Posts archived in design

I’ve noticed there are some major differences in the careers of designers based on what kind of game they started with. It mostly seems to manifest itself as a difference in what tools they tend to dust off first in their design toolkit, and where they really work on expanding. I’m not sure I want to go into where I see this in anyone else’s work, wouldn’t want people to take it the wrong way, but I’m more than happy to talk about how this has effected mine.

This may surprise some people, but the first few games that I worked on were all interactive fiction. A few attempts went into straight up, room by room, interactive fiction that lightly mixed in some of my favorite crpg standards. This all culminated in my final C++ project, which was the last code I’d touch for about a year afterwards, Birth. It was an unconventional, to say the least, mix of fiction and simulation, using a full 3d simulation with a text based interface. I’d gotten the overall project fairly far along, I no longer remember why I didn’t go ahead and follow through on it. In any case, one of the major points I focused on in Birth was the introduction and early story telling, it was here that I developed my love of self explanatory backgrounds. (In Birth the player was an AI that had just been “born”, neatly putting player and character on the same page.)

Anyways, the point of it all is that my early exposure to design was not “design in absence of narrative” rather it was “design as narrative”. To me working out the story elements of a game is not something to done once I’ve discovered stable fun gameplay, it’s a starting point which I work from to discover possible design elements. Those elements may then be worked into the story making them two parts of an inseparable whole. This isn’t that odd, art direction is used similarly all the time, it’s just the kind of thing that you don’t see done as much with story due to the tendency of story to come later in a development cycle.

One of the things this allows is the use of much more diverse storytelling elements. For instance it’s easier to include a first act and not have to just reach for in medias res because I’m not having to fight a bunch of design decisions that won’t allow me to show the protagonist’s earlier states. Unfortunately, I can’t go into Officer’s story too deeply, for a few reasons. In large part because I’ve found it’s a terrible idea to write a whole bunch of stuff about a game that’s still in a very malleable stage.

What I can talk about, though, is Officer’s approach to The Call. Most first acts, even if you break things down in 4 acts or 9 acts (where we would really be talking about the first 2-3 acts), are basically introduction, the call, and acceptance or a reversal. In games we usually start the second act at The Call, the acceptance may be given, but it’s almost always assumed, i.e. packaged in the call itself, since it’s usually before the player can even act. Sometimes the ground between call and acceptance is covered as a tutorial segment. In Officers, we have the basic call that comes AFTER the tutorial intro, Foira’s parents are killed and she has to take over one of the most elite military forces inside the empire to prevent her cousin from taking her inheritance from her. The game gives you a fairly aimless time period for a while, your strategist will give you advice and there are some things you can’t do, but otherwise your free to mess around in the nearby area. After a while we get what looks like second call, the emperor is dead with succession in doubt, but this is actually the moment where we finally get to the acceptance. Before now Foira hasn’t taken on the responsibility of being the head of one of the main factions of internal politics, only taking care of her own fief and direct vassals. The sudden change in circumstances forces the issue, she cannot surrender without a very close friend being executed, and literally all routes that might lead out of the country would be guarded. Cornered and holding many lives in the balance, she accepts the call to be more than just a gentry, but to be an actual hero.

An interesting counter-example to the gaming norms are the Bethesda games Oblivion and Fallout 3. In those cases, the player is given the call during the introduction, but the acceptance is actually the point where the player arrives at the first main quest location. If the player decides to ignore the main quest at that point, it’s the same as refusing the call. There are two examples that immediately come to mind of it being played straight. In the Magicka demo, the player is dropped down a shaft, literally dropping them in medias res into the game play and adventure. It can be debated, though, that the true call isn’t until after the tutorial level when you find the village being raided by goblins, but I assumed my character’s motivation was to get back to the party, which would make that first drop the call. My second though is actually the Vanilla WoW starting areas. By and large they tend to start things off with only a short introduction to who you may have been, then explicitly give you a call, by completing the quests in the zone you wind up accepting the call and then from there head out into the world.

