Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Rewards of Loot

There seem to be two standard ways that loot rewards are distributed in most RPG’s; completely random dispersals and the use of level, or progression, based dispersals.

The major reason for using random dispersal seems to be that this method allows all players a chance to access all item content. Player skill and time played does not limit anyone in their ability to see and use item content. The use of extremely low drop percentages coupled with normal distribution frequencies for rare items does lead to some kind of association between time played and chances of getting phat loot, but luck is still the major factor. The biggest problem that random dispersal has is that it actually encourages players to farm rats until their eyeballs bleed rather than challenge the MOB content at their own current level.

The reasoning behind progressive drops is that as a player progresses through a game their desire for better loot is the carrot that leads them through the game content. If players want the uber-level sword, then they have to come into the new area we spent time creating, as those rats in the noob-level will never give you more than a wooden sword. The problem with progressive distribution is that it quickly leads to a game based solely on loot acquisition; and as new content is added, new uber-gear must be created, ensuring a permanent arms race and division between the haves and have-nots.

While neither system is perfect, they each still attract true-believers willing to adhere to their own flawed system because their system is not as flawed as the other one. Even attempts to blend the two systems were tepid at best. The use of percentiles to determine what preset loot a MOB will drop, but creating that list based on the MOB’s progressive level, leads to mind-numbing grinds within the framework of a loot chase.

Perhaps this is where video games could learn from other game types. The revolution that Magic the Gathering created came about by merging the addiction of collectable cards with an easy-to-learn hard-to-master fantasy adventure game. Could scarcity, or even collect-ability, be merged with random dispersal or with progressive dispersal? What about all three?

MOBs could drop colored tokens based loosely on their levels, or even use percentiles to determine what perset tokens a MOB would drop based loosely on MOB level. These tokens could then be exchanged for like colored “chests”. Each chest would contain one or more items from a designed “set” of items that would loosely correlate to that color’s level. Each colored set of items would contain a concrete number of common, uncommon and rare items. Multiple copies of the same sets could be placed into the game, much as multiple decks of cards are used in a Blackjack shoe. And as with Blackjack, once a certain amount of chests had been taken from the colored sets “shoe” in-game, all remaining chests are discarded and a new “shoe” is inserted.

Players would then have the choice of trading in their colored tokens not only for like colored chests, but could trade-down in order to obtain lower leveled (or colored) chests for the same amount of tokens it would take to obtain their similar leveled/colored chests. Players could also be given the option to save up their tokens and purchase a chest one color, or tier, above the tokens associated color/level.
Continue reading 'The Rewards of Loot'

The Scarcity of Pragmatism

Scarcity is a fundamental part of economic value. Diminishing returns is also irrefutable when examining economic systems, and the value of certain items in any given economic system. So why is it that most players, and the games they play, try to either ignore or control these two principles? While scarcity can be controlled to an extent, diminishing returns is more problematic, yet the two are rarely considered two parts of a whole.

While a great steak dinner has intrinsic nutritional value, most humans would grow to dislike steak if forced to eat only steak for years on end, regardless of its scarcity. Likewise, personal like or dislike for said steak dinners should not be based on how many of your neighbors are also eating steak, but personal like or dislike of a BMW would be affected by how many BMW’s are being driven by said neighbors.

We desire variation as an inhibitor to diminishing returns, and this desire for variation allows us to construct personal definitions based on our whims and desires. But our desire for variation is also determined in part by scarcity. This intimate balance of scarcity and desire for variation is what most games are not acknowledging.

Creating six similar variations of an ultimate weapon would not be difficult, and would be a much better than creating six copies of the same weapon, yet for some reason we always end up with the later. Variations need not be complex; equal DPS with variant min/max damage ranges, simple visible graphic changes, and/or skill based buffs as opposed to attribute based buffs are all easy solutions.

What game designers need to accept is that they are not arguing that this scarcity/variety relationship is healthy, or even that it should exist. They merely have to accept that it does, and then design their economies around it. Utopian ideas about consumerism, capitalism and greed need to be ignored when contemplating a game. Debate the merits of those factors in real life if you have to, but accept them as evil truths when designing a game economy.

Continue reading 'The Scarcity of Pragmatism'

Egocentric Ignorance

I have noticed that although I own and love games of all kinds, this blog has concentrated on video games over all other types. Part of this is just due to the vast amount of information available on video games compared to the other genres, but the real reason is my own personal lack of playing anything but video games for the past year or so.

This does not mean my interests only lie in video games. I actually enjoy almost all versions of games, and believe that video game developers (and players) can learn a lot from chess, Monopoly and Mag-Blast if they would only play them more.

Finding table-top, board and/or card games (and the gamers needed to play said games) in my area has been difficult, and so my recent experiences have been limited to video games, the reason for the blogs’ unintended bias.
Continue reading 'Egocentric Ignorance'

Crafty Solutions

I have always enjoyed the side-track of crafting in most RPG’s, be it SWG or table-top D&D. As the internet becomes saturated with MMO-wiki’s the challenge for new games to create intricate and challenging crafting mini-games is daunting. How can new games give their players the ability to ‘invent’ or craft new items by trial and error? Once a recipe is ‘invented’ anyone with Google can get the specifics, negating the need to spend time, resources and creativity in pursuit of crafting.

