BEP and the Goldshire Conundrum

bloodelf

Tobold stirred up the blog community last week with a post asking why there aren’t more porn oriented games and MMOs. After all, the core audience for both has traditionally been similar. So surely adding porn to MMOs would be a sure fire winner, right? He concludes that it’s probably much cheaper to pay an actress than to create a game engine with good enough models and animation.

Psychochild followed up with a post which looked at attempts to do exactly this (porn MMOs) and why they failed.

r u hot?

It’s obviously not true that people don’t want sex in their MMOs. How else can you explain Second Life? (This is a post about sex in Second Life, probably not safe for work. It is an interesting article though, she discusses the difference between porn and cybering.) They may not want porn per se – games are all about interactivity and it isn’t clear whether people want to interact with porn in that way even if the NPCs were pixel perfect. But talking dirty to real people? That’s hot.

So is being able to roleplay through scenes in a game that aren’t possible in real life, either because it involves some fantasy kink or even just because the people involved are miles away from each other. It shouldn’t be surprising that virtual environments have been popular with furries and with some parts of the BDSM community – they are mostly safe places to play.

From my experience with MUDs et al, I have formulated a new internet rule:

Spinks’ Rule: If it is possible for people to cyber in any medium, then they will.

This has been true for every MMO I have ever played. It was also true of Usenet, IRC, MUD, MUSH, livejournal, SMS, and I assume people are cybering on Facebook and twitter as well.

But it is ironic that Blizzard announced the intent to police Goldshire on one of the US servers, due to complaints about people cybering there in public, in the same week bloggers were arguing that sex in an MMO could never work.  And if you don’t play WoW then don’t worry, they’re doing it in your game too!

Iiiit’s Timmy!

I said this weekend that I pitied the GMs who were stuck with patrolling Goldshire. Especially when there’s a game full of players who would probably happily play at being the cyber patrol for free.

This story reminded me of back when I was involved in running a Vampire MUSH. I may have mentioned this before, the game was based on second edition V:tM and was set in London, and most of the players had vampire characters. The specific game/edition is important here because part of the background was that Vampires didn’t have sex drives or sex at all, in general. In the words of one of my co-staffers who was writing this up for the in game theme news:

You’re dead. Look down. It is too.

Another part of the lore was that some vampires could become invisible. We had code to mimic this ability so people could wander around stealthed. We also had a staff mailing list for that game, to help us communicate over the various time zones. Players who had roleplayed dramatic scenes of which they were especially proud could send us the logs in text form and if we were impressed by the standard of RP, we’d give out XP awards.

You can probably see where this is leading. Add Spinks’ Law (if people can cyber, then they will) to stealthy player characters and what you get is …  Timmy, the soi-disant morality patrol.

Every couple of weeks a big fat text file would land squarely in the staff mailing list. It would be from a player whose character was called Timmy. He was a stealther. His hobby was being a virtual voyeur. And he sent staff any evidence he found that people were breaking the theme of the game by RPing sex on their vampires. Morally, it was an odd situation for us. What he was doing was perfectly in character. What the cyber crowd was doing was generally not, and doors were lockable in the game if people really wanted to make sure no stealthers could sneak in to their bedrooms.

But more importantly, having to read through a ton of badly written semi-porn would ruin anyone’s day. As to what staff could do, we posted up information reminding people that doors could be locked. We tried to give Timmy some different plot hooks. We also posted some general info reminding people that this wasn’t the game for RPing torrid sex.

Then we left it and hoped for the best.

What about games designed around sex?

Back in the MUD/ MUSH days there were games which were unashamedly adult in theme. Many of them were also furry and/or BDSM in theme, I, being sadly vanilla, was happy with my vampires and never had much interest, but I did hang out on a bboard for MU* Admin where people sometimes discussed the seedier side of the hobby.

One particular game was known for the ‘anything goes’ theme. You could go create any type of character you could imagine and then … do adult themed stuff with it. And some players took this as a challenge – there were centipede men with 1000 pairs of legs (and presumably the other bits to go with it), there was a woman/ icecream van hybrid (don’t ask), and several people played historical characters and apparently roleplayed them very well. (I know this because people posted the more way out or amusing character descriptions on one of the MU* Admin threads to amuse everyone else.)

