Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Smuggler's Journey

A few days ago I jotted down some notes on heroic pathways in Star Wars.  I did this because I wanted to give myself some context for commenting on the Smuggler's class story in StarWars: The Old Republic.  The Smuggler is one of the last classes I have to level significantly, and unlike my Jedi Knight, I want to pay a little more attention to the story as it goes by.

Taken as a whole, I’m a little bit disappointed with the smuggler story so far.  I keep waiting for it to make the jump into the larger conflict, for my smuggler to go Han Solo on me and come back to face the Death Star.  To this point, the smuggler has been able to visit many worlds where the titanic struggle between freedom and tyranny rages, but without the struggle touching them personally.

Being a Star Wars fan, the mythos has always been dominated by this conflict. That’s what the story is all about, and being in that universe is my opportunity to further the cause of freedom.  

The prologue to the smuggler story, recovering my stolen ship, allowed me to see the inside view of  tyranny first hand.  Liars and thieves abound in the universe and many people less capable than my smuggler are daily victims of it.  Here was my chance to see what it felt like to be disempowered, to have my livelihood and home taken away from me by the whim of some conscienceless, amoral bully, and feel what millions in the galaxy must feel at the hands of Sith and warlords and mindless beasts.  

I guess what I’m saying is that I was beginning to pick up the threads of my heroic path

The second part of the story, however, has been less engaging.  For me, it has been more about discovering the character of Nok Drayen rather than reclaiming his treasure.  But neither of these goals seems particularly noble or heroic.  I hoped that by uncovering the legend of Drayen I could understand what it means to be a smuggler in the Star Wars universe;  what heroic aims can they aspire to, what ennobles them as characters.  But none of what I’ve seen so far really connects me with any larger galactic struggle.  

When I finally learned the big reveal about Nok’s true identity, my feelings of ambivalence continued.  I was initially pleased with the connection to Risha and it helped me understand her character more completely but ultimately the resolution lacked resonance.  I felt more satisfaction at the demise of Skavak, than at the outcome of my “treasure hunt.”

I want, like Han and Lando, to come to the point of realization that there is something larger than myself that is worthy of my commitment, something worth fighting for.  When do I get to take up arms against the enemy and hurl myself with all the force I can muster against the might of the Empire?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Desolation of Smaug I

I went into this second installation of Peter Jackson's re-creation of The Hobbit with boundless optimism.  I am a supporter of Jackson's efforts to flesh out this book with non-cannonical, but yet non-contradictory material.  I think there is great potential there, in the hands of a skilled storyteller, and I think Peter Jackson has earned the right to make the attempt.  In the end however, I left the theater with a strange mixture of emotions.  I was both satisfied at having seen a good movie, and at the same time brimming with indignation at some of the missteps.

My summary is that Jackson made a good movie set in Tolkien's world of Middle Earth, but he didn't make the definitive translation of the Hobbit to the big screen that I was hoping to see.  His team demonstrated an understanding of the workings of Middle Earth, but fell short of conveying the essence of the great themes in the Hobbit, which ultimately left me wanting something else.

I was happy to see Beorn and have us cover a bit of new ground here.  And the idea of a band of orcs tailing them throughout their journey was novel, but not unwelcome.  It seemed a bit unnecessary, though; as if the dangers of the spiders of Mirkwood, or the dungeons of Tharanduil, or the exposed sides of Mount Doom weren't dangerous enough.  I liked the appearance of the female Silvan elf, Tauriel and did not immediately reach for my pitchfork at the thought of an additional character added to Tolkien's original cast.

This was very definitely an action movie.  Gone are Bilbo's introspective moments, and yet I loved the elves fast-paced fight scenes.  This is the stuff that we hinted at with Legolas in the Lord of the Rings, where we constantly marveled at how effective the elf was despite being out of his element.  In this film, he was very in the heart of his element.  This is the kind of realization that Peter Jackson brings to the original source work.

