Tag Archives: design

Winner Winner

Just screams "WINNER", doesn't it?

The issue of equal opportunity in the games I play (or “Return on Investment”) is one that I struggle with constantly; I agree with SynCaine that the Everybody Wins philosophy is a short-term cheat with seriously detrimental long-term implications.  If we don’t know how to lose, and lose graciously, not only are we are handicapping ourselves for the realities all around us, but we rob ourselves of any real value achieved in winning when we actually manage it. However, as an adult with a handful (admittedly small-ish) of actual responsibilities and limited free time, I feel the pull of maximized return on my effort. Time is, after all, the most precious of commodities; disposable cash I’ve got (somewhat), free time for gaming, not so much.

As the father of two young boys, the whole subject is very real for me – team sports are looming on the horizon. And while I want my boys to succeed, it’s more important to me that they learn the nature, and true value, of competition. It’s not about the winning or receiving praise and recognition. It’s about striving to be the best that you can. The outcome, win or lose, should be secondary, at best, to the real purpose at hand; winning should be the bonus, not the goal (or worse, the expectation). This is a lesson I very much want my kids to learn, and if they don’t take to it in team sports, well, there’s always activities that are more individual or less competitive. I’ve had a very recent, personal experience with this; an organization with whom I’ve worked and learned for several years has decided to elevate me to the “next level”. It was an extraordinary feeling, having years of work recognized by those you respect, and I want them to feel that same sense of pride. But they have to earn it.

However, the lessons of competition are never something I would expect them to learn from MMOs; at least, not any of the current crop that are finding mass appeal. Because Syn is right – WoW and its brethren don’t really encourage players to improve. Not in a competitive, “top of the heap” sense. For that I might (someday) point them to strategy games or shooters or…*gasp*… Real World team sports!

Case in Point

But there are lessons to be learned, even in the themeparks as they stand today. Lessons such as cooperation, teamwork, and courtesy to others (okay, maybe not in WoW); social skills like leadership, coordinating groups, and listening. I guess it really depends on what you seek going into these games. If you’re looking for skill-based, sink-or-swim game design maybe the themeparks aren’t for you. Which begs the question – why are you playing RIFT (or WoW, or LotRO, or whatever)?

I know my personal answer (story, story, STORY!). Which always leads me to my constant conundrum – paying the price to see the sights. I love a great challenge, but don’t have the availability to tackle the current design for “challenge” in MMOs (a.k.a. “the grind”). And while I wouldn’t want any game I play to go down the Path of Ultimate Accessibility a la WoW, I don’t really have the time to burn playing the truly challenging alternatives. My drive is always to experience the content – all of it – whether it’s in the form of stories/quests or simply exploration.

Like I said, I’ve got more disposable money than free time, which is convenient for the corporate “sponsors” of our favorite pastime! To whom do you think they’re going to cater – the competitive-but-nonetheless-niche-audience cyberathlete or the time-starved-wallet-heavy buttonmasher?

Sorry, Syn.

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Can There Be Good Grind?

Another festival come and gone in LotRO, another new mount for my stable and a few new items in my wardrobe (this year’s Festival cloaks were particularly nice!). I always enjoy Turbine’s events, and even though this Spring Festival hadn’t undergone the overhaul that the previous Harvest and Winter Festivals saw, it was still a good time. Stomping shrews, for all of its barbarity, has always been one of my favorite mini-games in LotRO.

Thanks to the extra quest at the Hedge Maze, this particular festival saw me accomplish a goal I’ve held in-game for a very long time – achieving Kindred with both the Inn League and the Ale Association. Getting to Kindred with the Ale Association was fairly straightforward; the number of quests available during each festival made it a fast climb up to the top, but for every quest completed there is a loss to Inn League reputation. You gain more than you lose, so if one is diligent enough and does all of the courier quests for both groups, the net effect is a gain for both. But I’m stubborn, and once I reached Kindred with the Ale Association, I went for the long route so I wouldn’t lose my status. This means there’s normally only one quest available – The Inn League trial run.

Let’s just say I’ve done a lot of drinking in-game over the last three years. It’s a good thing the Inn League makes you check your liver during the initiation quests, because at this point I’d be on my death bed from a catastrophic failure of any number of organs. (I wonder how many Badges of Taste it will cost me to get it back?)

Of course, the hard part now is getting the Badges to buy the Inn League mount. That’s going to entail a loss of reputation no matter what, so I guess it’s time for some math.

