Thought of the Day: People vs Text

The slew of new quests in WoW at the moment reminds me of how reliant MMOs still tend to be on quest text to tell their stories. Blizzard is clearly trying to experiment and move away from this a bit (with good use of cut scenes, NPCs who chat while you are leading them around, et al.) but the bulk of the information comes via text boxes.

And it’s usually thought that most people don’t bother reading the text. They just scroll down to see what the rewards are and what they need to do — and increasingly the quest target will be marked on a map anyway so you don’t even need to do that.

My first thought is how great it would be if other important information givers experimented as widely with ways to tell us things we need to know. Interactive bank statement, anyone? How about consumer rights when you sign a loan agreement? Of course, the difference is that in these cases, they might actually prefer you not to read the small print …

And secondly I was thinking that sometimes I really do prefer print. I’m not a fan of videoblogs and prefer text to podcasts because a) I can read them at my speed (which is fast) rather than at the rambling speed of the producer, and b) because I don’t have to dig out my headphones. Communicating via text in games might be slow compared to speech but you don’t lose important information because someone shouted over it. So maybe in games it is as much to do with the size and placement of the text box, and the tendency to info dump, as the fact it happens to use text.

BEP and the Goldshire Conundrum

bloodelf

Tobold stirred up the blog community last week with a post asking why there aren’t more porn oriented games and MMOs. After all, the core audience for both has traditionally been similar. So surely adding porn to MMOs would be a sure fire winner, right? He concludes that it’s probably much cheaper to pay an actress than to create a game engine with good enough models and animation.

Psychochild followed up with a post which looked at attempts to do exactly this (porn MMOs) and why they failed.

r u hot?

It’s obviously not true that people don’t want sex in their MMOs. How else can you explain Second Life? (This is a post about sex in Second Life, probably not safe for work. It is an interesting article though, she discusses the difference between porn and cybering.) They may not want porn per se – games are all about interactivity and it isn’t clear whether people want to interact with porn in that way even if the NPCs were pixel perfect. But talking dirty to real people? That’s hot.

So is being able to roleplay through scenes in a game that aren’t possible in real life, either because it involves some fantasy kink or even just because the people involved are miles away from each other. It shouldn’t be surprising that virtual environments have been popular with furries and with some parts of the BDSM community – they are mostly safe places to play.

From my experience with MUDs et al, I have formulated a new internet rule:

Spinks’ Rule: If it is possible for people to cyber in any medium, then they will.

This has been true for every MMO I have ever played. It was also true of Usenet, IRC, MUD, MUSH, livejournal, SMS, and I assume people are cybering on Facebook and twitter as well.

But it is ironic that Blizzard announced the intent to police Goldshire on one of the US servers, due to complaints about people cybering there in public, in the same week bloggers were arguing that sex in an MMO could never work.  And if you don’t play WoW then don’t worry, they’re doing it in your game too!

Iiiit’s Timmy!

I said this weekend that I pitied the GMs who were stuck with patrolling Goldshire. Especially when there’s a game full of players who would probably happily play at being the cyber patrol for free.

This story reminded me of back when I was involved in running a Vampire MUSH. I may have mentioned this before, the game was based on second edition V:tM and was set in London, and most of the players had vampire characters. The specific game/edition is important here because part of the background was that Vampires didn’t have sex drives or sex at all, in general. In the words of one of my co-staffers who was writing this up for the in game theme news:

You’re dead. Look down. It is too.

Another part of the lore was that some vampires could become invisible. We had code to mimic this ability so people could wander around stealthed. We also had a staff mailing list for that game, to help us communicate over the various time zones. Players who had roleplayed dramatic scenes of which they were especially proud could send us the logs in text form and if we were impressed by the standard of RP, we’d give out XP awards.

You can probably see where this is leading. Add Spinks’ Law (if people can cyber, then they will) to stealthy player characters and what you get is …  Timmy, the soi-disant morality patrol.

Every couple of weeks a big fat text file would land squarely in the staff mailing list. It would be from a player whose character was called Timmy. He was a stealther. His hobby was being a virtual voyeur. And he sent staff any evidence he found that people were breaking the theme of the game by RPing sex on their vampires. Morally, it was an odd situation for us. What he was doing was perfectly in character. What the cyber crowd was doing was generally not, and doors were lockable in the game if people really wanted to make sure no stealthers could sneak in to their bedrooms.

But more importantly, having to read through a ton of badly written semi-porn would ruin anyone’s day. As to what staff could do, we posted up information reminding people that doors could be locked. We tried to give Timmy some different plot hooks. We also posted some general info reminding people that this wasn’t the game for RPing torrid sex.

