Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The value of Friends

Don’t worry, this isn’t another post about Facebook games. However, to properly tell the story it all started in Facebook. Despite all the MMO blogging posts to the contrary, the intended purpose of Facebook isn’t to setup a fake account with 1000s of false friends in order to play games like Farmville. The actual intended purpose of social networking sites like Facebook is to connect you with other people (and keep you connected).

As anyone who uses Facebook even semi-regularly can tell you, most of your “friends” tend to either be relatives or people you haven’t had a reason to speak with in years. And in 9 out of 10 cases, these are people you don’t really want to talk with on a regular basis and certainly not someone in your close network of friends.

I love my Mom, but I’m not going out for a beer with her. Stan, that guy I worked with 10 years ago, was a nice guy to talk to across the cubicle, but we didn’t hang out after work when I knew him then – so why would that change today? And so Facebook serves as idle chatter, much like our cubicle talk did, to keep us connected without actually having to commit any real valuable time to each other.

The people I care the most about, I’ll stay connected to with or without Facebook. My best real-life friend is a “friend” on Facebook, but he only checks it maybe once every 3 months. I can assure you that we talk more frequently than that in real-life. So, as a tool, Facebook is useful for staying connected to family and these loose relationships, but it’s not something I’m regularly using to keep connected to my close friends.

The rare find
But rarely, very rarely, there are people you DO care about and WOULD like to see in-person that seemingly drop off the face of the earth. Some life change happened to one or both of you (moved, got married, got divorced, had kids, graduated) that caused you to lose contact with a very dear friend.

Connecting with these people in Facebook are the “Epic Moments” of social networking. Most of it is just idle chatter, but every once and a while you make a rare find and reconnect with such a person.

A week or so ago, that’s exactly what happened. A very good friend of mine (and former roommate for four years) joined Facebook and sent me a friend request. We haven’t spoken or heard from each other in around six years. I had attempted to connect with him in the past, but he actually has a very generic “Joe Smith” type name. Turns out, he wasn’t on Facebook anyway. And without an email address or phone number, I questioned whether anything short of hiring a detective could have found him.

So the fact that we managed to connect and actually live within about 50 miles of each other is great news. I wasn’t the only one to fall out of touch with him, so a group of us have already made plans to get together for BBQ and beer later next month. Good times.

The MMO part of the story
A few days ago, after our joyous Facebook reunion, “Joe Smith” sent out a message to a bunch of the old boys he knew used to play pen-and-paper D&D with that we should all start playing an MMO together. The discussion went something like this:
Joe Smith: Hey guys, anyone want to play WoW? We should get a gaming group together and kinda play together as we go. Anyone already playing or interested?

Sid67: ... (sigh)

Joe Smith: I’m up for WoW, but if you guys don’t want to play that, we can try something else like DDO. It’s free for the most part.

Sid67: ... (he must not have read any of my posts about F2P)

Joe Smith: Or Allods. I’ve been looking at this list of reviews and saw some stuff from gPotato. Seems like some stuff is expensive, but it looks like it’s free.

Sid67: ... (he really must not read this blog)

Joe Smith: I just figure it might be better than a subscription game if someone only wants to play just a couple of times a month.

Sid67: DDO and Allods are not really free. They design it so that you’ll want to spend money. Especially if you don’t play much and need to catch up quickly.

Other Buddy: much would it cost for DDO really? Don’t be cheap.

Sid67: ... (ah yes, I forgot about the rich guy with no free time)

Joe Smith: Well, I’m up for anything. My only condition is that it needs to be Kid Appropriate.

Sid67: ... (sigh, I guess Darkfall is out)

Joe Smith: We could try Guild Wars. That’s like $20 for life.

Sid67: ... (aaaaaaaaargh!)
So I’m not sure on the best course of action. All things being equal, I’d much rather play a game with real life friends. In fairness, I don’t know enough about GW to give it the thumbs down but from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t sound like a game I would be interested in playing much.

It really raises an interesting dilemma. Despite my opinions on Microtransactions, would I be willing to play a F2P game if that’s what my friends were playing? Allods, not a chance. GW and DDO – I don’t know. Maybe.

Conspicuously silent on the subject is my buddy who has been playing EVE. He’s actually on the thread, just didn’t add his opinion.

Monday, March 29, 2010

On Specializations

The traditional Fantasy MMO includes the Holy Trinity archetypes: Tank, DPS, Healer. From a cooperative standpoint, the Trinity works very well. A class to take damage, a class to deal damage, and a class to heal damage. From a PvP standpoint, there also appears to be fairly equal rock-scissors-paper effect. Healers outheal Tank damage, Tanks outlast DPS damage, and DPS can kill the Healer faster than they can heal.

However, the traditional Trinity has three flaws. The first is that it requires a specific group composition in order to work. Three Tanks? Sorry. Three DPS? Sorry, again. Encounters designed around the Trinity need all three parts in order to work.

The second flaw is that Tanks and Healers are at a disadvantage when soloing content because they don’t deal much damage. This one is particularly nasty because it offers a slippery slope as Tanks/Healers complain about their solo viability. A developer who caves on that issue and increases the damage dealt of the Tank/Healer, decreases the importance of the damage dealer. And equally important if your game has PvP, it can quickly make these classes too powerful.

The third flaw is also in the elegance of the design. The rock-scissors-paper thing is only fun when you are the rock and they are scissors. If you are the scissors, and all you see are rocks, you aren’t going to have much fun in PvP.

Jack of All Trades or Specialist
The solution to all three of these flaws is pretty straight-forward: Acknowledge these flaws exist and then proceed to ignore them.

No system is without tradeoffs. Ultimately, you really only have two choices. A bunch of Jack-Of-All-Trades where everyone is the same, or specialists in specific areas. Once you allow the specialists, you open the door for all the class balance issues and cries of ‘overpowered’ that accompany it.

This is because without designing everyone as exactly the same, the perception will be that they are never exactly equal. Ironically, even when they are equal. This is the conundrum in introducing “classes” or “careers” or “specialization” in a game.

The only solution to that problem is to embrace your design decisions and keep your vision as fair as possible. You need to accept that not all people will be equal in all situations.

Skill-based Specialization
In skill-based games, you DO specialize because you make choices about what you are going to do. As an EVE pilot, everyone starts out by specializing in a specific ship or types of ships. In Darkfall, your playstyle and what abilities you choose to use makes you better at THOSE abilities. If you don’t use magic, you’ll simply never be good at it.

Although, in both of these games, it’s possible for a very advanced player to learn everything. In effect, you can become a Jack of All Trades (Master of EVERYTHING) by leveling up all skills.

This strikes me as a flaw in this type of system.

In my mind, there should be more severe tradeoffs. And they shouldn’t be easily reversible. Specializing in Magic should mean that you sacrifice Non-Magic Stuff. Casters should be powerful, yet frail and weak. Melee should be tough as nails, but have no magical aptitude or protections.

In fairness, Darkfall has some tradeoffs. Wearing plate makes it harder to cast spells, but it doesn’t make it impossible. And at the extreme end, some skill choices completely cut you off from using some schools of magic. But that’s a fairly extreme example and not one that you are forced to make. And it doesn’t really stop someone good at magic from benefiting from having high melee skills (able to soak damage).

But I digress and I don’t want to nitpick specific games. I think what I’m trying to get at is that I like semi-permanent choices. I like players to have roles. And if you choose a role, in fairness, everyone else shouldn’t be able to benefit from the things that should be unique to your role.

Role-based Specialization
I think there are two types of role-based specializations. We are all intimately familiar with the first concept. Classes. You choose a class, and that class defines your role.

I think what I like better is the concept of Skill-trees. Basically, you make role-based choices through your skill selection. The concept here is that you are presented with a skill fork in your character progression. You may choose either fork, but doing so eliminates the skills provided to you in the other fork. Choosing Melee, in this scenario, would remove the Magic fork from your available career progression path.

It seems to me that these types of Tree forks provide the Role defining characteristics that I like, while still allowing people the flexibility to choose a non-standard bundle of traits (rather than a Class).

Again, Darkfall has these types of forks in the magic shools, but that’s not much different than choosing to either use an Axe or a Sword. Such forks need to be made much earlier and have a bigger impact on how they define your actual role. Rather than just the flavor of the damage spells and debuffs.

