[Social Games] Game of Thrones, and other improvements in Facebook gaming

game of thrones

It’s ironic that just as people are cooling on Facebook as a gaming platform, the quality of gaming on  FB is improving in leaps and bounds. This has been a long trend, encompassing more classic games like Words with Friends and Draw Anything, as well as Bejewelled and Hidden Object style gameplay.

But the more typical social games themselves have also been improving. You can’t get away entirely from the more annoying aspects – the popup windows urging you to use the store to speed up your actions, or to spam your friends with invites and/or gifts (less of an issue if you have a spare gaming account and keep your FB gaming ‘friends’ separate from people you actually know) – but there are more games around now which feature more interesting options, and more intriguing gameplay.

Game of Thrones Ascent (now in beta) is a good example of the type. As you might guess from the title, this is the official game of the series so it isn’t surprising that it plays the TV theme at you when it loads. The team are also respectful to the IP, tying your own stories into the better known NPCs and noble houses that you’ll be familiar with from the books/ films. You play the founder of a minor noble house, swearing fealty to one of the larger houses (Lannister forever! I hold out the faint hope that Charles Dance with no shirt on might show up if I’m loyal enough!)  and getting a castle of your own to name and improve.

Along the way there is crafting, some castle simulation (you know the type of thing: improve various buildings, craft/trade various things), and you can recruit and train sellswords to send on adventures. You get to build up your skills as a fighter, merchant, or sneaky bastard and decide whether your noble values their family over the realm, the new ways over the old, and whether you prefer cunning or honesty. There is also a narrative thread about you building up your domains, which also ties into the storylines from the series (first book, so far) where you get little episodes with choices to make and that may also need you to send off your minions to do various things. It’s nicely done, and as I say, respectful to the IP.

There are also boss fights which are more like MMO raids where you can invite your friends to come help. I’ve seen this mechanic before in social games (for example in Rage of Bahamut) and it’s an interesting tweak on the social baseline. In the few I have seen so far, it is possible to finish off the boss mob alone, it will just take longer. The game also includes a chat window (which is a bit odd since it’s on Facebook which has a chat window anyway) which I guess means you could chat to your mates while taking out the big baddy.

There is also some gameplay I haven’t got to yet which involves PvP, possibly in alliances. It’s a very MMOish social game.

I’m finding this interesting enough for a blog post, it’s still in beta and can be a bit sluggish, but recommended if it’s your kind of thing!

Life in the sandbox

A couple of posts cropped up on my RSS reader recently which throw some light on the reality of life in sandbox MMOs.

Stargrace posts about her struggles in Wurm Online, and Chris Smith@Levelcapped exudes a sense of achievement in finding somewhere to live in the same game. This is clearly a game for people who like the idea of needing complex multi stage processes to build even the simplest of items, not to mention needing constant help from the wiki/ community to help figure it out. I do keep meaning to try this one, but I’m also not sure I have the mental fortitude to make it through the first day and have to figure out how to feed myself in game.

There are also plenty of blog posts describing exciting times people have had in EVE, but this post from Syncaine describes, dare I say, a more typical evening of searching around  for fights that don’t happen. If you played WAR you may also remember some of the complaints about PvP often involving battlegroups searching for and taking unoccupied keeps rather than going for the full scale siege standoff.

This is because, as Syncaine mentions in comments on that post, part of the art of fighting in a sandbox game is making sure you’re in a winning position (ie. have a larger army et al) before you get into a fight at all. And finding an undefended target is simply smart target selection.

It is also the nature of sandbox games that you can’t predict exactly what will happen when you log in. You may have an activity planned that gets disrupted by something else that is going on in game. You may plan a night of sailing your fleet around Hispaniola in Pirates of the Burning Sea (I do have a soft spot for that game) but find that all the actual fights are going on somewhere else. The best way to actually guarantee you’ll get the action you prefer and on a timezone that suits you is to be in a leadership role.