Where I felt the missteps, however, was in the characterizations of Bilbo and Thorin.  In the first film, Bilbo is a bit of a burden to the dwarven company, with his complaining at the lack of comforts, and hiding in the background.  In this second movie, though, Bilbo is supposed to find his feet, and prove what a resourceful and courageous companion he really was.  This is the section of the book where he singlehandedly saves the dwarves from the spiders, frees them from perpetual internment in the elven dungeons and shows more courage than any of them by facing the dragon alone.  This is where he grows in the estimation of the dwarves and they look on him with respect.


In the film, however, the shine of each of these achievements was dulled by something else.  Bilbo began attacking the spiders, but it really was the coming of the elves that drove them away.  Yes, Bilbo filched the keys from the jailer, but his part of events was largely sidelined by Tauriel's flirtation with Kili, and made nearly meaningless next to the dazzling displays of Legolas against the orcs, for which the barrel riding was a mere backdrop - a way to emphasize the impotence of the dwarves in the face of Legolas' warrior prowess.

One of the main themes of The Hobbit was the way that Bilbo developed this relationship of mutual respect with the dwarves.  This relationship is critical because it creates such a contrast later when the friendship is severed.  In the film version, their friendship is mostly marginalized.  Bilbo becomes nearly invisible throughout the strange visit to Laketown and by the time they reach the Lonely Mountain I can't tell if they regard him with admiration or bafflement when he solves the riddle of the keyhole.

To be honest, the part that bothered me most was Laketown.  What was the audience supposed to be feeling here?  Are we rooting for the dwarves, or Bard, or the Master of the town?  We really have no point of identification, because Bilbo is no where to be found.  Yes we see the heavy hand of foreshadowing the eventual rift between Bard and Thorin, but the truth is that the audience knows that Bard is right in everything that he says.  Bard has been helping them for the entire time they are in Laketown, then suddenly decides that their quest will bring ruin on everyone.  This juxtaposition of our allegiances is the single most difficult transition that this story has to make, and in the end the writers don't handle it well.

Into this mix, we toss the orcs - who have somehow gotten hold of a Morgal blade (?!) (because these now litter the countryside like daisies) and poisoned Kili and then Tauriel rides in to heal him prompting some of the most ham-handed lines in the series so far.  It's almost as if a second movie had overtaken the first and was going to play through.  For a bit, the two movies clashed with each other, as if half the cast were playing As You Like It, while the other half was reading lines from Henry V.

The worst part of this was, when the orcs ride off into the night with Legolas in chase, I wanted to follow them and leave the troublesome dwarves to their own devices. The adventure tale of purging evil and understanding love and healing your fallen comrades was, at that moment, a much cleaner tale than the befuddled business with Bard and Thorin.

It's not that I object to any of the alternative interpretations that Jackson imposes on the story, it is simply that none of them is a particular improvement on the originals. 

The Quest is Lost

Part of what's missing from my current gaming experience is the concept of the quest.  Historically, a quest is something more than just a task or errand, though that's part of it.   A quest is a mission that confronts me with the choices and challenges inherent in my personal struggle, and thereby carries me down my heroic pathway.  Often, the fate of a people or an ideal is hanging on the outcome of my effort.  Traditionally, to have a quest is to have a noble purpose.

The modern MMO concept of Quest is quite different.  Here, it's grown to mean a trivial task that your character performs to pass the time while you're chatting with friends, or watching re-runs of Black's Books.  These activities have become so banal that you're asked to do the same ones every day, to the point where any original meaning they might once have held for you or the quest giver has long-since faded into obscurity.  Now you've just become an employee of the NPC, and show up every day to do your job.  The identity of this quest as a mission of noble purpose has been lost.  Now it's a mere semantic convention.

To further demonstrate the decline, we now have games that promise "quest-less" adventuring.  Guild Wars 2 offers questless quest hubs that are supposed to emerge dynamically and organically from your wandering in the world.  No more quests to complete, just hearts to fill.  Except you are fighting the same mosquitoes and gathering the same dewberries that you would in a traditionally structured quest. 

