[Links] Facebook games, immersion in films, other links from this week

tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-poster-gary-oldman

Happy Sunday. This is where I make a spurious link between something I have done this week and computer games, before linking to some better pieces of writing from other people.

The new film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (TTSS) was released this week in the UK. And since it’s been getting rave reviews, we went to see it. This was always going to be a tricky film to make because everyone compares it to the iconic 1970s TV series. If you read any reviews, there’s a 95% chance someone compares Gary Oldman’s performance to Alec Guiness. But truth is, there only a certain number of ways to play George Smiley and everyone thinks Guiness absolutely nailed it.

You can compare this to the challenge of making a sequel to a much loved game, or an expansion to an MMO. People want to see all the things they loved about the original, but they want them to be new and fresh too. They want the NPCs to hit all the beats they remember, but still to have a continuing storyline. TTSS performs the miracle of translating a book that had enough content to fuel a whole TV series into a single film without feeling that any key information to the plot was missing. To do this, actors, writers, cinematography and director use a phenomenal amount of economy with their acting, shots, scenes, and writing. Smiley is a hard character to pin because he’s written as someone quiet, introvert and understated, but who also feels things very strongly. If you go see the film, just watch how Gary Oldman portrays that with each single pose or shrug of his shoulders. You don’t hear the internal monologue but you know it’s there. So when he does raise his voice – for one sentence, in one scene – it’s arresting.

The other game related thought about the film is how incredibly immersive it is. For the whole duration, you are there in their world of browns, greys, beiges, cigarette smoke, and half full whisky bottles. Every detail is perfect. And none of it is thrown in your face.

I  think that as gamers, we do appreciate how important details are in making our game worlds sublime, immersive experiences. I’ve seen so many joyful blogs written about small details in game worlds that implied untold stories or thrilled the blogger. In fact, this probably plays a larger part than pure gameplay mechanics in ‘immersiveness’. But will a dev that counts only metrics of how many times each player completed each achievement ever really see the contribution that immersiveness makes to how long players WANT to spend in their game worlds? It’s not clear, but it all goes towards those nebulous notions of quality and gameworld realism which can make these games so special.

So how are Facebook Games doing these days?

An interesting milestone in facebook gaming was passed recently. Sims Social passed Farmville in numbers of daily players, which is probably good for making EA shareholders feel like buying social gaming companies was a good investment.

Of course, Zynga has moved on since Farmville and released at least two more hit games (I lose track of them all). Tobold has some praise for Adventure World, which is one of them, but notes that you will need a lot of friends or a lot of money to advance.

I’ve been trying out the open beta for Heroes of Neverwinter, which looks very promising so far and less demanding of large numbers of friends. It’s based around gathering a group of adventurers together and heading off to clear out little dungeons. Combat is turn based and grid based, reminiscent of the original Dragon Age Journeys flash game before they moved it to Facebook.

I think Neverwinter in particular shows how some Facebook games are evolving these days. It’s fun, and definitely less annoying than the typical Zynga spam-a-friend-fest. But it would be more fun for me if it wasn’t a facebook game – still, this probably means that I’m not the target audience. My style of gaming is ‘play games when you have at least 30 mins free’ and not ‘I’m on facebook anyway, might as well take a couple of mins every so often to amuse my friends with virtual game items.’

Muckbeast has a heartfelt rant about Facebook games, that I think most gamers will find sympathetic.

In the social gaming space, the industry average is that only 2% of users ever pay a single penny. When only 2% of your customers think your product is worth anything, that’s not a good sign.

If you wanted to improve your monetization rate, what would you do? Some possibilities:

  • Make the game more fun.
  • Give players more value for their money.
  • Create engaging content people are excited to pay for.

All good ideas, right? So those are the kinds of things Zynga, EA, etc. probably do to increase monetization, right?

Wrong.

Instead, they come up with incredibly annoying gimmicks like “energy systems” that interrupt your gameplay every few MINUTES and nag you to buy more energy to keep playing. We have literally looped back to pumping quarters in a machine every few minutes to play a game, folks. Ridiculous.

