Gaming Ethics: Can it ever be fun to do things that aren’t fun?

Towards the end of last year, I read several carefully argued (or passionately argued) blog posts about the ethics of daily quests.  In particular:

Doone had concerns about ethics of game design. He starts by discussing dailies but he has wider concerns.

We’ve got a lot of unethical game design going on. It’s bad. It’s contributing to bad ideas and promoting unhealthy communities of gamers. It’s making otherwise immoral acts normative and therefore acceptable to gamers.

If a game is based on Skinner techniques in it’s core design, it’s not a game. It’s a software device developers have created to keep you playing, often because the model is profitable. It’s like tricking the rat in the box into thinking they are winning a game. In fact, they are being controlled in an environment they’re barely aware of.

Saxsy has a strong rebuttal to this, and particularly the idea that ‘psychological manipulation’ is always unethical. (I think she’s wrong btw to keep accusing Doone of White Knight Syndrome, that actually wasn’t something I read in his argument.)

I seriously doubt Blizzard is putting non-fun things in the game for the purpose of getting people to continue to play the game. ((…)) Having people do not fun things make them less likely to continue giving Blizzard their money. It isn’t evil. It’s just stupid.

So, I have a few points to make here. This post isn’t really an essay with an argument and conclusions, more some thoughts on the topic.

I don’t think it has to be unethical per se to create fun games that people like to play and will want to pay for, or to recognise that some people enjoy having organised habits. Or even that many MMO players enjoy the process of grinding towards progress or an achievement.  I also think Blizzard cops a lot of bad press in the blogosphere for this, where actually they seem (via designer blogposts) aware of players’ wellbeing and try to design away from things that would harm it.

I also think that the best defence against accusations of unethical design are to be really up front with how this behavioural stuff works, and empower players to make informed decisions about how often they want to play and to set their own boundaries. This is social worker-y language, but you get the jist.  Have fun, but it’s down to you to take care of yourself. Don’t say ‘I was forced to play,’ because no one stopped you logging off when you’d had enough and it makes you sound a) whiny and b) unable to manage your own time.

But some people are genuinely vulnerable – in the same way that some people are vulnerable to online gambling (which is also a form of gaming that makes heavy use of behavioural mechanisms to keep people playing and coming back.) It likely is unethical to encourage them to play MMOs, but it’s not really clear what devs can do about that, or is it? Maybe mechanisms that do encourage players to take regular breaks are more ethical, it’s food for thought at any rate.

Ethics and Behavioural Psychology

I’m not saying behaviouralism is ethically dubious, but every famous psychology experiment I can think of in that field has been criticised for being unethical. At the same time, it spawned a raft of techniques that have given real help and real hope to many people with depression, helped people to make positive changes in their lives, and in other ways helped to make people happier and healthier. It is a powerful tool, and one which has been widely co opted.

Fact is, there are lots of organisations in this world that use behavioural psychology to try to influence people’s behaviour and opinions. Pretty much all marketing and advertising, for example. Psychological torture. Also many activist campaigns, and lots of educational initiatives. There is a big overlap between gaming and learning, which Raph Koster theorises about in A Theory of Fun (his idea is that games are fun because learning things is fun, basically.)

I think that the ethical side arises from questions this raises about free will. Is it possible to make someone do something that isn’t in their best interests without holding a gun to their head? Do we assume people aren’t able to decide what their best interests are if they’re subject to psychological manipulation? Can building these types of habits into games make them more fun for players? These are big questions. But the cat is out of the bag now.

We do know that traditional MMOs use a lot of operant conditioning. It’s all about the tasks and the rewards. And what players actually do in these games has been very dependent on this balance. Or in other words, when you log into your MMO of choice, how do you decide what you are going to do that session? A lot of the time, it will be based on some goal or reward.

Goals are used in other games too, it’s just that the relationship between grind and reward is very up front in MMOs. I also note that players will also often learn things that the designers never intended – such as being wildly elitist in PUGs. There’s no option for players not to learn something from their games and online communities, as a human being this is how your brain works … always learning. It’s just a question of how much of that learning should be designed, and whether its ok for there to be commercial elements present.

Some history of daily quests

Any old dinos who remember when daily quests were first introduced to WoW may also remembered that the player base welcomed them fervently. This was during TBC, with the Isle of Quel’Danas. They were welcomed, in part, because they were felt to be more ethical and less demanding than previous rep grinds.

