Thoughts on the Steam Sale, also Dust

It’s like Valve read my mind (or blog). I hadn’t really planned to buy much in the Steam Sale but they kept putting up games on my list so what’s a girl to do? Current haul this time around includes: XCom, FTL, Kerbal Space Program, SIns of a Solar Empire Rebellion and Dust: an Elysian Tale. I don’t feel manipulated and am a happy customer (at least now that I’ve figured out how to get XCom to save) but it’s true that I spent more than planned.

I am epically ambivalent about Steam’s strange trading cards thing – is it a game or just a bizarre hook to reel in collectors? Not sure, but it seems popular and I picked up some pocket change by selling my cards on the Steam marketplace to people who (for whatever reason) seemed to want them. It is worth noting that people will also pay pocket change for cards generated by playing the games so if you buy a game from Steam that has a lot of associated cards, you can recoup some of your outlay/put the profits towards your next purchase. This makes it one of the most excruciatingly clever promotions ever seen.

Also I kind of like the design that collectors get rewarded with being able to collect things, and I can still  get rewarded for NOT being a collector (ie. by being able to sell the unwanted collectables.)

Jamie Madigan has spent more time thinking about the psychology of steam summer sales.

So what’s the score with Dust?

I haven’t booted up Dust: an Elysian Tale yet, as am currently too occupied with XCom. But the name does remind me that I haven’t heard much recently about CCP’s Dust 514.

I assume from this that no news is bad news, given that gaming companies tend to hype every minor piece of positivity to the ends of the earth and beyond. So colour me unsurprised that Brendan Drain just slated the game on Massively after trying it last week:

Last week I finally sat down to play the game myself and was thoroughly disappointed with both its 2005-era graphics and fundamentally broken gameplay.

The review a couple of weeks back in Edge Online was also harsh.

Combat has about as much personality as the bleak, dust-blown worlds. There’s none of Halo’s gently exaggerated physics, Shootmania’s relentless velocity or Call Of Duty’s immediacy. There’s just shooting people with guns, albeit while battling against some suspect hit detection and sludgy controls.

It’s in stat-packed menu screens, not on the battlefield, that Dust feels most part of the universe in which it nominally takes place.

I don’t know of any official figures about Dust, but I remember wondering last year how much CCP had invested in developing Dust and what the knock-on effect might be on them if it wasn’t successful. I guess we’ll find out.

Brief catchups, Steam Sale, and a RPG kickstarter not to miss

There are two main reasons that I have been quiet on the blogging front lately. The first is that I’m feeling quite uninspired about MMOs at the moment – my main games are WoW (in which I’m still raiding with my awesome guildies) and LOTRO (which I’m playing about a session a week with Arb on my runekeeper). They are both oldish games. Maybe I’m just an oldish school MMO player.

The EVE experiment ran to the end of the first month, by which time I was really only logging on to tweak the skill queue. I have no doubt that the game is all about the corps and PvP, but I’ve played sandbox games enough to know that even with all these things in place, it’s still not going to be a game for me during the long slow summer gaming slump. It is in the nature of sandbox games to involve a lot of hanging around and being bored in between flashes of interest. It’s a pretty game though and I miss Elite.

Like many other players, I often fall into a summer gaming slump. This year feels different, because my enthusiasm about upcoming MMOs is so muted. I have played the FF14 beta and it was OK, but I felt bored. I saw nothing to make it stand out from the other themepark MMOs I am playing. I may have missed the aspects that make the game stand out, but I played until I got too bored to log in any more. TESO is likely the next new MMO I will play, and mostly because a friend of a friend told me that the writing was good. We’ll see.

The (not so recent now) news that Blizzard have ditched whatever their old plans were for Titan and are starting from square one didn’t surprise me, I’d already wondered whether they have dropped previous redesigns and had to redo due to changes in the market. But it does mean that WoW is going to be the Blizzard staple for a few more years yet. They’ve done a lot of things right with MoP but by this stage in the expansion, I am still feeling generally unenthused. It will be hard work for them to keep coming out with this level of content output and even if they do, they will be constantly losing players.

And as I have pretty much no interest in shooters, the upcoming shooter type MMOs are largely going to pass me by also.

The second reason for not blogging is that I’ve been busy with new job, which is all quite positive but takes a lot of energy.

