My WoW Report

Boss: I told my son about you playing, what is it? World of Warcraft?

He said ‘I bet she’s like EIGHTY and EVERYTHING’, so I said ‘what level are you, Jack?’, and he said ‘12!’.

kizi1That is a legitimate exchange between my boss and myself while discussing whether I could have the week of Comic Con off work in 2011, on the off-chance I can sort myself out for going for a third year in a row. But it reminded me I have never really spoken about my return to WoW, a little intimidated by the number of WoW players amongst Spinks’ readership.

I left WoW just before Burning Crusade. I’d been playing since Friends & Family Alpha and was classically burned out on the game. I mostly played druids, in fact, it was a kind of joke that I’d played around 5 druids consecutively, bouncing between Alliance and Horde between various alphas, betas and the launch. This was at a time when druids were a little bit rubbish and although I played them to heal and because I loved all the hybrid goodness, I found things pretty tough. But mostly, I was burned out on the game and blamed it on the people, my last guild and the struggle of raiding Molten Core and how long it always took. So I left, and took a fair break from MMOs until I eventually landed on LotRO by way of the disastrous Vanguard launch month.

From that time on Spinks has still been playing WoW, and keeping me abreast of the changes. Some I was sceptical of, still harbouring some bitterness towards the game, but others sounded cool. Mostly, I never really felt a pull back to it, my account was gone and I didn’t want to start over from scratch even if I did go back. I’m pretty stubborn about things like that. So I ignored Burning Crusade and the launch of Lich King. I was pretty busy with LotRO also, and didn’t really have time for a second MMO.

But, last year sometime, in all the talks about Cataclysm, I thought it might be interesting to have another look, using the refer-a-friend scheme to play with Spinks. It wasn’t a completely successful first 3 months. While we enjoyed the added xp and summoning abilities, I kind of played one month on, one month off, so I didn’t get the full rewards for the r-a-f scheme. But it did get me to level 40-ish, which was over the hump of ‘how many freaking times have I done all these starter zones’. I picked a class I’d never liked previously, the shaman – and started to truly love it around level 30. Why a shaman? I was fairly sure I’d never want to play one in Cataclysm, I’d never managed to get one past level 5 before but with Spinks playing a hunter we could pretty much manage anything!

The dungeon finder really impressed, even when some of the PuGs created were rude, it was a nice break from grind if I needed it. Also, being on WoW meant I could catch up with my other sister who’d been chugging away soloing a rogue over there. Using realID meant that we could always tell when each others’ alts were on. And eventually I caught up to her level (I have more time on my hands!!). I had a really rough start to Lich King content and was really unhappy around level 70, but a few months ago I got to my first ever level 80 on WoW. And I adore shaman now, naturally – thinking of making another in Cataclysm. Yes, I have a problem remaking the same class over and over, I know this!

So Spinks has been trying to teach me about emblems, gearing up, heroics, tournament stuff and anything else I may need to do to be ready to raid. I tinker with it. I log on and do a dungeon or two, sometimes heroic, I head to Wintergrasp and I mine or muck around. While I’d quite like to see a raid, I’m not feeling really pressured to do so, and I think that’s been the real reason I’ve enjoyed my return to WoW so much. It feels quite peaceful to me without any pressure except to heal to a decent standard. Though I am considering switching to Spinks’ main server and possibly joining her guild there so I can explore the raiding side of the game.

I’m not the greatest player in WoW. I’m not trying to be, yet. But I’m no longer a snob about it either. It’s a great game, with the same grindy, rocky patches any MMO has. And sometimes it’s nice for me not to have to care and to just find a fun class and chill out with it.

Class Consciousness: The Cult of the Splat

Last week there was a minor spat between two classes amongst the WoW bloggers. A hunter dissed the mage bloggers on a podcast, and suddenly half the blogs in my reader went up in flames.

But why do people care about their class so much? Surely by this stage, most people who are keen enough to blog will have multiple alts anyway? And are there really enough readers who only want to read hunter blogs to support the 7 zillion hunter blogs out there? What do they all find to write about?