Skill-based Trinity
So circling back to The Holy Trinity, I think these would make some good fork choices. You can either Tank, or DPS, or Heal. You can’t do all three well. If you choose more DPS forks, you are easily killed. Choose too many Heal forks, and you can’t kill or be killed. Choose too many Tank forks and you can take a lot of damage but can’t DO anything else.

Now obviously, we could complicate it by having more Role choices. Magic or Physical? Range or Melee? And so forth. Choosing the Physical path eliminates the Magic fork (and healing). Choosing the Magic form eliminates the Physical fork (and tanking). And so on and so forth.

My vision here is that this is still a skill-based, rather than level or class based game. The difference is that your skill choices are semi-permanent forks where your decision impacts your future progression. These choices, rather than a class, determine your in-game skills. For example, one choice could be “Advanced Constitution” or “Advanced Dexterity”. Choosing “Dexterity” increases your physical DPS, but sacrifices your ability to resist damage (“Constitution”).

Anyway.. just my $0.02 as an Armchair designer..

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Facebook: Less interesting than we think it is?

Quick thought for the day.. I've been reading all these entries from various bloggers and pundits about Facebook and the future of social gaming and it struck me that this is a subject that not that many people find all that interesting.

I mean, I think it's interesting, but the general impression I'm getting is that this is a topic that most people don't care about.  Bloggers are full of opinions, so we feel compelled to write about it.  But I honestly don't think average joe cares that much.

So I've decided I'm done on the topic.  Until Civ comes out for FB, mums the word on the topic from old Sid.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nice Flowchart :)

I don't normally post non-MMO stuff, but this flow chart cracked me up. Credits to BBspot.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Power of Greed

When it comes to human nature, I’m not an optimist. I don’t expect people to rise up and act in the best interest of all of us. In fact, quite the opposite. I think most people are really quite selfish. Everyone wants more of something. More wealth, more love, more respect, more fun, more control, more power, more freedom, more satisfaction. And if I’m being really cynical, even extreme acts of charity are motivated either by how they make us feel better about ourselves or our place in the afterlife.

In real life, such selfishness is held in check by our relationships with people. If I’m too selfish, my wife won’t love me and my friends won’t like me. If I’m so selfish that I steal or rob from others, society won’t like me and put me in jail. I’m taught that such selfishness is wrong and has serious costs. I’ll lose respect, love, freedom and possibly even wealth.

In fairness, selfish greed is hardly the only motivator. Love, Fear, Hate, Greed, Envy and I’m sure a dozen other primal forces all war against each other to make up how we perceive the world and make decisions. Some, like Love and Fear, can be more powerful than Greed.

Even here however, it’s still about self interest and need. We fear things because something will be taken away. We love something because we place it’s worth above everything else. We envy because someone has something better than yours. Even hate has root causes in self interest. You hate because it causes pain, is less fun, or maybe it just takes away respect, love, freedom or power.

Not a moral judgment
I want to be clear that I’m not making any moral judgments. I am merely pointing out that self interest is the root motivator for why anyone does anything. Even a martyr who makes the ultimate self sacrifice of giving their life does so because they can’t accept the alternative. Self interest, at the most base level, is the motivator for everything.

In fact, self interest is not a bad thing. It’s a very necessary thing. It’s what makes us care. It’s why we feed ourselves. It’s why we work. It’s literally why we do anything – good or bad.

This entry isn’t about right and wrong. It’s about why people act. To understand why people act, you must first accept that the root cause is self interest. This is why I’m not an optimist about human nature. Given all possible options, a rational person will always choose the option which best serves their self-interest.

No exceptions.

That’s not to say the best decision in terms of self-interest is always the most immoral choice. If someone strongly believes an act is immoral, then acting that way may not be in their best self interest. For that person, the most self-serving act might be the more moral one. An environmentalist isn’t going to suddenly start littering because it’s convenient. In their mind, the cost (pollution) is too high.

In other words, each individual’s own sense of morality is a factor in deciding what best serves them. An immoral person, in this sense, can act in a self-serving way that is counter to the morals of society. Whereas, a moral person would find it was contrary to their self-interest to compromise their ethics.

Driving philosophy about MMOs
I wanted to articulate this philosophy of self-interest because, for me, it’s a huge part of how I form my opinion on lots of MMO related topics. If I come across as cynical, this philosophy is the reason.

I don’t believe people are altruistic. I think even when they behave in ways that others think are altruistic, they did it because it was the best choice for them.

It’s why I’ll never support the Microtransaction model. From a self-interest standpoint, the best game design for the Developer is that which pays them the most amount of money. There are factors there, like not pissing off the user base with absurd pricing, but ultimately the best design is that which encourages players to spend the most money.

It’s why I don’t hold Players accountable for anything and hold Developers accountable for everything. Human nature tells us that Players will take every self-serving advantage they can. It is therefore, in my opinion, the responsibility of the Developer to create the boundaries (through game design) that keep people in check. If people start acting in a way that is unintended, the blame lies with the Developer – not the Players who should be EXPECTED to act in very selfish ways.

It’s why I believe a free market works, but also why I believe a free market needs some regulation. Self interest drives competition (which is good), but self interest without regulation can be abusive to consumers. Monopoly and price-fixing being the most obvious real-world examples. For MMOs, at one spectrum, I believe that social gaming (i.e. Facebook) is going to improve through competition. At the other spectrum, I think DRM and applications of Copyright law to enforce a Terms of Service contract are bad things for consumers.

It also explains the Intenet Dickwad theory (Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Dickwad). The critical component of the IDT is anonymity. By being anonymous, you are insulated from the relationships that act as a check-and-balance against extremely selfish acts.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ganking a Serial Ganker

On Thursday night, I was on the verge of a /ragequit after playing Darkfall. I was beyond irritated. In retrospect, I wasn’t legitimately at risk of outright quitting, but I was close. Darkfall is a not a friendly environment. There are no safe zones. And this was made painfully clear to me on Thursday.

If you don’t like sad stories, skip to the section titled Epic Moments. For what follows in these next few sections is merely the harsh lesson I learned about the world of Darkfall.

My clan status
I haven’t joined a clan yet in Darkfall. I had planned to join NEW, the newbie starter guild, but had read enough bad feedback about the organization on the forums to sway me against it.

Also, after playing for a bit, it seems to me that NEW players and Hammerdale (where NEW lives) perhaps attracts a lot of unwanted attention. I may still join NEW, if my skills aren’t too high, but at the moment I feel like I might be better off freelance.

I suppose I could somehow leverage my limited blogger celebrity in some way to find a clan but if I’m being blunt, I prefer anonymity. I don’t want people to know who I am. I don’t ever want to feel like my hands are tied about what I write because other people’s feeling might get hurt. I have real life friends that don’t even know I blog about gaming.

So at the moment I’m clanless. Not without friends, but clanless.

Hard to semi-AFK
Darkfall is an interesting game in that combat is so intense, it’s not something you can do while semi-AFK. In WoW, I could quest and simultaneously watch a movie. With Darkfall, it’s a struggle to even take a drink of soda while in the middle of combat.

For me, this is perhaps one of the hardest adjustments I’m having to playing Darkfall. I’m used to being able to semi-AFK lots of content. Instances, Quests, Arena matches, even many Raids. Hell, I once ran three wings of Naxx 25 on my Mage alt using just my mouse hand while holding a serious conversation with my mother on the phone.

So what I’m finding is when I want my semi-AFK time, gathering is the way to go in Darkfall. If I want to play, but not seriously play, it’s a good time to pick up my pickaxe and head out to do some harvesting.

Gathering resources has the benefit of providing me with ‘stuff’ and increasing my base stats like Vitality, Wisdom and Strength.

A hard lesson
As a gatherer, I’ve mostly been mining. My general feeling is that Iron Ore is more valuable than the other basic resources. Just like WoW, once you have mined Ore, it needs to be smelted before it’s usable in crafting.

On Thursday (also known as /ragequit day), I decided to convert a good chunk of my harvested Ore into Ingots by smelting it. Also like WoW, smelting can only be done in front of a Forge which are located in Cities.

I haven’t yet ventured terribly far from the starting areas, so I chose a nice newbie city protected by a bunch of towers to smelt my Ore.

In Darkfall, you can attack anyone anywhere. However, if your alignment is RED or you attack another player in an area within range of a Guard Tower, the Tower attacks you dealing a considerable amount of damage. It’s possible to hit someone and make it out of tower range without dying, but any prolonged combat is going to kill you.

