[Roleplaying] Death of the Actor

Wolfshead writes (again) about the death of MMOs as a genre, and this time he explains quite clearly how a lot of gamers feel about roleplayers:

Why do actors in real life pursue careers as actors? What kind of person finds fulfillment in being somebody else?

In his view this isn’t the same as roleplaying, because you don’t actually create the character yourself. But the ability of an actor to ‘become’ their character and to immerse in that character and setting is very close to what immersive roleplayers get their kicks from doing. I’ve played one-shot tabletop games where we were given pre-generated characters, and there was definitely plenty of roleplaying going on.

I have also listening to actor friends describing the kick they get from acting, and I always felt there was commonality with a really kickass RP session where you got deep into your character.

Virtual worlds should be fertile ground for this type of immersive gaming, and in many ways they are. You don’t have to imagine what a room looks like if you can stroll around (virtually) and check it out for yourself. You can learn a lot about an in game faction or NPC by interacting with them rather than just having some data read out to you across the table. Yes, your role and storyline might be fixed but this doesn’t mean that it can’t also be an immersive experience, especially if (in games like DAO and ME) you have some room to personalise how you portray it.

But the key thing about this type of immersive play is that it can only work well in a large scale game if most of the other players are similarly immersive (or good enough at RP that you never notice) or you have a well crafted storyline and NPCs to interact with (mostly single player, but maybe with some group stuff too). As soon as you end up trading insults in trade chat or an instance with xxArthasdkxxx and lolboobies the immersion is gone.

Wolfshead argues that the Actor stance is a step back from the sandbox roll-your-own-role stance, and I’d say that it’s a shame if we can’t have both but players have shown that they’re more interested in winning and achievements than in either acting a role or making their own adventures. There was a time when Actors were more welcomed. When player run RP events brightened up MMOs on a regular basis (I remember RPed trade markets and RPed winter pantomines and parties, for example.)

Wolfshead concludes by saying:

MMOs should be proving grounds where players can distinguish themselves by testing their mettle against the environment and other players.

And I’d say that one of the sad things with MMOs is that this is all that players have wanted to do. What else do you call achievement collecting and PvP arenas/ battlegrounds?

So if I’m looking forwards to SWTOR, it’s in the hope that just a little of the Actor remains in the world and that some people at least will care about their characters and roles. Because I don’t see it happening in many other upcoming games.

Question of the Day: Are you happier when you focus on one game?

Zubon wrote a post on Kill Ten Rats which has been haunting me since I read the title (good title btw).

He wonders if ‘single game players’ are happier, arguing that if you don’t realise how much better other games can implement different aspects of MMOs, it’s easier to be happy with the one you have. For example, if you never played an MMO with a really well designed crafting system, you might find WoW crafting to be great.

Zubon also comments, sensibly, that if you haven’t played EVE you won’t know what a fully functional MMO economy is like. And I wonder how many of the hardcore WoW auction house/ goldmaker players have been tempted to try EVE because it’s strange to me also that most of them don’t.

I’m not sure on that one (you play the whole package after all, not the separate minigames), but I take the question another way.

Do you have more fun in games if you can focus utterly on one at a time? This means not switching butterfly-like between several in the same week but focussing utterly on the game that currently holds your interest? It means picking one MMO to spend the majority of your MMO time in.

I think that the most fun I’ve had in MMOs has been when I have been most engaged and that means very immersed in my current game of choice. It’s partly because that makes it easier to build social bonds, which I enjoy, and partly not feeling the stretch between ‘shall I play character X in game A or character Y in game B.’

If you do play multiple MMOs, how do you manage it? If you are more of a one game player, do you ever feel tempted to stray when things are quiet in your game of choice? Or are you a serial MMO player like me, who likes to have one main game at a time, but may switch after a few months?


On the cost of MMOs

Tobold argues today that MMOs are too inexpensive on the grounds that the average US consumer spends $58 per month on hobbies.

I noted on following that link that what it actually says is:

The average monthly cost of Hobbies in the U.S. is $58.

The median monthly expense, which is sometimes a better indicator of typical spending behavior, of Hobbies in the U.S. is $23.

Median. What that means is that most hobbies are not actually as expensive as $58 per month (which is probably closer to what you might intuitively expect.)