I will however try to do more regular updates in future. Even if I am on a downswing in MMO playing (and the genre in general is also) it is still worth documenting. Along with some generic thoughts about MMO tropes that I will not miss. It is the vast virtual worlds to explore that I will however miss. I’m not sure how great a feature those will be for any new entries to the genre, such as it is.

Steam Sale

It’s that time of the year again. Anything big on anyone’s wishlist? I’m not sure I do, this time around. A lot of the games I wanted I have already been able to buy at good discounts. Kerbal Space Program sounds intriguing though, and I’d be up for Sword of the Stars or some kind of 4x strategy game. Any indie games anyone would recommend?

Clearly it is a bad idea to buy new games when there are older ones I have not started yet, but such is the world of extra disposable income.

Kick out for Chuubo

And lastly a shout out for a kickstarter that is ending soon, which is a (pen and paper) RPG by one of the most talented writers in the industry. Jenna (probably best known for Nobilis and some of the better received Exalted books)  is often hailed as either a genius or a quirky cultish author but aside from her evocative writing style, the real smarts are in the way she plays with rules and mechanics to build games that just work differently to the standard D&D wargaming based dungeon crawls.

In Chuubo the goal is to make it interesting and easy to run pastoral games, where character development and exploration is core to the game rather than just killing monsters and looting their corpses. If you want to know how she does this, plonk down $15 for the KS and you can have access to the entire first draft, as well as various other freebies, examples of play and short stories that she’s put up for the KS supporters. And as you might guess from the fact that the first draft is up, the game is already  completed and the KS is funded – further funds will go towards the stretch goals.

She describes the game as:

It’s an RPG that strives, as its first principle, to make it worthwhile to spend your time on both the little things and the big ones — a game that’s meaningful and fun whether your characters are drinking tea with their friends, exploring their new home, doing their daily round of chores, or hunting horrors in the dark. It’s a work that strives, as its second principle, to bend but not break when the same people who were sweeping or arguing over television shows a few minutes before start throwing around godly powers, breaking the world with their poorly-phrased wishes, and heading out into the dark to challenge Death.

I especially recommend this one to game designers. She is honestly a genius with mechanics. Enjoy!

[Misc] EVE advertising, Flexi raids in WoW, E3 and the rush of FPS MMOs

Apologies for this being a bit of a mashup. I should probably post more often rather than waiting till I have a few items together.

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This banner was part of a banner ad for EVE Online on rpg.net. This is their advertising slogan. “Be the villain”. And they wonder why their community has a terrible reputation, and only 4% of the player base is female.

Just saying.

I’m still playing through my first month in EVE quietly, deliberately not getting involved in corps or PvP because I just wanted to get a feel for the flow of the game. By far the most compelling part so far is the Facebook-like skill training system. I don’t mean that as a knock to the awesome economic game, beautiful graphics or fairly dull PvE. But the skill training is surprisingly compelling (or perhaps not if you’re used to Farmville). So perhaps it is not surprising that the devs have introduced a new mini game in the recent update – I can’t personally comment on it since I haven’t really figured out probes in any case.

The immensely clever thing about this game is the gamification of boredom. PvE activities like mining are made deliberately dull to encourage player-ships to hang around while players are reading something in another window, making them easy prey for wannabee pirates. ie. the pirates are pretty much guaranteed easy player prey, whilst the miners/ distributers can still make enough credits to shrug off losing the odd ship every now and then.

And as long as everyone roughly gets what they want most of the time, no one will get pissed off enough to leave. It’s actually pretty clever, but still boring. Before anyone comments, I realise that the PvP game is where most of the fun is, just joining a corps is a massive hassle and my goal here was just to get a feel for the game.

One of the  main issues with EVE is always going to be how the devs can balance making the game accessible to newbies while allowing the longer term players to enjoy the advantages of lengthy playing time. For all I’m told that newbies can easily fly with PvP fleets (if in the right role), I still see a  lot of fleets in chat that have far more rigorous requirements.

Are you flexible?

One of the features coming to WoW in the next patch has been dubbed flexible raiding by the devs. In addition to LFR (25 man) and  normal mode (10 or 25 man) for raids, there is now going to be an inbetween version that lets you bring any number of players between 10 and 25 and scales based on how many you bring. The flexi raids also are on a separate lockout from either LFR or normal mode, and drop loot that is also between LFR and normal mode loot.