I was really happy to have completed this particular achievement; not only because, towards the end, the Trial Run was getting a little stale, but also because it represents the completion of a goal I set for myself a few years ago. So often in MMO’s we measure time in hours or days – at most months – and while I’m not maligning a standard in-game achievement, I think it speaks volumes to our attitudes about commitment and the rather shallow value of “achievement” in our gaming. If it can’t be completed in a gaming session or two, it’s generally labeled as a “grind” (valid or not).

On the other end of the “satisfaction spectrum”, I also managed to finish up the last of my slayer deeds in the Misty Mountains (on to Evendim!). While the Inn League reputation brought me a real sense of accomplishment (and even a touch of pride), completing these only brought a feeling of having finished a chore and a sense of relief that I’d never, ever go back and do that again. Which makes me kind of sad. Having all desire to go back to an area as beautiful as the Misty Mountains absolutely obliterated, it’s just not nice.

Which leads me to my point; not all grind has to be bad.

Grinding out 240 Signature mobs for a tick on one of my virtues and a ten cent tip is not fun; especially when it’s only purpose is to “extend the gameplay”.  Which it does, I suppose, but not for fun. Running the same quest nearly a hundred times, while somewhat tedious, led to real satisfaction. The former took a few hours, the later a few years, and yet I would do the Inn League reputation again. So what’s the difference?

It comes down to intent. And context. Killing Giants in the Misty Mountains only took a few hours, thanks to a Deed Accelerator (which may be the real issue here – I don’t like feeling like my hand has been forced) and has a real impact on character development, albeit a fairly small one. But it’s tacked onto the game, artificially adding hours to my “gameplay”, and has absolutely no context within the stories or character progression. I’m not killing them for a reason, I’m just wandering around Giant Halls until I fill a progress bar. Running a series of drinking games, while not of direct benefit to the world or even my character, makes sense within the context of the world and the factions with which I’m trying to curry favor. They only take 20 minutes or so, spread out over years, so the time investment is minor at any given time. And it’s fun, or funny. Both.

To be sure, it’s a fine line and a very difficult balance to attain. And it’s an issue of personal preference. For some people grinding out hundreds of mobs constitutes fun, or at least fun enough to stomach. Maybe it’s meditative. Or cathartic. The point is that, done right, long-term achievements can be extremely rewarding without being downright tedious. Even those that require repetitive tasks.

Playing For Pure Fun

Googling "Pure Fun"...really?

Funny how you sit down every morning intending to get that post written that’s been buzzing around in your head, and every day there’s a new distraction that keeps you from writing it. It’s almost like they expect me to work for my paycheck…

In all seriousness (please don’t fire me!), it’s a combination of two factors which has kept me away from gaming for yet another week. One, being very busy at work, and two, keeping myself extraordinarily busy with personal work while at home – both ending in good, solid results. But not exactly conducive to pursuing hobbies.

The week hasn’t been a total wash for the games, though, as I was able to get a few hours in for LotRO‘s Spring Festival last night, and have spent a good deal of time playing LEGO games on the Wii with my older son. Mostly Star Wars and Indiana Jones – two titles I am more than thrilled that he enjoys, and in which I’m more than happy to invest some quality time. Especially if I can share it with the kids. Even my wife gets in on the action from time to time, but mostly as a helper to figure out the puzzles and occasionally lend a hand when I cannot. Extraordinary! It’s almost as if the system were designed to bring families together…

I have to say that I am in complete and utter awe at my son’s ability to learn and adapt. For a five year old to be playing a platforming game rated ‘E10’ – and beating his parents! – may not be that unusual these days, but it sure is impressive to me. I don’t remember the process I went through towards becoming ‘A Gamer’, or what it was like to attain the skills common to our hobby or learn the conventions we all take for granted. But I do remember that it was a long, lonely journey of many hours with the Commodore 64/Nintendo/Playstation/PC. Eventually my sister was old enough to join me, but we didn’t have anyone to introduce us to video games or help me through the initial learning curve. Only parents who were open-minded enough, and willing enough, to let us play. And, because I knew that eventually he’d want to play video games, I did worry a little about how to help him learn. Turns out that was a completely useless concern.