Adding a random chance into basic A+B+C recipes leads to grinding, not invention. Nerfing the best gear available to be crafted, in order to limit min-maxing of wiki-recipes, in turn nerfs crafting altogether. Is there a middle ground? Can intricate and original crafting systems exist in today’s environment of infinite-wikis?

Once thing that has intrigued me recently has been the use of Communification to solve some of these problems, and it might be used to help fix crafting. What if an MMO were to embrace it’s own Wiki, and incorporate it into the game by allowing ‘sub-classes’ for content generating players within a framework that rewards them for accuracy and censors the use of spoilers.

Another angle would be the inclusion of a recipe for each non-unique item in the game. With each specific item, proprietary rights could be granted to the first player to decipher the recipe, with item rarity determining how many players could ‘learn’ the recipe before it can not be ‘learned’ by anyone else.

The use of random chance could even be tweaked to diminish the need for grinding and increase the desire to experiment. If a diminishing percent of success was used for crafting an item each time a copy of that item was made by any and all players, recipes would be hoarded and kept secret by those who put effort into discovering the recipe.

Any (and all of) these quick thoughts do rely on the addition of content on a regular basis. When new content is added, even low level items should be changed, even if just the name and recipe, if not in stats and graphics. This would not only keep players testing and experimenting, but it would also regularly invalidate most of the independent wiki-spoilers that are sure to appear.

Continue reading 'Crafty Solutions'

Classless Talent

Traditional Class roles for fantasy adventure stories have been stagnant for almost seventy years. The old class standbys of Healer, Magic User and Warrior along with racial templates for Elves, Dwarves and Humans have been adopted by RPG’s with almost religious devotion. With little exception have these basic ideas been changed, and familiarity breeds intuitive understanding. While the differences between D&D and WoW exist, most players who have never played WoW but have some D&D table-top experience would be able to recognize the class divisions with ease.

As WoW has shown, traditional use of class and race can work, but the vast complexities of modern video games are making balancing these multiple classes much harder. While I personally disagree with change for change’s sake, the current use of classes, and their respective talents in regards to balance issues, makes me wonder if there is a better way.

The current system seems to perpetually nerf and buff specific class talents with each update, hoping for the illusion of balance by continuous change. One solution to this constant need to tweak is to remove talents from a game, leaving only core class abilities. I understand that removing all talents from a game would not be as apocalyptic as it appears, as very few games offer all available class talent trees in such a balanced way as to see all branches used in the same frequency. Often, these talent tree paths are instead min-maxed to death, and you simply choose the best PvE or PvP talent tree available to your class based on your preference of PvE or PvP.

The removal of talents would not really solve this illusion of choice though. Even without talents, traditional class roles would still force players to adopt a specific role central to group play, with the only real choice being PvE or PvP speced.

What has intrigued me is the idea of retaining talents, but removing classes from a game. If talents were comparable to weapons, meaning they were created and balanced based on each other as opposed to their intended class roles, we would add some real choices into character progression. Limiting how deep or wide each character explores the different talent trees would become a completely personal choice for each gamer, without artificially limiting their access to talent tree content with class barriers.

Continue reading 'Classless Talent'

Despite the Intent

Unanticipated events have severely limited my ability to post in the past month. While all of those events are not completely resolved, the major obstacles have been dealt with. Even without internet access, I have found myself unable to completely abandon this blog, and have quite a few hand-written posts that I will type out and post as quickly as possible. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Continue reading 'Despite the Intent'

Sunday, March 2, 2008

OT: Frontline: Fuel of War review

A buddy of mine just reviewed 'Frontline: Fuel of War.

While this game is not my normal type, I have to admit I at least tracked down the demo, and gave it a spin. Continue reading 'OT: Frontline: Fuel of War review'

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Limited Variety

Leiavoia’s ‘Strategy Game Designer’s Constitution’ is one of those rare sources that I keep going back to. It is, for an addict like me, one of those rare documents that I have printed out multiple times, defacing each hardcopy with highlights and scribbled notes.

The idea that strategy games should offer less variety with more choices is one of my favorite points. It sounds counter-intuitive at first, especially as hardware and software advances have allowed developers to increase complexity exponentially. But as with most great philosophical puzzles, this one blooms the more it is considered.

What I find so compelling about this idea is that it is not just a mantra to be used in Strategy games, but can be applied to almost any game genre.

If we would take a simple racing sim, for example, and give our players only the ability to accelerate and break, we are offering two variations of input, but almost unlimited choices.

We can also apply this mantra to DPS systems by introducing a static progression based on level, not uber-gear epics. One standard DPS value for all weapons at a certain level might sound like limited variety and limited choice, but by simply altering the damage range of each unique weapon type (minimum-maximum damage range), we keep the variety down, but expand player choices again.