To get to the bottom of this, let’s go back in time. Pen and Paper RPG publishers always struggled with maximising sales, even when RPGs were trendy. The reason was that a group of players could get by with only one set of rulebooks. So the GM bought the books, and the players – well they could buy if they wanted or they could just share. A keen player would probably eventually buy some rulebooks. But they were optional; as long as one person in the group had access to the rules then the whole group could play. Clearly from a publisher standpoint, this was not ideal. It was the old board game model (one person buys the game, lots of people can play it), but with so much player enthusiasm out there, surely they could sell something to the non GM players. The guys who just turn up, play their character, and then go home.

White Wolf revolutionised the way gaming books were sold by producing splat books. A book full of optional rules, lore, colour text, and fun ideas focussed purely around one specific clan/class. (I’m going to keep calling them classes because it serves the same function.) So players who had a character of that clan and loved it would want to buy the book. If you loved your class, that class book was for YOU. The GM could look at the player’s copy if they needed to use the lore or optional rules. And these clan books quickly became known as splat books. Yes, suddenly the title of this post makes sense.

There were also lots of class-centric web pages and support for WW games. What White Wolf had done was to create a class identity for players. People got attached to their warriors or elves or wizards long before this, but there wasn’t much support for class-based lore from publishers aside from the odd scenario here or there.

Warhammer did the same thing for wargaming. Their army books provided not only rules but also background and painting tips for specific factions in their gameworld. (The 4th Edition of Warhammer was the first to publish separate army lists for different factions in separate books – so this was at about the same time that WW was publishing their splat books.)

And after that, the floodgates opened. Just about every tabletop class based RPG will now publish books about splats aimed at players rather than at GMs. And players love them.

Cult of the Hunter, and other splats

So given that background, it’s not surprising that WoW has a very healthy class-based blogosphere. If you want to blog about the game, why not write about your favourite character and join a readymade community of other people who want to read or write about similar things?

Why hunter and druid blogs are quite so overwhelmingly popular, I never will understand. I can see how hybrids potentially offer more subject matter (you can explore more roles) but the huge number of hunter blogs is a mystery to me. They also seem to have the most interesting blogosphere drama. I don’t read any of them regularly though, whereas bizarrely, most of the well known mage blogs are on my reader, despite the fact I don’t play a mage either.

The other surprise about the hunter blogs is that they no longer represent the popularity of the class in the game. There was a time when hunters (and warriors) were so popular that we used to joke that night-elf hunters on our server alone outnumbered the entire horde. That isn’t the case any more.

There are also plenty of readers who are perfectly happy to have lots of blogs telling them things they already know about classes, roles, and games which they already play. As well as newer players who don’t care about the discussions and just want to be told how to play.

And even aside from that, lots of players enjoy reading opinions about the game from the perspective of the same class that they play. So for example, I couldn’t really call this a warrior blog, but my main in WoW is a warrior and a tank and so I’ll tend to come from that perspective. I occasionally put out informative warrior/ tanking type posts (usually when I am poked with a sharp stick).

For many people, class based forums offer a much better way to get information than searching blogs. It’s easier for forum mods to organise the information, stickify useful posts, and gather information from a wide range of posters. But it’s not really an either/ or choice. If people are interested and have enough time, you can read class forums and class blogs.

Selling to the Splats

One of Blizzard’s odder decisions was when they decided to close class forums on the official boards in favour of switching to role based forums. (ie. tank forum, healer forum, damage forum). There was an outcry from the player base. They loved their class forums, even if they did occasionally get used to stir up shit against other classes.

Blizzard relented on that one, and the official boards do still include class based forums. They’ve never really been happy about class based content though, not since vanilla which did feature class questlines, class mounts, class epics, and so on.

To my mind, and in the world of F2P and cash shops, that’s a lost opportunity. Of course people would pay for cool cosmetic items that only their class could equip. Or class based questlines. We want to see more of that type of content, not less. People love their class identity, class lore, and class specific content.

