A Class Is…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, partly because I haven’t had much that I can write about. Bel started the ball rolling with A Tank Is, and I thought I’d follow up with my own. I almost started with A Healer Is, or A Rogue Is, because people who know me would likely expect to see one of those (and probably be very surprised about the other), but I realized what was going on behind the scenes, as it were, and I thought I’d share here.

Indecision?

I’ve played a lot of classes through a lot of games. My friends, if they weren’t so nice, would probably call me indecisive or schizophrenic in the things I choose to play. I’ve been a thief (UO), an enchanter (EQ), a druid (EQ, WoW), a rogue (WoW, EQ2, Rift), a tank (WoW, Rift, SWTOR), a healer, a support, everything. It doesn’t always look like there’s a method to the madness, but I’ve realized, for me, what drives me to each thing I play.

A Class is Identity

Black Mages, http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Black_Mage_(Job)

When I pick a class, I’m picking an identity. I’m declaring to the world (or, well, the game) what kind of person I am, and how I interact with the people, places, and things around me. The industry term for this is “player fantasy”, and it drives a shockingly huge amount of inspiration, dedication, and attachment. It’s more than just the class that determines this, but a player’s class is a big part of it.

I look at the Black Mage above, and I see someone focused, someone intelligent and a bit mysterious, who needs no physical might to make his or her mark on the world. I like that. I want to be that. By comparison:

This is the rogue to me. The Prince of Persia isn’t incredibly strong, and doesn’t wear heavy armor, but he’s fast, smart, and tricky. He’ll win the fight with this big brute because he’s quicker and cleverer. I like it, for the same reasons I like the Black Mage—he wins with his brain.

Classes and Roles

I look at the two examples above, both near and dear to my heart, and something stands out. I like them both, for the same exact reasons, but they both do very different things. They both fulfill my player fantasy, but it’s divorced from my role. Bel will attest that I will cheerfully tank things, when there is a rogue-tank option. I quite enjoy it, but the important thing is that my player fantasy is fulfilled. I’m not a big, muscley meatshieldy plate-wearing type. I’m the quick, clever, faster-than-my-enemies type. If I need some additional protection, that’s going to come from my speed or my magic, not armor or straight burliness.

What I do isn’t necessarily tied to my player fantasy—I just want to be faster and smarter than my enemies, and sometimes trickier and sneaker too, if I can manage it. If that means I’m a sneaky, killy Assassin or a tanky, maneuverable Riftstalker or a clever, resourceful Enchanter, I’m accomplishing that goal; I’m getting to play out my fantasy.

A Class is a Function

teamfortress2

When I’m dropped into a new world and asked to represent myself, to make my character, I need to make informed decisions. Whether that’s a class, or a starting ability package, or a weapon of choice, or a vehicle, my initial choices tell me what I’m good at and what I’m able to do. It tells me what make me different from the people around me, and what I can do well.

In a lot of ways, it helps me know whether I will enjoy a game. If I pick a class that isn’t good at the things I like to do, and I try to play the way I’m used to playing, I’m probably going to be disappointed. I’ve played games where I’ve switched classes partway through and rediscovered a game I thought I didn’t like—I played a Magician in Everquest for months before I tried the Enchanter on a whim and realized that, while the Magician was okay, the Enchanter was far more fun and fulfilling to me.

Classes and the Trinity

Whenever the argument about “The Trinity” or other role-based systems in games comes up, the first thing I see is “there are never enough healers or tanks” and “no one likes to wait around”, or, the worst, “people don’t want to be forced to play something they don’t like”. There’s usually a call to “abolish the trinity”, and to let people do what they like.

I don’t have a fundamental problem with this viewpoint, but the most common solution I’ve seen – abolish roles entirely – isn’t the right one. The Trinity is the foundation of group-based play. Whether that’s the MMO-standard Tank/Healer/DPS, or the team positions in soccer, or football, or League of Legends, the roles provide a means with which the individual participants in the group can become, together, more than the sum of their parts. Role-based play, regardless of what those roles are, is at the forefront of nearly every deep team game, and even quite a few non-team games. Chesspieces play a variety of roles, dictated solely by movement, and the game of chess is built around both the strengths and the limitations of each piece; it forms a deeper game than if every piece were a Queen.