It used to be the case that rep grinds were based on killing mobs and repeatable quests. So if you were hardcore, you went off and camped in the appropriate place for ages and kept at it until you were done. The daily quests offered a natural break; once you had done your dailies, that was it for the day.

Now later on, the whole idea of daily tasks was completely co-opted by social/ facebook games as a way to encourage players to keep coming back. I’m sure that was part of the idea behind daily quests too, but mostly it was to find a way to give players longer term goals which they didn’t immediately burn out on. And lets also remember that this was a time when players liked to feel attached to their MMO of choice, so having reasons to keep coming back could have made the game more fun. Many players still do. And also, the sense of working at the game to earn an achievement or reward may be behaviouralism in action, but it can also be fun. Players were doing this anyway before daily quests.

Ted A gives an example:

Between the lore, and the gear rewards, these dailies have not felt like a grind. I’ve wanted to do them and as a bonus I’ve kept playing my main and thoroughly enjoying the class.

 

Being open about the design

I find that the more unethical side to this type of design is where it’s not clear what the player is being manipulated to do, or where it’s made deliberately difficult for players to set upper bounds on either their play time or spending. F2P games with complex payment models can edge close to this.

The other questionable thing to me is about design by metric, especially where game designers assume that if a lot of players do something, that means they liked that content. I understand why you’d assume that — after all, why would so many people do it if they didn’t like it. But then I remember spending a weekend in PvP during TBC to get decent weapons for my Fury Warrior and I did not like it AT ALL. I did it. For the rewards. But I had a big grudge on Blizzard for years afterwards.

So my view: it’s all good, as long as it’s clear up front what you need to do to get your reward so you can make an informed choice. I also like games that offer clear breaks to players; dailies actually do this. I really get tired of people complaining that they were forced to do XYZ in a game when they clearly weren’t – if you do feel forced, it’s a wake up call to step back and look at the psychological manipulation.

Gaming morality vs RL morality

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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.

Oh, we haven’t had a feminist post for at least a month

I have a lot of sympathy with Effraeti, who waxes lyrical on why she isn’t a feminist. She reminds me a lot of myself a few years ago when I was straight out of college. I was getting on with things, working as an engineer, and maybe wincing at women who pull the “I’m a girl! I’m so bad at maths” shtick a bit for encouraging the general public to think that people like me didn’t exist. And of course, I was always a gamer. I don’t  much care for the label ‘female gamer’ , it isn’t meaningful to me.

One difference is that I did take Home Econ at school instead of Woodwork/ Metalwork because I’m pragmatic and figured cooking would be a more useful skill in my future independent life, to which I was counting down the hours. It is however true that none of the boys in my class seemed to see this. Another difference is that I never felt strongly about feminism. I could see it had been useful, equal pay and anti-sexism at work and all. But that was all done.

It’s only recently that I see how badly feminism has failed so many women who actually are putting themselves out there, trying roles that used to be seen as exclusively male, and not accepting gendered stereotypes. This is because it has become the preserve of social science academics who sit around talking about media studies and privilege. So of course everyone else is out of the loop.

Anyhow, the short form here is that I think Effraeti is wrong to keep that door closed. And it’s because although there will always be some women (like her, like me even) who see social structures saying “girls can’t do X” and think “I’ll show them!” and who happen to have lots of male friends and don’t see themselves as particularly girly. And maybe you’ll never really see the way in which society discriminates against women (and this is different from racism, et al because women are not a minority group), or wonder why even though you think you are one of the guys, they don’t always seem to act like you are when it would count. (If you think it’s bad now, imagine if you had kids; mothers are deeply discriminated against in the workplace.)

But equality, social justice, recognising societal power imbalances and finding room for everyone to have their voice, are important for girly girls (or boys) just as much as for engineers. You shouldn’t have to act ‘like a man’ to get people to take you seriously.

