What’s in a Game?

I talk about a lot of stuff without really filtering it. I kind of rely on Belghast to yell at me if a post devolves into jargon, but he’s been listening to me blather for so long that I think he’s developed an immunity. Someone commented recently that I didn’t consider most of the implementations of player housing to involve “gameplay”, and seemed quite upset about it. I thought I might share some of how I view games from a building-them perspective.

Gameplay and Feedback Loops

The word “gameplay” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but it has a fairly specific and reasonably well-defined meaning. Like a lot of things within the industry, it isn’t universally agreed on, so any attempt I make at pinning down a definition is tricky. I’ll need to draw the camera out a little bit.

To define gameplay, I need to touch on something called a “feedback loop”. Simply put, a feedback loop is what you, the player, are doing in any given three-to-ten-second window of time while in the game. It’s the smallest amount of time in which action can occur and you both experience the primary mechanics of the game and make decisions on how to use said mechanics.

In Mario, your feedback loops are jumping between platforms, or onto enemies. In Street Fighter, it’s an exchange of blows, or a combo, or a special move. In racing games, it’s the various inputs that make up actually driving the car. You can boil a game down to the most basic concepts, stuff like “when at edge of platform, press A to jump”, and that’s a feedback loop. Feedback loops are the building blocks of game design; and in almost every game they involve either movement or combat, because they’re the easiest things to abstract into button presses and build upon from there. Oversimplified, feedback loops are “when you are pressing buttons”.

Gameplay, then, is feedback loops strung together. It is the time when the player is actively involved in the game using the most developed mechanics available within the system (usually movement or combat or both).

What About The Rest of the Game?

My definition of gameplay above is pretty restrictive. Depending on the game, it excludes huge swathes of the overall time you spend, and often there’s overlap between gameplay and things that aren’t. Designers have a term for that: “experience”. The experience of a game is everything from the art, the music, sitting around roleplaying in chat, taking screenshots, watching cutscenes, fighting enemies, wandering around… everything. The term “player experience” is bandied about a lot, and there’s a lot of back and forth about how certain things things are presented, how the game communicates what the player is supposed to do (“messaging”), how the UI helps or hinders, and how that all interacts with gameplay.

When I mentioned that player housing didn’t involve gameplay, what I meant was that few player housing systems to date have involved the basic feedback loops that exist in the game. They are, without a doubt, a core (and dearly loved) part of the experience, but they aren’t gameplay.

To draw a bit of contrast, compare Minecraft to EQ2, in terms of housing. Minecraft has its basic feedback loops built around obtaining and processing material, as well as placing it in the world to fit your whims. Housing in Minecraft is centered around these feedback loops; it is gameplay. Belghast’s immediate excitement about a player housing system used a Minecraft reference, and the spark that came through when he mentioned it is precisely what I’m talking about when I say that player housing should involve gameplay.

Gameplay versus Experience

The sad reality of game design is that on every project, on every game that gets released, some features are cut, and some content doesn’t make it, and some things that might have been awesome die before seeing the light of day. It’s called “scoping”, and it’s insanely difficult to do. Sometimes these decisions are easy and popular. “Oh, we don’t have the art budget to have 30 player races, and so we’ll only have 8? Okay.” Somteimes they’re easy but unpopular. “Designing and balancing 25 unique classes is completely infeasible, so we’re cutting down to 10, and of the 15 that got cut were the favorites of half the staff? Ouch, but it has to be done.”

Mostly, though, the decisions are hard. Do you ship with 10 classes, or 6 well-balanced ones? Do you ship with 30 zones, some of which might not be complete or even have much if any content in them, or do you ship with 15 and try to make sure that every single one is fully complete? Do you craft a lot of side content for explorer-type players, or do you include less content but put more development time into it so that the experience is richer?

Almost always, these decisions will have gameplay as the dividing line. If it involves gameplay, it’s a lot less likely to get cut than something that doesn’t. The reason for this is that gameplay is the thing that absorbs the most programming time, the most tech, the most art, animation, worldbuilding, etc, and it’s the thing that engages players.

In the case of player housing, in order for it to justify its massive resource expense, it’s going to need to be inextricably linked to gameplay, so that the housing system doesn’t end up on the “easy and (un)popular” chopping block, when push comes to shove.

You know, kind of like Minecraft.

Player Housing (How? Why?)

I’ll get to part 2 of Ugly Truths in Gaming at some point, but I recently got into a discussion with some friends about the kinds of things they want to see in MMOs.

Top of the list, as always, was player housing. I have such a love-hate relationship with the concept. On the one hand, some people LOVE it. It’s their own personal in-game space that they can make their own and get that little extra bit of immersion going. People love it, and get super invested, goes the argument, so why not put it in? Everyone loves it, right?

Why Not Every Game Has Houses

Player housing is hard. Yes, I know other games have done it, yes I know it’s possible, but honestly no one has done it *right*, and it’s incredibly resource-intensive. I’ll get to the part of that sentence that makes most people angry in a moment. First, a little bit of tech:

In order to implement even the most basic player housing, you need a few things. First, you need the ability to create instances. Sure, Star Wars Galaxies, Shadowbane, and Ultima Online didn’t do this. I would point to the vast amounts of empty space (or ridiculous overcrowding) in both of those games, and comment that city planners exist for a reason, and players simply slam houses down wherever if given the opportunity, which is not something you actually want. Instancing, in this day and age, is not that difficult, except that for player housing you need to have a very specific instance saved per player. Not terrible, but it’s notable that that kind of data (i.e. saved instance data) doesn’t generally hang around more than a day or a week in most games, for things like raid lockouts.

You also need a complete in-game interface for placing the stuff that goes in the house. This is an entirely separate interface from any other part of the game, requires you to be able to dynamically generate collision and pathing information (so that your pet doesn’t walk through the chair you just placed, and neither can you), and needs an entire items database for things that you can display, how they work, how to orient them, and how they behave once they’re placed.

Then you need art, visuals for all of the stuff that goes in the house, that has to be tested with all of the other things that could go in the house to make sure there aren’t any unintended things that happen when they’re placed (like, for example, a little seam that makes you fall through the world). This usually involves thousands of objects, many of which are custom-made just for the player houses.