On the other hand, we're moving away from the model of the checklist of tasks (which is a welcome change), but in doing so, we've abandoned the very thing I'm trying to save.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has done something similar with their sub-quest system.  As you are working your way through the vagaries of a a class story mission, you are given target kill counts to fill along the the way that reward xp.  These aren't labeled separate quests, though they function in much the same way.  What's different is that they fit into the story being told.  They are always optional, incidental to the main purpose of your being there.

What's happened, though, is that the emphasis has been returned to the main focus of your endeavor, restoring the Heart location to peace and harmony, returning the farm to order and productivity.  That becomes the quest, the true noble purpose, and all the individual pieces that go into this are acknowledged as something different.

Why is this important?  For the narrative game, the story being told and the character's participation in the story are the most important things happening in this experience.  Returning emphasis to the quest narrative and properly defining it, re-focuses the "game" on the story.  Conversely, corrupting the concept of the quest and trivializing it to include all game activities diminishes the impact that real questing has.  It takes a storytelling experience and transforms it into a series of mini-games you can play on your phone.

The Secret World has a similar concept that stratifies your tasks into main missions and side missions.  Typically the main mission is a storytelling experience that draws you through the zone while the side missions are more traditional assignments.  The story mission returns the player to the classic concept of quest as noble calling. 

When you play the later zones of Mists of Pandaria, a similar thing happens.  Nearly every quest in Townlong Steppes directly participates in the major or minor stories of the zone.  Blizzard has cleaned away all the random filler quests from an anonymous mage who needs us to collect pinecones for some minor spell he's working on.  Even if the tasks haven't changed (we still may be given a collection quest), we're always explained their importance in the narrative.

There's nothing like the experience of traveling to Mount Doom and throwing your ring into the fire and finally saving the world.  When you've completed this quest, you have a satisfaction that's deep and abiding.  Something fare more satisfying than merely logging on to complete dailies.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Mythic Heros in Star Wars

Orphaned at birth, the boy of humble origins learns that he is an heir of a mystical order of holy warriors who fight against evil in the galaxy
This would be the mythic heroic description of Luke Skywalker’s character. If he does this, he is a hero. If something distracts him from this, and many things will try, he slips from his mythic heroic position. So in the sense of the narrative, Luke is fighting two battles: the first is the fight against evil and tyranny; the second is the fight against distraction.

A mythic story is one that is so fundamental to the human condition that it is recognized as a universal experience. Everyone understands this story, and in some way identifies with it, or with the longing that it reflects. There is a longing to participate in the hero's story, and there is admiration for a hero who does follow the path.

Not everyone has a life that fits this formula, but the audience finds value in a life that conforms to that heroic ideal, even if it is not directly applicable to them. The audience can see themselves, some part of themselves, in this story. Even though it does not describe them, in some way the listener wants it to describe them.

 The Pathway

 A Mythic Heroic pathway must have an element that is universal, that is independent of time period or genre or setting. Luke's pathway appears equally valid in a story of science fiction, modern fantasy, classic epic fantasy, even gritty realism.

For a mythic hero, it is not enough to find that a mythic story describes your life. You must also make a conscious choice to follow the pathway that the mythic story illuminates. We know that Luke is a mythic hero because his actions are consistent with his mythic story.

Everything that Luke does in the first movie takes him down his mythic heroic pathway. This is true even of those things that he does as a result of other people’s choices. However Luke makes two critical choices that drive the plot of the movie: first he chooses to leave Tatooine – “There’s nothing for me here now. I want to come with you to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force, to become a Jedi like my father.” Next, he chooses to rescue Princess Leia – “We can’t just leave her. We’ve got to rescue her. They’re going to execute her. “ – Han: “Better her than me.”

That choice to help Leia is alone what drives the second half of the film and the story of the Rebel Alliance. Everything that Luke does after is an outgrowth of that decision. And that decision is based on his heroic myth to fight evil in the galaxy.

By contrast, and a contrast provided directly in that scene, Han has no such heroic imperative. Not that he is not a hero, but that his herioc myth is different:

A Scoundrel, whose past has taught him that he can only rely on himself, is transformed when he comes to understand and believe in the power of friendship and good to alter his fate and that of the galaxy.

