Ethics and the Morality Wheel. Why choices create characters.

One of the appealing factors of MMOs for a lot of players is that you can create your own character.  But what does that really mean?

The standard setup is you can design what they look like, pick a gender, maybe race and age if the character generator allows it, and give them a name. In a sandbox game you can then decide some goals for that character (and show that they are the goals by going off and actually doing it.) In a themepark game your goals are more restricted but you can still say “this will be my PvP alt”, or “this is the alt I’ll level with my bf/gf.”  If you are a RPer (or just like writing backgrounds) then you might also give your character an in game back history. Some games or addons let you share that with other players.

Hopefully the game intro  will then give you some setting framework to hang your character on. In WoW you will start in your racial starting area and pick up extra information about your character’s home culture as you go, for example.

Maybe you’ll pick out a personality or character for your new creation as you go along. (The default in games is the chaotic greedy alignment who doesn’t like taking orders but goes along with whatever gives the best rewards. Sometimes you’ll get the lawful lazy alignment,  where your character follows orders and doesn’t think about it much.)

So what difference does a mechanic like the morality wheel in Bioware games make to that?

A very different type of chargen (character generation) was in Ultima 4 where… you were asked to answer some ethical multi-choice questions in a gypsy’s caravan. The answers affected your starting class, and in the rest of the game you were vaguely encouraged to be virtuous by the game mechanics. It was interesting and different at the time, and felt as though you were really generating a personality … or at least a few traits.

agent1

It’s a feature in Bioware games in particular that you will be making a lot of semi-ethical conversation choices as you play through the game. So in a way, you can keep defining or redefining your character’s personality as bit as you go along. I was trying to decide this week why that felt effective to me. So here’s one particular example where I made a choice in a conversation in SWTOR, and although it made no difference at all to the plot, I felt strongly afterwards that my character had become more real to me. Or at least, I knew how to keep ‘playing’ him in conversations if I wanted to keep that character trait.

This character is my agent, he’s pretty dark side which means ruthless, unforgiving, kills at the drop of a hat, all that regular nasty stuff. I usually pick dark side options in conversations. Well, almost always. So the occasions when I don’t are quite memorable to me because I had to stop and think about it.

In this example, I’d been sent off to kill someone. They weren’t especially nice and probably had it coming. But I knew a bit about their history and I’d felt a) I could see why they’d ended up that way and felt a bit sorry for them, because it was a fairly traumatic  upbringing b) the person who was telling me to kill them was way worse, by an order of magnitude.

So during the conversation, at one point, I warned the NPC that their life was in danger and they should get out of dodge. They ignored the warning so I went ahead and fought/ killed them as per orders. I had decided though when I took that light side choice that if they decided to listen and did leave, I’d have let them go.

So here’s what I am wondering. Why is it that a gameplay option that made zero difference to the story (like I say, the NPC paid no attention and I had to kill them anyway) made ME feel different about my character? Like, suddenly I saw him as someone who was a brutal, efficient operative, but not completely heartless or unsympathetic any more. More of a hard man doing a hard job (which is still not a morally strong position) than the total emotionless psycho that he’d seemed up to that point. I’d let the gameworld affect me and my decision making rather than just going along with the ‘yeah, he’ll be pure darkside’ script I’d started with.

Later I added a moral rule that despite being ruthless and all that, he’d probably not kill someone who was injured and alone but would (grudgingly) provide some medical attention instead. That was because he was a healer. Not a nice person still, but there’s an instinct not to hit someone when they’re down if there’s a choice. Again, there was at least one instance where I spoke to someone who was injured, gave them some painkillers, but they died anyway. Didn’t affect the plot; DID affect how I thought about my character.

Ethical Rules in Action

So one of the features of the decision wheel is that you’re encouraged to make ethical decisions all the time, all the way through the levelling stories. But what does that really mean?

Ethics is all about how people decide what they’re going to do in any situation. If a situation demands “what should I do/ say next?” then that’s an ethical decision. One of the ways we make this easier for ourselves (so as to avoid having major moral dilemmas every time we leave the house) is to figure out some basic personal ethical rules that are going to form our own morality.

These might include rules such as:

  • I will not lie.
  • I will be punctual.
  • I will be nice to strangers.

Religions have a lot to say on the subject of ethical rules and will doubtless have some to suggest too (ie. love your neighbour as yourself, judge not lest ye be judged, don’t gossip  – that’s a Jewish one, believe it or not.)

You could get more complex (and most people do) and say:

  • I will not lie, except to prevent harm.
  • I will not lie, unless someone really close asks me to.
  • etc

Professions and organisations often have ethical codes too, to define how they want members to behave.

  • A doctor should act in the best interests of the patient.
  • The customer is always right.

So really, in a Bioware-type game, you’re being given the opportunity to define a code of ethics for your new character, and see how it plays out in the game. You could instead pick random options, or define a code that involves, “Always pick the top left option” or “Always pick the option that my current companion will like” which is going to end up with a character that feels unpredictable or who always is swayed by the people they are with. And that’s a choice too.

There is a lot more to ethics than this. You can decide “I want my character to act like a good person would act’” (virtue ethics), or “I want my character to do whatever gives the best outcome” (consequentialism), or “I want my character to do the right thing whatever the cost” (deontological ethics), or even “I’d do what a good person in this society would do” (pragmatic ethics.)