And this is why I haven’t said too much about Bioware’s various SWTOR press releases. Frankly, their killer content is not the gameplay or the storytelling or the companions or the setting. It’s the fact that if you play SWTOR, you’ll have access to the most extensive class based questlines and gameplay of any MMO ever created. Imagine a whole game created entirely for your class. Well, maybe not a whole game, but plenty of content and lore and it’s all about you.

We may never really know why players love their splats so much that they’ll create content for them, create communities around them, or make them so much a part of their lives. But maybe devs don’t need to know why it happens, just to design around it and offer content that feeds that itch.

How many tradeskills must a man walk down?

Tradeskills are funny things. Although even modern MMOs will have some kind of tradeskill function to let characters make stuff, it isn’t an aspect of the game that was inherited from MUDs or D&D. Nope, tradeskills were pretty much new to the MMO ‘genre.’

In fact, MMO tradeskills are in the same line of descent as Facebook farming games and resource management games like Civilisation. They owe more to board games than to RPGs in terms of inspiration. This is why they usually involve collecting materials, clicking a button, and then watching a green line – that’s pure resource management.

But here’s where the ROLE part of the game comes in – in MMORPGs, you need to decide which tradeskill/s to take on your character. And the original idea was that different people would pick different trades, so players would have to interact with each other to buy and sell. In older games, tradeskills were also rather more optional, and didn’t benefit the trader in any major way other than letting them make stuff to sell. Gathering materials while you wandered around was also a pipedream.

Then auction houses were invented, bored players rolled up tradeskill alts (or even second accounts) and people could do all of this without the tedious player interaction part. In every MMO I know that allows it, many long term players have several alts in order to cover multiple trade skills.

In WoW, Blizzard fussed with the formula by providing character benefits from tradeskills. Even gathering skills might (bizarrely) add character stats or minor abilities. This makes approximately no sense at all, and simply encourages people who don’t like tradeskills to level up tradeskills anyway. I always felt it might have been better to beef up the resource management side of the game and make it more fun for people who like that sort of thing.

But I digress. When a character gets measurable benefits from tradeskills then it makes sense to restrict how many you can take.

But aside from that, why restrict tradeskills? Why not just let someone take all of them? Keen tradeskillers with lots of time will just do the same thing on alts anyway. The answer is because trade skills made up part of your character’s role, so historically players were nudged towards keeping that quite narrow. But these days, games are opening up, characters are becoming more versatile, so maybe it’s time to blow the cap off tradeskills as well.

Would you take more tradeskills on your character if you could? Or do you think that would make you feel forced to take and level ALL of them, just because it would be possible?

Improving Roleplaying: Sharing our Stories

This is the fifth post in a series about improving roleplaying in MMOs. Previous posts in the series were:

All roleplaying involves telling stories about our characters with other people. They may not always be exciting stories, but they are ours. Through those stories, characters change and grow. Farmboys become heroes, students get bitten by radioactive spiders, political movements rise and fall, love triangles form and reform, characters meet new people, destroy threats, and write their own histories into the story books.

Our characters and their stories exist in the same virtual world, so to bring that world to life, we need to share those tales. People need to know what other characters have done in the past or are doing in the present – it might affect their own story. If you ask any roleplayer what they’d most like to see in a game, it is very likely that they’d want to see their stories affect the gameworld around them. Since other players form a large part of that setting, this means finding a way to share those stories or at least the parts that might affect other people. If you engineer a revolution in a city in the woods and no one knows about it, did it still happen?

Keeping everyone up to date on everything is an impossibly complex task in a large game. Even with as few as 20 players, it’s hard work to keep the updates rolling. Even if you just focus on the parts that affect people individually. But we can take a leaf out of the real world and how we keep up with the news in real life. We can focus on picking out the relevant information and figuring how to let people tap into it to improve the RP experience. We can ponder opting in to information streams, and locating people based on their current plots and goals.

In the end, there are two main tasks here.

  1. How do we share our stories? This involves sharing events that happened before the game started (ie. character backstories or histories), sharing the history of events which have already happened in the game so that new players can catch up, and sharing information or collaborating about plots on which we are working at the moment.
  2. How do we get other people to read our stories and act on them appropriately? Most people have limited interest in other people’s stories unless they are personally affected (this is true of the RL news too). So how can we pick out the information generated by other players/ characters and show people only the parts that might affect them?