As you can tell from the examples above, it’s not necessarily bad to have only a short first act. To be honest my aversion to the short first act is more my *stubbornness in relation to the role of “in medias res” in the writing, than a noble agenda for the improvement of games. Still, having a feel for how to make a good, playable first act is something that I feel will set me apart in the long run. In all honesty, if somebody really wanted to make me giddy, they’d show me an example of a good third act that includes a playable resolution. I have an idea off the top of my head, it roughly comes out to go around giving away all the things that made you powerful until you return to the power level you began the game with. Still if anyone has actually done it at all, I’d be interested to see.

One thing that just came to my mind is it’s interesting to see how completely focused on that acceptance to defeating the big bad story segment games tend to be. There is plenty of room for game mechanics in character introductions, especially a lot of room for game mechanics in those moments just after the big bad has been defeated but the end of the world not yet averted. Nonetheless, most games pick up after our hero is definitely our hero, and end as soon as the big bad has met his final end. Imagine, for instance, that SW: The Force Unleashed ended with a mission about destroying a rebel base and killing Luke if you turned Sith, or playing Luke saving the same rebel base if you stayed light side.

* I once read that it was advised that all beginning authors make their first few projects in medias res, at which point I decided that for the next few years I would absolutely not start in medias res.

Am I the only one who finds the IPs people choose to make MMOs out of kind of… weird? Almost as weird as my tendency to misspell weird ‘wierd’, thank god for spell-check. Anyways, I’m not just talking about some fantasy vs. sci-fi argument rehash. I mean if I were looking for qualities that set an IP apart for ease of transition, I sure as shit wouldn’t pick Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Warhammer. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just… well it’s like mining tin instead of gold, lots more mining for comparatively less profit.

Let’s take LotR for just a second. It’s got the obvious pieces, swords, monsters, a few races and some good back story. Now you need to write a reason for the player to be in the story, either double your work by including both factions or find some way to make PvP somewhat reasonable, and build a world where your players can socialize at different levels without even having full control of your mapping and architecture. If you take a step back and look at pretty much all of the IPs that have been carried over, they were picked for nerdbase (or better put nerdgasm), but all of them require some serious designer two-step and worst of all they need it in places that are basically no-win scenarios with the fan base.

My take? Well first off, we’re gonna have to leave the American culture sphere since, honestly, they don’t have much that’s quite so perfect. So my first three proposals would be Pokemon, Angelic Layer, and Air Gear. Kids, pre-teens, and older teens to adults respectively, hell if you allow some of their nudity shenanigans Air Gear would be more adult than Age of Conan on it’s best day. Now why these?

What advantages do these IPs offer? For starters, no death. This means we never have to worry about why all the source material characters were afraid of dieing, when the players have the immortality button. Organized PvP. Not only do we have a reasonable system for players to fight each other, we also have leagues, ladders, duels, team duels, scoring systems, betting systems, achievements, titles, and even story driven battles. Directed social interaction. This is probably the most important of all, and it’s tied into the organized PvP but it’s just as important in PvE and downtime. These shows have already shown us when, where, why and how the players interact, when they fight, when they cooperate, when they just talk and hang out. Right now there is a lot of complaining about the grind, and people are right to knock it, we’ve gotten so focused on how every needs to be the hero we’ve missed something. Practice. Nobody is perfect at first, and sometimes you practice alone, but what really makes practice so awesome is you get to hang out with your friends and see each other grow as you do it. Walk around alone and of course it’s just going to suck sooner or later.

Let me get philosophical here for a minute. Game designers have had a good long time to learn how to make a game fun for someone for a little while. We’ve also had a while to learn how let a few friends have fun and compete for years. So far this has all been in the context of real life, distributed virtual scoring for virtual representation of an identity. The real advantage of an MMO is the unified context, you aren’t just doing something, you’re doing it with everyone around you and you’re all sharing in one great big experience. It’s not about solo or group, or anything so fucking divisive, even when you’re alone you’re in the middle of the great stream of players and activity around you. If that stream slows down, it sucks, but it never stops till the devs pull the plug and walk away.