In gaming that means that female gamers might be good, might be bad, might be roleplayers, might be pet collectors, might be … anything that male players are. But you’d have to be blind not to see how games tend to pander to a male audience right now. You can claim you don’t care, that you like military shooters and want your female characters to be wearing bikinis and high heels — and if you do then you are well catered for. It could be different. There could be a wider variety of games to suit different players, both male and female. More romance, more social play, less killing, more cooperation, more exploring. But when you say that you’re a female gamer and not a feminist you’re effectively saying that you don’t even want to have that discussion. Heaven forfend you ever comment on character boob size or sexist smack talk. Maybe you don’t want to, maybe you like those things or feel you can easily ignore them. But wouldn’t it be nice to have more options for those people who do want them, wouldn’t it be nice if those women — so unlike us — who do experience sexism online didn’t have to?

You don’t like to call yourself a feminist, I don’t like to call myself a female gamer. But we’re still sisters, under the skin.

[Gaming Links] What everyone says about everything!

Back in the day we used to walk uphill both ways to raids in the snow AND we enjoyed it!

Syncaine claims that his guild wiped over 400 times in AQ40 in Vanilla WoW, and he enjoyed every minute of it, dammit!

I’m in the happy situation (for the purposes of being able to make a point ;) ) of having also raided AQ40 and Naxx in a 40 man raid guild in vanilla and there were many many things I enjoyed about that style of gaming. But I don’t think we wiped that many times, and certainly not on any single boss, and here is the reason. We couldn’t extend the raid locks back then. Every raid reset every week. So there was an actual limit of how much time you could spend wiping on a single boss. And in AQ40 in particular, it took ages to run back after a wipe. Oh and trash respawned after a couple of hours (I think that was the respawn time).

Anyhow I don’t want to get hung up on number of wipes. One of the differences between Olde Worlde raiding and new fangled raiding was that we did expect to spend a few weeks on each new boss, that was our normal situation. And that would involve a lot of wipes and learning. It’s just that because of the raid locks, you would also be interspersing this with farm raids. So the time you spent in your raids was a mixture of hard, frustrating wipes, and chilling out on older content, plus taking longer to get back after a wipe was also time to chat.

I don’t think even the hardest core raider is going to enjoy 400 wipes BACK TO BACK, especially when each wipe comes from a single mistake or unlucky random event after 10 minutes of demanding fighting.  That’s maybe the key to endgame content.

Just one more quote from Syncaine:

And yes, at one point, between managing the guild, running raids, carrying ‘bads’, and main-tanking, it got a little much. But in all honesty, that was my fault.

If he were the only person who burned out for that reason then maybe it’s purely his fault. But a lot of people came out of vanilla WoW raiding and decided that it had been too much. I felt the same. Some of that comes down to the game.

Perhaps part of the definition of a newly hardcore hobbyist of any stripe is that they struggle to set boundaries on how much of their life they want to give over to the hobby. Maybe the experience of being a bit too hardcore for your own comfort is an important one for learning to set your own boundaries, I know it was for me.

(It’s the same reason as to why sometimes new graduates work crazy long hours and put up with awful conditions at work and then burn out where an older worker would not.)

That’s a good question!

Ratshag wonders why Blizzard always create the male models for new races first. What would be so bad about starting with the female model next time and using that as the baseline?

Azuriel opines that if MMOs are intended to be social games, it should be easier to find like minded players. Truth is, a lot of us fell into our current guilds or in-game social networks via a set of happy accidents. There might be a better way … why aren’t devs trying to find it instead of just going the solo route?

Oestrus asks why anyone thinks it’s a problem that WoW players could sell lion cub pets for in game gold? Who exactly is hurt by this?

Fulguralis asks whether readers are planning on taking Blizzard up on their annual pass.

Let me know what you think… not about why they’re doing this, but rather, if taken on face value, who this is for.  Who will it sway?  Who will it remain unmoved?

Food for thought

Wasdstomp is having a great time with Dragon Nest and wonders if other game companies are taking notes. Anyone else playing that?

Cassandri of HoTs and DoTs reflects on her experience of running instances in normal and heroic mode as a new 85.

I’m tired of feeling like I’m not good enough, or somehow am the weakest part of the team, somehow dragging down the run into something slow or hopeless or pathetic. I hate feeling as though I need to be carried. Feeling as though I am being carried.

OK, so the press embargo on SWTOR beta testers is now gone. Ask a Jedi has a great set of links from around the net with some feedback. But why exactly does the press embargo have to drop before the player embargo? I’m tired of hearing that players won’t be neutral – that’s why I want to read their accounts!