Why bother with character backgrounds?

In some games, players can write a few paragraphs about their character’s background (ie. what they did before the game started) and store it somewhere in the UI where other players can read it. I asked last week how many players actually read other character backgrounds. Quite a few people said that they did.

The purpose of a character background is to answer the questions, “Who am I, and how did I get here?” where ‘here’ is the point at which the character ‘goes live’. From a roleplaying point of view, the background also gives you a jumping off point for RP. It explains who the character is, and perhaps why s/he became that way. A publically accessible background can let other people hook into that story too.

  • For example: If you came from one specific town, then other players whose characters are from the same area can RP that they knew you as a child. (note: it is polite to whisper someone first to ask permission and check that they’re OK with the connection before launching into RP about it.)
  • Another example: If your character is a notorious crook and someone else plays a policeman, this might suggest RPing that you have crossed paths in the past.

We call these types of starting points ‘plot hooks’. So part of the purpose of a RP character background is to provide plot hooks for both yourself (e.g.. “my character is searching for her lost brother”) and for other people (e.g.. “I am a notorious con artist, anyone in law enforcement probably recognises my name and curses it daily. I might even have ripped your character off in the past. Contact me to work out a story.”) So backgrounds are not just self indulgent fanfic, they can provide useful RP pointers both for the player herself and for other players too.

Here are some things that make people more likely to read backgrounds:

  • the game rewards you in some way for reading/ acting on other player’s backstories (this happened in MUSHes)
  • background is short and easily accessible from in game. No one is asking you to read and memorise a novella.
  • background is well written.
  • background belongs to a character you play with regularly so you either like the player or think you might want to use it in RP with them
  • you are given hints that the background might be interesting
  1. character looks interesting (has a good costume)
  2. character acts interesting (maybe you see them roleplaying)
  3. you find the lore interesting and know that the other player does too (maybe they posted on forums or said something in a channel that caught your eye)
  4. the game itself tends to inspire interesting backgrounds (superheroes in particular often have strong backstories, it’s just part of the genre. hobbits in LOTRO probably don’t.)
  • You are bored or have some downtime and it’s something to do
  • You were asked to read it, or they read yours first and you want to reciprocate
  • You regularly read character backgrounds whenever you get the chance .. and you get the chance

So the background story can be both interesting and useful to roleplayers. If given the opportunity, more people read them than we otherwise might assume. Actually discussing how to write a compelling, non-clichéd backstory with which others will want to interact is a whole different issue and not something I’m going to cover today.

But a block of text on the screen is not the only way to introduce a character’s history to other people.

Towards more interactive backstories

The great advantage of freeform writing – the blank box of text – is that you can write anything. The problem with freeform writing is that people can write anything. It can be totally off-genre, it can be poorly written, it can miss the point completely (people who don’t understand that a backstory is history and use it instead to describe their characters’ clothes, for example), it can be wildly unbalanced or simply unbelievable, it may not fit with the game lore.

We could try to distill out the information that is useful to other players, while still giving people some room to just write about their characters. To do this, we’d need to think about what other people might want to know, and we’d need to encourage players to decide which of the information in their background might be publically known. (It’s silly to put information in your background that contains major spoilers or that you have to ask other people not to use.)

They might want to know where the character is from. You could imagine a game which put you through a series of questions while doing your starter zone. Maybe you are offered a map of the world and allowed to pick in precisely which region your character grew up. Then add in some kind of search function and it becomes easy to see who else is from the same region. Maybe even give them their own chat channel. Mark on the list which characters are new to the game so that more experienced characters can (if they want) make an effort to involve them.

They might want to know which in-game organisations you have been associated with. Is your character religious? Does it have links with the city guard? Was your character’s mother an army officer? Does it have criminal contacts? Again, being able to somehow associate yourself with those groups means other players wouldn’t have to pick through all the background information to find out who they might know. Instead they could just do a search, or even have the information delivered to them.

They might want to know what other plot hooks are associated with a character. In a MUSH it would not have been especially unusual for players to be asked to think up a couple of plot hooks for themselves to put into their background information.