What Do I Get For All Of This?

The above is not an insurmountable amount of resources. A development team dedicated to putting in player housing can reasonably implement it, if they so desire. Unfortunately, one of the big things that comes up in design discussions when picking what things to add is “what are we giving up to get this?”

In the case of player housing, it can be something like “large group (raid) content”, or “PvP”, or “four to six full zones”, or “three player classes” or “crafting”. None of these are small things, so if you’re going to give one of them up for player housing, you’d better make sure that your return is more awesome than whatever you’re giving up.

I mentioned above that no one has done player housing right. What I mean by that is that no one has designed a model for player housing that makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s worth the trade-off. The pitfalls are as numerous as the benefits; player housing splits people up into little private instances, making cities feel empty, they’re huge resource hogs, only some percentage of players even care, and that number is smaller than feature X that would otherwise be removed.

The biggest one, and the one that I have the hardest time with, is that there’s no actual gameplay involved with player housing. You have this extra system for houses that is only used there, only used for decoration, and then you look around it or show it off to other people.

Housing That Matters

I don’t think it’s a hopeless cause, though. The system just needs to be designed to be more than just a dollhouse to show off one’s fancy décor. A house should be something that adds tangible value to your character, rather than simply a money and time sink. Imagine a game where part of it is colonizing new, uncharted lands. You need to forge out into the wilderness and make your home there. The instanced neighborhoods in LOTRO would be great for this, either little pockets in a larger landmass or little islands or both, but instead of simply a row of houses, there would be hostile mobs, resource nodes, everything a “real” zone has.

You could get hooks into the crafting, raiding, and questing systems as well, as you actually build your house and clear out hostile mobs from your territory. As you develop your land, you worry less and less about mobs coming and wrecking shop and more about the most efficient means with which to harvest valuable materials from your area. If you’re working collaboratively with several different players, you can clear an area faster and develop more quickly. Possibly, if you’re a devoted crafter, you hire other players to help you clear out the baddies while you craft what you need for the house. Dragon inhabiting your island? Get some raiders to take it down for you, and in return they get a nice place to hang out.

In The End

I think the biggest issue with player housing is that it needs serious evaluation from the design side. There simply hasn’t been a compelling design that’s been more than a little added bonus to the game rather than a fully-featured system, and it’s incredibly difficult to justify that kind of resource expense without a solid design plan and without appeal to a wide range of players.

Hopefully we’ll see a design that simply blows everyone away, for the industry as a whole to latch onto and build upon.

On Server Transfers

I want to send out my apologies for lack of updates this week.  I had been on a pretty religious schedule of posting at least some new content five days a week.  If you followed the last post you know my world has been pretty rocked by the recent events in my neck of the woods.  My time has been spent in the evenings either worrying about incoming Tornados or alternatively mourning their devastation.

Quite honestly, with everything going on, it just didn’t feel right be be blogging about video games.  Joplin as I said earlier has for all intents and purposes been removed from the map.  The series have Tornados that hit Tuesday night left plenty of its own carnage, leaving a 3 year old boy missing, presumably sucked up by the storm.  This morning they mentioned on the news that this storm system has produced around 80 distinct Tornados over the last week.

The “Big News”

All that said, life just has not felt normal.  The concern and worry has left its toll, and frankly I am pretty worn out and just plain “fried” at this point.  However for the rest of the world, namely the rift playing public the “Big News” has been the announcement of free server transfers.  I realize I am well behind the new cycle on this one, and most of the blogging community has weighed in one way or another on it.  However this has been in the back of my mind while we have dealt with all our issues.

For those living under a rock, or dodging Tornados like myself… the original announcement can be found here.

RIFT™ TO OFFER FREE CHARACTER TRANSFERS

Gather your friends in RIFT and play anywhere, any time

When the next major RIFT™ update hits early this summer, subscribers will be treated to a surprise – free character transfers. Trion Worlds announced today that with RIFT 1.3, players will have the ability to move to select servers in their territory once each week, taking all items, achievements, and titles with them. Additionally, guild leaders will be able to move their guild’s level and experience.
“MMOs are all about playing with your friends no matter which server they’re on, and that’s why we’re offering this as a free service to our subscribers,” said Scott Hartsman, Executive Producer. “RIFT is both a game and a service, and adding free server transfers is just one more way we can make this the best possible MMO experience available.”
Whether you want to play with friends, check out a new server, or avoid queue times on highly populated servers, you’ll be free to move about Telara. As a part of this grand experiment, there will initially be no limits on the number of times you can transfer your characters or guild.
Character transfers will remain a free service for the foreseeable future, and could become a permanent addition to the RIFT experience. Subscribers will be able to perform the transfers inside of the game itself once the patch is live.
For More Information – Read the FAQ

 

Then a few days later they followed up with an FAQ outlining all of the changes (post here).

Hi all,
As announced, Free Character Transfers will be released in RIFT Update 1.3. These Free Character Transfers will be available to players on select shards via a new in-game feature. We are pleased to be able to offer this service to our players and hope you find it to be a great way to further enrich your experience and connect with others, we have provided a brief FAQ outlining this new feature below.
We’ll continue to release additional details as we get closer to the release of 1.3 and we encourage you to ask any questions you might have, we’ll do our best to answer all we can – thanks!
What are Free Character Transfers?

  • Free Character Transfers will allow you to move your characters to select shards through an easy to use, in-game feature.

How often can I transfer my character?

  • We’re allowing one free transfer, per character, to a select shard every 7 days. Please note this is subject to change while we continue to develop and test the new service.

What do you mean “select shards”?

  • We want the shard you select to provide the best experience possible. It is important that there remains a balance between Guardian and Defiant players and to that available shards do not become too over populated or unbalanced. For this reason you will only be able to move to specific shards we’ve selected to accept new transfers, please note the shards available for transfer may change over time.

Can I move from a PvP shard to a PvE shard or vice-versa?

  • Of course! The rule set of your current shard will not prevent you from moving to a shard of a different type. So PvP, RP, PvE, or RPPvP to your heart’s content – Just remember, you’re subject to the rules of your new home! (For example, non-consensual PvP on PvP shards and stricter naming policies on RP shards.)