And apparently, when they weren’t all having bizarro sex, the general level of RP and discussion on the game was very high. I always found that quite curious, although it makes sense that sex is a social activity so a sex game would tend to turn into a social game.

The type of design which would make a game amenable for cyber would also be good for other types of roleplayer. Lots of private spaces. Ability to dress up your character. Some kind of character matching to help people find others with similar interests. Engaging hangouts with activities that encourage people to chat and get to know each other. You don’t need to design the porn into the game, just let players set the scene and RP out their own fantasies.

Spinks’ law will take care of the rest.

Can Goldshire be contained?

One of the biggest issues standing between MMOs and the mainstream right now is whether it is possible to clean up the real time chat channels. Granny may be happy to come and kill kobolds on her paladin, but what’s she going to say when she hears trade chat for the first time? Or when some jerk in LFD talks smack to her in an instance? And before she does any of those things, she will have to brave Goldshire. (For the sake of hyperbole, let’s ignore that Granny probably knows more about sex than all the inhabitants of Goldshire put together.)

As an aside, I sometimes wonder if an influx of older female players would have a good effect on manners in game. I’m sure a few people like my mother in law (a retired teacher) would soon have trade chat sorted out with its Ps and Qs and teach it grammatical English at the same time.

But the general issue isn’t going to go away. The cyber crowd can be chased out of Goldshire (they’ll go somewhere else) but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t want to go to a specialist game. They want WoW … and the cybering is something to do in downtime.

Can a massively multiplayer game ever be really controlled unless you ban chat channels altogether? Or would an army of nosey stealthers set to embarrass people in public do the trick?

Which came first, the game or the story?

I’ve read a few posts recently on immersion in gaming, and Toskk summed up the problem neatly here. There are different types of immersion, and they don’t all happily coexist.

If I’m immersed in a story, the absolute last thing I want to do is stop and min-max my character stats (or worse, be forced to go back to a previous save point, redo my gear/stats and play through some of the story I have already seen). If I’m immersed in a game, I don’t want to have to sit through seventeen cut scenes and have to care about which option would give me the best reward. If I’m immersed in exploring an area, I don’t want to have to fight through some scheduled event or be forced to grind out reputation just to be allowed to enter the next zone. And if I’m immersed in a solo resource management game, I don’t want to be forced to group.

Immersion (or we can call it flow) is not only the goal of many gamers, but it is also the problem. Having to switch between a gaming mindset and a storytelling mindset not only kills immersion but also will annoy people who liked one side of the game but not the other.

Figuring out how to neatly merge some of these styles is the big challenge for the next generation of game designers. But most MMO gamers will agree that they’d enjoy a virtual world from which stories and interesting gaming challenges both flowed naturally. We know it is possible to some extent, as long as players are willing to compromise – games like Uncharted 2 merge the storytelling and gaming brilliantly well, to a limited extent. Dragon Age charmed over 3 million players with a similarly engaging take on a similar problem. And it looks as though Mass Effect 2 will be at least as successful.

Playing the game badly

It’s very easy to play a storytelling game badly. All you have to do is completely ignore the story so far when making decisions.

If you decide that your character has no social skills so you will insult everyone you meet, you’ll still get through the game. You may also get some very amusing interactions and possibly more fights. It will involve picking non-optimal conversation options, but from a storytelling point of view, it’s a perfectly good way to play through the game. And that’s a player decision, you CAN choose to not try to pick the ‘best’ option in any conversation and … it won’t lead to disaster, just a story consistent with the choices that you have made.

In a bad storytelling game (like, many old school text adventures), making the wrong decision early on can cripple you in endgame. It’s like having a sadistic storyteller just waiting for you to slip up. But a good game, like a good storyteller, will give you plenty of hints as to where a decision might lead. Or if a decision has random and unforeseen results, then you will be given a chance to deal with them.

I was pondering this when reading Ravious’ post on why he feels stressed by storytelling games. I feel he missed the point. In a good storytelling game, you don’t need to stress about making the wrong decision. If the decision is right for your character and the story you are telling, then it isn’t a wrong decision.

But what this means is that a true storytelling game should never be heavily reliant on min/maxing from the player. Because that would lead to one preferred route through the game, and would cut out any character concepts that were not in line with the min/max result.

