Games that are fun even when you’re not good at them

The Brainy Gamer was taken by surprise by The Sims 3. He hadn’t expected to enjoy it, but was entranced by the way the game lets you define your own goals and tell stories (stories with limited scope are still stories). I haven’t played Sims 3 extensively — I tried it at my sister’s place and thought it was cool but not cool enough for me to pay full price — but one of the things that struck me about the game is that even if you failed totally to meet any goals that you had for your characters, it could still be highly entertaining.

In the link above, TBG describes a rather sad little story that winds up with social services (in the game) stepping in to look after his character’s baby. That’s an absolutely gut wrenching experience for everyone involved if it was a real life incident. That a game can so strongly (and unexpectedly) evoke some of the same feelings is surprisingly cool. The fact that it happened because the player got distracted and didn’t click ‘feed  baby’ often enough takes a back seat, because ‘neglect’ is one of the reasons why social services iRL might also have to step in.

Although I haven’t really investigated The Sims, I’ve enjoyed playing simulation games a lot whether or not I really beat the game. I spent many happy hours on various versions of Civilisation (Civ IV still available for £5/$5 at Direct2drive for the next two weeks, btw) without ever getting much above 25% — I think I’m insufficiently aggressive in game to score high, but I get to Alpha Centauri anyway. So even though I may be rubbish as a player, my civilisation survives and goes to the stars!

One of the appeals of a simulation game is being able to pick your own win conditions and see the game’s score as an optional extra. Another is being able to see your civilisation/ character grow, even if that means it eventually is conquered and dies out. And yet another is the sense that your civilisation/ character takes on a personality of its own, shaped by decisions made by the player but not completely controlled by them.

When we talk about the ease or difficulty of an MMO, it’s easy to put the simulation side of the game on the backburner. But the sim (or sandbox) side of the game is one of the big appeals. The whole point of an MMO is that you progress your character and/or faction somehow and see what happens to it. This is really what people are getting at when they ask for more simulation in MMOs, not that they particularly want rag doll physics or realistic blood spatters. They are asking for a world where actions that are under the player’s control lead to consequences that may or may not be expected.

The most successful sandbox games are the ones where people are explicitly able to pick their own goals and objectives. This has always been one of the great appeals of EVE, that you can choose whether you want to build a business empire, be a pirate, join a huge corps and fight for territory, or whatever else you want. The other side to the game is that actions have consequences.

But PvP is often not as fun or as interesting for the loser as it is for the winner. If I had to play Civilisation competitively against a really good opponent, I’d be wiped out before I had a chance to get to the fun parts. My strategy has nothing to do with competition because I just like seeing how quickly I can get the good technology and what I can do with it (once an engineer, always an engineer).

Having multiple players in a game who are not personal friends becomes competitive, even if they all are on the same team. People constantly compare themselves with each other, even if they aren’t actually PvPing. That’s not a bad thing, people like to compete in different ways.

But even though I’m not interested in no holds barred PvP style simulations, I’d still like to see more options for players to create their own goals in a living world. Where even doing something suboptimal could lead to interesting and fun gameplay. I’d like to see devs stop being afraid of emergent gameplay, and less railroading and being nudged towards the raid boss of the week just because it’s there. I’d like more games where even if you don’t reach your goal, you can be rewarded by finding out what happened.

Are there any games that you like even though you aren’t good at them?

Twitter Man, thank goodness you came!

Syp got all snarky yesterday about plans in Champions Online to introduce in-game tweeting (I know this works from being spammed a bit in twitter by beta testers already 🙂 ).

I have no idea at all why I’d want to twitter from a MMO. I usually play in windowed mode anyway so if I wanted to twitter I’d just do it. And even if I did I don’t understand why I’d want to broadcast only and not receive. But that isn’t the point. Maybe someone else will find something cool to do with that functionality.

So often devs try to guide players by holding their hands every single step of the way in an MMO. Thou shalt level by killing 10 boars. Thou shalt do PvP on Tuesday mornings and Friday afternoons. Thou shalt raid, whether thou likest it or not. Thou shalt have thy weekly rant at Blizzard for not putting a defence trinket on the badge vendor. And so on.