It’s almost as if my son has no learning curve whatsoever; or, one so shallow that you’d need insanely precise scientific apparatus to accurately measure it. Generally, he only has to see something once to get the hang of it, and can already remember the process for clearing most levels. There are a few parts with which he needs help, but those are becoming increasingly few and further apart. I know I am biased, and that this particular event must be utterly alien to the older generations, but it makes me proud to watch him play. Most times, I have more fun watching him than I do actually playing. Most, but not all! Sometimes the Old Man wants to get in there and swing a lightsaber or whip!

I have noticed a key difference, however, in the ways and reasons the two of us play. And I don’t think I’m alone in this; I think many gamer parents would probably say the same types of things. My son plays for the sheer enjoyment of getting from the Start to the End – go from Point A to Point B, solve the puzzles and getting to the next cutscene or area. That’s it. I play to “complete”, or “beat”, the game – see all the areas and finish all of the achievements. Not that either way is more right or more wrong, just that we each find Fun in different aspects of the game. And, to be honest, I think I enjoy his way more. If only I could get past the instincts 2+ decades of gaming have accrued.

He plays for the pure fun of playing. For the doing, not the finishing. His only reason for pushing through a level is to see what comes next; he’s never finished a game and realized that that’s it. That he can either go back and play it again, or move onto something else. These things are infinite to him, so he doesn’t feel the need to squeeze every last ounce out of them. At some point we, both gamers and developers, crossed a line where the ideas of value and retention – and for developers, profit – became real considerations. The Age of Achievements and Leaderboards and Cash Shop Cosmetics was born. In a way, it makes me a little sad for the Gamer I’ve become; that I’m (clightly) manic about being thorough, and plumbing the breadth and depth of every game I take on. Those can be wonderful things – breadth and depth – but they tend to engender a kind of desperate need to check off every item on someone else’s list.

So I revel in the Gamer that he is right now, and I truly enjoy playing beside him. It occasionally let’s me sink back into the kind of fun I once had. Not that I don’t have fun now, but it’s of a different kind. His is more simple and, in some ways, more vibrant.

I think it would be a good study to take video of my wife and I watching him play (at the very least, it would be mildly amusing). We quietly cringe as he works his way through a level, vocally offering encouragement to disguise our “stress”. Though it’s for two very different reasons. My wife is like my son; get to the end as quickly and efficiently as possible, but she would probably be able to do it a bit faster than he can (for now!). Not for a time-based achievement, but more a “It’s the Destination, not the Journey” thing. It’s why she won’t watch me play, ever.

I cringe because he doesn’t care about points or achievements; he’ll grab silver and gold dots (worth 10 and 100 points each, respectively) if they are in his path, but will quite obviously pass up blues and purples (1000 and 10,000, respectively) that are only a few steps away. He doesn’t care to fulfill the “True Adventurer” or “True Jedi” or “Mad Gamerzzz” achievement for the level, or to find all the treasure chests/power cores/self-validating-booster-thingies.

This drives me up a wall, and more than once I’ve found myself going back through an area to collect dots after he’s handed me the Wii-mote to help him with something small like making a hard jump. He complains, a bit, but I know it’s whats best for him. Or me.

Whatever.

Slow Week

It’s been a slow week for me, at least as far as gaming goes; work has been pretty crazy as we ramp up to stay on schedule for some pretty heavy deadlines, and I’ve been playing around with a personal, MMO-related project as well which has sucked up a good amount of my free nights. We’ll see where that one goes, but so far its been a lot of fun – Google App Engine and data visualizations as applied to MMOs? Yes, please!

(Okay, maybe that’s just me…there’s a reason I do this kind of stuff for a living.)

Oddly enough, what little gaming time I’ve had has been mostly devoted to LotRO. Just before RIFT I decided to finally venture into Enedwaith for the first time. I know, I’m terribly late to the party!

I have to say, I’m very impressed with the zone and with the story so far. Some beautiful vistas, and a great blend of cultural influences. I went through the diplomacy session between the Dunlendings of Lanuch and the Emissary of Isengard last night and, even though it was very text-heavy, it was a fun and memorable experience. Really, if Turbine would just jump on the All-Voiceover Bandwagon, LotRO would see a tidy increase in immersion.

My favorite moment of the last week was discovering Maur Tulhau. I was wandering through the northern Gloomglens, looking for quest objectives and not particularly paying attention to where I was, when I came over a rise. The music suddenly changed (and swelled!) to a somewhat familiar tune and I topped the rise to look down on a small town. A Hobbit town! (And I realized of what the music reminded me – The Shire.) It was a great surprise and a really nice moment that rang of discovery and adventure. I didn’t wander into the village, saving that for later.

