Wednesday, July 21, 2010

World of Darkness

I was just saying on Heartless_'s blog yesterday that if I were a game dev, I would have to strongly consider Vampire & Werewolves as the backdrop for an MMO. Vampires, in particular, is a subject matter that draws a lot of attention. Most recently, we have seen the Trueblood and Twilight craze but this has always been a very popular genre. Dracula, Underworld, Blade, The Lost Boys, Salem’s Lot, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Interview with a Vampire.

The great thing about that genre is that it’s not exclusive to Vampires and can include all things that live in the dark. Poltergeists, Ghouls, Zombies, Necromancers, Warlocks, Witches, Demons, Ghosts, Banshees, and basically anything else used to scare the bejeezuz out of people by movie producers. People just eat this topic up and it has a bigger fanbase than even the strongest IPs like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

The other interesting thing about the IP is that the Lore is mostly based on the creatures and critters than inhabit it. It’s not specific to an area or even a point in history. You could just as easily have a Vampire / Werewolf story set in ancient Rome as you could in modern day London or New York. In addition, the creatures themselves are mostly immune to modern weaponry. So, from a lore perspective, attacking a mythical creature with a holy dagger instead of a gun is entirely plausible.

World of Darkness MMO
The impetus for this entry is that I just learned about the World of Darkness MMO. Credits to Tobold for pointing out the upcoming MMO list.

World of Darkness is a pen-and-paper RPG with the exact supernatural horror setting that I just described. One of my major concerns with many MMO titles is that the IP just doesn’t work or fit very well with game mechanics required of an MMO. However, when the IP is already based on an established RPG, the rules already exist and have been tweaked and tested through years of “on-paper” testing.

I stopped playing pen-and-paper RPGs around 1993-94, so I only knew the World of Darkness RPG under its original title of Vampire: The Masquerade. As far as pen-and-paper RPGs go, Vampire: The Masquerade seemed to be well liked by the people I played with regularly (one of which wrote several published D&D modules). And according to Wikipedia, it won an award for “Best Roleplaying Rules” in 1991.

In my mind, it’s a huge point in WoD MMOs favor that it uses a well-established and tested ruleset. The underlying game mechanics are important to the pen-and-paper crowd. These things still exist in MMOs so it’s big plus to know that the foundation is well thought out and tested over time. But more than that, the specifics of the Lore were designed with an RPG system in mind.

Developed by CCP
But perhaps more importantly, it's also being developed by CCP. The same CCP who is currently publishing the second most successful MMO on the market in EVE Online. There are several very important things we know about CCP:
  • They have the financial backing of another successful MMO. We know the lights aren’t going to get turned off anytime soon.
  • They execute well. You don’t attract the players that EVE has with shoddy craftsmanship.
  • They stay committed. CCP will stay the course and continually work to improve their products over time.
  • They have a proven track record of doing things that are different from World of Warcraft.
  • The graphics are going to blow your mind. (see Cloth and Hair demo)
If I’m being blunt, the mere fact that CCP is attached to this MMO guarantees it some measure of success. If, for no other reason, because we know that CCP will stay the course and put forth the work necessary to continually improve it into a quality MMO.

Tobold asks us today, Which upcoming MMO will break the million subscribers mark? If I was a betting man, I would place my money on World of Darkness.

First of all, it has World of in the name. Perhaps if Funcom had released World of Conan instead of Age Of Conan more people would have understood that it was an MMO set in the world of Conan. Clearly, Warhammer made the same mistake by not naming themselves World of Warhammer. Oh sure, this would have abbreviated to WoW but one could argue that such confusion would cause an increase in subscription numbers when my best friend’s brother-in-law signed up for the wrong WoW!

OK. OK. On a more serious note, blogger pundits like to write lots of theories about why no MMO has seriously offered Blizzard real competition over the years. There are several recurring themes in these theories and World of Darkness would appear to avoid most of them. It’s not fantasy based. It’s being produced by a proven developer. It’s in a popular genre with a strong IP. It’s based on an existing RPG with tested game mechanics. The developer has a history of executing well, supporting the game long-term and listening to the community enough but not too much. And finally, the developer is best known for creating a unique game that is markedly very different than WoW.

On the surface of it all, I have to say that WoD appears to be very well positioned as a major up-and-coming MMO. The only irony is that I don’t really like Vampire movies or books. Oh well.. :)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Input Devices, the iPad, Wii and You

In recent years, consumer electronic products have seen several new and innovative technologies introduced to tackle the challenge of how users interact with their devices. Voice activation. Motion controls (Wii). Touchscreens. Invisible Mice.