Players also might want to be able to collaborate on backgrounds. If you have a great idea for a family of travelling players, you may want to find out if anything like that already exists in the game, or if anyone else is interested too. It isn’t as easy to find good collaborators as it might sound. Not only do you have to roughly share the same goals, you need to be on similar time zones, have similar play styles, and be able to get on OOC. You won’t know if all these things are true until you actually spend some time roleplaying with other people, so there’s a good chance that even if you could put up some kind of advert for people to join your band of travellng players and got some responses, most of them wouldn’t work out.

Having said that, sometimes it is possible to collaborate on backgrounds without committing yourself to a heavy RP schedule. You could agree to have been members of the same band of travelling players in the past, for example, and then collaborate to decide what happened to the group, why it split up, and whether there might be some good plot hooks there for people.

We can also make use of social media for our collaborations these days. It doesn’t all have to be mailing lists, bulletin boards, and IRC. I see this as a big trend in MMOs and it will be fantastic for roleplayers, who do need to coordinate with other players.

Bottom Line: If we abandon the totally freeform backstory, we can make it easier for players to hook up and interact in MMOs. I think this is true for a lot of MMO roleplaying – by narrowing the scope and limiting options, we can get a more productive and accessible RP environment.

There will always be room also for the totally freeform style of roleplaying. It may require small, disciplined groups, good GMs, and a lot of give and take, but it works just as well in MMOs as in chatrooms. However, it will never be accessible or massive. Complexity in sharing backstories and coordinating schedules is one of the things which simply does not scale well.

Recording our In-Game Stories

If history is made by the players in a roleplaying game, then where is the history recorded in a persistent RP MMO. Who knows about how the game has changed and what plots have been run? Even on a small scale, who can keep up with the social drift within a small RP circle? Who is sleeping with who? And why? What does a new player need to know to catch up?

Again, this is a huge and complex problem when large numbers of players are involved. Most people don’t want to be told to go read novel-length write ups of things that happened before they even joined the game.

So how can we get the news out and how can we record it? Wikis have been some use in this respect but have the problem of RL news outlets – who is going to keep updating them, who is going to keep them free from bias?

I don’t have a good answer to this one. In the past we have archived stories using player logs (in a text based game, it’s easy to store the log of a scene online), we have set up forums and encouraged people to keep their stories updated, we have allowed people to alter their character backgrounds to keep them current, we have seen people write in-game newspapers and news files or summaries.

So rather than run on, I’ll just say again that it is a huge problem. If lots of players are actively RPing then there are a lot of stories to keep track of, and no one can really hope to track them all. The best you can hope for is to channel players into a smaller number of larger plots and try to note any major worldchanging events that would affect large numbers of people.

Again, making good use of social media is where today’s MMOs can really start to shine. We’re on the cusp of this really taking off – we’ve seen integration with MMOs and websites, twitter, chat channels, achievement lists, and other information that can be accessed outside the game. You could imagine a newsfeed that is accessible within and outside the game and is updated based on in game world events and character plots.

Achievements in particular show the progress of a character’s story. As they are currently, they don’t do this in a very exciting or compelling way, but they do record the story of “I did this, then I did that, then I did that,” in a way to which other players can relate.

Fanfic

I will be honest, I am not a fan of fanfic. But writing stories about events that happened to your character in game is a time honored way of recording a personal history. Whether it’s a fully blown novella, a set of comedy sketches, or a blog/in-character diary, it is another way for players to find out what has been going on in game.

Allowing players to link somehow to external sites on which they can store fanfic, visualisations, family trees, descriptions of their character’s homes, or anything else that helps to flesh out the character and share its story would reward people for the extra work. It would also let them explore each other’s writing and character stories. It is something that devs could easily encourage, just by making it accessible from inside the game.

More mechanical methods to share stories and collaborate

Achievements, gear lists, calendars, automated scene logs, progression histories and guild histories can all be part of a character’s ongoing story. And these have the advantage of not requiring players to pour their souls into fanfic or spend hours working on a character website. Calendars and sign up lists in particular represent a form of online collaboration that is still in its infancy. We could have in game whiteboards, methods for people to collaborate on storytelling or working out backgrounds or organising RP events, and I expect to see more of these things as time goes on.