The reduction of variables not only makes the production of the game easier, but also allows for some elegant solutions to most balance issues. The only genre I have not found an elegant translation for has been Crafting/Economy sims, but do not blame the law, blame the lawyer.
Continue reading 'Limited Variety'

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Principle of Elegance

The concept of balanced mechanics fascinates me. Core game mechanics, based on flexible yet static rules, which would react to each other in scaled perfection, are the Holy Grails of my obsession. In short, Elegance.

I am well aware that blind faith, more than factual conclusions, allows me to believe that elegant core mechanics can co-exist with each other, but that does not dim my philosophical obsession. Simplicity in games can lead to some very elegant core mechanics, but it is when complexity is added to games that we tend to lose elegance.

Why is so little effort put into balancing a games core mechanics before it is rushed into production? Or is the realization of elegant mechanics so Utopian that it is not possible, no matter how much effort is put into it? Is the need for patches and nerfs a symptom of bad core mechanics, or the resulting growing pains of an industry still in its infancy?

I believe that deconstructing and analyzing the major balance issues in most games would support the argument that it is mental laziness, not inability, which prevents truly complex yet elegant mechanics. The lack of elegant solutions is frustrating, and until more gamers demand finished products that are complex and intuitively balanced, we will be stuck with the cheaper solution of patching patches, never knowing if complex elegance can be designed.

Continue reading 'The Principle of Elegance'

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The PvP Equations

All the buzz about WAR has inevitably led to discussions about it’s PvP and RvR components. The one game mechanic that has not been mentioned in all the PvP talk is instanced PvP. The success of games like Counter Strike: Source, Doom, and even WoW’s battleground PvP seem to indicate that no matter how much sandbox PvP, or RvR perpetual PvP zones, are desired, some players still want to be able to log in and frag a few opponents without considering the ramifications of where, when, why and with whom.

How important is the multi-player instanced PvP option today? Most single player games are incorporating multi-player PvP options (see Halo), and some are even designed as multi-player PvP games with the solo play thrown in at the N’th hour (arguably, also Halo). I think the demand for instanced PvP is evident; the problem lays in the game mechanics that shape the end product.

One of the biggest obstacles is how to reward, or rank, the combatants. Segregation by experience levels, power scores based on rank, scores created by win/loss records, etc. have all been tried; yet all seem to be lacking in some way or another.

When considering how to create a ranking system (independent of gear, experience, or talent rewards) what should matter? What should separate a top ranked player from the lower masses? Do you weight the formula on dedication and time spent playing or purely on wins and losses? What about kills vs. deaths, damage dealt or Killing Blows?

From the protected secrecy of Credit Score Formulas, to the arcane (and some would say arbitrary) BCS rankings in college football, we are surrounded by complex formulas that matter in our real lives. In a world where complex esoteric formulas are fundamentally important, should not games begin attempt to also create elegant solutions, even if complex, rather than just hitting the ‘easy button’ by reducing complexity and thus representation?

Continue reading 'The PvP Equations'

Friday, February 15, 2008

Echoing the Ring

If you haven’t seen it yet, Scott Jennings is taking some heat from Brock Pierce’s lawyers over a recent blog post about IGE that he wrote. If all of the reports are to be believed, there’s no real legal basis for their demands, but Scott (wisely avoiding the headache of dealing with it) has complied anyway. As you can imagine, the whole exchange has stirred quite the little controversy, and both Ryan Shwayder and Matt Mihaly have weighed on in on the issue. Additionally, someone anonymously reposted the text of it to a temporary blog just to keep it active.
- from Random Battle

The implications of this are at once chilling, and a bit amusing. Chilling in the regard that not many bloggers would have the time or resources to fight a C&D. Amusing in that it is nice to know that even game blogs can instigate disproportionate overkill. In case you have not been able to see the original, this will bring you to the original post that raised all this fuss, and this will bring you to Broken Toys reception of the C&D, and the response to it. Continue reading 'Echoing the Ring'

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Art of Economies, MMO tangent

Linear progression in games has been segueing into open-ended experiences in every genre. From Tony Hawk to GTA, players are becoming more responsive to non-linear narratives where they can choose how to experience their own story inside the framework of a game.

This freedom is perhaps most popular in MMO’s. When the fundamental object and design of a game becomes to sustain gameplay infinitely, the old way of telling a linear story in a game becomes not only obsolete, but something to be avoided. This is assuming that the MMO’s developer is not suicidal, and intends not only to retain every subscriber and widen their subscriber base, but that they also crafted their product to entice and engage current/potential customers with said intent.

While linear vs. open arcs have their pros and cons, both are still methods that share a common goal of making a game interesting to the players. The transition to more open modes has one glaring difference on the game mechanics side; when a game gives up a linear progression, it looses the ability to arbitrarily use a stick to motivate players along a set path, and can only use carrots in an attempt to lure players in a direction. As most veteran MMO players already know, this carrot is usually ‘things’. Gear is the most common form of this, but for the sake of argument, we will roll gear, money, property, and any form of player ‘owned’ virtual ‘stuff’ into our virtual carrot called ‘things’.

