exactly how much control devs give to the player can vary wildly, but giving the user choices is important.  Of course, when you give the end user the ability to make choices, they may make mistakes.

I’ve come to believe that mistakes are what make a lot of games tick.  Part of this is the notion that experimentation and punishment-light mistakes are a significant part of how I define “play”.  Mistakes are part of learning, and if learning itself is fun, it’s usually because those mistakes aren’t backbreaking.  Take chances, get dirty, make mistakes!

I’ve been experimenting with board and card game design for a while now.  I’m close to having two more PDF games for download, like I presented Alpha Hex.  (I’d love it if I could make a bit of money on the side with these, but since I’m a rookie designer, I’d be pleased with feedback.)  Card and board games tend to be Player vs. Player, while video games tend to be Player vs. Environment.  Sure, there are the occasional cooperative PvE-like board games like Pandemic or Lord of the Rings, and there are many PvP video games like Street Fighter or Counter Strike, but I’m just talking in generalities.

The PvP in Tic-Tac-Toe is trivial.  The game can always be played to a draw with two sufficiently competent players.  (The level of competency is low, as well.)  PvP in Rock-Paper-Scissors is mechanically trivial, though there is a layer of “yomi” when it comes to the psychological games played between players.  PvP in Othello is a bit more mechanically involved, as well as strategically and tactically varied.  Go and Chess are a step further than that.

In most PvP scenarios, games between equally competent players tend to come down to mistakes.  Perfect execution in Tic-Tac-Toe means you always get a draw.  A player with better mastery of mind games will do better in Rock-Paper-Scissors.  Perfect execution of  a strategy in Go or Chess is a different thing, though, since the opponent has more opportunity to throw a wrench in the works.  More choices for each player tends to provide greater strategic and tactical depth, largely by giving players more opportunities to make mistakes.  Savvy players will capitalize on opponent mistakes while avoiding making any of their own.

In these more complex games, player choices tend to have multiple effects.  A knight in Chess, for example, can be used to “fork” an opponent, forcing them into choosing between two (or more!) pieces threatened by the knight.  If one of those pieces happens to be the king, the other piece must be sacrificed (or the knight captured).  In other words, players can use pieces that have multipronged influence to force decisions on opponents.  Force enough of those decisions without making too many yourself, and you can break an opponent.

To a lesser degree, that’s exactly how you can win Tic-Tac-Toe, by creating a choice for an opponent; block here or there… but if both are winning positions, the opponent cannot win since they don’t get two turns in a row.  Connect Four is a step beyond, extending the grid and allowing for more opportunity to force bad decisions.  Chess and Go do a similar thing, just with much more effective pieces and a tendency to need to think more than one or two moves ahead.  Greater piece and rule complexity allow for increased depth.

OK, so none of this is exactly rocket science.  It’s Game Design 101 kind of stuff.  This is just the sort of thing I find myself thinking about when I try to distill my own game designs.  I want to make games that are relatively simple to play, but with tactical or strategic depth, not unlike Go or Othello.  The game mechanics are simple enough, but thanks to large decision trees and yomi layers of move-countermove, tactics and strategy have plenty of room to breathe and develop.

On one hand, we have “games” like Candyland, where the entire game is decided by the initial state of the shuffled cards.  Players make no significant decisions, they just go through the motions.  The “game” is an exercise in foregone conclusions, and players are just seeing what will happen, their biggest decisions being when to turn over the inevitable card, or when to simply quit.  (OK, they could also choose to cheat, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at here.)

On another hand, we have “games” like Roulette, where the player makes two initial choices (what number to bet on and how much to bet), and random chance does the rest.  Slot machines are even worse.

These really aren’t games in my mind, but I’m not sure what to call them.  Still, people “play” them, and somehow derive fun.  Perhaps, like Avatar‘s popularity despite a weak “story”, the fun is derived from the window dressing and the experience.  Would a 3D holographic Candyland sell?  Perhaps it’s all about the payoff or the achievement, where the ends somehow determine that the means were fun.  Or maybe it’s all about the payoff, and the “game” is just something to suffer through.

On another hand, games like Rock-Paper-Scissors are all about the mind games.  David Sirlin’s Yomi card game digs even deeper into the yomi layers.  The actual conflict resolution is less about the very deterministic mechanics (Paper can never beat Scissors), and more about the player choices, especially since every player can choose rock, paper or scissors at any time.  These games can be very satisfying if you find fun in outguessing another player.

Tangentially, PvP in class-based MMOs tend in this direction, albeit more simplistically.  Rogues beat Mages who beat Warriors who beat Rogues.  There are some ways to alleviate this rigid dynamic (panic buttons like Ice Block for a Mage, Spell Reflection for a Warrior and so on), but for the most part, we’re back in RPS territory.  Pokemon is similar, just with an extended dependency/elemental heirarchy.

I tend to find this sort of rigid design less than satisfactory.  Sure, it might feel great to always beat on the class that you are inherently superior to, but it stinks to lose continually to a class inherently superior to yours.  This is one reason why I keep asking for more flexibility in MMO combat (BBB has a great article up on this philosophy), even allowing every player to shift to their own Rock, Paper or Scissors at any given moment.  To me, that’s more interesting game design, and far more satisfying to pull a victory out of, since it hinges on my choices in the moment, not an irrevocable class choice I made a long time ago.  I don’t like approaching a RPS game if I’m stuck being Scissors.

