Do you play evil characters in RPGs?

The problem of evil has vexed philosophers for centuries. But fortunately, we now have a solution! I call it Sim Evil, or alternatively, “What happens if I pick the evil options in RPGs?” You can practice being evil in your own little world and see what happens.

And the answer is … nothing much really. You still get to save the world/ grow the kingdom/ max out your gold in the auction house and you probably also get all the best lines. Yet, some of us still are reluctant to play as evil in games, even when it may be advantageous and certainly has no drawbacks.

With that in mind, I love the way Bioware has moved away from good/evil and towards diplomatic/ blunt/ sarcastic on their choice wheel in Dragon Age 2. You can still do plenty of evil things, such as knifing random criminals personally instead of turning them over to the town guard for justice (note: this would probably be considered evil if more people did it iRL, in games it’s par for the course.) Yet your capacity for being a real evil mastermind is very limited – it’s more of an on rails game than a city simulation. You can’t just decide to leave the mages and templars to murder each other while you go off and become a crime lord/ lady. There are limits on how good you could be also, no pacifism in computer RPGs!

But there are genre conventions to be observed. And that’s genuinely more important for good storytelling than unlimited character options.

So imagine my new kingdom in Sims Medieval  (once I had gotten some help from the twitterati in doing the first tutorial quest, thanks all!). As soon as I decided that I’d go with an evil sorceress-type queen, things suddenly got far more interesting.

Her traits are Vain, Scholarly and (naturally) Evil. Her throneroom is decorated in an evilly magic way. When she isn’t busy, she goes to the castle library to read maniacal books which seem to mostly be about tentacled monsters (I missed a trick in not naming my kingdom Innsmouth, really). And she is always extremely horrible to the good priest.

If there was any justice or proper storytelling in the game, the good priest would be constantly warning her about her evil ways and eventually a huge seamonster would probably come and eat her, and drown her kingdom. But because it’s a computer game, none of that will happen and she’ll probably be really successful.

But in my mind, the good priest will be right in the end. I like playing evil characters, but that doesn’t mean I always want them to win.

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.

Dragon Quest IX and some musings on wandering monsters

Dragon Quest IX arrived on my DS this weekend, so if the posts this week are a little slow, you can blame the slimes. I have barely had a chance to scratch the surface of this game but I already love it dearly.

Twitter (140 word) review so far: DQ9 will make RPG fans very very happy. It’s a single player MMO in a box. Slimes adorable. Kill them all.

Since I really can’t write a proper review yet, here is one from The Telegraph. (Insert whine about the difficulty of getting screenshots from a DS unless you are a media outlet who get a special cable.)

The game starts with you doing some customising of your character – you can pick hairstyle and colour, eyes, a face, a gender and a name. Then you are dropped into one of the prettiest little prologues I’ve seen in any game ever. You are a Celestrian (this involves wings and a halo) and the guardian angel of a sweet little village. Your job is to make the villagers happy and keep them safe, even in the afterlife. This is one of the best in game motivations I have ever seen for nudging you to accept lots of random quests from people.

And DQ continues to do a great job with modernising the whole notion of quests. Later on you will be guilt tripped into helping some people, and pointed towards which quests are optional and can be happily ignored. There will be classes to choose from, companions to pick up (and customise), gear to collect and equip, skill points to spend, turn based combat, dungeons and open world areas to explore and (many many) monsters to slay.

There is also the possibility of having other players in your party via wifi, and your character can even learn some emotes to allow rudimentary conversation if you do this.

This is a game which, like Torchlight, just makes me happy when I am playing it. Maybe it’s the mixture of the old school RPG (wander around, kill things and take their stuff, level up), the JRPG storyline (you are a little angel that fell out of heaven and now you have to wander the world and help people), the gorgeous DS graphics, gameplay, and beating up slimes – but I’m having a great time with this one. Recommended to any RPG fans who own a DS.

Also, we need more games which let you play a martial artist who fights with a fan.

Dragon Quest and the numbers game

Apparently (according to wikipedia) DQ9 had 2 million pre-orders when it went live in Japan. 2 million pre-orders. And that’s just in Japan.