The games where this is less common are called sandbox games. And a sandbox is a place where kids get to play however they want, within the limits of the box.

More freedom isn’t a bad thing for players. Devs putting cool stuff into the games just because they’re cool isn’t a bad thing either. I like the notion that sometimes we can get off the tour bus and just play with our toys. Throwing the players some cool stuff to play with, just because, isn’t a bad thing.

And it made me look again at Champions Online. If they’re willing to add random cool functionality just because they can, and trust players to find something to do with it, what else might they be willing to do? That type of thinking appeals to me.

(Note: If you want to follow me on twitter, I’m on as @copperbird )

Why do villains get the best plots?

Have you ever noticed how in storytelling/ RPG types of games, it’s always the villains who have the coolest plots?

They must have spent years recruiting minions, devising and populating huge dungeons or castles, building up networks of spies, and plotting over their careful spreadsheets. We talk about evil genius for a reason. Even though the plan probably has a fatal flaw, it takes a certain amount of dedicated effort and creativity to put it into practice.

Not only that, but any great villain has an actual goal. Not just ‘defeat the good guys’ or ‘get more xp’ but a real honest-to-goodness goal. Something that they genuinely want to accomplish in the world. It’s probably connected with money and/or power and the reason that they’re a villain is because they’ve picked an unconventional route with which to get it. Revenge is another great motive. Being mad (while overused in WoW) is not actually a motive in itself, although it may mean the villain picks goals for illogical reason. And any memorable villain probably has a dose of megalomania too.

As heroes, we’re usually reactive. We follow clues. We find out more and more about the Big Bad and what they are planning. And when we finally decide to thwart them, it usually involves the sophisticated ‘CHAAAARGE’ tactic. Even when our tactic is a little more interesting, it’s because we’re following some other NPC’s suggestion.

More to the point, our character’s goals aren’t always the same as the player’s goals. The player may want to socialise, to progress their character in specific ways, to get more xp, to get more gold, and so on. As soon as we talk about our characters’ goals in game, we’re roleplaying (ie. “what would my character want?”) and that’s simply not why most players play.

Not that it matters because even if your character does have goals, it’s quite possible that the game won’t allow you to pursue them anyway. Let’s think about that.

The only way you can fulfil In Character goals in an MMO is if you (ie. the player) pick it very carefully. If my new Death Knight wants nothing more to do with the Scourge and seeks only to retire quietly to a cabin in the woods I can do it, but only if I stop actually playing the game. If my character has a grudge against some particular NPC and wants to plot against them politically, it’s not going to happen unless it’s programmed into the game, in which case everyone else will do it too.

Even in a more sandbox type of game like EVE, there are some valid in character goals which simply aren’t possible in the game because they’d involve NPCs or NPC factions. If you wanted to take over one of the NPC factions for example, you simply can’t do it.

So if you enjoy setting and achieving goals in these kinds of games, you simply have to narrow your scope. I think this is why roleplaying in MMOs is so limiting. And sometimes very frustrating.

The best MMOs are set in fascinating worlds, and yet we’re so limited in how we can interact with the setting.

When other players are involved, the gloves come off

As soon as you are plotting with or against actual players, things get much more interesting. On the downside: they’re players so will be frustrating, anti-immersive, unpredictable, and unreliable. On the upside: the game won’t be getting in your way any more.

If you want to plot politically against your guild leader (don’t ask me why!) then you can go ahead and start that whispering campaign. If you want to beat the bank, you’re competing against other real players in the economy and there won’t be a helpful NPC there to tell you their cunning plan that somehow involves disguising yourself as a cardboard tree.

What if you don’t have goals? And this, to me, is where a lot of games fall down. Characters should have goals in games. Players should also. And maybe, just maybe, players could be given a bit more assistance in setting goals appropriate to their preferred playing style.