Overall, Enedwaith strikes me as a great zone that definitely shows Turbine’s experience at creating spaces. There are a lot of nice environmental touches, little details, and nooks and crannies I know I will spend a ton of time fully exploring! I’m impressed with how much diversity they’ve crammed into one space, while at the same time making it coherent.

It makes me that much more excited to see what’s over the next horizon; even though Update 2 doesn’t really release any new zone (does it?), it certainly reworks a good amount of what’s tiresome in LotRO right now (for me, at least). I’m looking forward to the removal of Radiance and the reworking of Legendary Items, if for no other reason than that it allows me to stop grinding content I’m not particulary interested in doing again, and move on into things I haven’t yet experienced. Also, building my own Legendary with exactly the Legacies I want should be a huge help in making me more viable for the new group/raid content coming in Echoes of the Dead.

In the wider world (in case you aren’t already aware), PAX East started this week; I have yet to attend a major gaming conference, and I’ve determined that next year I will at least attend PAX East – it’s only a few hours from home and there are many, many people I’d love to meet (whether they care to meet me is another issue!). Nonetheless, I’m watching the news sites and blogs closely for news, announcements, and other goodies (such as THIS ONE), as there are many games on display during the show and probably some hefty reveals for titles I’m eagerly anticipating. Can’t wait!

 

Bigger Picture

Oh, the places we'll go!

I was listening to the Return of the King score on my commute this morning (yes, I’m that kind of Tolkien fan…or maybe a Jackson fan?) and it got me excited for all of the things the future holds for LotRO. Let’s face it, there are just some experiences that Turbine cannot skip or ignore, so even though we have no idea of when they will come, we know that, at some point, they will come. Lately, I’ve been so mired in grinding through deeds that I think I’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Assuming LotRO will carry through to Mordor (and beyond!), there’s so many amazing things we’ve yet to see!

Here’s a list of content to which I’m most looking forward, and how I would love to see them implemented (loosely in the order I think we will see them released).

Keep Reading…

“Poor Implementation”

Turbine posted a new Developer Diary this morning, detailing perhaps my most-anticipated and celebrated change coming with Echoes of the Dead – the removal of Radiance. For those not familiar with this particular mechanic, Radiance was added in the Mines of Moria expansion as an additional character statistic that was granted through specific sets of armor. It was meant to be a complimentary system to Hope, designed to counter Dread which can often render a player helpless (if their Dread is too high, they cower in fear).

Like many players, this is a serious cause for celebration for me. With my main currently mired in this particular grind, I am more than happy to wish “Rad runs” a hearty farewell. My Burglar is currently stuck in “Radiance Purgatory”, with enough Radiance to just squeak into the newest raids (Dar Narbugud) but not enough to be truly effective. And I don’t have much time to grind out the content (Small Fellowship or otherwise) that would help me attain enough Radiance armor to be comfortable. Instead, I’m a burden on my kin, and I miss out on running good content with great friends. Not fun.

Ask any player in the endgame about the problem with Radiance, and you’ll probably get the same answer – it’s a pure gating system that prevents players from progressing into higher level content. To make matters even more painful, it’s the worst kind of “grind gear to get better gear” treadmill. Tedious – and that’s being nice.

What really surprised me about the Dev Diary (and frankly, disappointed me as well) was the description of what Radiance was meant to be – a deep system combining Deeds, Traits, and gear. Instead we got a horrific grind. But the way it’s described makes it sound like something I would have enjoyed, and could have really gotten behind.

“We wanted to not only itemize this statistic, but also tie it into skills and deed paths. We wanted to provide players with more character customization and differentiation as they moved into the upper portions of the game. Further, by tying Radiance more intimately into the progression of the character, we wanted to remove strict gear dependencies and provide a more encompassing and meaningful statistic for characters. In essence, the idea of Radiance was a large and inclusive statistic that provided players with something functional and inherently desirable to their character.”

~ Allan ‘Orion’ Maki, Update 2: Radiance Removal

I consider anything that provides opportunities for “character customization and differentiation” to be a very good thing. Perhaps if they had built more avenues into attaining high levels of Radiance instead of tying it solely to instance-based gear, it could have worked. Sadly, this appears to be simple wishful thinking, as Maki states in no uncertain terms that Radiance has been fully removed from the game, and makes it sound as if adding it back in would be nearly impossible (if players would even accept it without full-scale revolt!).