These IPs have a flow guide, a route already laid out. If it wasn’t so apparent that the industry needed training wheels, I wouldn’t bother pointing them out. Listen, the reason nobody is going to overthrow WoW is because it needs more than just that perfect storm of publicity. I never thought polish was the right word, and I’m tired of all the debates over the word fun, the fact is it has to be a fundamentally good game and it has to generate enough content to bridge the gap of four years within a month. With these IPs you have one job, render their fundamental hat in terms of fun game play then follow the map making minor corrections as needed. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be a fun project, and I think there are more than a few big names in the industry who need to get their asses back to the roots of game design.

I know I don’t have a job in the industry, and my projects aren’t really working out all the time. I’ve got my problems, but if anyone at the top is reading this, look out. You keep it up with the phoned in performances, and I’m gonna catch up to bite you in the ass. I’m tired of playing around, so consider yourself warned.


Worth Watching

Raph has a link to one of his newest Keynotes on his blog.

This one is particularly good.

There was an article I found some time ago, and greatly enjoyed at the time. Slaughtering Sacred Cows (Amen!) over at Virtual Cultures. I read the article, and the comments, walking away with interesting ideas about ways to express death and failure. However, like most subjects of thought, it was eventually relegated to the “important but not fully understood” section at the back of my mind, where the node has been building information and thesis.

When I was largely dealing with only single player games, I hadn’t really had a chance to see the “sacred cow” of failure put under truest duress. But after some time logged in World of Warcraft, Tabula Rasa, EVE and WAR, it rather makes itself the elephant in the room. When all is said and done, the professional games industry does not, at any point, allow there to be true failure in games.

Before we go any further let me explain what I mean by true failure. First off, death is not failure, and failure is not death. Death is an end, a finite state, a point at which some character ceases to play a role, it can be a bad thing, but it can also be a good thing. Failure, true failure, is an action with lasting negative consequences for both yourself and, in one way or another, the world around you. In a system of true failure, not defeating the boss would mean that the world really is destroyed, or the uncouth host they promised really does set about ravaging the world. As you may have noticed, any number of popular MMOs are dead as way of insulating the world from failure.

Right now the vast majority of supposed “failure states” in games are built around a single guiding principle, “make the gamer physically uncomfortable”. Save/loads, level replays, unskippable cut scenes, corpse reclaiming and debuffs are all designed to make you sink in more time, many of them also provide a sudden break in the action just as the player is probably at the height of an adrenaline high. Note, I’m not saying these things are bad, just that they aren’t failure, they are punishment. They tell people we think they did something bad, and that they should learn not to do it again.

So what would be a failure state? The destruction of a world, the permanent death of a storyline character they have grown close to, all the apple pies they were baking going bad, there really isn’t a limit to the variety and types of failure states. What they do have in common though is that they cannot be undone and have at least the opportunity to effect the game the player is playing as they move forward.

I’m sure some of you laughed at the idea of a game trying to make you physically uncomfortable, since it’s probably something that games never will be able to do. Why then do we try and make that the baseline for dealing with a player’s failures? Part of it has to do with content, as the internet expands and the reach of gifted amateurs increases, the value of content is dropping like a stone towards nothing. As we become more and more used to having amateur and semi-pro level content available for free at the touch of a button, the amount a player is willing to pay for sub-phenomenal content decreases to match.

While prices of games may be going up, the cost of content generation is increasing far in advance. Where someone once may have payed $20 for 8-bit graphics, limited synth chips and short disposable stories, they now pay $70 for fully rendered high definition 3d, surround sound stereo music with full voice over, at least decent writing and 30 hours of game play. The cost of creation being an exponential increase, hundred thousands to tens of millions, while the price difference to the end user is only 350%. Worst of all, the time needed to create a set amount of content has vacillated only a little, meaning that the human costs of content generation have remained basically the same, if not slightly increasing.

