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?

Thought of the Day: Boobs in Games and Modern Art

Takashi Murakami 's Hiropon

Seraphina Brennan at Massively writes a plea for people to stop complaining about the size of the female characters’ assets in videogames.

Before I add my thoughts on this, take a look at the picture to the left. It’s by an artist called Takashi Murakami and it’s a classic of modern art.

Murakami says of this piece, “The design took its original inspiration from a large-breasted girl game that was on a software fan magazine that I picked up at the 1992 summer Comike. With these abnormal swollen nipples and breasts, I could illustrate the depth of Japan’s subculture, and the excesses of its art, the psycho-sexual complexes of the Japanese, and the increasingly malformed otaku culture!”

Is it hot, over the top, or is it OK because he’s taking the piss out of otaku culture?

I mention this because Brennan’s article includes some pictures of gaming characters who look almost as stupidly endowed as the girl in the sculpture. Except, amazingly, people take them seriously and don’t realise that graphic artists are sending them up.

I have three thoughts on the boobs in gaming issue:

  1. That character is going to represent me in the game. Games are often wrapped in escapist fantasy. Players like characters that look pretty, that look badass, that look hot — but not too hot if they’re male, evidently. Whether hot equates to looking like an anime fanwank pornstar is open to debate. To me, that doesn’t look hot and it’s offputting enough that I won’t play. Everyone has their own boundaries; I’ll respect yours if you respect mine. If I find examples that strike me as especially ludicrous I may post about them.
  2. It isn’t just the boobs. Look at how the character is posed and dressed as well. Does it look badass and ready to rumble, or does it look as though it’s posing for a porn shoot?
  3. If devs put as much work into every detail of a games as  into getting the breast jiggle perfect, that would be one hell of a game and we’d be talking about more than just the boobs.

Some game to remember, some game to forget

Today’s post is dedicated to anyone anywhere who has trouble or pain or miserable things going on in their real lives, and who finds an occasional welcome escape via gaming.

Escapism gets a raw deal in the media. We have so many examples of people who took things too far, maybe even got addicted, and abandoned RL responsibilities. But there are worse ways to deal with life’s problems than to lay down your burden for an hour or so and go kill some orcs (or write a blog post about it :) ). There are no problems that benefit from being fretted over 24/7.

In my case, my father (and arbitrary’s) has recently died after a long illness. It wasn’t unexpected, he was surrounded at the end by people who loved him (including me), and I’ll miss him greatly. I have a lot of things to organise and a lot of feelings to work through – but I know for a certainty that taking a little time during the day when I’m not busy to write or play is helping me, not messing with my head.

Have you found that gaming helped you through difficult or stressful times in your life? And to anyone who hasn’t (which I hope is most), you may have been helping people through difficult times without ever realising it, just by being there.