Technology developed primarily as a result of wanting to create a more compact and portable product. The iPhone is perhaps the best example. It has voice activation features, motion controls to determine orientation and, of course, the now famous touchscreen. 99% of computer users still use a mouse & keyboard but most people have had some exposure by now to this type of technology with some type of non-computer device.

Why is this important?

Well, Raph Koster thinks the iPad form factor (or slate) is the future of computing for the average user. I tend to agree with him. It’s compact, portable and certainly covers all the needs that my wife, her parents, my parents, and all my siblings need out of computer. 

One of the knocks I had about the iPad at release is that for the price, you can buy a cheap laptop. And while I still believe that’s true, the trend is that the platform will eclipse PC innovation within the next 5 years. I would argue that it’s already eclipsed the innovation, but within 5 years it might actually become the dominant platform of choice among home users.

So by extension this is important for gaming because, in all likelihood, you’ll own one of these devices within the next 5 years.

Fighting the 1-2-3s
As we learned with the Wii, providing an alternate way to interact with our gaming devices is a novel and interesting way to breathe new life into them.

If I think about my own frustration with MMO controls, I find that what I don’t like most is having to make keystrokes (hotkeys) while simultaneously doing things with my mouse.

Compare that experience to the Wii with it’s motion controls. Or with the iPad's on-screen finger controls + motion controls. The controls themselves are not just intuitive, but fun to use. On a personal note, I find them more challenging as well. Something that is “easy” with the twitch of my wrist on a mouse is far harder to accomplish when I need to swing my whole hand or body.

As MMO players, we talk a lot about innovation. We talk a lot about how MMO devs need to break away from the 1-2-3 hotkey mold made popular by Blizzard.

For me, this was a huge part of the appeal with Darkfall. The UI might have been total crap, but the controls as it related to combat were both fun, challenging and innovative. As I’ve written about in the past, the simple act of killing a monster you need to “aim at” makes the game several factors more difficult than your standard MMO.

Gamers are all about efficiency
I think this is what strikes some gamers wrong about using these newer input devices. The Wii remote is not as easy to use as a Playstation controller.

Using motion controls to drive a car or do just about anything is a bit more challenging on a Wii remote. Some gamers, like myself, enjoy that challenge. Other gamers, like Yahtzee Croshaw from Zero Punctuation can’t stand the motion controls because they make them feel like they have to flail around to do the same thing they could have done with the twitch of a finger.

Gamers are competitive and look at the input device as a potential tool to make them more effective. They buy expensive mice with super high DPI ratings and more buttons than your number pad. I know that on a personal note I am very tempted to buy a Logitech G13 Advanced Gameboard for that exact reason.

This is a fundamental problem with introducing new controls.  One of the games I have for our Wii is Mario Cart. As much as I love the motion controls, you can’t get me to use them in that game because it offers a method without the controls. If I were to use the motion controls while playing against someone who wasn’t – I would be at a disadvantage. Therefore, I feel like I need to play without motion controls in order to feel competitive.

If you want it to work, it can’t be a choice.

It’s not a new argument. There are plenty of people who play WoW who would rather play the game without addons. But in order to compete against players WITH addons, they feel compelled to download and install them.

As an addon author, I’m cleary not against addons. However, I can see that point and respect why other devs like CCP would choose not to allow them to exist in their game. Having an interface option where one method is clearly far superior to another method is really no choice at all.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

No one likes grind.

To me, the statement "No one likes grind" is one of the most obvious observations that a person can make. It's right up there with "the sky is blue" and "black is darker than white".

The actual definition of Grind is "a tedious task" and it's synonymous with Drudgery. Tedious, by the way, is defined as "boring, monotonous, time consuming". I think that pretty much sums up what most MMO players think of Grinding.

And yet... I always find it terribly surprising when someone speaks out in favor of the grind. "No. No." they say, "we like the grind. The grind is important. It provides meaning. Context for all our hard work."

You like boring, monotonous, time consuming tasks? Really? Forgive me while I display some skepticism for a moment. For I find it impossible that even a masochist would really enjoy tasks that, by definition, are uninteresting, repetitive and cause players mental weariness.

No. I don't think you really do like the grind. No one likes the grind.

I think you like the reward.
I think what players like is the sense of achievement that comes from overcoming difficulty. That and the shiny Pavlovian treat that usually accompanies that sense of achievement.