Chris Chapman makes an excellent point in how most games will use two currencies, XP and money. While I agree with this notion, and even think that the blending of the two, as he suggests, might help alleviate some of the problems encountered in MMO economies; I think that the amount of XP goals in most games are so small compared to the amount of ‘thing’ goals, that his one-currency idea is one of many solutions available, not the only one. Game developers also seem to consider the XP balance of games very carefully. The number of patches, polishes and planning that are common in most class/level scenarios attest to the importance developers place on their XP balance. Why game economies do not get this same amount of attention is what intrigues me.

So what are the biggest problems with current MMO economies? Supply and demand fluctuations which create risk/reward loopholes would be the simple answer. Once it is understood that inflation is a supply and demand problem (increased supply of currency, decreased supply of demanded products/services), almost all economic problems in MMO’s can be attributed to supply/demand fluctuations and overly complex variations inside their economies.

One common mistake that developers make is in assuming that variations are synonymous with choices (see Golden Rule #4 for more clarification). They mistake intricacy with engagement. Oversimplifying a virtual economy is not solved by adding complex variations, because all that accomplishes is obscuring the supply/demand chain, making the hunt for efficiency more complex, but not impossible (hello Excel!). Simple or complex, players are going to go on efficiency hunts if the economy is not balanced, seeking out the one crafting skill or loot drop that increases their time/reward ratio.

These small imbalances of time/reward are then magnified by sheer volume in the context of an MMO, creating the dual-headed monster of Inflation/Deflation that can ruin, or at least demoralize, a game’s economy. To combat this monster, the universal solution is money sinks and reward levels. They combat inflation (too much money in circulation) with money sinks (mount costs, transportation fees, durability, etc.) and fight deflation (not enough money in circulation) by increasing rewards (quest rewards, loot drops, etc.). The problem with this print-money/burn-money solution is that it is impossible to fine-tune when used in a massive population.

As MMO’s become microcosms of the real world, the economies of these games become simplified models of real world economies also. In the real world there are two common solutions used to combat inflation/deflation: interest rates and circulation volume. Burning wheelbarrows of cash in order to fight inflation or printing money to fight deflation is like using a sledgehammer to perform brain surgery. Scaling money-sinks and rewards to character levels and player-time-investment is impossible, and inconsistencies lead to imbalance, which leads to loopholes. That is why interest rates are used to fine-tune the day-to-day fluctuations of real economies. Why are games so different?

I think the idea of introducing interest rates into games both scares and overwhelms developers. The demands of creating and maintaining a MMO while making a profit is so daunting that adding a complex (and misunderstood) element to a game that requires specialized knowledge and daily attention ranks lower on developers ‘to-do-lists’ than spending money on qualified Community Directors. The problem is that by not adding interest rates, games continue to place band-aids in gaping wounds. Once understood and implemented, interest rate manipulation not only solves the inflation/deflation problems encountered in MMO’s, but does so elegantly and consistently.

Incorporating interest rates is not as complicated or potentially theme-breaking as most players and developers fear. Encouraging players to deposit money rather than spend it or vice-versa is the crux of this mechanic. This can be done using existing common MMO game mechanics already commonly misused in most games, preserving the core game mechanics and limiting player confusion.

Death taxes, or any such variation such as durability repairs, are already common in most games. Simply adjusting this ‘tax’ so that it both scales with gear level and includes a percentage of the ‘money’ a player has on the dying character is not too radical. Player held ‘money’ would also then need an arbitrary cap, which is once again common in most games, either by giving ‘money’ an encumbrance weight or by simply capping the maximum volume a player can carry at one time.

These two simple changes would encourage players to deposit most of their net worth, carrying only enough gold to pay for services needed when they are at risk of dying.

Once this ‘money’ is deposited, it would earn interest, the rate of which would be a variable changed constantly by the developers in response to inflation/deflation. Raising interest rates would encourage saving, while lowering the rates would encourage spending. The addition of reserve amounts, a percentage of total deposits each bank has ‘on hand’ would limit massive amounts of players from withdrawing too much money collectively on any one day. Bank reserve amounts could also be paired with personal withdrawal caps, limiting a player from massive withdrawals in one day by having a hardcap (flat value) and/or percentage of total net worth limit, all in an effort to limit economic terrorism (can you grief an economy?).

The advantage of elegant control coupled with consistency is hard to ignore. Simplification of variations while expanding choices coupled with interest rates would not solve all the problems MMO economies are facing, but they would address the most pressing issues of balance (like hyper-inflation) while also solving some annoying problems (like pigs that give ‘currency’ as a loot drop…).

Continue reading 'The Art of Economies, MMO tangent'

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Art of Economies

Economics and games are becoming inseparable. From in-game virtual economies that balance risk/reward to the real-world business of game construction/consumption.

As a game-mechanics addict, I have always had a disproportionate love for how virtual game economies work; and as a business owner I have always been sensitive to the capitalistic laws that shape the fledgling game industry.

There is plenty of criticism of modern game factories, so discussing the pros and cons of Big Business and how it affects the products we love so much is more like cannibalizing a corpse than creating discourse. While there are some tantalizing tidbits left on this particular corpse, as a broad subject it has been picked over beyond the point of death. In-depth conversations about Big Business Gaming seem to dissolve into rants and ruminations about the ‘good ole days’ more often than not. The precise effects that corporate structures have on gaming products are far more interesting, but far rarer due to the fact that flaming is just more fun than thinking.

