Gaming morality vs RL morality

Jim Stirling posted a video blog in The Escapist this week discussing why murder is pretty much the norm in video games but rape presents greater issues. I didn’t watch it because I pretty much never watch video blogs, but read enough of what he said afterwards to get the gist:  his current position is that this is OK because there could be good/ ethical reasons to kill (ie. in self defence, if it’s a zombie, etc) but not rape. So he’s taking a fairly sensible perspective, which might be surprising to people who have read his previous outbursts.

 

This post is not about rape, however. It’s more about how we do lots of things in games because we can, or because they score points or combos, or because they unlock more content or a cool cutscene/ kill scene. My partner is levelling an Agent in SWTOR at the moment and while I’m trying not to spoil the story for him, we do sometimes chat about when I made different decisions on my (dark side) agent than he has on his (light side) one. My Agent was also a kind of intergalactic Martin Sheen so I went for all the seduction options too. My beloved summed this up as, “So you shagged everything shaggable and shot everything shootable.” I said “Yes, obviously!”

 

The way in which the gaming brain makes decisions is not usually around morality so much as min-maxing, high scores, or winning the game. Maybe there is some power fantasy in there as well, especially in immersive settings. Where morality does come into gaming, it’s often around roleplaying or ‘staying in genre’ or ‘telling a good story.’ Some players always project themselves into the game, or prefer a heroic stance. But if a game awards points for a kill, double points for shooting people in the back, and triple points if you shag the corpse afterwards, then a lot of people would go for the necrophilia without a second thought. It doesn’t seem quite right  to blame players for doing madly immoral things in games if the game was designed to reward those activities.

 

And that’s why it is down to game designers to act like grown ups when it comes to deciding what actions get rewarded. If you reward it, they will do it.

 

Another way of talking about games that reward ‘madly immoral’ activities is the concept of moral hazard. This is where people are encouraged to do hugely risky (or just unwise) things because someone else will pick up the tab if things go wrong. In EVE recently, players found an exploit in a new patch and exploited it crazily for a couple of weeks before reporting it. CCP (after being prodded by other players) duly retrieved the ill gotten gains, released a comment about how clever their players were, and let it go. There’s no major punishment in EVE for this type of exploit – other than massive publicity. I assume the rewards for reporting exploits are decent also. Incidentally, EVE players are the craftiest in the world in the same sense that Carlsberg is the best lager in the world.

 

This is not however a snarky comment about EVE so much as noting that all sandbox games really struggle with empowering ‘good’ players to keep the ‘law’ and control or punish bad ones. The ideal platonic sandbox game would probably have a player run militia and legal system, in practice this is very hard to do without very active support from staff. Partly because naughty players can just log off when the cops are around, but mostly because the information you need to prove crimes is held by the system, and it’s generally hard to think of good punishments other than bannings. Because cop players pretty much have to be in collusion with staff to get the information they need (unless you’re in a hardcore RP game where baddies will volunteer info OOC so as to make a better story), the whole thing is subject to accusations of bias and can easily end up being both ineffective and actively bad for the game.

So even the players who disapprove of exploits have limited facilities to find out about exploiters in game or punish them. Especially if they are part of a large and powerful alliance. This is why people will tend to shrug and leave it to the devs to handle. So again, it’s down to the devs of a sandbox game to keep a close eye on what activities they are rewarding and make some judgement calls on whether emergent player behaviour is something they want for the game or not.

Whatever happened to Lara Croft?

several_laras

So here are a few images of Lara Croft from games, film, and (at the bottom) the trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot game. I’m not sure why she switched from dual pistols to a bow either, must be the Katniss effect. And actually, in discussing the reboot, I keep feeling The Hunger Games as an influence. I’ll come back to this later.

However, the elephant in the room with Tomb Raider has now become comments made by the executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, with respect to Lara’s new backstory involving being kidnapped by island pirates and an attempted rape (she beats the guy up, kills him and escapes, incidentally).

“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character,” Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.

“They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'”

So is she still the hero? I asked Rosenberg if we should expect to look at Lara a little bit differently than we have in the past.

“She’s definitely the hero but— you’re kind of like her helper,” he said. “When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.

Who is this /you/ he is addressing? It looks as though it should be anyone who might play the game, except there’s some assumptions there about how people identify with main characters which look as though he’s assuming the player is male. That’s one of the reasons he got people’s backs up. Lake Desire has a nicely nuanced writeup on the Borderhouse explaining why she appreciates what the devs are trying to do and feels that the trailer does make her want to play the game, while acknowledging that there are some issues around assuming that female characters need to be seen as vulnerable so that players will think they are ‘feminine’ enough.

I am torn, because while I agree it’s problematic if every strong female character has to have a traumatised background and the male characters don’t, I’ve also enjoyed stories like Kill Bill and the city elf backstory from DAO which do feature badass protagonists who are rape survivors. There’s a place for that kind of story and if it’s done well it can be empowering for players. I’ve liked Blaxploitation films too, and I loved Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (maybe I’m just a Tarantino fan).

It is, however, something of a genre in itself and usually features strong revenge plotlines which aren’t really the pulp adventure of which Lara Croft stories are made.

The other blogger I was reading on this subject wrote about Lara Croft 3 years ago. Ms Pixel decided back in 2009 that Lara needed a reboot and discusses what SHE thinks needs to happen.

Lara was born during a time when sex in games and digital nudity were avant garde. Now it’s common place. Shed more light on Lara’s personality traits. She needs to become a full blown character that makes me laugh, cry, cringe, marvel and scream at the same time.  Full and impossibly flawed characters like Uncharted’s Nathan Drake and Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake have intense fan followings. Men don’t want to admit it but they’ve got a Bromance with Nathan and Snake that rivals the love affair they have with Lara. Women also love yearn for lovable characters. Gender doesn’t play that big of a role.

Get that, devs? Women also want /loveable/ female characters (or at least one woman does, and I don’t think it’s a half bad idea either.) Having said that, I think the devs here were gunning to highlight Lara’s personality traits. I just don’t know from that trailer whether loveable is really the personality trait that will shine here.

And aside from that, do we really want to see our characters beaten up, sobbing, and bleeding  (yeah scratch the bleeding, everyone does that)? Would it be possible to present the same story without making the vulnerability quite so front and centre, and focussing more on the aftermath and recovery?