I’m cautiously hopeful about this new raid mechanic. At the beginning of Cataclysm, like many other people, I commented on how forcing 10 and 25 man raiding to the same lockout would impact on casual raid guilds. Back in the day, we used to run fairly chilled out 25 man raids and the more hardcore raiders could still go off and run their own 10 mans at weekends. After the lockout changed, we compacted into a casual 10 man guild where the more hardcore raiders could still raid with the main group and everyone else could come to alt runs or LFR.

The new flexi raids mean that if people want, we could return to the old Wrath raid pattern. I expect to see a lot more public flexi raids being run also, where raiders and their alts can chill with other raiders from their realm in a non guild exclusive environment. Given that more choice is good, I’m going to welcome the new raid type.

What it means to 10 man normal raid groups, I’m not sure. If like us they raid successfully but at a cost of rarely being able to include less hardcore raiders (I realise I am using hardcore in a different way to heroic groups Smile ) and often having a couple of people on the bench, it will be tempting to just shift to flexi raids and throw in the odd normal mode as an extra if players want.

Blizzard are also releasing more information about the next patch, which looks as though it will be rather more interesting than the current one. The Godmother has a quick summary of some of the new upcoming  features.  I actually applaud them for releasing the current quieter patch over the summer period, because players don’t really want to feel stressed to play MMOs when the weather is nice (I live in hope).

What E3 brought

I’m not really sold yet on either XBone or the PS4 as a next gen console, my PS3 is still looking pretty good and PC gaming has rarely been better*. However, I’m going to bow to Sony’s PR guys this week because their video on how the PS4 lets you share games is a winner; at least it makes them look as though they understand gamers rather better than Microsoft. I wouldn’t write the XBone off though, MSoft have a very clear vision of their customer – someone who loves watching sport, playing ‘core’ video games online with friends, and isn’t that price sensitive. We should just call the console the XBROne and have done with it. Imagine my surprise that the Microsoft E3 presentation a) showed no games with female protagonists and b) involved a scripted rapey joke at the expense of a female presenter. Like I say, they know exactly who their target audience are. And yes I do enjoy watching them get mocked for it in the national press.

* I will probably eventually pick up a PS4 to play whichever version of Final Fantasy we are up to now (15 I think) because old habits are hard to break.

I am also seeing (finally) a rush of FPS MMOs lined up for the next gen consoles. Between Destiny and The Division, along with Planetside 2 and whatever MMOlike features are planned for CoD et al, it will be interesting to see how both the monetisation strategies and gameplay catch on with console players.

And the game that most intrigued me was the Plants vs Zombies shooter. Like Liore, I think this is an interesting way of opening up the genre to a different audience. I kind of want to play a Sunflower that spits sunbeams, even though I’m not big on shooters.

In space no one knows you’re a girl

Last post (for the moment) on women in gaming. I was interested but not surprised that CCP recently informed Destructoid that 96% of EVE players were male.

I don’t think there is anything inherent in the game itself that edges women players out. It’s not a very exciting game on a minute to minute basis, but plenty of people would theoretically enjoy the crafting and economy game even if they didn’t want to get involved in fleet action. I also think that the gameplay is fairly hostile to the more casual gamer who may have hours at a time to devote but may also have to leave the computer at short notice to answer the door/ phone, or deal with some minor household emergency.

I also take huge issue with the argument that women traditionally don’t like scifi. Hello, thousands of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica female fans would like to prove you wrong there.

The heavy competitive/ PvP focus traditionally is more appealing to male players. I imagine there are way more female players in games like Wurm Online (another sandbox with strong crafting emphasis) which doesn’t have the same push to PvP. The EVE community has also never been that friendly to women – what I mean by this is that if there was a kickass female-run corps, you’d see more interest from the type of women who might like the game anyway purely from the appeal of “get to play the type of game you like with people like you”. Which is more appealing than “get to play the type of game you like with the kind of people you try to avoid online where you can.”

There is also a certain type of complexity-for-its-own-sake that appeals to people who (in tabletop) love setting up spreadsheets for their Champions campaign, using the encumbrance mechanics in D&D and designing tanks using GURPS Vehicles. I’m talking about the trainspotter faction in gaming, predominantly male.