What about my stuff?

  • We’ll have specific details later, but have no fear! You’ll be able to take your items, currencies, achievements, titles, pets, collections, and heck, maybe even the kitchen sink!

Can I transfer from a North American Shard to a European Shard?

  • Not right now, currently transfers will be restricted to select shards in your territory.

I’m a guild leader, can I transfer my guild?

  • Absolutely, we know you and your members work hard to level your guild and make it your own. We’ll announce more details about this feature closer to its release, stay tuned!

Will these transfers always be free for everyone?

  • For the forseeable future – yes! They could even become a permanent addition to the RIFT experience. This is very much an experiment we want to try and we feel this feature will add a unique way to play RIFT unlike other MMO’s. We’ll see how it goes and keep an eye out for any issues that arise.

So, when will 1.3 be released?

  • 1.3 is the next major installment for RIFT and will arrive early this summer. Keep an eye on www.riftgame.com and here on the forums for more details as we get closer to its release!

Updated – 05/23/11 @ 12:13PM PDT
What if my character or guild’s name is already taken on the shard I want to transfer to?

  • You’ll be warned in the event of a naming conflict, should you decide to continue with the transfer you will be forced to re-name your character or guild before playing.

Will I be able to change my characters faction (from Defiant to Guardian for example) when I transfer or transfer my Character to another active account?

  • Not at this time, while these options are something we might look into in the future they will not be available for the initial release of the Free Character Transfer feature.

Wide Variety of Responses

I have seen everything from elation and praise, heralding Trion as the saviors of game kind, to frustration that we will have to wait for this feature at all.  The cynics have seen this as a clever way of skirting the need to merge under populated servers, by allowing players to jump to new servers on their own.  I guess I can see all of the points, but tend to take my own view.

What I see that stands out is the fact that a server transfer system is being put in place, to allow players to move more freely between server communities.  In fact based on the information, they will be able to do this once per week, which can let you hop servers to play with friends and then return to the main server at will.  The most impressive thing about all of this is the fact that Trion will not be charging for this feature.

Syncaine over at Hardcore Casual however thinks we should re-evaluate our expectations.

Listen, if you are cheering because Trion has decided not to punch you in the face (charged transfers), you need to reevaluate your expectations. You pay that $15 for a reason, and it’s not (unless we are talking SOE) just to keep the servers online. Free transfers are, to me, about as special as a monthly content patch. It (should be) expected.

I understand the cynical view of the actions but honestly…  to me Trion has been giving us far better support than I have received playing any other game.  If you are thinking, I have not played many games then…  let me point you over to my gameography page.  While this may be the level of customer support we as gamers should expect, and I agree with this point, it is nothing we have ever received in the past.

One thing Trion has done, that no company to this point has done for me at least is make me feel like I am being heard.  After getting to know a handful of people in the company either through twitter, or the community outreach programs, I feel that they honest to god drink their own Kool-Aid.  I feel like they actually care about us, and care about our happiness.

Here is an example of an interaction between Assistant Community Manager Erick “Zann” Adams, and Rilgon a gaming blogger.  Shows the level of care these individuals take.

Rilgon: @3rickZann So did you guys find the Fountain of Awesome or something? Like I don’t get how you are routinely so awesome.
Erick Adams: @Rilgon No, but they put something in the office water that compels us to try and make our players happy. :p
Rilgon: @3rickZann It shows. 🙂

I guess I just have a hard time being cynical when I see this and other things on a regular basis.  There seems to be an Esprit de corps in this group that I have not seen in a video game company in a long time.  Blizzard definitely used to be that kind of “by gamers, for gamers” shop but since the activision merger they have changed in many ways. 

I regularly bought the pay per view Blizzcast feed, and I have to say the way they treated players this previous year shows the level of disdain (pretty much anytime Alex Afrasiabi spoke) they seem to have for us the gamers these days.  So while we as the gamers, should be expecting more from game companies, I am definitely going to support the ones out there that are doing it.

Brilliant Marketing Move

What makes this a massively brilliant marketing move, and extremely unique is not the fact that they are giving us server transfers, it is the fact they are doing so without a fee attached.  Basically Blizzard got us used to the concept of paying a premium convenience tax for getting things like this in the past.  Each new feature that gets added seems to get an increased fee, and players have been willing to pay up.  I’ve transferred characters, and race and faction changed them as well.

If you are playing World of Warcraft you are well aware of the number of premium fees associated with their monthly subscription based game.

  • Remote Access – $2.99/month
  • Name Change – $10.00
  • Cosmetic Pet – $10.00
  • Appearance Change – $15.00
  • Character Transfer – $25.00
  • Race Change – $25.00
  • Cosmetic Mount – $25.00
  • Faction Change – $30.00
  • Guild Move – ??
  • RealID Grouping – ??

Every company that has implemented a similar on demand service structure has followed suit.  So Trion could have easily put server transfers in place and dinged us with a money grab to do so.  However the most important thing as a take away is the fact that they didn’t.  While we don’t know for certain how the “selected shards” portion will work out, this definitely seems far more wide reaching than when a company in the past has offered free transfers off higher population realms to lower ones.

Most obviously the big difference is the fact that they have stated this would be an event that was throttled on a once per week basis.  This will let players test out a community and be able to move again if it just is not a solid fit.  Being the community minded player I am, normally I would be afraid of such a free form server move system.  At the end of the day this places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the players on a given server to make something that players do not want to leave.  I feel sure that Shadefallen is an amazing server, and the community we have is such that it itself will glue players to our shard.

The Real Logic Behind It All

It was stated by Willhelm at The Ancient Gaming Noob that this may be a way for Trion to allow players to handle server mergers on their own.

Meanwhile, here is Trion Worlds, with Rift a couple of months old now.  I have to wonder if they are being clever about dealing with a contraction of population, if the initial rush has peaked and they now have more servers running that are really viable.

Announcing server mergers is always viewed as bad news.