It’s pretty much guaranteed to break more records when the western numbers are in too.

The cult of the wandering monster

One of the other interesting notes from wikipedia was that this is the first Dragon Quest game in which you can actually see monsters in the open world before you attack them. It was very much a trope of JRPG (and some regular RPG also) that you would wander around the game world and every so often the game would decide, “Ah, time for a fight” and would launch you into a random fight.

This came straight from D&D, which had wandering monster tables on which the DM could roll if players looked bored. The original idea of the wandering monsters was that a DM could set up two types of fight. There would be static fights with mobs that had been designed into the scenario in advance, and there would also be the possibility for random encounters.

The wandering monster was the most simple of all random encounters. “Roll D10 to see what attacks you.” The aim was to make travelling through the world more interesting, because whilst fantasy epics do involve a lot of travel, it’s not very interesting to RP through it step by step. So instead, travel was modelled as some descriptions of the landscape, punctuated by brief encounters with wandering monsters.

(AD&D also, infamously, had a wandering streetwalker table for when players were exploring cities, “Roll d10 to see if you encounter a wanton wench, a strumpet, a call girl, a pimp, etc.” Even at the time we thought this was very silly.)

Later, scenarios evolved more interesting types of random encounter. It didn’t have to just be a random rust monster that wandered into camp, it might be some brief but amusing encounter (a band of travelling players need help to put on a show, etc.), or even the seed of a mini-adventure that players could choose to follow up or not. Yet in computer RPGs, the wandering monster had the great bonus of being very easy to code so it remained popular.

One of the great bonuses of MMOs, with their persistent immersive worlds, is that players could always expect to see monsters wandering the world before they attacked. There would be no ‘wandering monsters’ coming out of nowhere – although WoW experimented with very large wanderers such as the Fel Reaver, even they could be seen from a distance.

One of the exciting things about games like Warhammer Online and  Guild Wars 2 is that their public quests look to be reviving the notion of the random encounter, quests that just happen in the world as you wander through it and with which you can get involved.

Class Consciousness: The Cult of the Splat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cult of the Hunter, and other splats

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selling to the Splats

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

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

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

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

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

Walking in a linking wonderland

Here are some of the posts and threads that caught my eye over the last couple of weeks.

  1. Kurt Vonnegut explains why people become drama queens
  2. tankspot dares to ask, “Has tanking made you mean?” Obviously not in my case, and I’ll boot anyone who disagrees.
  3. Tobold has an interesting theory about the different players who are attracted to different payment models. If all the players who really want games to be free go with free to play then how can that model make money? Similarly, if all the hardcore 40 hours a week guys flock to subscription models which depend on having lots of casual players, can those thrive too?
  4. Cassandri at HoTs and DoTs wants to know how much you’d pay for a battered hilt (leads to a quest which results in the best non raiding weapon in WoW). Does knowing that it has a high value affect whether you’d roll need on it?
  5. We get a lot of gaming genre blending in CRPGs. Some puzzle solving, squad based combat, exploring, maybe even FPS segments. Rampant Coypte wonders if players enjoy the mix of genres. For me, only if I like BOTH genres. I never forgave Prince of Persia for including stupid fighty bits when I just wanted a platform game.
  6. Mike Schramm has an intriguing post on asking whether Facebook might count as an MMO. After all, ‘players’ have avatars, homes, and can interact with others virtually. This is also his last week on so good luck to him in the future, I know I’ve enjoyed his writing.
  7. Larisa has some thoughts on how to take command over the random PUG. I’m hoping she will later address the question of whether or not anyone should be taking command.
  8. Hawley loves healers and says we’ll all miss them when they’re gone. He also wonders about Blizzard’s decision not to have a crowd control class; funnily enough I remember at the time thinking that it was inspired to spread the crowd control between different classes, but it’s true that in practice they weren’t all treated as equal.
  9. Jason Henniger writes the ultimate dear john letter, “Nyarlahotep, I’m breaking up with you.”
  10. Megan at Forbearance and the Drama Mammas (sorry but that column name makes me want to spit nails) at both think that everyone should chill and welcome the poorly performing players into PUGs.