I’m not entirely convinced that sandbox games can ever be more than a minority interest. And I say this as someone who has played and loved them, back in MUD/MUSH days. And unfortunately, people who like them are shy about mentioning the many downsides. They tend to strongly favour organised groups, there is often huge amounts of politics (I mean, to an extent that would dwarf guild drama in WoW), they strongly favour people with large amounts of time, or flexible playing schedules, there can be long extended periods of boredom and no guarantee that you’ll actually be around when the exciting stuff happens, and I’m not really sure if exciting stuff ever really happens in a game like Wurm. (I do still want to try it sometime, but … yeah.) They are also just as fraught with elitists as any other online game, and although some games make it easier for casual players to carve out a niche, you will have to pick your niche carefully.

Fact is, you probably have to work harder for your fun in a sandbox game and there’s no guarantee how much fun it’ll ever actually be. It takes a leap of faith to throw yourself into these things. I found it worthwhile when I was playing them, and I really treasure some of the memories of people I met and stuff we did in game.

So excuse me if I’m dubious about claims by SWTOR haters (and honestly, if you need to hate, why hate on a game that’s actually fun when there are a lot of easier targets?) that if it fails all that money could go into big budget sandbox games. Truth is, we still don’t know if a big budget (or small budget) sandbox game could have wide mass appeal (ie. a million players), we only know that no one has really succeeded in making one that could. At least, not with a virtual world attached. Unless you count social networks like Facebook, which may be the biggest sandbox of all.

But something tells me that Facebook #2 isn’t the kind of sandbox ‘game’ that the themepark haters are hoping for …

I think also about games like HSX (which I am still hooked on — it’s a sort of stock market simulation for upcoming films) which isn’t really a sandbox per se, but has that appeal of being able to research and use real life information into your gaming. eg. I made a pile of cash on Red Tails this weekend by effectively betting that it would do better at the US box office than players had predicted based on the HSX stock price. You may say “Yes but that’s a simulation, not a sandbox game,” but all successful sandbox games that I know of are also simulations. World simulations.

And that’s the curse of the genre as well as the blessing, because they’re full of players who don’t want to stick to any setting or  theme other than winning at all costs. (Did I mention that metagaming is also often rife?)

[Links] Facebook games, immersion in films, other links from this week

tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-poster-gary-oldman

Happy Sunday. This is where I make a spurious link between something I have done this week and computer games, before linking to some better pieces of writing from other people.

The new film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (TTSS) was released this week in the UK. And since it’s been getting rave reviews, we went to see it. This was always going to be a tricky film to make because everyone compares it to the iconic 1970s TV series. If you read any reviews, there’s a 95% chance someone compares Gary Oldman’s performance to Alec Guiness. But truth is, there only a certain number of ways to play George Smiley and everyone thinks Guiness absolutely nailed it.

You can compare this to the challenge of making a sequel to a much loved game, or an expansion to an MMO. People want to see all the things they loved about the original, but they want them to be new and fresh too. They want the NPCs to hit all the beats they remember, but still to have a continuing storyline. TTSS performs the miracle of translating a book that had enough content to fuel a whole TV series into a single film without feeling that any key information to the plot was missing. To do this, actors, writers, cinematography and director use a phenomenal amount of economy with their acting, shots, scenes, and writing. Smiley is a hard character to pin because he’s written as someone quiet, introvert and understated, but who also feels things very strongly. If you go see the film, just watch how Gary Oldman portrays that with each single pose or shrug of his shoulders. You don’t hear the internal monologue but you know it’s there. So when he does raise his voice – for one sentence, in one scene – it’s arresting.

The other game related thought about the film is how incredibly immersive it is. For the whole duration, you are there in their world of browns, greys, beiges, cigarette smoke, and half full whisky bottles. Every detail is perfect. And none of it is thrown in your face.

I  think that as gamers, we do appreciate how important details are in making our game worlds sublime, immersive experiences. I’ve seen so many joyful blogs written about small details in game worlds that implied untold stories or thrilled the blogger. In fact, this probably plays a larger part than pure gameplay mechanics in ‘immersiveness’. But will a dev that counts only metrics of how many times each player completed each achievement ever really see the contribution that immersiveness makes to how long players WANT to spend in their game worlds? It’s not clear, but it all goes towards those nebulous notions of quality and gameworld realism which can make these games so special.

So how are Facebook Games doing these days?

An interesting milestone in facebook gaming was passed recently. Sims Social passed Farmville in numbers of daily players, which is probably good for making EA shareholders feel like buying social gaming companies was a good investment.