If this really is the reasoning behind the addition I still applaud it as a great idea.  Personally I have tried to avoid the Rift forums, other than the patch notes and Shadefallen server forums.  However from what I hear, there is much gnashing of teeth going on about under populated servers.  Personally I have not encountered this, Shadefallen has remained a vibrant server since release, and if Rift Status is to be believed our numbers seem to have remained extremely flat.  We have not experienced queues since the first weeks of launch, but there have always been more than enough people online at any given time to get something done.

I think players are going to complain no matter what, and the forums always give you a snapshot of the people who are most angry in any game.  However I imagine the same people who complained about, and refused to play on a server with any queue time are now the ones complaining about there not being enough people around.  At launch queue times are the sign of a healthy server, and purposefully going off on a low population server will mean in the long run not being able to do certain things in an MMO. 

Low population servers are always slow to grow, because the majority of the experienced playerbase generally avoid those servers for that reason.  I played on a high population server in WoW, and quite frankly it spoils you.  During wrath you could trip in Dalaran and manage to fall into a PUG raid that could clear half of Icecrown.  If you thought of an item, you could search the auction house and find plenty for sale.  So to go from that, to trying to roll on servers where friends ended up with dismal economies and no pug culture to speak of, was a shock to the system.

So if Trion is giving players a way to abandon sinking ships, then Bravo.  Forced server mergers always end up disrupting a community far more than voluntary moves.  Players have a fresh start without abandoning the work they have already done.  Knowing that your decision isn’t set in stone, will allow players to try different server communities until they find a niche that really fits their play style. 

On Argent Dawn, there were many times we were offered free transfers to cull the herd.  If I knew I could have transferred back without charge, I might have considered taking them up on the offer during those 3000 player queues.  Problem is, these were a one way ticket off, trading a known evil for completely unknown ones.  In most cases, for the players that jumped ship, they ended up transferring right back, as the grass was not in fact greener on the other side of the fence.

My Overall Take

This is getting to be a really really long post, so I will try and wrap things up.  Basically I see this as a good move for the community.  Trion is once again giving some excellent support to the players, and in doing so giving us the freedom to spread out and find the server that works best for us.  The ground breaking news is the fact they are giving this to us for free.  While this will diminish some servers, it will cause others like Shadefallen to band together and build something worth staying for.  I think overall, this will be a major positive for all players.

Bel Gets Real: Finger of God (Updated)

I’m taking a bit out from the normal game posts to throw up something very important, and very near and dear to my heart.  Yesterday we were sitting at home, completely oblivious to these events until my wife started seeing some messages come through on Twitter.  It had been such a lovely day in the Tulsa area, that I never even thought that Tornados might have been a brewing.  They apparently were, and just across the Missouri state line Joplin was completely devastated.

joplin

This one hits really close to home for me.  Joplin is one of two towns that I would move to in a heartbeat if given the chance.  The town has an amazingly cool vibe, and before these events had 6 amazing used book stores we would frequent.  In fact we were there just two weeks ago, when we took my wife’s mother shopping for Mothers Day.  So when I sit back and realize that we have bags in the kitchen that we never unpacked, from stores that simply no longer exist is pretty hard to take.

Our first panic moment was trying to get hold of my Wife’s mother.  She lives near Joplin just on the other side of the Oklahoma line, and the town has always been her major shopping destination for when she needs to run errands.  When we couldn’t reach her on the cell phone, we began to fear the worst.  Luckily she had travelled to Tulsa Sunday, and was also blissfully oblivious to the nightmare happening just across the state line.

I’ve lived in “Tornado Alley” my entire life, and I have seen the devastation they bring on numerous occasions.  While in the past I have known the towns they have hit here in Oklahoma, I’ve never had a really close personal attachment.  This one hurts so much, because I know this town so well.  The town had so much personality, packed into a compact area.  I am really hoping that everything bounces back and the new Joplin is an even better place.

Here is the thing, it is going to take a lot of work to get there and the groups are going to need help.  As a result I am devoting this post to getting out information for how folks in the surrounding area can help.  When stumbling around for the support numbers I came across a post on a political blog (The Source), something I would never normally read.

You can donate to the State of Missouri’s Red Cross Fund for Tornado and Flood Relief, or you can call 800-427-4626.

Those with medical skills looking to volunteer in Joplin are being asked by the Missouri Emergency Management Agency to visit showmeresponse.org to sign up.

From the Missouri Department of Public Safety:

A list of major non-profits that operate regularly in Missouri can be found by visiting the National Donations Management Network Web site. At the site you can donate directly to your preferred charitable organization by clicking on the organization’s name. In addition to making financial donations, you may donate products and services, or lend equipment to relief efforts. For more details or to make a donation, click the link above or call (800) 427-4626.

Additional information about donating or volunteer opportunities is available from 211 Missouri, which can be reached by dialing 211, or (800) 427-4626. This information is also available at the 211 Missouri Web site.

Click here to donate to long term recovery efforts in Missouri. Often it takes a long time, months and even years, for communities and individuals to recover from a disaster. Your donation can make a difference.

Thank you, and please keep the people of Joplin in your prayers

Here locally in Tulsa, donations are being collected at:

Catoosa Police Department
208 S. Cherokee St.
Catoosa, OK 74015
8:00 am til 5:00 pm (or when trailer is full)

Owasso Keller Williams Realty
12150 E 96th St N
Owasso, OK 74055
donations will be transferred Tuesday morning.

I know this post is well out of the ordinary but I felt like considering the scale of local tragedy caused by the Tornado, I wanted to get the word out somehow.  I promise to return to normal posts shortly.

Edit: 5/24/2011

I am leaving this post as the top post for another day.  Above is an image that photographer Aaron Fuhrman took of the main area of devastation in Joplin.  The above image is pulled from google streetview to contrast the total devastation below.  You can see other pictures of Joplin on his flikr photostream.

I realize it is unusual for a gaming blog to be posting this kind of stuff, but like I said in the above post, this one really hits close to home.  Honestly it might hit closer than that.  Right now we are glued to the television as another supercell is heading our way.  The storm has already produced 3 tornados and appears to be on target to hit our town.  Here is hoping it skips over us like it has so many times in the past.