For example, mages are really powerful in Dragon Age. A min/maxer would tell you to pick a mage, would tell you how to spec it, and would tell you which specialisations to select. But I finished the game on my dwarf rogue and never felt hampered – being able to play on an easier mode was a way for me to tell the game that I didn’t want min/maxing to get in the way of my story.

When stories flow out of games

Storytelling is all about the art of giving meaning to things that we encounter in life. If you read a good biography, it will read like a series of anecdotes (ie. small stories). No one’s life is really a story until a storyteller sits down and pats and moulds it into the right shape. A news story might be dull when it happens to you personally … until you see it written up in a newspaper at which point it becomes a proper narrative.

Or in other words, that sword +1 that you got from the GM is very dull. But Caliburn, the sword +1 which was a rare drop that you cleared an instance 40 times to get, and that you then used to go tank a raid boss? That has a story. Adding difficulty or grind to a game is one way to add meaning. When you overcome those barriers, the results feel more meaningful than if you just woke up and got your quest reward in the post.

But difficulty isn’t the only way. Seeing the virtual world around us respond to decisions we have made in the past makes those decisions more meaningful too. It’s just that difficulty is by far the easiest way to make these achievements meaningful to all players in a multi-player game.

In a solo game, there are other options. The game can adjust more easily to the player. But in a MMO … if anything is going to be genuinely difficult, it needs to be designed assuming min/maxers. So in an MMO, either everyone must min/max or else difficulty is going to be somehow adjustable and high end achievements lose some meaning.

Freeing up the stories

Then there are players like me who love the stories and the virtual worlds and even the gameplay, and don’t enjoy the min/max side of the games at all. I’d have much more fun in games if I never had to care about how my character was specced or geared. Those things are not fun for me. So I’m glad in WoW that people make up gear lists – I wish they weren’t necessary but at least they let me skip the parts of the game that I hate.

This is also why I don’t like collectible card games. I love playing them, but only if someone else puts together a deck for me. Deck Building, like other forms of min/maxing, simply doesn’t appeal. So really I’d be happier playing a non-collectible card game like Bridge or Fluxx (which is an awesome game that everyone should try) where it simply isn’t part of the game at all.

No wonder I loved Dragon Age so much. The game was designed to let you downplay gear and talent choices. And gave you a great personalised story anyway. I can only pity the people who played that game badly, because they were too scared to veer from the min/max path in case anything non-optimal happened.

Re-reviewing Warhammer

It’s been suggested before that in order to review a MMO, you have to keep reviewing it again and again after time has passed. Because it is the nature of these games to change.

Alec Meer writes an insightful one year review of Warhammer Online at Eurogamer, which touches on both the brilliance and the pitfalls of Mythic’s flawed baby. And make no mistake, there’s a touch of genius in making PvP into a fun casual experience that you can easily drop into or out of.

The times I spent playing in Tiers 1 and 2 when the game was new out include some of the best online gaming I’ve had anywhere for sheer fun and exuberance. But that was partly fun because the place was bustling with people, and even then, most of the action was in prime time only.

WAR successfully transformed PvP from a presumptive, often frustrating experience aimed only at relatively hardcore gamers into an open-to-all-comers fairgound. It deserves respect for that, and with a big crowd it would function perfectly as a game you drop into for a month or so here and there, one in which you can find an honestly satisfying fight at any time of day. Without a big crowd, though, that fairground’s ferris wheels are left to wobble in the wind, and the bumper cars stand rusting. Then you realise that there isn’t even anywhere to go sit and have a drink and a chat whenever the rides aren’t working. So you just go punch someone you don’t like the look of, because there’s nothing else to do.

This is the key to what went wrong. It isn’t the class balance. It’s that the game couldn’t sustain the huge critical mass of players needed to make it really sing. Some MMOs can work well with fewer people — maybe they have more solo and small group content, maybe they don’t encourage mass PvP to such a great extent, maybe they train players to be more organised about arranging to run content together, maybe they have very tightly knit and self-sustaining communities. But the glory of Warhammer is that you don’t need to do any of those things. You can solo in PvE if you want, and there are small group Public Quests too, but the lure to the casual player is that you really don’t need to organise your life around it. You can just log in and go join in what the others are doing. You don’t even need to talk to them if you don’t want. But the others have to be there first.