Imagine a game where when you create your character you get to pick some details about their background and history and what sorts of goals or play you are interested in as a player. You might be asked whether you’re more interested in playing good or evil. You might be asked if you prefer to be part of a faction or a solo operative. You might be asked whether you’re interested in romantic types of plot or not. Whether you’re interested in being involved in politics. Whether you’re interested in being a merchant.

And although these views could change in game, you could start with a set of game defined goals to help direct your play.

It sounds odd, but it’s how we go about running freeform LARPs. In a game like that (which may run from a few hours to a whole weekend) all the characters are pre-written. They have detailed backstories and many of them have reasons (written into the background) to need to interact with each other.

Players are given questionnaires to fill in to help the organisers assign them to a character. When you get your character sheet, it will have some background information and also a section marked ‘Character Goals’. And a well written game will give you a mixture of easy and more difficult goals. You aren’t marked on them. It’s accepted that it’s actually impossible for everyone to fulfil all their goals because some are written to be mutually exclusive.

Computer games: they have limits

A game run by and with real people will always be more flexible in terms of what you can do. In a pen and paper RPG, you can do anything that you convince the GM to let you try. No computer game will ever reach that level of simulation.

But some kinds of games do offer more flexibility. In a RTS you have a lot of freedom as to what tactics you choose to use. Maybe you’ll never be a supervillain but you have minions, you can build structures, you can try to funnel your enemy tactically. It’s why we call them strategy games — the game is all about working out your strategy.

In a storytelling RPG, you have very little flexibility. You follow the story. Some games may offer more options but you’re never going to control your side’s strategy or be able to implement some really off-beat plan. If you sign up for the story, it’s assumed you’ll be along for the ride.

Part of the appeal of sandbox games like EVE is that there are real players involved in each faction. So the gameplay is a lot more flexible than a storytelling game, but the actual story may not be as good. If you’re a minor peon in a big corporation, you may never find out what actually happened in that corporate takeover. Your whole game world may have changed and you will never find out why. No other player is required to tell you. There won’t be a helpful NPC explaining exactly why the defias got kicked out of Stormwind. You just have to go.

So there’s always going to be some give and take. If you want every player to have total freedom to set their own goals, your personal story and experience may be less interesting in the game. It certainly isn’t guaranteed to be good. If you want the game to guarantee you an exciting story then you’ll have to go with the goals they set.

But MMOs are the eat-all-you-can buffet of the gaming world. Part of the appeal is that there are lots of different things you can do, lots of different types of gaming available in the world.

I wonder if somewhere in the mix there’s room for the freeform LARP style of character assignment. To give players some forward momentum and help them set goals that suit their style of play.

Do you play like Alice, Dorothy, or Wendy?

alice-lewis-carroll (If you answered ‘tinkerbelle’ then take a well-deserved time out at Dorn’s fabulous blog.)

If you have ever taken the test that classifies players as socialisers, killers, achievers and/or explorers in MMOs (I’m ESKA, by the way) then you’ll be familiar with Dr Richard Bartle’s work.

We know that one of the big appeals of MUDs and MMOs is that they support a lot of different types of play. So there’s no reason why an achiever and a socialiser can’t happily play in the same game, even though they may not want to play together.  And this paper is really the seminal work in starting to classify those different types.

But the problem with this model from my point of view is that it dates from about 5 years BWE (Before the WoW Era). The virtual worlds he was observing were MUDs, or very closely based on MUDs. Trends in game design have changed. And there are some new emergent types of play that simply weren’t big in the MUD days (or  in the types of MUDs he was considering).

MUDs, for example, were never well known for their deep and immersive storytelling narratives. MMOs may have a long way to go, but with the rise of quest based levelling, storytelling is here to stay. Also although you could group in MUDs, I don’t remember team-based play being quite the cornerstone that it is in many MMOs today. Raiding in WoW has more in common with team based games like Team Fortress or Settlers than it does with a Diku MUD. (No one would ever had joined a MUD and asked immediately which endgame guilds were recruiting or what classes they most needed.)

So the fact that Bartle’s categories don’t include the narrative-seeking player or the team player just shows how there are new emergent playstyles coming alongside.