So I will leave the real-world economics of games for anther day, and get a bit esoteric. I am going to deconstruct and examine how in-game economics are being used in Strategy games and in MMO’s. As technology, complexity, and communities advance, are game economies keeping pace? What works well, what works and what fails? Hell, what is the purpose of in-game economies?

Before I dive into these questions, here is some great background information to help illuminate this subject.

-This short piece by Edward Castronova for Wired magazine explains the basic relationship that real economic principals play in the virtual world.

-Here Nate Combs (on the site Terra Nova) discusses why MMO economies are so hard for designers and developers to get right.

-This rough essay by Chris Chapman discusses the mingling of experience and wealth to create a unified currency in games.

-Here Shannon Applecline investigates a game mechanic called “The Tragedy of the Commons” that can be applied to a variety of game systems.

-Damion Schubert from Zen of Design tackles the incentives of fun and economic gains, and how WoW is struggling with those concepts for end-game players.

-This article is merely meant to point out the effects that these virtual-economies can have on real world businesses, and the steps Developers are taking to protect their IP.

Continue reading 'The Art of Economies'

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mods vs. Design, what is the Intent?

The recent discussions about WAR’s intended policies towards UI Mods have sparked a few conversations with my friends and got me thinking. If you are not familiar with the overall discussions, check out Keen and Graev’s posts (1,2), along with Tobold’s.

The importance of user-created content is finally being embraced by game producers, be it the inclusion of real cities in Monopoly or the ability of PotBS players to create in-game content. Mods are also user-created content. They allow their creators to care more about the game by allowing them to have a personal investment, and offer good Modders to gain respect and attention from the players who use their Mods. Even without going into how bad the original WoW UI was, Mods also can allow non-programming Mod-using players to personalize their interface, once again increasing the personal investment towards the game.

What I would like to clarify, without retreading the discussions already at the above sites, is the difference between Visual Mods (those that affect your HUD or Visual Interface) and Mechanics Mods (those that allow for game actions or processes to be manipulated). Keen attempted to state this difference a few times, but it seems that his delineation was lost amid the clamor of people attempting to fight for or against the inclusion of all Mods in any game. The importance of this delineation can not be overstated.

I encourage and support most efforts to Communitfy games. Where I begin to get nervous is when we discuss the Mechanics Mods. As both Keen and Tobold stated, there is a fine line between ‘cheating’ and advantage when we talk about Mechanics Mods. If a Mechanics Mod becomes necessary for a player to compete, then it is clear that the developer needs to incorporate that Mod into the actual game or remove it, anything else is intellectually lazy on the part of the developer. Incorporating it is not akin to admitting an oversight happened during development, but rather it is embracing the idea that player-feedback can help a game evolve in positive ways. Removing it is not akin to admitting the Modder was trying to cheat, but rather it protects the integrity of the game’s core mechanics and balance. Both developers and Modders need to check their egos, and ask “How does this Mod affect the intent of the game’s core mechanics and balance?”

Another interesting question emerges from this discussion. What happens when a developer limits Mechanics Mods, in an effort to retain their intended balance (see Tobold’s example of DoT in paragraph four). While I would agree that they should be limited, some of the Mechanics Mods that have been incorporated into WoW officially by Blizzard are fantastic. How should a game allow Mechanics Mods to be created, in order to incorporate new ones into the game itself, while protecting the actual game from the ‘broken’ or ‘unintended’ ones?

Continue reading 'Mods vs. Design, what is the Intent?'

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Emotion Element

Where do games and stories intersect? Although there is no inherent story in a game of checkers, is the experience of playing that game a story? Could it be? Should it be? As important as the where is the question of should games and stories intersect.

There is a lot of critique on the execution of storylines in games (mostly bad) and quite a bit concerning making stories into games (almost all bad). Why is this?

From oral traditions, to written epics, to mass market novels, to Hollywood; storytelling has been able to evolve and thrive as technology advances. Why is the fledgling medium of games such a problem?

What is so challenging about producing real emotional responses in players? Or rather, why is evoking compassionate emotions such a challenge? Anger, frustration, excitement, etc. have all been part of the gaming experience since games were created. Sympathy, empathy, love and sadness seem to be emotions that Hollywood can mass produce to spec, but games can not translate. Is this due to the infancy of the gaming genre, with a breakthrough right over the horizon? Or are games fundamentally different than stories, and as such, internally unable to ever create those feelings?

What is possible? What about probable? And what should we attempt for tomorrow or avoid altogether?

Continue reading 'The Emotion Element'


Interaction - “Mutual or reciprocal action or influence.”

Interactivity has become a tech-buzzword for every product, service or concept in business over the past decade. In relation to games, it is universally accepted as part of the definition. Players have to interact with something in a game, no?