Thing is, most of the several squillion people who actually play these games regularly probably aren’t gamers and don’t care so much about these things. For them, sharing virtual game tat with their friends is all in a day’s social networking.

So while I like Neverwinter more about about 90% of the other Facebook games I have played, the chance of me spending money on it is zero. Therefore, I’m very much not the target audience, and who knows whether they’ll be interested in D&D style adventuring when they could be playing Sims Social instead.

Strangely enough, I did spend some money based on a social networking game this week. The game was Night Circus, written and coded by the same team who run Echo Bazaar, and I bought a copy of the book which the game was designed to advertise. (I do find some of the game text/ concepts a bit precious but I figured I was intrigued enough to pay a few pounds for a book at least.) The book is actually better than I was expecting, so recommended if you like magical romances and magic realism and stories about magicians holding mysterious duels.  The characters feel oddly stylized though, more like silhouettes than real people, but I was entertained. So that at least was a perfectly targeted piece of gamified advertising – I’m all for it ;)

More Links

Blimey, CCP actually releases some information about World of Darkness.

Mana Obscura has held a ‘smile week’ this week and has been writing about things he loves about MMOs. Here he discusses how amazing it is that they work at all, and how largescale the systems are behind them. I have always had a sense of awe about computer networks myself too, ever since a technician told me at Uni that the ethernet stayed up ‘by the grace of God.’ The more I know about ethernet, the more I suspect he had a point.

The Official WoW Magazine is dead in the water after five issues. The Ancient Gaming Noob has a copy of the email they sent to subscribers with info. Who’d have thought that computer gamers might not be all that interested in print magazines, huh?

The Rampant Coyote asks what single player RPGs can do better than MMOs. Given that we’re in the middle of some sort of conflux, I think this (and the opposite question of what MMOs do better than single player) has never been more timely.

Bronte discusses WoW raiding and problems with overtuning content, and some of the assumptions behind it. The basic idea that each tier of raiding should be more difficult/ complex than the last is fine if you started on day 1 as a Molten Core nooblet and worked your way up – less fine if you were new to Cataclysm and had to try to learn everything at once, with a bunch of players who are bored before they start and lost their patience with newbies two expansions ago.

OutDPS has some issues with the storytelling in Cataclysm (he notes that the lower level zones are often great but that the high level story is … not compelling.)

And on one last Blizzard related note, COO Thomas Tipl has stated that Blizzard are planning to release six ‘proven’ properties over the next three years. Gossip Gamers guesses that these will be 2 WoW expansions, 2 SC2 expansions, Diablo 3 … and maybe a D3 expansion. Don’t expect any more Wrath-style large WoW expansions is what I’m saying.

Rohan posts an interesting analysis of MMO players, comparing people who like fixed schedule events (like regular raid nights) to ‘transient’ players. I think there is a lot of truth in this, and the way I play is very different when I’m in a group that has fixed nights to when I just log in when I feel like it. PvD  also mulls this over and wonders if that’s the problem that the new LFR (looking for raid) PUG raid finder with its special low difficulty mode is intended to address.

How we learn. And what is fun anyway?

The discussion this week about levelling in WoW – too fast? too easy? not enough challenge for experienced gamers? has inspired me to do some digging around for information about how adults learn. Sorry if this gets a bit technical.

There is a lot of interesting work done on this topic, and I think the notion of Andragogy (how adults learn) is actually pretty cool. I especially like the notion that as adults, when we learn something new we want to be able to use it as soon as possible. I always thought that was just me being really impatient ;)

There are two basic views on adult learning:

1. Learning should be about overcoming a series of challenges. From this point of view, a bit of anxiety is part of the learning process. It would be very common (maybe even necessary) for people who are learning something new to think, “Eek, I feel a bit lost and out of my depth here, how can I do this new thing?” You have to get to that stage before you can move on and actually learn, and deciding to ease the anxiety by mastering the new topic is one of the ways adults motivate themselves to learn things.

There’s an interesting quote here in which one psychologist claims that learning isn’t really fun for adults, and says that learning only happens when survival anxiety (omg I need to know how to do this OR ELSE) outweighs learning anxiety (erk, this is a new thing and I don’t know how to do it.)