Katniss is not Indiana Jones

My issue with the reboot is that I think the devs are mixing genres, perhaps unwisely. It isn’t impossible for a pulp action hero to get the grimdark makeover, it happened very successfully with Batman in the 1980s when The Dark Knight Returns was published. But some heroes, some stories, work better when they are left to their own strengths.

Lara was originally presented as a sexy female Indiana Jones, hence the tomb raiding. Along with that character type come the wisecracks, the keeping a cool head in a crisis, exotic locations,  falling into and escaping death traps, massive charisma, risk taking, and generally trying to be Harrison Ford. Katniss Everdeen (that’s Hunger Games if anyone hasn’t seen it yet) is more about survival and trying to be true to yourself and your friends in a world that is against you. It’s not quite the same. Katniss will never be a pulp action heroine (in fact, I’m still not recovered from having read book 3 in the series which is ultra grim).

However, much like Lake, I’m now quite curious to hear more about this game. Maybe I’ll pick it up cheap in a Steam sale in a few months time, if only to see how well they managed the storytelling. Shall we call that a win for the PR team?

“The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

What is a ‘good’ game worth exactly in these days where AAA MMOs embrace the F2P model, where Steam offers regular deep discount sales, where mobile apps tend to cost under a dollar each, and where collectors editions and ‘pre-purchase’ deals are climbing in price?

The economist would say that goods are worth whatever people are willing to pay, but as consumers we each have to arrive at  some concept of ‘a fair price’ to come to that decision. Frex, why did I think paying £50 for a pre-purchase of GW2 was unreasonable, where lots of other people thought it was fine? Which games would I buy on release, even if they did cost more than similar games in the past?

So when EA’s chap in charge of Origin spoke out against deep discount sales a couple of weeks ago, on the grounds that ‘they cheapen intellectual property’, it’s worth a pause to think about what he meant. Economists love increasing discounts because of the idea that every reduction opens up a new tier of customers who would want the product at the new price but wouldn’t have been prepared to pay more. And if everyone knows that the sales/ reductions will be coming, people just have to decide how much they’d be willing to pay and how long they’d be willing to wait and buy accordingly. It’s all about expectations. If it wasn’t guaranteed that sales would  happen then more people might pay higher prices, on the grounds that they’d rather have the game than not, and waiting might not result in a price drop. You see this sometimes with Blizzard games, since they have a reputation for not offering discounts for a long time after release. Although I think they will have lost some goodwill from the WoW annual pass, especially if the release date for MoP drifts towards the end of the year.

Anyhow, EA evidently had some internal differences on the topic since they’ll be offering deep discounts on games on Origin. That’s … fairly contradictory.

Have your ideas on ‘a fair price’ for games changed over the past few years?

But this has all made me wonder how I decide on what is a fair price for games I buy.

  • I didn’t have any issues paying full price and a full sub for SWTOR (I’m still enjoying it, for the record, and feel that I’m getting my money worth), but when EA start talking about F2P for SWTOR, my first reaction is to rethink my plans to take out another 6 month sub – what’s the point if they might experiment with cheaper options? (That’s illogical btw since I can’t imagine it’d happen within 6 months anyway – but it makes you think.)
  • For an MMO I am mildly interested in but not to the point of getting in on release, knowing that F2P could be a future option is more likely to make me wait and see.
  • But I’m still not fond of F2P models for MMOs, I don’t think I would want to make my ‘main’ MMO a F2P one.
  • Steam sales have made me think “wait 6 months or so until it’s cheap in a sale” on some games which I might have otherwise picked up sooner. Or I might not, but knowing the sale will come does affect the decision.
  • I do also have a few games picked up cheaply in Steam sales that I haven’t really played yet, so perhaps not THAT good value.
  • The humble indie bundles also have to make anyone think hard about buying indie games, if price is your only criteria, because some of the strongest indie games have ended up in these cheap bundles.
  • I don’t like it when full box price creeps above £40 for new releases, that makes me far more likely to look round for a deal or wait for a sale.
  • And increasingly, the amount of play I get out of a game isn’t strongly related to how much I paid. With sub games that I enjoy, the link is actually quite close though.

So – have your ideas on fair pricing changed?

Changing the gaming culture #2: Habbo; and could gamification clean up virtual worlds?

I guess you could see this post as thematically related to yesterday’s, where I was talking about sexism in gaming. Last night Channel 4 News (which is a reasonably well respected outlet here) aired a piece about sexual harassment in Habbo Hotel. If you haven’t heard of Habbo it’s probably because you aren’t a teenager or don’t have a child that age.

It’s a huge F2P virtual world aimed at teens that claims 10 million unique visitors monthly, according to the devs.

I missed the report but essentially one of their reporters posed as an 11 year old girl while playing Habbo for a couple of months  and was inundated with cyber sex, porny chat, and cartoon boys following her to her room and emoting that they were having sex with her. I suspect strongly that this mostly involves teens harassing each other. It reminded me a bit of a report I read recently about teen sexting in schools, where they focussed on how teen girls in particular are subjected to a barrage of requests over social media to send pictures of themselves naked, perform sex acts, etc etc.

So this is likely more of a wider cultural issue than gaming culture per se.  Still, a game aimed at minors which sells itself on being a safe environment has to go a bit further than saying “Hey, it’s what they do at school too.”

Habbo actually have some fairly solid guides available, as well as assuring parents:

Providing a safe social environment for all players is a top priority in Habbo Hotel which is why all Habbo Hotels are staffed by trained, adult moderators who take action against wrongdoers and assist users with any questions they may have.

They also suggest parents keep an eye on what their children are doing online and make sure they keep lines of communication open so that their kids feel comfortable telling them if anything that made them feel bad happened. Which is all great advice.

I’ve also no reason to doubt that they have a process in place where players can complain of  harassment and have a moderator step in to help them either. (We don’t know if the reporter tried reporting anyone.) None of this will save them when their main investor pulls out due to bad publicity and the main retailers decide to stop stocking Habbo Hotel gift cards. Although they do also operate in a ton of other countries so there is that.

What’s more worrying for MMO operators in the teen/child space is that this starts a rush panic. Parents or investors who may have assumed that virtual worlds were more policed THAN IS FEASIBLY EVER POSSIBLE might just pull the plug.

