In memory of absent friends

Towards the end of the year, it’s normal for us to look back over the last 12 months and take stock. What has changed? What goals have we met? Have we made any new friends? Lost any old ones? Learned anything new? Had major life changes? Anything unexpected that we coped with well … or badly?

And looking over the raid roster, I’m struck by how many people I have raided with since the release of Wrath (call that about a year). Many of them I barely knew when that year began, if at all. We aren’t all best friends, we don’t all mix or chat socially outside raids, but I feel that I know all of them even if that just means names, personality traits, voices on voice chat and maybe a few shared jokes and experiences. We spent a fair amount of time in each other’s company — even my one raid per week is a regular 3 hour weekly slot. That’s more time than I spend with a lot of my real life friends, whose lives are so busy these days that we have to plan a few weeks ahead to meet up.

Some players  we were fond  of had to bow out during the year either for good reasons (new job! new baby! switched up to more hardcore raid guild!), less happy ones, or just plain burnout with the game. It’s very easy when you are bound up with a regular raiding schedule to feel that people in online games have short memories. If you take a couple of weeks out, you might be replaced – after all, the raids need to keep running either with or without you. And it’s easy to feel that you’d be quickly forgotten also.

But when I look over the old Naxx signups, I don’t think we’ve forgotten those names who no longer raid with us (I’m sure there are some which have a special place in raid leaders’ memories, for sure :) ). I think we’d be thrilled to see them if they ever hopped back into the game to say Hi. I don’t know whether there would be room in raids, that’s harder to organise, but I know they aren’t forgotten. Thinking even further back, I still chat to Arb about people we used to play DaoC with years ago. For most  I never knew their real names, but there was some level on which we knew them as friends with a shared hobby, who used to play games with us. Or else they were ‘those guys’ who were jerks in game and still are the subject of massive bitch fests when we can be bothered.

And it’s part of the normal cycle of gaming that people join and leave. Life happens, circumstances change, people get bored. There is a quote I read (and I don’t know the origin) that runs: We will all be the same in five years as we are now except for two things: the books we have read and the people we’ve met.

Here’s to all the people we met this year, and to the people we’ll meet in the year to come.

Thought for the Day: How social are ‘social’ games?

Historically, a social game is one that you played with friends so that you could socialise while you were playing. Board games, card games, RPGs all involve having a group of people in the same room and even if you took your gaming extremely seriously, there would be time to chat between rounds.

The social part of MMOs is grouping. Again, you’re tackling the game with a bunch of other people and if they are also friends then you can chat while you kill mobs together. Even if you aren’t grouped up, an evening in the MMO for a social player means chatting to your mates via various text channels while you pursue other goals in game. But in a facebook-type social game, you interact with people without talking to them at all. Just send someone a virtual cow along with a virtual poke and maybe they’ll respond later.

So I wonder, how social can any game really be if you don’t talk to anyone? Are we heading towards the ironic situation where Bartle-type social players dislike ‘social games’ because they aren’t social enough and you can’t really get to know the people you are playing with?

The headset is my ears, the monitor is my eyes

I have seen it with my own eyes ….

It’s amazing how easy it is when we’re deep in a game for our brains to convince us that we are seeing the virtual world directly through our own eyes, and hearing it with our own ears. I’ve had times when I wasn’t aware of the headphones or the monitor. Immersion will do that to a person, and the human brain is smart but can be trained to substitute one metaphor for another – after all, I don’t much notice my glasses when I’m wearing those either.

But all it takes to break the illusion is one little hardware problem. The monitor blows? You’re (virtually) blind. Broken sound card? You’re (virtually) deaf. It’s tricky to talk about this without being disrespectful to people who have sensory disabilities in real life, but being without a peripheral can feel absolutely crippling in game.

I’ve had an ongoing problem for a few months with my microphone, in that it’s way too quiet. This week, we sorted it out (turns out it was something stupid that I’d done which was easily fixed, once we’d found it), and it’s astounding to me how much difference that made in my gameplay.

I could speak on voice chat before, but it was very hard for people to hear me. They would keep asking me to speak up, or complain that they couldn’t hear, and there wasn’t anything that I could do about it. It was frustrating because it broke the metaphor, in real life I can speak up by just raising my voice. But that didn’t work with a malfunctioning mike. It was so frustrating in fact that I mostly stopped even trying to talk, and along with that came a feeling of distance, of unintentional exclusion, and of being less involved in both the game and the community.

Of course I could still type wittily (and quickly), but as anyone knows who has played with voice chat, a lot of people don’t bother looking at the text on the screen. But my disability was relatively easily fixed. I have my voice back. This week I noticed that  every time I am to say something in game, I  hesitate more than I used to do. I still think ‘Oh, no one will hear’, even though they can now.

I’m happy to have my virtual voice back, and it will be nice to feel back in the loop and get used to it again. But that was a very powerful emotional experience, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.

Thought of the Day: How we define challenge

I’ve read a few bloggers recently commenting about how challenges change in MMOs. Tobold joked that hunters were changing to FPS gameplay, as a way of talking about how WoW is tending towards twitch based challenge and away from knowledge/ puzzle solving — granted it wasn’t ever very puzzle based but it’s clear that designers now assume everyone will look the strategies up and are trying to find other ways to challenge players.

Gevlon has been thinking about why hardcore players complain about nerfs. Looking at the marathon example, the hardcore don’t ever have to be in contact with the casuals so why would it matter what they do? Again, it’s to do with the perception of the challenge and people being concerned that their previous achievements will be less ‘valuable,’ especially in a game where people often define their self-worth by what challenges they have beaten. (Sure, there are other reasons to complain about nerfs, I remember being sad when Ulduar was first nerfed because I was enjoying the original difficulty.)

This all reminded me of a wise comment I read recently on a bboard. From an rpg.net post by David J Prokopetz:

The ready availability of strategy guides and online FAQs seems to have lead many hardcore gamers to conclude that the only “real” challenges are those that test your reflexes, and those that test your patience.

Exploration-based challenges are deemed worthless because you can just look up where to go next; likewise reasoning-based challenges, because you can look up the solution; resource-based challenges are out because you can look up the optimal distributions; strategy and tactics disdained because you can look up an algorithm and apply it by rote; and so forth.

Ultimately, any challenge that doesn’t boil down to pure twitch or interminable grind will be dismissed out of hand.

So maybe it all does come down to spoilers in the end. But it speaks to something in player mentality where someone who levels naked (in game) or beats Ulduar in blue gear will be widely respected, whereas a group who go into a raid instance ‘blind’ so that they can figure out the strategy themselves will be mocked for not looking it up like everyone else. The player base values some challenges more than others.

It doesn’t look good for the non-achievers or people who prefer puzzle based play to twitch. But at least we still have single player games. And of course social players face the biggest challenges of all: running a successful guild or raid group.

And because it’s still being great, here’s the obligatory Torchlight screenie. My vanquisher at level 12 with a new gun. Why is it that I hate the thigh boots and miniskirt look in Aion but really like it here, I wonder?

Vanquisher with gun