All of this works together to create a sort of underlying fear that people won’t actually see or appreciate your content. A certain amount of driving force is created to make certain all components of your game can be viewed by even the worst players, and that even the best players be forced onto a certain set of rails from which anything more than minor deviation is caustically punished.

On the other hand, it’s commonly cited that as a form of entertainment the players themselves don’t want to fail. To which I call bullshit. Maybe they aren’t the world’s largest segment of gamers, but apparently there are more than a few out there who seem to be fed up with the lack. And let’s be honest here, how are we to know if they aren’t a commercially viable group when the only thing even hinting at that is “common wisdom”, or was it only in my dreams that Wing Commander was a financially successful title.

Perhaps user generated content, in the Second Life or Saga of Ryzom sense, will be our great savior from these ails, but somehow I doubt it. I would put my money more on the creation of user colonized spaces, where the game’s own item set and crafting capacity allows the users to create their own lands. EVE comes close in this regard, but certainly isn’t a purist ideal, perhaps Neveron would be a closer example with almost purely player owned landmass.

I’m not saying that the industry must change now, but rather I’m wondering why the industry is so happy hiding it’s head in the sand. The Sims is actually commonly maligned for being a casual game, yet in further examination it’s one of the few to have actual failure, and by extension actual success, built into the core of the game. Spore is continuing that tradition, though right now it’s a little mired in the brick-a-brack of DRM issues, and also seems to be financially successful. Is it possible that in our headlong rush to define the importance of a game as whether or not the game contains enough bad asses, we may well have missed something both artistically and financially important?

When it comes to game design, we’ve seen a few interesting aberrations over the years. Especially since the rise of the computer, though many of the more recent oddities predate computers. One of these aberrations is the vertical game design.

In a vertical game design, the core concept is one of linear, upwards growth within the game. In the majority of cases, this growth is conceptualized through the growth of an in-game avatar. As a player plays the game, the goal is to increase themselves to better reach a goal or challenge. Probably the leading characteristic is the significant change in power as a character plays the game, making serious competition between players at different “heights” virtually impossible.

In contrast we have a much older tradition, that of horizontal games. You could probably site Chess as an excellent example of this. The basic idea being that all players are theoretically even on the board, it is the decisions they make and the tools they choose that differentiate them.

So which is the better system? I could beg off responsibility and say there isn’t, but that would be unprofessional. The simple fact is that despite their having different strengths, horizontal design is, in my opinion, simply better design. With proper implementation, a horizontal design can be flexible and reactive, light on it’s feet, and allows you to focus your time on the game’s design, rather than on the content’s design.

While the current standing argument is that vertical is more appealing to the masses, I don’t particularly subscribe to that. Our teeming masses are still people that play poker, and the occasional game of monopoly or trivial pursuit. What each of those games has in common is that they are all horizontal. Each was designed to be accessible and fun, simply succeeding at those two points will do more towards collecting the masses than making it vertical ever will.

After all, if vertical game play were really that great in and of itself we wouldn’t be swimming in an ocean of dead mmos, would we?

Do we really have to choose one or the other though? Personally I rather like what I call pyramidal designs. Designs in which players can either expand their options or power up. Some things that I would consider key to this are, first do not invert the pyramid the bottom should have more options than the top not the other way around, and second, get used to working with graphs, most of your design decisions are going to have to be made in a way more similar to plotting along a graph than feeling it out.

Personal notes aside, as game designers we need to focus on the strength of a core design. Horizontal design lives or dies by how well you design the core system, but because of that it is infintely extensible and scalable. Vertical design has built in hard limits that require your content designers to be the people responsible for making or breaking your game. I don’t know about anyone else, but personally I don’t feel very comfortable with that.

- Insired by
Tobolds MMO Blog – Horizontal Expansions to Vertical Games
Serial Ganker – Horizontal Expansions
Blogerati – Theorycraft: Horizontal Is Cooler Than Vertical

Earlier today I was looking over the minutes for the first meeting of the CSM. While doing so I stumbled across this offshoot thread on system sovereignty. As I read through the various thoughts and suggestions posted I invariably found myself shaking my head in disappointment.