For example, the C4 report had them playing with “a leading expert on child safety” (pro tip: any competent parent could probably also double as a leading expert on child safety) who felt that a moderator should somehow be jumping in as soon as the player received their first dodgy private message.

Asking to have every single message moderated isn’t practical. It’s barely viable to ask for every channel to be moderated.  And they do claim to do this:

"Habbo’s moderation and safeguarding procedures includes employing more than 225 moderators, tracking some 70m lines of conversation globally every day on a 24/7 basis. These moderators cover all time-zones and the multiple languages in which Habbo users converse."

That’s vastly more moderated than WoW, for example. And yet, you can log into Warcraft and the only unwanted texts you might get would be about gold selling. I think there is room to wonder about their moderation, if there really are chat rooms called ‘sexy stripclub’.

I don’t really have an answer for this one other than either watch your kids like hawks online, get them to stick to games which don’t allow free text chat, find a game that allows private servers where they can play with people they know or parents/ schools have vetted, or have them play games which aren’t dominated by teens.

It is definitely going to be worrying for Habbo though that parental expectations might be for totally impossible levels of safety.

So why are AAA MMOs not as bad as virtual worlds with respect to sex chat

The only game I can think of that was as  sex dominated as this sounds was Second Life, and even there it sounded relatively easy to get away from the cybering. So maybe there’s something about ungamified virtual worlds that just descends to the lowest common denominator.

Sad but true. I think any future ventures along these lines will have to require real names or allow private servers where the groups running the game can impose their own gatekeeping.

Or maybe there is something about gamers and gaming MMOs that focusses interactions in other directions. Maybe gamers are generally more interested in progression than what’s in your pants iRL. I also suspect that having a mix of ages in a gaming demographic tends to make a space safer rather than riskier – while there is the possibility of paedophiles, there is also the (larger)  possibility of adults who will keep an eye out for more vulnerable members of the community, plus parents who will tend to play with their kids in the game (which I think would require more fortitude than I possess for Habbo).

This won’t be the last we hear of this story, I suspect. It’s been bubbling under for a long time, and this may be the start of a very different turn for MMOs.

Is it possible to change ‘gaming culture’?

Another week, another slew of stories about sexism in gaming.

E3 has come and gone, with the attendant outrage about booth babes. (That is, skinny white female models paid to sit on a booth in skimpy clothing and get leered at all day by attendees and journos.) In case anyone hasn’t seen enough pictures of scantily clad models online, CVG posted  a series of 63 photos of booth babes from E3, so it’s a fair bet that this isn’t just one or two companies.

Why is this necessary? Who knows, anymore. The argument that it gets more attention is a pretty self serving one, especially when you can’t actually identify the games they are supposedly flogging from the booth babe pictures anyway. I actually assume it’s mostly that PR managers feel its good for their egos to employ models on their booths. Because if you just wanted women in skimpy gear, you could probably get some cosplayers in to do it for the price of a few freebies, and then everyone would just say “yay community involvement.”

I’ve been to conventions where the model tanks got more attention than the booth babes (which is fair, I think, you can see pretty girls anyway after all), and I’ve been to conventions which used male as well as female models and didn’t particularly notice their booths being less busy. Mostly because gamers are more interested in a) freebies and b) the actual games.

Having said that, I’m against the whole booth babe thing for two reasons.

  1. Hello, I’m a core gamer too. You won’t show me that you care about MY custom by employing booth babes. (This reminds me of the time I went with some male colleagues to an engineering show and we went to one booth and the guy reached under the desk and gave me a fluffy toy and gave my colleagues brochures about the product. I did not make this up, it really happened. I gave him A LOOK and he rapidly gave my colleagues fluffy toys too, saying it was for their partners or children. I’m still mad about that even though it was several years ago. Mostly because my colleagues said nothing, they just looked embarrassed while I ranted.)
  2. It just reinforces conventions being sites where sexism (in the form of ogling random women and commenting on their hotness or otherwise) is accepted practice. I know plenty of female gamers, both computer and tabletop, who avoid conventions, for this reason. If you want women to go to cons, they need to feel both welcome and safe. It’s a million years away from the scifi cons which often have women on the steering committees, on the panels, and still have plenty of skimpy cosplayers wandering around.

Oestrus has a good post up discussing her mixed feelings around companies using booth babes. Where on the one hand, it seems to work for them as a PR strategy, and on the other, it sends very mixed messages to gamers about how they can or should treat women.

The other story I’ve seen this week about sexism is around a feminist kickstarter who got some great PR from all the predictably heinous sexist comments on her youtube promotional video. I think that the more people who realise that trolls leaving hateful and sexist comments on feminist blogs has now become expected, the better, because maybe once it’s out there, people will start taking it seriously.  I do wish her luck, although I’m sure she won’t need it. And at the same time, I am awed at how smart she has been about turning the hateful comments into a promotional tool for her videos.  You go, girl.

I was also shocked at the anti-semitic comments that turned up too. Anti-semitism always feels very old fashioned to me, like something we read about in history books rather than experience every day. But clearly there are a number of people where you just have to scratch the surface and it’s still a kneejerk reaction.

Still, assuming the vast majority of gamers don’t actively subscribe to the hate but either go along with it because it’s what their group do, or else try to ignore it so they can just get on with gaming, what can anyone do about this side of the ‘gamer culture’? Can it change, or are unmoderated arenas like XBOX Live always going to fall to the haters?

This is a post that caught my eye by Meguey on Gaming as Women, about how she tried to change the ‘micro culture’ of her gaming group. This isn’t about sexism, it’s about how she noticed that one of the guys in the group always seemed to be left out, and how she decided to change that. It took 3 years, and that was with a group of people that she knew, and who respected her opinions.

She has some advice for people who do want to change the culture around them:

Call people in the micro-culture on the things you want to see shift. This sounds as scary as anything, but it’s not a cry to confrontation and accusation, it’s as simple as not laughing at a joke you find offensive. Then it’s saying “Yeah, not so cool / funny, dude”  when someone makes such a comment / tells such a joke. Then it’s talking to the people in the micro-culture privately to say “Hey, I’m done with being a wise-ass kid, y’know? It’s time for me to stop talking like I think women are second-class. Because that’s just crap.” You don’t need to be confrontational,  just own your own growth.

