What does good gaming journalism look like?

Given the focus at the moment on gaming journalism and what it shouldn’t be doing, I thought it might be fun to look for some great examples of what good gaming journalism can be.

I’m kicking off with a couple of articles that told me a lot about the games they cover and also were (I thought) wildly entertaining reads.

OK, over to you all. Any recommendations for articles that really stayed with you as good examples of what you like to read in gaming journalism?

Thought for the Day: How social are ‘social’ games?

Historically, a social game is one that you played with friends so that you could socialise while you were playing. Board games, card games, RPGs all involve having a group of people in the same room and even if you took your gaming extremely seriously, there would be time to chat between rounds.

The social part of MMOs is grouping. Again, you’re tackling the game with a bunch of other people and if they are also friends then you can chat while you kill mobs together. Even if you aren’t grouped up, an evening in the MMO for a social player means chatting to your mates via various text channels while you pursue other goals in game. But in a facebook-type social game, you interact with people without talking to them at all. Just send someone a virtual cow along with a virtual poke and maybe they’ll respond later.

So I wonder, how social can any game really be if you don’t talk to anyone? Are we heading towards the ironic situation where Bartle-type social players dislike ‘social games’ because they aren’t social enough and you can’t really get to know the people you are playing with?

Achievements for Non-Achievers

Achievements are the greatest gameplay innovation of this generation of computer games. (Although phasing may come close.) Players love them. Developers love them. Publishers love them. Achievementville may be papered with old laundry lists and high score tables, but it’s definitely where people want to be. Achievements are what quests were to the last generation of MMOs (rare and novel content that fascinates players.)

And like so many facets of MMOs (and human behaviour, even), we still don’t entirely know why they are so popular. Yes, people like rewards. They like to achieve a continuous stream of short term goals. But Achievements have become more than just a means to that end, they’re sparking off new types of gameplay in themselves.

I think a lot of people write achievements off, saying that they’re just there for achievers. And achievers are that nebulous cornerstone of Bartle’s four player types whose main goals in a game are to hit the high scores, the speed runs, collect the best in slot epic gear, and other concrete measurements of success in games.

I’ve always felt that achiever was a misleading name, because all players feel a sense of achievement when they succeed in their goals. A social player feels a sense of achievement when making new friends or running some group content successfully in a PUG. An explorer feels a sense of achievement when they explore some new location or content or theory. A killer feels a sense of achievement when they win a fight against another player.

And this is the brilliant groundbreaking aspect to Achievements. They can give players other than achievers some kind of concrete measure of success. Let’s face it, completing an encounter in some odd non-optimal way isn’t really the goal of a pure achiever unless they get some extra concrete reward from doing it – they want to beat the encounter, get the loot, move on. They may spend time working on completing the encounter as quickly and efficiently as possible. But by attaching an Achievement to the tactic, it becomes meaningful to players who might not have cared otherwise.

I’m seeing a lot of emergent gameplay springing up around Achievements. They’ve been plopped into our games, and now we’re seeing more of how players are responding. I’m going to use the WoW ones as my main examples.

Achievements as social enablers

When you get a new achievement in WoW, it is broadcast to your immediate area and also to your guild channel (if you have one). If it’s an impressive achievement, people will often stop to congratulate you. It may even spark a conversation on trade chat or one of the world channels.

In guild, we almost always congratulate achievements, even silly ones. Someone caught 25 fish? Cue a conversation about how dull fishing is. Cue the guild meme of everyone shouting FEEEEESH!! on channel. Cue people who may not even know the guildie well engaging him or her in the guild channel. I’ve noticed that even people who mostly play solo seem to enjoy the social inclusion.

Someone just hit level 80? It’s very likely they’ll be offered an instance or heroic run if people are free. Or offered advice on which reputation to work on first, or on gearing or talents. The *ping* of the achievement reminds the rest of us that this guy only just hit 80.

My guild is friendly anyway but broadcasting the achievements makes it much easier to keep up with what other guildies are doing, even if we don’t group with them regularly. I was wary at first (after all, do you really want everyone knowing what you’re up to?) but I can’t think of a bad side to it now.

Achievements as a narrative device

Some achievements help to chronicle the history of a character. I could look back through my WoW achievements and work out in which order I had run instances, when I had run different questlines, and as a rough gauge of what my characters had been doing at different times.

