What I’m Playing

Just a brief update about the games I’m playing, some of which might motivate me to use this space in the future.

I have not played much Wizard101 since my previous post.  I generally leave it up to Beans as to when I play that — meaning if she is playing, I will too, but I’m not likely to go in on my own.  But I’m betting we’ll go back in together by mid-October.

I have not been in GW2 since the LFG tool and Taco the Dragon update, haven’t even downloaded it.

I have played a lot of Saints Row IV, which some might find horrendously sexist, but I just find terribly funny.  It’s fun, though it really doesn’t scratch that Saints Row or GTA itch — the Matrix-like abilities make driving cars sort of pointless, and for whatever reason, much of my fun in these games has come from cruising at street level, listening to the “radio,” and getting to know the roads and paths.  There’s no compelling reason to learn my way around the city when it is a very simple matter to launch into the air and sail over all the obstacles.

I tried to play Age of Wushu.  I downloaded the installer and it ran just fine, but when it was done the game would only give me an error and not launch.  My system should run it without trouble, so I assume there was an error in the installation.  I uninstalled it and have not yet been motivated to try again.

I’ve strongly debated investing in Star Citizen, but I think I need to upgrade my computer.  The hanger module is unlikely to run well on this system, so I find it likely the game will crap out too.  But upgrading might be on the horizon for me.

I played through Lego Harry Potter, years 1 – 4.  When I played through Lego Star Wars, years back, I felt compelled to go back and explore the areas that cannot be reached the first time through.  I have not felt any urge to do that with this game.  But I haven’t uninstalled it either, so perhaps I’ll be back.

Every once in awhile, I pull up a game of FTL or Don’t Starve and get my Rogue-like on.  Usually more FTL than Don’t Starve, but I’ve started running out of goals for FTL.  Don’t Starve is in development, so changes give me reason to come back.

Sometimes, I play a round of Hearts on Windows.

MMOs aren’t dominating my game time in any way shape or form, and I’ve actually spent much more time reading or writing than gaming lately, which is probably a good thing.  I’ll find something compelling and multiplayer eventually though, and I will write the crap out of it.

Mass Effect 3: Initial Impressions

I have not broken my vow to not buy mainstream games with lots of DLC until the GotY addition with the DLC comes along for cheaper than $60.  But a nice friend lent me his Xbox (mine no longer works) and the game for the time it will take for one play though.

I wanted to hate it.  I was prepared to hate it.  And since a lot of the controversy seems to be about the ending (for which I have mostly avoided spoilers, so don’t be that douche), I’m still prepared to be let down.

But I don’t hate the game.  If I’m disappointed at all, I’m less disappointed than  I was for ME2 — the conversion from RPG to action game already happened.  At least the third game has mechanics consistent with the second game — while I was pretty pissed off that they planned a trilogy but shifted its core mechanics from one genre to another back at the second game’s release, I’m used to it by now.

I find it very strange, however, that there is an option to turn off dialogue decisions.  Was there really people saying, “Gee, those Mass Effect games look fun, but having to make decisions that might affect the game scares me.  I’d much rather sit passively and watch cut scenes with no choices or even the illusion of choice.”  Honestly, if anyone that reads this blog chose to turn off the dialogue options, please explain to me what attracted you to the ME games to begin with.  Although the choices were often illusions and often had less impact than I expected, they still advertised the series as being about tough choices.  Why turn them off?  Why even give us the option to turn them off?

I can understand some of the rage not related to the ending — EAware truly seems to have dropped its core fan base in order to sell a few thousand more copies.  Only time will tell, but the hit to customer trust and loyalty might make those increased sales truly counter-productive.

But I’m having fun, and that’s ultimately what matters to me.  I’m only about 20 hours in, and there seems to be at least one game mechanic that I still do not have access to; however, I find myself interested in the story.  That’s more than I could say about ME2, where absolutely nothing surprised me or really moved me emotionally.  Oh, my whole ship’s crew was captured?  Who cares, I knew nothing about most of them to begin with.  Even at an early point in this game, the writers have, on more than one occasion, made me care about minor characters and what happens to them.  That’s an accomplishment of sorts.

I had said somewhere at some point that if Bioware screwed this one up as much as DA2, if they filled it with generic writing and irritating characters (my feelings about SWTOR in a nutshell), if they made it as vastly different from ME2 as that game was to the original, I was done with Bioware — but so far, Bioware will still be getting my business, and sometime in the future I will purchase the game for PC.  I played through the others three times each—twice each on XBox and once more each on PC—so if the ending doesn’t leave me pissed, I will want to play through the PC version an extra time or two.