The other issue I have with this argument is that many MMO players probably see their hobby as gaming/ computer gaming rather than just one specific MMO. So their monthly hobby spend is split between the MMO and whatever other new games they are buying, probably spread across multiple platforms (eg. mobile phone apps, console, PC, etc).

The other huge argument is that a virtual world environment becomes less pure as a simulation the more people can bring real world funds to bear. There’s a concept of ‘the magic circle’ in games/ simulation which affects how good the simulation is and how easily people can become immersed in the game world.

So really, to me, if MMO devs want more of the monthly hobby budget without weakening the games, they should be looking harder at bringing more aspects of the game offline. This means the spin-off cardgames, the conventions (hi blizzcon), the t-shirts, the community stuff, the branded phone apps, etc. Which is I think where people are going — virtual shops can only go so far, after all and only appeal to certain types of player.

And still, the average (median) hobbyist in the US spends $23 per month on their hobby, which is not a million miles away from the average subscription when all’s said and done. I think game devs get their pound of flesh.

In which it is claimed that every game is now an MMO

Ryan Seabury, the lead developer on LEGO Universe, has posted an open letter in Kotaku explaining why he’s getting out of the MMO game.

Scott Jennings posts a critique in which (as I do below) he shudders at the phrasing and eyerolls at the hype but generally agrees with the drift.

Nouning our verbs

Unfortunately, Ryan loses the internet by actually using the phrase “leveraging our synergies” in a non-ironic way (or something that’s close enough to it for government work.)

So we came together <…> with a new mission <…>  while leveraging all the expertise we’ve learned in a decade

First of all, stop lamenting. (The first four letters of lament are L A M E.)

Must be a nightmare working with this guy if he actually talks like that all the time.

Anyhow, the argument boils down to, “Why spend 5 years working on a large and complex product of uncertain appeal to a demanding audience when you could just crank a little social game out in a couple of months that will turn a profit?”

Lots of engineers go through this phase. Large commercial organisations tend to have you working on old and complex pieces of code. There will be sections that no one understands because the original developer was an unsung genius who left three years ago and didn’t comment their code. There will be bits that desperately need to be refactored but no one will authorise the time and effort required because they’re (sort of) working. It is in many ways more rewarding to join a new startup and get in on the design work from the ground level, and hopefully see people using a product you worked on in a matter of months.

So the games industry isn’t unique in this aspect. I thought it was interesting that I’m not sure if he’s writing as an engineer (why won’t people use my stuff sooner?!) or as a businessman (where’s my return on investment?!) but the general drive is similar.

Every game is now an MMO

Another comment he made is about the ubiquity of social networking in games:

I simply realized there actually hadn’t been an “MMO game” to get out of for at least two, three years. It’s no longer a meaningful label. Point at any significant entertainment experience trending today, you won’t be able to find one without some kind of social feature layers and persistent aspects. No one cares if something is “single player” or “multi player” or “massively multiplayer” anymore.

There is some truth in this. Not that every game is now an MMO, but that a lot of the social experiences that were once unique to MUDs (and their MMO descendents) really are more ubiquitous now.

Players who were drawn to MMOs because of the interaction with other people in real time (there’s a reason Everquest used to be referred to as a chat room with a game attached)  can now chat on twitter or facebook instead and play something else.

Lots of brands are trying to generate their own social networks, from gaming companies like Blizzard and Bioware to offline ventures such as Toyota and HBO. And that’s not even counting the millions of bulletin boards, blogs, mailing lists, and other ways for people to share information about what they are doing.

I’ve also written before about how I find myself more likely to play even single player games more socially, with all the benefits (yay sharing!) and minuses (boo, competitive pressure) that entails.

But I still think that MMOs have a unique appeal in their virtual worlds. It’s just that the next phase of MMOs seem to be moving further and further away from this in a quest for some kind of bizarro gaming singularity in which all games will be multi-player actioners with lobbies and competitive as well as co-operative modes. They’ll probably also feature bald space marines with BFGs and semi naked female NPCs.

It’s the future, baby. 1-click rapidly churned out social games or mega-shooters that may or may not take 5 years to produce.