So can a game become a non-interactive form of entertainment, but still remain a game? What is the NFL? What about watching a chess match? What about poker tournaments on TV? The reason this distinction intrigues me is that if we can begin to understand when watching someone else playing a game becomes entertaining to us, perhaps we can better understand how to incorporate stories into games, or games into stories.

When does a cut-scene in a video game become an asset instead of an annoyance? When does a DM’s introduction to a quest become captivating instead of informational? How can the Packers break my heart in the playoffs, when losing in Madden online barely annoys me?

Is interactivity a core necessity of a game, or should it be viewed as a tool to be used judiciously in an effort only to enhance the game? How much interaction is too much, or is there such a thing? Audience vs. Player, or can it be both in a good game?

Continue reading 'Interactions'

Friday, February 1, 2008

Mass Effects

This blog is not meant to only discuss video games at the expense of other genres. My love of games covers all genres, except for perhaps the role-playing diner variety (but a role-playing cocktail game might interest me). Checkers, Solitaire, Football, The Sims, World of Warcraft, Shadowrun, the old hex-map version of Battletech and the original arcade cabinet version of Ms. Pac-Man all appeal to me even today. I still find games at old comic shops or online that I had forgotten used to enchant me. Just recently I was pointed to Matt Forbeck’s blog where I was reminded of a game that fifteen years ago had engaged me for an entire year. That game, a football game based on Orcs and bloodshed called Bloodbowl, had completely slipped my mind.

The problem that I am running into is that most of the information on the web that one encounters when Googling “games” are reviews, free flash games or press releases. Ignoring these, most of the remaining content concerns video games. It is hard to locate real discussions about the trials and tribulations of balancing a developing board game, updating a new edition of a table-top game, or even the difficulty vs. necessity of creating a compelling story for a new CCG.

As I stumble on relevant sites, am directed to some, and hear from others this balance should level out. In the meantime I am forced to rely on my own perspective as a closet tinkerer and fan/player when looking at the relevant issues pertaining to the “why” of games. I have hope that my knowledge of sites and issues will expand, and that eventually I can compel some like-minded people to engage in relevant discussions. Until that happens though, Video Games are the currency being used to fund this start-up.

PS: for those of you who do not know what News Feeds are, check them out. What a great way to have instant access to your favorite sites and self-filter what news you wish to stay on top of.

Continue reading 'Mass Effects'

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Imprecision of Why

I have given a lot of thought in the past few weeks as to why I love games so much. I am not the typical video game addict with every next-gen console and complete libraries of games to complement them. Hell, I still play Halo (one and two) on my X-box if bored. Even as a PC fan, I have never subscribed to more than one MMO at a time, and usually only buy new games if highly recommended by close friends.

I am the kind of gamer who buys one starter deck of a random CCG or one blister pack of a random combat-dial miniature game. I have also been known to plunder the discount game bins at big-box stores looking for nothing in particular and often visit the forums of hardcore board and card games. None of this is done in an attempt to gain hours of gameplay, but rather to reverse-engineer their mechanics. As much as I still enjoy a session of World of Darkness or Magblast with a group of friends, I would rather figure out what works and what does not work with Alhambra than play Counter Strike with strangers.

Ever since I played Dungeons and Dragons for the first time at age eleven, I have enjoyed finding out what makes a game tick as much as I have enjoyed playing the game. Sometimes the former is the only enjoyable part with certain games, but I digress…

Even when I ran table-top games, I was never a rule-Nazi, but rather a rule-editor. I never looked at a gaming session as the rules and me vs. the players, but rather considered it my responsibility to make the players have fun, often at the expense of the rules.

This infatuation with the ‘why’ of games is why I began this blog, along with the hope to hear from some like-minded addicts in an attempt to define and contemplate our obsession. Or at least that is why I chose this topic. In actuality this blog began as an assignment and was almost named “The Practically Pragmatic Solution to an Idealistically Obsessed Addict” but the title window in Blogger did not have a spell checker, so “The Intent of Content” was born.

Continue reading 'The Imprecision of Why'

For the Sake of Argument

Comments are now unlocked.

I mistakenly made them accessible only to people with Google accounts, which was not my intention. Continue reading 'For the Sake of Argument'

Monday, January 28, 2008

Is anyone going to pay the piper?

Now that the Gerstmann/GameSpot saga is over, or at least on the stale side, what have we learned as a gaming community? For those of you not familiar with the Gerstmann/Gamespot issue, here it is in a nutshell. Jeff Gerstmann was the Editorial Director of GameSpot, which meant he was the guy in charge of all the Editorials, or Reviews. Josh Larson, a market tracking guru at GameSpot got promoted to the head of the pack, meanwhile Steven Colvin, a guy who helped start Stuff Magazine, took over the Entertainment and Lifestyles group of GameSpot’s parent company CNET. With two marketing and advertising guys in charge, Gerstmann ended up loosing his job after he gave a bad review to one of GameSpot's major advertisers. Larson and Colvin call it coincidence, but two more longtime GameSpot reviewers left citing the Gerstmann issue and lack of transparency as their reasons. For more details, you can check anywhere on the web, but here is a great synopsis of the debacle by GameSpot rival 1UP.