The achievement log doesn’t currently make it easy to read the list as if it was a history book, but it might be something that we see more in the next generation of games. Standard storytelling doesn’t handle repetitive grinding and instancing well (I killed an orc, then I killed an orc, then I killed an orc, etc), but if you imagine your story as a list of achievements instead, it may make more sense. Especially if there are extra ways to associate achievements with the memories – you could imagine a game which took a screenshot of your character every time you got a new achievement and stored them somewhere, for example.

Some achievements are specifically present as historical markers. Getting to level 80 or catching 25 fish in WoW are not notable achievements. But they may be interesting rites of passage for a character. Achieving max level is always meaningful to a player, even if it’s easy. The same goes for achievements that are given for completing questlines. The quests don’t have to be hard, but giving out the achievement makes them more meaningful. It’s like saying that finishing those quests was important to that character’s storyline.

In CoH there are some missions which give out badges (the CoH equivalent to achievements) and they were always very popular when I was playing. I was never sure if they were particularly good or well written missions, or had been randomly chosen as badge bait. However, because the badges were there, the missions became more important to the playerbase.

I’d love to have some kind of online book available that would tell the story of my character with pictures, achievements, and notable moments. Although guided storylines with awesome cut scenes and NPC dialogue can be vastly entertaining, the story of my character is the story that is MINE. Ideally, I’d like both :) And I think achievements could have a huge role to play in enabling players to tell their own stories.

In fact, I could easily imagine achievements replacing quests as the core guidance through a game in the next generation.

Achievements as gating mechanisms

In WoW, it is not uncommon for people running PUGs to ask prospective members to link appropriate achievements before they invite. Sometimes this is taken to stupid levels, but the achievements are giving players the ability to screen others based on what they have done in game.

Whether this is a good or a bad thing is entirely in the hands of the players who use it. It’s easy to see that if you really want to do a speed run of some instance, it makes sense to look for players who can prove they know the instance already and are well geared. Achievements give players an easy way to do that.

In may be that in future they will be better at helping players to find other players who like to play in a similar way and can prove it by what they have done in the past. For example, to find other people who want to RP being pirates. To find other keen PvPers. To find other crafters. To find other social players.

Achievements to teach people new content

A new patch comes out. Players log into the game. Some of them (who do not avidly read patch notes) wonder what’s new and what they should be trying to do? Go check the latest new achievements. They’ll give you some clues as to what the devs had in mind.

The achievements can also suggest ways to interact with the new content that might not have been obvious. And because they are achievements (and rewarded by a *ding*), there’s a good chance that other players will want to do them also.

In WoW, we’ve seen this a lot with the holiday achievements.  As well as just doing whatever the holiday quests may be, achievements encourage people to go play. To throw rose petals at each other. To turn each other into bunnies. And so on. I do think they have increased the fun that people have with the in game holidays.

The fact that WoW has an achievement (with a title!) for completing every heroic instance also encourages people to at least try the less popular ones occasionally.

Achievements as collectibles

Achievements may have titles, pets, mounts, or collectible items associated with them. So they appeal to people who like to collect stuff. You can only display one title or pet at a time (in any game I’ve ever played) but it can be fun to change your title or pet depending on your mood and the people you are with.

In CoH there are some badges that you can only get once you have achieved a specific set of other (easier) badges. So working towards a badge that gives your character a title that suits its current role and costume can be a huge part of deciding which achievements to attempt.

In LOTRO, you can choose to display a crafting title, or a grind based title (ie. several zillion variants of ‘Orc Killer’), or a funny quest based title, depending on what you want to tell other people about your character and what it has done.

Achievements as high score tables

This is the closest use to the classic definition of achiever. I haven’t seen much use of this yet in games but achievements could track a player’s personal best scores at various aspects of the game. I know in WoW there are addons that will tell you when your raid has achieved a raid fastest time to kill a mob, and we always comment on TS when that happens. It is an achievement, even if the achievement system as it is now doesn’t really record it.

But it’s easy to imagine an achievement system that would let people know when you’d been part of your personal best attempt on some boss or instance.

And as far as other parts of the game go, WoW does record some economic achievements. You will be told when you have reached 10k gold for example. So it would be possible to also record most gold made in one day, and similar types of statistics.

