Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Out of the Wilderness

Anyone with even a cursory interest in Star Wars probably has reason to celebrate this month, and it has nothing to do with The Old Republic MMO.  For me, this marks a pivotal moment in the history of the intellectual property.  And ever the optimist that I am, I think this turning point will mark the beginning of a profound upward trajectory when it comes to Star Wars storytelling.

As a brief aside, after the mad frenzy of posting inspired by the Blaugust Challenge, I took a week off from posting to recharge my brain.  My brain felt like a sponge that had been wrung dry, and needed a few days to regain its normal shape.  Now I feel like I haven't posted in months, which signals to me that I'm ready to go again.

Everyone who has a passing familiarity with the Star Wars IP is aware that Lucas sold the rights of the franchise to Disney, and that Disney, in turn, has announced its intention to make new films based in the Star Wars universe.  This is old news, of course, though to me it did signal a subtle change in the alignment of the universe.

To be specific,the Expanded Universe (EU to its friends) was a cheerful and chaotic place, full of rich and sometimes contradictory tales.  And not a few works either. Between the novels, comics and graphic novels, short stories, video and roleplaying games, hundreds of works using the Star Wars property have been produced. Only passing effort was made to reconcile the different characters and elements as each author was forging their own narrative.  Some of it was well done, others were wild flights of fancy that frankly weakened the core concepts.

At that time back in 2013, Kathleen Kennedy, the de facto CEO of all things Star Wars and confidante of George Lucas, established a Star Wars Story Group.  Their job was to be the keeper of the canon, and to establish what was accepted history, and what were Legends. Everything except the six films and the Clone Wars series was set aside - valuable contributions but not part of the Core Canon.

However, Kathleen had no intention of leaving things there.  Just as other properties had done before it, Star Wars indulged in a necessary reboot of the franchise. With the downsizing of the lore behind them, the SWSG began deliberations with several authors to create a new series of works that would be coordinated around the core of the films.

Which brings us to the present.  Early in September (just a few days ago) a new book called Star Wars: a New Dawn was put out in kindle and hardback with the contents endorsed by SWSG to be fully cannon. This is scheduled to be followed at regular two-month intervals, by  
  • James Luceno's Star Wars: Tarkin on Nov. 4,  
  • Kevin Hearne's Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi in Jan. 2015, and
  • Paul Kemp's Star Wars: Lords of the Sith next March.

The first book, A New Dawn is designed by SWSG to be a direct prequel to a new TV series in the style of SW: The Clone Wars called Star Wars Rebels which premiers October 13th.

All of this is in preparation for the new Star Wars movie Episode VII, as yet unnamed,  to be released next December, 2015.

What's Different This Time
From a personal perspective, as someone who is interested in the overarching story of Star Wars, I love the fact that we will still have the plethora of books, comics, games and films but their stories will be coordinated, rather than allowed to run wild.  I've talked elsewhere about how stories are told on three levels, the personal, the people, and the epic world/universe levels.  With this move, the SWSG is shoring up that epic universe level that has never quite made sense before outside the main movies.

Sometimes a franchise reboot gives audiences an entry point, a place to jump on to the moving train so they don't feel like they can never catch up.  After a while, the EU became overwhelming with it's sheer volume. If EU material had begun to dissolve in a tangle, this is the opportunity to climb on just as the train is leaving the station.

Now, provided that the SWSG is up to their rather difficult task, we don't have to worry about weeding out the dross, don't have to engage in fan edits and retcons of the EU timeline.  It will finally be worth while to pay attention to every venture, to follow each narrative, because for the first time it all counts.  Each of these disparate stories will make sense and all of it will be worth the serious SW fan's time.  That is the promise that the Story Group is making.

Third, there is some wishful thinking on my part.  The old narratives are being brought to a close and the focus is on the time directly after Return of the Jedi, the third of the original movie trilogy.  This choice is crucial because it allows the audience, if they wish, to largely ignore disappointing material from the prequel series.

Instead, it returns us to the beloved original characters that captured the essence and excitement of the films that started everything.  Audiences can start with A New Hope, the original Star Wars film, and move directly through those three movies into the new material from the Disney movies, without ever confronting midichlorians or Jar Jar.  This more than anything else shows me that Kathleen knows what she's doing.

I'm struck by the campaign-like structure of this release.   I reminds me very much of the MORPG timelines that we've seen recently.  Starting this month, there will be something new to see and learn in Star Wars every month or two until at least March, with more things undoubtedly planned to bring us up to the film release next December.  This is the kind of pre-planning that more closely resembles a MORPG, and seems designed to immerse the audience in the Star Wars universe - an audience that has been craving immersion for a very long time.