He sees how Luke's "goodness" alters the fate of Leia, and later of the Rebel Alliance.  He comes to understand that concept himself by aiding Luke in the attack on the Death Star.  Implicit in both these myths is the value of development and change. For Luke it is maturing from a boy to a warrior, moving from someone who is passive and ruled the the demands of others (Uncle Owen, Obiwan) to someone who has achieved his own independence and self reliance.  For Han it is the redemptive transformation from scoundrel to reluctant leader.  Han already embodies the lessons of independence that Luke needs to learn, but in turn learns from Luke the value of friendship. Implicit in the myth is the presence of a Myth arc, a pathway that the hero must travel to remain heroic. Others who do not follow a path are merely static observers.

Returning to that scene with Luke and Han, Han is a hero, at that moment, because although he confronts his scoundrel identity, he does not allow himself to be entirely directed by it. Luke persuades him to help through promises of a reward, but he does help. And Han's decision takes him a step further along his mythic arc. The two of them are both heroes but in different ways, and in different stages of development. At this point, Luke has "already taken the first steps into a much larger world," while Han, the more worldly-wise of the two, is barely beginning down that pathway -- a path he will not fully embrace until he returns in the Millennium Falcon to assist Luke's assault on the Death Star.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Quest IS the Game

"Frodo himself feels the possibility of failure at every moment.  That's part of what makes his journey so emotionally resonant. Tolkien was immersed in a long tradition of questing. It's a tradition he studied in the medieval literature that he wrote about and taught for his entire life,

That's what lies behind the deep emotional involvement that we feel in Frodo's trip to Mordor. And that we can't yet feel in LotRO. "  Jay Clayton, Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative.  2.6 Questing, continued.

I've been participating in this free online course offered through Vanderbilt Univ. on the recommendation of Roger and Brian.  Dr Clayton makes the connection between medieval and 19th C romance literature and the MMOs that we're playing today.  And very often that connection is through the works of Tolkien.   Clayton claims that the conventions that we are used to in modern MMOs as wide ranging as SW:TOR and The Secret World owe a debt to Tolkien's work.

What's interesting to me is how keenly Clayton feels that these games aren't living up to their potential.  You can see his frustration that the stories being told lack emotional resonance with the participants.  The quote above was taken from a section where he was talking about the importance of failure and how its real possibility makes the journey meaningful to both the quester and the audience.  What he's pointing out is that the things that make romance literature great tend to be things that are difficult to do in MMOs or worse, are being stripped away from the evolving MMO landscape.

Challenge matters

So in the MMO example the completion of quests tend to be inevitable, a trivial matter designed to maximize interaction time, and minimize the struggle. To extend Clayton's idea, the things that make MMOs convenient social games - with repetitive daily quests and easy leveling, make them less compelling to play, less meaningful to the player.  When the quests are challenging and the story is engaging, leveling slows down and players become focused on the their present situation.  Stories emerge.  The very slowness and carefulness of the leveling process imbued it with importance.

When leveling is quick and easy, conversely, the immediate story is meaningless.  The completion of your task is so rapid that the regular mechanisms for engaging the audience are ineffective.  You don't have time to connect with the npc, or marvel at the ominous setting, or experience the elation of success.  It's all over too quickly.

You probably wont even finish the quest series anyway, since you will level out of the zone long before the quest chains reach their culmination.  And even if you do stick around, the difficulty level makes it a matter of a few mouse-clicks in a memorized pattern.  At some point, the tasks we've been given become so trivial that it isn't necessary to read or listen to them at all:
"Bog Hunt: 0/8 mosquitoes"  That's all you really need to know. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Story Churn

"I need to make sure that those gaming sessions that I do have, that I’m doing fun activities, making progress, and doing what I want, not what I feel like I have to.

I never thought I’d be complaining about games releasing too much content.  Guild Wars 2 has a major content patch every two weeks.  And the casual player who might play once or twice a week is looking at all these achievements that they have to accomplish or else they are going away for ever and ever.  When the content is very transitory, as it is in GW2, it creates a mounting “gaming pressure” that people don't like.

