Archive for the Opinions Category

Unsung heroes

Posted in Opinions on October 20, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

(Due to circumstances that will remain an enigma, this will be my last post on this space for a while. Moving forward, any posts I make will have to be ad-hoc as opposed to the 2-3 a week I’ve kept up for the past 5 months. What that will mean, only time will tell.)

We’ve successfully brought single-player aspects into MMOs, and with them has come the single-player mentality. It’s why I think Pokemon Go is the future of MMOs– not because it’s a technical marvel or a new frontier in storytelling or raids or whatever, but because it’s building on the original promise of the MMO: get out there and meet new people in this game, who will be your friends and allies on a great big adventure that YOU set the goals of.

– Tamrielo, Playing the Modern MMO (Digital Initiative)

I almost cheered at this post when I saw it a while back – until I reread that paragraph above. ‘That you set the goals of’?

My immediate reaction: what sort of multiplayer are we talking about here?

To most folks, I think, multiplayer in an MMO is about conquering challenges together in the world – challenges that everyone has a stake in conquering, be it dungeons, or group quests, or heart-crushing horrors like Guild Wars 2‘s infernal jumping puzzles. Counting one party member’s adventure among these is new to me.

Not new to veterans of Tyria, of course, since GW2’s Personal Story allows ‘guesting’. But said guests might as well be expendable NPCs for all the notice the story takes of their presence, and that’s always felt like less of an adventure to me than it could be.

MMOs all handle this aspect of the ‘adventure’ differently. Some, like GW2, cater to groups – this works where there is exclusive (race/class-specific) content, so everyone gets a shot at what they’re missing out on. Others, like The Lord of the Rings Online and The Elder Scrolls Online, do it the classic way, where the main story is something all players experience, on a global level, and with no distinction made between individual participants.

On one hand, the latter creates an environment where players have the freedom to tackle story content without any obligation to group up. Not something, I feel, that should be advocated, and yet it is – because on the other, this is also where the reviled solo-only quests come in, and no amount of rationalizing will do away with the fact that, you know, they’re solo-only.

Not only do they interrupt the all-important collaboration, they can be enormously frustrating to less skilled players who need that collaboration to survive the game’s mechanical challenges in the first place. I find myself recalling a friend, a casual who played a Lore-master in LoTRO’s Rise of Isengard days, and how he nearly dumped the game upon hitting the brick wall that was Saruman’s ambush of the Rohirrim in the Ring of Isengard. None of us could lend a hand – because it was his show. It was a textbook example of game mechanics interfering with the story experience.

The other issue is, again, that none of these approaches truly account for the presence of other players. In the context of the adventure itself, we’re still the protagonists, saving the world all by ourselves, and our friends are just extras. While functional, I can’t help feeling the emptiness of it.

If the idea is emergent gameplay, telling our own stories through spontaneous collaboration, the premise of one man leading the charge (leaving aside the joke of solo-only) works. But if we’re going to bring in the single-player side of the story (pun intended) at all, perhaps we ought to go all the way.

Like Zubon at Kill Ten Rats wrote, certain things in a game should not receive positive reinforcement. I don’t doubt there are many who consider MMO soloing one.

On MMO class difficulty and long absences

Posted in Opinions on October 15, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

The very existence of classes in an MMO forces us to let three factors guide our choice at chargen: what we enjoy doing, what we can be good at doing, and what’s practical.

There’s overlap between the three, to be sure, but still, the funny part is how we reconcile them.

What we enjoy doing is, perhaps, the only one of the three where romance comes into the picture. Lovers of knight and paladin tropes would certainly be more inclined to let that love influence their choice of, say, sword and shield or greatsword and holy magic. Folks who fell for Orlando Bloom in the Lord of the Rings films probably leaned more towards bows and pet classes for a while (okay, maybe not, but we all love our little prejudices).

I fall into this category (knights, not Legolas) and have a tanky, slow-killing, sword & board type in every MMO I’ve played. Am I good at it? Tanks only shine in group play, where I would say: probably not. Is it practical? Not if I’m just clearing content – but then, I did take a Protection Warrior from 1 to 70 in WotLK-era WoW, when the practice was to level in Fury.

Those devoid of similar romantic notions may opt for more pragmatic classes and roles. Play a healer if you have excellent peripheral vision and quick fingers. Roll as a DPS if you excel at rotations and have the time to invest in working towards epic gear. Et cetera.