And why did so many of the initial players leave? They weren’t all WoW tourists.

(Sure I went back to WoW, but I had a 6 month subscription that I decided not to renew, and it’s a casual friendly game. No reason to drop it just because I was playing something else too.)

Maybe some of them were hoping for an immersive online world. Although Warhammer makes a few half hearted attempts to be that place (the crafting is especially half hearted), it’s not the core of the game. So many of those early players enjoyed the game, but realised it wasn’t going to be a new home.

More than anything, WAR is a competition, even a sport – and I can’t help but feel that, had it been clearer about that instead of pretending to be a believable, functioning online world, its servers mightn’t be as distressingly empty as they are today.

It isn’t just that WAR wasn’t WoW, it wasn’t WoW in a very specific way. It’s much more gamey and much less worldy. And as the man says, perhaps if they’d been a little clearer about that, it would have helped in the long run.

Meaningful Choices, Persistent Worlds

Players often ask for the ability to make more meaningful choices in MMOs. People mean different things by ‘meaningful choice’, it could be:

  • Options available to the player in the future depend on choices they made in the past
  • The game world itself changes based on choices the player has made
  • If you make the ‘wrong’ choice, there are bad consequences for the character
  • Having different options available to  solve a problem. How you choose to solve it is as important as whether you succeed.

It boils down to the player being able to feel like a more important part of the game world. The player’s character’s story is unique and based on choices that the player has made. The game world ‘knows’ the character’s history and will respond differently if they made different choices.

These may or may not be reasonable wishes. I know in single player games, I often save before a big decision point because of having been trained in years of adventure games where a single wrong step could result in my character dying and me having to restart the game. So really, no decisions are particularly meaningful. The worst that happens is I go back to a saved game and choose again.

I’m quite intrigued as to how I will cope as a player in a game like SWTOR which is heavily story/choice based but where saving isn’t an option. It will be interesting to find out.

On the other hand, we make a lot of meaningful decisions  in MMOs. They just aren’t all long term decisions (although some, like picking a class, are pretty much permanent in current gen games).

If I’m tanking an instance, I’m making meaningful decisions all the time. I’m deciding which order to kill mobs in, who to put the Vigilance buff on, what gear to wear, which abilities to use. Any of those could affect whether or not we succeed in the next pull or not.

If I’m in a well designed battleground or scenario (i.e. not a total zergfest) then I may be deciding which tactical location to go defend or attack based on what everyone else is doing. Should I attack the enemy or retreat to where there are more allies, or a better defensive position? They’re all meaningful decisions.

But neither instances nor battlegrounds offer the chance for permanent meaningful decision making. The best you can do is complete a quest there to hand in later. And I think the fact that they’re such temporary short-term decisions points is why we have more fun with them.

Does permanence make decision making less fun?

The trouble with permanent decision making is that it can be very high risk. If you make a bad choice, you have to live with it forever. You can certainly make permanent decisions in real life (having a kid, for example), but a lot of our real life choices can be changed later. You can change your career, partner, looks, religion, country where you live, gender, and so on.

Making high risk decisions can be fun. But it’s not fun in a game to be on the wrong side of a decision like that and have to restart when you already sunk several months into a game. This is one of the (many) reasons people hate having their characters nerfed – it may negate the reasons they picked that class, which is a meaningful choice in game. In other words, it’s not fun to make a meaningful decision and find out later that it really hindered your progress in game.

It’s also not fun to find that a decision you made ages ago locked you out of content. I actually think most players would be OK with this as long as it also gave them access to cool content that other people couldn’t have, and sometimes you really can’t (and shouldn’t) have everything. But it’s the permanence of the choice that causes the friction.

You can lower the risk by doing research. Spend time reading bulletin boards, blogs, and whatever other information is available. And that is all time that you don’t spend actually making the decision yourself and possibly learning from it. I’m sure some people think it’s brilliant fun to go spend a few hours reading up on talent specs before deciding how to spend points on their character. I’m not one of them. And most games now offer options to respec, making that less of a permanent choice too.