I want to personally thank everyone who has donated already.  I noticed there were several click-throughs to the Red cross link in the post above.  There has been a massive out pouring local.  I ended up taking a load of stuff to the Keller Williams drop point and was just taken aback by the volume of donations.  As I drove across town today I saw either the Tulsa or Jenks firefighters collecting donations as well.

Anyways thanks for understanding as I give this cause a little bit more screentime.

Rift Hotfix #5 and other goodies

I’m limping along today on minimal sleep.  Like I said yesterday my wife has picked up the remnants of my illness and been trying to get over it.  As a result she spent a good deal of the night coughing, which meant I didn’t actually get much sleep.  As a result you guys are going to get some random news blurbs.

 

Rift 1.2 Hotfix #5

We’ve been getting a good number of hotfixes this week surrounding the looking for group system.  It is really weird seeing a company work this way.  In my own job, I am constant doing minor builds until I get everything tweaked the way I want it.  It seems that Trion employs this logic of incremental improvements.  It seems like each additional pass polishes the feature a little bit better.

Original Link

GENERAL
* Fixed issues with usable objects in the world not respawning.
* Silverwood: The Rift ‘Red Scale’ will now count toward quests and Achievements requiring you to close Rifts in Silverwood.

LOOKING FOR GROUP
* Players added to a group as a replacement for a partially completed dungeon will no longer be stranded outside the dungeon if the leader is also outside when the match is made.
* Fixed a bug where group leaders did not correctly receive a popup offering to search for a replacement if the leader was outside of the dungeon when a group member left.
* Removed annoying LFG pop up replacement spam when an entire group is leaving one LFG-formed dungeon for another.
* Fixed lockouts not being set when finding Random LFG dungeons. Players doing Random LFG dungeons will be locked to them the first run as they would if they entered normally. The Random LFG tool will then bypass any instance locks of party members for any dungeons repeated before the lockout expires.

 

Create a Colossus Contest

colsusIt seems that Trion has tag teamed with everyone’s favorite indie art source, deviant art, to offer a contest.  Do you have an idea for an epic elemental themed rift colossus?  Now is the time to break out the sketchbook and scanner, or drawing tablet and commit your best ideas into digital glory.

All Semi-finalists win a copy of Rift and a 3-Month premium subscription to Deviant Art.  Other prises include cash, wacom tablets, deviantart clothing, and deviant art points.  First prize is $1500 cash, a Wacom Intuos4 tablet, 8000 deviantArt points, a dA PRO Digital Artist’s backpack, deviantWEAR hoodie of winners choice and a 1 year premium membership to deviantArt.

Full Rules and Information can be found here

You can view the gallery of submissions here

 

Mage Class Trailer

 

Trion also released today the new trailer for the Mage class.  This is the follow up to the amazingly awesome rogue trailer.  I have never gone in for “finger wiggler” classes, but this trailer makes me almost want to play my mage placeholder.  The rogue trailer had the same effect, and made me develop some extreme Ranger/Bard pride.  Either way it is fun to watch mages being badasses.

 

Pen and Paper Update

As I mentioned yesterday, last night was our first meeting of a new venture trying to play pen and paper online.  I have to say all in all, after a bit of a late start things went very well.  Always in the past when I have played or run a new campaign, the first night just ends up being devoted to administrata.  However we managed to get in, get the story set and straight into action.

One of the most amazing things is that none of the players communicated over what they were planning to play, yet somehow we ended up with an extremely well balanced party.  You have the soldier, who was given the unfortunate task of escorting caskets back to a dying town.  There is the treasure hunter, shipwrecked on the shores, nursed back to health by the townfolk.  The performer with her curious clockwork dog, down on her luck and performing for the innkeeper for rent.  Lastly the teacher, out of work since the mages college closed down.

Being ever the tank, I managed to draw first blood only to pathetically botch interrogating the bandit leader afterwards.  We have already begun to slide into various roles.  When brutal force is needed, my character the Treasure Hunter is ever at the ready.  But when we need to employ finesse, we are far better relying on the performer.  The encyclopedic knowledge of the teacher, and the sturdy arms of the soldier are always there to back the party up.

I am really looking forward to next week, because we left off at an exciting point.  I have to say that I did most of my tabletop gaming in high school and college, and being able to play with seasoned veterans that I have known for years is a real refreshment.  I am expecting we will have a game with minimal akward moments.

Bonus Stage: Deja Vu

I really don’t have anything terribly brilliant to say today.  Was a busy day at work, and I am steel reeling from finally getting that faction post hatched onto the page.  Still feel like I am not 100% over the sinus/pneumonia mess of last week.  Been dealing with it still because apparently I infected my loving wife, so she has been going through the all too familiar motions.

Down subscribers? Create new fees.

Yesterday Blizzard announced that they would be rolling out an exciting new feature for World of Warcraft.  Soon you will be able to run dungeons with all your RealID friends on other servers.  If that sounds exciting, prepare to shell out another monthly fee for this premium service similar to that of the mobile guild chat.

With the continued popularity of the Dungeon Finder, many players have been asking for a way to group up with real-life friends who play on other realms to take on instances together. Today, we wanted to give you a heads up about a new feature currently in development that will allow players to invite Real ID friends of the same faction to a party regardless of the realm they play on, and then queue up for a 5-player regular or Heroic dungeon.

As this is a fairly complex service to develop, we don’t have a release date to share quite yet. It’s important to note that as with some of the other convenience- and connectivity-oriented features we offer, certain elements of the cross-realm Real ID party system will be premium-based, though only the player sending the invitations will need to have access to the premium service. We’ll have more details to share with you as development progresses — in the meantime, you may begin to see elements of the feature appear on the World of Warcraft PTR.

This feels suspiciously like Activision putting the screws to a business unit that had to publically announce they were down 600,000 subscribers.  I have read somewhere in my travels that the number is more like 800,000, but at the time of writing this I was unable to find where I had read that.  Either way, just like any commoditized service, if usage goes down you have to raise fees somehow to maintain profit margins for the shareholders.  Since raising the monthly fee would be tantamount to suicide, seems like they are going to continue the tradition of nickel and diming its users with optional premium grade services.