So I was intrigued to read in the Virtual Cultures blog about his keynote speech to the Indie Multiplayer Games Conference (via Massively) about ways in which players approach modern games. And here he’s tackling one of the big issues which is the divergence of sandbox games (like EVE or Darkfall) and ‘theme park’ games (like WoW and LOTRO).

I’d been thinking about this anyway, since Averaen commented on my post this week on virtual hangouts that s/he thought it was a mistake to treat WoW and similar MMOs as if they were virtual worlds. I don’t really agree; if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then maybe … just maybe… it could be some odd breed of duck. And WoW is certainly a massive persistent virtual world, it’s contiguous (you can fly from one end to the other without zoning), it has consistent-ish storylines, it has cities and villages, it has hangouts and places where players can buy food and drink, it has auction houses and a working economy. How can it NOT be a virtual world?

Anyway, getting back to Dr Bartle. In his keynote he picked up on three different types of play experiences in virtual worlds, using a metaphor of heroines from children’s stories.

  • Alice: the explorer, who wants to see things that are “curiouser and curiouser”
  • Dorothy: who wants to get to the end of the yellow brick road (ie. follow the railroad)
  • Wendy: the content creator, who wants to tell stories for her brothers and the other lost boys

He’s using the play types to describe different types of world, rather than just different players (eg. Alice represents sandbox games, Dorothy represents theme-park, quest heavy games, etc). He also notes that MMOs have been on a divergent path, with social and game oriented MMOs tending to separate. But that this is a bad trend because game-oriented MMOs become repetitive and meaningless, and social MMOs become impenetrable and unfocussed. I can’t speak much for the latter but we know that the former is definitely true. What does it even mean for a game to not have an end?

Bartle argues that a good MMO/ virtual world should offer opportunities for all of these playstyles. And NOW we’re talking about playing styles I can more easily identify with. Because I enjoy all of these things in games. And in an era where games seem to be becoming more and more focussed, it’s a call to arms that I hope someone will hear.

Because dammit, that’s the game /I/ want to play.

Is it a good idea to delay burnout?

In the same vein as ‘slow food’ , ‘slow travel’ etc there is a philosophy of  ‘slow gaming’.

This is all about getting out of the rat race, playing at your own pace, and taking time to smell the flowers and enjoy the scenery. And adherents to the slow gaming view of life often claim that playing in this way delays the dreaded burnout.

I’m a  big believer that one of the strengths of MMOs is that there are lots of different ways for people to enjoy the same game, and the key to having fun is to either cut a solo swathe or find other people who want to play the game in the same way that you do.

So in theory I’m all in favour of ‘slow gaming’ if that’s what people want to do. In practice, I’ve seen people in game get up on their high horse about how pointless the endgame grind can be and how much better they are for delaying it for as long as possible.

This I find stranger. Yes the endgame grind in any game can be pointless and dull (the clue is in the word ‘grind’). If you find it pointless and dull you can go find something more fun to do. There are other games. There are other hobbies. Although some people do get addicted to MMOs, it’s not actually compulsary.

I do think people find it a wrench to stop playing an MMO when they’re no longer having fun. There are social ties, it’s become a part of your life. In a sense you’re walking away from a social circle and hobby all in one. This is really not a dilemma that anyone faces with single player games. But if you are avoiding the endgame then you’re less likely to be in a tight social circle in the first place since that is where all the scheduling and team play is focussed.

So it’s one thing to take your time, play casually, and enjoy the levelling game at your own pace. It’s quite another to pathologically avoid the endgame by finding increasingly eccentric timesinks and goals for yourself that don’t involve xp. I don’t mean that Big Brother needs you to level up and take your place at the millstone of endgame, comrade. Just that going out of your way to avoid it because ‘omg endgame!!11!!!’ isn’t necessarily better.

Or is it?

This is the game that never ends

If you’re enjoying the game and the virtual world, maybe you just don’t want it to ever end. The real world keeps going until you die, after all (presumably it keeps going afterwards also but that’s more of a philosophical question).