Making it Better

You can’t just rip out the foundation without building something in its place. It’s something we’ve seen tried in various places, and the resulting gameplay is frequently-to-always unsatisfying for the players who enjoy team-based play.

That being said, the aforementioned arguments aren’t invalid. Frequently there are too few tanks or healers, or supports, or clerics. I submit that “not enough tanks or healers” is a symptom, not the root of the problem. How many games allow only burly platewearers to tank? How many allow wizardly mages to tank?

In League of Legends, a common complaint is that no one ever wants to play support. Let’s analyze this: There are 115 champions in League. Of those, nine are listed as “Support” within the game, and 12 are listed by one of the top players of the game (here: http://blog.ibuypower.com/2013/08/chausters-conventional-support-rundown/). Somewhere less than 10% of the available champions are Support, and of them, half are spellcasting women. Tropes aside, if “spellcasting lady” isn’t your player fantasy, you’re SOL.

If you make a game where you satisfy a wide enough variety of player fantasies for all of your roles, I suspect you’ll see a good distribution of your roles. What this means, more than anything, is options. Don’t abolish the foundation, give many, many ways of fulfilling it. If I can be creative with how I fit into a team, it will be much more satisfying than playing something I don’t like just to fit into the team, or worse, not having the team at all.

It’s on the Designers

Hundreds of years of team-based games tells me this: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A team should become more than the sum of its parts, and whatever paradigm you come up with to accomplish this, that is the core.

Designers are in the position of fulfilling player fantasies, and making sure that the player fantasies they create satisfy the roles they make for their game, and are distributed enough to make sure enough options exist for every role. Let me play a mage tank, and a rogue healer, and a platewearing stealther. It’s what design is for—creativity.

On Gamescom, PAX, and Playing Everything (videos!)

Been a long while since Bel or I have posted. Call it the mid-late summer doldrums. I’ve also been extremely busy for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, which has left me kind of sapped. My apologies.

Lately, though, it’s been summer convention season, with a lot of exciting things being shown off. If you haven’t seen the trailer for Wild Star, you should watch it. Here:

 

Wild Star HD Trailer

It’s every cliché trope wrapped up in awesome foil and made to look GREAT. There’s nothing new here, we’ve seen these characters before, we’ve seen things done this way, but it doesn’t matter because the trailer looks great, the world looks compelling, and there’s something here for everyone. I want to keep watching this, and see what happens next.

Sci-fi not your thing? Here, have some fantasy, Guild Wars 2 style:

 

The Sylvari– Guild Wars 2’s plant-elves.

Like It Always Was, But Different

I love the way these games are shaping up. I don’t have a good trailer handy, but Star Wars: The Old Republic has a similar level of polish and fun on display. These aren’t sandbox MMOs, no, not even Guild Wars. You play them and you know – you can feel – the WoW influence, the EQ influence, the this-is-an-MMO sense that permeates, well, every game in this genre.

I look at those games and I get excited to play them. They’re not what blew me away, though. What blew me away were these:

Battlefield 3

First person shooter? But Ariad, all of those are the same, it looks just like Medal Call of Honor Duty! And Guild Wars 2 looks just like WoW. There’re subtle differences, and it makes for a surprisingly deep game. This will be incredibly fun with friends, and notably it’ll be a pop-in-and-out experience, something I can play for fun without a huge time commitment. For a different spin on the same concept, here’s Tribes:

Tribes Ascend–15 minutes long

Another shooter, only future instead of military. Easy to dismiss as “another FPS, yawn”, except that the feel of this one is so different from other games that it’s worthy of mention. I’m not a huge shooter player, but I played the old Tribes, and reports from PAX Prime are that the new one plays a LOT like the old ones. For anyone who remembers the old, this is a very, very good thing. Looking for a bit more story? Have a dose of Nathan Drake:

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

The Uncharted series are some of the best games released in the past few years. I would happily put Uncharted 2 and Portal head to head for fun factor. It’s basically Indiana Jones, the video game, done RIGHT. The fact that they’re PS3 exclusives makes it hard to casually get into them if you don’t own the console, but they’re brilliant examples of what’s available on console that you just can’t get on PC (I’m trolling Bel here).