That’s one way to build a character in a morality type conversation game. There are also others by which you decide “my character is mostly going to do the right thing, but there are exceptions and these are them.”

Anyhow, here are some ethical rulesets I’ve either designed or worked out in play for my SWTOR characters so far. One of the things I enjoy about the morality wheel is that it does allow you to figure out your character in play.

  • My Bounty Hunter is mostly about getting the job done and having some fun. She’s even quite chilled out and humane. But she has a very short temper and itchy trigger finger so if someone pisses her off during a conversation, they may well get shot in the head. (I decided to be light side, but take every conversation option that involved ((shoot him/her))).
  • My Agent is a stone cold bastard, but he’s loyal to the empire and not as heartless as some of the people he works with. He will hesitate before killing people who are in front of him and obviously vulnerable – which is a weakness in an agent, probably.
  • My Sith Warrior is powerful and chafes against being ordered around,  more of a force of nature than a force of evil. She trended light side initially as a way of acting up against her masters, but sank into it deeper because it’s often quite effective, sets people off balance,  and is a sign of how independent she can be. (She’s not ‘good’ so much as likes to assert her own personality – but I think probably has become a better person than she’d think.)

I don’t know if I think they have more personality to me than my WoW Warrior, but I know that her persona is mostly internalised. With these characters, you actually get to act it out.

[Links] GW2 beta, Jita Burns

avengers

Here’s a couple of Avengers* screen shots. That was good fun, an ensemble film that did justice to all the individual characters. Recommended for any superhero fans. Incidentally, Black Widow doesn’t actually wear stilettos anywhere in this film, and especially not while fighting. She’s seen carrying her heels after the first scene where she has a fight, but never actually wearing them.

Given all the hot characters swanning around in tight/ revealing outfits, it’s kind of noticeable how sexless superheroes are as a genre. Gwyneth Paltrow lit up the screen in the few scenes she was in though.

* How did they ever get away with having him call her a ‘mewling quim’? Hilarity all round.

GW2 Beta Feedback

So this weekend was the first ‘open’ beta for GW2, and consequently there are a lot of initial impressions around the web. I’ve linked a few here, but my summary is that opinion was generally positive (although if you’ve paid £50 to be in the beta, there’s quite an incentive to look on the bright side). People enthused about the active combat, the pretty environments, the dynamic quests, and the WvW. However the game isn’t yet finished or fully polished, and in particular issues around server choice (all your alts need to be on the same server) and the overflow mechanism which currently splits parties up when they zone will be red flags if Arenanet leave them as they are now.

Working out how to evaluate a beta is tricky. Most people will still only have low level characters, the server economy and PvP setup won’t be fully mature, and performance issues and balance tweaking could easily change before the end of  beta.

Core mechanics and ‘theme’ are much less likely to change. A warning note to me is Keen’s comment that combat is much more difficult for melee than ranged, with the dodging etc. A few people have also commented that circle strafing is an important strategy, which is worth noting to any players who really hate all the bunny jumping/ circle strafing type of tactics. It will be interested to see if more people comment on this in future betas as they have higher level characters, because that’s not a great balance feature.

GW2 Feedback:

  • Chris at LevelCapped“there are some issues, and not all of them can be attributed to “beta””
  • Tremayne’s Law — “the automatic levelling down of players to match the area they’re in is pure genius”
  • Tales of the Aggronaut“This time around I allowed myself to wander aimlessly, explore, and work my way through the various objectives on the map in a much more fluid way.”
  • Of Course I’ll Play It“every mechanic in GW2 seems designed to just be as player friendly as it can possibly be.  Buffs don’t work on your party, they work on people in your area.”
  • Raging Monkeys“I am enjoying the combat mechanics in GW2, as I knew I would. Auto-attack and circle strafing take some getting used to”
  • Melmoth at Kiasa – “The devoted passion of EVE’s players is something which I also recognise in the Guild Wars community, as well as in the team at ArenaNet, and I feel that it is this passion which is intrinsic to the best of MMO experiences.”
  • Keen says Overflow has got to go and wonders if the combat feels clunky
  • Cyndre at KillTenRats“Within an hour I wasn’t even bothering to do most of the events because they were terribly uninspired and the rewards were simply not motivating enough to grind content to achieve.”

I also noticed comments about the voice acting not being very good and stories a bit lacking. SWTOR has raised the bar hugely in this respect, I think players haven’t entirely realised yet how much. (I was playing an Agent over the weekend and … frankly the storytelling on that class is phenomenal. And such clever use of MMO mechanics like quests to simulate mind control. The only reason I’m not writing posts about it is because I don’t want to give out any spoilers.)

ie. Expect all future MMOs to feel lacking in voice acting and storytelling if you’ve played SWTOR at all. They won’t come anywhere near. Judge them on other aspects instead.

Another thing to watch out for with the WvW setup is that players will tend to flock to the realms with the best WvW reputation, at least if there are bonuses to be had from winning the WvW battlefronts. Especially the PvE players who want the bonuses but aren’t personally interested in PvP. I’m going to be interested to see if ArenaNet has any plans for server balancing to try to spread the PvP guilds out a bit.

Burn Jita

OK, EVE event coming up. Goons decided to siege a high security trading hub this weekend. The problem with trying to report on EVE events is that there are three reasons why these player driven events are meaningful to people:

  • You were there, or personally involved. Events that affect a large amount of players are more meaningful to more people. There is some debate about exactly who gets affected and by how much.
  • An impressive amount of player organisation was involved. Like, an event which took 3 months of planning by hundreds of players.
  • Many players are deeply invested in the game/ event and will be talking about it as if it was the most important thing in the universe. ie. lots of spin.