See, all it takes for the haters to win is for the good guys to do nothing.

Bits and pieces; and thoughts from 3 years ago about the future of MMOs

Happy Sunday (and Happy Jubilee if you are the queen – seems a bit harsh of people to make two octo/nonogenarians stand around for hours on a cold and windy river, but what do I know?) This isn’t really a links post so much as a quick news roundup, some whining about Diablo, and a moment of insight where I realise that some of the stuff I used to post was pretty smart.

New games to get excited about, current games to get excited about

CD Projekt, best known for their work on The Witcher CRPGs, have announced that their next game will feature a Cyberpunk setting. In fact, it’s THE Cyberpunk setting for RPG players because they’ll be using the setting from R S Talsorian’s Cyberpunk RPG. So all you glitterboys, slicers, and fixers get your netrunning shoes on. I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is super-exciting for any fans of the genre, and Cyberpunk should be a great match for the dark noirish stories that CD Projekt have shown they enjoy tackling in previous outings. It’d be nice if they would also let us play female characters this time around, but let’s not run before we can walk.

Rift announced its first expansion: Storm Legion. It will feature tons of new stuff including huge new continent, 10 more levels, new souls, a woman on the front of their expansion website who isn’t wearing much — yup, it’s all there. New expansions are generally a good sign for MMOs and the Rift devs have been earning their reputation for ploughing plenty of new content into the game all year, so things are looking good for Rifties. They do have a free trial up to level 20 if you want to try the game out.

An excellent new Humble Indie Bundle has gone on sale, featuring Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Psychonauts, LIMBO, and Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery , with Bastion thrown in as a bonus if you pay more than the current average (standing at $7.84 at the moment). It’s a feature of the indie bundles that you decide what you want to pay so if you’re feeling cheap, you could get the four main games for almost no money at all. They are all indie games that have garnered good reviews, especially Psychonauts if you are a fan of platform/adventure games.

In their ongoing crusade to make the always-online experience of Diablo 3 best in breed, Blizzard have now introduced autojoining the General Chat Channel when you log in. This has not been met with universal acclaim. While I find it annoyingly spammy and prone to gold seller chat, occasionally General Chat surprises you. I’ve sometimes heard people offer to help anyone out with hard bosses, which either is quite decent of them or else is a new cunning way to steal accounts – you pay your money and take your choice.

Personally my barbarian has reached an impasse with Izual in Hell Mode. Getting him down would require a serious amount of kiting given my current DPS and … I just don’t enjoy kiting on a melee class that much. So I shall be tooling around on alts instead, no point playing past the point of unfun. One thing Blizzard did get right though is the secret level (don’t click this link unless you want spoilers), which requires a special blacksmithing recipe and ingredients, all of which are rare drops in specific locations and may be farmed. Farming for this stuff with Arb has actually been pretty fun, for Diablo variants of fun. This is exactly what I was talking about when I was wondering why Blizzard hadn’t developed the farming side of the game.

So how DID soloing affect MMOs?

Milady reflects about MMOs evolving into an ‘always alone together’ singleplayer theme park  type of experience, and is nostalgic for a time when singleplayer and multiplayer experiences seemed to sit more comfortably side by side in MMOs. She wonders where players who enjoyed the multiplayer side of things will go if new MMOs tilt so far towards soloers.

The problem is that, although I can think as alone-together MMOs as a valid choice, especially for that demographic that can’t participate in the social part of them, there is no such choice when all are designed this way.

This reminded me of some thoughts I posted a few years ago about what might happen to MMOs if the proportion of soloers continued to increase. It was contentious at the time and attracted more comments than anything I’d ever written. Now I look back and – it seems prescient.

What happens if MMOs develop along lines such that most people are soloing most of the time? There’s no downtime built in where you might have to talk to people you didn’t know? There may not be enough of the more hardcore to form all the guilds those people might want to join? The people who would have been running those guilds are all going casual/ solo/ in small groups of RL friends instead?

Would a game like that really have much of a community at all? Is there any support network left for anyone at all?

[Links] Day of Reckoning for 38 Studios, soloing in MMOs, Diablo 3, Sony won the console wars?

Scott Jennings writes eloquently about the week when 40% of the SWTOR team was laid off, and 38 Studios (makers of Kingdoms of Amalur, and with an MMO in the works) imploded very publically.

I think the direction that our industry is going – the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3, and the even more incredible display of massive hubris and utter incompetence on the part of Schilling and his management team, is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.

Everything I have read about 38 Studios going tits up makes me think that the management were a bucket of tits. (Yes that is the technical term.) Implausible business plan, lack of auditing on cashflow, taking on way more staff than they needed or could support, dicking around with staff. Unsubject writes in more detail on the financials. The only surprising thing to me is that so many MMO bloggers have sympathy for them – MMOs get cancelled in pre-production all the time, we should be used to it by now. I don’t care if it was run by a rich sportsman with a dream or a lameass banker, they screwed up.

Or in the words of Kevin Dent at  Kotaku:

I have a theory that Harvard Business School basically set this entire thing up so as to demonstrate how many ways someone can screw up running a business. If this is the case, heartfelt congrats to the Crimson Halls, you owned it.

I literally could not invent more ways to screw up than Curt Schilling has with 38.

I can’t entirely agree with Scott about the effect on MMOs though, because big budget AAA MMOs were already pretty much on the outs. You can tell this because Michael Pachter recently said so, and he only ever makes predictions after the event.

One of the interesting things about this story though is that both Bioware Austin and 38 Studios put out pretty decent games that got some critical acclaim. Neither Amalur nor SWTOR are bad games, and both were reasonably successful in the market. Just their funding model needed more than ‘reasonably successful’ – in 38 Studio’s case it is because their management can’t handle simple maths and in Bioware’s case it’s because for some reason EA felt that ploughing unfeasibly massive amounts into the game was going to pay off. (Nice bonus for players I guess, because it does feel lush.)

SWTOR will be profitable, incidentally.  It will just take a few months longer than EA predictions and that’s why it is being seen as a failure. Whereas in fact it sold more boxes more quickly than any other western MMO in the market and has fairly decent retention figures for an MMO, even allowing for number massaging. In any case, they’ve just announced that patch 1.3 (which will include a random dungeon finder) is going onto the test server imminently and that they have plans to consolidate servers into super-servers, which are both needed updates.