In particular there is a lot of work going on at the moment in tools for joint storytelling. It isn’t happening in the MMO field, but if it exists then players will use it. And if it is brought into the MMOs, people will use them in MMOs.

We could imagine scene schedulers, plot arc schedulers, co-operative NPC design (usually in MMOs someone will play the NPC as a low level alt) and so on.

But with all these complex character stories going on, who can stand back and see the long view of how they all intersect? This has always been an issue with scaling up roleplaying. So many stories going on in parallel and it’s difficult to see how things play out on the grander scale. The complexity involved is terrifying. You can’t code your way out of complexity, but you can look for ways to make it easier to manage.

Achievements for Non-Achievers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achievements as social enablers

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

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

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

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

Achievements as a narrative device

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achievements as gating mechanisms

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

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

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

Achievements to teach people new content

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

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

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

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

Achievements as collectibles

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

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

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

Achievements as high score tables

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

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

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

Achievements to learn lore

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

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

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

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

This is just the tip of the iceberg

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

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

5 issues with roleplaying in MMOs: why you can’t just live the dream

Tesh wrote an insightful post discussing why daydreaming about what a game might turn out to be like can be the best part of gaming. We all have our ideal types of games, our ideal IPs or genres, our ideals of what a game could be like to capture our hearts. And sometimes we love our favourite games because they’re a shadow of the game in our minds.

I see this a lot with early adopters of MUDs/virtual worlds/MMOs. These things started before the internet was really mature. Wandering around in a game and encountering an actual real person (well, behind the text) was exciting just because this kind of virtual life was such a new experience. And your imagination filled in all the rest. Even without formal roleplaying, the fact that all you knew about the other person was what you could tell about their character was very very immersive.

I’ve also seen a few posts recently about the notion of a RP-centric MMO. Wolfshead in particular posts about his ideal of a RP game. The concept of this terrifies me on several different levels, and I’m a dyed-in-the-wool roleplayer. I have played RP-centric online games, and they were fantastic. Also dreadful. But that’s what happens when you are so dependent on other players for the experience, you get a mixed bag :)

But if you see his post as describing the dream, unsullied by practical considerations (such as players acting like players), then it reads in a different light. After all, without a vision, we’ll never get anything better than the games we currently have.

There are some specific issues with making roleplaying work as the entire basis for a game.

1. Who watches the watchmen

The big difference between a tabletop game and an online game is the lack of a GM. In tabletop, one player assumes the GM role and ‘runs’ the game for the other 2-5 players. In virtual roleplaying, the players run things themselves. So there is no one to arbitrate when they come into conflict.

The GM actually has three roles in a tabletop game. One is to describe the world to the players (ie. we open the door, what do we see?). Another is to resolve conflicts in game (ie. I try to hide behind the door, can I get there before he sees me?). And the third is to weave a story around the player group and whatever they are doing.

In a computer game, no one needs to describe anything (this is the HUGE advantage of the virtual world), and players can tell their own stories, even if they aren’t particularly good ones.

But who resolves conflicts between players? Who decides if player cop #1 can track down player thief #2?

Any game like this needs to give players the tools to resolve their own conflicts. Random rolling isn’t good enough – it removes too much of the game if you just randomly decide whether the cop catches the robber.

2. So what is my motivation?

You don’t need to be an award winning actor to roleplay but players need to share some kind of common understanding about the game world. When you walk into a room, you need to be able to answer the question, “what does my character do next?” If someone addresses you in character, you need to be confident enough to answer them.

I’ll give an example of this: In EQ2 I had created a dark elf alt and done a couple of quests. It was on a roleplaying server so it wasn’t really surprising when another higher level player came up to me and addressed me in character. Except he mentioned names of (presumably) NPCs I’d never heard of, and threw in a few phrases in some random fantasy language I didn’t know.

I had no idea what to say to the guy. Clearly he thought my character should know these things. But I was a noob OOC (out of character) and just didn’t. All I knew about dark elves is that they were an evil race, and the questgivers had been vaguely sarcastic.