EVE has a lot of highly invested players, and being on a single server means that a single player driven event can affect a lot of players. Having said that, congrats to everyone involved in making it happen – but I still wouldn’t go near EVE with a bargepole.

I am a bit puzzled how if the blockade happened for 2 hours per day in US prime time it could really count as a blockade. I mean, I don’t even play EVE but presumably if I could just log in before work and do my trading while the americans were asleep, it’s not a very exciting event. If you do this properly, you get your minions on other continents to get involved too and have it happen around the clock, surely.

Gevlon argues that Goons are spinning their influence out of all proportion. Well yes, that’s what happens in every EVE player event. Something happens, and then everyone argues about whether it affected them or not – because if you buy into the sandbox, then you want to FEEL as though you were affected by other player’s actions. It’s the next best thing to being there yourself, which if stuff tends to happen in other timezones, won’t always be possible.

More Links

The Wizard 101 guys announce a new Pirate themed game. That’ll be worth keeping an eye out for.

Jester at Jester’s Trek wonders if players have an abusive relationship with EVE Online. I’m not thrilled with that metaphor – I think addiction works better to describe what he’s talking about. But I also don’t think it’s a positive way to look at a game, I would have stopped playing before that point.

Scary carries on with his Bloggapalooza, in which he asked a load of MMO bloggers (including yours truly) some deep and meaningful questions about gaming such as “if you got reincarnated as a game character, who would you be”?”

Harpy’s Nest considers what it means to achievement minded players if Blizzard make all achievements account wide in the next expansion.

“I repeat content on my alts just because there is a blank space in my achievement list. I explore places I know like the back of my hand, flying over old familiar hidey holes, taking screenshots and thinking about all the memories they gave me. I do old favourite quests and farm rep with people who already love me on four other characters. I get out into the world because my achievements aren’t currently shareable and I know plenty others who do the same.”

This is pretty much the opposite of how I play, incidentally. So I think it’d be kind of amusing if I could create a new panda with the “Hand of A’dal” title from my old druid, and the Chinese Olympic memorial pet (it’s a little flying chinese dragon, so v appropriate actually) from my warlock. But I can see that for people who love grabbing achievements on new alts, this would actually cut down their content.

Skaggy, who is one of my SWTOR guildmates, has a new blog intended for newcomers to SWTOR. So go give him some love! (And watch out for new blog encouragement events all over the MMO blogosphere next month.)

[Question of the Day] What is your favourite live event/ holiday event in an MMO?

The rakghoul plague continues, with additional daily quests being unlocked as time goes by. We hung out in guild groups last night and headed out to complete the quest that gives the crimson rakghoul pet, which was a lot of fun. Mostly for the company and jokes on voice chat.

Because you get rakghoul DNA when you die of the plague and there is also a daily quest to infect other people, large infection ‘parties’ have been rolling on the fleet. This basically involves everyone standing around in a group for long periods of time, waiting to be infected/ explode, and then repeat ad infinitum. I wouldn’t exactly call this fun, but if you just want to keep the game window open while you do something else online, it’s a very easy way to get the tokens.

Anyhow, this has all been making me think about other live events or holiday events that I have enjoyed in other games. Here are some of my favourites:

LOTRO: The Yule Festival Theatre

LOTRO has tended to go with hobbit/shire type of themes for holiday quests, with the local equivalent of maypole dancing, apple bobbing and foot races featuring strongly. Some of these themed mini-games are more fun than others, and then there are elements like this theatre which are like nothing I have ever seen in any other game.

The theatrical event involves an NPC theatre company putting on a play. If you are in the audience, you may get a chance to participate as one of the actors.  This involves being given a role and at certain points in the play, you’ll be given a chance to do an emote – you can get titles for picking appropriate ones. If you are in the audience and not selected to act, you can also take part by throwing flower petals or rotten fruit at actors who perform well or badly; doing this appropriately also gives you tokens.

I love this because it’s so completely bonkers, doesn’t involve killing random mobs, encourages players to have fun and interact,  and is still somehow completely thematic. More of this kind of thing please!

 

WoW: Hallow’s End

WoW has some great holiday events, although they press you far too hard to be a completionist (this is probably a bonus if you are a completionist anyway) and tend to get dull after you have seen them once. I had to think quite hard to pick my favourite, which came down to either Brewfest  (which probably has the best minigames) or Hallow’s End but the manically rhyming headless horseman pipped this one for me. Also as a Forsaken player I love this quest because it is so thematic and actually plays a real role in the game world (ie. festival for forsaken to celebrate their freedom from the lich king) other than just being a standin for a real life holiday.

There is plenty to do during Hallow’s End, including saving the poor starter towns from the headless horseman’s wrath once an hour, heading into the Scarlet Monastery graveyard with a high level group to lay him to rest and try to win cool pets and mounts, playing trick or treat on your guildmaster and other notables, collecting wacky masks, and so on. This was actually the first holiday event in which WoW included a holiday boss, if I remember rightly, which is something they have started adding to other holidays also.

So it’s the well themed holiday along with the vast amount of cool stuff to do for everyone from newbies to endgame players that makes this one a winner for me. I think it’s generally one of the more popular holidays.