The posters in the thread certainly don’t come across as unintelligent people, and even the concepts they put forth aren’t bad in and of themselves. Still I can’t shake this feeling that I’m watching a deeper issue at play here. This does provide an interesting working example though, so let me explain.

In EVE players can own their own bits of space down in 0.0 space. In an effort to allow people to not have to be on at all hours twenty four seven, and create a certain amount of stability in ownership, they created a system to shore up an alliances sovereignty of their own systems. The way it worked was that alliances would build and place their own POSs (Player Owned Stations) and those POSs would grant them a certain amount of sovereignty over the given system(s). Those POSs would need to be destroyed one at a time, and any system may have several, from the edge inward in order to be able to shift sovereignty and make those systems usable by your forces.

The problem that created though is that it forced the sheer number of ships required to even challenge an entrenched enemy up into the server breaking numbers. A problem that has seen active discussion for pretty good piece of time now and we can be fairly certain the devs are talking about it non stop as well.

So where do I come in with an argument? Well, I think we have run into a problem where everyone is discussing rules for a fundamentally tool related issue. There are two things I know that come into play here, the first is that when it comes to two equally advanced forces Nathaniel Bedford Forest* said it best, “the firstest with the mostest”. It’s the simple truth for any symmetrically advanced combat where MAD is not on the table. Second is that players will discover and (ab)use the most successful/efficient tactics almost without exception. Therefore, I believe the answer is not to change the rules governing the game, but to implement the tools necessary to change the most efficient set of tactics.

First we need to create something to break up the groups. A good suggestion here would be to create a capital ship module that would do extreme amounts of damage to large structures, but would also create a huge radius around it which would damage other ships without regard to alignment or standings, the damage being inverse to victim size of course. You could also add battle cruisers that are basically a ship-gun capable of doing reasonable damage to a cap ship out at ranges of 300-400k, but who take a penalty for every ship within 300k of them and are naturally shy of fitting slots.

The hope would be to simultaneously decrease the typical fleet size for dreadnoughts, increase the number of battle cruisers in fleet engagements and spread out the combatants to take advantage of 3d space and gang warfare. Obviously it’s impossible to know from discussion how exactly all of these will effect the game, but the basic concept I’m trying to get across is that you can’t rules your way out of a tools issue. Just as you can’t use electronic controls to fix bad mechanical design, nor good maintenance to solve poor engineering or architecture.

Especially in sandbox environments, I feel that one should always focus on providing the players good tools. You may not always be right, but at the end of the day at least the player gets to keep their shiny new tool.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading lately, across various sites and through some major back and forth exchanges of history and ideas. From this I feel as though I’m starting to find a fairly decent grasp on some of the factors contributing to the current MMO market.

I’m going to be bringing quite a few games, and I can’t promise I’ll be particularly positive to your favorite. Still please bear with me and read the entire article before responding.

To begin with I want to cover a little bit about the who. Demographics I suppose it would be called, though I don’t plan on tracking age, gender, or race so I’m not sure it counts (~.^). But I’ll to try to examine who it is that I believe to be playing these games.

Consistent with most service industries I’m are not looking for what could be called a “normal” customer. Instead I would prefer to try and block out certain groups that we know to play these games.

Group A will consist of people who purchase two or more games a month and are probable to acquire any sufficiently marketed MMO within three months of launch. We’ll call them the Nomads for my own ease.

Group B consists of persons under the age of 17 who are probable to play many different games a month but do not, on average, purchase the games themselves. We’ll call them annoying little shi… Tweens, we’ll call them Tweens.

Group C would be persons above the age of 17 who will purchase, on average, less than one game a month. While I’m loathe to open this can of worms, we’ll call these people Casual Gamers.

Group D are self identified gamers who purchase fewer than one title per month. Gamers will do.

The first MMOs were created for our A and D groups. The current game industry as a whole is built by and for Gamers and Nomads, the concept of creating MMOs for them was a logical solution. UO and Everquest are the examples I’d use for that period. Neither game had great penetration in the B or C groups though both certainly attracted some amount of players from those groups.