Schein dismisses the notion that learning is fun, especially for adults. He equates adult learning within organizations with that of the brainwashing techniques he observed while studying prisoners of the Korean War

Each of these anxieties could be managed, for example learning can be constructed in a “safe” environment where the consequences of failure are minimal. Survival anxiety can obviously be increased by threatening job loss, a lack of security, or recognizing competitive elements of the market.

So this is where games come in. The game should be a safe environment for learning where the consequences either way are pretty low. In a more competitive game, or where players are more invested (maybe your guild performance is important to your social life) then you get the other anxiety too.

I think anyone who has raided with a progression guild will probably know that feeling of being terrified of failing to learn quickly enough and letting the side down. But on the other hand, hobby gamers tend to enjoy the learning anxiety and being able to make it go away by mastering the game. We’re good at learning. Hold onto that, it’s a very useful life skill :) People in this group would dispute the claim that learning isn’t fun because for us, it’s the entire basis of our hobby!

Just bear in mind that it actually might not be fun for a lot of other people.

2. Learning through play / experience. The idea here is that people will learn by doing things, and they might not realise how much they have learned until they get a chance to think about it and talk to other people afterwards. There is also an idea that all learners are equal; as long as they are actually doing something (ie. and not avoiding the experience altogether) then they are learning and will have something to bring to the discussion.

This is why the WoW blogosphere is so interesting. Some people want to talk about strategies for high end raiding, others about how they work gaming in around their family life, and others just want to share pictures of their in game pets. They are all sharing different but valid experiences of the same game.

So from this perspective, the goal is to create a friendly environment that should be easy to get into with lots of ways for people to go off and experience it in whichever way they want. In other words, the buffet approach to MMOs.

So there are some kinds of player who just don’t want to deal with stress or anxiety. They aren’t playing because they want to be challenged in that way. They might be challenged in different ways (I want to collect 100 pets! I want to explore the virtual world!) but it will all be very controllable and they probably appreciate having a well marked story path available.

I think that the more MMOs bring in gaming elements, the more they will tend towards the first category. Structured sets of challenges, underpinned by strong competition to motivate people. And the mystery of WoW at the moment is how they are trying to make the low levels offer an immersive learning environment at the same time as the high level raiding offers a very different sort of gaming experience. Clearly, if you are an experienced gamer coming into the game new, it’s just going to be frustrating until you reach endgame (at which point it will be frustrating for different reasons ;) ).

Why realism in games matters

Writers have spent many many column inches discussing immersion in games. That is, if people can agree on what it actually means.

Immersion is some kind of quality that a game can have which makes it easy to lose yourself while playing it. Some people call it flow. Others call it a compelling narrative, or even just a cool IP that players want to be a part of. There’s probably more than one type of immersion – being immersed in game mechanics isn’t quite the same as being immersed in your in-game life/ story.

Compared to that, realism in games gets short shrift. Of course people can’t really cast fireballs, dragons don’t exist and couldn’t fly even if they did, space lasers don’t go pewpew in the blackness of the vacuum of space , and so on.

That’s a misleading definition, though. Realism in games is about being true to a genre, about NPCs acting and developing consistently, and about players being able to work out some values of cause and effect within the game world. Or in other words, a game world can build its own realism and then be consistent within that. And if a game has that sense of realism then the player can use RL logic to figure things out.

Here’s an example. In Dragon Quest 9, I picked up a quest from a cat. It said, “Meow meow meoooooooww!!!” and a quest went into my quest log (much like a real cat actually, although in that case it would have got bored and gone to sleep long before you figured out what it wanted).

So the logic of both the game play (you wouldn’t get a quest that was impossible to figure out) and the fantasy game world (magic exists, why not talk to animals?) says that at some point I’ll be able to learn how to speak to animals and can then come back and talk to the cat again. And now, although there is no quest in my log to say ‘learn how to talk to animals’ I will be looking out for opportunities to do that. In fact, my character just learned how to train as a ranger, and was told that it would help me communicate with monsters. Is a cat a monster? I don’t know if the game thinks so, but clearly I need to try this out.