Achievements to learn lore

Remember Angband? Every time you killed a mob, you learned a little more about it. You might start with a sentence or two of information recording what you had noticed last time. Did it run in packs? How much health did it have? How hard did it hit? And after you had killed more of them, the game would start to record whether you’d noticed any special abilities, what sort of locations it inhabited, precisely what stats the mob had, and maybe even what type of items it dropped.

I haven’t quite seen a mechanic like this in MMOs, but Warhammer’s Tome of Knowledge opened up more lore information about mobs, areas, and items as you unlocked different achievements in the game. I always thought that was a fascinating way to present information to the player (and the fact that the book  looked amazing didn’t hurt).

The ToK wasn’t perfect. It was very text heavy and hard to search. So although there was a lot of information in there, it could be quite painful to retrieve it. But I think the idea is sound, and I really do hope that the next generation of games can do more with this type of notion.

MUDs were also very good at recording details such as how many times you’d killed different monsters. It may not be very exciting information but there are people who would love that type of data. They probably do detailed analysis on cricket scores too :)

This is just the tip of the iceberg

I’ve barely scratched the surface of how players interact with achievements in games. Feel free to add anything you like about achievements or that you’ve noticed about how people use them in games you play.

But one thing all my examples have in common – they show that achievements aren’t just for ‘classic’ achievers.  Perhaps they never were.

Why we need killers to show us how to have fun

Sara Pickell wrote a brilliant post about MMOs, and the struggle between companies trying to sell them to us as goods vs services. I’ve tried to come at this from a different angle before, but she does it far more eloquently than I did.

But there was one paragraph that made me stop and think (and she’s referring to the Bartle player types here – achiever, explorer, socialiser, killer):

The primary audience of any product will always be the achievers, those who want it for it’s own use and to excel within it’s use. The secondary target would be explorers, those who are interested in seeing it in it’s entirety. You may still want some socialites to build buzz for you, but they are more likely to strain your system without seeing very much content so their presence is more a marketing investment than anything. Killers are last place, to one extent catering to another audience is always a good thing, on the other, killers are more likely to drive away other players or cause harassment issues. Killers are probably only given serious representation now because they simply make up one of the largest minorities in MMOs.

I think it is commonly held (by non-killers) that the ‘killers’ (ie. players whose primary way to have fun is by attacking other players) are a negative influence on the genre. They’re the griefers, the min-maxers, the trouble-makers, the forum whiners. They’re the ones who will drive other players away by corpse camping them for hours and then flooding forums with illegible leet smacktalk. They’re the kiddies, the guys who just don’t know how to play nice with others.

But all virtual worlds involve competition

When you get more than one person into a room, in real life as well as in a game, they will compete with each other. It may be subtle, it may be non-serious, but they will compete for any resource available.

The idea that a virtual social world utopia would be completely free of negative vibes is ridiculous. Social competition is some of the most bitter, vicious, cut-throat gaming that it is possible to have. And it’s largely based on trying to be popular. Being bitter about not getting enough attention from ‘the right people’. Networking. Trying to make yourself useful. Cybering for extra perks (it happens a lot).

You know what guild drama can be like? You know how people fret if they feel left out of a clique? Imagine an entire virtual world which is all about guild drama. I’m not saying that it can’t be fun – people are extremely fun. They will surprise and entertain you in ways that no mechanical NPC ever can. But we don’t have a good ruleset for social competition.

If the killers know one thing, it is how to compete

And this is where the killers come in. The way they compete is far simpler. You kill someone. Or you get killed. You exchange some smack talk. You go back to base and start again. At the end of the session, they leave the game on the table.

Compare that to the extended guild drama bitchfests which can leave people in tears or depressed for hours. Which is the most healthy form of competition, really?

For all that devs and other players complain about the killers in our games, I wonder if we need them there to teach us how to play the things.

Stranglethorn Vale: Hot or Not?

It isn’t often that you get a chance to see two notable professionals duke it out about the design of a WoW zone. But Stranglethorn Vale, the marmite of the Warcraft World (ie. you love it or you hate it) inspires strong emotions among players and pros alike.

Richard Bartle describes why he thinks it’s such a well designed zone.