I enjoy having the game respect decisions I have made in the past as much as anyone. It’s fun when an NPC ‘remembers’ what I said or did for them previously or when the game ‘spots’ that I try to avoid killing unnecessarily and reflects that with how NPCs respond and what kind of quests I am offered. It also CAN be fun to play a game where you are stuck with bad choices that you made in the past (at the start of DaoC, you couldn’t respec, for example) – players have to learn to make the best of what they’ve got. But as soon as some people are willing to reroll to avoid this, there’s presssure on everyone else to do the same thing.

But really this is just trying to make an MMO pretend that it’s a human GM. I’ve played with human GMs, I’ve run games as a human (well, I hope!) GM. I know how I adapt my games to what my players do and say. No offence to game devs but the computer game is really still quite a poor simulation of that. Sure, that means that there is scope for them to get better but my gut feeling is that until these games have more actual human GMing involved, there are limits that we’ll have to accept.

Solid short term tactical games is what computers do very well indeed. Instances, battlegrounds, short term goals rife with short term meaningful decision making for players. These are their strengths.

At the moment, MMOs are still in a funk of identity crisis. They’re virtual worlds, and also games. Often they stick the ‘game’ parts behind instanced portals so that we can enjoy them more as games with all the short term tactical meaningful choices that implies. But it becomes increasingly clear that you can’t have your cake and eat it. The more gameish a MMO becomes, the less of a virtual world feel it will have.

It may be that the price of meaningful choices is one that we’re not willing or able to pay.

What makes a good games shop?

First up, thanks all for the discussion yesterday. It’s been interesting and I know I’m thinking about my assumptions.

Second, thanks muchly to Ixobelle for cleaning up the header here.

Back to the topic, I had a really unusual experience yesterday in a games shop. Ever since I was a teenager buying comics and RPGs, I’ve felt like an outsider in games and comic shops. The token female. Even when I knew lots of other women were into this stuff, somehow they never seemed to be in the shops. Games shops themselves have always been a small corner of male-dominated geekery.

Truth is, since I started playing MMOs I don’t buy other games all that often – I have to be very sure that I’ll want to play it enough to find the time. Or else it has to be cheap in the sales, or else maybe an old, classic game that I’ve wanted to play for ages but never got around to. Or a DS game.

The DS is actually the only current gen console that we own, because it’s just perfect for train journeys, of which I make several a week.

So on this occasion I was in GAME because I wanted to pick up a couple of copies of Puzzlequest Galactrix. Puzzlequest (ie. the prequel) never sold well in the UK, but surely part of this is because it was hard to find  on the shelves in shops? I don’t know how many people buy from brick and mortar shops rather than online,  but guessing still a majority.

I don’t know what went wrong with the promotion. A good puzzle based DS game with a fantasy theme really shouldn’t be a hard sell. It’s not like GTA: Chinatown which failed to sell because the people who own DSs don’t want to play GTA.

So I was happy because not only did I find a copy, but it was also in the sale (presumably because it didn’t sell as well as expected – perhaps the total lack of promotion was a factor there too?). So I went to the counter to ask if they had another copy and the guy behind the desk asked if I was buying it for myself. I said I was, and he brightened; we had a quick chat about how great Puzzlequest was and how disappointing that it hadn’t been more popular.

Do you know how unusual it is for an employee of a games shop to treat female customers over 30ish as if they were actual gamers and not just buying for a child or partner? VERY.

Funny thing is, I had to go to the other branch of GAME in town to pick up the second copy  since I’m not buying a copy of Galactrix for myself without getting one for my husband, that would be a cause of minor household friction, and the guy behind the counter there was pretty much the same. So either

  • they’ve all had solid diversity training
  • all GAME employees like Puzzlequest (to be fair, it’s a good game)
  • or if a woman over thirty comes into the shop and buys a puzzle-based DS game, odds are it’s for herself. (ie. games shop employees have a good knowledge of gamer demographics and this was a shoe-in).

Whatever it was, I like it.

Now of course, we can buy over the internet, where no one knows you’re a dog. So we can avoid those pokey little holes stacked high with shelves of games for consoles you don’t own, where people act like you don’t belong. But if they can make me feel more as though I’m part of a community of hobbyists, I’ll be more likely to spend time there and if I spend more time there, I’ll spend more money there too.