At first glance, what we’re good at and what’s practical may appear to be the same (at least as far as ‘winning the game’ is concerned). But there is an added element to said practicality, which inspired this post in the first place. See the title.

Elvedui Eärendur

Class difficulty is something I first saw delineated in The Lord of the Rings Online. I was to swiftly learn that the devs’ appraisal of the Warden was no jest – absent cheatsheets and/or Guinness-worthy memory, I failed to see how a scatter-brained shmuck like me could play the ‘advanced’ class to even half its intended potential. It was even more brutal on the returning Warden players I saw, who invariably complained of having to relearn a hundred skill permutations just to perform at all. The friction this created was, I’m sure, enough to drive away some of them.

Which raises an interesting question – why roll as a difficult and ‘impractical’ class, if you anticipate long leaves of absence from the game?

I guess some of us don’t mind the friction. Or love the challenge of mastering and then re-mastering a class. Maybe others feel it’s the only class or role they enjoy, or are good at. And maybe still others just acted on instinct and picked a class at random. There can be any number of reasons beyond what comes to my mind just now.

But for those on the flip side of that equation, every incidence of friction may be one more step towards abandoning a character – or even a game. This is, of course, strictly a player-side problem, and nothing devs can (or will) do makes a difference. It stems from the choice we made at chargen – which, with our modern, jam-packed lives, may not be as simple as it once seemed.

On the runway lights in MMOs

Posted in Opinions on September 16, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

It took me a while to notice Guild Wars 2‘s map completion rewards.

Anyone with a few brain cells more than me would have picked it up right out the gate, what with all the Scout NPCs who conveniently show you where you can go next and what’s there to do there – and all of it neatly delineated on your world map. Those little golden hearts and red triangles and stuff might as well be so many checkboxes to tick, and there has to be something after ticking them all, right?

I hung around in my first zone to ensure I got every one. And then it happened. Heading into the next zone, I caught myself repeating an all too familiar routine: stopping, pulling up the map, and turning in place to orient myself towards nearby checkboxes. It helped that the game has a constant prompt on the top-right corner to lead you towards the nearest one.

In other words, I wasn’t exploring the labyrinth anymore. I was Theseus with Ariadne’s ball of thread, picking my way out inch by inch.

Many gripe about linear world & quest design in MMOs. But where so many leave most of the runway lights off, GW2 seems to have them on all the time, hand-holding players from point to point. Guidance – or pandering to completionism?

Every MMO has some sort of guidance in place to help players get un-lost in the world. ‘Signpost’ quests, in-character mails, map-marking through dialogue – even TESO’s annoying skyshard riddles. Given that I’ve encountered more than one MMO player who claimed they gave up on an MMO because they ‘had no idea what to do next’, any measure helping to refer people to new zones is probably quite necessary.

Unfortunately, the net result of such measures is, more often than not, a themepark atmosphere and mindset. Reducing player friction along the runway turns it into just a path to sprint along to reach the endgame. And what then? Cue all the age-old arguments around ‘old’ content getting devalued and neglected, and ‘new’ content never coming fast enough or thick enough or both…

But that’s the nature of any online game as a commercial venture. As has been brought up before, a large proportion of any MMO playerbase comes to a game looking for distraction – or gratification. (Usually both.) It’s far easier to bore or scare them off than to retain them. Thus, making the runway a path of least resistance becomes the only sensible thing to do from a financial standpoint. Save the resistance for the sideshows – like crafting. The leveling journey becomes just a means to an end, whether that end be raiding or PvP or fashion wars or hopping on tavern tables and soliciting the envy of the newbies and the undergeared.

Good for the devs, and not so good for the game.

I’m not asking why the runway – I’m asking why the lights. Leaving sandbox MMOs aside, your conventional MMO needs a structure for players to play through, but surely they need not be led by the nose. In GW2, for instance, I would have appreciated a toggle on the hand-holding, so I could discover new quests and locations on my own, Skyrim-style.

Perhaps not the best analogy, come to think of it, given that so many have chastised Skyrim‘s gameplay for being nothing but a giant to-do list – but there it is.

On game difficulty and the concept of ‘challenge’

Posted in Opinions on August 18, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

I’ve wanted to write something on this for some time now, and reading MtBerry Yoshi’s post on the same was my push to do so. He talks about his own changing attitudes, over time, from challenging himself in a game’s higher difficulty settings to ezmoding through just for the story. I’ll bet it’s something a lot of us do.