The main thing that excites me is the variety. I haven’t even talked about Skyrim (and I’m out of video slots here, so I can’t post a video), but in terms of available games to play, we’re looking at some really, really awesome opportunities (and great things that have already come out—I’m looking at you, Bastion and Deus Ex).

Everything Under the Sun

I used to avoid entire genres of games. I skipped over Halo (and all console shooters) entirely, because I fervently believed that “it was better on PC”. It wasn’t until I’d been working on a console shooter for about a year before I really broke that bias, and shortly thereafter I discovered some really fun experience (and was prepared for the awesomeness that was Bioshock).

I refused to play platformers that didn’t have Mario in the title for ages, figuring that none of them would be any good. I nearly missed out on Prince of Persia, and I completely missed out on Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank, both awesome games that I wasn’t in the right place at the right time to fully enjoy.

I’ve been amazed at how much fun there is to be had even in games I expect to hate. It’s also made me a lot better at seeing what games are, rather than what I want them to be. It’s a hard thing to apply to MMOs—I really want to see an MMO with real, true open-world and deep character customization, complete with well-implemented player housing and a sense of ownership… but SWTOR is not that game. Guild Wars 2 is not that game.

They’re gonna be fun, though. LOTS of fun, if I can enjoy them for what they are, rather than obsessing over what they’re not.

Content and Accessibility

Today I read Tobold (http://tobolds.blogspot.com/2011/06/syncaine-on-accessibility.html) and Syncaine (http://syncaine.com/2011/06/16/accessibility-killed-rift/) talking about accessibility in MMOs. It’s a neat series of reads on both sides of the issue, and I feel like they’re both touching on a big issue in MMO development that’s been going on basically since WoW brought in a massive influx of new players (thanks to being highly accessible, even in Vanilla) – not enough content.

It has nothing to do with how ‘casual’ or ‘hardcore’ or ‘accessible’ the content is, and everything to do with whether or not the existing content in the game satisfies the demands of the various players. WoW only has one content path. You level, you do dungeons, you do heroic dungeons, you do raids, you do heroic raids. These five experiences are different in a lot of ways; the number of players you have being the most obvious one, but the approach to playing and the kind of players each pursuit attracts is quite different. However, it’s a linear path. Syncaine hits the nail on the head in his post when it mentions that players are satisfied and at their best when they have content to play that challenges them and can look forward to more content ahead of them. It’s an idea spread out across quite a bit of the argument, but to me it’s the underlying thread that separates him from the usual “games should be harder” hardcore crowd.

Something for Everyone

In most of the major MMO releases, including both the successful and the unsuccessful, there’s a single, brutally defined and linear path of content. You level until you can do small-group content, you do small group content and level until you reach max level, you do max-level dungeons, and then you raid. When you have exhausted one of the pre-raid forms of content, you’re done with it; you will rarely if ever see more of that content that’s meaningful to you.

I have a theory about MMO content: If you, as a development studio, had an infinite amount of time and resources to create an endless stream of content for every type of player, you would see a few paths that were highly favored. You’d see solo content, small group (4-6 players), small raid (10-15 players), and massive raid (50-100+ players) standing far and away ahead of the rest as favored types of content. WoW proved that 25-man content was more popular than 40-man content, and furthermore that 10 was at least as popular if not more popular than 25-man. The inevitable argument is that it’s easier to put together the smaller groups, so they’re naturally more popular, which I absolutely agree with. People are more inclined to play when playing is less onerous, and more inclined to do content when the barrier to entry is low. Accessibility is one thing—but accessibility need not mean “easy”, which is the mistake both Tobold and Syncaine point out in their articles.

Imagine if an MMO devotedly created endgame content for the solo player, the small group player, and the raider simultaneously, where you could realistically progress your character via any of those means without being forced to do the others. “Yeah, that’d be great, Ariad, but it’s totally unreasonable—WoW can barely keep up with player progression through content NOW, much less if they supported three or more different paths.” I can hear you thinking it.

Doing the Impossible

Looking at the way WoW and Rift and other MMOs are built, it’s really easy to scoff at the idea of continual content for everyone. Let’s look at the accessibility issue from a fresh slate, though, throw out everything we know about MMO progression, and break the problem down into parts.