In my limited experience, areas protected by Towers were very safe.

On Thursday, I learned I was wrong. Very wrong.

While smelting upwards of 400 Iron Ore, I was ganked by one player and his friend unceremoniously pilfered my body for all my Ore.

Gathering 100 Ore has been taking me, on average, I’d say about an hour. So in one fell swoop, I lost upwards of four hours of game time. While in a protected newbie area.

I think my exact words to my wife were, “Fuck. That sucked.”

Obviously, I didn’t /ragequit on Thursday. I was pretty irritated and upset, but ultimately I accepted what happened as a difficult and hard lesson.

There are no safe zones in Darkfall.


And I’ll never ever carry 400 Ore that I can’t protect ever again. A part of me is glad that I learned the lesson and it was only 400 Ore and not 20,000 gold. It was a bitter pill, but one I am willing to swallow.

Epic Moments
Have you ever wished that you had recorded something? I’ve never recorded anything in any MMO, but I wish I had recorded the events of Saturday afternoon.

I’ll freely admit that Thursday had me really bummed. I felt used and abused. What follows in the story I am about to tell explains why all of that crap was worth enduring.

As I mentioned above, my semi-AFK time has been spent mining. So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that’s exactly what I was doing on Saturday afternoon while talking to my mom on the phone.

When suddenly, I see a heavily armored guy in full plate coming at me with a big ass two-handed sword out.

I dropped the phone and ran like a bitch.

After about 30 seconds, I turned to see if he was following.

Yep. Oh shit...

At the time, I had about 100 Ore on me and was about as far away as you can get from a guard tower.

I bunny-hopped down a hill (speeds up run) and ran towards some rocks. I quickly flipped around to see if I was still being followed and saw that my attacker was now on a Horse and was almost within striking range.

Oh fuck.

I have a mount, but I’ve rarely ridden it and didn't have one on me. Attacks while mounted are powerful attacks. But I also knew that it’s hard to steer a mount.

A player can quickly move in any direction quickly, but a mount needs to be turned. I was standing next to a huge rock, so I decided that I would be harder to hit if I circled it.

I ran around the big rock several times while being chased, including changing directions. I thought I might have lost him and paused to rest and regain stamina.

Nope.  He rounded the corner and was suddenly almost on top of me again.

I ran towards and past him.

Then I did some circle-eights around some more rocks until I found a nice big rock with a ledge. I hopped up on the rock and he followed on his mount.

I dropped to the ledge and he tried to jump down to it.  But he was having trouble steering the mount to the ledge and once he made it down, I popped up back to the top of the rock.

At which point, I lost sight of him. But it occurred to me that he must be getting off his mount to try and kill me. So I ran back around to the edge of the rock and saw him dismount to chase me down.

But in Darkfall, when you dismount, the mount stays until you unsummon it.

So I stole his mount.

And as I ran away and looked back to see him chasing me on foot, I have to admit that this was one of my most memorable and enjoyable moments in any MMO.

Fucking Epic. And now I’m hooked.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Facebook: A lesson in Competition

The critical point I wanted to get across about social gaming (i.e. Farmville) in yesterday’s post is that these games don’t compete with our leisure time, they compete with time wasters during our work week. It’s the accessibility of such games through a browser that makes them popular because they can be played in situations where we couldn’t otherwise play a full-featured game like Team Fortress or World of Warcraft.

They don’t compete against our leisure time primarily because the gameplay doesn’t have enough depth to hold our attention or interest like other leisure activities. In other words, it beats working – but it doesn’t beat reading a book, watching your favorite TV show, or anything else that we do during our leisure time while we are not at work.

The perceived threat to full-featured games
I think the fear that social gaming will impact full-featured games stems from the idea that social gaming is more attractive to investors. At GDC, Evan Wilson clearly articulated this concern:
How important is game development when you have poor quality free social games generating these kinds of numbers?    (source)
Evan’s question addresses the scary idea that if poor quality games can generate big profits, no one will want to invest in developing better games. This is the real reason that traditional game developers and gamers fear social gaming.

Don’t be afraid
Traditional game developers and gamers need to stop being afraid and take some comfort in Laws of Competition. In the short-term, social gaming is going to see a nice influx of investment. Cheap games for big profits is going to attract money. No doubt about it.

HOWEVER, because it’s cheap, the barrier to entry is low. Right now, I could grab three of my best friends and write a game for Facebook that could be as popular as anything else currently available. And if it doesn’t take much effort to create a cheap game, you are going to see LOTS of them.

And each of these cheap and easily created games is going to be competing against the growing over-abundance of social games.

The Laws of Competition are going to require a successful social gaming company to compete by either:
  • creating lots of crappy games (most options)
  • and/or, build better games to distinguish themselves (best option)
Both of these things are going to increase development costs and raise the barrier to entry. The attractiveness of developing cheap social games for big profits is going to go away because developing such things will no longer be cheap.

This is what happens with market forces in a free market. Big markets with big profits attract lots of competition. Which, in turn, drives profits down because more people are chasing the same pool of dollars.

The point here is that while social gaming is attractive to investors right now, it’s not always going to be this attractive as competition drives down profits.

Out of 80 million Farmers, how many pay to play?
I signed up for Farmville. Played it for twenty minutes and never logged back on. I still count as a “neighbor” to people in my social network and I’m sure I count towards that 80 million player mark that Zynga claims.

I also never paid Zynga a dime to play Farmville.

Like all Free2Play games, the model depends on a small percentage of the user base to pay for it. It’s this group of ‘hardcore’ social gamers that Zynga and other social game developers are chasing.

So while it’s easy to say that such games are “mainstream” because they have 80 million accounts, the actual pool of players paying in some form to play these games could easily be smaller than the subscriber base of Warcraft.

Although, in fairness, I think one thing that is unique to social gaming is that the user isn’t always paying directly. For example, while I never paid Zynga to play Mafia Wars, I did signup for NetFlix through a link they provided and earned Reward Points. NetFlix, in turn, paid Zynga for the referral.

Of course, my decision to signup for NetFlix was not influenced by Mafia Wars in any way and was a completely independent decision. Had I not signed up through that link, I would have signed up on the NetFlix website directly.

As a marketer in real life, I question NetFlix’s approach here and will be curious to see if the trend to such referral offers continues to be accepted as social gaming matures. Marketers are still trying to figure out how to best use social networking, so expect some changes on this front.

Also, as social gaming competition grows, one area they will also be competing is for these referral dollars. For example, NetFlix might find it makes sense to offer a smaller referral fee but include more social games. The net effect is continued shrinking profits.

Better Games
The future of social gaming is not going to be with cheap throwaway games. As I wrote yesterday, these games currently don’t compete with our leisure time because the gameplay sucks. I’ll play at work, but not at home.

Cheap games are also not going to steal all the development dollars because increased competition is going to make such investment less profitable. To be successful, developers are going to have to create better and better social games.

The cheap game works right now only because the market is emerging. As it matures, we are going to see games like Sid Meir’s Civilization on Facebook which offer radically better gameplay. We might even one day see a decent MMO developed on that platform.

And yet, the pool of dollars and profit margins aren’t going to be so fantastic that we see developers ignore other markets. 

There is more money in Console games than PC games, but that didn’t kill the PC market.

And if I’m being blunt, I don’t really think the case has been made that there are more dollars to be had in social gaming than the traditional PC gaming market. Despite the 80 million Farmville users, I think “gamers” are simply willing to pay more than the “mainstream” Facebook users.

Edit: I wrote this in the comments, but I'll include it here because I think it's a solid prediction.
I think what is most likely in the MMO space is that we'll see a trend towards Facebook Plugins that complement but don't replace the actual game.

For example, Blizzard creating a Facebook plugin for WoW. The goal being to synch your real life network with your in-game network of friends.

Such a thing wouldn't mean you could play WoW at work (you would still need WoW installed), but perhaps you could check the Auction House, Guild Calendar, Guild Forum, Guild Chat, and so forth while not "in-game" but in Facebook.

We are already seeing one step in this direction with the AH app for the iPhone.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Facebook: Working Hard, or Hardly Working?

I quit WoW early last June. I re-subbed to WAR for a month or so and pretty much quit playing MMOs until January when I started playing EVE. Which I’ve since quit and I’ve started playing Darkfall.