Dusty Monk writes a comprehensive review of the F2P version of City of Heroes, particularly aimed at people who played in the past and are considering coming back. (I think given that it’s free, you might as well give it a shot and decide for yourself). Silverspar has been playing City of Heroes, and isn’t happy with the amount of content offered to the hero faction as opposed to the villain one.

Alas writes offers some feedback on what she(?) feels is missing in Blizzard’s current approach to raids, based on what went well in the past. As a commenter notes, this could be an example of how it’s just not possible to please all of the people all of the time. But the example of Karazhan is still a compelling one, and Alas isn’t the only person who would offer that as an example of raiding done right.

Dungeon Crawl recently removed mountain dwarves from their list of playable species. Naturally, this sparked a long and controversial comment thread.

Ask a Jedi (and yes, they get two links this time around!) wonders if being part of a guild in a MMO can teach players something useful about getting involved with their communities and local politics in real life.

Are any gaming conventions fun?

I’ve read a few blogs from people who went to PAX East over the weekend. And what they had in common is that no one really found the convention itself to be all that fun, it was more about being able to meet up with fellow bloggers/ guildies/ etc there.

Now last year I went to a couple of conventions. One was the Eurogamer Expo, which is a gaming convention, has a show floor full of demos that you can try, and that’s about it. I wasn’t impressed. I wonder if it was partly my own fault – what did I really expect from a gaming convention anyway? There were games, right?

The other convention that I went to last year was Eastercon, which is a sci fi convention. We had a blast! There were panels on all the time, there were films to watch, demos to take part in, panels with well known authors who you could go talk to, a chocolate tasting (yes really). even a room full of board games to play. Some of the panels were even about games, and we also got to meet friends from around the country.

I know which convention I would go to again and it would be the scifi one. But why the big difference? I wonder if it’s because sci fi conventions tend to be fan run, with lots of volunteers stepping up to offer to run sessions on just about anything under the sun, lots of families and family oriented activities, and people with years of fandom under their belt who are keen to welcome newbies into the convention scene.

Maybe it really is about the people, and not about the big shiny demos that you need to queue for hours to play or the devs who probably don’t have time to talk to you anyway.

In any case, me and Arb are going to Comic Con 2011, one of the biggest conventions of them all. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous. Will it be more like the scifi conventions with fans, fan run activities, panels and crazy things to do, or will it be more like the gaming conventions with silent anonymous queues to see the good stuff.

Has anyone actually had fun at a gaming convention? I wonder a bit about Blizzcon too, because really the main fun there seems to be meeting guildies which you don’t actually have to do at a Blizzcon.

Predictions for MMOs/ Gaming in 2011

It is that time when we look ahead and try to predict what the year ahead may bring. Arbitrary and I have put our heads together to see what we can come up with…

In general, it’s going to be another huge year for both social gaming and mobile gaming. There will be more massive hits along the lines of Angry Birds, and both iPhones and Android will continue to be strong platforms. We’ll see the trend for Android to increase in popularity continue as more and more models come onto the market.

The debate as to what does or doesn’t constitute an MMO will continue. Facebook will continue as the platform of choice for social games, particularly on handsets, since it actually is handset agnostic.

The iPad will not really live up to the potential that the industry had hoped. Already we’re seeing that magazine subscriptions on the iPad are below predictions. There will be popular games, yes, but they will never come close to the popularity of the phone-based versions. So iPad owners had best get used to continuing to receive iPhone conversions.

I predict something big with Zynga this year. They’re huge, but they’ve not had much success in breaking away from Facebook. The desire to do so is still there … maybe they’ll even try to take over FB or merge the companies in some way. Whatever it is, it’ll be crazy.

E-sports will be a big trend this year in some form or other, as publishers try to find more ways to draw in the ‘core audience’ into more social, F2P type games. Expect at least one hugely successful multiplayer game, possibly on a console or on Facebook, with this kind of worldwide e-sports competitive ethos at its core.

One of the other big trends this year was for breakout indie games. This is nothing new, but Minecraft in particular has been a stunning hit. In addition, the various Steam indie bundles, more attention from PC journalists and blogs, and ‘pay what you want’ weekend offers have gotten more people to try them out than ever before. This trend continues, and we’ll see at least one successful indie MMO launch this year.

Interactive/ internet TV is going to be another big trend this year. Look for gaming on Google TV in particular (one area where Zynga may have their eye). And this is a platform that favours simple social games.