On yet another hand, there are the relatively simple two player games that tend to give one or the other player an advantage simply by the way they are designed.  Chess gives a slight edge to White, but a game like Y or Hex might have an even stronger advantage for the first player.  (Alpha Hex, strangely, gives a fairly strong advantage to the second player.  That’s the natural result of the capture-countercapture nature of the game.)  There are even games that, given perfect execution of a “determined” winning strategy, do not allow one of the players to win.  Ever.  Sometimes a draw isn’t even possible.

These games are where mistakes are especially important.  Perfect execution of an invincible strategy makes for a tedious “game” for the player who isn’t going to win.  The strategy-stealing argument suggests that the losing player cannot “steal” the winning strategy as long as the winner maintains the strategy.  The best they can hope for is a draw, if the game even allows that.  The game could effectively be declared finished when the initial turn order is decided; it’s all just going through the motions at that point.

Unless the winner-to-be makes a mistake.

This sort of strong bias for one player or the other can be a handicap mechanic for players of widely diverse skill levels, but it’s not much fun for players who both know the strategies and who can execute them perfectly.  That’s where a number of fudge factors come into play.

Increasing the opportunities to make mistakes by increasing the number of decisions to make is one way to fudge this bias.  That’s effectively how Chess evens the playing field.  Some games hide information, like Stratego, forcing players to make decisions with imperfect knowledge, effectively playing the odds and trying to outguess the opponent.  Many games use a random element, whether it’s shuffled cards, dice rolls, variable goals or even just each player holding cards only they can see (until played, anyway).  Whatever the case, these fudge factors allow mistakes (or force them!), thereby disrupting the formation of a perfect strategy.  The lack of perfect information is a benefit to these efforts to make the game more interesting by inviting mistakes.

Alpha Hex does give the second player an advantage (which messes with the psychology of gamers, since it’s usually the first player with an advantage), but the fudge factors of an unknown opponent hand (which cards they are holding, which may be magnified when you’re playing with random cards rather than sticking to a purely monoelemental deck)  and the ability to play any given card in six different orientations (more choices) help alleviate the bias. The optional elemental rule (especially if randomized) throws another variable into the mix.  The also-optional chain rule makes the game very swingy, but gives the opportunity to make up for past mistakes (or even lets players use fake “mistakes” to manipulate the opponent into making their own mistakes… more yomi gaming, there).

Also, the first player can control the pace of the game.  A timid player going first might start in the corner, but that gives the second player an advantage.  An aggressive player starting on an edge or in the middle will start in a cell that has an even number of cells around it, setting up a sort of “game within a game”.  (If the board were only ever 7 cells in a circular pattern, the first player playing in the middle would have a very strong advantage.  If the first player can manage to win this minigame before filling out the board’s other 5 cells, they can come closer to parity.)  Even so, the game tends to be decided in a few key points, rather than at any point in the match.  The first play is crucial, the 7-cell minigame is important (even if it means you build differently from the seven cell circle), and the transition from the 7-cell to the “endgame” can be a backbreaker.

This is why I’ve toyed with different board geometry, with more cells in different shapes.  I want to disrupt the formation of a perfect strategy, in an effort to make player choice crucial to the game.  I want to give the players more chances to make mistakes (and make correct decisions).  Alpha Hex isn’t a perfect game, but it’s been fun to design and to play.  I hope others have fun with it as well, and mistakes are a big part of that.  (So if you’re interested at all in a hex-based card game with shades of Triple Triad, please download the Alpha Hex Paper Beta!  I’d really appreciate some feedback on it, too.)

Mistakes are important in game design, too, which is why testing is such a huge component of polishing a game.  Mistakes can provide critical feedback, whether it’s for the player or the designer.  This is also why it’s important to learn from mistakes, rather than just blithely go on making the same ones over and over.  We are guaranteed to make mistakes, since we’re not omniscient.  We simply have to learn from them as we try to develop our own perfect strategy.  (Interestingly, it’s the designer’s job to prevent perfect strategies, at least with some games.)

That said, I’ll admit that if I do manage to devise a perfect strategy for a game, I almost immediately lose interest in it.  A solved puzzle just isn’t as much fun.  Likewise, “solved” PvP, if dominant or perfect strategies exist, just isn’t all that fun to play, at least not for me.  It’s just going through the motions, convincing myself that I’m having fun doing the same thing over and over.  The interesting part is that I get tired of it whether I’m winning or losing.

Perhaps variety really is the spice of life, and making mistakes is a part of that.  It’s certainly key to making a game interesting in my book.

It should be noted that I’m talking about mistakes that can be learned from, not a Random Number Generator forcing mechanical “mistakes”, thereby destroying any sense of control and progress.  It’s a crucial difference; I don’t mind mistakes that I make and learn from, but I can’t stand mistakes that the game makes then forces me to live with the consequences.  I love game design that makes all mistakes hinge on the player choices… because those are the ones I learn the most from and have the most fun playing.

Read Full Post »