So in order to RP with any kind of depth, the game needs to present its lore to the characters well. And players in general need to understand that not everyone knows the background in depth and off by heart.

Wolfshead compares RP with a film:

This is exactly the scenario that the characters of Micheal Crichton’s amazing Timeline novel found themselves in. In his story, a bunch of modern day scientists and anthropologists travel back in time to the 13th century France and are forced to deal with the people and politics of the time in order to survive. One small mistake in dialect or custom and they would be imprisoned and even worse burned at the stake.  The result was that they HAD to role-play — it was a matter of survival.

Yes, but they were modern day scientists and anthropologists. They had the information they needed. A new player in a strange world won’t know all those things. You can’t expect them to RP as if their life depended on it – they simply don’t know the things their characters should know. (Unless you start them all off as amnesiacs, which would be a workable background, especially in a scifi type of game).

3. Hell is other people

One of the characteristics of a strongly social game is that they get very political. People can and do try to manipulate each other by faking friendliness, cybering, and ganging up against each other in their various cliques. Or in other words, metagaming.

In a RP type game, who you know and what you know can be as important as stats in a typical MMO today. And if you can schmooze people OOC and persuade them to tell you interesting things about their character or other people’s characters then you may be able to use the information to boost your self in game. Being a particularly entertaining RPer (or just being good at cybering) can make a player very popular – even if it’s not appropriate for their character.

As long as this is an advantageous strategy (and it is) then you cannot stop players from doing it. They’re never ‘just playing their characters’. They are playing the other players too.

In many ways, our stat and gear and skill based games are much more even-handed and accessible. If you do the grind, you get the gear. You don’t have to actually make friends (or fake friends) to get anywhere in game. This is not to say that social networking isn’t a useful skill, but in social games it can get quite toxic.

4. He said. She said.

In an RP centric game, the influence of NPCs is kept to a minimum. That means that all the most important resources in game are ‘owned’ by players or player-factions. A resource might be anything from an important NPC (their influence may be monitored but that doesn’t mean that there might not be NPC faction leaders – often we do this to keep some continuity in the storylines, even though players may come and go), to a city, or a crafting guild, or any story entity. And that sometimes means that players need to somehow ask permission from other players before they can work story elements into their story.

I’ll give a WoW example for this. Assume a night elf player thinks up an awesome back story for himself – in the past he got captured by blood elves while spying near Silvermoon, then he was tortured, but he managed to bravely escape and make it back to his own people. This is fine as far as it goes, but what happens if the blood elf players say ‘Wait, why would we have let an enemy spy escape? Surely we’d have just executed them. We don’t agree with that history, it didn’t happen. He is ICly making it up.’

Now imagine this kind of scenario every time a player wants to write a backstory that possibly involves other player factions. Bear in mind that some players will never ever agree that their faction might have made a mistake which could weaken them in future, even though it might make for a better story. So given one faction which occasionally agrees to being flawed for the sake of making a better story and another who never ever agree to making mistakes, the latter has an in game advantage.

So basically, it’s very very hard to get gamers to put story above personal gain. There’s no real way to reward it. That’s where the GM comes in – s/he takes that option out of the players’ hands. Left to their own devices, players will tend to play safe.

In MUSHes, we got around this by having an active set of staff. We reviewed all backgrounds before characters went live and agreed any background details with appropriate people. We also made notes of who had which links so that we could set up various stories between different players. (For example, if one player had been a cop and another was an ex-con, we might OOCly point out to them that they might have known each other – then it’s down to the players if they want to run with it or not.)

This is important because although it’s all very well to write your own story in a vacuum, it won’t work in a MMO unless everyone else buys in.

5. Tracking the history

A characteristic of this kind of game is that political allegiances and storylines can change rapidly. Even vast world-spanning conspiracies may be over in a couple of months. What players do can and will affect the world –- or at the very least it affects other players. But how to keep track of the in game history? How are new players to know the recent history of some faction or other? And bear in mind that from point #2, they may need to know these things in order to roleplay with other players who remember it.