Then we left it and hoped for the best.

What about games designed around sex?

Back in the MUD/ MUSH days there were games which were unashamedly adult in theme. Many of them were also furry and/or BDSM in theme, I, being sadly vanilla, was happy with my vampires and never had much interest, but I did hang out on a bboard for MU* Admin where people sometimes discussed the seedier side of the hobby.

One particular game was known for the ‘anything goes’ theme. You could go create any type of character you could imagine and then … do adult themed stuff with it. And some players took this as a challenge – there were centipede men with 1000 pairs of legs (and presumably the other bits to go with it), there was a woman/ icecream van hybrid (don’t ask), and several people played historical characters and apparently roleplayed them very well. (I know this because people posted the more way out or amusing character descriptions on one of the MU* Admin threads to amuse everyone else.)

And apparently, when they weren’t all having bizarro sex, the general level of RP and discussion on the game was very high. I always found that quite curious, although it makes sense that sex is a social activity so a sex game would tend to turn into a social game.

The type of design which would make a game amenable for cyber would also be good for other types of roleplayer. Lots of private spaces. Ability to dress up your character. Some kind of character matching to help people find others with similar interests. Engaging hangouts with activities that encourage people to chat and get to know each other. You don’t need to design the porn into the game, just let players set the scene and RP out their own fantasies.

Spinks’ law will take care of the rest.

Can Goldshire be contained?

One of the biggest issues standing between MMOs and the mainstream right now is whether it is possible to clean up the real time chat channels. Granny may be happy to come and kill kobolds on her paladin, but what’s she going to say when she hears trade chat for the first time? Or when some jerk in LFD talks smack to her in an instance? And before she does any of those things, she will have to brave Goldshire. (For the sake of hyperbole, let’s ignore that Granny probably knows more about sex than all the inhabitants of Goldshire put together.)

As an aside, I sometimes wonder if an influx of older female players would have a good effect on manners in game. I’m sure a few people like my mother in law (a retired teacher) would soon have trade chat sorted out with its Ps and Qs and teach it grammatical English at the same time.

But the general issue isn’t going to go away. The cyber crowd can be chased out of Goldshire (they’ll go somewhere else) but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t want to go to a specialist game. They want WoW … and the cybering is something to do in downtime.

Can a massively multiplayer game ever be really controlled unless you ban chat channels altogether? Or would an army of nosey stealthers set to embarrass people in public do the trick?

Sharing information in fights: Everyone’s a critic

I think we can agree that yelling at people in frustration is not the best way to pass on information. (See yesterday’s post and comments.)

But when we’re playing in a group in a MMO, a lot of information needs to be communicated quickly. Are we trying to focus fire and if so, does everyone know what they are supposed to be hitting at any time? Do you need to ask another player to remove a debuff from you? Have you just used a cooldown that your tank or healer or dps needs to know about? Are you going to assume someone else’s role because they just died in combat?

A lot of our abilities are designed to interlock with each other. A buff from one player might significantly affect the abilities or optimal ability use of another. If you have debuffs, you need to know when to use them. When you think about it, that’s a crazy amount of information that needs to be assimilated quickly.

So how do we do it?

  • Pre Pre-planning. This is where you discuss the fight and tactics in detail on a bboard before you even step into the instance.
  • Pre-planning. If you know what will happen in a fight, you can pre-arrange the kill order, any crowd control, any other tactics, and roughly when significant buffs will be used.
  • UI. We rely heavily on the user interface for information about when players have buffs or debuffs active on them. This is automatic information provided by the game (and the UI addons, if you use them) and doesn’t require anyone to actually say ‘I’m poisoned!’
  • Flashy graphics. Some spells just come with very unmistakeable graphical effects that no one can miss if they’re paying attention.
  • Boss cues. Some bosses will cue before they make a special attack with either a graphic or some kind of yell. Games don’t tend to use pure audio cues; I’d like to think this was in respect of deaf gamers but it’s probably just because they know a lot of people play with the sound off.
  • Text and macros. Sometimes the easiest way to inform your group or raid when you’ve used a cooldown or buff is to macro in an automatic comment on group or raid chat when you activate it. eg. ** Just used Bloodlust ** The only problem is … not everyone reads text chat in the middle of a fight.
  • Shout on voice chat. Best saved for if something really unexpected happens and pre-arranged plans have to change on the fly. Also probably best left for the raid leader.
  • We don’t. No one says or types a word. We just assume we roughly know what they’ll be doing and go with it. (Really common in 5 man instances in WoW these days, or any content where it isn’t critical to micro-manage.)