The other factor is because of the great advantages you get in  game by joining as part of a pre-existing group (most notoriously, Goons). That’s not a bad thing in itself, but when the majority of the groups are heavily male dominated anyway offline, any lone female joining the game is at a double disadvantage (because she would have to sign up with a group that are not particularly welcoming if she wanted that environment). Sure you could go sign up for SA but if you find that community toxic, why would you?

So basically I think the entire social structure of the game, albeit unintentionally, edges out the type of women who would otherwise enjoy it. And because so much of this is down to the metagame and out of game communities, there’s not really much CCP can do even if they wanted to. And they don’t really want to market to women because it might impact on their “harden the fuck up” narrative.

Plus of course it’s a hard sell pushing a subscription game to anyone in the current climate.

Addendum to Tropes vs Women: some games not mentioned

I note in passing that two series of games specifically were not mentioned in the Tropes vs Women video I discussed yesterday.

- Call of Duty

- FIFA (also Madden, et al)

While she wasn’t aiming for an exhaustive summary I think it’s worth noting that the two most popular, best selling franchises of recent times don’t actually ping the anti woman radar. I’m sure they are also aimed at the same audience and tend not to attract female players (although sports games might surprise us if we had the actual figures, I was always a sucker for Football Manager frex), but they’re not seen as problematic in the same way.

This isn’t to say that all is fine and well in the world of gaming, but it simply isn’t true that games need to include semi naked chicks or horrible things happening to female love interests to sell well.

Have your views changed on F2P games?

With yesterday’s announcement that Rift is offering a F2P option from June 12th, it seems like a good time to reappraise the various F2P MMO models.

(Incidentally, the Trion dev team did an AMA on reddit this week about their plans for Rift.)

Lee Perry posts a considered defence of F2P games on Gamasutra, focussing on things that F2P games seem to do better than P2P. For example, for all the emphasis on metrics, they really do have a good idea of what their players enjoy doing. They do have to offer new content regularly to keep people interested. Compare this with the WoW “lets try something completely different next expansion” and “lets do patches at a glacial pace” approach. (I know they’re doing better in MoP, I know.)

As long as your goal is still to make a great game, and not to simply apply these techniques to shovel-ware garbage in the hopes of winning the mobile gaming lottery, I encourage developers to look at these concepts and pick at least a couple to embrace.  Get out there and use these forces for good.

But can these forces ever really be used for good?

World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy 11 (is 14 even live yet?) and Everquest are now (I think?) the only major AAA MMOs which still only offer subscription accounts. There are also probably lots of niche MMOs (such as Tale in the Desert, Darkfall and Wurm Online) which use this model, as well as P2P MUDs. Feel free to post about any of them in comments that I haven’t mentioned.

Guild Wars 2 has a B2P model where you buy the basic game and then there is no subscription, but they have a cash shop. EVE has a kind of hybrid subscription system where it is strictly speaking a subscription game but you can potentially pay for your sub using in game credits if you have them.

The majority of MMOs are now F2P where you can download the game for free and start playing without needing to subscribe. They make their money using a  mixture of cash shop items, paid DLC/ expansions, subscription options and selling in game gold for cash.

And then some games are totally free, such as traditional MUDs which are coded and run by volunteers. They welcome donations towards the costs of the server but there’s no reason to pay other than altruism.

One of the features of games that have transitioned from subsciption to F2P is that the player base tends to increase significantly in the short term (not surprising really) and also the number of subscribers increases in the short term. We’ve seen this most recently in SWTOR, which posted just under 500k subscriptions in the last EA earnings call. (They evidently have an effective “we will annoy you until you subscribe” F2P model going on.)

Green Armadillo compares a few different F2P models, dividing them into “Pay to Win” and “Pay for Others.” There are other ways to compare the different models, usually based on what perks/ virtual goods are being sold and how the game encourages people to become paying customers.

It isn’t even clear whether F2P does favour the casual player over the hardcore, as that also can depend on the business model. PvP games might lure in free players to act as cannon fodder for those who pay (World of Tanks), whereas other games make bank from selling cosmetic gear or lockboxes to casuals. It’s true though that if you do play casually, you can access a large number of MMOs without having to pay for any of them these days.