This year also marks the release of the Nintendo 3DS, the 3D version of the DS. Whilst it will sell well enough to be marked as a success, they will signally fail to persuade most users to upgrade. However nice the graphics, there’s unlikely to be a killer game that really uses the 3D. (If it played films, however …) This won’t be a good year for handhelds, losing more ground to the ubiquitous smartphones.

WoW/ Blizzard

This year Blizzard plays it safe with WoW. There won’t be any big features analogous to the dungeon finder. Patches will be more of the raid instance, dailies, extra minigames type of content.

Whilst some players will get bored quickly of Cataclysm, the strategy to draw in more casual players will work, by and large.

The balance of ranged vs melee is going to continue to be a big feature of this expansion.

The leaked expansion plans date the next expansion for 2010. I predict this is correct and we’ll hear more about the next expansion and about Blizzard’s plans to offer more frequent, smaller expansions. Wrath will soon be perceived as the golden age of WoW in much the same way that TBC was by the old guard for most of Wrath.

The big change for the next expansion will be a crafting revamp.

Blizzcon will be held in Europe.

Blizzard will announce their next game, currently codenamed Titan. It will, as expected, be a different genre from WoW. (Please take a moment to imagine what the WoW community might be like if Blizzard’s next game is a FPS. Heck, imagine what the Blizzard community for a FPS MMO might be like? Scared yet? This is why they will come back with a more player friendly version of realID.)

Other games

Guild Wars 2 will not release in 2011.

Neither will World of Darkness (Vampire).

Neither will The Secret World

The walking in stations expansion for EVE will release and will generate a flurry of ‘look at this amazing character creator’ posts. It will not substantially expand the player base, though and will largely be seen by existing players as watering down the current game.

Star Wars: the Old Republic will release and will fail to either gain a million subscribers or to be a game people want to play for 10 years (both predictions made by EA). It may even fail completely within 6 months. (I will still play it.)

Mark Jacobs will announce a new project, DaoC 2.

There will be more discussion about the F2P model as it applies to MMOs, focussing more on practical details of ‘what works’. People will pick their games at least as much based on payment models as anything else, to the point of having preferences for very specific flavours of F2P.

There will also be extended discussions in the blogosphere about how trustworthy various publishers are viewed as being. This is partly connected with games that failed in 2010 (do you trust this game to still be going in 6 months before you invest too much time into it?) but also with the way the F2P model has been implemented by companies such as SOE.

LOTRO will release their Isengard expansion which will be comparable in size to Mirkwood. ie. a couple of levelling zones, new instances, and a raid. They will increasingly be spread thin trying to keep both the lifetime endgame player base happy and the new F2P players who are more interested in lower level revamps.

2011 is a big year for RPGs. In fact, it will probably also be the biggest year ever for computer games in general.

Diablo III will release, will be a massive success. It will contain various features borrowed from WoW, and so the cycle comes full circle.

Dragon Age II will release, will be a massive success.

Mass Effect III will release, will be a massive success.

The Witcher II will release, will be a massive success (but possibly not on the scale of the previous three games, which is a shame.)

And not a RPG, but yes, Portal II will release, will be a massive success.

Whatever Infinity Ward does for EA will release, will be a massive success.

There will be at least one film tie in game that is actually good, and will be a massive success.

Microsoft attempt to clean up the Xbox Live community in some way, possibly involving an element of realID.

Should game companies have a duty of care?

I have talked over the last few weeks about the challenges of playing more casually, or adjusting to having less time available when you want to play with people who can put in a lot more time to a game. But one notion that hasn’t been challenged is that  dedicated players want to spend more time in  games, the only reason that they don’t is  real life issues.

The entire point of these games is to progress your character. The only way to do this is by spending time on it. Even if you are happy with the progress of your main character, you can progress your account by levelling alts to give more options, more tradeskills, and so on. Or progress your in-game social network by spending time with people. Plus people always want to spend more time on their hobbies and less on work/ study/ chores, it’s human nature.

Maybe it is part of the drift towards more casual friendly gaming, but MMO devs have been toying with encouraging people to play less for years. For example: rested xp bonuses, easy cash/ consumable supplies from daily quests, limited boss attempts or long respawn times. But at the same time, the whole game design points people in the opposite direction. And being able to keep busy is one of the factors that keeps people in the game in the first place.