So the more consistency, genre coherence, and realistic world building in the game, the less a player needs immersion breaking tutorials and quest pointers to figure out how to get to their goals. It’s the realism which gives players a chance to figure out anything on their own, other than by random trial and error. Can you make an educated guess at how to help that NPC, or do you need quest text that says ‘kill ten rats’?

This doesn’t need to be subtle. If I see a wagon at the side of the road and the owner says, “Oh no, my horse has cast a shoe,” then I don’t really need a quest to go and find a blacksmith … do I? I just need a motivation (maybe I need that wagon) – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an immersion-breaking quest reward (why exactly does that wagon driver want to give me a halberd and what was it doing in there anyway?)

I’m not sure though if this type of realism lies in the past or future of MMORPGs. Older games were more likely to try to do this, to create worlds which were more self consistent (even if they failed). Modern ones prefer to make their gameplay very separate, to have long quest lists with explicit goals and rewards. But even so, realism is that quality that makes a world believable. Without it, there might as well be no world at all.

[STO] Look Around You

lookaround

I am still enjoying my slow and rather casual explorations of Star Trek Online. No matter that the rest of my fleet were zooming around in their Tier 2 or 3 ships when we tried some fleet action last weekend, no matter if other people I know have almost reached the level cap, I’m still having fun pottering around in my little Miranda class starship.

One of the interesting things about trying a new MMO, and especially when you are used to something as heavily modded as WoW is that you can’t always rely on addons or quest helpers to let you fly by instrument. In fact, ironically because STO is one of the few settings where it would be totally in character to fly by instrument, I end up doing a lot of looking around me to find quest objectives and crafting nodes (I mean, space anomalies.)

For example, the screenshot above shows my ropey old starting cruiser heading towards an anomaly in space.

lookaround2

I’ve highlighted the anomaly here.

They’re really not hard to spot, but it feels like a reward for keeping your eyes peeled and actually looking at the world around you.

More than just scanning your minimap to find nodes.

I find this setup to be very immersive. I love to feel rewarded for paying attention to the game world, even if it’s just that I can spot the anomalies quickly. I also enjoy that an automatic map or addon won’t do this for me. There is a breakpoint at which it gets frustrating to be looking at a screen of wallpaper trying to spot the little dots which are your quest mobs (this reminds me of pouring dutifully over my little sister’s photos of a cricket match she once saw where she was so far away from the action that all you could see were tiny white dots on a big green field). But despite that, there’s still some fun to be had from spotting things for yourself, even if the game falls over itself to make it easy.

In PvP of course, looking around you is not so much a neat bonus as a way of life. You must pay attention to the surroundings. In high end raiding, the same applies. And of course, shooter style gameplay is all about looking around you, targeting, figuring out how to use cover, and so on.

On Immersion

I have pondered Wolfsheads post about Immersion. And all I can respond with is … that I think gameplay is becoming more immersive, I think story is becoming more immersive, I think character motivation is becoming WAY more immersive.

For example, STO makes it very easy to justify why your character is taking orders from the Federation, and all the missions do actually explain why you are helping with Federation goals. There’s nothing that involves a random quest dude asking you to kill ten rats, it’s all wrapped in more plausible character motivation than that.

In Wrath, I have no doubt at all why my character wants to kill the Lich King (something that was notably lacking in earlier expansions.) And if MMO gameplay is moving towards a twitcher, more shooter style, perhaps that’s also more immersive in its way.

Of course, none of this means that gameworlds can’t have convincing weather patterns, geography, and ecosystem. I like to think that maybe it’s just a matter of time before the different types of immersion all synch up.

Why can’t magic in games feel more magical?

Although I like my warlock alt, playing him is not an immersive experience.

You sit at the back, you hit buttons to cast your spells, but you might as well be firing a gun or throwing stones — the ‘magic’ is just a veneer.