Liore describes the frustration that subscription players feel when a game goes F2P, the sense that the tight knit fabric of the game and certainties of the regular payments are being blown open, possibly to be replaced by an influx of rude casuals and a selection of annoying lockboxes (both of which have happened at pretty much every game which has transitioned). Without going that far, there is the potential for F2P to really divide up the player base and make existing players think hard about exactly how casual/ hardcore they want to be.

So – it’s a fast changing environment but the direction of the journey is very clear. Have your views changed at all on F2P games over the last months/ years?

Catching up: Neverwinter, WoW Raiding, Diablo

ooze

“I got eaten by a gelatinous cube!!!” she said, “This is the best day of my life!”

I feel late to the party so going to link to a few other people’s experiences with the Neverwinter open beta. I haven’t really seen any bad reviews, it’s a solid game and if you like that sort of thing, it’s F2P so you can go try it. For me I get strong vibes of a mixture of Diablo and standard hotbar MMO play, and it mostly works. Also my character has a really cool devil tail that waves around.

  • Dusty Monk – “… when you first log on, you’ll be presented with a Home Page of the various kinds of content available and how to get to them.   And for most of that content, a robust LFG queuing tool is available, and works really well.  So whether for skirmishes, dungeons, or PvP matches, you can queue up, and typically within less than 20 minutes or so, be whisked away to the instance of your choice.”
  • Tipa at West Karana – “I play the game, I like the game, but I don’t know why. Game just _confuses_ me.”
  • The Jester, a blogger at wizards.com (blogging for a pen and paper audience) – “The static world reflects a style of MMO design on the way out. It’s very much a third-generation MMO despite every MMO in the last three or four years trying to become an early fourth-generation MMO. There’s not a whole lot of innovation. Excluding the Foundry, it’s an unremarkable game I would have not looked twice at had it not been using the D&D licence (and even then, only because it’s free). There’s also only enough official content for a single playthrough.”

Like many of the other bloggers I follow, I’m finding a lot more fun in the game than I had expected. It is, as The Jester says, a very static world design but I don’t entirely agree with him about the third-generation MMO. Cryptic have been looking at more recent developments in other games, so Neverwinter features companion NPCs and crafting based on facebook style games/ SWTOR, LFG queues for all the group content in the game, a web interface where you can check your crafting/ auctions/ etc., and a more active combat style than typical MMOs. I find the dodging works better here than in GW2, for example. The game does default to mouse look, and binds your two main attacks to the mouse buttons for that classic Diablo feel. This didn’t annoy me as much as I was expecting although it feels awkward when you want to drop out of mouse look mode so that  you can click on some other part of your screen. All in all, it feels like a modern take on an oldschool genre, which is pretty appropriate for a game based on Dungeons and Dragons.

And Arb and I do get a kick from the oldschool D&D references that are studded through the game, especially when we remember the monsters showing up in tabletop games that we ran as teenagers.  The gelatinous cube shown above was an old GMing favourite, as were the illusory walls that have featured in other dungeons in the game. Fortunately this particular cube was not immune to cold and lightning damage, given that my wizard has a lot of ice spells. And that shows up one of the downsides of Neverwinter – it’s not actually as tactically interesting as a D&D game probably should be. Monsters are supposed to have strengths and vulnerabilities, but that doesn’t really work with this type of MMO where players don’t want to be told “You should really bring someone with fire spells if you are going to fight gelatinous cubes.”

It’s a dilemma. In any case, we’re having fun with the game at the moment. I don’t know if it really has long lasting stickability but Cryptic have played to their strengths by including The Foundry for player generated scenarios and that is something I am curious to try out.

Raiding in the Throne of Thunder

Kadomi has written a much more colourful description of our raiding progress over at her blog (I love being in a guild with other bloggers, I can just link to what they wrote and say “just read this.”)

Short form: We got council down last week in normal mode for the first time. So we’re making slow but steady progress through the raid. I have had more fun raiding in MoP than in any aspect of WoW since Wrath, although the encounters are sometimes overtuned in normal, they’re pretty well designed. I don’t know what other people consider good encounter design but for me, I don’t mind a complex boss fight that takes us a long time to learn as long as we can feel we are learning on every pull.