1.) We should have enough content for the solo player, the small group player, and the raider to feel satisfied.

2.) We need to be able to expand all of those lines of content in a way that makes sense.

3.) We want content that is challenging to people at various skill levels, without artificial-feeling “modes”.

4.) We need to be able to build all of this without breaking the bank in terms of time or resources.

One of the things that takes a massive amount of time in the production of an MMO is the leveling process. It takes more time than any other form of content, arguably all other forms of content combined. Given this, it should come as no surprise that things suddenly change when players are finished with the leveling process—it’s basically impossible to keep up, especially because players are trained to burn through “leveling” as fast as possible.

So, let’s remove it.

An MMO Without Levels

Defining what content is available by levels causes a number of problems. For players who enjoy the soloing game, when they hit max level the game is functionally over for them—they have no reason to keep playing because the content that they enjoy is now over. They can roll a new character, but a lot of times, the new character is going to be playing through the same content. Not exactly ideal. For players who enjoy raiding, nothing before hitting max level is meaningful in the slightest—they care about raiding and are forced to slog through content for quite some time (days? weeks? months?) before getting to the content they want to play.

Why not cut out the concept of levels entirely, and let people do what they like best immediately upon playing? A short tutorial area may be helpful, but from a development standpoint you’re creating content that’s relevant for every player in your game, theoretically, and this content can be tuned to be quite difficult, because there are *always* alternatives (because you’ve spent the entire leveling-process budget on content that people find useful at max level). Without the artificial constraints of level, advancement becomes a question of resources (money), gear, and unlocked skills and abilities, all of which can be safely unhooked from something like levels. An established raiding guild can start the game and immediately start raiding, with content that’s meaningful to them and worth their while, without any of the intermediate content that they have no interest in.

The nice thing about a setup like this is that you can tune your content to be as difficult as you like—players are always accomplishing something meaningful so making your leveling content easy (so that raiders can get to raid content) or your raiding content easy (so that players who have finished leveling and need something to do don’t get crushed by hard raid content that they aren’t interested in) is entirely unnecessary—players can find the challenges best suited to their skills, without an artificial enforced hierarchy determining what they can and can’t do, and without a need to homogenize difficulty so that people with differing interests can all play.

You don’t need to make raid content for non-raiders, or leveling content for people who hate leveling. Instead, you just have content, and players play what they like.

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.

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)

My Robe and Wizard Hat

This has been stuck in my head for the past few days.

By Connor Anderson

I actually haven’t been playing very much in the way of video games for the past couple of weeks, other than the occasional Mortal Kombat match and a couple of iPhone/iPad games. Normally I’d get really introspective about this, but honestly the main reason is because the weather’s been nice the last few weeks and I’m enjoying it.

That being said, one thing I HAVE been doing a lot more lately is tabletop gaming of various kinds (RPGs, wargames, etc). I’m involved in… four different tabletop games currently, play another sporadically, and am thinking of running my own. It’s interesting, because the experiences are completely unlike what I can get in video games.

Storytelling and Theatre

It really amazes me that, for all of the advances we’ve made as a culture, and all of the amazing forms of entertainment we’ve been able to come up with, it’s still very, very hard to beat someone simply telling a story aloud. It’s a form of theatre, but the most intimate kind there is, where the storyteller and the audience are working together. The storyteller sets the stage, and the audience steers the story through what they want to hear about.

It makes me think of a parent or grandparent telling a story, while the excitable kids interrupt with questions and comments. There’s the fun of interacting with the story for all the players, and something eminently satisfying about making all the players happy as the GM.

Short post this time, just commenting on what I’ve been thinking about lately.

The Next Big Thing

It’s starting to feel like we’re gearing up for a post-Warcraft MMO scene, where the current powerhouse has settled into its paradigm and has made it clear what it’s doing (and, perhaps more importantly, NOT doing). For anyone who was surfing games during the end of the Everquest era, more and more people are starting to look for something different, or something to play “on the side”, or what have you. The last time this happened, we started to get a lot of competition, slowly eroding the base of the current leader (Everquest, at the time) and usually all trying something a little different from the norm.