There is no sense of being a student of an ancient mysticism, or studying and researching spells in libraries, or having to work out hand gestures and counterspells on the fly. Casting spells in fantasy games is usually just down to what animations you get. My warlock summons demons, but I don’t feel drawn to the dark side or that I have to make tricky deals with evasive and malicious beings.

Now I realise that players (or their parents) are incredibly sensitive to anything that smacks of real world mysticism in their games. But that isn’t what I am asking for, I just want designers to put some effort into making me feel like an proper fantasy wizard.

By contrast, one of the reasons that I love my warrior in WoW is how hands on the combat feels. Obviously it’s nothing like swinging a real weapon but position and maneuvering does matter, it’s important that she keeps her weapons in good condition (by repairing them), and the speed at which she swings depends on the weapon type. It’s cosmetic too, but warriors are a very visceral class to play, and this is one reason for their popularity. You go Rar and hit things over the head, and that’s the experience the game delivers.

Wizards are part of the D&D setup, but they have to lose so much of their identity to go join an adventuring party with the standard rogue, cleric, and fighter. It isn’t enough just to don the robes and wave the staff.

How could magic feel more magical?

In classic fantasy, wizards are often scholars. Even in Harry Potter, the centre of the magical universe is a school and some of the most powerful wizards are teachers. So I’d like to feel that sense of scholarship, of spending downtime studying or discussing issues with other wizards in libraries. I’d like to collect books, be a repository of lore, and understand more about how the world works than other classes. I’d like to read ancient languages and decipher arcane codes.

I want to build my high tower, and bargain with strange eldritch beings. I want  magical adventures, but also be called on by regular NPCs who want a wizard’s help with something they can’t do alone.  I’d like to feel that I could use magic to help the corn to grow better as well as cast fireballs on people. I want my wizard to feel like a part of her local community, the spooky but well disposed caster in her tower on the edge of the forest.

I also want to see how a community of mages would really work. How might they work together? How might they pick and train apprentices? How might they bicker or fight?

I also want proper magical duels, like Merlin fought in Sword in the Stone.

So what I’d want to see is a more flexible system, where magic could be used in a number of ways. I like the idea of casting spells on the fly, so a puzzle-based system of combat might work quite well. Maybe you’d have to include knowledge based elements based on what you were fighting, then a skill based element for how powerful the spell should be, and possibly collaborative elements if more than one wizard was working together on a spell.

The only game I know which is so focussed on casters is Wizard 101. As a kid-friendly game, it’s not quite what I had in mind. But not a bad start. It’s free to try if anyone is curious. I didn’t really feel that the card system did it for me (it’s  a bad sign when I preferred to  spend more time playing the mana regen minigames than actually doing quests).

It’s surprising to me that I don’t know of more single player games that are designed around a caster as the main character too. Because normally you’d think of those as a better immersive platform. Do designers just assume everyone wants to either hit things or carry a big gun?

Being the big damn hero!

Mal: Well, look at this! Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
Zoe: Big damn heroes, sir!
Mal: Ain’t we just?
Firefly

There’s a great article at The Escapist about  tricks that designers use to make you feel heroic when you’re actually just piloting a bunch of pixels around. This isn’t just about immersion, drama, and well written stories. It’s about how a player can be made to feel as though they’ve just done something difficult and skilful under pressure, when it really didn’t matter what they did. It’s about how to make a cut scene feel interactive.

Is that what we want from games?

Imagine instead a game which monitors a player’s skill and sets up appropriate challenges. So the end boss is hard, but exactly how hard depends on the player’s skill up to that point. Two different players should find that the challenge was equally difficult for both of them. Or maybe the game has infinite levels of increasing difficulty and people just keep playing forever until they get to their limit point. Those games would both let players of different skill levels play them and have fun and feel a sense of achievement when they beat a challenge for the first time. And this is where MMO designers are experimenting with hard mode instances/ encounters.

The interactive cut-scene approach is cheating. It’s like giving daft achievements, the player gets a quick fix of ‘yay, I’m a hero!’ but without having learned anything new about playing the game.