Shintar shares some hopes and fears that she has for the new patch.

Anyhow, it’s sad for the staff, obviously. But we’re in a recession and MMOs are risky business at the best of times, and these things happen (especially when your management are a bucket of tits, which isn’t really the case for Bioware). Hopefully they’ll find something else swiftly. I’ll miss Stephen Reid/Rockjaw, he was a great CSM.

Soloing in MMOs

Keen also found time to muse this week about why people solo in MMOs (remember in my last incredibly wise words of wisdom to new bloggers I noted that soloing vs grouping was one of THOSE topics?), claiming that MMOs aren’t single player games. So why do devs want to try to mimic single player gameplay?

I am referring to the open and deliberate act of making a very core part of a MMO into a single-player experience as if the players were offline.

Bernardparsnip at Diminishing Returns reflects on players who might want some of the advantages of mas…sive games without the disadvantages.

I recognize that there is a demographic of players that want the benefits of an MMO – a persistent world, frequent content updates, a player-driven economy, opportunities for PvP and cooperative play, without the disadvantages inherent with playing with others.

Azuriel takes a different tack and wonders whether MMOs really do suck as single player games.

…in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG.

My view is that we’re seeing traditional boundaries between single player and multiplayer games come crashing down around us, and players may not yet be sure exactly what they do want. This sense of wanting all the benefits of massive multiplayer games (like a vibrant player based economy and instant groups whenever you want them) without the negatives (like having to actually talk to anyone or rely on other players in any way) is very strong in the current crop of games.

I think Journey laid this out most neatly with having other players viewed as friendly but nameless entities, and Dee wonders if maybe the public quests in GW2 will have the same effect. But it won’t ever be the same as the sort of communities that more forced socialising will bring together, we could end up with people playing side by side but always on their own.

Ultimately I’d like to see more gating in future games, allowing players to build up communities of interest in games of their choice. What if I want to play EVE but without having to play with the more sexist, racist, homophobic players who seem to populate it (going by forum posts at least)? This is going to become more and more of an issue for anyone running online games in future, I suspect, as players lose their tolerance for playing with random dickweeds. (This will come to be seen as one of the negatives of MMOs that people would like to avoid.)

Zubon has a really smart post about how different games attract a different type of player and suggests people flock to games which seem to be populated with players like themselves.

But there is a flaw in his argument, which is how exactly are you going to find this out? If I search round EVE blogs and forums, I’ll find a lot of very aggressive posturing and the aforementioned sexist, racist, etc. language. But I do happen to know people who play EVE who aren’t like that, so it isn’t universal.

Similarly, WoW is so large that it probably contains communities of just about every MMO player type under the sun if you can find them. So characterising it as the McDonalds of MMOs isn’t quite true in terms of the playerbase. It’s more of a mosaic than a least common denominator known for poor but consistent quality.

While LOTRO is justly known for its attention to the setting, I’d also say it was a haven for more mature gamers and for RPers. But that was before it went F2P and it may have changed since then. So how would a new player know?

So while I think Zubon makes a good argument, it just places more emphasis on how /the community/ constructs explanations of what type of player different games attract and then communicates it. And bloggers bear a lot of the responsibility for this. When I write that my guild in SWTOR are laid back, friendly, casual players and raiders, people will assume this is normal for the game. It probably is! But you’re just getting one player’s view.

Redbeard tackles a similar topic from the point of view of new players in WoW at the moment.

If Blizz is serious about bringing in and keeping new blood, then they have to address the social issues in WoW.  This isn’t Pollyanna country, and it ain’t EVE, either.  People like to be welcomed and respected and tolerated.  If they feel the environment is toxic, they’ll move on.  You can’t expect a new player to blindly stumble through all of the social pitfalls and land in a good guild without guidance, and likewise you can’t expect someone to blithely ignore all of the social issues that some players bring to WoW.

Diablo 3

Clearly we haven’t had enough posting about D3 yet. I’m still having fun with the game but slowing down now that I’m in Hell level on my barbarian. I don’t know that I can honestly see this as an evergreen game I’d be playing months from now (especially if Torchlight 2 and GW2 and updates to SWTOR are coming out). The Auction House is definitely impacting on the game’s lifespan in my view, and they haven’t launched the real money AH yet.

Hugh at the MMO Melting Pot (who you should follow for excellent daily aggregations of MMO blogging) collects some more views on the auction house.

The Ancient Gaming Noob has played both Diablo 3 and the Torchlight 2 beta and gives a thorough comparison between what he has seen of the games.

Milady explains why she thinks Diablo 3 is a wellmade mistake.

They had many years to consider how to best mine money from their users, and Diablo III in its entirety is what they came up with. From Blizzard’s perspective, the gear barrier is there so you are forced to buy to continue; the barrier to grouping in Inferno is built so you cannot be too effective at higher levels, and are forced to grind on your own and buy loot; the enforced multiplayer exists solely to apply peer-pressure to your gearing up, so you need to resort to the AH to play with them.

Rohan argues that Elective Mode in D3 is a mistake.

Green Armadillo lists a lot of things that D3 is not and wonders if Blizzard were right to keep the name.

And Gevlon explains why he thinks D3 just doesn’t work as a competitive game.

Straw Fellow defends Blizzard’s decision to require D3 players to be always online.

Microsoft and the Console Wars

Microsoft may face a ban on imports of the XBox 360 into the US and Germany because of patent infringement. I assume they’ll settle with Motorola out of court, but it would be an amusing way to lose the console wars.

It would be nice to think that the patent rats nest might get sorted out sometime soon, but since there is no real sign of that happening, better hope your favourite manufacturer knows how to play the game.

And finally …

Berath ponders why there are so few gaming blogs focussed on shooters, given how many people play them.

Xintia explains why Bioware are great at telling stories but bad at designing games.

And Melmoth waxes lyrical about the general chat channel in TERA.

What was fascinating about the channel was that it had become a microcosm of the blogosphere: nearly every general topic that I’ve seen repeatedly touched upon over the past five or so years of blogging was mentioned in this one place, all in the fast forward nature of a back-and-forth conversation between people whose attention was invariably elsewhere. I quickly found myself privately playing Cassandra to any topic raised, knowing full well the future of each discussion, where the disagreements would come from, and the conclusions which would be drawn.