I would theorize however that MMOs as a whole actually have only a small market share amongst Gamers and Nomads. Nomads especially are more often consumers than they are users, preferring the act of buying a product over paying for a service. Group C by comparison is much more likely to see the game as a service which naturally makes the business model more palatable.

Group B was soon discovered by games like Runescape, but group C remained an impossible market to gain a significant foothold in right up until 2005.

There are a few important things to note about World of Warcraft that allowed it to open that market while increase share in both markets B and D, Tweens and Gamers. WoW was a highly polished iterative evolution from a game play stand point, and while that was a major contributor to it’s success it would also have been impossible for it to have affected such a paradigm shift alone. WoW’s disruptive evolution in marketing campaigns has consistently pulled in the C and D markets allowing them to grow their target audience. WoW’s western market consists of a little under five million. It has thus far been impossible for any other MMO to replicate those numbers, in fact Western subs rarely approach the one million mark.

The most important take away for business people is, however, that the B and C markets, Tweens and Casuals, are growing while the D market is fairly steady. Expect to see more games aimed at those two markets attempting to tangentially acquire members of the Gamer demographic.

Unfortunately we still have one loose end; the A market, Nomads. The Nomad demographic are high money spending players, but they have a generally lower amount of loyalty than the other groups, besides the Tweens. Nomads are also some of the most likely to frequent blogs and forums though. The industries sharp turn away from the Nomad’s preferred type of game has left a segment of the market hurt and disillusioned. To a large extent, we are seeing the SWG CU and NGE style event happen on an industry wide level.

The companies are turning away from those who were there to support them early on to pursue the dream of these new markets. Since it’s a more subtle, industry-wide, move it hasn’t sparked off as many flames. On the other hand it has left a large segment of the population with a general feeling of negativity and betrayal that is hard to pin down and define.

At present moment, we have yet to see whether the markets WoW has penetrated are indeed open for the entire market. During the mean time we face the more immediate problem of the Nomads themselves. Having been burned by the market trends, they are highly likely to buy or subscribe to new MMOs but unlikely to give positive word of mouth or maintain long term attachments. This can lead to an even greater gap between early sales and actual long term subscription figures, and detract from overall sales.

Not to leave the industry out of the brow beating, we have seen a continuing problem with the business end of MMOs. It remains a common misconception that an MMO is a product when, in fact, it is a service. Despite their apparent success with EQ and EQ2, I actually consider SOE to be the greatest and most consistent offender on this count. Perhaps it is an error in my perception, but that is a failing I’ve felt every time I’ve begun a trial on one of their games. They are certainly not the only offender though, and it is a common problem throughout the industry. Luckily if it goes beyond certain limits it becomes a fatal flaw, so we should see very few examples of it’s furthest extreme.

This is what I’ve pieced together through observation, feel free to pick it apart or shred it completely.

Thought I should add – This is a thought expirement!

Basic Design Premise:
Create a massively multi-player persistent world based on artistic creation and socialization with competition but devoid of violence.

Setting (Underlying Simulation):
An urban environment with emphasis on the warehouse and downtown areas. NPCs wandering the streets taking note of any fliers, graffiti, or pamphlets they may be handed/come across. Loose instancing for personal apartments. There is a monthly ballot on which eight issues will be voted on by the NPCs, should be things that have some effect on PCs, for instance whether the city will add buildings in the warehouse district or improve roads in the warehouse district.

Art Direction:
Cold urban grit, stylized but should avoid looking childish.