Anyone who, like me, came from a gaming background where the only peers were stereotypical rabid competitive types should sympathize. Normal mode was these guys’ Easy. ‘Real men’ played Hard. Or Brutal. Or Legendary. Whatever.

Here’s the thing. Difficulty settings are handicaps – things only doled out when one contestant is superior to the other. In gaming, there’s scant argument on that superiority. We are capable of a spontaneity and cunning no computer can match, even when we’re playing by their rules.

By that token, cutting our AI adversaries some slack would be the sporting thing to do, and perhaps it is. But what slack is that? Easy mode means different things in different games.

Let’s take RTS games. Higher difficulties in many of those involve the AI incorporating advanced units, like a sparring partner taking the kid gloves off – which is sensible, since there’s nothing stopping us from doing that regardless of difficulty. But it doesn’t end there, does it? Any AI’s counter to our human intelligence and strategy would be a product of cranking up variables within its reach – basically, cheating.

Accelerated production cycles. Reduced unit costs. Waived penalties. An RPG or FPS equivalent would be AI enemies dealing more damage and suffering less – and, in the latter case, enjoying ridiculous accuracy. I like to quote the example of a test match I ran with a friend in Unreal Tournament years ago, against bots on the Godlike setting: it was (and I am keeping a very straight face here – this is not exaggeration) nothing but five minutes of getting headshotted across the map within a second of each respawn.

Call that a handicap, or anything you like, but none of this makes for a fulfilling experience, even in the pseudo-competitive context. It’s the gaming version of an employee tasked with clearing next month’s worth of work by the end of the day. There’s only so far such shenanigans can go without challenging the notion of challenge.

There are, of course, games that attempt to introduce different variations of the difficulty setting. MtBerry Yoshi mentioned The Last of Us, which I never played, but I did play Fallout: New Vegas, and its Hardcore Mode comes to mind. It was designed to encourage keener (or more risk-averse) play by adding elements of realism (hunger and thirst, ammo weight, greatly slowed healing, etc), which sounded cool, but personally, I found it more a mere inconvenience than anything. Abjuring VATS targeting and aiming with the then-newly introduced iron sights was more my idea of a challenge.

This is just my take, naturally. Everybody wants different things – different challenges, even – from games. But there it is. Challenge is not bringing a knife to a gunfight. If you want challenge, play against a human. Don’t measure your skill (or others’) as a gamer against arbitrary advantages imposed in lieu of an actual, meaningful honor system.

Thoughts on an interview with two Japanese devs

Posted in Opinions on August 1, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

My gaming buddy, a Final Fantasy XIV player and fan, sent me this old interview of its redeemer, Yoshida Naoki, in which he and Futami Yosuke, a producer on the Sword Art Online games, discuss MMOs. The English translation is a good one, and makes the whole thing a pretty good read. Recommended.

As I read along, I found myself thinking up responses to some things both gentlemen said. This post is basically just a record of those. I seriously had no idea what to even title it.

“A game needs to be appealing even if communication is held to the bare minimum.”

Yoshida-san really slams it out of the park here, especially with the fishing analogy. People’s definitions of the ‘multiplayer’ in ‘MMO’ have changed. Once (if ever), it was about collaboration. Now it’s just about being alone in the crowd – being surrounded by active players to remind you that you’re not alone.

I’ve often said that the trick in MMO design is creating an environment that encourages players to stay. Here it is, and its efficacy is not an intrinsic thing, but the product of shifting attitudes. And we have one very successful dev encouraging others to cater to the soloists. Not right or wrong – just mere pragmatism.

Do I like it? Not really. Do I want it to change? I don’t know. Perhaps this deserves a post to itself. After all, I’m playing The Elder Scrolls Online now, and what better place to examine the ‘solo MMO’ dynamic?

“As time progresses, some NPCs in town will actually talk to you as you walk by. Those are the type of immersive features that I worked on with our development team.”

Futami-san was talking about Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment here, which is a game that simulates an MMO, so I can understand the definition of ‘immersion’ as ‘NPCs programmed to behave in a realistic manner’. But I don’t agree with it.

Because immersion is far more than that. It’s the sum of variables, key among which is the player’s own creative senses. To borrow the words of Storium founder Stephen Hood, “the computer is not able to respond to you. To the full breadth of human creative expression”. The best any game can do is to provide a richly detailed game world, and the tools for players to immerse themselves.

Immersion can only be forced so far through scripted actions. My own playthroughs of the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games hammered that home for me; once I knew what lay ahead, the third time was definitely not a charm.