[Diablo 3] Some links: Barbarian builds, comedy, metacritic scores, Torchlight 2 beta

D3barrel

I forgot to mention yesterday how fun it is to destroy the scenery, not to mention the various barrels, in D3. I’ve seen regular barrels, water barrels and torture barrels – not quite sure what the latter ones are.

Anyhow, since loads of people are playing Diablo 3 at the moment I thought I’d share some links today.

Barbarian Builds

My build changes regularly, like every time I want to try out a new rune or decide to respec for more mobility or more survival or more fury or more heals on crits – you get the picture. There is an interesting interplay between gear and spec that I hadn’t previously picked up on, in that you do need a certain amount of survivability in the higher difficulty levels but you have some choice as to how you want to acquire it. So a highly defensive gearset might support more offensive skills. Or something like that, certainly as you gear up through a level there seems to be more scope to experiment with less defensive builds.

Anyhow, here are a couple of builds that other people are using in Hell/ Inferno level.

Dean’s Hell level barbarian guide

Writhan’s barbarian guide to Inferno level

Sooru discusses his build and play style in Act I of Inferno mode with a barbarian.

Players in general are being quite proactive about posting builds up on the official forums and I’m sure the same is happening on D3 fansites as well.

Comedy Plot Roundup

I found this in the official forums, there are plot spoilers but he’s not that far from the actual plot.

Asmodan: “Puny human! I am the evil master strategist and I show it by frontal assault with no vanguard and a demon in the larder. Fear my cunningivity!”
Player: “Now you’re making !@#$ up. Time to take the fight to you, if only to shut you up. Nothing personal, really. Besides, I can see the family resemblance to Belial.”
Asmodan: “Are you mocking me? ARE YOU MOCKING ME?! I tankrushed hundreds of noobs in C&C, I’ll have you know!”
Player: “Actually, that explains quite a lot. Up for a game of Stratego?”
Asmodan: “RAWR!”
Player. “I’ll say.”

Metacritic and the Problem of Crowdsourced Reviews

I’m all for freedom of expression, but when the haters rush the review sites it’s hard to get a meaningful review from crowdsourced sites like Amazon or Metacritic. Or in other words, yes I get that you hate the DRM but apart from that what is the game like?

Gamepolitics.com reports on the deluge of embittered critics on Metacritic. For sure it’s annoying when you can’t play a game you paid for, but some people like reviews to also consider the gameplay rather than representing a spike of frustration.

So at least pro (or even non pro) game reviewers still have something to offer, even if people hate their opinions too. Metacritic in particular is so vulnerable to this type of hate-bombing that it is losing any value it ever had as a review aggregator and instead is more of a – I don’t know – opinion survey? For a very specific set of opinions.

Patrick Garratt at VG247 wonders about Metacritic’s relevance. He also highlights Blizzard’s refusal to allow pre-release review copies which means that any reviews you read must have been compiled after release and explains why that could be a good trend.

I am quite curious to see what the more authoritative pro reviewers make of D3, and hopefully we’ll see more of this in the upcoming week. I enjoy it very much as a game (which is my personal bottom line), but it also has major failings that leave questions in my mind.

Torchlight 2 Beta

Runic rather smartly held a weekend beta for Torchlight 2 last weekend, with no NDA, so first impressions are scattered around the internet. My personal feel is that I plan to play it, but it will be really hard for me to go back to a talent tree based system after D3. I also love storytellling, even if it’s really cheesy, which is another point in favour of D3 for me.

(I know, my tastes in games are not cool Winking smile )

Pete at Dragonchaser is more of a fan of talent trees and feels differently. Even reading this I die a bit inside when he gets excited about spending 5  points per level on stats – I always hated that aspect of RPGs.

Arb waxes lyrical about her ferret, and that’s not a euphemism.

Here’s some discussion about the T2 beta from rpg.net

[Diablo 3] The good, the bad, and the state of the game (minor spoilers)

diablologo

So, I’m coming up for air from some serious bouts of Diablo 3 this week, albeit not as serious as the guy who already soloed Diablo on Inferno mode, or the guys from Method who killed him in a 4 man group on the same setting. That does seem quite fast given how difficult Blizzard touted inferno mode as being but I am sure it will still be plenty hard for normal players, especially since they’ll have had to play the game through three times before they get to pick that setting.

Meanwhile your narrator is on Act 2 of Nightmare Mode (that’s the next one up from normal) and has been playing a bit of co-op in Normal Mode with Arb. I’ve been enjoying it; Diablo 3 is a fun game, I am a sucker for the gothic grimdark Heaven and Hell themes, and there is a lot to like about it. In fact, there are many utterly and genuinely great things you should know about D3.

The Good

* THE CLASS DESIGN AND TALENT SYSTEM. This isn’t just good, it’s amazing. No futzing around with talent trees trying to decide if you want 1% extra block here or +10 resist vs undead trees there (that kind of fiddling is purely in the gear), instead you get to pick 6 attacks which will be bound to keys 1-4 and the left/right mouse buttons. Each ability is distinctive and has immediately recognisable effects on the screen and in play, and you get to further customise the ability as you unlock runes by levelling up. Finally someone has twigged that players want their choices to matter immediately and in every fight. That is what this system accomplishes. While Blizzard start you off with a balanced power set which involves one key for defensive spells, one for your long (ie. 2 min) cooldowns, etc., you can leapfrog this and just bind whichever powers you prefer by picking the Elective Mode (Options-> Gameplay-> Interface).

I’ve never been a fan of talent trees but I adore this system. I’m also fond of being able to respec whenever you aren’t in combat. It encourages players to experiment with some of the synergies and try things out, or respec to more appropriate skills after a boss kicks your arse. And you can tell fairly swiftly if a given skill set is working out for you or not.

Each class is fun, distinctive, and has some solid signature abilities which are thematic to the class. Moving away from mana and the associated mana potions was a great move too. It all works. This is Blizzard design at its finest and deserves to be widely copied.