PSN Down Again

This one seriously felt like Déjà vu.  Before lunch I was reading an article that the PSN network was coming back online, and that users could finally look forward to using it again.  I was happy to see that life might be returning to normal for their users.  Then about 3:00 I did a run through my google reader and saw the headlines that PSN was down yet again.

ZDnet has a decent article about what occurred today.  Seems like once again Sony was compromised.  Now it still isn’t certain if this is really an Anonymous attack as some claim, of if this is a group just trying to plant the blame squarely on the high profile group.   There are signs that it might be, considering Anonymous did issue a statement to Sony.  Either way, Sony has most definitely pissed off the wrong people.

I fear if PSN was compromised so quickly, another round of attacks at SOE will not be far behind.  At this point, I can’t really see how Sony can bounce back from this one.  A little over a week ago Tobold made the very serious pronouncement that SOE is Doomed.  If another round of compromises comes through, I seems completely set in stone that this will be the case.  With them already struggling before this debacle, I just can’t see them surviving intact.

Pen and Paper and Bytes

One of my biggest laments since venturing into the world of the responsible adult is that I really do not have time, or availability to play the pen and paper games I loved so much.  For years I have scratched this itch with various MMO titles.  While they are great in their own right, they still pale from the full on creative expression that pen and paper gaming gives you.

A friend of mine was feeling the same way, and proposed we try gaming online.  He found a cool tool called iTabletop, that allows the GM to present visuals to the players and deal with various rolls that are the trapping of any pen and paper game.  Only time will tell if this little experiment will work but I am looking forward to it.  We are planning on playing a custom Steampunk setting, using the World of Darkness rule set for simplicity sake.  The “d10” system of Whitewolf has long been a favorite of mine for ease of character creation and speed of play.

Minecraft meets Wonderboy

 

Lastly this week I have been playing with a new game that just got released on Steam, Teraria.  I have heard it most often called 2D Minecraft, but in truth it is a lot more.  What it really reminds me of is the Sega Genesis game Wonder Boy in Monsterworld.  Basically start with a side scrolling 16 bit title, and add construction elements similar to Minecraft, and you have what the game plays like.

I am not very far along, and being an alpha game like Minecraft was there are numerous bugs.  When I try and run the game full screen on my laptop it runs at something silly like 500 fps and becomes completely unplayable.  However the game itself is compelling enough that I can see this really catching on.  I look forward to trying it out on a multiplayer setting.  Some of the toys you can see in the above video really make me want to explore the depths of the randomly generated world.

Rethinking the Faction Grind

This topic has been incubating in my head for awhile now.  Basically I feel we have reached a point where we have strayed so far from how cool factions used to be, and arrived at something that feels very much like busywork to keep us all pacified.  I thought I would take a bit today to go into where we are currently with faction systems in modern MMOs, preface where we came from and propose some thoughts on where we should be moving towards.

State of the Grind

factiongrind_wow I will be the first to admit that I like earning faction.  There is something gratifying about seeing those little numbers after you have pulled your mace out of the skull of a monster telling you that you just got a little friendlier with a cool group of NPCs.  The concept of faction has been in place since the early MMOs, and has expanded to levels I would have never imagined back then.

Right now it feels like as a player there is a faction hidden behind almost everything, even when it doesn’t necessarily make sense.  There is an inherit need for some of us, to max out all those little bars and unlock everything we can get by doing so.  Where we currently are in the way this system works has become extremely formulaic.

The Company Store

quartermaster-arok Basically as a player you complete quests and or kill baddies for a specific NPC faction in the world.  As you do more, you gain more of their currency known as “faction”.  The faction system is traditionally divided into multiple tiers that have fuzzy little names, denoting how much these characters adore you.  The reward at the end of the tunnel is access to the company store of sorts.

Usually in an NPC faction area there will be a special NPC called generally a Quartermaster.  They have a treasure trove of items that can be purchased for currency, but each requires a certain level of standing with the NPCs.  As you go up in faction the rewards get more and more tasty until usually at the very end there are some spiffy pre-raid epics glistening there for you to take.

The problem is, currently this is about all faction is worth.  We complete these grinds, in order to get some baubles that we will ultimately outgrow far more quickly than we would hope.  As a result, once you have finally achieved the pinnacle of this crawl the rewards often seem rather lackluster.  The number of these faction grinds has increased exponentially in games, but instead of giving us more interesting things to do, they seem to all be stalled out in this formulaic model.

The Curious Case of Kael Drakkel

kael-arch Thing is, the faction system used to mean a good deal more to the players.  Over time we have regressed from a very vibrant and world changing model to the very simplistic formula of the quartermaster system that exists today.  Ironically the game that had this very imaginative system was the grandfather of the current MMO genre, Everquest.  I can give you numerous examples of imaginative and compelling uses of faction in this game, but without a doubt the one that stands out most in my mind is that of Kael.

Kael Drakkel was a mythic city on the continent of Velious, the second expansion.  The entire city was populated by frost and storm giants, and as a result was scaled massively to fit their proportions.  It was located smack dab in the middle of the land, situated between the Wakening Lands and Eastern Wastes sitting as the gateway to the higher level content. 

To most players, this was a great raid zone, and killing giants here gave you faction with frost dwarves  of Thurgadin.  Killing the various giants also gave you the ability to get rare quest drops, that could be turned in with other items to produce a full set of raid worthy armor.  As a result we spent many an hour hunting here, but every now and then I would see other player characters walking around freely inside the city.  The fact that players could walk freely among these same giants that wanted to grind me to bits was a great puzzle.

I found out later that if a player so chose, they could abandon the normal faction path and choose to hunt the Dwarves of Thurgadin and several factions of Dragons, instead raising their faction with Kael Drakkel itself  As a reward for this epic task, they gained access to similar armor quests, but even more important a friendly foothold in the middle of this dangerous continent.  This gave them quick access to all the highest end content in the expansion while providing a safe haven to bank and shop.