Of course, Zynga has moved on since Farmville and released at least two more hit games (I lose track of them all). Tobold has some praise for Adventure World, which is one of them, but notes that you will need a lot of friends or a lot of money to advance.

I’ve been trying out the open beta for Heroes of Neverwinter, which looks very promising so far and less demanding of large numbers of friends. It’s based around gathering a group of adventurers together and heading off to clear out little dungeons. Combat is turn based and grid based, reminiscent of the original Dragon Age Journeys flash game before they moved it to Facebook.

I think Neverwinter in particular shows how some Facebook games are evolving these days. It’s fun, and definitely less annoying than the typical Zynga spam-a-friend-fest. But it would be more fun for me if it wasn’t a facebook game – still, this probably means that I’m not the target audience. My style of gaming is ‘play games when you have at least 30 mins free’ and not ‘I’m on facebook anyway, might as well take a couple of mins every so often to amuse my friends with virtual game items.’

Muckbeast has a heartfelt rant about Facebook games, that I think most gamers will find sympathetic.

In the social gaming space, the industry average is that only 2% of users ever pay a single penny. When only 2% of your customers think your product is worth anything, that’s not a good sign.

If you wanted to improve your monetization rate, what would you do? Some possibilities:

  • Make the game more fun.
  • Give players more value for their money.
  • Create engaging content people are excited to pay for.

All good ideas, right? So those are the kinds of things Zynga, EA, etc. probably do to increase monetization, right?

Wrong.

Instead, they come up with incredibly annoying gimmicks like “energy systems” that interrupt your gameplay every few MINUTES and nag you to buy more energy to keep playing. We have literally looped back to pumping quarters in a machine every few minutes to play a game, folks. Ridiculous.

Thing is, most of the several squillion people who actually play these games regularly probably aren’t gamers and don’t care so much about these things. For them, sharing virtual game tat with their friends is all in a day’s social networking.

So while I like Neverwinter more about about 90% of the other Facebook games I have played, the chance of me spending money on it is zero. Therefore, I’m very much not the target audience, and who knows whether they’ll be interested in D&D style adventuring when they could be playing Sims Social instead.

Strangely enough, I did spend some money based on a social networking game this week. The game was Night Circus, written and coded by the same team who run Echo Bazaar, and I bought a copy of the book which the game was designed to advertise. (I do find some of the game text/ concepts a bit precious but I figured I was intrigued enough to pay a few pounds for a book at least.) The book is actually better than I was expecting, so recommended if you like magical romances and magic realism and stories about magicians holding mysterious duels.  The characters feel oddly stylized though, more like silhouettes than real people, but I was entertained. So that at least was a perfectly targeted piece of gamified advertising – I’m all for it ;)

More Links

Blimey, CCP actually releases some information about World of Darkness.

Mana Obscura has held a ‘smile week’ this week and has been writing about things he loves about MMOs. Here he discusses how amazing it is that they work at all, and how largescale the systems are behind them. I have always had a sense of awe about computer networks myself too, ever since a technician told me at Uni that the ethernet stayed up ‘by the grace of God.’ The more I know about ethernet, the more I suspect he had a point.

The Official WoW Magazine is dead in the water after five issues. The Ancient Gaming Noob has a copy of the email they sent to subscribers with info. Who’d have thought that computer gamers might not be all that interested in print magazines, huh?

The Rampant Coyote asks what single player RPGs can do better than MMOs. Given that we’re in the middle of some sort of conflux, I think this (and the opposite question of what MMOs do better than single player) has never been more timely.

Bronte discusses WoW raiding and problems with overtuning content, and some of the assumptions behind it. The basic idea that each tier of raiding should be more difficult/ complex than the last is fine if you started on day 1 as a Molten Core nooblet and worked your way up – less fine if you were new to Cataclysm and had to try to learn everything at once, with a bunch of players who are bored before they start and lost their patience with newbies two expansions ago.

OutDPS has some issues with the storytelling in Cataclysm (he notes that the lower level zones are often great but that the high level story is … not compelling.)