Except that it isn’t really cheating at all. It’s using time honored dramatic techniques, honed by centuries of playwrights, artists, composers, and authors, to manipulate the player’s emotions. I don’t feel cheated when I go to see a great film, opera, or gig. Even though I’ve read a screenwriting book or two and know about the craft and the formulae that go on behind the scenes, I don’t feel manipulated when I watch a great film. I enjoy the hell out of them.

And the same goes for games that give me a good dramatic story. I was sad when Aeris died. I wanted to punch the air when I watched Wrathgate and hear Putress yell, “This is the hour of the forsaken!”.  Now those may have both happened in cut scenes, but I felt involved because I’d been an agent in events leading up to the cut. Designers need to use dramatic techniques to get players to care about the NPC and the world around them because otherwise we simply won’t.

I think Diablo 2 is a really fun game and liked the mad killing parts and constantly getting cool loot, but it was the storytelling and atmospherics that made it stand out as a setting as well as the gameplay. That’s the graphics, the music, the animations … everything that makes a computer game into a computer game.

There is a line between a good atmospheric world and a railroaded plot. But sometimes the railroaded, well crafted, manipulative plot is the memorable experience that the player wants.

Do we want to feel like big damned heroes?

I was thinking about this while playing CoH this morning. A superhero game should give a player lots of opportunities to feel like a hero. But sometimes feeling like a hero means ‘Only you can save the world’ and that’s not going to happen in an MMO. Because there are lots of other players, and they all want to be heroes and save the world too.

Then I was thinking about last night’s Naxx raid. Which was good fun,  and very social — not the tidiest raid we’ve ever run but I know I personally was playing well, and we killed lots of stuff.

I come to the obvious conclusion which is that I don’t really feel like a hero in WoW, except maybe the first time I do a particularly heroic quest. Or maybe when a fight goes bad and I pull something out of the bag and save a wipe. Or when the raid arrives at The Nexus and I get asked to tank the big dragon (tanking a big dragon will always make you feel a bit heroic).

And that perfectly illustrates  different ways in which players can feel heroic in games. Quests are cool and all, but in an MMO, they can’t replace player interaction for sheer levels of emotional investment.

I never feel as though only I can save the world in an MMO. But I may feel as though only I can save my friends.


What is immersion

I’ve been reading a few reviews of Darkfall in other blogs this week. If you don’t follow small/ indie MMOs you may have missed this one — it’s a fantasy MMO which is all about hardcore PvP. There’s a big world to explore, you can stake out pieces of it with your guild, and when you kill people you can loot all their gear.

So here’s a couple of positive reviews from Keen and from Syncaine.

What struck me, and has also struck me with various reviews I have read about EVE, is how immersed the players were in the game. Something about full-on hardcore PvP makes the experience more immersive for people.

Having real players to fight, a stake in the game world, and being constantly on your guard adds up to more of an emotional rollercoaster. The buy in from players is higher. They care more. And because both you and your opponent do care about the outcome of a fight, it makes it more meaningful.

So what’s immersion all about

When gamers talk about immersion they can mean several things. How ‘real’ the game world feels to them, how easy it is to relate to their character, how exciting and emotional a game experience they had.

There are two main types of player who care deeply about immersion. Hardcore PvPers … and roleplayers. It’s kind of ironic because usually those two types don’t see eye to eye and don’t even like each other; with all due apologies to any roleplayers out there who do relish hardcore PvP. Although they favour immersion for different reasons (RPers want to experience a living breathing world, PvPers want to feed on your tears), it is an important part of a game’s appeal.

Immersion is what makes a game experience memorable, and it is all about having an emotional connection with your character and the (virtual) world in which it lives.

And as to why these two groups of players experience most immersion:

  • Fighting other players is always more immersive than fighting NPCs. No one really cares about the NPCs, they’re like animatronic models, And you know they say the same thing to everyone. Players on the other hand are very real. When they smack talk to you, it’s meant for YOU.
  • Good RPers can roleplay past all the inconsistencies in lore, the robotic NPCs, and the unimmersive mechanics. They can create a living breathing world for themselves despite all the obstacles in the way.