At the same time, with this flood of content, it doesn‘t seem to be adding up to an overarching story"

Too Long, Didn't Listen final episode.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Intellectual Revolt

It is  no surprise that the state of gaming has changed.  Up until very recently, the state of gaming was defined by World of Warcraft.  They didn't do everything right but the main challenge was to find a reason to play something other than WoW.  WoW got it right when Ultima Online and EverQuest couldn't do it.  And for a long time, read 4-5 years, WoW was the standard. Sure, you could design other games that did the same things slightly differently, but still the question was, Why?

Why did I want to play Rift or D&D online or LOTRO, or StarTrek Online?  Why should I play them instead of WoW?  What different did they offer?  Other than the intellectual property, the answer often was, not very much.  Unless you specifically wanted to adventure in a particular universe, the generic fantasy setting of Azeroth often fit the MMO template better than any other game.

And with every passing patch and expansion, that became more and more the case.  As players explored more and more of the world, they made it more their own.  As they experienced more dungeons and bosses, more holiday events and more Shatterings and boss kills, as they racked up more memories, they became more invested in the game.  The choice was between continuing to play within the long tradition of a mature game environment, or to try something new, but untested, with no history, no social ties, no cool loot or lore or memories on which to build.

Then along came SWTOR.  Star Wars: The Old Republic was groundbreaking precisely because it wasn't the epic WoW killer that some were hoping it would be.  Instead, it was a pretty good game with a lot of depth and development, innovating in several areas including the role of companions, voice acting, and fully modularized equipment.  Nevertheless, it couldn't compete with the mature depth of WoW.  Within 6 months, it looked to be on life support.

At the same time, an intellectual revolt was happening within the gaming community.  Many players, bloggers, and community lightening rods were moving on.  They didn't have a particular destination but they knew that they were tired of WoW and were ready for a change.  They wanted SWTOR to be that destination and were disappointed when it didn't feel that way. What they realized was that no game was ever going to be the Valhalla they sought.

That experience taught them to temper their expectations.  Maybe a new MMO doesn't have to be a fantastic and life-changing experience.  Maybe it doesn't have to elevate your game playing to a new level of existence.  Instead, maybe it can tell a new story in an interesting way that will keep you entertained and cause you to think about the world slightly differently.  Maybe a different voice, offering a different narrative, can be valuable enough to enrich your life on its own merit.

My paradigm has shifted of late.  Before, WoW was a second life (no pun intended) that was designed to be my all.  Something to occupy my every moment of free time.  But then I came to the realization that one single game wasn't going to be able to fulfill that for me.  It's like a book that becomes totally engrossing and speaks directly to something in your soul.  But like all books it comes to an end.  Eventually it will be reborn in a sequel, but until then you can't keep re-reading the final chapter of the book and pretend that it is offering the same experience.

Instead, you now have the freedom to read other books.  And maybe they aren't as well written, or speak as directly to your soul.  But when released from the constraint of a single game, you find that there are many other stories to experience.  Though each one by itself may not be the best, you are better off for having experienced all of them.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

MMO Game Theory

It's taken me eight years or so to come to the realization that different people want different experiences from their MMOs.  Yes, I'm familiar with the now-traditional designation of Achiever, Explorer, Socializer and Killer, but I feel like things break along different pathways as well. To put it frankly, it misses what for me seems to be the main purpose for playing, the core of what MMORPGs can deliver:  the experience of a shared story in a created world.

In fact, I have a hard time fitting the story experience into any of those four categories. So what alarms me is that these four categories are offered as a model for how online games should be designed, to address these four "gamer-types."  If this is indeed the developer's model, I'm going to be rapidly left out in the cold.  

MUD's Player Types

Back in 1996, Bartle wrote a paper describing "the four player types" of online gamers called Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDS.  In this paper, Bartle summarized an online discussion among experienced MUD participants addressing the question "What do people want out of a MUD" and this is where the designation of the four player types appears.  Later, the Bartle test was created to allow players to determine their own type.