“In Japan, players strongly adhere to the communities that they are a part of. Even if they aren’t a member of a particular community, they tend to strive to blend in with regards to the tone and atmosphere of the setting that they’re in. You could view it as being harmonious, but you could also view it as being passive as well. On the other hand, foreign gamers are much more likely to be highly individualistic. You gather a group of these unique individuals together to form a party and go on adventures. Instead of going with the flow, everybody seems to discuss their objectives and opinions more freely.”

Uhhh…

“Players from Japan tend to want the ability to create an original character. They want an avatar of themselves, so that they can go on adventures alongside Kirito. Foreign users are the opposite; they want to go on the adventures as Kirito.”

More generalization. Okay, I’ll bite. I’m going to reach out to my readers here, most of whom are non-Japanese. (Or so WordPress tells me.) Do you seriously fall in with this? Because I don’t.

In one of my first posts on this blog, I talked about the difference between ‘roleplaying’ and ‘playing a role’. A long time ago when I was less picky about such things, sure, I didn’t mind stepping into known characters’ skins. But the fun of that declined fast. Adventuring alongside those characters as an original protagonist may require a good bit of suspension of disbelief, since, once again, there’s no way the game can be scripted to accommodate you fully. But it’s the best we can get in this area, so why not?

“In the past, I’ve said something like:“If you use the Content Finder, you can just treat most of the people you’re matched up with as though they were NPCs.” (Laughter) That’s not meant to encourage players to act out and be jerks, but rather to reinforce the notion that it’s OK to just form a party with people whom you’ve just met and to go out and have fun.”

I’m not sure I see the joke. Many have remarked on how dungeon finders have killed what little of the social aspect remains in MMOs, and while I’ve said nothing on the subject, I’ve certainly experienced my fair share. Again, here we have a successful dev backing something disagreeable.

Forming a PUG and heading out to accomplish a goal is not quite the same as a random dungeon queue. Even the act of forming that PUG calls for the ‘bare minimum of communication’ – the willingness to deal with other players as human beings. (Benefit of the doubt here.) Dungeon finders take even that away.

So, no. It’s not exactly funny to encourage fast-food content consumption, and then encourage people to treat fellow players as NPCs just because. Let’s do better.

“We considered starting the game out with a very simple UI, and adding options and settings to increase the information load as you progressed through the game, but we decided against it. If a player were to progress through the game without realizing that such options existed, then they could end up being the same level as another player who’s had a far more enriched and in-depth experience.”

Why would that be an issue? Aren’t UIs, or HUDs, or whatever we choose to call them, merely a game’s way of filtering down to us the information it’s crunching behind the scenes? ‘Enriched’ and ‘in-depth’ are a bit subjective here.

I once read an excellent piece on the evolution of RPGs (for the life of me, can’t remember where or who wrote it) which talked about how, in the tabletop days, GMs used to roll dice behind screens to hide outcomes from players – and now that computers are doing all the dice-rolling, it’s strange that we have to see every little calculation and bit of output.

Contains Moderate Peril’s Roger Edwards had something to say on this a while ago. To quote him, “if you’re not using a specific element of the HUD, then remove it and that goes for skills as well.” Amen! Let us decide how we want to play: Call of Cthulhu-style or EVE-style. After all, we all have different thresholds for ‘information load’.

On getting powergamers into roleplaying

Posted in Opinions, Roleplay on July 29, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

I read this article at Roleplaying Tips with some degree of amusement. Dealing with powergamers has been, if not the bread and butter, then certainly the morning coffee of both my gaming and roleplaying careers – and it’s always good to see folks thinking of ways to get them involved in the finer things.

It’s a good piece, and one I wish I had read during my return to tabletop roleplay some years back. The all-munchkin group that spurred my prompt un-return could sure have used some of these tips. (My own pro tip: don’t use the WoW soundtrack for scene-setting. Makes folks start jibing about WoW, and before you know it, the thrill is gone.)

But as I read it, I found myself thinking of what would happen if I really did try to use them in a local context. I’m sure this applies elsewhere too, since powergamers are the same the world over.

The article’s thrust appears to be that GMs should “make character identity integral to the plot”, mandate in-character ‘sideline activities’, and dole out in-game bonuses to players who comply with both. Straightforward enough. It scratches the rewards itch that keeps powergamers going. But it’s also predicated on that very itch, which subverts the intention entirely.

Grind in MMOs is incentivized by nature because even with rewards, it’s a chore. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect powergamers who don’t RP to find RP any less of a chore with rewards.