 

WoW: Gates of Ahn’Quiraj

This was possibly the most epic event that ever took place on WoW servers, involving everyone in helping to unlock the new raid and daily quests associated with Ahn Quiraj. It also crashed a lot of servers when the gates opened, and Blizzard decided never to do anything like it again.

But I remember it fondly, and some of the hardcore guilds got involved with organising and rewarding more casual players to get them to help out. There was a time when every server had to have at least one player who had completed the questline (which included raid kills and crazy grinds so they would have been a member of a hardcore guild) in order for those zones to become available. Back in the day before server transfers, this was a much bigger deal than it is now.

 

DaoC: The Poetry Contest

When I played Dark Age of Camelot, I don’t remember holiday events being much of a thing so if we wanted events on our servers, they were either organised by players or by GMs. The poetry contest was a genuine live event, and was organised by GMs on our server in the Hibernia realm (I guess they felt it was thematic for mythic ireland to have poetry contests).

So they advertised the event on forums and encouraged guilds to submit entries. When the event itself happened, GM characters took on the role of storytellers and marshalled the competitors, and then led everyone off to hear a story and kill a boss mob (I think). What made this event stand out is that players really got involved. We had a good crowd of players at the contest, people were enthusiastic about cheering the poets who they found most entertaining, and everyone was generally playing along happily and not griefing.

For me and Arb, this one is particularly memorable because we had formed a newish guild for alts on the realm and our guild was broke and the prize from the poetry competition (which was about 1000g I think) would have let us do some stuff we really wanted to with guild banks. One of our guildies entered the content, and the player was a 15 year old who was   very nervous about this. As soon as he stepped up on his little lurikeen with his poem about how much he liked blowing things up (which was in contrast to the more po-faced earlier poems), the audience  went wild and everyone was bouncing up and down and casting buffs on him to show that they loved it.

He won the contest. It’s one of my favourite memories from that game.

I recall Warhammer Online also had some good holiday events, I think Witching Night was one of our favourites there. And sandbox games can spawn some fun live/ player-driven events too if you happen to be in at the right time.

Do you like live/ holiday events, and which are your favourites?

[SWTOR] A live event! Starring rakghouls, pets, and blowing people up

(If you are reading this post because you are hoping to find a detailed walkthrough of the Rakghoul Plague event and associated quests and rewards, you can find that here at mmo-mechanics. I want to talk more about the storytelling and how we experienced it).

Yesterday, Bioware surprised the player base by launching an unexpected and unheralded live event, which looks as though it will last for at least a week. It starts on the fleet/s, or if you are like me starts with your partner yelling across the room “Log in, we’re going to Tatooine….”

This is because the first indication players had that something was going on was via announcements over the fleet about a dangerous contamination on Tatooine of the rakghoul virus from Taris. News terminals also appeared on the fleet, which played a cut scene of news announcers talking about the dangers and the imperial edicts that rakghouls should be destroyed.

rakghoul1

(the announcement said that people should on no account go to Tatooine, so clearly all player characters took this as a sign to head out there immediately!)

I’m a bit unclear on the actual process by which players found the event quests and location, since by the time I got there, my guild were sorting themselves out and there was a lot of voice chat around getting everyone to the right spot. Or in other words, I found out via other players rather than through Bioware’s carefully crafted cut scenes and NPC announcements in local chat. However, more patient players or people who like exploring will find all the information they need in the town by the Tatooine spaceport – wandering around and clicking on anything that glows is a good way to start.

There’s plenty of colour text and background to the situation as well, from the TV screens on Tatooine offering a news report where a reporter explains that all rakghouls or suspected rakghouls are to be terminated with extreme prejudice, while a guy transforms into a rakghoul in the background behind her and is shot by imperial soldiers, to regular NPC announcements from an imperial official on general chat.

None of this, incidentally, is delivered via quest text from an NPC with a quest symbol above its head.

When you get out into the wilds of Tatooine to chase down the crashed spaceship that released the virus and help to contain things by murdering infected sandpeople, the daily quest shows up as soon as you get into the right area. I am assured that the quest scales with level (so as long as you can navigate Tatooine safely, you can take part), and the mobs that spawn for you to kill are related to your own level.

NPC chat in local channel near the outbreak is more about people trying to persuade imperial soldiers that they aren’t infected, no really guv.

rakghoul2

This leads to the typical daily quest setup where you have to kill some mobs, locate some items, kill some more mobs, collect items, then head off to another quest area and do it again, leading to a final encounter with a slightly tougher mob, a cut scene with LS/DS choice, and a final followup. Your quest rewards can be turned in at a special vendor for a number of items including weapon crystals and a pet pale rakling, once you have collected enough of them.

But there is more, including a couple of ‘secret’ quests. The walkthrough linked above discusses those in detail, but one of them involves becoming infected yourself. There are two ways in which you can become infected. Either you pick up the virus from being in the area (on one occasion I got it after just walking into the quest area) or fighting infected mobs, or you can catch the virus if another victim expires near you.

For ease of identification, one of my guildies here models the effects of the rakghoul virus.

krellinfect

It starts with a green aura, then progresses into glowing purple, and finally ends with you as a greenish smear on the ground after having exploded messily. This can all take a varying amount of time.