Players begin in the game with a daily allowance and the shirts on their back inside of an instanced tutorial.
They may skip the tutorial or learn how to tag, create fliers and pamphlets, play instruments and even have the in-game social network explained to them. End it with them choosing positions on the current eight issues, these positions can be changed at any time, but changing does not have retroactive effects. (Players may choose to abstain.)
When players enter the world, they have a small amount of starting capital and some cans of spray paint. They can tag buildings in the warehouse district, or print and hand out fliers or pamphlets in any of the areas. These will get their side of issues before the NPCs. The NPCs will vote based on how much they see of the taggings, fliers, etc… by players with an opinion on the issue. When an issue you agree with passes, you get an increase in your allowance.
There is a tri-monthly community award contest. Players vote for other players, not themselves, for categories such as best tagging, best musician, most popular, most helpful, etc… Winners have their allowance raised proportional to their position, first place wins more than second place, so on and so forth.
Gamemasters should be actively arranging parties, “live” music performances, and so forth within the game to keep a vibrant community in the game.
Players can elect to have taggings and songs saved permanently in their profiles. To get all parts of a song from the band, simply play it while in a group and have one member save it. Members of a group may also tag collaboratively.

I’ll leave it there for this post.

Richard Bartle wrote his treatise on MUD player types back in ’96. His assertions have been rightfully questioned and we have generally found them to not be a robust enough platform for player motivation. They do have another purpose for which they need only minor tweaks however. Activity types.

However, Bartle gave each one certain connotations in terms of how they interacted with players, the world, or each other, for my purpose we will be tossing those out wholesale. For instance, a killer activity is any activity in which the player kills another player while an achiever activity is any activity in which the player is put in direct competition with their peers. As you can see there can and in fact must be some overlap. However I would also like to add one more group before we begin, creators. Creators are most directly related to crafters, but can also be player housing, armor painting, or pet raising.

So why go through all of this, well primarily to better understand the current MMOs on the market. This group of activity types is fairly limited, but it still covers the vast majority of what we want to go into. First I’ll take a quick look at some of the games I have played well enough to comment on.

WoW is the obvious starting point to any MMO discussion so I thought I would go ahead and get it out of the way. What I have seen from WoW is that they are the epitome of mainstream, streamlined, generalist, easy and shallow. Probably one of the most amazing facets of WoW is that they actually did manage to strike an incredible balance of everything but killing, and then worked that in later. WoW’s fundamental mechanic, grind to x so you grind faster, gave it a very single minded purpose without distractions, and built on the corner stone of achievement game play. Exploration was given slight xp bonuses as well as slightly out of the way quest givers allowed explorers in while not fracturing game play focus at all. Social elements were added in the forms of instances and dungeons again feeding back into the main achievement style and finally creation was an alternate form of advancement as well as adding certain buffs. Killing, while existent didn’t receive it’s real focus until battlegrounds and even after addition was polished and demolished until it became as easy and focused as the rest of game play.

WoW is not, however, by any means a perfect game. Not even for achievers. The problem that WoW has, which will not effect their bottom line but certainly does effect a large portion of their player base is that they gave up a great deal of depth to make access particularly easy. There isn’t enough to explore nor enough of a reward for doing so to keep focused explorers engaged, there aren’t enough social tools nor enough reason to connect to please fundamentally social players, creators are required to hit their highest possible levels before they see any real use and even then have to compete with hundreds of others on their server if they are lucky enough to have so little competition. The killers don’t get to feel as though they’ve done serious damage, and achievers are faced with the brutal reality that their greatest achievements were well and truly worthless.

To add insult to injury, it only really takes you wanting more of any one activity to make the game start to feel hollow to you, and most people who are reading this blog are fairly far into multiple groups.

EVE may seem to be the opposite far extreme, but I would posit that it is really not. It’s done something very similar to WoW in fact. They took a corner stone of killer activities and built the entire game around it, keeping the activities in check and focused back into that. What they did very differently however was they exchanged ease of access for depth. An explorer can spend an entire career in EVE and not see it all, and certain types of exploring are very very profitable. Creation in EVE, in terms of crafting, is very well designed and thought out. Creation activities in EVE carry a certain amount of gravitas with them as well, since they have a direct effect on the capabilities of the killers. Achievers aren’t given so much a set of activities as they are a form of expression and they make use of it to the full extent. Best off all in terms of achievement, whether it’s piloting a titan or getting a 6:1 Kill/Death Ratio it is all dependent on your own skill making the achievements worthwhile.