Encounters like Elegon and Council have been incredibly rewarding fights for our guild to master, I think. So I don’t much care that we’re not on heroic modes, the raids we are doing are at a really good difficulty for us I think. But I’m pretty tolerant of slow progression if the company is good and fun is being had.

At the same time, LFR being available helps a lot with keeping the general good mood in a casual raid guild. I think back to Burning Crusade and just how darned important it felt to be in progression raids because it was the only way you could be in with a shot at the gear you’d need to be included in the next progression raid. Now you can keep up reasonably well with gear levels by running LFR and collecting rep gear so it’s not the end of the world if you miss a week or two. Plus if we don’t have enough people on a raid night, we can take a guild group to LFR and still have the opportunity to hang out together.

As anyone who has been reading gaming news recently will know, WoW posted a drop in accounts over the last quarter. This can’t be surprising given general trends in the genre and doesn’t really reflect on MoP – anyone who quit because there were too many dailies probably wasn’t going to be in it for the long run anyway.

Diablo III

Since the new patch, I have been tentatively trying out my old Barbarian in Inferno level and … this is probably not surprising but now that several nerfs have been applied to the mobs and buffs to the characters, I am quite enjoying it. The original difficulty just wasn’t fun for me, this is.

I have enjoyed all the Diablo-esque games that I have played recently, Torchlight 2 is a lot of fun also, but Diablo 3 does have some very moreish design factors to it. I love silly things like the increasingly outlandish types of arms and armour you pick up (what is a Schynbald? Heck if I know!), which brings me back to original Dungeons and Dragons with it’s lovingly illustrated pages of exotic polearms.

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Emotional Labour in MMOs: things you can’t get players to do

“when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’”

Leigh Alexander (who is a really good gaming writer, if you haven’t heard of her), twitter

Given that being massively multiplayer is one of the unique selling points of the genre, it’s always impressed me how far players will sometimes go in order to avoid having to interact with others.  (This isn’t an argument about forced grouping by the way, don’t worry.) I do this myself too sometimes – there are times when I just can’t be asked to interact. Maybe I’m not in the mood to teach a group a new encounter, or maybe I’m  in “the zone” and happily solo grinding/ levelling away and don’t feel like going all social with a group, even if it would be more efficient.

But players and designers have been wondering since the birth of the genre about how to encourage players to be more social, whether it be via forced grouping or rewards that require social organisation to solve, giving groups extra tools and props (like guild housing), providing social spaces and encouragement to socialise during downtime, better chat and communication tools (yeah, still a fair way to go on this one), and so forth. Some have worked better than others. We know that social ties are important to players and can help make an MMO more compelling as a long term proposition.

So it’s not unnatural to wonder if there are better ways to encourage players to interact. I’ve wondered the same thing that Leigh wonders in the quote above –  could you make it as fun/ rewarding to empathise, communicate, and be kind to other players as it is to defeat and grief them? Could that be the basis of some game mechanic?

Raph Koster takes the same tweet and runs with it, arguing basically that it isn’t a valid objective because it isn’t really the role of a game to guide how players feel. He notes that this is more of a non interactive narrative and, interestingly, that he thinks players feel controlled if they are told that they have to stop speaking and listen to someone else.

His argument is comprehensible only in a context of single player games – and certainly don’t apply to roleplaying (I wonder if he thinks RPGs count as games). In my tabletop games, I absolutely did expect players to be polite, considerate of each other and to listen when someone else was speaking. That’s a core multiplayer group based dynamic. We can call it “playing nicely with others.”

Oh noes, player A thinks the man is trying to control them if they are told to play nice with others! Whatever will we do?! etcetera.

But the question remains, could games teach these kinds of skills? Could they teach people to think about how the other person might feel before they let loose with some racist, sexist, homophobic smack talking rant? And if any games could, surely multiplayer games would be the right genre to try.

There’s work and then there’s WORK

Let’s get one thing straight. MMO players adore working on their characters. Not everyone has the bloodymindedness and tenacity to grind out every last faction and endgame upgrade but this is a genre built on the expectation of 10s and 100s of hours of play. Spending a long gaming session levelling, crafting, PvPing, instancing, or raiding for some minor upgrade is absolutely par for the course. It’s not as fun to feel forced to do something you don’t enjoy but the actual concept of work in these games isn’t a dirty word.