Well, Bioware, so far we’re still cool.  Barely.

The Basic Argument of All My Writing about Games: Change is Inevitable

I’m going to reiterate this argument another time, as explicitly as possible, so in the future I can just link people here rather than have any more wonderful comment wars that eventually lead to me dismissing my opponent as a small-minded idiot.  Such might not be a fair conclusion for me to reach, but if you’ve read my About page, you should already be aware that I’m not going to apologize for perceiving people that oppose this argument as small-minded idiots.  Not very nice of me, I know, but it’s not because I’m a sandbox sociopath—there are very few MMO games in which I actively participated in, never mind enjoyed, PvP—it’s just because I’ve reached a point in life where dealing with what I perceive as a frustrating set of assumptions is no longer part of my job description (and for the sake of world peace, hopefully never will be again), and I no longer have the patience required to *headdesk* politely.

I might as well let people know up front that they’re pushing a very heavy rock up a vertical cliff.

The argument is simple, no amount of any kind of evidence allows any one to say “this is what people want and all they will ever want” or “that isn’t what is popular recently so it never will be.”  At the very basic level, such statements require not only identifying trends in marketing or gaming culture, but they require assuming that these trends will continue on to infinity.  They also require assuming that the medium which the products operate on will never change — and this triple-processor, 1 terabyte hard drive, 4 gigs of RAM with two HD monitors, while not top of the line even when it was purchased, would certainly have a thing or two to say about changing mediums to the 486 DOS machine that was handed down to be my first personal, as opposed to family, computer.

I don’t just apply this to the MMO genre — I apply this to every industry, every task, every minute facet of life that currently utilizes information technology.   For any that look into the past to justify predictions of the future, I find it absurd to not reach the same conclusion — at any point in the last 50 years any prediction based on current trends, marketing, and product popularity that attempted to limit the future would have been wrong.

But let’s apply this directly to MMOs.  The MMO genre has existed anywhere from 15 – 30 years.  The MMO-as-we-know-it is closer to 15 than 30 years old — going back 30 years generally requires accepting precursors that wouldn’t be called MMOs today.  The theme park structure (as-we-know-it of course) has only existed for about 7 years — prior to that many of the characteristics existed in EQ, but WoW (and to some extent EQ2) set the standards for that structure.

That means that in 15 years since the birth of a genre, we have seen one major change.   To assume that such a change is permanent and to perceive that change as a step on an evolutionary scale that will only travel one direction is unsupportable.  Even if information technology was never going to improve beyond what we have today, predictions based on trends have little strength given the youth of the genre and the long shelf-life of individual games.  WoW is just now seeing a decline after releasing 7 years ago — in what other video gaming genre do we frequently see games still at the top of popularity 7 years after release?  The genre has only seen two or three possibilities of structures released on a large scale — I certainly find it small-minded to imagine that there will never be anything new under the sun after such a short time.

Even icebergs travel, if but slowly.  The MMO genre has not been around long enough to determine its rate of travel, not even long enough to determine the direction of travel, or if there even is one.

Calling people “small-minded idiots” is unproductive at best, I know.  But I don’t look at “never” comments as hyperbolic.  Or at least, I see them so frequently as responses on news articles and blogs about MMOs that the possibility that some might be hyperbolic slips my mind.  And there’s the whole “my sub-genre is better than you sub-genre” trend that I just refuse to be part of.  I am not a proponent of any particular sub-genre.  I am a proponent of inevitable change.  I will play Guild Wars 2 not because I think it is a return to the sandbox, but because I think it will, at least in some ways, offer up something different than the repeated structure that other games have continuously put forth — many of which have failed.   In the process, I think that gamers’ assumptions, designers’ assumptions, and the assumptions of investors and publishers will slowly become meaningless, much as they have for other genres, much as they have for video games as a whole, much as they have for everything that has ever depended on information technology in any way, since the first home computer became a reality.

I can recall a time I was about 5 or so years old when my parents and I would have high score competitions—pinning the top results to the fridge—playing River Raid on an Atari.  Nearly nothing about that experience applies to the games of today.  I think in another 30 years, we’ll be looking back and realizing that nothing about the games of 2012 predicted anything about the games of 2042.