So what did I do between July and January?

Mostly Facebook Games.  So it’s with that perspective that I wanted to write about my take on Facebook games and why the world is not ending.

Accessibility of Browser based games
One of the most powerful reasons that Facebook games are popular is because they are BROWSER based games. GDC raised the profile of these games recently on the blogosphere and I’ve been reading a lot impressions about why Facebook games are / are not the future.

While the Browser nature of these games gets a brief mention, it’s often overlooked.  Stop doing that.  It's important to understanding why these game "work" and are popular.

The fact that these games run in Browsers makes them widely accessible to anyone who has a computer or access to the internet. You can play them on a cell phone, at the Library, on even your Mom's computer.

And most importantly, it means you have access at work.

I can’t think of anyone who could get away with playing WoW at work. Yet, with a Facebook game, a person can log in for 15-20 minutes three or four times a day without anyone noticing.

And likely, your boss won't even be the wiser for it.

Taking a break at Work
Zynga, unethical bastards that they are, noticed a trend in games like Mafia Wars. Usage dropped over the weekend when people weren’t at work. People didn’t feel the need to log in when it wasn’t part of the work week.

Now think about that for a moment. A browser based game means a game that can be played during working hours. BUT, the gameplay wasn't compelling enough that it could keep people as interested during non-work hours.

In other words, what these Facebook games largely tap into is “fuck around” time at work. It’s not really competing with off-hour entertainment time.

Warcraft, Team Fortress, or pretty much any other game that’s not “safe for work” competes with our leisure time (not "at work" time). This is the time that I could be otherwise spending reading a book, watching TV, bar hopping, or whatever else I enjoy when I’m not at work.

Facebook during Happy Hour? I think not.
Zynga also noticed that games (like Farmville) which had “timers” did compel people to check back during non-work hours. The timer amounts to a penalty if the player doesn't log back in to harvest crops that will spoil.

In short, the only way to get people to play these games during leisure hours is to build in these types of motivators. Chris Hecker had this now e-famous quote on the topic:
Extrinsic motivators will lead you towards dull tasks, and you're totally [cornering] yourself into designing shitty games that you have to pay people to play with reward structures.
Chris's fear here is that devs will just opt-out for the simplest thing that gets people to continue to keep logging back on.  I'm not so sure about that.

I have to say that for me personally, logging in to check on a crappy game during my quality leisure time wore thin pretty quickly. I couldn’t sustain it and it’s one factor that led me to quitting these games.

In my mind, these games just don’t compete with MMOs because they aren’t competing for my leisure time. They are competing for “fuck around” time in the workplace. A drain on productivity? Perhaps? A threat to my leisure time gaming? Unlikely.

I'll be much more interested to see what happens when some quality games (like Sid Meir's Civilization) show up on Facebook.

Social Networking gets too much credit
I would argue that the Browser accessibility is, in fact, the single most important trait of these games. Moreso, in many ways, than the Social Networking aspect which gets all the credit.

While I’ll not deny the power of Social Networks, I think it’s important to point out that Facebook and these games enjoy a very synergistic effect. In other words, do people come back to Facebook in order to Network or in order to play Games?

The truth is both reasons. There is a synergy between the Social Network and Game that keeps people coming back because one reinforces the other. We play a Game because our Social Network is playing. However, we also Social Network because we can do so through playing Games.

Here to stay, but not here to ruin your day
We need to accept that the online gaming market is growing into a much more mainstream market. That’s not a bad thing.

As I wrote above, these games don’t compete at the same level for the quality of our time like Warcraft or any other MMO. Mainstream users are just not going to be (on average) spending 15 hours of liesure time on these games. They are mostly going to spend time at them while at work or while the kids are at school and then spend evenings doing some other leisure activity.

Liesure activities which may include better quality games.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

+1 Blogger to the Gamers Against F2P Movement

You can add Keen to the list. Well, at least for this week...
It is inherent to all F2P games that the cash shop must be used. It is thus inherent to all F2P games that the developers must be constantly thinking of ways to get players to use the shop. The result is a conflict of interest between developing a quality product and developing a product that makes money. I submit that the two can not ever exist in harmony.
This gives me a little bit of hope that some gamers are waking up to the insanity of the model.  My view on the whole thing is well documented at this point, so I won't rehash it other than to post links:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Social Norms and The Power of Words

The topic of Macros reminded me of this post I wrote a few weeks ago in which I attempted (and failed) to defend Griefing. The two topics are similar in that they both related to what we consider acceptable behavior in an MMO:
MMOs are interesting in that the social dynamics of the community certainly provide a society for that MMO. And as with all societies, acceptable behavior is defined by the norms of the people in that society.

In this way, there are very clear definitions of what is right and wrong behavior in any MMO. These norms may not be the same in each game, or even a reflection of the broader real world society, but they do exist within the confines of that game.
Darkfall Norms
As I pointed out in the comments of yesterday’s posts about Macros, I think Aventurine is in a unique position with Darkfall in that “Macroing” to automate play is becoming commonly accepted as something that is OK, provided it’s done in an area where other people can kill you if you are found doing it.

This is a great example of how “social norms” dictate our perceptions of fairness. In this case, such norms are unique to Darkfall. Or in other words, because other Darkfall players accept the usage of “Macroing” under these conditions, the use of such things isn’t seen as unethical. Whereas, in a game like Warcraft, the norms might be that such a thing is not acceptable.

Similarly, in a Free2Play game, the Microtransaction model is accepted as a norm among those players who play that game. However, players like myself, have different values and could never accept the MT model as a norm because of my belief that it can lead to unethical abuse by the developer.

It’s the difference in these norms that make me less critical about Syncaine’s acceptance of Macroing. I can hardly fault him for what amounts to botting when the social norms in Darkfall accept such behavior as OK.

The broader issue of WHY such behavior is accepted is an equally interesting and separate topic. Is it, as Syncaine suggests, a viable solution to the design problems created with “on use” skill-ups? Is it a problem of Aventurine’s creation by not enforcing a stricter policy? Or perhaps Darkfall players are simply less ethical?

The power of words
When I went on the offensive against Sandboxes the other week, I wasn’t attacking the games. I was attacking the word choice.

There is power in words. Our word choice and interpretation of words influences our opinions and perceptions. I don’t like the whole Sandbox/Themepark terminology because commonly accepted usage of that terminology supports a very biased opinion.

It’s a bit like calling someone a Nazi just to win an argument. Not only do they have to defend themselves about not being a Nazi, but they have to distance themselves from that association.  Either way, the net effect is that we are now arguing about the validity of the Nazi comment and not the actual topic.

The best real world example of this is the Pro-Choice movement. At one point in the 70s, there was very little popular support to legalize abortions in the US. It took a court case, Roe v. Wade, in order to make it legal in all 50 states. After Roe, popular opinion started to rise in favor of the movement.

But why?

Because supporters shifted the focus away from abortion and made it about Choice. People don’t want to hear about abortions. An abortion is a bad thing. Choice, and free will, are good things. A person who would not willingly have or support people they know having an abortion will support the idea that they have the right to make that decision.

In a similar fashion, we hear Pro-Life supporters talking about “Killing Babies” while Pro-Choice supporters call it “Terminating a Fetus”. A Pro-Choice supporter would simply never use the term “Baby” because it undermines their position.

Circling back to Darkfall, that’s why players supporting automated play are calling it “Macroing” instead of “Botting”. It minimizes it into something more acceptable and palatable. In a way, it’s a method to rationalize the use of such things to circumvent the obstacles provided in the game design.

EDIT: LOL. On the re-read, it appears that I'm comparing Pro-Choice to the Nazis. That's not my intent. I was just attempting to demonstrate the power of word choice. Nazi is a word that carries a lot of meaning with it, so tossing it around in casual conversation has a powerful impact even it's unsupported.

Likewise, the success of the Pro-Choice movement is a great case study on the power of words. By finding a way to reframe the issue through word choice, it gained greater acceptance. This is merely an observation, not a statement on my political beliefs.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Macros: Taking the plunge into dark waters...

In Friday’s entry, I wrote about the blurry line of fair play as it relates to custom user interfaces, exploits, and keystroke macros. Admittedly, it’s a very long-winded entry but the central theme is that all of these things are a slippery slope and what ultimately defines “fair play” is not a EULA but our own personal perceptions and our interpretation of the vagaries developers provide us.