It’s been interesting to see history repeat itself, or at least start to show hints that it’s going to. It’s taken a lot longer this time around; WoW has managed to stay on top for a lot longer than Everquest did, and there’s still no definitive successor to the throne.

The Last Big Thing

In 2001, Everquest had been on top for two years, having largely usurped Ultima Online and staying reasonably ahead of its competition: Asheron’s Call. That year saw the first shots across EQ’s bow, in Dark Age of Camelot and Anarchy Online. Dark Age of Camelot took the Everquest model and shaped a strong PvP environment out of it. There was a goodly amount of PvE in the game, but everything at the end came down to its Realm-vs-Realm model, in which three player factions fought over contested territory, especially Keeps. Anarchy Online took a different route, hitting the sci-fi angle rather than the fantasy angle, but keeping much of the gameplay the same. These managed to be different enough that they coexisted with EQ quite solidly, unlike a large number of the similar fantasy-style MMOs that came before and after.

Two years later, in 2003, the experimental phase was in full force. The games released four years into Everquest’s reign deviated hugely from EQ’s model, all trying new things to see what the next success would be. The foray into sci-fi games continued with EvE Online and Star Wars Galaxies, both extremely innovative games that presented the MMORPG in a new way. Shadowbane released as a massive foray into the concept of player housing and player-run content, with its player-made cities and siege-focused PvP, and A Tale In The Desert was a game unlike any other that had been released before, with an entire gameworld shaped by its players.

As with all innovation, not all of these experiments proved to have long-standing appeal, but a lot of the concepts introduced in them made their way into the big release the following year. In these games we saw the introduction of dungeon instancing, the player auction house, mounts, significantly improved chat functionality, and the beginning of quest-oriented gameplay, all of which appear in 2004’s World of Warcraft.

Today’s Big Thing

Just prior to World of Warcraft’s release in late 2004, two other games made their appearance: City of Heroes and Guild Wars. These games both moved back towards the EQ model, albeit with some notable differences. City of Heroes managed to capture the superhero genre in a game the way nothing else really had, and Guild Wars moved heavily into a quest-centric model and gathered quite a large following with its no-subscription-fee model, circumventing something that is still a sticking point for players even now.

World of Warcraft dropped in late 2004, alongside Everquest 2. The surge of popularity for WoW launched the new era of MMORPGs, and set the standard for everything that came next.

Toppling the Giant

The same cycles that we saw with Everquest are starting to make the rounds again. The process has been slower, as the bar set by World of Warcraft has made is significantly harder to make a strong showing in the market, especially for something as difficult to make as an MMO. Player tolerance for instability, lag, or a dearth of content is close to nil, and over the years WoW has made the average player much, much more skilled than they were prior to its release, as well as bringing millions of new players to the genre. It’s no longer acceptable to have punitive, “hardcore” penalties in games, and the feeling of power WoW’s PvE progression brings has proved intoxicating, leaving few players to want to go back to the harsh, unforgiving environments of previous games.

As a result, the scope of innovation has been tightened, as wild, unproven designs are simply too expensive to take the risk on, especially considering the various elements that *must* be excellent for a new MMO to compete. Games have tried and failed to release at the level of polish required of the previous generation, The Matrix Online being a notable example of this, and games like Warhammer Online struggling to compete against the WoW juggernaut. Games like Mortal Online and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes made it clear that while a certain subset of players sought the hardcore environments of the previous generation, they wouldn’t capture the kinds of players they used to. Lord of the Rings Online proved a strong contender by staying close to the WoW model, but presenting itself in subtle but numerous different ways.

Iteration, Not Innovation

We’re starting to see the next generation of MMOs start to surface– games that expand incrementally on the existing template, rather than spiralling into completely new ground. Video games are an iterative process, and while occasionally a shining success in the industry is borne of something completely out of left field (hello, Katamari Damacy), by and large the big hits in the industry are based on what has come before, but with some carefully added features and a couple of new designs, rather than a completely blank slate.

We’re starting to see those games now. Rift is the first, introducing the concept of dynamic content in a way that makes sense and actually works within the MMO framework, as well as honing the idea of character customization to a much greater degree than previous games. Star Wars: The Old Republic looks to be following suit, only emphasizing storytelling and characterization in new ways, something that WoW now struggles with. Guild Wars 2 also seeks to subtly alter the mold, by presenting content and quests to players in a different way, and building on the idea of dynamic content.