Listening to other people and empathising with them is work, it’s called emotional labour and lots of people have to do it as part of their jobs. And even these people like to switch off at the end of the day (because it’s actually quite demanding work, emotionally). This is one of the reasons why it does often feel like more work to interact with strangers than to grind away slowly on your own, because it is. And it’s not even all that fun unless they are listening and helping you too. Can we admit that socialising often isn’t fun? I think we can.

By the same token, splurging incontinent emotional backlash all over the game/ internet may not be fun per se, but is cathartic and relaxing(?) for people. Or maybe some people find it fun.

So when we are talking about wanting a game to encourage people to do the former and not the latter, we are looking for a mechanic that can reward people for doing  emotional labour, and discourage them from something that they find liberating. No wonder it is a tough sell.

Although anyone who likes the Bioware romances or Japanese dating sim types of games will at least be open to the idea that it might be fun to get to know someone, figure out what they like/ dislike, and be rewarded with some kind of relationship. So  maybe in order for empathy to be fun and not to be a pointless grind, there must be the possibility of a meaningful relationship (not necessarily romantic) at the end. Players have to believe that they too will be valued and accepted by a peer or a peer group on their own terms.

Why social pressure can’t solve this one

For all of that, there is a real issue that players feel controlled by in game communities. Some in game communities can be very controlling. One of the great appeals of soloing is not having to be beholden to the minor dramas and power players of a guild, not being told when to play or who to play with, how to use chat or which bboard to hang out on, and so forth. This is one of those cases where art mirrors life; RL communities are controlling too (you may not notice this if you fit in Smile ). In return for some conformity, you can then get support, security and friendships – things that are really key to making life worthwhile.

Which means, in games as in RL, if you want to feel less controlled you have two options: go lone wolf, or find a group of people where you fit in and are comfortable with the rules. MMOs are typically really bad at helping players find compatible guilds, it’s a flaw that no one ever has properly addressed.

Guilds have a much easier time than game mechanics in encouraging players to play nicely with others. The threat of being thrown out of the group is a very powerful one to our social monkey brains. The more pressing issue is that antisocial players tend to form up with other antisocial players, in groups that accept that behaviour.

This is fine in a group based game. If your Diablo group wants to swear at each other, no one else needs to care. But in a massively multiplayer game, groups will interact with each other.

That is what an MMO mechanic to encourage empathy would have to fight. Not the soloers (who are probably mostly happy to be left alone and will return politeness with politeness if they really do have to talk to anyone), nor the more fluffy or mature guilds who do encourage good behaviour, but the howling packs of invective laden muppets who are having plenty of fun doing what they are doing.

I think the best answer is better moderation, and better tools to let players ignore the people who are annoying them. Some things you can teach, other people need a slap round the chops (technically we call this “appropriate use of authority”). So what if they don’t like the feel of being controlled? That doesn’t mean everyone else has to pander to it, especially if it means designed won’t even try to make more emotionally nuanced games. Some of us enjoy controls, constraints, boundaries or railroads in games – it’s wrong thinking to dismiss them all as “that isn’t a game mechanic.”

It would be possible to go further, to look at how the justice system tries to get offenders to empathise with their victims. But so difficult in an online setting to actually isolate someone from their terrible peer support group.

Or else we could just design games like Journey where it is only possible to help other players, and never to grief them or interact in a negative way.

[Kickstarter] Camelot, t’is a silly place

With only 10 days left to go until the end of the kickstarter, Camelot Unchained (Mark Jacob’s proposed new niche PvP MMO)  is looking on shaky ground. All the updates, stretch goals, interaction on reddit and other forums, press interviews and media rounds cannot hide the fact that the kickstarter still needs to make over 700k to become funded (and that of course will not include any stretch goals such as the fancy updated version of Darkness Falls).

The kicktraq chart shows them being on track to hit $1.9m – a huge amount, but still  short of the $2m goal. MJ et al have responded by adding more high end kickstarter tiers, a reasonable response given that CUs higher tiers have sold out rapidly to keen fans.  It’s not all over until the fat lady sings and there’s still time for more pledges to come in, but I want to talk today about the problems I see with the project and with the kickstarter.