If you contract the virus you have two options. Take an antidote (which are now sold by stim vendors all over the game world, and also turn up as daily quest rewards) which cures it, or let it run its course and see how many other players you can infect. There is a quest associated with infecting other players that you’ll find out about once you have expired of the plague at least once. Clearly because this is an MMO there are already forum threads by people complaining of being infected against their wishes (although you could just move away from the infected person.)

As part of the daily quests and associated event secret quests, you will also be able to unlock lore about the rakghoul plague outbreak and how the sandpeople have been trying to find a cure.

rakghoullore

As you can see here, these end up in your codex under a new heading of “Events.” And if you get bored of dailies or blowing people up and want to try a different way to get event tokens, you can take out two new world bosses that have been drafted in just for the occasion. (As earlier, check out the walkthrough link at the top of the post for more detailed information.)

We had a lot of fun with this event yesterday and I’m hoping to find more time for pursuing secret quests and blowing people up over the next week or so. Bioware have done a super job with this event, and despite including a lot of standard daily-type quests, it doesn’t feel formulaic or forced. The cut scenes and voice overs from imperial news are excellent. I love how you can find information about what is going on by just going there and getting involved, there’s no questgiver on fleet who pops something up in your quest log but all the information you need is in front of you.

I also love how adding world bosses on Tatooine encourages players to PUG, since they’re going to be there anyway and presumably all want tokens.

It’s really very nicely done indeed. And here finally are some action shots of us fighting more rakghouls in the dunes …

rakghoulfight

Thanks to Arb for some of the screenshots!

[DAW] Developers Appreciation Week: Jane Jensen

Scary has been hosting/ encouraging a week of appreciation for the developers, storytellers, artists and coders who create the games and gameworlds into which we players sink so much of our free time.

My game of choice right now is SWTOR, and I give huge props to Bioware for having made a game that I still thoroughly enjoy playing well after the usual 3-month mark. But I’m winging my developer appreciation this week in a different direction.

Gabriel_Knight_2_29_57_Chapter_4_Neuschwanstein

Ah for the heady days of old school adventure games, where the best of the bunch featured solid research, cool characters, and totally hatstand puzzles. Syp, in timely fashion, has been indulging in some nostalgia and describing his experiences playing Gabriel Knight for the first time. The screenshot here is from Gabriel Knight 2, in which our hero goes to Munich, hangs out with werewolves, and searches for mysteries hidden in Wagner’s operas and Schloss Neuschwanstein. I also seem to remember a scene where one of the sinister yet strangely compelling male alpha  werewolves comes on to your (male) main character, or maybe I imagined that part.

Yeah, imagine that in today’s gaming world. A story that hinges on classic opera. And some batshit puzzles – although not quite as crazed as those featuring in Gabriel Knight 3 which Old Man Murray argues convincingly helped to kill the adventure gaming genre. I have fond memories of playing GK2 with my boyfriend, who had just come back from working in Munich, and was impressed at the attention to detail in aspects like the map of the metro system.

The author behind these classics is Jane Jensen, who has continued to work in the field as well as publishing some GK novels. She’s the developer I’m picking to admire this week because she succeeded in telling the sorts of exciting dark fantasy stories in her games that have made it into gaming history, made a name for herself as a female developer in a field which was still mostly male dominated, and is one of the few old school game designers who was particularly known as a  writer who could be easily named by fans.

She also has a kickstarter up at the moment to produce more story based adventure games, so if you like what you see then go support them.

[The Secret World] The Secret Roleplayer

Funcom’s ‘The Secret World’.

You’ve heard of it, you’ve looked into some of the concepts or gone through their initiation test to see which of their three factions you naturally fall in to. If you’re like me, you’ve shrugged that answer off and picked which faction you like the sound of based purely on their name, or external factors!

It’s a classless secret society MMO, set in a semi-real world environment (of course taking London and New York and the rest of the world and giving us the urban fantasy versions of the cities, where monsters and magic exist). If you’ve jumped aboard the hype train, you’ve also seen the Facebook videos, the ARG sites, and stepped firmly into the ‘Secret’ World.

I’m intrigued by the concept as an MMO. Not necessarily just because it’s something different, but because it harks back to the books I enjoy reading, the RPGs I played with pen and paper back in the day, and even to some extent to the card games I learned years ago and still play with friends when I get the chance (yes, Illuminati, I’m looking at you!!). But over the past few weeks I’ve realised that there’s another big hole for me in MMOs, and which I think The Secret World has the best chance of plugging amongst all the games that are coming up for release. It may actually offer a really good platform for roleplay in MMOs.

I’ve had this discussion and debate since the days of Dark Age of Camelot, and in order to make my point, I should perhaps list the MMOs I’ve played (it makes a difference, trust me). They are: Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online. Any others I’ve dipped into very briefly, such as Everquest 2, Age of Conan and Vanguard with maybe a month of each and not really in with a group or guild – or even seeking out other players, just keeping my head down and seeing what the game was like for a relatively short period.

In games I have played I always join the roleplay server. I try to roleplay, I will ALWAYS respond in roleplay fashion if spoken to first in one. But Dark Age of Camelot was the one most people around me /tried/ to roleplay in. We had some great events, we tried, we really did, but it never came close to text-based roleplay found in MUSHes and MUXes back in the day.