It's important to note that Bartle was specifically talking about MUDs, Multi-User Dungeons, which were a key fore-runner of modern MMOs, but actually quite different in practice.   Muds were text-based games based on an interconnected series of rooms.  The major activity was interacting with the room, and the objects it contained, or with other characters. 

One critical difference was in the area of storytelling, which was largely limited to reading room descriptions as the character moved among them and attacked the mobs that resided there.  Most other storylines emerged from social interaction with other users. While there were narrative experiences, MUDs aren't viewed as a primary vehicle for storytelling.  I mention this as a way to explain why there was no reference to narrative in the four activity types.  Players just didn't think of MUDs as a way to tell complex and detailed stories.

TRPG's Gaming Models

If MUDs were the predecessor of the Multiplayer Online part of MMORPG, the other ancestor that completed the name was the Tabletop Roleplaying Game (TRPGs).  Online roleplaying games obviously owe a lot to their tabletop ancestors, notably Dungeons and Dragons.  And what's different here was the tRPGs were viewed as storytelling vehicles.

About the same time that Bartle was summarizing his "player types" discussion, another discussion of roleplaying theory was taking place concerning pen and paper roleplaying games.  What initially emerged was the Threefold Model, suggesting that rpgs were focused on Gaming, Drama, or Simulation.  This discussion led to the GNS model (gaming, narrative, and simulation) as well as GEN (gaming, explorative, narrative). The proponents of each of these models obviously felt that the nuance of meaning provided by their own system was clearly superior, and as these things sometimes have a way of doing on the internet, the whole discussion collapsed in flames and a lot of bitterness before it was all over.

What's interesting is how similar these three systems look from the perspective of twenty year's time.  These models obviously point to the strengths and weaknesses of the tabletop experience:  social interaction was taken for granted since obviously this was a social experience with a group of friends regularly meeting around a table. The social experience wasn't something the game had to regulate, it just took it for granted.  However, how carefully a system modeled a created world was very important and was captured under the Simulation or Environment tag.That rpgs were a method of storytelling was unquestioned in each model, referring to "narrative" or "drama" to refer to exactly that thing.

All of models clearly identified that there was a component of gaming (dice rolling, combat), of simulation (world creation), and of narrative (storytelling).  And game systems, game masters, and players emphasized each of these components differently. 

Contemporary MMOs

So, from a marriage of these two fractious parents we produce the modern MMO RPG.  Neither of the models describing the parents really works perfectly to describe their offspring.  Current MMOs have their own inherent strengths and weaknesses that require a new description.  For example, the task of Simulation is largely taken out of the hands of the players and is handled by the developers.  Modern game engines are so sophisticated that the task of creating a world that the players can interact with is generally taken for granted (in much the same way that socializing was taken for granted with tRPGS). 

On the other hand, the evolution of the MUD into the MMO has given developers many more tools for telling dramatic and deeply moving stories on several levels. 

The first group is the Gamists.  To this player the MMO is most akin to a quick pick-up game after school.  They want to show up at the field at recess and jump into whatever football or basketball game is going on.  They want to play, and they want to compete. This Game might be dueling one-on-one or in a team vs team pvp environment where there are clear winners and losers. Alternatively, the Game might be a raid or dungeon, but then they want to compare dps numbers, they want to compare gear score, they want the feeling of progression.  Interestingly, they don't necessarily have to be killers or achievers.

Gameists generally don't care about story as much as they care about the activity of the moment.  Their method of socializing is to compete with one another.  The jostling and buffeting of competition creates camaraderie and fosters a shared experience that reinforces their sense of accomplishment.

The next group is the Narrativists.  These are the people who want to experience a story.  They want the feeling of being the hero, or even a hero, in a story being told by the world around them.
They want to know the lore, and are willing to take extra time to read, or watch, or explore in order to discover it.  They want isolated story elements to make sense from a larger perspective.  They want character progression of major lore figures to make sense.  The want to experience the story from within, and that means participating as a major character.