The Next Big Thing

There’s no telling what game will topple the current reign of WoW, but by looking at what WoW is and is not doing, and what its competition is focused on, it’s not difficult to get a picture of what that game will look like. Dynamic content sits high on the list of things that WoW simply cannot elegantly do (and doesn’t seem interested in doing), but the difficulties of execution present a high bar, with the best implementation to date appearing in Rift. A new quest model is almost certainly in the cards, as both Guild Wars 2 and The Old Republic seem to be pushing. Expect that up-and-coming MMOs will eschew the “quest text, accept/decline” boxes in the future. Storytelling will also be big– as technology allows the fidelity of our games and the ability to present an MMO the same way a single-player game is presented, we’re going to see the same leaps in storytelling in MMOs as we did when games like Half-Life proved that first-person shooters could tell excellent stories.

I personally hope for a game that changes the way we approach MMO endgames, and while I still think it’s a ways off, an MMO that eschews levels entirely for a whole new model of progression would be very interesting to see. As usual, though, I expect that the next game to really capture me is going to be one I’m not prepared for and that does things I don’t expect. We’ll see what that looks like when the time comes.

On Recapturing the Magic

or “I’m New Here So I’m Going To Start By Disagreeing With Bel”

Bel’s post below, "Warcraft Broke Me" got me thinking. I’ve been in largely the same boat he is, having finally stopped playing World of Warcraft without getting heavily into any other MMOs. You should read the post, it’s a good one, but as a quick recap he’s rediscovering the joys of not being tied to a game and, as he’s put it to me a few times, is "living an actual life again".

I’m doing the same thing. In the last month I’ve started working out again, picked up painting, get out and hang out with my friends a lot more often, and largely don’t really see a massive lack in my MMO schedule. When I play (Rift, currently), I play because I want to and I have fun, and when I’m through having fun I stop and do something else. It’s probably terribly inconvenient for the hardcore in the group, but I actually legitimately enjoy every moment I spend in game, which is something of a surprising new feeling.

For me, though, it doesn’t feel like a whole new paradigm, or a huge shift in the way I play games from here on out. I remember the feeling when I left Everquest, and how I played a few games hyper-casually (and even not so casually), but without the devotion of scheduled playtime and other things. I played a handful of other games before sinking into Star Wars Galaxies and dropping down that rabbit hole… despite the feeling I had at the time that I would never get into a game as heavily as I had Everquest.

The Pendulum

It all feels like a pendulum to me. Back and forth, with one end being a total disconnect from MMO-playing and the other end being the depths of hardcore, scheduled raid leadership. It hovers at the edges of the swing, but it still feels like it’s swinging, and when I don’t expect it, it’ll come hurtling the other way and while I look around now at my "freedom", I’ll play something, blink, and then realize it’s three months later and I’m leading or helping lead a raid group.

I think the only time things have ever really not worked out has been when I’ve tried to push the pendulum one way or the other before it’s good and ready. I tried to force myself to drop out of the raiding scene in WoW at once point, stop playing the game entirely and concentrate on some important stuff (like getting a job), and while I had the discipline to stay away until I’d accomplished what I needed to, it was less than a week after that I’d come back to the game, voraciously seeking what I’d tried to be rid of. I’ve started MMOs with the plan of having a solid group, planning on hitting max level and grouping together and even raiding, and it always seems to fall apart. It feel s forced, like I’m stopping the pendulum mid-swing and trying to make it reverse.

The Priority

I’m almost certain I’ll end up back in the hardcore scene at some point in the future, sticking to a solid schedule, showing up on time (or early!), making sure everything is in order and accepting no distractions, going through all of the trouble of recruiting, helping people improve, and dealing with drama and the other issues that come up. When that happens, it’ll almost certainly be fun, and I’ll have no idea what will trigger it. It might be tomorrow, it might be years from now. At the time I went from being an egregiously casual WoW player to a hardcore raider, I would have told anyone who asked that that switch was the least likely thing that could possibly happen, but there it went.

Right now, my priority is having fun. The pendulum swings, and I have fun. Best I can ask for, yeah?