I hope to live a long life.  I’m in my thirties now, and I don’t find it a stretch to imagine I could still be alive and gaming in my eighties.  Any prediction involving “never” or “always” or “must be” or “cannot be” will seem like small-thinking to me, as it is my own assumption that whomever is using such words is looking at the immediate future and refusing to acknowledge that the immediate future is only a small slice of what is possible.

A Group of Overlooked Gamers

There’s a group of gamers that I’ve identified among my own friends that I think is rarely talked about.  And I’m not really going to talk about them — I’m going to describe them instead.

In my experience, this group generally is made of people in their early 30s.  Now since I happen to be in my early 30s and so are many of the people I know, that may or may not be significant.  But the reason I mention it is because they all were introduced to gaming in the 80s.  At some point in the late 90s, they stopped gaming, for whatever reasons.  If you did them right, your 20s and late teens should be a blur anyways, so they probably can’t remember the reasons.

But now they’ve come back.  And they bought Wiis.  That makes a lot of gamers dismiss them as “casuals,” but they’re not.  You’ll see.

They play a lot platformers and the Nintendo staples such as Mario Kart.  They will play shooters — most of them played Doom if not Wolfenstein after all — but they have no interest in anything resembling story or plot.  They skip it immediately, the instant the scene starts, every single time.  They don’t even understand that there are games where doing that kills the point of playing the game.  One of these friends tried out Alan Wake on my Xbox — I can’t remember what  I was doing, but I wasn’t watching him play for most of the time.  When I did come back, I watched him skip one of my favorite cuts without even giving it a moment. When I asked why, he told me he didn’t want to watch a movie.  That games were about playing, not listening, about running and jumping and shooting and dying, but not about watching.  Eventually he had turned it off and was doing some multiplayer in Snoopy’s Flying Ace (XBLA), I asked if he didn’t like Alan Wake.  He said, it’s all right, just didn’t feel the need to go any further.  But don’t you want to know what happens next?  What happens next is that I shine a light at another shadow guy and kill him in the woods, right?

While that’s true enough, I felt like we weren’t even talking about the same game.

But oh, they may like games that others dismiss as casual, but there is nothing casual about the way I’ve seen these guys play Wii.  They commit to games, defeating platformer levels that seem intentionally designed to only be successful if you’re lucky.  They uncover all the hidden little items, and they do not turn to the internet to find out what they are.  They die over and over and over and keep playing that level.

And the more I watch them, the more they remind me of me in 1990.

So what do we call these gamers that the gaming world has mostly abandoned?  Retro hardcore?

The Bane of Innovation: Gamers

I’m finding it hard to write this post without sounding like I’m bragging.  So let me just get it out of the way: I do indeed  think I’m pretty awesome, and I do happen to know that I’m pretty damn smart.  Moving on.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the lack of innovation in many of the recent major MMO releases.  I certainly do not doubt that pressure comes from the investors — I suspect many venture capitalists have never played the successful MMOs they desire to emulate, but they are likely familiar with them.  And I find it possible that they make the mistake of equating “hasn’t been done” or “hasn’t been done successfully” with “shouldn’t be done” or the even worse “can’t be done.”

But I don’t think we can place the blame entirely on these theoretical spoilsports.  I think we can place just as much blame on the inability of many gamers to stretch their thinking, on a tendency to simply assume something couldn’t or shouldn’t be done and then to insist that their feeling is universally true.  There seems to be a number of gamers that simply lack imagination.

Even as I write that, I find it an odd feeling, especially given recent research that shows a correlation between young gamers and creativity (pick an article, any article).  Then again, maybe creativity and imagination aren’t words describing the exact same thing.  I can conceive a person who can write very creative fan fiction about Jedis and Sith yet cannot create an original universe from scratch.  Perhaps innovation requires both of these traits.  Or perhaps I’m way off — but my purpose here is not to nitpick over words.

But I keep encountering gamers who get their minds in ruts and then assert that rut is all there can be, while speaking in absolutes such as “never” and “always.”   There’s only one absolute that I find absolutely true: absolutes are never true.