These are the people who are affected the most when they feel the main story of the game (expansion, zone) is being told in an area that they are denied access to because it is targeted at someone else.  Namely, that the gamist atmosphere of the raid is not conducive to the experiential atmosphere of the narrativist.  Challenge, for the narrativist, is valuable when it parallels the challenges implicit in the story being told.  In order to defeat the Lich King, a massive effort of mobilization and armoring was required, and that in itself is a story that moves them to participate.  Grinding dungeons seems to break the narrative.  Since you seem to be defeating the same enemy repeatedly, it is like the player is reading the same chapter over and over again.

The other group is the socializers.  These are the people who play mmos as a mechanism to make friends and communicate.  They understand the value of shared experience and shared achievement.  The importance of achieving something is paralleled by the value of achieving it with a group.  A game that lacks the tools for group participation, lacks social features, or introduces mechanisms that artificially divide players (such as enforced solo instances), will not support socializers.

This doesn't mean that they are socially outgoing people, who like to talk and gossip in a stereotypical fashion.  They are equally likely to be introverted or extroverted.  Socializers value the game as a place to interact with other individuals, even if that is only a few close friends.  Socializers could thrive in large guilds, but others could be equally comfortable in a small group of 3 to 5 friends who tackle the same challenges together.

Understandably, socializers value group activities like dungeons or raids, but only when there is a positive social vibe.  Repeatedly running up against failure, something that is accepted and welcomed among gamists, can be a source of frustration and negative feeling among socializers.  Similarly, Narrativists feel frustration because they want to experience the culmination of the story and are concerned that they won't be able to do so.  For them, it is like reading an epic story with the later chapters of the book torn out.

Socializers like daily activities, because it gives them something to do while they socialize, it gives them a topic of conversation to discuss.  It forms the communal effort around which the community coalesces.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Betrayal and The Gaming Contract

There are really three parallel questions to be answered:
  1. Compatibility. Do the developer’s goals for the game coincide with what I want out of the game?
  2. Performance.  Is the developer competent to create and manage the ongoing game experience?
  3. Trust.  Can I trust the developers to provide me with information that is timely and reliable.

Very often when people complain about a game, they are complaining about one of these three categories.  Successful developers do all of these things well.

Compatability   (or, These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…)
Compatibility means that the developer is making a game I want to play.  There’s no point in complaining about the shortcomings of a game when the developer had no intention of creating the kind of game you’re looking for.  No amount of pleading will make SWTOR a vehicle combat game.  If WoW: Pandaria is all about dailies and faction rep, demanding that it provide 10 levels of questing content is missing the point. 

Not surprisingly, this tends to be the biggest source of player-complaints about games.  The devs aren't making the mmorpg that I want to play, therefore they are doing it wrong.  The recent trend with MMOs is toward more diversification and niche-development, so if a given game isn't for you, there ought to be many others to try.

The key here is that the developers have to communicate clearly what kind of game they are providing. They get into trouble when they try to be all things to all people, or when they seem to promise something that they really have no intention of delivering.

What’s more frustrating is when a developer has a stated goal for a game that they just can’t get to work.  They’re doing exactly what I want, our desires coincide perfectly, they just can’t get it right.

Open world PvP in SWTOR comes to mind.  The designers had ambitious plans for the planet Ilum but they could never get things to work as they wanted to, and in the end have all but closed down the place, opting instead to push warzones as their working PvP experience.

This last category is harder to define.    Players spend a good deal of time with a game.  Success in an MMO requires a commitment of time and money, of negotiating with family, and balancing work or school responsibilities.  And MMO's are based around systems that delay gratification to a great degree.  Players need to trust the makers of the game that all this time and delayed gratification will ultimately pay off with a reward in player satisfaction.

MMOs aren't games that you can jump into and experience at all levels, they require time in game, prior planning, careful management of resources, developing relationships with fellow players.  Players make decisions that have ramifications that play out weeks and months into the future.  I must choose to grind dungeons now, for tokens to buy gear, that allow me access to raids and other high end content months down the road.   MMOs are fundamentally based on players' decisions to guide the development of their characters.