This just leaves a lot of open questions:

  • What’s so bad about playing a lot, assuming you have the time?

From the dev point of view, there are lots of practical reasons for encouraging people to play less. They’ll consume content more slowly. The gap between most progressed and least progressed will get smaller, making it easier for them to play together. Less likely to screw up their real lives to an extent which means they can’t play any more. Less need to design time sinks. Less use of game network resources. Takes people longer to burn out.

Obviously if you are charging by the hour, then it’s better for people to play more. But in any other case, the only reason to encourage heavy play is because of the stronger community base which will be built. (You will get a more tight knit community if people spend more time together.)

So there’s really nothing bad about playing a lot, and it’s great for the in game community. Just it means that content is consumed more quickly, devs might need to put in more time sinks, and it may be harder to play with more casual players if the progression difference is too great.

  • Is there any real way to encourage MMO players to play less?

Sure. Release dull, buggy content, have dreadful PR, provide an awful service, etc. Or just have less progression – players will probably leave when they’re finished and there’s no progression left, but they will play less.

Otherwise, given a game that people like, there is no way to stop the hardcore from pouring more hours into their hobby.

The debacle with the ICC limited attempts is a good example of how hardcore gamers found inventive ways around the time limiters. Originally, raiders in Icecrown had a limited number of attempts per week on the end of wing bosses (I think it was about 15 attempts on Arthas?). The idea was that after you had wiped that many times, you could not try again until the next week. Ultra hardcore guilds got their members to roll up alts which duplicated their mains, they geared these alts up by raiding, and ran extra raids so that they had more chances to learn the boss fight. (I’m sure this wasn’t common – but lots of hardcore players ran multiple raids on different alts to have more chances to learn the encounters.)

  • Should devs force people to play less?

As stated above, there are lots of reasons for devs to want people playing less. But having the opportunity to throw in lots of hours for tiny advantages is one of the appeals of the genre for a lot of players. Having a game that you can play 24/7 is another. Even though a lot of people do damage their studies/ jobs/ relationships/ etc through playing too much.

  • How about not encouraging people to gamble with real money?

When talking about a duty of care, how about F2P games which obfuscate their charging schemes to get people to spend more money? Or effectively endorse gambling? (Note: gambling has a wide definition, which could extend to online collectible card games).

I’d like to think that my favourite games were not actively encouraging people to get involved in pyramid schemes, ruin their lives, gamble crazily, and otherwise do things which aren’t good for them. But you have to at some point assume that people are big enough to make their own decisions. And be quick to nail those games which do indulge in shady practices that drift afoul of the law.

I’m not even sure how to conclude here. AAA MMOs as we know them are on a downward spiral, but it isn’t because people play too much. Farmville and other facebook type games have similar issues – the more you play, the better you get. It’s inherent with a permanent world that’s all about progression.

All we can really hope for is more models for allowing people to easily play with each other, whilst still putting in as many hours as they want on their own main character. Which, funnily enough, is something that Farmville et al do very well indeed.

And as for ruining their lives in other ways — the legal base isn’t yet caught up with what is going on online. Certainly people need to take responsibility for their own choices, but games are manipulative of human behaviour, and sometimes the lines will not be clear cut. All we can do is speak up when we think anyone has crossed the line.

Restricting player choices to make a better tutorial

I’m still working through the first few hours of tutorial in Final Fantasy 13, but I know already that it’s one of the most astounding feats of game design of anything that I have ever played.

At some point in the future, the game will open up. There will be airships. I will be able to decide which of the spiky-haired moppets will be in my team. I will even be able to decide where to go next. I know this because I read spoilers and game reviews.

As of now, I’m still in Chapter 4 (which is several hours into the game) and although I’m looking forwards to having more freedom later on, I no longer mind the railroading. Because, you see, I’m learning to play the (complex) game properly and the game is satisfied with nothing less.

To anyone who is used to MMO levelling, or even the typical CRPG, this comes like a bolt from the blue. But when you limit player options, that means encounters can be very very finely tuned to the characters, abilities, and gear which are available to the player.