And here’s where the “I’m so awesome” part comes into play.  For example, with the upcoming changes to housing in Glitch, I’ve pointed out in a number of places, including this blog, that one of the major issues with housing is that it is linked to particular physical locations.  And while I actually like that, it causes some issues for the devs.  Locations and styles sell out, forcing the devs to pay attention and add more, and causing irritation among players who feel as if they are settling for second best when they didn’t get that house in region whatever with all their friends.   But I keep running into players saying things like: “I’m sure even if we can’t keep our current house, we’ll be able to keep our address.”  At first, I sort of dismissed these comments as likely only coming from people who were quite satisfied with their current location, but eventually I started also noting people that did not want to keep their current address and were worried that others would not be forced to move and as a result, the regions they prefer would not open up.

These realizations guided me into a *facepalm* moment.  Was it not apparent to everyone else that the fixed addresses were clearly part of the problem of the current system so that any system they might imagine with a fixed address was just not thinking big enough?  Am I really that much smarter and awesomer that what I perceive as obvious might be a stretch to everyone else?

Probably not.  But what I am willing to do is to throw everything I already know about a system off the table and start over.  And it turns out I’m right — this thought is no longer speculative but verified by the big man himself.

I don’t actually think I’m that much smarter (though I am probably awesomer, deal with it), but I think this was a clear example of gamers in a rut assuming that rut was the only option.  Glitch houses have street addresses, and Glitch houses have always had street addresses.  Glitch housing blocks are accessed from the main world of Glitch and always have been.  The idea that these basic characteristics might change never occurred to them.  They never analyzed the assumptions that created the walls of that rut though they did attempt to be creative within the confines of those walls.

As another example, a recent Daily Grind column on Massively touched briefly on the idea of permadeath.  Many commenters immediately jumped in with the absolutes, making statements such as “permadeath could never be fun,” “no game could ever be interesting with permadeath,” etc. etc.  But again, I find these statements to be failures to examine their assumptions about MMOs.  I imagine these conclusions result from consciously or unconsciously asking “How would I feel if my character in [WoW/SWTOR/Eve/any current game] was permanently deleted when he died?”   And I think that they’re right to answer that question to themselves by assuming it would be terrible and that it would ruin the game.  Especially with current theme park offerings, the only thing that playing the game changes is the actual character, so a loss of that character would be the same as never playing.

Instead, with the permadeath issue, I think the question should be: “What set of circumstances could I imagine in which permadeath would be fun or add to the experience.”  And when I ask myself that question, with the basic assumption that it would be possible, I do find answers.

I can see it working as a control on ganking in an open PvP game: imagine an Eve in which killing players in low sec or suicide ganking in high sec not only leads to a low security clearance, but eventually leads to being denied cloning facilities.  Most players would have no fear of permadeath, but pirates would be knowingly choosing that risk.  And then there would be a built-in punishment for (unsuccessful) piracy, and a huge deterrent to suicide ganking.  I wouldn’t place this into Eve as is, but I can imagine an Eve-like game launching with this feature and being incredibly praise-worthy for trying it.  I imagine it would even expand the audience of the game — carebears (a group I am often a member of) and the not-so-hardcore PvPers might find such a mechanic more attractive than the (nearly) anything goes world of Eve or Darkfall.

I also think this could be an interesting mechanic in any game where characters’ actions have lasting effects on the game world rather than only on the character himself.  I can imagine a game where I can build a house, work the land, and fight off wild animals.  In that same game, I can imagine wooing a virtual spouse and having virtual children, then growing old and dying.  One of my children could be my heir, and my new controlled character, and the rest could filter into an NPC town and serve as potential virtual spouses for other players.  Something along these lines might be the reason why permadeath is going to be a launch feature of Salem — what you do with the world around you may very well be more interesting than the character you do it with.

Perhaps investors are behind the drive to produce more of the same under a different title.  But if they are paying attention to the things gamers say about games, to the questions gamers ask themselves when faced with an innovative concept, I can’t really blame them.  Clearly, gamers often fail to ask themselves how a game could be built around an odd or “hated” mechanic, and instead only ask themselves what that mechanic would feel like in the games they are already familiar with.

The former question is often fascinating to ponder; the latter question is quite often useless.

Saturday Morning Snark: A Source of Noob Bashing

Just a theory, and perhaps this only explains some instances of more veteran players mocking newbies though personally it is the only time I’ve ever been tempted to be a sarcastic jerk (failure to resist may occur but is generally rare): one reason why that “noob” question might elicit more derision than direction is that just by asking the question, just by even being in the game or on the forums, you’ve demonstrated access to the tools needed to answer that question for yourself.  Somewhere along the way you’ve acquired a feeling of helplessness in the face of uncertainty, and you are shifting your burden on to others, hoping they already have the information or will find it for you.  Of course, if they do help you, they are not really helping you, as they should probably direct you to a wiki or some other useful source that will not only answer your current question but any future questions as well.