Social tools are probably where EVE has consistently fallen shortest. Despite their excellent community the number of purely social constructs in EVE has remained relatively low. I believe this is a large part of why so many players are looking forward to Ambulation, it will be a chance to better explore the social side of the game. It may also be a chance to explore the social side of creation.

Of course EVE paid a heavy price for all this, their barrier to entry is at least exponentially higher than WoW’s. While they certainly maintain an excellent player base they don’t stand any significant chance of breaking the multi-million subscriber barrier in the next few years.

I could go on with Guild Wars or Tabula Rasa, but for now I’d rather focus on how we can use this when making MMOs. What exactly are these measurements useful for?

A good starting point would be cornerstones. Both of the examples I used above created a focus within their game that is truly inescapable. No matter what you are doing in WoW it’s to achieve the next macguffin and no matter what you are doing in EVE it is built on/funded by the frozen corpses of dead player characters. In TR it’s actually about exploring, but it’s an exploration of the lore and literature rather than a literal exploration. Guild Wars is built schizophrenically around exploring or killing while neither incorporates more than a cursory creation mechanic but both contain fairly robust social and achievement mechanics.

Another take away is that MMOGs are, presently, lagging far behind in the social component. There are more than enough meta game tools to sate player’s appetites, but we could still do with a certain grouping of advancements. In game message boards are a very good example, I have seen only one usage of these, however. Any sci-fi MMO can leverage these to the benefit of RPers and much the entire player base. Fantasy games can have an option to disable the menu to increase immersion, but they can still benefit from these as well. If you add on a program such as PlayXpert (PXP) you may find that players become more socially engaged with your game as friendships grown in game are fluently translated to out of game and vice-versa.

As much as I know I have certainly missed more activity types or have shoe horned them into these, they have worked reasonably well as a group of quick and dirty metrics from my perspective. Perhaps most importantly, since I am not a scholar and am simply trying to state what I have seen with a relatively broad brush, they should be judged as a speedy and stylized way of expressing the complex relations of players and activities and not as a comprehensive list or set of metrics.

Sorry for missing yesterday. My job has decided to amp up the stress and waggle my schedule around like a car in Crackdown. If anyone reading this is head of QA, or head of design, for a major gaming studio, please give me a job…

Anyways, useless pleas for escape aside, here are todays.

Single Player
Journeys in Desolate Lands

Adventure game based on various post apocalyptic themes. You are a precog venturing around the ruined future, trying to find the catalyst of this future. Intelligence operatives constantly record every word you utter while in this dream state, allowing you to be brought back by making a verbal report of the catalyst. Each progressive future will show the changes made because of what you found, and how the government reacted.

Multi Player
Strange Rectangles

A bunch of people play rectangles that are a float in a large blue field. You’re mission is to find circles of different colors and stay on top of them to suck them dry of points. Green is the most, blue is second, white is third, red is fourth and grey is fifth in terms of points given. Gameplay is actually more similar to bumper cars, with a few power-ups (larger size, energy shield that makes you temporarily untouchable, a little bouncy ball you can throw at someone) scattered about.

GOD Online

Players choose an archetype order, chaos, nature, technology, they then choose a set of 6-10 powers. Players then enter the dynamically generated instance where they and the members of their party are matched with the appropriate number of players from the other archetypes. The goal in an instance is to convert all of the people to either one archetype or two complimentary archetypes. The towns cannot follow gods of opposite denominations, for instance a town can worship both nature and chaos, but not both nature and technology. After all the peoples in a town have been converted to any of the faiths, there begins a fifteen minute countdown in which players may command their followers in bids to convert more or destroy other players followers. At the end of fifteen minutes or when two non-opposing archetypes have been completely eliminated, players take in followers equal to the number of followers they have left alive.

These followers are then used in up to eight player cooperative PvE RTS battles to capture skills and artifacts as well as advance the story campaign.
(Yes Caab I’m looking at you, and Gig too. Next time I’ll be more original I swear. No Peter Molyneux I’ve never played your damned game.)