MMO roleplay is restricted by it’s very nature. It’s very inflexible. There’s no human GM tailoring the setting and story to the players. You can’t really choose any look or any background that works, instead you have to fit into a more fixed settingr, the emotes are often rubbish, and it’s hard to really settle into a character, for me, anyway. There are also lots of players who think exchanging ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ for ‘you’ is actual roleplay. Or ‘I have reached my 30th season of experience’ (ding 30!). No further comment.

You can’t really take the role of a baddie, your story progression is there for you, and it’s a hard reach to really think ‘what is my motivation for killing these 10 rats instead of telling this lazy guard with a massive sword to do it himself’. But we forgive those in the name of story and people genuinely DO roleplay on all MMOs… I just don’t have the tolerance for it as things stand right now.

But when it comes to The Secret World, my interest in roleplay is piqued. It reminds me of my World of Darkness MUSH days, and actually  creating a character that I could write a detailed background for and who could be internally conflicted and act appropriately. Maybe it’s because I did more World of Darkness and In Nomine roleplay than I did the more fantasy settings as I was growing up, and the urban fantasy really does grab me far more than Middle-Earth as a world I want to really roleplay in (with apologies to all the lovely fantasy settings, but they just don’t do it for me, roleplay-wise). Like nostalgia for board games, I’m now feeling it for roleplay games and ready to embrace it in a setting I like.

So, I find myself looking at the trailers and information differently. Instead of really caring about the smack-talk about what factions people will play and how much we’ll all hate one another and seek each other out, I am starting to create the background of the character I will play and that I will flesh out and breath life into regardless of everything else. It’s not a case of wanting to even know where and what my friends will play, I believe I’ll be able to have contact with them even if it’s cross-faction and we can form uneasy truces if we want to play together… but with a level-less, classless system, and the ability to play around more with character style and fashion (even if still limited to certain faces and body types), it’ll be an interesting journey, whether it succeeds wildly or falls to its face. And that’s the kind of anticipation I can live with.

Thoughts? Have you played pen and paper RPGs, and if so, how do you think roleplay has worked in current games? Do you avoid like the plague or actively seek it out a lot more than I do? Or if you are an MMO RPer, do you think the pen and paper grognards have totally unrealistic expectations?

And what do you think The Secret World might add or ruin for the genre?

A Kingslayer is you! And some thoughts on raiding.

deathofarthas

Yup, this is what a 25 man LK kill looks like (kids, don’t take screenshots before the mob is actually dead — what I did here is wrong).

It is harder to describe what it feels like. We were screaming on voice chat. Screaming the way we hadn’t been all expansion. Because this isn’t just an unusually awkward raid boss at the end of the patch du jour, for my raid group it represents the end of a long journey which we’ve taken together. And there have been up times, and there have been down times. People have left and people have joined. I’m sure there have been times when the raid leaders wanted to throw in the towel from sheer frustration.

Although we all talked confidently about killing the Lich King someday, at the start of Wrath we were scarred from our experiences in the previous expansion. In TBC our alliance was very newbie friendly, we took on lots of new raiders and taught them to clear Karazhan and Gruul. We never made heavy inroads into Serpentshrine Cavern, people tended to leave to join more hardcore raid guilds if they were keen. It’s what I did also, when I wanted to see Zul Aman and the Black Temple.

So it seems fitting to put that in context. I’d seen more hardcore guilds and decided that wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t know how the tanking would work out, or if we would see Arthas die. But like all the other members of our raid, I wanted to try and make it work.

Wrath has been our expansion. The one where the raid game was aimed primarily at raids like mine. No matter how much more hardcore players try to seize control of the narrative and tell us that only the hard modes really count, I think that’s a decision that each player has to make for themselves. Gevlon has a great post up today where he’s looking at  how players decide to define what it means to win.

[Sirlin says] “A scrub is a player who is handicapped by self-imposed rules that the game knows nothing about.”. Very accurate and very true. But why would anyone do that and how to fix them? “the scrub labels a wide variety of tactics and situations cheap.

In this context, I think self imposed rules such as  ‘I want to raid with my mates’, ‘I want to only raid one/two nights a week’, and/or ‘I want to be part of an established community’ definitely fall in this category. But it’s not cheap, nor does it make a player a scrub. One of the beauties of MMOs is that there is plenty of space for lots of different self imposed rulesets. All you need is a group or leaders that agree with the ones you have picked. And no harm is done to anyone who plays differently, they can just go play with a different group.

So yes, there was a 30% damage/healing/stamina buff in ICC yesterday and although the LK is mostly an execution fight, it definitely helped. But for what it’s worth, last night’s kill feels GREAT.

We played by our self imposed rule and got our self defined victory. So that’s a win. Hard modes await, and we’re not expecting to get the LK hard mode kill. Most of us probably aren’t even interested in that. It’s more about completing Shadowmourne for our raid’s chosen wielder and chilling out with friends until the next expansion.

We were actually the 5th horde side raid to get him. This says more about how few 25 man guilds actually made it to this point in the expansion than it does about our raid alliance, but maybe keeping a casual light-schedule raid together and focussed for this long is an achievement in itself. I know the players who joined us after their more hardcore raids split up said they got a buzz from the kill too.

I wish there were achievements for raid leaders. Because ours deserve them every bit as much as any hardcore raid leader ever did, if not more. For now, the screams of excitement over TS may have to be enough.

We’ve come a long way, baby

longway

If you look back through this blog, you’ll see one of the first entries was me explaining how nervous I felt about being tapped to main tank in Naxxramas at the start of Wrath.