Either way, it is a huge amount of information to process and I think regular raiders often forget how enormously overwhelming it may have felt when you first tried a raid, particularly as a healer or debuffer.

Broadcasting Taunts

Given the sheer amount of information flying around, I’ve always tended to the cautious side when I’m deciding which of my abilities and cooldowns to publicise. I was thinking about this lately because with the heroic beasts fight, we do a lot of tank switching in the first part. So I picked up an addon which would automatically tell people on the raid channel when I’d used various different abilities. What I really wanted was to let people know if a taunt had failed, but I figured I might as well add an inform about Shield Wall also (it’s a tanking cooldown).

You know the worst part? Not people complaining about spam because actually no-one complained. I got the impression it was felt to be generally useful. Nope, the most difficult part about automatically informing your group when you use an ability is that … they automatically also get informed when you press the button by mistake.

You don’t realise how naked this makes you feel until you try it. I mean, OF COURSE I press taunt at the wrong time sometimes. So does every tank who ever lived, unless they have it bound somewhere really inaccessible. If it’s not being broadcast, you just whisper to the other tank afterwards and apologise. They’ll shrug it off, we all do it. If using taunt by mistake means it wasn’t up when you really needed it then you can always fake that it missed or failed. But if you broadcast your abilities, then suddenly your entire raid becomes a backseat driver. Or at least it can feel that way.

So one positive side to broadcasting my taunts and cooldowns? You can bet I’m way more careful with them now. There’s no doubt that it’s made me a better player, in that sense at least.

Sorry ma’am, I don’t speak text?

What might our games might be like if we couldn’t communicate via text? It’s a difficult concept, because text based communication has been absolutely core to every MMO I’ve played. No guild chat? No whispers? No way to carry out multiple conversations at once? The more I think about it, the more I wonder if text chat is one of the big enablers of massive games. Without them, our communication is limited to the number of people we can reasonably see or hear at the same time.

But if consoles are going to be the next MMOified platform, this is a barrier that they will have to cross. Will it mean more voice chat? Will consoles get keyboards? Will we have to pick our texts from a list instead of being able to input them freeform? Does it matter? Is text an old medium that just slows our games down and adds more pointless information for players need to read?

As a society, we have a long, long history with text. Historically, Victorian text chat — or telegrams, as we like to call them– was the great enabler for the modern internet. And back in those days, if you needed to communicate with massive numbers of people, you put a text advert in the local paper or published a pamphlet.  (If you spend too long thinking about this, you can see why some people hail the printing press as the greatest invention in human history.)

  • Text carries a sense of permanence. Someone can read it later than the time at which it was written. It may not be much later if it is in a text box that scrolls off the screen, but communicating via text doesn’t mean that both the sender and receiver need to be time synchronised. Voice messages can also be stored but it is less convenient.
  • Text is fast, but voice is slow. It takes much longer to listen to someone speak a sentence than it would to read it. If we have to rely on voice for all communications, we simply won’t be able to pass on as much information in the same timescale.
  • Text is easily searchable. You can skim through a box of text to find the amusing typo and copy it to all your friends. Skimming through voice chats means listening all the way through, and hoping that someone has bothered to index which topic came up at what time so that you can fast forward.
  • Text can be used to maintain multiple conversations at the same time. It is easy to be whispering two different people, chatting on guild chat, and having an argument with someone else standing next to you. Voice chat — not so much.
  • People can’t talk over each other in text. They may ignore each other, but you don’t have the issue of more than one person trying to talk at the same time.
  • Texts can mix private with public conversations. At the risk of embarassing mavs, you can have a private and a public conversation at the same time. This is why you can discuss your cat with your best friend at the same time as explaining a boss fight to your guild.

I wonder if text based chat is required for any kind of massive game experience. If we forcibly keep the group size small, then voice chat could totally replace it. You wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone outside the group but maybe that wouldn’t matter. If we make sure that all the information needed is provided by the game, then you might not need to explain fights to people. We could imagine using menus to select what we want to say from a list of options (ie. instead of typing), but that feels restrictive. Or maybe we can communicate via symbols, emotes, interpretive dance on screen?

Or, I suspect, the other alternative is that people still use text. They just find ways to do it outside the game. Maybe everyone has a netbook running IRC, or uses their iPhones to text each other instead. They chat via text boxes and bulletin boards and only log on to actually play instanced content.

Possibly console type MMOs just get less massive. Maybe you don’t need to talk to anyone outside your immediate group ever. Maybe … maybe you don’t need to ever talk to anyone at all.