So with that calendar ahead of us, we head into the new era of Star Wars.  And right now we have the opportunity to start from the very beginning.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Twilight of Blaugust 2014

We've finally arrived at the conclusion of Blaugust and I'm fairly pleased with the result.  Not only did I post every day, but I also polished off a personal goal of reading at least two other Blaugust contributors each day as well. And I was but one of a large field of nimble posters who punched boredom in the face every day.  In the words of Zyngor, I say to all of them "Congrats on Blaugust Victory!"

I want to thank Belghast for bringing the idea to fruition, and providing the structure for making it happen.  It was a great motivation for me to write more and a great excuse to read gaming blogs while I was supposed to be working.

Personal growth
Perfect is the enemy of the good, and the enemy of my blog posts has been the need to revise.  Typically, I will think of something that inspires me to write, and I'll get the basic idea onto a page somewhere, but then I'll be overcome with doubts.  Maybe it really should be better researched, shouldn't this bit here be more completely sourced, have I really captured the essence of the argument?  I'll just set this aside for a few days until I can give it the treatment it really deserves.

By the time I look at it again, the event is no longer current, the discussion has passed on to something else, and I don't feel the urgency of my convictions anymore.  It would sometimes take me a month to write on a single topic, and by the time I was finished I wouldn't have improved the post that much anyway.  Blaugust taught me how to put an end to that nonsense.

Attacking on both fronts
Ultimately, I think there's room in blogging for both thoughtful commentary and initial honest reaction.  I think both lead to a better understanding of an issue and how I think about it.  Writing the initial surface thoughts lets me examine them more objectively and build them into something more coherent.

Not writing about something, conversely, means that this unpolished thought will bounce around in my head, always bringing my thoughts back to that initial starting point.  Blaugust has been the perfect exercise for sorting out these two different types of writing, and its a realization I never would have come to if I had continued to struggle with my old habits of a single post a month.

I've decided not to lose anymore posts to the monster of doubts.  I've also decided not to continue posting every day, but at the same time to set up a regular posting schedule.  I've decided to be more active in curating my blog roll because I've realized how useful it is as a tool for my own research.  I've decided to read, comment and like others' blog posts because as Chelsea pointed out every blogger is encouraged by a little feedback.

  • I think the format of reblogging individual posts onto the central Anook site was key for my enjoyment of the challenge.  It showed me how many other writers were posting every day, and it provided a central location to find everybody's new stuff.
  • I'm looking forward to next year's challenge.
  • I think we need a Blaugust Challenge 2014 Survivor badge.

This is the Thirty-first entry in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Taking the M out of MMO

I haven't really played an MMO in years.

Yes, I've played WoW and SWTOR and LOTRO, but for many years now I've associated with the same group of players and we all tend to play the same games. We regularly start characters together and tend to keep them about the same level in functional teams.  Of course we also begin other characters that aren't bound by that sort of social pressure, but as likely as not if one is playing on a particular faction and level and server, others will join in our Ventrilo server and tend to naturally group up.

It may be that I'm lucky in this regard, because for the first few years I didn't have this social support, and MMOs can be very lonely when you are a solitary player.  However, I wonder if this isn't how the games are designed to operate.  This is the model that the guild concept has been trying to replicate in WoW for a long time: a group of friends coming together when necessary but maintaining the freedom to spin off and do their own things in between.

Aren't Guilds the Answer?
I've been in guilds of all sizes and I've usually been the most lonely in the largest guilds.  Felt more isolated than when I wasn't in a guild at all.  At least when you are unguilded, you don't have the expectation of any social support. When I'm in a massive guild, it's been an uncomfortable sensation of being surrounded by many players none of whom know you or interact with you. 

In my experience, when there are 75 people in guild chat most players are less likely to say anything or respond as compared to when there are 7.  When there are seven, players seem more likely to speak casually, to engage in conversation or toss in a comment or quip;  to simply be themselves with more freedom.  When I'm in a guild of 400, it's like rats in a warehouse, huddled around the edges.  What's really happening is the 400 are usually subdividing themselves into smaller groups.

Guilds are too quiet.  In an effort to avoid pressuring anyone, to be welcoming and encourage people to stay, guilds tend not to place expectations on new recruits.  I wonder if the opposite approach wouldn't work better, get that new recruit into a group and break the ice right away.  Could it be better to have 7 genuinely cooperating and interacting players than to have 75 players who are silent?