Most MMOs are heavily focussed these days. You start at low level, you explore and quest and meet people and do things and eventually get to high level. Then you do whatever people do at high level.

But if what you really wanted was a sandbox virtual world, this makes no sense. And particularly for games with a strong raiding theme, the chances of having to march to someone else’s schedule at endgame if you want to do all those raiding things are very high. Slow gaming is a rebellion against this, but in a game that’s not really set up to support it.

It’s also a lonely route. The majority of players will tend to go with the flow of the game. They won’t all race to max level, but they also won’t want to go out of their way to avoid levelling. They will not understand the slow gamer, who seems to be playing a different game for no good reason.

So I end up asking myself, is slow gaming just better suited to single player games? The answer may be yes –but it’s not a good answer if what players want is the social contact of an MMO.

Delaying Burnout

So I’m coming around to my actual main point here. Is there any point deliberately delaying burnout? Maybe it’s better to just play at whatever pace best suits you and if you feel bored or burned out … just stop. Go do something else. Take a break or move on.

So if that means you speed through content, run your own guild, spend 6 months being hyperactive and then burn out, then do it. Just when you do burn out, don’t torture yourself. It’s a game, not a job.

But burnout is miserable and frustrating, and we like to avoid those kinds of experiences. And although it may be inevitable in games, MMOs offer the illusion of ‘the game that never ends’ so if you can just avoid burning out, maybe you really could keep playing the same game until the day it closes up shop.

I think the lure of the virtual world that never ends is very strong. And it’s based on the notion that everything we do in game is persistent (even though in practice this may just mean until the next patch, if not sooner) that we invest so much effort into progressing our characters.

So I do wonder if slow playing, and any other methods we use to avoid burnout and find ways to make a game more fun for ourselves and others when deep down we know that we are already bored, are ways to try to make the game we WANT out of the game we HAVE.

There’s such a demand for a good sandbox game. I wonder if we will ever see one again.

Are you living in a (sand)box?

One of the thrills for me of logging into my first MMO was the feeling that I had a huge world to wander around in, full of places to go,  people to meet, mobs to kill, and adventures to be had. I’d played tabletop RPGs but actually walking around a real (if virtual) world was a different ballgame from peering at a lovingly hand drawn map on the living room table. I didn’t have to ask the GMs permission to look inside an old tower or over the top of a mountain, I could just go and look for myself.

And along the way, anything could happen.

There are a lot of single player games which successfully give that ‘wide open world’ feeling. GTA and Fallout do it particularly well. I love those too. But an MMO is a world on a larger scale, and full of other (real) people to interact with, as if they were also denizens of that world. I come from a RP background, I was awed at the prospect that other players would bring the world to life … which they kind of do, although maybe not quite how I imagined.

I had played and staffed MU* (MUDSs/MUSHes/etc), which could be very sandbox affairs. We had player run organisations, player run criminals and baddies to fight, player organised mass destruction, and so on. MMOs have tended to be not so much, with the honorable exceptions of EVE and Tale in the Desert, in their own different ways.

In practice, the problem with player run organisations is that they are run by players. There’s no guarantee that a player run entity will be looking out for YOUR entertainment. The world can be changed around you and it might not be in ways you would like. Maybe your character even ends up on the wrong side of a fight you knew nothing about and gets killed. I’ve been killed for crazy, trivial reasons in MUSHes and it was not particularly fun. (Admittedly I have also killed other characters and that was more fun.) And in a roleplaying game you don’t just respawn, because your character is dead. You reroll.

And yet, players long for the wide open world full of choices and the feel of the sandbox. I think one of the reasons that Wrath has been so staggeringly popular is that Blizzard have learned a few tricks for making the game world feel sandboxy than it really is.

Choices? Or were you just drawn this way?

I wrote a piece a couple of months back on BoG about the Death Knight starting quests. I had just completed them for the first time but one quest in the chain really stood out for me. It was the section of the story where your character is supposed to start questioning its loyalties and death knight-ness.