And even before that, like many other players I first encountered Tirion Fording (key NPC in this storyline) back in the Plaguelands, all those years ago. He’s actually one of the big WoW NPCs who was entirely introduced in the MMO and not previously.

Yup, we’ve come a long way baby.

kingslayer

ps. this is the shot from after he actually died, with the achievements at the bottom of the screen and everything to prove it.

pps. naturally he didn’t drop a tanking weapon.

Let’s Play Dwarf Fortress

dwarffort

Are you ready for a grand adventure in architecture, engineering, dwarven culture, and 101 exciting ways to kill off a dwarven civilisation?

Dwarf Fortress is a free, notoriously complex simulation game in which a handful of dwarves set off from the Mountainhome to construct a new dwarven paradise. The dwarves themselves are somewhat autonomous – they have names and personalities, can enter into romances with each other, and you can give each one instructions; but don’t be surprised if they interpret them in unexpected ways. Imagine a cross between The Sims, a roguelike, and Sim City, but rather more complex than any of them. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s an inspirational(?) story about one of the most infamous dwarven fortresses of all time – Boatmurdered. This particular game was played as a succession game, with different players taking charge of the fortress for each year of game time.

Because it is such a fully featured simulation, DF also seems to generate the best stories of any game I know. Every game is different, and some of them are a bit mad.This is another reason I’m determined to try to make some headway with it.

A new version of the game was released this year. And although it is likely to still be a bit buggy, this is the version I plan to use.

Strike the Earth!

World is made of cheese, for you to carve.

It is clear from very early on that I’m going to need a good tutorial to hold my hand with this one. If you are interested in playing along, here’s one I found for DF2010. It’s by capnduck and comes with a half-built dwarf fortress to practice on, and a bunch of awesome youtube tutorial videos.

Captain Duck’s video tutorial play along page

My goal for this week is to get this thing set up, and play alongside the first tutorial which mostly involves loading the pre-packaged fortress and exploring the part built section.

I notice immediately that this game involves some control keys which don’t seem to be listed on the help page. So to assist with figuring this dratted thing out, I enlisted another (text based) tutorial by Abalieno which is for the old version of the game, but they seem to have kept the same key binds. There is also a very fully featured DF wiki.

Useful control things I have learned so far:

  • To go down a level, use SHIFT + >
  • To go up a level, use SHIFT + <
  • To return to origin, use F1
  • when the game asks for + or –, it often means to use the ones on the numpad
  • it’s also space bar to pause or unpause the game. Depending on which menu you have up, the screen will not always tell you whether the game is paused.

Good luck!

9 Ways to Justify Changes in the Lore

I love the lore behind imaginary places, people, objects, games, worlds, and stories! And I’m not alone. Far from it, drawing people into these imaginary places is what drives the huge popularity of the great IPs of our time. Middle Earth, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Twilight, James Bond, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Sandman, Harry Potter, Warhammer. And so on.

They were stories first of course, or games, or comics, but to fans it’s all about the lore. About the imaginary history and the internal consistence, and even bout the places and events that are only ever visited ‘off camera’.

Now, MMOs, comics, and TV series have a unique challenge with respect to their lore, because it will change and grow over time. Sometimes in a long running series, it’s difficult for creators to keep track of every single aspect of the IPs history – and fans love to catch them out on it. This is especially true when it becomes more and more obvious that when the series began, the creators hadn’t yet decided how it would end.

And both TV series and games have reasons for wanting to insert new elements or directions into their lore. For a TV series, maybe the series needs to come to a neat ending (Battlestar Galactica), or a new show runner wants to take a different direction (Doctor Who), or one of the script writers just had a really cool idea that everyone likes. In games, developers also want to be responsive to what players want, and shifts in game design. Or maybe they just want to drop in a new race of space aliens because they look cool. Or in other words, there are good reasons for wanting to twist the lore into pretzels; to improve gameplay, or to improve a dramatic arc, for example.

As fans, we’d like to think this never happened, or at least that we would never notice. And in great novels, the chances are that the author will be able to go back and adjust the lore to fit the story if s/he needs to do it before publication. But in ongoing TV series, comics, or games, that isn’t an option.

It’s a familiar dilemma to pen and paper GMs also. You think of a great idea for next week’s scenario. But how can you make it fit into the game world?

Here are a few suggestions for game designers. Next time you need to do something crazy in game for gameplay reasons, try one of these excuses to sell it to the players.

1. A Wizard Did It

A time honored D&D favourite justification. This can explain just about anything you ever want to do in a fantasy setting. And as a bonus, can cover up any failure on the part of the GM to remember some minute background detail that was mentioned in passing three years ago. Players will ALWAYS remember this sort of thing.

For example: ”Why is there a black monolith in the middle of this desert? There’s no black rock around here.” “A wizard did it.”

If you get bored of wizards or are working in a different genre try these alternatives:

  • an ancient god/ civilisation did it
  • ultra high tech did it
  • black ops/ secret government labs did it
  • you have no idea what did it  (Oo, a mystery! As a bonus, if you are lazy you can listen to players discuss their ideas and then use the one that sounds coolest.)

2. A MAD Wizard Did it

Like #1, but when the thing in question is obviously pointless, contradicts current lore, or even acts against the creator’s best interests. You can even combine 1 with 2 if players ask particularly awkward questions:

Why is Bob riding a sparkly pony!

A wizard did it.

But all wizards are afraid of stars, you told us that last week.