This has all been done before

Unsurprisingly, pen and paper RPGs faced this problem of immersion many years ago. Because there is NOTHING immersive about sitting around a table and rolling dice. Absolutely nothing at all.

Some of the ideas people have used:

  • Emphasis on good interactive storytelling. Draw people into the story by making the story much more about their characters and using their backstories.
  • Mechanics which make it easier for players to control parts of the story. Maybe you can decide when you want your character to be lucky or unlucky. Maybe you can suggest that an NPC has a personal connection with your character and have the GM roll with it.

Both of these are all about building a framework in which players have more of an emotional stake in the game.

But more interestingly from a design point of view, some of the smaller indie games get more experimental with game mechanics. Instead of having to fight against  the mechanics to feel immersion, the mechanics encourage it.

One of the oldest and best well known examples of this is Call of Cthulhu’s sanity points. Cthulhu, if you don’t know it, is based on H P Lovecraft’s horror stories. In these stories, it’s very common that when people learn more about the eldritch  horrors that threaten them, they go mad.

In the game, you have to balance your desire to learn about whatever you are investigating with your need to  keep your sanity. Discovering anything about the Mythos is often accompanied by a SAN loss. And eventually, you can lose your character to insanity (traditionally often accompanied by wigging out on your friends and trying to shoot them but that might just have been our games).

What it meant was that people actually cared about their sanity, and the danger of discovering too much of that which should not be known was always on the players’ minds.

A couple of other more modern examples:

Dogs in the Vineyard (a Western themed game. Players are lawmen in the Midwest. Read the ‘actual play’ links on the site to get a feel for how it works)

My Life with Master (hammer house of horror game. Players are ‘Igors’ in service to some evil overlord. The mechanics here are all about telling melodramatic, tragic stories, and they work very very well.)

So why can’t MMOs get more immersive?

I think it’s about time MMO devs stopped (re)designing MUDs. MUD combat in particular is usually dire. Here is a typical example.

kill monster

kill monster

kill monster

And you can keep on with that until the monster dies.

MMO combat is a lot better than this. You can move around, use lots of different abilities with appropriate graphical effects. But  circle strafing is not really a much better representation of combat than typing ‘kill monster’. It may be fun in its own circle-strafey way, but it’s a mechanic that gets in the way of immersion.

I’d like to see more games where the mechanics are designed around the game world and the themes which that game in particular is all about. I’d like to see games where I can feel more than excitement at a good kill or glumness after a bad session.

Why not have a Vampire game where you have to guard your humanity like a hawk and try not to give into the monster inside?

After all, why shouldn’t we have a game based on Georgian Romance Novels which is all about melodrama, romance, social climbing, and politics? And if we do, ‘combat’ better not be about circle strafing.

It’s easy to blame other players for ruining immersion. Hardcore PvPers show us one way out of that – harness other players to help immersion instead. More creative mechanics is another.

Are you more than your talent tree?

Van Hemlock is taking stock of where he stands in different MMOs at the moment, and comments that he feels an oddly split identity from switching between so many online alter egos.

Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time running pen and paper RPGs (and switching from playing one NPC to the next a lot) but I don’t have that particular issue. On the other hand, I did respec my warrior a couple of times last week and there was a definite cognitive disconnect. So often in a game, and in WoW particularly, we identify ourselves by our class AND our spec. And it’s how other friends identify us also.

So if I say, ‘I’m a protection warrior’ then people make a very different set of assumptions than if I say, ‘I’m a dps warrior.’ The first is a tank spec, it’s the most traditional old-school tanking spec in the game. People make a lot of assumptions about protection warriors — the usual tanking ones (is a protective type, has an ego, likes to lead, is trustworthy, is a team player, bitches at healers) and some extra warrior ones (whines about other classes tanking, expects special treatment, always demands to be main tank, has a lot of tanking experience). It’s very easy to take on that identity and run with it.

When I’m tanking specced, I focus on tanking issues and gear. My guild and friends think of me as ‘a protection warrior’. And that means more than simply what spec my character is at the moment. It’s practically a way of life. For some people, it IS a way of life (sadly I don’t have a picture of my mate’s car which has MNTNK on its custom numberplate).