How often do you fail an encounter in an MMO and think ‘Oh, I’ll go level up some more,’ or ‘I’ll buy some better gear,’ or ‘I’ll get some friends, guildies, or random people in to help’? What if none of those were options, but you knew for a fact that the encounter was designed so that you could do it with whatever resources you had right now? What if helpful tutorial tips introduced new concepts, walked you through using them, and then you had lots of opportunities to practice before hitting the really hard boss fight where you have to use what you just learned … or fail?

What if the penalty for failing was quite soft? In FF13 you can always go ahead and retry the fight again straight away if your main character dies.

What it means is that FF13 is very very determined to teach YOU how to play. It is very patient, it won’t give up, and it won’t offer easy modes that allow you to sidestep any key strategy. So if you are the type of player who often ignores buffs and debuffs in RPGs because you can usually just load up the highest possible dps and blast straight through everything – that tactic won’t work here. There’s a place for spikes of dps, and also a place for buffs/ debuffs/ heals/ tanks.

This is quite probably the gamiest RPG I have ever played. It is the game that will turn every player into a gamer, will teach them to understand the strategies and tactics, and will encourage them to switch paradigms on the fly like a pro. And I’m loving it. It doesn’t hurt that the battle system itself is a thing of genius. You have a lot of control over your group without needing to handhold each one of them personally, and it’s still fast paced and exciting.

Right now, I feel that  Square-Enix have achieved one of the nirvanas of single player gaming. A game that is tuned perfectly to the player, and continues to be tuned perfectly even as it adds in extra complexity. A game that teaches you how to play as you play, rather than leaving it to the game guides and blogs to fill in the missing content.  Where balance has ceased to be an issue.

Still counting the minutes until the next session!

Sharing predictions, and looking forwards

This is the time of year where everyone traditionally makes some predictions for the next year, so that we all can laugh at how wrong they were in 12 months time.

Here’s a few links to bloggers who are putting their necks on the line:

The big trend in 2009 was the rise and rise of social gaming via facebook games. They’re not strictly MMOs, although massive numbers of players are involved and they are online. But a lot of investor interest is focussed again on online gaming, so I’m sure this will have some kind of knock-on effect on more traditional styled MMOs. We’ll see more effort next year put into translating the fantastically successful social networking, gift giving, strategy/ resource focus and virtual goods buying mechanisms into other gaming areas. And we’ll probably see more of this type of approach in non-gaming sites as well.

Many of the new MMOs of 2009 seem to have disappointed fans and pundits with their subscription numbers. Champions Online in particular has seemed like a flash in the pan from where I have been sitting. I’m still intrigued that so many people were happy to line up to pay for a lifetime subscription though, and I think that’s a trend worth noting.  Aion has been fairly successful but again, the pattern of excitement at launch followed by a few months of disillusionment (with the grind, on this one) is repeated. People will simply have to revise their expectations for how new MMOs behave at launch — they won’t actually revise their predictions though.

Free Realms is one that I was predicting to possibly take a slice of the WoW market. I liked the game when I tried it, but the non-existent social side failed to hook me in. SOE have struggled with their free to play model here, and shifted to an ‘all pay after level 5′ model which isn’t the same thing at all. I hope they see more success with the game in 2010 and find their audience because it was nicely executed.

Darkfall launched to a finely targeted hardcore PvP audience and has flourished, despite criticism. But this largely on the basis of catering to their core audience (not a bad idea for any business, really) rather than aiming to be something that they are not.

Fallen Earth surprised a lot of players with its focussed old style crafting and scavenging post apocalyptic playstyle.  Again, it’s a game that is focussed squarely at a core audience and aims to make those players happy.

Another trend (this is another gimme) will be the rise of gaming on smartphones. I don’t think the iPhone will take over the world, and it might be that cross-platform games will be the biggest success of 2010. It may come down to the social networking in the end and not wanting to be restricted to playing with people who use the same model of phone, rather than the better graphics you could get by tailoring to a single hardware platform. There will be some big game that uses location based technology and maybe even augmented reality — it may look better in demos than in practice but it will get vast amounts of press attention.

And the last trend I wanted to highlight was the snap sales we have seen on Steam and other online digital vendors. The sales have been very successful, and the unpredictable nature of them and the huge discounts has gotten a lot of player attention, even though there is now a good chance that you will feel like an idiot if you buy any game at full price only to see it at deep discount for one day only a couple of weeks later. I think we’ll see MMOs trying to experiment with a similar model, and maybe even occasional sales on 3 or 6 month subscriptions to keep interest up (in sub games at least).

