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.