When players choose an MMO, they are very aware of this gaming overhead.  It's part of what makes the genre so appealing, but also part of what makes players so prone to voicing their opinions in the first place, and ultimately wary to commit time to a game when they aren't sure of the outcome.
When they discover that their effort has been wasted, or that sub-optimal decisions have been made, players feel ill used.  When this happens because the devs led them to believe one thing was going to happen when something far different was really intended all along, they feel betrayed.  Players need to be able to rely on what the developers are telling them.  Without trust in the developers, players can’t feel confident in making any decisions

And this feeling of trust must be present in their other two relationships with Developers as well.  They feel lied to when developers rely on half-truths to avoid revealing their lack of performance. 
Players feel betrayed when the design goals of the game seem to change dramatically leading to a loss of compatibility.

The Elder Grind and the Incredible Shrinking World

It’s like eating ice cream.  On most any occasion, ice cream is an excellent thing.  When you eat an ice cream cone after a hot day in the sun, it gives you a rush of exhilaration that refreshes you.  Sitting down to a banana split for the first time can be an eye-opening and very satisfying experience.

But, as usual, if you eat ice cream for a while, it becomes ordinary.  The rush is gone.   So you try to find ways to intensify the experience again.  You might give yourself a huge serving and try to eat a quart at a time, or crank up the intensity with a double fat Ben and Jerry’s chocolate espresso,  or eat it twice as fast, nearly inhaling it in your enthusiasm.  MMO participation, recently, has taken on these same qualities.

It’s like 7-Eleven on a hot day and trying to slam down a 44 oz Slurpee, but only ending up with a brain freeze.  Or worse, like a drug addict increasing the dose to get the same high.  People have leveled to end game in 20 hours or less.  And then complained about the resulting burn-out and let down when having reached it.  Soon, they are leaving to find another game so they can repeat the process.

There is nothing at endgame. Or rather, what’s at endgame is vastly different from the game that preceded it.  This is where things stop being like a novel and start being more like Mario. 

Ideally for me, when I play the questing game it is as if I am a character in a fantasy novel, living out the stories in each zone.  I'm experiencing the collaborative narrative that the player and the game designer make together. 

At end-game, however, this dynamic changes. You transition from the developing story slowly unwinding before you, to a place where you are mostly doing repetitive tasks:  grinding the same instances, raiding the same bosses, completing the same daily quests.  This mode of existence is more like an arcade game, repeating the same levels of Mario over and over, multiple times per week.  It’s like being required to play the same 5 levels of Angry Birds every day.  This is what bloggers mean when they refer to MMORPGs being “gamified”.  The balance has switched from Role Playing to Game.

And this is literally what many players said they wanted.  This is the logical result of disparaging the leveling and questing game as “grinding.”  They found it tedious to level yet another character to 90, and so Blizzard minimized that portion of the game.  Leveling became quick and easy.  Annoying challenges were removed, whole zones were rendered unnecessary.  Heirloom gear, referral bonuses, and now xp potions all conspire to accelerate your travel to end game and the elder grind.

There was a time when you could find characters of all levels within a guild, questing and exploring and grouping for mid-level dungeons.  Now, I would guess that 75% of active characters are at max level, and another 20% are the alts of max level players.  There’s no need for someone to ask the guild for help on a tricky quest, no need to ask advice on where to find this piece of armor or locate that herb.  You’ll outlevel this or that item in a matter of hours so why worry about it?

The overall effect of this is to compress the game into the singularity of the maximum level.  World of Warcraft, after 4 expansions, has vast spaces to travel but the actual size of the game has become smaller.  Our collective vision has narrowed to a few capital cities and a few zones in Pandaria.  Nothing else really matters.  And this is true even as I try to level new characters.  Crickets and tumbleweeds are my only companions in Netherstorm or Grizzly Hills or Deepholm.  And even I find myself returning to the capitals periodically.  New starting areas are now once-only zones, restricted to specific races.

Instead of playing World of Warcraft, I'm really playing a game called Mists of Pandaria.   Rather than an expansion, it is more truly a sequel.