More often than not, I think, they’d simply approach ‘character identity’ the same clinical, min-maxed way they approach their rollplaying. Encouraging them to put the story first calls for an approach that doesn’t penalize them materially, enabling them to pay more attention (and hopefully interest) to roleplay.

One example is collaborative writing game Storium. In Storium’s card-based system, narrators drive their plots by creating Challenges for players to spend characters’ Strength or Weakness cards on. For instance, a Challenge representing an armory guard might be addressed with a silver tongue or an intimidating personality (a Strength card), or with a naïve or chicken-hearted nature (a Weakness card).

The great thing is, whoever ‘completes’ a Challenge, akin to the ‘last hit’ mechanic in MOBAs, wins narrative control on how it turned out. So what’s to stop them from ponying up only Strength cards, and writing that they talked their way past the guard and made off with the armory’s best gear? This is one very simple case, but it makes my point. Whether the rest of the story would be better served by the party not being armed to the teeth was probably not a consideration when the powergamer made his move.

Fortunately, there is a counterweight: ‘weak’ outcomes are not synonymous with losing. An obstacle overcome with a ‘weak’ result is still overcome – just with interesting side effects. Perhaps the guard grew suspicious and attacked the party, wounding someone before he was taken down. Or he managed to escape and raise the alarm. Either way, the way into the armory is clear. This way, GMs can spice up encounters and plots without putting off munchkins.

If we’re looking for compliance alone, incentivizing works. But in the long term, it might take more than rewards for powergamers to prioritise the story over conventional gains. The GM’s own ability to make losing out, or undesirable outcomes, interesting is what counts.

The mobile MMO conundrum

Posted in Opinions on July 19, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

Recently, Massively OP’s Bree wrote that she is “a little bummed” at the apparently missed opportunities in mobile gaming. The mobile bubble has burst without any true mobile MMOs having come along, a blow for the MMO scene, and all that.

Well, I’m not bummed in the least. Like Thomas Henshell, I have always been anti-casual games; as a corollary, I am anti-mobile games as well (I do not have, and have never had, a single game on my iPhone). And there’s the rub – casual.

Mobile games are designed to kill moments. MMOs are designed to kill hours. A mobile MMO seems to me like prime cut Angus deep-fried and served drenched in KFC ketchup. Shoehorning the WoW formula into an iPhone is never going to work – for anything resembling MMOs we we know them to be feasible on mobile the way mobile gaming was intended, expectations must change.

For starters, every factor in an MMO that glues the player to the screen needs to be rethought. Two ways to do it come to mind: the old-fashioned browser game method of timed moves, or customizable AI taking control while a player is away. These would also address the issue of spotty network connections.

Neither works for me. After all, they kill the in-the-moment social factor that MMOs thrive on. If I’m in a raid with 11 others, and 8 of them leave their characters on autopilot because lunch hour’s over or they’ve reached the end of the clinic queue, I’d feel the same as if they had link-dropped or just ragequit.

Speaking of raids, the whole system of dungeons needs rethinking as well. Mobile controls aren’t well suited for conventional MMO movement and combat, and neither is the conventional MMO formula of teaming up against lengthy boss challenges. But without that, what is a mobile MMO but a one-sided MOBA?

These are just a couple of surface thoughts. What it boils down to is, simply, that either MMOs need to be redefined to succeed on mobile, or mechanical concessions have to be made. Either way, this might make them not MMOs, and then what’s the point? And all this without even bringing payment models into the equation.

There are too many clashing variables to reconcile. Realistically, the commenters on that MOP post who say mobile can only support MMOs are on the right track. To me, that’s where mobile belongs – as a complement to bigger, deeper games. The drone operator app for The Division was, for a long time, my favorite example of this. A pity we’ll never see it.

I’ll end with an anecdote. When, some months back, a small team reached out to me to write for an iPad RPG they were planning, I put aside my reservations and agreed to meet. After all, can’t say no to writing for a game, right? But there would be no second meeting.

Because less than an hour into the brainstorming, I was hearing talk of microtransactions and price points. The game was just a glint in their eyes, and already there was the cold gleam of monetization behind it. A gleam that outshone any consideration of making a game that would stick in the first place.

That’s the problem with mobile gaming, in its purest form: fleeting diversion, pendulum gaming focus, and devs milking every swing of the pendulum from the ground up. A reflection of what we have become as societies – and something I’m glad I was reminded to abjure.