No. It's not the "grind" that players find rewarding. It's the reward that they find rewarding.

I'm convinced that if you created a "box" in the middle of Orgrimmar that players could jump on for free coins that players would happily jump on that box 24/7 and proceed to send Blizzard thank you emails for giving them that box. The "box" they would say is the smartest idea ever.

But, of course, it's not the "box" that players would enjoy but the Reward it provides.

We need challenge, but do we need Grind?
As MMO players, we crave challenge. We want challenge. It's what gives our virtual achievements context and meaning.

As I wrote in Mid-June, there are several ways to make your MMO more difficult:
  • Twitch Skills
  • Reactive Decision Making
  • Planned Strategic Thinking
  • Time Consuming
  • Severe Consequences
  • Organizational Structure
Of all six methods for making your game more difficult, the worst possible choice from a player perspective is to make it more time consuming. Difficulty, by virtue of only being lengthy, is a miserable and mind-numbingly boring way to make your game more difficult.

We don't need the Grind to make a game challenging. There are plenty of ways to increase the challenge without needing to make it monotonous or boring.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Because the trolls don’t necessarily stop – they just know who you are now.

The worst part about Blizzard's recent announced change is that they sincerely believe this will clean up the forums.  Perhaps a bit, but at what cost?

The unfortunate reality is that Blizzard is simply arming the "trolls" with real information they can use to make the attacks more hurtful.

The real trolls, the ones who want to cause harm and mischief, just got a brand new way they can make your life miserable.  If they don't like what you have to say, they don't need to post the hate, they can just call you on the phone and leave nasty messages.

My Mom started getting hate mail from someone in an internet group with a grudge against her. Real mail. Sent to her house with threats.

There are countless ways that the trolls can now inflict harm upon you if they know your real name.  Get all their buddies to harrass you.  Sign you up for magazines.  Subscribe you to porn lists.

Or the other alternative I love is the “wrong guy” scenario. This is where the unlucky bastard who just happens to have the same name gets harassed in real life by some angry forum trolls. Calling his house. Leaving nasty messages. Sending him photos of his house with death threats.

Because the trolls don’t necessarily stop – they just know who you are now.

Kicking your ass in Real Life (courtesy of RealID)
I grew up in a small-ish town where there wasn’t much to do on the weekend. You either got drunk, got laid, or got into a fight. I’m also not a small guy and when I was in my teens and early twenties, I wasn’t always the best decision maker when it came to throwing a few punches. In one particularly noteworthy situation, I was carried out of a building by four police officers.

I’ve since matured quite a bit and been pretty subdued for the last 10 years. All of this ugliness was inside of a younger, less mature me. Outside of the occasional menacing glare, I haven’t been in a real altercation since the aforementioned police officer incident. The older me has too much to lose to ever behave that way again.

My point? Well, at one time in my life I was THAT guy. You know the guy I’m talking about... The one who snaps online and starts making the physical threats. “Where do you live? I want to kick your ass. Let’s meet somewhere.”

Thing is – I was serious. I really did want to kick their ass and had they been near my city... well, there would have been some vengeance for the online slights. Now I wasn’t always that angry. In all my years of gaming or participating in online activities I can only think of two instances where I would have been angry enough to take action.

But.. therein lies my point. I was angry enough to take action.

Look, in the grand scheme of things I’m not even the most likely person I know who would seek someone out to kick their ass. But I certainly know my younger self would have considered it. And my younger drunken self may have even acted upon it.

But what stopped me?


As frustrated and angry as I might have been, I had no outlet. No way to act upon impulses that could have turned out badly. Impulses that were further inflamed because the source of my anger wasn’t physically present.

You see, the real Internet Dickwad Theory is only partly about Anonymity. Because part of what makes something so much more dick-ish on the Internet is that you don’t have any immediate personal feedback from people. If you are being a dick to someone in real life, even if they don’t know you personally, you can both use body language and vocal queues to keep the conversation from turning from just a civil disagreement to a raging war.

But if you are being a dick on the internet, their imagination supplies the tone. Words intended to be fair and considering can quickly be seen as hurtful and inflammatory. Removing the anonymity while keeping the same inflammatory problems is simply a disaster in the making.

Is the use of Real Names a good idea?


And take that from the perspective of someone who is willingly admitting that they would likely have kicked the shit out of someone in real life had that anonymity not existed. That’s not fear-mongering. That’s just an honest appraisal from someone who knows himself well enough to know that this can only end badly.