There were many such examples of this, while I never ventured down the Kael path, I did complete a similar faction grind.  Through killing the Kobolds of the Warrens I managed to raise my faction with the evil Shadowknights and Necromancers of Paineel, giving me access to venture in and out of the city like a full fledged citizen.  My friend completed a similar path, that allowed his evil Iksar Monk to trade freely with the halflings of Rivervale.  In both cases our hard work gave us access to content our races never would have allowed.

Remembering the Past

drakes While I love the influx of quartermasters, and the goodies they offer, faction grinding should have far reaching effects than just unlocking trinkets.  In the Everquest system, the players gained game changing effects allowing them access to new cities, new quests, and new game experiences.  The current faction grind system just seems so lifeless and meaningless in comparison.

One of my biggest frustrations has been that when you gain faction, it has no real effect on your gameplay.  I can remember being supremely frustrated in WoW upon encountering Alexstraza in Twilight Highlands, that she seemed to have no recollection of all the work your character performed helping her and the red dragonflight in Dragonblight.  Instead of getting a nice bit of lore and flavor recounting all the help you had provided, I was “rewarded” with another lifeless set of quests.

Another big issue is that factions get created for no real reason.  I can remember being frustrated when Burning Crusade was released, and all the work we had done for the Cenarion Circle meant nothing, because instead of using the same faction and rewarding players for past work we were handed yet another meaningless grind by calling the Outland faction the Cenarion Expedition.  The same goes for the frustration of having both the Argent Dawn and Argent Crusade, but no real reason for them.

A Better Future

betrayfreeportrocks I think we have lost too much of the nuance that we mmo players used to have in the switch to the quartermaster model.  What I want to see is in the future, our decisions as players have actual compelling results.  Earning a purple bauble that you will replace all too soon is a boring use of faction, giving players access to entirely new areas of the game is an extremely exciting one. 

One of the most interesting things I have seen in years was with the release of Everquest II.  Players chose a race, which often times forced them into a factional path.  Iksar and Dark Elves for example, will never be seen as “good races”.  However if a player so wished, they could go through an interesting series of quests and very epically “betray” their home faction, essentially switching sides in the battle.

While fun, and offering more flexibility than many games gave the players I still feel it was tied down to a very artificial black and white factional wall.  I realize the us versus them system, is in place for the most part to facilitate clean player versus player lines.  However I believe faction systems would be far more enjoyable for the players if the lines were allowed to grey a bit. 

As a traditional “light side” race, you might have in your travels managed to broker a trade route with the trolls for needed supplies.  If you were a particularly noble dark elf, you might abandon the path of hatred and take up the path of justice as such befriending the “good” races.  The players that play these games are made up of complex goals and ideals, so why shouldn’t the faction boundaries and alliances be equally complex.

I feel that by switching to this formula model we have arrived at over the years, and that each new game adopts a copy of, we have abandoned a rich tradition.  My hope is that even the current game set can start to adopt a little more flavor and spread out a bit further from the cookie cutter us or them model.  I am not expecting to get freeform factions for awhile, but it would be nice to have my actions unlock new game play options rather than just more grind.  Only time will tell, but I feel that the current model needs to change.

Playing to Win and Tyrannosauruses (Ugly Truths in Gaming)

David Sirlin has an oft-mentioned book called Playing to Win, available in its entirety for free online. It’s a fascinating read from the perspective of a highly competitive gamer. His disclaimer at the beginning is entirely apt—most people who don’t already have a handle on playing competitively probably won’t believe that he’s right, or will get angry at his writing. Some of it seems calculated to enrage; he doesn’t really pull any punches, and throws a few that may not be strictly necessary.

I was initially enraged upon reading it. Sirlin starts by calling any player who doesn’t play to win a “scrub”, a choice of term that seems hyper-elitist and calculated to alienate, and I’m still not convinced that it isn’t. The fact that he’s largely not wrong in the rest of the book only furthered my anger, because I was left without a lot to rail against.

In retrospect, some time later, Playing to Win put me in mind of one of my college professors, who taught game design and was absolutely crucial in me getting into the games industry. His first lecture was brutal, especially for a roomful of aspiring game developers who were still wide-eyed and optimistic. It went something like this:

“Alright, let’s get started. Who here has a game idea that they want to share, or better yet, make?”

<Pretty much everyone emphatically raises a hand.>

“Good. Forget that idea; it’s worthless. Come up with a new one. You have until the end of the class period.”

A Punch in the Face

It’s almost like a physical blow to deal with that sort of thing. I was reeling after his comment and I could tell that a lot of other people were as well, with different reactions. A lot of people got defensive, others looked like they might cry, other people were clearly gearing up to drop the course. It didn’t help that the crux of the first lecture was about implementation over theory, with quotes like “Ideas are a dime a dozen; they don’t mean anything unless you can build them,” and other things that make a budding designer’s stomach tighten with emotion.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I started to get perspective. We were introduced to the “tyrannosaurus in our minds”, described as a construct that attacks any new ideas that enter the mind, and destroys ones that are too weak to survive. It became part of a larger lesson about being your own harshest critic and not getting too attached to an idea. At the time, I’d spent several years on a lengthy game design doc, a sprawling magnum opus that I’d put almost three hundred pages of text into. I had been convinced that I was going to one day make it into a full-fledged game. The professor’s tyrannosaurus analogy had an interesting embedded lesson:

“I often have people describe their game ideas to me, and I can separate the good designers from the bad almost immediately, just by how well-fed their tyrannosaurus is. A bad designer’s tyrannosaurus will be lazy, or too weak to feed, and ideas that would never see the light of day end up in their mind, wasting their time. A lot of really bad ideas get made because someone’s tyrannosaurus wasn’t trained well enough to cull it before hundreds or thousands of hours had been spent on development, and by the time someone realized the idea really was simply terrible, too much money had been spent to abandon the project.”

“The first thing any responsible producer or publisher is going to do is try to poke holes in an idea. It has to be done, because when millions of dollars are on the line you need to nip bad ideas in the bud quickly. Good designers will have thought of this already, and have answers ready.”

Picking up the Pieces

A lot of people will rail against things like the above, saying things like “this is why games are all clones of one another nowadays” and “that kind of mentality means that there’s no innovation!”