And on one last Blizzard related note, COO Thomas Tipl has stated that Blizzard are planning to release six ‘proven’ properties over the next three years. Gossip Gamers guesses that these will be 2 WoW expansions, 2 SC2 expansions, Diablo 3 … and maybe a D3 expansion. Don’t expect any more Wrath-style large WoW expansions is what I’m saying.

Rohan posts an interesting analysis of MMO players, comparing people who like fixed schedule events (like regular raid nights) to ‘transient’ players. I think there is a lot of truth in this, and the way I play is very different when I’m in a group that has fixed nights to when I just log in when I feel like it. PvD  also mulls this over and wonders if that’s the problem that the new LFR (looking for raid) PUG raid finder with its special low difficulty mode is intended to address.

Dragon Age: Facebook

It was only a matter of time. In the run up to Dragon Age II, a new themed Facebook game called Dragon Age: Legends is being launched by Bioware. And you can sign up to the beta today. It’s going to introduce us to the region of the Free Marches, the primary setting for Dragon Age II. In the same vein as the web-based game that was released in the run up to Dragon Age: Origins, playing the game will give some unlocks for the main game when launched.

Dragon Age: Legends is only due to release one month before Dragon Age II, sometime in February 2011.

Screenshots, forums and a blog are linked to from the Dragon Age: Legends site, which is a little sparse so far, but one to watch.

[Funnily enough, Spinks and I were chatting about Dragon Age II the other day while both placing our pre-orders, and at the time we expressed how much we'd liked the web-based game (Dragon Age: Journeys I think was the name) and how we hoped they'd be another. Good timing, Bioware.]

Gaming News: Good Old Games is dead or is it?, Facebook revises gaming platform, Civ 5, Frogster axes senior management

Next weekend, Arb and I are off to the Eurogamer Expo so hopefully will be able to share a few hands on thoughts. And when I say hands on, I mean screens viewed dimly over the backs of a bunch of other gamers, most of whom are taller than we are. Looking forwards to meeting up with some other bloggers there too!

In MMO news this week, the big story for me is that CCP finally announced the vampire game everyone knew that they were working on. But the blurry trailer doesn’t look to be in a very advanced state and they’re estimating release at 2012 at the earliest.

Also, Blizzard are incorporating a Plants v Zombies homage as a minigame in Cataclysm. Minigames have been increasingly become a part of mainstream MMOs and it’s a trend to watch, if only because it offers a different type of endgame to raiding.

Another story that made that rounds is that a game called Planet Michael, based on the world of Michael Jackson, is in development. Surely this must be some kind of tax dodge, the Springtime for Hitler of online gaming.

There is also a rumour that Lionhead’s Project Milo, set to be one of the keystone Kinect titles, is no more. I never thought it sounded like a very interesting idea for a game, more of a PhD project.

Good Old Games revamps site, annoys lots of people with misleading PR

Good Old Games (GOG), a site specialising in digital download of older PC games caused a ripple around the gaming community when they announced last week that their site was closing down. It later turned out that this was a hoax, they redesigned the site and added some new games and relaunched it a few days later.

Unfortunately, while they were ‘closed’ customers couldn’t access their games and probably assumed they had gone forever.

The GOG chaps dressed up as monks to apologise (I’m sure that helped .. not), and as an additional note, they’ve now added Baldur’s Gate to their collection.

I’ve long since stopped being surprised at any PR events thrown by the gaming industry. In this case, even last week when the site went down there were a few indications that GoG wasn’t really gone for good. Still, people or websites pretending to be dead online so that they can jump out at you later and yell, “Psych!” is annoying whichever way you cut it. Plus it just makes people less inclined to trust online sources which is probably bad business if your business is digital downloads.

Facebook revises its gaming platform

Mark Zuckerberg spoke this week at a Facebook event for game developers, and discussed the basic issue of how to let games spew out viral messages (which is what the developers want) vs users desire not to be spammed.

From what I can gather, they’re talking about a different type of Facebook experience for gamers compared with non-gamers. So if you play any Facebook game, FB will assume that you love being spammed by game messages and throw more of them your way. Whereas if you don’t, it won’t.

To me this really highlights the limitations of Facebook as a platform. Those limitations have paradoxically been part of the site’s strengths – because it isn’t possible to easily filter your friends list or message list, people have tended to send out far more information to far more people that they might have done otherwise.