Meanwhile, my project for the next week (when I have time) is to spend some more time with Terraria and try to figure out how to actually put a door in a house, and hopefully some more guild PvP shenanigans in Rift. Because that future? It’s not actually here yet …

Thought of the Day: The pitfall of MMO storytelling

Do you ever find when reading a book that you’re more interested in some of the characters or storylines than others? When I first read Lord of the Rings I remember skipping some chapters so that I could follow the ringbearer – don’t hate me, I was 14 at the time.

I was thinking back this weekend to which parts of Cataclysm had been the most fun for me. And came to the conclusion that it had mostly been the new Forsaken starting areas and the later follow up in Andorhal. (I like the Forsaken and they did a great job on Silverpine/ Hillsbrad, what can I say?)

And it’s in the nature of Blizzard’s levelling experience that after a bit of one storyline, you’ll be whisked off to another zone to do something completely different.

If, for the sake of argument, Blizzard had decided to follow up on the Forsaken storylines in 4.2 rather than Hyjal, there’s a good chance I would have resubbed just to see what happened next. After all, does anyone hordeside NOT want to know what happened to Koltira?

And I think this is one of the pitfalls of the “fourth pillar” in MMOs. Not all stories are the same, and of all the multiple stories going on in a world as big as an MMO, not all of them are interesting to all players. There is a question that has been doing the rounds for years about whether all players should be able to see all content. But the truth is that most of them would be perfectly happy if there was enough content that they cared about to keep them busy. If I get to chill with my NPC forsaken colleagues and their politics, I probably don’t care what the hardcore raiders are doing in the firelands. Crack on guys, give Ragnaros hell, and enjoy those wipes – I’m busy here…

Providing storylines for everyone’s taste in every patch would be a crazy amount of effort to expect. But if story is one of your primary draws, then you will also have to expect people to only show up when you’re telling a story they want to hear. Now the advantage of a sandbox where people have more freedom to tell their own stories comes a bit clearer.

Thought of the Day: An MMO of Thrones

I’ve been catching up recently with episodes of A Game of Thrones (can’t wait to go to Comic Con now, since Arb informed me that GRRM was going to be there on the Game of Thrones panel) which seems to be getting better and better every week as the pacing kicks in.

It makes me wonder about the role of politics in MMOs. And how interesting it might be to play a more strategic and political game.

Probably EVE is the strongest implementation of this type of concept, and the player politics there sprang up from within the setting. Partly because the game allows players/ corps to effectively claim and try to hold areas of space, so there is something worth fighting over. Without this sort of stake, the politics is going to feel fairly pointless.

And ultimately, in a MMO, the role any individual player is going to play is far more likely to be that of a grunt than of a kingmaker, unless you keep the size of the game small and have tight-knit, active factions.

So I think politics in an MMO is awesome for flavour, and factions have a lot more potential than most designers give them credit for. But ultimately the most fun sorts of politics for games are played out on a smaller canvas, where individuals feel that they matter.

Note: This is not to say I wouldn’t jump for an Amber MMO, because that would be crazy fun … but not for Westeros.

Optimisation doesn’t belong in my MMOs

A long time ago, in the esoteric pen and paper RPG world of GURPS (don’t worry if you have never heard of it), somebody wrote a gaming supplement called GURPS Vehicles. It contained rules for players to design and ‘build’ any kind of vehicle they could imagine, from any genre, and then use it in their GURPS game. These rules were physics based and very detailed, and you really needed a spreadsheet to work it out properly.

It was written by a very talented game designer called David Pulver, but I think even he was surprised at the very specific fanbase who adored his vehicles book, given that there really wasn’t much for roleplayers in it at all. Communities grew up based around sharing their vehicle stats and descriptions with each other, without actually playing the game itself.

And many of the regular GURPS players shunned the book, on the grounds that it was way too complicated and – frankly – unnecessary in a RPG where the GM could always handwave any interesting vehicles as necessary. It was almost as if the frenzy of design and optimisation was a separate game in itself.

Why optimisation is not the enemy

There has always been a healthy player base for games or puzzles based around optimisation, where you were able to sit down and carefully design your character/ vehicle/ simulation and then drop it into a simulated world and see what happened. Then tune it a bit for better performance, maybe even make it fight against other people’s simulations to see whose was best. This is just one step away from all the cross-over fanfics you ever imagined – so what happens exactly when Doctor Who fights Dracula? Is Thunderbird 1 faster than the X-Men’s fighter jet? etc etc

Mechanical optimisation is part and parcel of a very simulationist method of playing games and resolving any conflicts.