Syncaine wrote an article today about macroing in Darkfall in which he appears to be struggling with the concept of whether to use macros to level skills. Assumed in his entry is that Aventurine is OK with the use of such macros as long as they are only used in areas that are not protected by Guard Towers. As he points out in the comments, the official line by Aventurine is:
Any macroing or disruptive skilling up within the protective radius of the towers is strictly forbidden. Offenders will be kicked. Repeat offenders will be banned.

Unattended macroing anywhere is forbidden. Offenders will be kicked. Repeat offenders will be banned.
When does macroing become botting?
A macro, by definition, is a series of actions that execute when a single command is entered. The purpose of a macro is to simplify the user experience by grouping actions. In a game like Warcraft, macros are largely restricted to slash commands (Ex: /cast Fireball). As such, these in-game macros have defined rules which prevent abusive usage such as chaining non-instant spell casts or timer delays.

Macros, however, are not limited to in-game slash commands. In fact, programs which allow people to create macros for any Windows application are pretty common. Chances are, your mouse or keyboard software offers such macro functionality for key re-mapping and chaining keystrokes. As I wrote on Friday, because such programs are common and have legitimate non-game usages, they aren’t something that a game developer can easily block or ban.

The issue is that such programs can be used in very illegitimate ways. You might not be able to chain cast or set delays in an in-game macro, but that limitation doesn’t exist in these other applications. It’s quite possible to setup a macro that points down, clicks a button, waits 60 seconds, points another direction, clicks a button to move for 5 seconds, points down, clicks button and waits another 60 seconds.

What is unattended macroing?
Read the Darkfall forums or even Syncaine’s recent entry and you’ll come away with the understanding that most players in Darkfall use the very literal interpretation that “unattended” means not at your computer.

By this definition, my above macro/bot example could wander around mining resource node to resource node as long as I was watching it run around.

In fact, such macro usage is actually what Syncaine is suggesting in order to level up a skill. Want to level swimming? Swim in circles. Want to level jumping? Stand there and hop. Want to level that spell? Stand there and cast it.

As long as you aren’t doing it in an area “protected” by Guard Towers and as long as you are at the computer to answer a “tell” from a GM, then it’s perfectly OK.


I’m sorry, but if you are “watching” your character do stuff without you actually doing it – that’s botting.

And it’s unattended.

Implied in attending something is that you are paying attention and participating in the activity. If you are not participating, then it’s unattended. Watching a macro run is not participation.

When does macroing become botting? As soon as you enter a WAIT or SLEEP command into the macro that delays an action. A macro that executes immediately upon a keystroke is not botting because it doesn’t take action AFTER you participated in the action of making that keystroke.

The moment you add that WAIT or SLEEP, you’ve just entered the realm of automated play where botters nest. Make no mistake, it is botting even if your script is simple by comparison.

If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?
This is the really tricky thing. It’s becoming clear that at least in Darkfall, the use of such macro scripts is accepted as long as you don’t do it in a protected zone and you are there to answer GM tells.

As a player, this leaves me in an awkward position that I resent. Do I jump off the bridge and start macroing? Or do I gimp myself relative to other players by watching them shortcut success?

I already know the answer: I’ll jump off. For no other reason than I feel compelled to NOT gimp my progression. And quite frankly, I resent that such action is needed on my part in order to not feel gimped.

Andrea Bargs argues that this type of macroing and Microtransactions are similar in that they offer the player a way to “skip ahead” without actually playing the game.

There is certainly quite a bit of truth to that statement and I’m certain that’s a big part of the reason I’m resentful about it. Although, I think that’s where the comparison ends. The really unethical part of the MT model isn’t the skipping of content – it’s the part where you PAY to skip that content.

I’m good at this stuff
One thing that makes this dilemma so difficult for me is that I’m good at this stuff. I mean really good at it. If you read this blog back while I was playing Warhammer, you might recall that in the process of learning the addon API, I had concerns about “button masher” style addons. Something which was possible because WAR lacked secure frames and I know of at least one publically released addon which could be configured this way.

You also might remember that I wrote (and released) an addon that attached icons over player unit heads that were visible through mountains and other terrain.

I think what bothers me here is the duality of my personality. On the one hand, I just want to play the game and have fun. On the other hand, I am fiercely competitive and willing to toe the line of acceptability to get results.

Say what you will about Warcraft, but at least the line of acceptable use is made relatively clear. In Darkfall, that line is ambiguous at best and there is a part of me that fears myself and my history of pushing boundaries.

In the past, when I felt like I pushed the boundaries too far, I released my work publically (like the Warhammer addon). The theory being more players using the advantage I provide forces the developer to address the problem. And, if I'm being honest, I think it helped with my guilt to know I wasn't alone.

In practice, I think that is just like throwing water on an oil fire. It only serves to spread the problem.

The irony is that all this makes me NOT want to play Darkfall. And yet, I’m committed for the next 3 months and genuinely enjoy the game.

Friday, March 12, 2010

User Interfaces: Bending The Rules of Fair Play

Of all the possible topics about User Interfaces, the one I find the most enlightening is the one about what people consider acceptable usage, exploitation and the very gray area in-between. This is perhaps the most complicated of issues because much of it has it’s basis in personal opinion.

The Custom UI Argument
I’m a huge advocate for flexibility in a UI. I think 90% of the complaints people have about a default UI can be addressed simply by allowing people to rebind keys and move/resize UI elements. The more flexibility people have to adjust the UI in a way that is comfortable and convenient to them, the more they are going to enjoy the game experience.

That’s not open for debate and even the most rigid of game developers offers the ability to at least rebind keys.  The issue is to what degree do you allow people to edit and customize the UI.

Warcraft and Warhammer, for example, allow custom scripts or addons to be written that can radically alter the game UI. If I so chose, the API in both games is open enough for me to completely rewrite something like the Auction House. As an addon author and someone who plays an aggressive game on the Auction House, that’s something I even considered doing.

There are some real advantages to allowing your community to modify the UI. Perhaps the best argument to allow such customization is that it allows your users to address usability issues which will actually improve the game.

For example, I happen to be color blind in real life and long before Blizzard implemented UI options to address the handicap, I tried a Custom UI addon that fixed a lot of the common issues color blind people faced.

And there are countless examples of other UI improvements that were incorporated into the Warcraft UI over the years that were originally inspired by custom addons. Speaking as an addon author, I can tell you that I absolutely love the ability to simply “fix” the things I saw as a problem in the UI.

If I didn’t like something, I just changed it.

Unfair Advantage
The other school of thought is that such customization provides an unfair advantage if it’s not built into the default UI. Custom mods certainly DO provide an advantage and I don’t think many people would argue that point. A raid mod that throws up big neon signs telling you to “GET OUT OF THE FIRE!” is a pretty distinct advantage over a default UI requiring you to, well, see flames on the ground around you.

No. The argument is over whether or not it’s unfair. Addon supporters would argue that it’s not unfair because anyone can download the raid mod. Non-supporters argue that such things are unfair to those people who don’t want to research and keep an up-to-date laundry list of third party addons.

The non-supporters have a very valid point and it’s not just a matter of laziness. As a third party addon, the deployment, updating and support of that customization is left up to the individual player.

Patches break them and they often have undocumented bugs. Support, when there is any, is provided by some guy named FrostyPants when he has free time (and hopefully he didn’t quit playing the game).

In addition, it also assumes that all such addons are publically released and available to everyone. As an addon author, I can tell you that’s not true.

Take the Auction House addon I considered writing. Given my experience as a top-end trader and my knowledge as an addon author, I had some ideas for some very powerful tools that would have automated much of what I needed to do manually (even with addons like Auctioneer).

I would never have released such a thing to the public and kept it for my sole benefit. A private addon like that would most certainly be unfair.

I’m not a Lawyer, but I play one on the Internet
Anytime this discussion is brought up, players start quoting the EULA like it’s the Bible and they are the Pope. The problem with EULAs is that they are purposefully very broad in scope in order to protect the developer. It’s basically in the developers interest to write the EULA in such a way that it forbids everything NOT in the game and allow themselves the caveat to make exemptions at their discretion.