It’s not true. The very best games are a product of this kind of mentality. It’s easy to lose sight of it, but there are shining examples all over the place. Team Fortress 2 is a game that really looked deeply at other games and culled even the best of those. Team-based shooters used to release with tons of guns and as many maps as they could build. Team Fortress 2 had a bare handful of weapons by comparison and released with only two maps, but those two maps had been extensively play-tested and polished until they shone.

Pokémon has an incredibly straightforward system, one that’s gone pretty much unchanged through fifteen years of releases, and is still incredibly popular. Worth noting is that nearly every mechanical addition they’ve made to the game has felt tacked-on and extraneous, from odd baking games to playing dress-up.

Building a Better Designer

The very first thing I was tasked with doing when I started working in the games industry was building a small section of map. I was excited and inspired and, even though I’d been given a week to do it, I turned it around in a day and a half. My lead looked at it and told me it was too complicated and that I should rebuild it from scratch. Around the third or fourth iteration it finally passed muster, and I’d taken the whole week doing it. It would have been devastating, except I quickly realized that I wasn’t culling ideas as well as I should. The end result was a tight, fun experience, something that the original, heavily-overdesigned version was not.

The whole thing has stuck with me, and I’m always on the lookout for how games implement their ideas, and which ideas shouldn’t have passed by the tyrannosaurus somewhere along the way.

I still have the two-hundred-and-eighty page game design concept I’d been working on, and I was too attached to it for a long time to turn the dinosaur on it. I finally did, and mentally shredded 99% of it.

Those three pages that are left, though? There’s a solid core for a game there, one that I might make eventually.

Next: What Players Want (Ugly Truths in Gaming, Part 2)

Nothing to see here… literally

I really don’t have a great post for today, but rather go without a post I am cobbling something together.  Last few days I haven’t really followed much of the goings on in either the blogosphere or gaming press.  Basically all of this is due to the fact that I have continued to get sicker.  Finally get into a doctor and sequence of events goes a little something like this. 

My allergies were mean, and took over my zone thanks to the cottonwood invasion.  Then they managed to accidentally open a sinus infection rift.  Over time according to the doctor this started a zone wide pneumonia invasion.  Rather than letting it overtake my zone, she summoned a guild known as Levaquin to help fight it back.  So end result is…  I am still feeling horrible but hopefully on the mend.

Rift Commercials

As I sit at home, not really feeling like playing, not really feeling like doing much I have been watching a lot of the Syfy channel.  As a result I have seen a good number of the new rift commercials.  Honestly it is a damned clever idea.

Commercial #1

Commercial #2

Time to End Quests?

Wolfshead Online posted an interesting piece entitled “Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Quests in MMORPGs”.  While I don’t 100% agree with the premise that quests need to be removed, since I have played a game before that might as well have not had quests… Everquest.  However it is a well thought out and rather lengthy case for their removal.

I think in the grand scheme of things, I am longing for a game that is a little more sandbox and a little less golden path.  I like having quests, for when I want to quest… but ultimately I think there needs to be a type of gameplay supported that favors free exploration.  I think a game that had a questing system similar to that of Oblivion would be the perfect blend.

In that game you are never beaten over the head with the need to run quests, but they are there and extremely compelling if you choose to seek them out.  I think there has to be a way to bridge the gap between Everquest, where the quests themselves were near impossible to find and confusing to complete, and the world we live in now where no game dare launch without a shimmering path of breadcrumbs for the players to follow.

Rethinking Recruit-a-friend

Earlier in this week I posted about the new Rift Ascend a Friend program.  While I still think this program is by far the best I have seen implemented by a game company, the more I thought about it the more frustrated I got.  It feels like all of these recruitment programs are fundamentally flawed.

Why Recruitment Programs Suck

rewards-steed

The fundamental flaw in all of these programs is simple.  When a game starts to drop in population after its initial release boost, the first tool in the bag of mmo publishers to to break out a recruitment program.  Where better to draw in new people than from their loyal player base.  If you have friends playing a game, you are more likely to adapt to it yourself.  I find no flaw with this logic at all.

Where the breakdown happens is the fact that most “alpha geeks” have already drawn deeply from their friends at the release of the game.  I know personally I have been responsible for the sale of at least a dozen copies of rift.  At this point, everyone that would make a solid player is either in game, has tried the game and left, or is a wow-loyalist and bordering on ignoring me for my constant pro-rift banter.  While recruiting three more people doesn’t seem like much, for someone like me who had already drawn deeply onto the friend pile, it definitely is.

In theory, by creating a recruit a friend program, you are slapping your most loyal players in the face.  Those are the folks who have already brought everyone they could into a new game.  For example, I sold probably 30 copies of WoW over the years, but it took me 5 years to finally earn one of the recruit a friend mounts.  In this scenario however, the mount is the least important part.

It is extremely frustrating that all of these friends who I have brought into the game, can never be linked to my account like any new people I recruit will be.  Since some of my closest friends are already playing, I wish there was a way to somehow retroactively tag them as folks I brought in.  How handy would it be to be able to join your friends in doing whatever they are doing by teleporting to them?

How to Fix Them

The thing publishers need to understand is that from the day the game launches, their most loyal players are going to be actively recruiting.  So even if there are no rewards for it from the beginning, you need to give your players a way of flagging which players they have recruited into the game.  This is not something that can really be rolled out a couple of months after the game launches, this is something that needs to be in place prior to release.

Bioware seems to be getting this, at least in a small way.  With The Old Republic they have given us the ability to form guilds, recruit players, and create the social structure for the game well before launch.  However I think all publishers really need to look at this as the new norm.  The key difference between an MMO gamer and your standard console or pc gamer is that they crave the social interaction that these games gives them.  As a result it is impossible to divorce the community from the gameplay.

More than likely I will eventually get my pony.  However as a beta rift player, that managed to bring a good share of his friends into this game, it is frustrating that I will need to go into hardcore recruiter mode to earn it.  While this is not a massive deal, but recruitment programs have been a constant of MMOs for years.  Knowing this, I think it is something that publishers have to think of from day one.  Capturing this user loyalty from the start, only serves to give your player base the message that they really do matter after all.