They’d even do better by sending you here.

Defining Sandbox: Part 1

Words are hard.  Here I am, a person who communicates continuously via the written word and is paid to craft words for others, and I know that despite my “expertise,” most of what I’ve written in my lifetime, if not all of it, can be misunderstood or interpreted from angles I did not imagine while writing.  Jargon is both a boon and a bane: although it allows people from the same fields to quickly communicate complicated ideas, people from different fields may use the same word to mean different things.  But the worst jargon comes in young fields, such as gaming criticism, where it seems assumed that “everyone knows” what it means without any discussion.

So have I justified talking about the meaning of the word “sandbox” in gaming and in the growing lexicon of mmo jargon?  Since I’m already writing this, I’ll go with the answer most convenient for me: yes.   So how do we define sandbox?  How is it being used out there?

Searching google for “define sandbox mmo,” the first relevant hit I come across is this hub page. The author, Tahamtan, equates sandbox games with freedom of choice.  He goes on to more details, including the claim that the players make the rules rather than developers, and specifics such as classless skill systems and customizable appearances, some of which I agree with and some seem optional at best and otherwise completely arbitrary.   I strongly agree with the freedom of choice bit, but I don’t think that’s enough detail to eliminate games that are commonly called theme parks.  I found a second blog post attempting to explain a personal definition of sandbox, but he focuses even more on the details than this first author.  And most of those details are lifted straight from UO.  UO is certainly a sandbox, at least everyone who has played it seems to think so, but I’m more interested in creating a definition of sandbox that includes any MMO generally agreed to be a sandbox (Ultima Online, SWG pre-NGE, Eve, Darkfall, Wurm Online, and such) while excluding any games generally agreed to be theme parks (WoW, Rift, Warhammer, etc.)

Sandbox games can certainly be said to depend on freedom of choice, but to what extent is freedom of choice limited in a theme park?   There’s a common argument about WoW that claims WoW offers choice despite generally being considered a theme park by most mmo bloggers and reviewers.  And it is certainly true that there are options available in WoW.  Although the most common path is to follow quests, players can choose to ignore the quests and grind mobs.  Players could also put together a regular group to crawl instances or exclusively use the dungeon finder and complete instances with PUGs.  At a certain point, though I cannot recall when, PvP becomes another viable option.

Similarly, WoW does allow for players to choose the zones they visit.  Once getting out of your racial start zone, there are frequently multiple options about where to go next.  There is not a single clear path that forces everyone to be in the same zone for the same level like there is in Forsaken World.  So with all these choices, why does the general consensus firmly place WoW in the theme park column?

Because all of these choices come with obvious limitations.  Although there are options about how to play, all of those options reach the same end: leveling your character and acquiring better equipment.  No matter how someone plays WoW, the goal remains the same.  Even when I imagine a player that gets joy primarily from exploration, visiting every in-game location still requires leveling up and getting new equipment.  Locations are designed for certain level ranges, and while there may not be something stopping a player from visiting higher level zones, players are not able to explore and survive unless they are in the right range for that zone.  The choice of where and how to level is governed by the character’s level throughout the game.  No matter what a player focuses on, leveling and new equipment will either be the end result or a necessary step along the way.

When I look at a sandbox, I find it more difficult to generalize all the goals with a single end as I have with WoW.  Although I have heard it said that the goal is still more power, the difference is in the definition of power.  In WoW, power will nearly always refer to character level and gearscore.  Some might describe power as the amount of gold they possess, but again this goal is governed by character level (higher levels acquire more gold and more valuable crafting materials) and just like character level, there is even a cap that forces players to cease pursuing gold as a game goal.

So far the difference between a sandbox and a theme park MMO seems related to choice, the nature of those choices, and the limitations placed on those choices.  This is far from the complete definition I’m searching for that clearly defines sandbox while excluding theme parks.  But this blog is the longest I’ve written so far, and if anyone is still reading I’m amazed and impressed.  Next, I will take a closer look at how “gaining power” is not a sufficient generalization for goals in a sandbox, or at the very least, how many different ways one can define “gaining power,” all while continuing to work toward a meaningful definition of sandbox.

No promises as to when, I still have a draft of WoW Hate Explained Pt. 1 to finish, and I started thinking about that months ago.