The reason this is important is not only the corruption of paid-for-reviews, but also the enormous amount of money being spent to advertise a game, much less create one. Amadeo Plaza examines the incestuous relationship between advertisers and reviewers here, which might explain the amount of shiny games with great franchise names that are completely unplayable.

So at what point do game developers, designers and consumers find a way around this money machine? The price of board games, video games, or even a decent collection of any CCG precludes most of us from buying everything in order to give it a shot. The use of demos, micro-transaction free-play models, and subscription services are allowing some video games to be tested out by the consumer, but most video games and all other genres are still buyer-beware. Where does that leave the average consumer, much less the indie game studio?

Continue reading 'Is anyone going to pay the piper?'

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mass Producing Creativity

As the gaming industry completes its move into corporate adolescence, changes are being made almost as fast as players can adapt. From online computer-run board games to the fact that Wizards of the Coast was able to buy TSR in 1997 after only seven years in business (and four years after the release of Magic the Gathering). Moore’s Law seems as relevant to the gaming world today as it was intended for technology back in 1965.

The ambiguous transactions between what gamers want and what games are offered for our consumption seems to growing, but whether that growth is creating a rift or a bridge is up for debate.

With the same apprehension I feel every time a TGIF opens next to a mom-and-pop restaurant, I wonder what the future holds as games become profit-driven corporate products. I am a pure believer in the free-market, and have no qualms with capitalism compared to the alternatives. I understand that the mom-and-pop restaurant will be driven out of business, not by fraud, but because the majority of Americans like TGIF. The idea of not making Madden 2058 because it is not original and offers nothing new is utopian at best, illogical at worst. I do not oppose the creation of best selling games for profit, what I fear is the rising cost of game creation in all forms will stifle creativity, or perhaps not stifle it as much as alter it.

Changing story lines, adding undeveloped features, adding or removing content at the last minute, all in the name of focus groups and target audiences is a natural process of corporate creativity. The problem is that games are much more vulnerable to these last minute changes than traditional entertainment. A slight change made to a board game to lower the age bracket might mean simplifying the major game mechanic, and render the game all but useless. Or it might catapult that game into history by expanding the audience. What intrigues me is not what is ‘right’, but rather how are developers going to tackle the problem of creativity vs. productivity?

Continue reading 'Mass Producing Creativity'

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Follow me Here...

While to many this might sound like punishment, Daniel Cook's participation in Project Horseshoe sounded like a dream-come-true to me. Catch his experiences here.

I also found this piece by Clive Thompson on his site Collision Detection which has some commonalities with my last post about TPM. Catch Clive's post here. The escape from boredom and just old-fashioned wasting time are similar, but perhaps active inactivity is worth considering.

Slightly Off Topic, as I do not want to get into reviews or critiques of games, I found this guy hilarious. If you need to laugh a bit, plug into the slightly vulgar but unstoppable Yahtzee Croshaw. Continue reading 'Follow me Here...'

Friday, January 25, 2008

Semantics, part four

The Projection Motivation (TPM) – The final motivation (assuming I have not completely omitted, forgot or ignored a few) would be the desire we have to lose ourselves in entertainment. Like TCM and TEM, TPM is universal in all Humans, it just varies in degree.

The temporary suspension of disbelief found in entertainment is nothing new to Humankind. From spoken myths to modern cinema, we have always enjoyed a temporary break from our own reality.

Games offer us not only that escape, but also limited control over the narrative. Who wins? Who loses? How long is the story? How fast does the narrative progress? All of these can finally be under our limited control. Whether it is the perceived increase of control we have in a structured situation compared to our real world, or just an attempt to avoid boredom, the blend of control and projection that games offer us is powerful. The transition from a passive audience member to an interactive participant is what separates most games from other forms of entertainment.

Continue reading 'Semantics, part four'

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Semantics, part three

The Evolutionary Motivation (TEM) – TEM is personal achievement, solitary and internal. At first glance TEM might appear as the inverse of TCM, but that is only a small part of what I am trying to define here.

As Humans, we like to learn how to achieve positive feedback when facing a new challenge if we suspect that the challenge has a solution. By creating a structured setting for the challenge, such as a game, we increase our certainty that a solution exists. This positive feedback leads to a conditioning response in us if we can learn the structural framework quickly, and continue to learn what is expected of us to achieve the intended successes.

The reason a toddler enjoys learning to place a square peg into a square hole has the same concept behind it as a teen that completes a model airplane. Translating this biological impulse to learn into why we play games is fairly transparent. Removing the commercial content of games for a second (violence, language, etc.) allows us to rate games into age categories based on the logic and reasoning they demand from their players in order to ‘learn’ their ‘structure’ and thus achieve the intended ‘successes’. Complexity of design and the accumulated wisdom of their players follow a similar upward curve as we climb in intended age. When complexity and accumulated wisdom vary too much, we end up with either frustratingly difficult games, or boring simplicity.