WoW

Much of the remaining Icecrown Citadel content will be dazzling.  Players will love the cut scenes the first time they see them and will generally agree that the raid encounters are as fun as anything Blizzard ever designed — at the same time as complaining that they’re too accessible. The hard modes will have a better difficulty ramp than TotGC (ie. more people will get past the first boss) to give midcore guilds something to aim at.

The Oculus will be blown up in one of the pre-Cataclysm events.

A few months down the line, it will be generally agreed that the  dungeon finder is more successful in the EU and Taiwan than in the US. No one will dare to comment on why this might be, except to bitch that the rest of the world is cheating by having a less individualist culture.

Cataclysm will launch in Q3 2010. All the people who quit WoW in the first six months of the year due to boredom at having nothing to do with their pimped out characters will return to create new worgen. The updated Azeroth will be widely lauded but everyone will complain again as soon as they get to Outland. They will mess up the tuning again and return to the harder dungeon instances of TBC, which will be nerfed again after lots of complaints. But people will never be sure whether the dungeons actually were harder or whether players had just forgotten how to handle hard content.

People will get bored with the new expansion quickly. The guild changes will be successful but too late to save the shattered social fabric of the game. WoW players will continue to devastate other new games, but now they’ve also failed to learn standard dungeon etiquette (ie. stay till the end of the run, work with the rest of the group, play nice with loot, etc etc) in favour of hopping in and out whenever they want to and complaining if an instance takes longer than 10 minutes.

There will be at least one major unexpected announcement before Cataclysm that will throw the hype machine into overdrive. Possibly solo instances or something that involves more solo content. Hopefully also they’ll sneak in some extra ideas which won’t garner so much attention but will make seasoned gamers happy (like cosmetic clothing).

Then there will be the expected announcements about underwater zones, dance studios, and lots of pictures of female worgen.

LOTRO

There will be another expansion in 2010 but it still won’t be Rohan. Turbine will start playing around with more methods to help players catch up more quickly. The game will chug along happily and although they will make tuning mistakes, the players who like it will mostly be pleased with any new additions. Zombie Columbus will continue to delight with every new design he gets involved with.

Other new games

Star Wars won’t release before Cataclysm, even if it means delaying until 2011.

Star Trek Online will meet with more success than Champions Online. It’s hard to call this one without having seen the beta but I was intrigued by the demo that I saw, there’s plenty of interest in the IP, and I think many players would like a space combat MMO that isn’t EVE. The longevity of the game will depend on social factors rather than solo content.

Final Fantasy XIV will do very well, surprising the pundits who forget how many fans the Final Fantasy franchise has, and that FF gets a shot in the arm with the release of FFXIII towards the beginning of 2010. Their separation of crafting and fighting classes will make a lot of crafting fans happy. If they are able to release before Cataclysm, they will have a huge influx of bored WoW players looking for something to do before their world resets.

Torchlight will release an MMO (or at least a beta) before the end of the year. Everyone will exclaim that it is fun, and then move on to Cataclysm.

Guild Wars 2 won’t release in 2010.

Neither will Diablo III.

CCP will announce their Vampire MMO which will go into beta in 2010.

Mass Effect 2 will be amazing. Voice acting is the new black?

Blizzard will still not announce anything about their next MMO because they actually threw away the current design this year and are starting again from scratch.

Neither will Jumpgate Evolution (it makes me sad to write this because I was looking forwards to that game, but we really haven’t heard much about it.)

Although there will be a lot of talk about free to play models, there will be a better understanding of how and where that model works. WAR may try to convert from subscription to F2P, but it won’t help (again, makes me sad to write that). AAA developers will continue to push the payment model of subscriptions plus virtual goods plus anything else they can think of. However, extended trials will be more common, and maybe even WoW will offer the first 10 levels free as a Cataclysm enticement.

I think 2010 will be a better year for MMOs than the past one, we’re moving out of a recession for a start and lessons of the last year will also have been learned. The games I am mostly looking forwards to are the final fantasy ones, both single player and MMO. And if buzz from the STO beta is good, I’m also jonesing for a good space fighting game so I hope that one will fit. Because there isn’t much else in the pipeline.

Do you have any predictions? Anything you are particularly looking forwards to, gaming wise?