And the other aspect is that Facebook is caught between several sets of interests. The big gaming companies make more profit from the platform than FB does itself. They also are responsible for much of FB’s income via advertising and virtual currency (30% of facebook credits profit will go to FB.) What they want is not necessarily what the users want, but the users aren’t the ones who are paying FB.

Civilisation 5 is released, geek productivity falls

This week marked the release of the 5th entry in the legendary Civilisation franchise. It has received brilliant reviews, despite (or because) of the developers making several major changes to the established game.

Also, it uses a hex grid.  If you’re knee deep in Civ 5, have fun and we’ll see you next year sometime ;)

In other best-selling franchise news, Pokemon Black and White looks set to break DS sales records in Japan.

Senior management axed at Frogster

Frogster is a publisher with a long history with F2P MMOs, such as Runes of Magic. They’re also preparing to launch TERA (this year’s Aion?) and have recently released more information on the revived Torchlight-like Mythos.

They were also in the news this week after a management shakeup saw 3 execs picking up their pink slips.

[RealID around the web] The future will be written in Chicken

Once in the twenty second century linguists tried to find the perfect simplification of all language. They dubbed it chicken. It has no grammar, no syntax and no ambiguities. The only word is ‘chicken’. Unfortunately it is so easy to learn everybody consequently did, dooming forever human society.

These linguists were never prosecuted, indeed nor could they even be identified because as aliens discovered when revisiting the planet in 16461943134916461179461626069, all language including the history books were all written in chicken.

- Chicken (uncyclopaedia)

“The future will be written in Chicken” is a phrase we use around the house to describe a paradigm shift so great that no one in the future will be able to understand why we did things the way we do today.

And the question that a lot of people are asking about Blizzard’s plans to RealID up the forums is whether this is really just about reducing trolling on a bulletin board, or whether it’s the start of something more radical than that. It is already clear that they have no  plans to back down, however great the current uproar.

We have been planning this change for a very long time. During this time, we have thought ahead about the scope and impact of this change and predicted that many people would no longer wish to post in the forums after this change goes live. We are fine with that, because we want to change these forums dramatically in a positive and more constructive direction.

Does Blizzard really care so much about the bulletin boards that they’d rather piss of the segment of the community most likely to use them than just give everyone a single forum id and call it done? Unlikely. They have further plans. This is a roundup of how other bloggers and writers around the web have been reacting.

Mike Snider writes at USA Today about Blizzard’s plans for further integration with Facebook.

Really what you are going to do once you buy StarCraft II and you take it home and install it and log onto Battle.net for the first time, you’ll be able to essentially hit a button and bring all your Facebook friends that are also on Battle.net into Battle.net and create (Real ID) relationships.

(This assumes that you have some facebook ‘friends’ who are also interested in battle.net. If you don’t fall into this group, you aren’t the main focus of their future vision.)

Stabs writes about why privacy matters and why the ‘moral’ pressure to reveal your real name is inspired by corporate greed.

What concerns me is that there is clearly an attitude that is inspired by corporate greed that has become a moral theme. It’s wrong to oppose RealId, some people say, you should be more honest. Got something to hide?

And how about reasons why people favour internet handles, not just on gaming sites but all over the net?

Tesh writes about the ideal of the internet as a raceless, classless utopia. Now, you won’t hear a lot about the utopian ideals of the internet these days, but being able to log into a place where people will judge you just on what you said and did there is something that many many users prize.

It strikes me that anonymity is valuable for free markets to work as well.  Honest feedback is generated from simple demand and supply, where business relationships are defined by the simple feedback loop of “purchase” or “no purchase”.  Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market” is concerned most with what people do, not with what they look like.  Actions, not prejudice, seem to produce the most productive results in a positive feedback cycle.

I’m not backwards about telling people that I’m female, but darned if I don’t enjoy the sense that what I write is taken more seriously on forums where people cannot immediately tell (unless I tell them). Think that’s crazy? It’s actually one of the simple pleasures of being online for a large proportion of the population.

It goes both ways of course. I like that people will come out and flame me if I say something stupid, instead of thinking, “She’s a woman, she might get upset, go easy on her.” I think being judged on your actions is a great equaliser.