Open-ended video games, complex board games with hundreds of pieces, and convoluted paper-and-pen RPG’s all retain the same internal achievement we all felt as we completed our first jigsaw puzzle. Besides real-world concerns, one reason games were often discarded as previous generations aged was loss of TEM. Once a game relies only on TCM, such as your millionth game of Monopoly, you reduce your chance to learn anything new about the structure and rewards of the game. By revitalizing the TEM in games due to complexity and challenging accumulated wisdom, we are able to appeal to maturing audiences (with little or no TCM in their personalities) in unprecedented numbers.

Continue reading 'Semantics, part three'

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Semantics, part two

Why do we play games? This is the core of what I want to examine in this blog. To do that, I want to try and nail down some of the fundamental reasons, without creating a list slightly longer than the Yongle Dadian. In order to shorten the list, I am going to make some sweeping generalizations, and lump some things together that might at first glance appear to better off as separate categories. Without further ado, here is #1:

The Competition Motivation (TCM) – While this seems straight forward, I would like to expand the definition a bit. What I mean by TCM is not only the in-your-face football mentality, but also the popularity, reputation and respect one feels when playing a game. This requires an audience, even of just one person, in order to make the player think that they have earned their endorphins. If the respect is not sincere, if the reputation is in reality tarnished, or if the popularity is really notoriety does not matter as long as the player thinks their efforts paid off. As long as the brain can be tricked into releasing that dopamine fix, the player will continue to chase that high despite grueling practices, painful injuries, and the occasional loss.

The important concept behind The Competition Motivation is that it requires more than just one person to work. Either a teammate, rival or audience is needed, but which one is irrelevant. The narcissistic need to squash a rival human, impress a human audience, or gain the respect of a human teammate is what triggers that addictive pleasure.

Continue reading 'Semantics, part two'

Semantics, part one

It has occurred to me that most discussions I have had about games are with people I am familiar with in real life. Our basic knowledge of each other gives us the ability to talk about theories and motives without having to construct any uniform language in which to talk about these concepts. Any point of confusion is usually cleared up with a “Ya know what I mean?”

Taking these discussions to a digital format creates some problems, especially in definitions. With no common definition for “hardcore”, a discussion about ‘hardcore gamers” becomes a debate. What I hope to do is create some common terms that we can tentatively agree upon, so that we can begin to discuss some of more creative concepts without all meaning separate things for the same descriptions.

As with the “hardcore vs. casual” post, I also would like to try and remove the “player” from as many of the definitions as possible. Not because the player is unimportant, but because it removes the personal insult from a rather contested generalization. As with most generalizations, not many of us are going to fall into one category or another, but rather we will identify with parts of them all.

Perhaps once we can agree on some general terms, we can then have more meaningful arguments discussions.

Continue reading 'Semantics, part one'

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Redefining the Conversation

Since the release of Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, and release of the Atari 2600 three years later, there has been one common argument in the gaming industry. “What is the definition of a casual gamer, and what is the definition of a hardcore gamer?”

The question, while personal to some, has implications for the gaming industry as a whole which mean that clear, uniform definitions should be agreed upon. Not in order to segregate the actual players that care so much about which group they belong to, but to help game developers more clearly match their ideas with their audiences. Perhaps we need to ignore the Human elements of this debate, and rethink the classifications as they pertain to the actual products. Perhaps we should think of casual games vs. hardcore games, instead of the minefield that is casual gamers vs. hardcore gamers.

In a product classification, we are simply left with two major considerations: What kind of purchase is necessary to play the game and how much time is needed to play the game. Casual games do not require cutting edge hardware, thousands of dollars of miniatures, or any other major capital expenditure. Time investment does not mean that a casual game can not lead a dedicated player into a session where they lose hours of their lives. It merely means that either through short yet complete endings, easy save points, or definable chapters that a player can devote small sessions to the game without losing any benefits.

Perhaps by moving the definition from the players to the games we can construct more universal definitions of casual and hardcore, and by doing so can begin to consider what PopCap Games and BioShock, and their success in 2007, mean to the future of game development.

Continue reading 'Redefining the Conversation'

Thursday, January 17, 2008

That Figures

Not everyone is willing to admit that video games are legitimate. They are derided as contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a fad, immature, and definitely not worthy of a college degree or career. But as Elvis, The Beetles, Ed Sullivan, The Simpsons and South Park have done, video games are proving that a new medium may scare the folks, but the kids are embracing it despite the resistance.

Once considered only the pass time of teenage boys with no social life, they now are transcending gender and age lines with no regard to their critics. Software for static and portable game systems earned a record $8.64 billion this year, while the domestic gross from Hollywood earned $9.62 billion this year. While the one billion dollar difference might seem like a lot of money in Hollywood’s favor, we have to consider the fact that video games earned another $9.3 billion in hardware and accessory sales. This was an increase of about 43% in the US alone over 2006 video game sales. Although DVD sales helped the movie studios retain their dominance in gross sales (grossing $16 billion), 2007 was the first year in history that consumers spent less on DVD purchases than the previous year.

With video games, board games, card games, movies, books, television, magazines and blogs, the amount of entertainment the average American has access to is staggering. The question is no longer “Are video games real medium in entertainment?” but rather “How does the emergence of video games change the way that we communicate our stories in entertainment?”

Continue reading 'That Figures'