Bigger isn't Better
I guess I'm just feeling that for me, larger groups aren't always better.  Larger raids, bigger battles, just sheer numbers, don't equate to greater enjoyment.  There's a lot of rose-colored nostalgia recently for 40-player Molten Core raids, and massive pvp battles between Southshore and Tarren Mill, and they are monuments to a time when the game really was played in huge assemblies.   But for me the recollection of MC is much more fun than the actual exercise: standing around for an hour waiting for everyone to show up,  the uncertainty of wondering if you would be chosen to be included, the stress of constantly having your dps performance monitored to see if you were worthy of continued participation, the frustration of never seeming to make the loot process work for you, the terror of putting a foot wrong and wiping all 40 players in your raid by accidentally pulling something at an inopportune time, who then had to run back from the other continent, apparently.  Good times! but much more fun as a recollection.

It takes work to keep our little social group together.  It takes a subtle re-adjustment of expectations, as well.  People become more flexible and less goal driven, knowing that they will achieve much more with the group then individually.  We tend to be group focused as well, sharing crafting and resources among the group equally, and are much more likely to do that then to deal with people outside our group.

I guess what's happened is that I've mostly stopped interacting with the thousands on my server, and tended to deal with those immediately around me. I've come to realize that it doesn't matter to me if I have 6.8 million playing my game or 200,000; when the most I interact with are the several dozen at my particular location. In fact, until I started playing GW2, those dozen around me were more likely to be my direct competitors than something that was enhancing my gaming experience. I would rather play a game with less than 500,000 others who were genuinely interested in what it offered, than try to play something that wanted to be all things to all players and ended up being mediocre at everything.

What I have wanted, personally, would best be described as an NMO, Narrowly multiplayer online game because frankly that is how I play now.  I'd like a game that targeted the small group and designed content around that reality, rather than one that promised that all the best experiences would be reserved for groups of 25.  So in response, I've started using the label MORPG.  I find that I can leave the massively out of the name and retain the same meaning.  And at the same time re-emphasize to myself the RPG part of the name, which can sometimes be lost in all the fury.

This is the Thirtieth entry in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Center Cannot Hold

So here's a quick question.   We've said that after ten years of adding more and more abilities to our WoW characters, it's become too much. We can't continue doing that and expect the game to hold together.

Now, take that statement and replace that word "ability" with class or race or with capital city or  zone or ... pick a word and throw that in there.  Is there a point at which the game itself is simply so large that you can't continue to add to it?  Can you have too many races, like we have too many buttons?

At some point one of two things happens:  either there are so many elements to the game that
the game itself simply collapses from all the minutia, or you stop adding things to the game and it begins to stagnate. Currently, we have 13 races in World of Warcraft and we could easily add a couple more.  Could we add six more?  I can instantly recognize all of these races right now, but I don't think I could do it for nearly 20 of them.  The nature of the game will have changed at that point.
"It's important to remember that the point of these changes is to increase players' ability to understand the game, not to reduce depth of gameplay." Beta patch notes. 

On the one hand, you can have so many races that you can't keep them straight.  Any newly introduced race would incrementally erode the distinctness of all the others.  It may not be in our best interest to continue to expand the lore laterally, adding new continents and new civilizations.

On the other hand, the fate of any new race might become the same as that of the Worgen, where they have their beautifully designed starting area and then we never hear from them again.  Is it a race, if the race never takes any major part in the world?  And does the developer have an obligation to that race to include it in future world events?  And if you don't, have you really added that race to the world or have you just given the players another cosmetic skin on the order of importance of a new hair color.

It will be a different world, certainly.  And there are other possibilities.

Blizzard has been almost draconian in streamlining the leveling experience up to this point. I think it might be difficult to speed it up even faster and still maintain any coherence in the existing zones. We've certainly already minimized the importance of many areas in the game.  At least two or three zones in each expansion are already rendered inconsequential by the speed of leveling.  We are, in effect, removing those zones from the game.  The developers have purposely removed the necessity to visit Shattrath or Dalaran, and declined to put a major city in the more recent expansions, giving us shrines instead.  In addition to removing buttons, we're also removing cities.

Have we seen the last race introduced at level 1? Any character you roll up after Warlords drops will have to level from 1 to 100, just to get to end game.  We're likely to see the price of level boosting come down quite a bit, but what about other options.  Perhaps in the future you can simply choose to start your character at level 60, or 80 or 100; just check the box at character creation. Or pass a proving grounds trial to instantly gain 10 levels. Maybe it's time for a new level-100 heroic class in the manner of the Death Knights.