Even Blizzard, who supports third party LUA addons, takes the legal position in its EULA that nothing is allowed unless authorized:
You agree that you will not, under any circumstances:
  • B. use […] mods or any other unauthorized third-party software designed to modify the World of Warcraft experience;
  • D. use any unauthorized third-party software that intercepts, "mines", or otherwise collects information from or through the Game or the Service […]; provided, however, that Blizzard may, at its sole and absolute discretion, allow the use of certain third party user interfaces;
The default legal position is that even the most benign third party addon is not allowed unless, at Blizzard’s discretion, they decide it is allowed. But that’s only the legal position to protect them in court.

This whole “at Blizzard’s discretion” thing is the fuzzy part. Addon authors write an addon, post it to Curse or some other site, and people can download and use it. No approval required and it’s implied by Blizzard’s lack of legal action against Curse and other such sites that this is acceptable.

In other words, Blizzard doesn’t feel they need to approve each individual addon. In fact, it’s become commonly understood over the years that if it can be written using the in-game API, it’s acceptable. Even if such things automate tasks like data mining Auction prices, collecting mail items and listing things on the Auction House.

The point here is that it’s ludicrous for Armchair Lawyers to try and look at the EULA for guidance on these disputes. Because, strictly from a legal standpoint, nothing is allowed unless you can find some documentation where they have expressly allowed it. And yet, there are plenty of examples in every game of things they allow without making such rulings.

Acceptable usage or Exploit?
Obviously, anything which is allowed by the default game is an acceptable use. Unless, of course, it’s a bug exploit. In which case, it’s not.

OK. So it’s not quite that obvious, but using bug exploits is bannable, right?

Not always, sometimes the more benign bugs (like gliding downhill) never get fixed at all and become part of the game. Others, might get you a suspension and all your stuff taken away.

Things become less gray when we talk about obvious exploitation.

Figure out a way to duplicate gold? Even the most dishonest player knows that is against the rules. Likewise, hacking or altering memory values for a game are pretty blatant and obvious cheats.

It’s a bit less obvious if the memory value is merely read, not altered. For example, imagine a separate piece of software that monitors your memory for other Player Characters and plays a .wav file in Windows if a new one is loaded into memory.

Technically, you are not altering or modifying the Game or Game World. You are only intercepting data from the Game and using Windows to play the sound alert. FRAPS does the same thing to record video.

Obviously, one usage is a cheat and the other a benign use of third party software to record events. However, legally speaking, these both violate the same rules in Blizzard’s EULA.

What makes one a cheat and another acceptable? What makes a bug exploit part of the game or game breaking?

It’s our interpretation of the intent and the scope of the impact that makes a difference. An interpretation that is made fuzzy because it’s subject to personal perspective and perceptions.

The gray area in-between
I think the average user has some clue about what is blatantly wrong. It's one reason why I decided against writing that Auction House addon.

That said, I think the really muddled part of this discussion relates to automation. A bot that plays the game unattended is an obvious cheat.  It’s less clear when we talk about automating tasks.

Certain activities, like collecting all your mail or listing multiple auctions, address usability issues and automation offers a significant improvement in the user experience. Other activities, particularly those related to combat, that automate or decide in-game action are unfair and potentially abusive.

In fact, developers go to great lengths to ensure that such combat automation doesn’t exist by default in a game. Warcraft introduced a “taint” system which eliminated such automation in addons and even developed a detailed macro system as a replacement to provide a specific level of acceptable automation.

Warhammer didn’t provide any macros at all. Nor does Darkfall or EVE. It’s commonly understood that such automation is a violation of the spirit of the game and unfair to other players.

And yet, it exists out-of-game.

I’m referring specifically to hardware devices (and software) that allow you to chain (and even time) specific actions. The most notable is the G15 keyboard. A quick search on any game forum and you’ll read a dozen different Armchair Lawyer opinions about how it does or does not violate the EULA.

Blizzard apparently takes the position that using the G15 to automate is against the EULA, but doesn't ban the device – just the use of the device to chain actions. And only then, when they can detect that you are doing it. 

Of course, if you are only chaining a few things (like 1-2-3) then it’s impossible for them to detect. It’s only when you use it to attempt automation that’s identifiable by other people (like auto-fish) that such usage is going to result in a suspension or ban.

Legality vs. Enforceability
The G15 is perhaps the most high profile device. I find the hypocrisy of the wide-spread native support makes it an interesting topic, but it’s hardly the only way to perform these types of actions.

This issue is what I alluded to in Wednesday’s entry. There are GUI elements that sit on a UI Layer (Plane of Glass) and UI elements that result from Hardware Input. A developer has absolute control over what can happen on the UI Layer.

Ultimately, they have little control over Hardware Input. As an extreme example, they can’t really stop someone from placing a brick on the space bar.

Long ago, I bought a Gateway computer that came with an Anykey Keyboard which you can still find on Ebay for $30. The unique thing about this keyboard is that it allowed complete programmability (including macros) and remapping of your keys.

This was at a hardware level, so no amount of software detection could ever detect that these keys were not pressed by a human. That was in 1992.

However, even at a software level, how hardware input is received is handled by the Operating System – not the application. As such, other software can interface directly with the Hardware API to create Hardware Events without touching or directly interacting with a Game application.

In other words, there is no way for the Game to distinguish between a Hardware Event triggered by a real keystroke or another software application.

All the Game knows is that it received the Hardware Event.

Nor is using such software to create Hardware Events a violation of a EULA on it's own because it's an Operating System (rather than application) function.  The act of automation may be against the EULA, but using a separate software program to simply disable the "Windows" key or remap it to "Print Screen" is not.

Interestingly, this also sheds some light on how botting programs, like MMO Glider, worked. They can  mine data about the game world and then trigger Hardware Events based on that information.

In other words, it could read the positional data about where you and other things were located in the RAM and then push the buttons needed to make things happen based on that information. The noteworthy thing here is that this happens without the third party botting program ever interacting with the Game other than to read (not alter) memory values.

For example, to loot something, they could setup an alert that triggered when the mouse cursor (or tooltip) changed to something else. Then the hardware input moves the mouse all over the screen until the mouse cursor changes and the alert occurs. If it does, then the bot knows to send a Right-Click at that mouse position to loot.

None of this is really detectable even by Blizzard’s Warden. However, what IS detectable is the program. So it might not be able to find the behavior, but it could find the program if it knew what program it needed to find. A person who developed such a bot that was not public would be almost impossible to find.

But the truth is that you don’t even need such software to automate many actions because basic automation is available in a lot of programs that Blizzard (or anyone else) would never consider banning you for using. The G15 software is the easiest example, but there are others including AutoIT and AutoHotKey that both have legitimate non-cheating uses.

Not promoting cheats
I want to be clear that I'm not advocating that people cheat or violate the spirit of fair play.  This is really just a post about why I find this topic so intriguing.

It's complex, filled with hypocrisy, and even the most well informed players are often left in ambiguity.

The thing that really prompted me to write about it is that I was recently advised in-game (in the trade channel) to download and use the program AutoHotKey in Darkfall.  Advice that several people echoed.

Having some previous familiarity with this program, I was a bit shocked and this prompted me to search the in-game forums. I turned up two posts:
These are both recent topics and the first link has detailed instructions about setting up AutoHotKey. The second link is a several page debate about whether or not you'll get banned for using it.

Now the interesting thing is that the second link is CLOSED. The first link is still open with posts as recent as a few days ago.

Reading through the legality post, you'll find that you end up with a similar answer to Blizzard's G15 position. Using it won't get you banned. Misusing it will.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

User Interfaces: The Basics

I might be in the minority, but I find the topic of User Interfaces extremely fascinating. We can talk about other design elements of a game but they all take a backseat in terms of importance to the User Interface.

After all, the best game concepts in the world are worthless without a way to USE them. At its core, the User Interface represents all things you do to interact with the game and game world. It represents more than just on-screen displays and other GUI elements. It’s how you use your mouse, the keyboard, and everything else you DO to make things happen in a game.

This is a complicated topic to write about because it’s pretty broad. I have a deeper issue I want to discuss that I'm saving for a follow-up post, but before I started I wanted to jot down some thoughts that percolate in my little head when thinking about how developers create a UI.

The Glass Pane
I think of the User Interface as a Glass Pane that separates me from the Game World. Imagine for a moment that the Game World is real and that you could place your hand through the monitor and physically touch your character. Except you can’t. Because there is a Glass Pane separating you and when you reach out, you touch the Glass.