Sanya Weathers is more concerned about the possibilities for stalking, and the legal ramifications.

My customers are not public citizens. Making them public citizens against their will is crappy. I can think of half a dozen reasons why someone should be allowed to be anonymous, and I’m not going to list them because any one of them is good enough. Want people to stop acting like asshats on the boards? Suspend in game accounts for out of game behavior. Hire more mods. Close the board. Whatever. This is just chickenshit.

And another thing. We know that the Facebook generation have been told that presenting more than one identity to different people is fundamentally flawed. But I put a lot of work into blogging and posting and playing as Spinks, it’s as valuable an id to me in online gaming circles as my legal name (probably more, actually). I used to have a different nickname at University as well. Just because no one outside that circle of friends ever used it doesn’t mean that it was dishonest.

Surely any identity that you have spent time establishing has value.

Randall Farmer thinks that this is a classic identity design mistake.

I’m sure they are using Facebook as an example – I often do this in my consulting practice. There is no doubt that Facebook users are better behaved in general than their YouTube counterparts, but the error Blizzard made is to assume that their player relationships are like those of Facebook.

This is where the vision of the future comes in. Perhaps Blizzard intends to force their player relationships to be like those of Facebook.

I don’t have much time for slippery slope arguments , but just for the sake of argument, imagine this:

Blizzard provides more facilities for people to use with their realID friends. More channels. Maybe a shared bank or the ability to auction things to just your realID list. Perhaps they even go as far as a random dungeon finder that only your realID friends can use. The game culture becomes less of a public space where you expect to hang out with thousands of random people but a private space just for you and your realID friends where you never need to mix with anyone else.

For sure, you’d need a LOT of realID friends to make that work, but they could encourage and reward building larger circles of friends (just like Facebook/ Farmville). And suddenly, anyone who isn’t in the loop is disadvantaged.

And no one will complain, because the history books of the future will be written in Chicken.

Being alone in a MMO

336295941_00e23f305fAlejandra Mavroski@Flickr

So the rumours are increasing that patch 3.3.5 is due to drop imminently in WoW, and with it the RealID integration that could potentially make privacy  a thing of the past. One of my reservations about the new scheme is that if you swap RealIDs with a friend, they can see who all of your alts are.

But sometimes, I just want to log on and not be bothered by anyone. Just to pretend I am alone to explore peacefully in a big virtual world, with no social obligations at all.

I used to game with a Finnish friend who would periodically gquit and spend a week or two guildless. Then he’d rejoin. He said it was ‘his log cabin’ time and he’d go hang out in some unpopular zone where he’d never see another player. Now that’s a little extreme, but I wonder how many people enjoy the anonymity of being able to make a new low level alt, tell no one who you are, and just melt into the virtual world.

I used to notice this a lot when my boyfriend (now husband) first moved in with me. We were living in a small one-bedroom flat and whilst there was room for us both, there wasn’t much ‘solo room’ for anyone. And sometimes, being logged into the computer and playing a single player game almost felt as though it genuinely did add some virtual space to the house. For a lot of players, living in cities or far away from open land, being able to explore a virtual world is more virtual space than they might actually see in a year.

As well as an alt or two to just chill out, my bank alts are usually guildless. There’s no special reason for it, but I quite enjoy being able to drop online to quickly check auctions without being drawn into conversations or pestered to play my ((insert group specced character of choice)). I suspect that a lot of healers in particular lean on anonymous alts for some quality solo time in game.

The other bonus of an anonymous alt is that you can easily avoid players you don’t like. I’m sure we all are far too mature to harbour grudges against guildies or other players BUT if one was so inclined, one could log in an alt and check the /who list to make sure the object of derision was not online. Maybe it’s kiddie and immature but we’ve all done it!

So understand my concern about RealID. Even with close personal friends and family, we may sometimes want anonymous alts. This is entirely the type of behaviour that Facebook and, it now appears, Blizzard would like to wipe out. They find it deceptive. They find it unfriendly. But I know my anonymous alts are neither of those things. They’re just an attempt to find some extra me-time online when I can’t do it in any other way. If they didn’t exist, I’d probably go for a long walk or hide in my bedroom with a book.

Do you have anonymous alts? Would you be happy to share that information with your friends list?