Maybe niche projects should have niche targets

The main problem CU has is that there simply aren’t enough backers. Compare their current 8350 backers to the numbers who backed other recent successful big gaming kickstarters like  Torment or Project Eternity  (around 73k-74k people each), or Shroud of the Avatar (22k people, more modest goal than CU). As you might expect from this type of project, individual backers have been prepared to spend big on their fantasy heartbreaker (an old tabletop term for people who design their PERFECT game but the games are never quite different enough to grab an audience). But CSE set a high, ambitious goal – they may be asking just too much of their niche. It does speak well for the project speaking to a moneyed fanbase that it is getting as close to the goal as it currently is.

The high tiers have been selling like hotcakes, it’s quite astounding how many people are willing to throw $5k or so at a niche product that won’t be out for a couple of years at best. If nothing else, CSE have shown that the niche exists and it has cash to spend. At the same time, unlike other gaming kickstarters, this one is for a subscription game. This is one reason why the lower tiers don’t look as enticing to people with a mild interest  – even getting a good discount on the base game, there will be more to pay.

And while kickstarters often see a rush at the end, I think it’s just as likely for a project like this that some backers will have been overcome by the excitement and pledged more than they can afford in the hope of making the project attractive to others. Expect to see them cancelling or reducing pledges if the thing looks as though it might actually fund (and they might have to pay), or even trying to issue a chargeback.

This is not unknown on kickstarter either – there is at least one case where Paypal froze a project account from a kickstarter because some donors had been threatening chargebacks.

Incidentally, I remember commenting on Syncaine’s blog when I first heard about the project that I predicted they would set their goal too high and not make it. I still think that.

What do players actually want out of a pure PvP MMO?

For me, I felt MJ had dropped the ball when I listened to the description of the stretch goal (he also didn’t actually mention what the stretch goal is to unlock the new dungeon, but they’re not going to make it anyway so it may be irrelevant). He has often historically been very focussed on what players want from this type of game but I felt something was off in the description.

He had a very strong focus on how fun it will be to make your enemy suffer, watch your enemy suffer, lay traps and inhabit monsters to inflict misery on your opponent. ie. Have fun griefing the dungeon!

Now while there are plenty of players who will enjoy that, it is a sideshow. The main appeal for players in a permaworld with PvP is the opportunity to BUILD, not just to destroy. People want to know they can hold territory with their guild, stamp their authority on the landscape of the game, invest time and effort to be a part of the story of that gameworld that will go down in gamer history.

EVE gets this right. CU does not. Sure, “haha, that dude fell in the lava trap!” is good for a laugh in a Dungeon Keeper kind of way, but it isn’t the draw that being able to stake out your claim to a part of the world and defend it will be. CU certainly offers possibilities for the latter type of play too, but that wasn’t what MJ was hyping. I think he’s losing touch with his niche. Presenting high end tiers which involve custom build bases for guilds also impinges on the model – they will be cool for people, but they mean the design has to allow for bases to be in safe areas. That means guilds will be limited in how far they can take over each other’s bases or territory.

There is no reason this won’t be fun, and it does mean the higher tier purchases don’t have an undue advantage, but it will not be the no holds barred PvP-a-thon of EVE or even Darkfall. So you don’t get all-in PvP, but there are also no plans for a PvE game. People are excited about the project now, but I wonder if that is really what this niche want.

So what needs to happen for CU to fund?

One of two things needs to happen: either existing funders (plus anyone who was hanging in there until the very end to pitch in) need to all stick more money into the fund, or else a bunch of new funders show up.

CSE is betting on the former, with the introduction of new high end tiers for anyone who … just feels like throwing in an extra $10k or so.

Even if Camelot Unchained fails to fund, I wouldn’t call it a failure. They’ve raised a lot of pledges from a small player base so far. I just don’t think they’ll make their goal.

[Random] Introducing the Random tag—buy toothpaste, get SimCity DLC

And in a new blog feature, I am going to highlight acts of randomness in gaming PR where I read the story and think “OK, that was random.” Feel free to submit odd gaming related PR stunts that you find.

EA’s Random Sim City Promotion

If you buy a specially marked tube of toothpaste, you can get a DLC for Sim City that includes such noteworthy city attractions as “a giant garden gnome”  and “the world’s largest ball of twine.”

Man, what?

The burning question in my mind is that if you get an in game giant ball of twine when you buy toothpaste, what do you get if you buy a ball of twine?