He’s made good points. When I have levelled an alt from scratch, I’ve always breathed a sigh of relief when I got into Stranglethorn in the low 30s because it was such an easy, well laid out zone for levelling. I don’t agree with all of his points, in particular the flow is less good for Horde than Alliance, but he reminded me of all the fun I’d had working through quests there.

Aside from that, it’s an awesome article and worth reading for his musings on the theme of the zone and how he feels the quest and level design feeds into the whole experience. I don’t know if was mostly a happy accident with Stranglethorn or if this is the kind of thing MMO level designers think about all the time — I’d like to think it was the latter though.

Lum picks Stranglethorn apart and describes why it drives him nuts.

This isn’t as well executed an article or as persuasive an argument, but he’s right that the zone covers too wide a level range, and the jump between them is not smooth. The levelling guides always solved this by presenting it in two parts and sending you off round the world in the interrim. Not something you’d associate with smooth flow.

Do you play like Alice, Dorothy, or Wendy?

alice-lewis-carroll (If you answered ‘tinkerbelle’ then take a well-deserved time out at Dorn’s fabulous blog.)

If you have ever taken the test that classifies players as socialisers, killers, achievers and/or explorers in MMOs (I’m ESKA, by the way) then you’ll be familiar with Dr Richard Bartle’s work.

We know that one of the big appeals of MUDs and MMOs is that they support a lot of different types of play. So there’s no reason why an achiever and a socialiser can’t happily play in the same game, even though they may not want to play together.  And this paper is really the seminal work in starting to classify those different types.

But the problem with this model from my point of view is that it dates from about 5 years BWE (Before the WoW Era). The virtual worlds he was observing were MUDs, or very closely based on MUDs. Trends in game design have changed. And there are some new emergent types of play that simply weren’t big in the MUD days (or  in the types of MUDs he was considering).

MUDs, for example, were never well known for their deep and immersive storytelling narratives. MMOs may have a long way to go, but with the rise of quest based levelling, storytelling is here to stay. Also although you could group in MUDs, I don’t remember team-based play being quite the cornerstone that it is in many MMOs today. Raiding in WoW has more in common with team based games like Team Fortress or Settlers than it does with a Diku MUD. (No one would ever had joined a MUD and asked immediately which endgame guilds were recruiting or what classes they most needed.)

So the fact that Bartle’s categories don’t include the narrative-seeking player or the team player just shows how there are new emergent playstyles coming alongside.

So I was intrigued to read in the Virtual Cultures blog about his keynote speech to the Indie Multiplayer Games Conference (via Massively) about ways in which players approach modern games. And here he’s tackling one of the big issues which is the divergence of sandbox games (like EVE or Darkfall) and ‘theme park’ games (like WoW and LOTRO).

I’d been thinking about this anyway, since Averaen commented on my post this week on virtual hangouts that s/he thought it was a mistake to treat WoW and similar MMOs as if they were virtual worlds. I don’t really agree; if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then maybe … just maybe… it could be some odd breed of duck. And WoW is certainly a massive persistent virtual world, it’s contiguous (you can fly from one end to the other without zoning), it has consistent-ish storylines, it has cities and villages, it has hangouts and places where players can buy food and drink, it has auction houses and a working economy. How can it NOT be a virtual world?

Anyway, getting back to Dr Bartle. In his keynote he picked up on three different types of play experiences in virtual worlds, using a metaphor of heroines from children’s stories.

  • Alice: the explorer, who wants to see things that are “curiouser and curiouser”
  • Dorothy: who wants to get to the end of the yellow brick road (ie. follow the railroad)
  • Wendy: the content creator, who wants to tell stories for her brothers and the other lost boys

He’s using the play types to describe different types of world, rather than just different players (eg. Alice represents sandbox games, Dorothy represents theme-park, quest heavy games, etc). He also notes that MMOs have been on a divergent path, with social and game oriented MMOs tending to separate. But that this is a bad trend because game-oriented MMOs become repetitive and meaningless, and social MMOs become impenetrable and unfocussed. I can’t speak much for the latter but we know that the former is definitely true. What does it even mean for a game to not have an end?

Bartle argues that a good MMO/ virtual world should offer opportunities for all of these playstyles. And NOW we’re talking about playing styles I can more easily identify with. Because I enjoy all of these things in games. And in an era where games seem to be becoming more and more focussed, it’s a call to arms that I hope someone will hear.

Because dammit, that’s the game /I/ want to play.