And then when I respec, it confuses people. Heck, I get cognitive dissonance too. I was finding that I just threw my tanking priorities out of the window – suddenly tanking gear was offspec for me but I was trying to persuade raid leaders that they should let me bid primary for dps stuff. Even though we all knew there was a good chance I’d be back tanking the next week.

It wasn’t as if Spinks was a different character to me, but I switched focus on her when I respecced. It didn’t really make sense, what she was is a tank who’d respecced to dps one week when asked. But that wasn’t how I felt.

I don’t know if other classes feel so strongly tied up in their talent trees or if it is just the hybrids/ role switchers? Do arcane mages carry a totally different set of character identifiers  to frost or fire mages? I don’t really know. Maybe they do to other mages.

I do know that respeccing a lot does my head in. More than switching between games. When you log into a different game, there are lots of ‘props’ to help you get into your role. The login screen, the music, the people in chat channels, the graphics, the layout … everything that immerses you into a game also sends signals as a player to remind you of what you were doing last time you logged in.

But when you respec in a game, there aren’t any cues. Everything is exactly the same, except that everything has changed. And for people who identify by their talent trees, identity is a shifting target.

5 reasons we love in-game festivals

  1. New Content. It’s something new to do that wasn’t there yesterday.
  2. Lore and Immersion. A fantasy culture feels more believable if it has its own customs and festivals. So it’s important that we know the history of the festival and of any local customs that we’re invited to honour. And also that the holiday fits with the feel of the game.
  3. Mirroring real world festivals. Sounds like the opposite of the previous reason but this is why so many games have special festivals around Christmas. Players are celebrating in real life, and it gives us a kick to be able to celebrate in game too. This can fall flat in a multi-cultural environment — a game that celebrated American Independence Day would leave the non-Americans feeling that the game simply wasn’t aimed at them.
  4. More activity in game. Smart designers have learned that an in game festival can help point players at content in game (such as instances, PvP, etc) which means more people around for everyone to group with.
  5. They are time limited. SALE ! SALE ! ONE DAY ONLY ! We love time limited events that only happen for a few days every year. It adds to the air of exclusiveness and excitement if you know there’s only a brief period in which you can get your new shiny title/mount/whatever.

Warcraft is a gonzo game so their events veer more towards mirroring RL than establishing a coherent in game culture (and I’m putting that kindly — Hello Olympic Event? WTF??!!). But in a game like LOTRO, the events really do enhance the organic feeling of the game world.

I never could figure out events in City of Heroes, they all seem very grindy. But since it’s a game that is set in a modern day city, it’s very easy for them to mirror real world holidays and they don’t really need to establish a fantasy culture.

Warhammer, by comparison, is more of a gamist design than an immersive world but they do draw on the rich Warhammer lore to set the scene for their holidays.  I liked the Warhammer holidays that I’ve seen. They get people interested and out there, encourage more PvP, and have some cool lore attached. You can’t really ask more.

Note: I’ve not played EQ2 or Guild Wars, I know they have holidays also but not much about them. I’d be interested to know more about how those fit in and how fun they are?

Same as we did last year

But holiday events are repetitive, which is true in real life too, it’s the whole point. Of course they’re the same every year, that’s what local customs are all about.

If you’ve been playing a MMO for more than a year, this means you’ll  see the same events come round again. This isn’t a bad thing per se, it just means that the amount of play you get from a holiday may be on diminishing returns.

I wouldn’t say I get bored of holidays, I look forwards to my favourite ones and I try to log onto games when they are on. So in that sense, they’re a huge success for me. And opening presents never gets old.

But I’d love to see more support for player-run holidays. In DaoC, we used to have annual fairs and the GMs would help decorate the fairground on our server. Just our server, because we had the in game organisation that ran the fairs and asked them for help. And our server felt as if it had its own culture. Not one that was just created by developers and slapped on top of it. (Well, we had that too.)

In the drive to more user created content, this is the sort of event I’d like more support for. Holidays run by the people, for the people! And each server it’s own organic society.