Honestly, I’m a little sad to see Radiance completely removed from the realm of possibility. Having gotten a sense of what it was supposed to be, I think that if Turbine had taken the time to implement it as designed, it could have been a strong addition to the game. I’ve always loved the scenes of Frodo fighting his way through Shelob’s lair, holding the spider back with only the power of light. It’s a hallmark of Tolkien, and if Turbine had been able to give us something like that, I don’t think anyone would have complained. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to see a developer admit to their mistakes, and it renews some of my faith in Turbine – it’s not purely about The Store and profit. They want to provide players with a fun game. The honesty displayed by Maki is well worth checking out (as well as additional commentary over at CSTM).

Equal Treatment

We’ve reached a point in our family life where we’re beginning to discipline our younger son (we have two boys – one 5 years old and one nearly 2). It’s not at the same level as our older, but we have begun to set limits and actively say, “No.” to certain things while also explaining why. This is an important distinction for us as parents because where before it was a matter of safety for the yes/no threshold, our younger son is starting to really get “into things” where my wife and I feel the need to draw a few lines and enforce acceptable/not acceptable. Setting expectations vs. corralling them and all that. Once kids get an attention span longer than a few seconds, it doesn’t suffice to turn them away or distract them; they’ll just go back at it unless its made clear.

This is just a really long lead-in to a question that came up between my wife and I last night, which I naturally and immediately turned into a thought about MMOs. The question was, “Shouldn’t we be disciplining [the younger] the same as we did [the older]?”. But what did we discipline our first child over? Because in a lot of ways we just can’t remember (memory loss due to long-term sleep deprivation).We remember that at the same age, we were already disciplining our older son through timeouts and similar consequences. But over what issues?

There is an aspect of first-child-second-child at play here; in all honesty we probably were much more strict with our older son because it was our first time, and we didn’t want to “screw him up” by letting him run wild. Hence the personality differences that seem to be common between older and younger siblings. And even at this age, there is a personality difference, and that influences discipline. Our older son was just more curious and strong-willed, so we had to say “No” a lot more.

We want our kids to be brought in a home that promotes fairness and equality. But do developers need to guarantee the same treatment for their players?

Stick with me as a think through it; obviously, the game needs to promote “fair play” in that exploits and cheating between groups of players (or players and the environment) is minimized. But what I’m thinking about is the concept that themepark MMOs need to provide access to the exact same content to all players. Unless it’s a microtransaction model, players pay their entry fee and can ride all the rides (given enough time and/or effort). The experience is the same every time you visit; you might skip a ride or two every once in a while, or ride them in different order, and the park occasionally opens a new ride, or closes down an unpopular one. But the experience is essentially the same for everyone.

Isn’t having access to the same quantity of content enough? Sure, there might be rides that everyone rides (e.g. the Epic storyline in LotRO), but does the progression through content have to be identical no matter what race/class/faction/etc. is chosen?

And I’m not thinking of something like the “storyline for each class” that The Old Republic, either. Despite the wealth of content that represents, the experience would be the same every time one played an Imperial Agent, or a Smuggler, or a Trooper. What I’m talking about is the opportunity for real choice, and real cnosequences in a player’s experience. At least, as far as the story any given player will receive; once again, I think developer’s confuse the concept of player choice with global impact. We (players) don’t need our choices to be reflected in the world for everyone to see. It would be enough to have our choices reflected in the world we see.

I know this represents a lot of extra work for a developer. But I’m not convinced the 1500-or-more-hours-of-content design philosophy is really necessary anymore. If a developer were to come right out and say, “Look, you could pour 20+ hours a week into the game. But your going to burn through it in a handful of months. We’re designing for the player who can commit 4 to 5 hours per week, and we want those players to be successful and viable.” That would be a game for Real People, with Real Families and Real Jobs in the Real World.

Then a developer could design the content with choice and consequence in mind. The experience changes for every character created, and you can deliver an experience that offers a few hundred hours from start to endgame. Sure, you’d have players with tons of alts, but developers already have that in spades. And for those of you thinking, “A few hundred hours of content isn’t conducive to retaining player subscriptions for the long term”, I’d say that’s a good point – given the current design philosophy. But at 4 to 5 hours per week, you’re looking at one to two years of playing to work through a few hundred hours of content. And I’d be willing to subscribe to a game that lets me experience all of its content without feeling like I have a second job just so I can participate in the endgame.