This is a very real and very difficult problem. It is best solved by bboards and wikis and other means for players to record their own histories for other people to read. And these suffer exactly the same issues as real life histories –- they are subject to bias, and to the author only having one side of the story. They’re subject to not being kept up to date, by the maintainer getting bored, by small grounds of players deciding to keep their own faction history somewhere else and forgetting to tell people, etc.

Hopefully some players will take on the role of chroniclers or journalists, so that the stories will not be forgotten. The reason this is important is because things that have happened in the past affect the present. If a leader of one faction was snubbed by the leader of another, then she may hold a grudge for years. Pity the poor player who doesn’t know what anyone in game at the time would have known (ie. not to mention the offending faction in the presence of the other faction leader) and gets into serious IC trouble for their pains.

Towards a better roleplaying experience online

I’m going to write a series of posts about improving RP in MMOs – probably one a week. I don’t think they ever can or should be the sort of game that Wolfshead describes. Aside from being full of RP Nazis (you know the sort of person who barrages you with whispers every time you open your mouth, telling you that your  character wouldn’t do or say that and that you’re doing it wrong?), it simply doesn’t play to the strengths of computer generated worlds.

In a MMO, no one ever has to ask the GM ‘what can I see?’ or ‘what can I do next?’. Every time you see an awesome vista in game, fly across a crazy zone full of giant mushrooms, or cast a fireball, you’re experiencing something very different and very special compared to your tabletop compatriots. It’s like being there.

Tabletop players have all the freedom in the world. But computer gamers don’t have all their experiences filtered through a GM. Vive la difference! And that’s the charm.

Links, and what I’ve been reading

What I’ve actually been reading lately are C J Sansom’s Shardlake Mysteries (which are great and very well researched if you like historical murder-mysteries).

Also from the web:

  1. evizaer wonders how we can keep track of the ‘real’ histories of MMOs. All the guild drama, and the various interesting things that actual players have done.
  2. Tamarind suffers a brief bout of level-80-phobia. Anyone else find themselves curiously reluctant to actually get to max level once it’s practically within reach? I know I often coast the last level or so, maybe a last ditch attempt to string the levelling game out for as long as possible.
  3. The Escapist reports that a guy in the UK (oh why am I not surprised?) has written a boot fetish version of Pong, the venerable old console game. The boot is actually the controller, you have to grope and fondle it to play the game …
  4. On a not very similar theme, Adele Caelia talks at BrightHub about embarrassing mistells and other ways in which sex can be entertaining in gaming. Well, she says embarrassing but I say there are few more hilarious things in MMOs than a totally inappropriate mistell. (Random factoid: mistells used to be known as ‘mavs’ in MUSH, named after a particularly notorious player called Mav.)
  5. Ysharros saves my EQ2 sanity with a noob-friendly guide to EQ2 addons.
  6. Naamah@Aionic Thoughts (a blog you really should be following if you’re into Aion) asks when Mass-PvP becomes a zergfest, and whether one is more fun than the other.
  7. Andrew Douell, a roguelike developer, posts a very smart article about narrative in games and how some narrative tricks from other media just don’t work. I’m particularly taken by his observation that you can’t tell a story well with repeated play (eg. I killed an orc, then I killed an orc, then I killed an orc isn’t a very interesting story.)
  8. Kirstimah at Rustled Leaves explains why DPSing reduced her IQ, a phenomenon many tanks and healers have also observed!
  9. Syp writes about all the MMOs he could have tried but didn’t, and explains why not. I never played EQ because the only person I knew who played was a really annoying dork and he was really scarily obsessively into it. I knew if I tried it I’d be stuck talking to him any time we were in the same room.
  10. What does it mean to roleplay in a game? Psychochild takes a look.
  11. You’ve heard about the upcoming WoW film? Jess at Pretty in Plate starts wondering about who she’d cast to play her characters. Who would you cast for yours? (I dunno about that but Brian Blessed for Hemet Nesingwary with the help of some CGI is my pick.)
  12. Dusty makes the case for a finite MMO, like a TV series with a beginning, a middle, and an end.