* COMBAT AND LOOTING. It’s fast and furious, there’s lots of clicking, it’s Diablo.  I especially enjoy the physicality of the whole thing. When characters use their movement powers (ie. charge or leap on the Barbarian) they bound around the screen scattering mobs in their wake in a way that’s both easy to follow and strangely satisfying. When mobs or chests or barrels are destroyed, they throw out a veritable fountain of loot that lands with another satisfying crash on the ground. I also like how you collect gold or health orbs just by being in the vicinity.

I think D3 must have a design goal that the player never has to wander around for more than 20s before encountering some monsters. But that suits me.

* LOYAL TO THE ROGUELIKE ROOTS. There is going to be a lot of discussion with this game about what exactly makes a Diablo game into a Diablo game. Some of this is doubtless Blizzard being lazy, there’s no special need for a Diablo game to go Tristam->Desert->Mountains or reuse plot elements and NPCs into the ground. But there are definitely gameplay features where the game remains close to its roots in a good way. The random packs of mobs with randomly assigned abilities/ suffixes means that the game on harder modes rewards cautious and defensive play above pure damage. It also means there is a heavy dose of luck in exactly how difficult any random fight will be for any class/group.

That’s very much the way you play roguelikes. Sometimes the game throws you into a situation that’s just plain unfair – deal with it, that’s how procedurally generated games work. It drives you into developing a play style and character that is able to cope with the unexpected.

* GOOD USE OF ACHIEVEMENTS. I’m not the greatest fan of achievements but they do work really well here, there’s a good set of achievement goals for everyone from the casual player who is happy rerunning normal mode over and over again to the ultra hardcore.

I think it’s a nice touch that you get to see when any of the people on your friends list get an achievement. I liked it in WoW and I like it here too.

* SLICK MULTIPLAYER. It’s a fun game on multiplayer, and very easy to drop into one of your friends’ games and then teleport to them.

d3merge

* DIVERSITY. After the general fuss over the demon hunter (I still hate the heels) I’m really happy to say that D3 actually does make some good steps with diversity. In particular, Tyrael appears as a dark skinned guy, there’s some use of older characters (such as Cain, Adria, and the male Barbarian and Monk) and younger ones (the emperor) and it isn’t always the women who betray your character/s.

I’ve also shown images of the female barbarian (NM Act2)  and wizard (Normal Act 1) above, and I think they both look great without being stripperific.

It’s open to debate as to whether any of the PCs or NPCs are or could be gay. I actually think all the main characters are written to be sexless, and the enchantress and templar are just naive.

* GOOD USE OF BOOK SNIPPETS. I enjoyed the use of lore text via snippets of books, diaries, and journals that you find around the world, which are read out to you. I like that you can keep killing stuff while you listen. The actual game journal itself could have used being better designed so that you could search it more easily afterwards. Bioware’s codexes are good examples of how this could work.

* GOOD WRITING FOR COMPANIONS/ CRAFTERS. For me the best written parts of the game were the companion storylines, which are fed to you via snippets and short conversations as you progress through the game, Bioware-style. All those companions and the two crafters had solid story arcs and I rather enjoyed them. Yes, they’re stereotypes but that’s not really an issue for this game.

There is also some fun NPC dialogue on the various villagers and associates at your camp which changes between quests as the story progresses.

I did feel very Conan when I ventured out on my Barbarian with the sleazy scoundrel companion. It could have happened in a Robert E Howard book.

* ATMOSPHERE. I think this worked best in Act 1, but there is a definite atmosphere. I felt immersed, I wanted to know what was going to happen. I don’t think this game is as effective as Diablo 2 in setting up either the mystery or the terror of these vast unknowable good/evil powers duking it out over the earth. Back then, I was genuinely scared when I first encountered Diablo himself – my partner ended up sitting next to me and using the healing potions because I was so nervous of actually fighting the dude on my own. Maybe I’m a more hardened gamer now, and used to tanking boss mobs, or maybe they just don’t set up the terror like they used to.

The Neutral

* SERVICEABLE STORYLINE. The story in D3 does the job, but it’s patchy. Act 1 is generally solid. Act 2 is all over the place but picks up after you get the dead mage guy on board (I love his voice actor), Act 3 is slow but picks up a lot towards the end and Act 4 is fast but has some good set pieces. Like TAGN I wasn’t thrilled to find myself heading out for the same desert in Act 2 that I played in Diablo 2. It’s reusing old plot elements just a little too much there.

There are plot holes, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” or “How did my character know that?” The biggest one to me is from Act 1 where someone talks about the rarity of Nephelem to Act 2 (I think) onwards where everyone starts referring to you as one. I don’t recall that particular revelation taking place. It would have been better if it’d been part of the PCs backstory, included in the initial introductory video clip.

There is also some plot driven stupidity, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Curse your sudden and inevitable betrayal,” or “OK, I figured out who character X was within about 2s of first meeting them, why has it taken the PC and everyone else the entire rest of the act to do so?”

* NPCs mostly exist to open doors for you. I just thought I’d note that in passing. I liked the ensemble feel of Acts 1-3, with NPCs occasionally dropping into your party for a quest or three. It did feel as though you were interacting with them.

* The Auction House really changes the difficulty of the game. If you are regularly buying appropriate yellow gear from the auction house, you will be playing this game on a vastly easier difficulty rating than if you go it single player style and only use your own drops and merchants. I think this will definitely affect how quickly people blast through it.

* You will need to play defensive in higher difficulties. Ignore the tempting 2H weapons and amazing offensive powers, if you want to survive in the harder modes, you’ll need to grab a shield and spec defensively. This means lots of vitality. So really, the game isn’t as flexible as its billed. It’s not that there is one true spec for each class, I think they have more diversity than that, but defensive trumps offensive.

The Bad

* LAG. It’s just not right to have lag in a single player game. It directly affects the play experience and it’s built in. I don’t much like the always-online requirement, but where gameplay is affected I find it unforgiveable.

* THIS IS THE NPCS STORY. Blizzard do this a lot, in SC and in WoW also, and that is focussing so much on telling the story through the NPCs that it becomes their story. You are the hired muscle. It worked for them in WC because you were actually playing the story NPCs in the scenarios. But as soon as you introduce your own character, there isn’t really much space for it in their storytelling.