On that Glass Pane, someone has placed a small map in the upper right corner. The map doesn’t sit on the Game World, it sits on the Glass that separates you from the Game World. Also sitting on that Glass are your Hotbars, player status, and anything else you need to interact with that’s not part of the Game World.

Game designers and addon authors call that Glass Pane the UI Layer. This is an important distinction because things in the UI Layer (or Glass Pane) are not part of the Game World. They are separate and while they help us interact with the Game World, they aren’t actually part of that world.

There are a few exceptions, the most notable of which is your mouse cursor. The mouse cursor rests on the very top of the UI Layer, but has the unique ability to reach through the Glass to touch interactive objects in the Game World. In this way, you can touch and interact with such things in the Game World.

The other exceptions come when a UI element is anchored to a game object. For example, EVE Online anchors a red square to your enemy targets.

Input Devices
We traditionally think of the UI as those things that I describe as being tied to the Glass Pane. That’s really only half the story. We can glare, stare, or eye our Hotbar menacingly but that isn’t going to activate it for us. For that, we need a hardware event. A mouseclick, a key click, or a magic wave of our Wii Remote.

It sounds like such a simple thing, but everything we DO starts with these actions. An otherwise great UI can turn into a horrible experience if the way we are forced to use these devices is uncomfortable.

For example, if I constantly need to stretch my left hand to hold down “A” while simultaneously pressing “P” it’s going to be feel awkward to play.

Usability of Input Devices is really defined by the flexibility of a games bindings (key or mouse). The more options you have to remap these into a more comfortable arrangement, the less awkward the game is going to feel.

Dirty Windows and Innovative Ideas
From a usability standpoint, Warcraft has a great Glass Pane. Arguably, the best Glass Pane in any MMO. They’ve had years to perfect it and have heavily borrowed from improvements made through Custom UIs by addon developers. When average Joe Warcraft goes out to try a new game, a crappy Glass Pane really stands out in comparison.

But in a game like Darkfall, it’s really the use of the Input Device (mouse) for First Person Combat that is dramatic. The Glass Pane sucks, but the UI as it relates to the Input Devices is fun. In that respect, Darkfall is a great example of how to use a UI very differently.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Oversimplifying MMOs

We are all familiar with soundbites, or short snippets of audio/video used in TV or Radio news broadcasts. In politics, the soundbite is a powerful tool that politicians use to distill very complex issues into very clear and simple points. A complex topic like supply-side economics can be summed up with “Stop Killing the Golden Goose.”

Shadowar wrote about this in response to my blog entry about the term Sandbox:
In this [West Wing] scene, the two characters are talking about the necessity of creating a simple, 10-word statement that explains the breadth and scope of just such a system. What the old, crotchety man is saying to her, is that it’s not possible. In no way can we ever reduce them to sound-bites and flash cards.
This really sums up my gripe about using the term Sandbox to describe specific games. Ask 10 people what Sandbox means and you’ll get 10 different answers. In response to my entry, Syncaine wrote a 1000 word essay about what is and is not a Sandbox or a Themepark. And I’ll credit him with a great explanation, but the mere fact it takes 1000 words to describe a Sandbox is indictment enough that it’s a bad choice of words.

Soundbites win elections
A soundbite has a very clear purpose. To break-down a much more detailed thing into a much shorter snapshot. In the political spectrum, it’s a means of persuasion. Politicians hire spin doctors to get 10-word statements to explain incredibly complex and layered issues. The intent is to convince you they are right.

And they work.

Effective use of soundbites will win you an election. It won’t actually solve anything, but it will win you the argument.

This is how I view the term Sandbox. It’s an ambiguous metaphor being used as the blogging equivalent of a soundbite. It’s useful for winning the argument, but not for any deeper discussion about MMOs.

Specific features or Game attributes
I took some criticism from people who called my dislike of the term Sandbox as being too Academic or Intellectual. I find this a bit comical.

MMOs are not deep complex political issues. They are pretty straight-forward. And if I speak about the feature or the specific game attribute of a game, I can get my point across very quickly and concisely.

Supposedly, the average gamer is too stupid to figure out what I mean when I call something Level-based or Skill-based.

Coppertopper had a comment on Syncaine’s blog that I found illustrated this problem perfectly:
I was reading Keens blog about his recent introduction and play time in UO and the idea of plopping down a house anywhere seemed way more ’sandboxy’ then what you had to go thru to get a house built in Darkfall.
The “feature” that Coppertopper is referring to here is Persistent Objects. Objects that you place or interact with that stay that way after you leave them. In UO, if you dropped a hammer on the ground, it stayed there until someone else came and picked it up.

Now, if I’m just using the term Sandbox to describe an MMO, this feature (or lack of feature) is lost in my description. However, if I say that UO and EVE both have Persistent Objects and Darkfall does not, then you know EXACTLY what that means. It means that if you abandon a ship, structure or cargo container somewhere in EVE, it stays there even after you log off.

EVE is like Darkfall?
Having recently played both these games recently, I can tell you that they have very little gameplay in common with each other. In fact, Darkfall has much more in common with EQ and WoW than it does with EVE.

But if I had a nickel for every time I read “Sandbox games like EVE and Darkfall”

These two games are constantly being lumped together because of some very broad esoteric design decisions. It’s to the point where I read things like “EVE is Darkfall in space” and I cringe.

I guess that “space” thing is just a minor difference. I mean, it doesn’t have nearly the impact of something like not having levels or a clear progression path.

Never mind that combat is not remotely similar. Movement is not remotely similar. UI is not remotely similar. Inventory is handled differently. One is vehicle based, the other character based. One is 3D, the other is flat. One has sharded zones called Solar systems, the other one flat big world. That I can take a piss break in the middle of EVE combat and can't take a drink of soda while playing Darkfall.

Need I go on?

I first made this point on Syncaine’s blog, so in fairness, I’ll post his response:
From a game perspective, DF is closer to EQ than EVE. But from a player mentality (as in, wtf do I do today) DF and EVE are very close, and nothing like EQ/WoW. Now how you design your rules to foster that mentality varies, but I think that makes up the core of the ’sandbox’ term.
Ah.. so Sandbox is all about player mentality? Hmm. Well, that strikes me as a hell of a lot more Academic and Intellectual than my desire to discuss FEATURES instead of soundbites.

Don’t worry. Your Sandbox is safe.
I have no illusions that I’m going to magically talk people into using different terminology. Sandbox is ingrained in the community and it’s a very effective tool to argue a point.

It’s a great soundbite. You will win lots of internet arguments with it.

I’ll also concede that it’s been used often enough now that while ambiguous, it’s message is commonly understood even if it doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. In fact, for some, it’s enough that it simply represents EVE and Darfkfall.

I’d just like to see more discussion center around specific features of a game.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Grand Theft! My Sandbox was stolen!

I first heard the term “Sandbox” used by The Escapist to describe console games like Grand Theft Auto. The concept being that GTA didn’t have a track or a set path you followed, but was an open ended world. The player could drive around wherever they wanted, in whatever car they wanted, and do whatever jobs or activities they wanted.

At some point, someone (Syncaine, perhaps?) adopted the term and applied it to MMOs. In doing so, they redefined what “Sandbox” meant (open ended world) to something else entirely. The MMO definition of Sandbox is a lot more vague and harder to define, but I think the original interpretation can best be distilled down to: A game without levels.

Poor Word Choice
But as I say, this MMO usage is vague and it quickly became synonymous with other features like player controlled territories and the ability to loot other players. And so when people talk about a Sandbox MMO today, they don’t just talk about not having traditional levels, but really all the other flexibility that comes with territory control and looting.

The term Sandbox MMO has come to represent the combination of three separate features: No Levels, Player Controlled Territory, Full Looting.

One reason I don’t like the word choice is that these games actually have levels. They just aren’t levels in the traditional sense but skills. I won’t argue that such a system is more flexible, but it’s still a pretty straightforward character progression. If you want to do X, you need to level those skills. The term Sandbox MMO just seems so misused in that application.

Honestly, I think the best argument for the validity of this definition is that player owned structures and territory control in PvP games define the landscape and world.

And yet, Warhammer had such a feature and I’ve yet to hear one person label that as a Sandbox. So it would seem that at least by itself, no one thinks player defined territory control is good definition of why it should be called a Sandbox.

So you’ll have to forgive me, but I prefer the original usage of the word to describe opened ended worlds.