Clearly all of the preceding is merely wild speculation.   I think, however, there is a kernel of truth in the idea that the traditional experience we're all used to from WoW and other older games - basic handful of races and classes with level 1 starting areas and normal leveling curves - has already begun to change.

This is post twenty-nine in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Questing on Voss

Voss isn't one of the typical planets in The Old Republic.  It's a place where secrets are revealed.  Where seeds that have been planted 15 or 20 levels ago slowly come to the surface.  By its very nature, it's designed to turn the whole Lightside/ Darkside question on its ear.

I'm leveling my Republic trooper to 55, which is the final class story for me on the Republic side.  This will be my 6th or so visit to Voss, on as many different classes.  Each time, I learn something more about the TOR universe and the overarching story that SWTOR is trying to tell.

Alien Life
Voss isn't a popular planet.  The residents of the planet are a bit bizarre, a bit distant; with blank compound eyes that seem to be looking everywhere but right at you.  They aren't cuddly ewoks.  Nor are the Gormak menacing enough to be truly threatening. On the other hand, it's one of the few planets in the game that is entirely populated by an alien species, and it's only when you finally get here that you realize how unusual that is. For a franchise that is noted for inventing fantastical alien species and making them seem realistic, The Old Republic is a little thin on new creatures.

Voss is also one of the few planets where the designers have allowed us to look at the society of a native species.  On a few other planets we find scattered pockets of another species, like the Ortolons and the Talz on Hoth, but most of the planets are dominated by humans.  Not here.  When you reach the city of Voss-ka it legitimately feels different. 

At this level, players are so close to level 50 that they are impatient to get off this world, make it on to Corellia where they will finally reach max level.  I've done things in reverse, in that I'm already level 50, and don't need anything from this planet but the story it has to tell. To understand the changes that are shaping the Republic/Empire conflict, though, you need to experience Voss from every perspective.

Extending the Mythology
One of the reasons why Voss is unusual is that its people are force sensitive, without being consumed by the Light side or the Dark side.  The Voss are unaware of these distinctions.

 A couple of days ago, we talked about a yardstick for judging the art of the storyteller: do we accept implausible things as possible because the framework of that secondary world is strong enough to support them?

Here’s an example of a time where we do.  The Voss Mystics can touch the Force, and use it to consistently and accurately predict the future.  Even though the Star Wars core cannon has been very careful about how the Force is manifest, The Old Republic takes a mild risk and extends force wielding power to an entirely different methodology.  The Voss mystics are considered gray force users by the Jedi, neither of the light or dark side.  And the mystics appear to be very successful in using the force for prophecy, something that seems to present difficulties for later Jedi like Yoda.    

Clearly, Voss mystics are an extension of Force mythology, but a reasonable one.  And the Force myth, and the created world of The Old Republic, are strong enough to accept and support this extension.

This is post twenty-eight in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

And no one dared...

Are game developers listening to their players?

If so, where?

If I had something that I wanted the developers of a game to hear, where would I go to voice my concern?  Now it's very unlikely that a lone individual would be privileged to get the ear of developers.  I'm not asking for that. But even if I merely wanted to join my voice with many others to get some attention on an idea, is there some accepted avenue to follow that has any chance of being effective?

I was piqued by a thought by Roger Edwards at Contains Moderate Peril that summed up the situation nicely.
"But the forums are not in any way representative of the LOTRO community. No gaming forums are. They are merely a platform for a vocal minority. So Turbine could, if they wanted to, completely ignore them."
As players, we'd like to think that developers are listening to their own forums, but we know that's probably not the case.  For one thing, game forums are traditionally wretched hives of scum and villainy.  It's amazing that any discussion takes place there at all, when the pass time is more likely to be finding out how quickly an original post can be torn to shreds over spelling or word choice or personal attacks.  The truth is that the contention and rancor that typify game forums have driven most of the thoughtful commentators away.

In that fabled Sapience quote, the one where he discussed how few raiders and pvper played LOTRO, the more interesting part was where he ended by saying that these minority groups were vastly overrepresented in the forums. You can't blame those groups for being vocal about what's important to them, but the community manager did give the impression that he discounted the feedback he was getting from his own forums.

Imagine the loneliness the developers must feel when they realize that their forums are awash with strident single-issue voices and social assassins.

I distinctly remember a moment in the pre-release forums of SWTOR when the discussion turned to flying mounts.  The overwhelming consensus was that flying mounts were entirely undesirable and the posters were quite open about why: it would minimize the viability of open world pvp.  Flying mounts were never a serious possibility for The Old Republic, but it became clear that many of the most visible posters were there to ensure that pvp was well represented.