Uh … a MAD wizard did it.

Sometimes you can even explain that the wizard in #1 later went mad and was responsible for #2.

3. Gotterdammerung

Everything goes up in flames for no reason. But it’s ok because it’s SYMBOLIC. Bonus points if you can work in a thematic colour scheme, weather effects, and NPC names.

“Do you think Mr Justifiablehomicide wants to be our friend?”

4. Crisis on Infinite Azeroths

It’s … a crossover!

5. The Hudson Hawk Defence

Also known as ‘the totally bullshit explanation’. Just state your highly implausible explanation with a straight face and see if anyone buys it.

You’re supposed to be all cracked up at the bottom of the hill.

Air bags!Can you fucking believe it?

You’re supposed to be blown upinto fiery chunks of flesh.

Sprinkler system set up in the back.
Can you fucking believe it?

Yeah! ……. That’s probably what happened.
– Hudson Hawk

6. I woke up, and it was all a dream

Made famous by Dallas, this explanation allows you to reset the lore to any time in the past that you wish.

7. Take the blue pill, Neo

Haha, bait and switch. Everything the players thought they knew turns out to be wrong.  In The Matrix, this was because the entire world known by the protagonist was just a VR simulation.

But a similar explanation can be used to justify why the players’ allies are actually their enemies or any of their assumptions (which were encouraged strongly by the game, story, or TV series) were completely incorrect.

Players will typically accept this once, but will then choose the blue pill and try to stick with the original assumptions because those are why they liked the game in the first place anyway.

8. Break the fourth wall

I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.

- Groucho, Horse Feathers

We don’t see this often in MMOs but occasionally an in-game narrator or tutorial will explain game mechanics to the player. A similar scheme can be used to try to explain lore changes that were made for gameplay reasons.

9. Blame Christopher Tolkein

Blame any changes on the vagaries of the IP’s current owner.

Christopher Tolkein and the Tolkein Estate can take the flak for Middle Earth based games, Games Workshop can shoulder the blame for changes in Warhammer, and so on.

The problem of really dreadful roleplayers

There has been a lot of drama in the WoW blogosphere this week, what with invented drama (it’ll bite you on the butt one day, kids) as well as thin skinned bloggers throwing up a drama storm and rage quitting when someone disagrees with them strongly.

Yes, I’m calling it thin skinned blogging to throw a wobbly when you stir up a storm in a teacup. And if your post genuinely upsets another writer, of course they will respond. Think of it as an opportunity to either engage in vigorous debate (i.e. write some more and explain why you’re right!) or else learn from someone else (i.e. think about it, and then post a thoughtful post explaining why you changed your mind).

Anyhow, since Cranky Healer has left the field, I want to talk about the problem of really bad roleplaying and how we can deal with it. Really bad roleplaying can mean a lot of different things:

  • playing a character that’s horribly inappropriate (eg. I am the vampire stepson of Thrall and Alezxstrasza)
  • horrible writing skills
  • playing a very inappropriate scene (eg. cybering in goldshire, especially if it is explicit), or playing a scene in an inappropriate place
  • doing anything else that shows you have failed to understand the game’s lore, theme, and background at a really basic level.

Anna’s response post contains CH’s original suggestion – mock the weak. This is similar to mocking idiots on trade channel. Except that trade channel shenanigans will amuse the rest of the server, mocking roleplayers only entertains the people who happen to be around, the majority of whom are probably the people you are mocking who will not be amused.

Here’s a secret also. The majority of players on a RP realm will not cry if really bad roleplayers get mocked. It’s common practice on the realm forums, which the perpetrators are unlikely to read. On the other hand, a lot of roleplayers will also freely admit that their first ventures into RP were fairly awful too. And if they’d been mocked as soon as they got started, they might not have stuck with it.

Anna suggests instead that you could report the offenders. And if the offence did involve sexual language in public, the GMs may well take action. Or they might not. They’re not even overly proactive in even enforcing name changes, which is far easier to prove and to report.

Ultimately, the accepted way to deal with terrible roleplayers is to ignore them and let them get on with it. Our roleplaying servers don’t have active GMs who make sure everyone sticks to the theme. And if you aren’t a GM, it isn’t your job either. All we regular players can do is not include people in our own RP if their view on the gameworld and lore is radically different to ours. Or in other words, we show our disdain by not accepting their roleplay as valid in our RP.

If a really bad roleplayer is in your strict RP guild, then an officer will deal with it. And they’ll do this by explaining patiently to the offender what the problem was, and suggesting other ways to handle it. If you aren’t in a strict RP guild or don’t roleplay at all, then it is really not your problem, any more than you’d expect a random person to start yelling at you about your horrible talent spec while you were off quietly soloing somewhere.

The cost of WoW not being a RP-friendly game is that we have no way to enforce theme on people. But it’s a  big world and there are lots of players. If you want to roleplay, then find some like minded friends and set up some roleplay.

But Anna is right. Griefing is griefing. And how any sensible minded player could think that it was reasonable to encourage her guild to go mock people for their own amusement when she knew fine well that her guild was on a roleplay server? Yah. Don’t mess with our RP servers. They may have some truly shitty roleplayers on them, but they are OUR players and they’re part of OUR community. So if you really joined a RP server just so that you could mock the roleplayers, please leave now, because we don’t want you.

Just ignore them and bitch on realm or guild forums, like everyone else does :)