This is important because the Death Knight starting quest chains tell a story arc. And it’s a strong one. It is the story of a character in service to an evil overlord who rebels and strikes out on their own, seeking revenge. At no point in this storyline does the player actually get to make any choices. You either do the quest or you don’t (and you do, because you want to eventually get out of the starting zone, even aside from the xp and shiny quest reward gear).

In modern MMOs, the levelling game has become a series of quest arcs. Some games do it better than others. Warhammer actually has very well written and engaging quests, on the whole. LOTRO can be patchy (hello boring lone lands quests that everyone hates) but when it is on form, it is absolutely stunning. Both of those games make good use of their game worlds and lore to draw players in.

Blizzard has always done the levelling side of WoW well, it’s the big hook that drew players in right from the start. But the big gotcha of Wrath is that they have surpassed pretty much every other game in the market with their questing game right now. The writing is sharp and witty, the storytelling is solid and the quests themselves have a good mixture of fun things to do (this is an area where other MMOs tend to fall down in comparison).

But the downside of quests, however great the storylines, is that the player ultimately has only one choice. Do the quest or don’t do it. In a game where the characters are well drawn and well defined, it isn’t much of an issue. In LOTRO it is very clear that your motives are to fight the shadow and help the fellowship, so there’s no reason for you to drop a quest (apart from it being boring or not being able to find a group for it).

But Blizzard has been more ambitious with their storytelling. They want to tell stories in which the character makes a poor decision and later has to deal with the consequences. But due to the limitations of quests, they have to do this in a way that makes the player feel as though the character made a choice without actually doing it. Sometimes this works well. There’s a stunningly epic storyline in Storm Peaks which starts with you meeting a poor old woman who is imprisoned in a mine and only finding out much much later that she had you fooled from the start.  It feels entirely reasonable that your character would have fallen for it.

In other places, it works less well. Any situation where the player thinks, ‘Wait, my character needs more choices, I don’t want to do that’ is a place where the illusion of choice wears thin.

I think that as players, we’re prepared to enjoy the illusion for what it is IF the storyline is compelling and convincing. I’ll give up my free choice to go off and farm more boars instead of doing your quests, but in return, I want a game to deliver me a brilliant, entertaining story.

Freedom to explore

Another way which MMOs in general and WoW in particular gives the illusion of a sandbox is in the way quests are laid out. We are already bored with the convention of “travel to the next quest hub, pick up quests, do quests, rinse and repeat.” Hence the breadcrumb quest which lures the player seamlessly to the next quest hub.

A variation on this is where the breadcrumb quest just takes the player on a route through which they cannot avoid finding the new quests. But still lets them feel as though they had to explore a bit. So you are off on your fun quest when you spot a few quest icons on the minimap — you let yourself get distracted enough to go and investigate and BAM it’s as if you found the quest hub all by yourself.

A great example of this is the opening quest for Dalaran that is given to players after they hit level 74. There are several potential quest givers for this, located in towns where you might reasonably be when you hit this level. So you level up, you carry on about your business, and … ooo… new quest, whats that? I thought it was particularly cunning of them to stick questgivers for this one between the flight masters and the zeppelins of the towns from which you travel back to Azeroth. Because naturally, when you hit a new level, you’d want to go back to train. You really cannot miss the Dalaran quest. It’s just not possible. But it will always feel as though you discovered it yourself.

Or another one is where a questline starts from an item dropped by a mob … with no actual quest to kill the mob. Just quests that put you in an area where it is very very likely that you will do this. Again, you kill some random and totally unexceptional mob because it’s there (that’s probably enough reason for most players) and hey, it starts you off on a whole new quest chain. The game gives you an illusion of exploring, but that quest object was never intended to be missed or obscure.

I think a big part of the popularity of Wrath is that Blizzard have used a lot of these techniques to give players the illusion of character choice, and of exploration, but without the dull options to which some choices and some exploration can lead. I can’t fault them for it. I love sandbox games and I hope very much that someone someday will make more of them, but I am also a sucker for a well put together illusion.