I have a similar recollection about the announcement in no uncertain terms about the removal of tree form from druid healers in World of Warcraft.  At that time there was considerable negative outcry from many quarters but the decision was presented as a fait accompli.  Apparently, there was a thread somewhere on the forums, or even on Reddit, where the possibility of removing tree of life was discussed with the devs.  Since the consensus there was that it wasn't a big deal, ToL got the axe, so to speak.

Blizzard has the reputation of being tone deaf when it comes to player desires, particularly when shouted on the forums, but suddenly this extremely unpopular decision was actually presented as an example of the devs giving druids what they wanted.  The message was that if druids were unhappy, they should have participated more.  Ironically, the community managers then proceeded to scold the druids, who had finally been motivated to bring their complaints to the forum, for being too negative.

It wasn't too long ago that several bloggers when leaving major MORPGs (WoW, ESO, WS) had trouble completing the exit interview where they had a final opportunity to say why they were unsatisfied.  For most, the available list of reasons to choose from didn't adequately represent what they were feeling, and other options weren't available.

I think that many developers would like to listen to their players.  At least, they would like to know what players think, even if they can't always be accommodated.  But I'm not sure that they have any reliable method for receiving valid responses.   I think that well reasoned commentary and opinion by bloggers and gaming journalists probably has a greater chance of being heard than any single post on game forums.  (I, myself, am not in danger of writing anything well-reasoned, but I regularly read people who do.)

Bloggers speaking on similar topics can refine and concentrate thinking that has the possibility to reach employees working on games at all levels within their respective companies.  And it can reach them when they are likely to be receptive to ideas rather than when they are hunkered down and wading through the free-fire zone of forums. For example, opinions affected the thinking of SWTOR developers at the time. (Torwars is now inactive because the webmaster was hired by Wildstar).  Warcraft Hunters Union was able to bring ideas to Ghostcrawler at a time when hunters were going through some major changes.

Developers will admit that they like interacting with their players when they can do so in an atmosphere of enthusiasm and support.  Devs like their games, and they like reading about their games, and reading people who like their games.  That's the opportunity we have to be heard.

Blaugust is still going strong.  This is post twenty-seven in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Our part of the game's narrative contract

I was listening to the back catalog of Extra Credits today, which is totally worth it by the way, and I came upon one of my favorite episodes, The Magic Circle.  Basically James is talking about ways that storytellers use ritual or structure to allow us, the audience, to enter into the 'magic' of the tale being told without having to abandon our knowledge and reason as thinking adults.  It is the contract that we make with the storyteller that we are willing to listen to whatever she has to say without rejecting her medium as foolish or childish or unimportant. 

EC gives the example of the mystery of the campfire as a circle that allows us to experience ghost stories in a way would never be as effective in another setting.    But circles can come in many forms. Think of the effect of the opening song from Firefly.  It is a wrapper around the story that signals the kind of magic the author is offering.  Once we've passed that boundary, we've given the author permission to show us space ships in the wild west, and the author has given us a promise to make that magic make sense.

In return, the storyteller has an obligation to treat our attention with care, to not stretch the permission we've extended to them too far and make us feel foolish.  By entering this circle we expose a little of our own credibility.  And again, we must be willing participants in this contract for it to have any effect.  Someone outside that circle may well look at some of our cherished tales and disparage them a bit.  It's easy to laugh at X-files, or Doctor Who, or Rocket and Groot and say, 'It doesn't make any sense. I just don't get it."  This ridicule is part of what the magic circle gives us protection from.  It's OK to believe.

Corey Olsen is a popular commentator on Tolkien's works and he talks about "secondary belief" a term he uses to refer to the investment in the world of the story by the audience.  We might call it a willing suspension of disbelief.  "If the art of the storyteller is good enough we will be led to accept things like magic or dragons as perfectly plausible within the bounds of the secondary (the storyteller's) world."

This is the complex social contract that we enter into every time we play a narrative game like an MORPG.  The players are willing to cross the boundary of this artificial world, and must be willing to overlook its weaknesses and the artificiality of game mechanics in order to gain the freedom to live in that other world.  This is were we as players have an obligation to be something more than passive observers.

On the other hand, if the game is willing to invite players across that boundary, they had better have something to offer them other than game mechanics and dexterity puzzles. Very often that magic circle has been lost when we log in and start to grind out dailies.  Where we queue for an instance and then start farming for cloth drops. This is what we begin to lose on the long stretches between expansions.

Post twenty-six in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.