The final cut scene really highlights this. There isn’t even a closing narration from your character about whatever it plans to do next.  There isn’t much closure for some of the NPCs either. I get that there’s bound to be an expansion but the ending here feels rushed, and they could have done better.

* DIFFICULTY. It is partly due to the auction house but this game falls on the easy side. Admittedly I’ve only touched on the first two difficulty levels and I can see how it will ramp up, but there’s difficulty and then there’s difficulty. I’m struggling to put this into words really, but I feel as though there’s something missing.

* RANDOM EVENTS DISAPPOINT. I loved the random events during the beta, but those ones near the beginning of Act 1 are by far the most interesting in the game. After that, it’s mostly ‘defend this objective against waves of mobs’ or ‘kill these demons which suddenly appear.’ Blizzard have the ability in D3 to slot in some far more interesting random events and we know from WoW that they have the skills to design them. They just didn’t.

* HOW MANY TIMES DO WE WANT TO REPLAY THIS? The idea of having to replay the game several times in order to set a harder difficulty was fairly core in D1 and 2, but feels very dated now. It’s like having a MMO where the maximum level is 60 but they only put in half the zones and after that you had to play them again on ‘hard mode.’

It’s not that I precisely mind replaying it, but having four difficulty levels highlights the issue.

* INCOMPLETE. This game was released without the ranked PvP or real money auction house. The latter is due to be online sometime soon (I think they said 23rd May) and I have no personal interest in PvP in Diablo but those were two sizeable factors that appealed to large sections of the community. And they aren’t there.

Sooru (you should follow his blog if you are playing D3) rounds up some more areas where he feels that game lacks polish.

[NBI] Content: What should you write and how should you write it?

Welcome to issue 2 of my advice to new gaming bloggers. This is the part where I state the obvious for a paragraph or too, and then discuss  it so brilliantly that you forget it was obvious and you already knew it.

If you are a gaming blogger, you should blog about games from time to time. Preferably games that you are playing. You may see other bloggers spawn huge comment threads by writing provocative opinion columns or raising knee-jerk issues (ie. issues that are guaranteed to get a reaction), but before you throw yourself headlong into a flamewar frenzy, bear one thing in mind. What people really enjoy is to read opinions that agree with their own, especially if they feel that their opinion is a minority. There is probably a psychological phrase for this, but it makes those readers feel good about themselves.

I’m not saying you should write for anyone except yourself, but if you write about things that you enjoy in your favourite game/s of the moment, you will probably attract a readership who are in tune with that. If you write about a great time you had in the game, readers will remember why they also liked that game. If you write about how much you enjoy grouping in MMOs (I’m using Skaggy as an example because he posted this today), it reminds readers of why they enjoy/ed grouping in MMOs. If you write about the joys of soloing, you’ll please readers who connect with that too. So even if you are in a gaming slump, try to post more positive articles than negative ones. It’s good for your mental state and it makes other people happy too. If you read a lot of older gaming blogs, you’ll see that people like Tobold and Syncaine are careful to schedule some positive posts even when they are mostly feeling negative about the genre. It is a way of connecting to readers who also enjoy games, and if they didn’t enjoy games they wouldn’t be reading gaming blogs in the first place. It is also a way to remind people who game that you are ‘one of them’. This can sometimes get lost if you tend to use a more formal writing style, or focus on writing guides. None of those things are bad, but writing about your own positive experiences will always engage with readers.

You will never go wrong with a post that describes how you had fun in a game. I am sure it is possible to offend more people than you gain via your notion of fun, but I’ve never actually seen anyone do it. If the fun involves playing an underplayed class or much-hated-on game or playing style  then so much the better, because you’re also demonstrating to other people that fun doesn’t have to involve minmaxing or playing ‘the cool new hotness’.

Or if you want to write about how much fun minmaxing is for you, then that’s good too.

How much of yourself to put into your posts

Some blogs thrive on the personal voice of the writer. Others may use a team of writers, focus on curating links, or cultivate a more professional writing style. You should never feel pushed to reveal more of yourself than you feel comfortable with. If you want to write a high concept theorycrafting blog then there’s no need to write about how games affect you emotionally, especially if they don’t. If on the other hand you are an emotional person or want to use your blog to let off steam, a blog can be a good way to do this.

Warning: Do not blog about your guild or in game friends without thinking hard about how they might feel if they read it. Everyone else will LOVE reading about guild drama, it has a sort of car crash fascination, but getting it off your chest a) might not make you feel better and b) might get back to them and increase the drama. If you’ve thought it over and you’re OK with that, then go for it and send me the link Smile

Readers do like to get a sense of the person behind the blog, because that way they can build up a sort of relationship. I’m sure anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile will have a sense for my gaming interests and how I tend to play and think about games.The longer you stick at it, the more likely your persona is to end up embedded in the blog whether you mean to or not. Your opinions and attitudes will colour what you write about and how you write it. While it is possible to front a persona for the purposes of blogging, authenticity is what attracts readers. Be genuine. Don’t pretend to like something you hate. Don’t be afraid to admit you like something that you like. And don’t be afraid to write about why you like or dislike those things.

Topics that will usually get a reaction

This is just based on my experience. Don’t do this just to get a reaction, just be aware that if you want to write about these things it may happen.

  • Posts about feminism or discussion of sexy character costumes in games
  • Ditto for racism or portrayals of gay characters
  • Pictures of cute animals
  • List posts. ie. title is something like ‘X reasons to buy Diablo 3.’ (Please don’t make your entire blog into list posts.)
  • Posts connecting your subject to something currently in the news.
  • Posts about casual vs hardcore gaming
  • Posts about soloing vs grouping in MMOs
  • Direct attacks on other bloggers/blogs. Blog flamewars can be kind of fun, though.
  • Anything really negative about a fan favourite game (rabid fans have some kind of psychic way to find these things)
  • Anything really positive about Blizzard or Bioware

And a couple more ideas to get you going

Rowan has some advice on RSS feeds and blog lists. I rely heavily on RSS to source links for my link posts, and one of my fallbacks for post content is to look through the reader at what other bloggers have written and see if I feel inspired to reply via blog post to any of them. It’s polite to link to the post you are referencing.

I saw this in problogger recently, it’s a link to a google spreadsheet that will draw in recent articles on a topic of your choice. I thought that looked like an interesting way to generate some ideas so am passing it on here too.