The alternative, more narrative/ dramatic method, is to decide in advance which of the characters/ vehicles etc should win and then tell the story appropriately. If the stats don’t work as intended, then you ignore or handwave them as necessary.

So – one of these methods lends itself far better to computer RPGs (hints: it’s the simulation model.) A computer is very well able to model a fight as a set of dice rolls with mathematically modelled entities. It’s not so well able to wing a story.

However, optimisation doesn’t necessarily make for a great gaming experience, because most of the optimisation is usually done as a perquisite to the game. So for example, with GURPS Vehicles, you sat down for a few hours with your spreadsheet and designed your amazing creations, and only after that could you play with them. Plus you couldn’t easily tweak them in play without another spreadsheet session. It’s better, I think, to look at optimisation as a separate game in itself, and a good optimisation game will not be easily boiled down to a few ‘correct’ solutions.

Another challenge with a good optimisation game is that you may not know 100% in advance what challenges your model will have to face. In a fighting game, you may not know what sort of opponents you will face. In a racing game, you may not know much about the terrain in advance. Because if you did, you’d just optimise for that environment and you’d be back to the few correct solutions again.

So in a computer game, I’d assert that optimisation is more fun as a minigame when you’re facing randomised challenges. That’s what makes the hybrid designs more interesting and the specialist designs more of a risk.

Why optimisation is the enemy

I commented on Nils’ post yesterday that I thought optimisation is one of the big enemies for players in MMOs these days.

This is because they’re not really well designed optimisation games in the first place. Optimisation becomes a tedious step of looking up builds/ gearouts online and copying them semi-blindly. Now, precisely who finds this fun? Is there really any player who derives any kind of fun from copying a spec from a webpage? (Aside from the relief of not having to worry about it so that they can get on with the parts of the game which they like.)

I don’t think so. The fun in optimisation is in designing your own character, trying it out, and then tweaking to make it work better. It’s not in being told “fire mages suck this patch, noob.”  Or “if you don’t have 5 resto shammies in the raid, you might as well stay home!” And yet MMO design – particularly WoW endgame design – has become so minmaxed that players (and raid leaders) who don’t use the optimal loadouts are at a disadvantage, and are seen as a disadvantage to any group they are in. A side effect of this is the ferocious emphasis on balancing the various specs. When tools are available that can rate the performance of any given spec to within 0.001% AND content is tuned for minmaxers then what can you expect? So MMO devs have managed to create an optimisation game that isn’t very fun for the majority of players. Well done, guys.

Right now, far from having any fun with optimisation, if there was a button in the game that said ‘optimise my character’ that would tweak talent trees, inform the player of the optimal dps rotation, and assign some optimal gear for the current raid then most players would HAPPILY press it.

It used to be that part of the fun of optimising your MMO character was actually collecting your gear, which might have come from a variety of different sources. That too has been largely optimised out – a combination of gear lists, token loot, known instance and crafted loot and readily available information from websites makes even this feel more like a chore. How much fun is it really to gear up in WoW these days? It’s a combination of running random heroics (with relevant tabards for rep also) and whatever you can buy from the auction house.

On top of this has been tacked a fairly fun raiding model where how people actually play their characters during a fight becomes more important. This to me is the more fun side of gaming optimisation, where you have to react a bit more quickly and flexibly to things going on in game, and optimise your strategy/tactics, not your build.

Optimising as a part of gameplay is still fun. But optimising talent trees is not a fun part of current, tightly tuned MMOs. Sure, you can play with those talents to your heart’s content and have some fun messing around, but the choices on offer are not very real. And it can be a heartbreaker. What exactly happens in a game such as Rift if my favourite soul is not the best dps spec? Right now – nothing, my guild won’t care and it won’t stop us downing monsties (thanks Hawley). How about in 6 months time when everyone is minmaxed to the hilt and other people can check your specs?

I still think there is a lot of fun to be had from tweaking characters and character progression, but the most fun gameplay is that which happens as part of the actual session, not outside the game itself. And my ideal MMOs will be far more about how you actually play than how you spreadsheet.