Warcraft is a Sandbox too!
Look, Warcraft by all accounts can be considered a Sandbox. Quite frankly, any virtual world can if you are using the original definition.

You can freely go anywhere you want in the game world. You can equip all kinds of different things. You decide what you want to do and when.

That’s distinctly different than a game like Halo or Half-life. That’s a track. You have stuff to kill and only one direction to go. You move from cutscene to cutscene merrily killing everything along the way until you get to the end. And then you are finished.

By comparison, you have unimaginable freedom in Warcraft. Sure, there are quests. But you decide which quests you want to do, where you want to do them, whether or not you want to complete them or if you just want to do something else entirely unrelated to questing.

The Word, not the Games
Keep in mind that my contention here is not a criticism of the games, but of the way the word Sandbox is used to describe MMOs. It’s a catch-phrase used to imply that such games have more freedom than other games.

The implication being that games like Warcraft have little or no freedom. As I pointed out, that’s not really true. What games like Warcraft provide is guidance. The free form nature of being able to do whatever the hell you want still exists. The difference is that you aren’t left to wander along with no direction.

And if you want to call out Warcraft for having levels, then call it a Leveling-Based game as opposed to a Skill-Based game. Why bother trying to have a separate ambiguous definition like Sandbox?

The point here is that the term Sandbox has been warped and disfigured into something used to describe games that are really no more of a Sandbox than any other MMO. The irony being that all MMOs, by their very nature as virtual worlds, are also Sandboxes.

The Folly of calling Warcraft a Themepark
Set aside your personal opinions about these games for a moment and consider the words being used to describe these games. In real-life, would you rather play in a Sandbox or visit a Themepark?

Themeparks are exciting! They spend millions if not billions of dollars making them incredibly fun and memorable. They are at the peak of all possible forms of entertainment.

Or a Sandbox. With sand. Oh, the joy.

Obviously the Themepark is a far superior form of entertainment and for the same price, no rational person would ever choose the Sandbox.

The term Themepark is used to describe MMOs in a negative way. It’s intent is to imply something is “on rails” and that you have less personal choice or freedom.

People like choice, so it’s a nice tidy little attack to label something rigid and inflexible by calling it a Themepark. However, without that context, an outside observer would say – gee, a Themepark sounds more fun and exciting than a Sandbox.

It just strikes me as silly to use the better of two things as the derogatory term.

Co-Op or VS Mode
As much as I'd like MMO players to adopt the original definition of Sandbox as it was used to describe open world games, I have no illusions that will ever happen.

The issue is that no one has really thought of a different word to describe games whose primary focus is not PvE progression. And let's be clear, that's the central difference between games like EVE or Darkfall and Warcraft.

It's the difference between playing a shooter in Co-Op mode where the other player is a teammate, or VS mode where you are competing directly against each other.

Why is PvE or PvP the defining characteristic? Well, imagine a game exactly like Warcraft except instead of levels, they had skills. Questing in progressively harder zones still existed. PvE Raiding still existed. The only difference is that your "class" and "level" are defined by your skills instead.

Is that a game like EVE or Darkfall? Not really.

What if we added full player looting? No. More consequential perhaps, but not a Sandbox.

That's because THE POINT of what you are trying to accomplish hasn't changed. It's still about PvE end-game and quest progression. It's still Co-Op mode.

What word would I use to describe EVE or Darkfall?
  1. power or the use of power; sovereignty over something.
  2. a kingdom, nation, or other sphere of influence.
I would call them Dominion games because the end-game is about controlling things. Hell, EVE even uses the word 'sovereignty' to describe ownership of solar systems.

Because at it's core, what makes these games different than a PvE Raiding game is Dominion. The building of kingdoms, nations, areas and expanding a sphere of influence.

It's not about being a Sandbox.  It's about Domination.

NOTE:  Another reason I like the word Domination or Dominion better is because it describes the end-game, not a subsets of features.  I wouldn't call Warhammer a Sandbox, but I would call it a Level-based Dominion game.  Whereas, Darkfall is a Skill-based Dominion game.  And Warcraft is a Level-based Raiding game.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Darkfall Trial: Doomsday Clock

Darkfall is not a forgiving place. Of course, I wouldn’t know that yet because I’ve been under what is called New Player Protection. A protection that grants me immunity from being attacked by other players while I get my newbie skills all worked out.

And that’s important because in Darkfall anyone can attack and kill you. And when you die, your loot (including everything you were wearing) stays with your body and anyone can loot your corpse. Even new players aren’t protected from the corpse looting (but you soon learn that it’s not quite as scary as it sounds).

Of course, killing other friendly players is not without consequence. They might become outlaws unable to visit racial cities. But it’s a still a choice they can make. And so even the friendly guy grinding mobs right next to me might decide to take a shot at me if he has a bit of gear envy and I’m low on Health.

The Doomsday Clock
But for the first 24 hours played of any new account, you are granted New Player Protection. Others can’t harm you and you can’t harm others. The amount of Newbie Protection you have left is prominently displayed in big numbers near the minimap. I’ve taken to thinking of this timer as a Doomsday Clock.

A countdown to my destruction.

Because EVERYTHING changes once that clock hits zero hour. That big nice fella that gave me a buff? Ya, well now he might be the guy trying to shove a sword in places where swords aren’t welcome. Right now, I have little to fear from anyone. But when that clock strikes noon, I suddenly have to fear everyone.

I had my first experience with this paranoia on Sunday night. I was kitted up in what, for me, was finally some decent gear that I had gotten from Quest rewards. Mostly leather, which was better than the cloth armor the Goblins had been dropping.

A bit before I logged on Saturday, I had found some Kobolds I could kill. Kobolds are slightly harder to kill than Goblins and drop better loot. When I logged in Sunday, my plan was to finish two Goblin quests and then head over to kill some Kobolds. As I showed up to slay some Goblins, I got invited to a group with two other newbs who were already at the spawn.

I quickly wrapped up what I needed from the Goblins and announced to the group that I was taking off to go kill some Kobolds.

A mistake.

The more poorly geared of the two players thought this was a great idea and wanted to come. My first reaction was “Sure! Follow me!” and off I went with my buddy in tow. When we were about half-way there, a thought dawned on me: What if I die?

My body, rich with rewards, is going to be lying there with my “buddy” looking upon it enviously. And the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that he was just planning to steal all my stuff.

That bastard.

The reality is likely far more mundane. He was new, had only been killing Goblins, and wanted to see Kobolds. And yet, this fear or paranoia I had in a game like Darkfall is actually healthy. Trust is not something you freely give away, but something you give to those who have earned it.

Stronger Bonds
This paranoia episode immediately made me realize the importance of trust in Darkfall. A casual player who only enjoys loose bonds with other people would never like a game like Darkfall.

Something similar to Blizzard’s Dungeon Finder could never work. Dungeon Finder is a simply a tool used to help random individuals with no connection but a common goal find each other and form a group. The only bond is the common goal and once that is gone, there is no longer a purpose to grouping.

But in Darkfall, the risks associated with grouping with random people you don’t know are so high that they outweigh any benefit in the common purpose. You wouldn’t want to form a group with some random guy that might just decide to kill you for that drop instead of roll you for it.

That’s not an indictment of the Dungeon Finder (or Darkfall). The two ideas are just not compatible. There is definitely a lot of merit in just being able to quickly from a group and do stuff.  Particularly for one whose strength is in PvE goals against a computer opponent.

For a PvP based game which is very centric on territory control, the game itself is defined by the strong relationships.  Such relationships explain why it's important to HAVE territory in the first place.  .

Consider it an intrinsic property of these PvP games.  It's YOU versus THEM.  Anyone outside of your group is therefore alienated and the enemy.  The more territory your group controls, the more progressed you are relative to other groups.

Players who don't want to make these bonds or prefer loose relationships aren’t going to make friends with anyone. And without friends, who do you trust to not stab you in the back?

Adapting to No Protection
My time with Newbie Protection is quickly dwindling and I’m faced with the reality that I haven’t yet learned how to be paranoid enough in this game. I suppose recognizing that I’m not paranoid enough is a good start.

Part of my problem is that I’m impatient. Long years of playing MMOs without consequences taught me some bad habits about being risky. I think I earned that achievement in WAR for surviving a fight with really low health in about my first five minutes. I push it to the line. Always have.

That’s something I’m going to have to unlearn quickly. Because standing there victorious with 1 health is just going to get me one-shotted.