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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

Promoting Social Play in MMORPGs

Posted by Ortwig Saturday July 28 2012 at 9:09AM
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The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym.  At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.

While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction.  Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session.  In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person.  Communication was by text only.  It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other.  Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.
 
But the strides made in what became MMORPGs in the years since MUDs have been incredible—games have created devices for forming dungeon groups, raids, guilds, voiceover IP, chat and simple grouping with friends.  And yet within gaming forums, there still are cries of discontent about the state of games today.   One of the more bitter debates has been whether MMOs should accommodate solo play in addition to group play.  One group declares that development catering to solo play intrinsically hurts the “massively multiplayer,” objective (“solo gamers should go play single-player games”) while the other asserts that solo play should be available as an alternative activity between grouping sessions.  Developers have tried to accommodate both sides, but while MMOs have become more popular than ever, the voices of dissatisfaction have grown louder with the growth in sheer numbers.
 
So what are some of the ways, without taking sides in that particular argument, that social play could be made easier?  How do we get people in the “big city” talking and working with each other, and generally having more fun?  I think it’s, much like internet dating or social networking, all about pairing up gamers with like-minded gamers.
 
Player Profiles and Pairing Like with Like
 
One of the biggest complaints about “PUGs” or pick-up groups is that a less-experienced player gets grouped with a group of veteran players.  While this in and of itself might not be a bad thing if the experts were willing to teach the new player the ropes, often the professionals want to face a challenge with other professionals.  The problem gets worse if the new player somehow causes the party to “wipe” or all be killed.
 
What if players and guilds could designate their skill and type in-game as well as how they would prefer to group?  “Hardcore,” “Expert,” “Adept,” “Trainer” and “Trainee” might be skill designations, and “Solo,” “Guild Grouping,” “Informal Non-Guild Grouping,” “Player-vs-Player” and “Roleplayer” as possible preferences for interaction?  Another set of selections for interests—“Raids,” “Dungeons,” PvP Play”, “PVE Play”, and “Roleplaying” could further refine exactly the types of activities the player prefers in game.  Because a lot of flak and stereotyping could come up between characters if these profiles were easily viewed, players could choose whether these preferences are visible.  But behind the scenes, for dungeon or raid grouping using the various “finders”, the pairing algorithm would look at these preferences and pair folks with groups who are more likely to be looking for the same thing.  When viewing guilds, a Roleplayer and PvP player might see different filtered guild lists based on what they have picked, and what the guild preferences are.  Of course, all these preferences could be changed at any time once a player is ready to change modes.  By the way, game companies may want to consider hiring away some eHarmony or Match.com developers for this sort of thing (just don't advertise it too loudly.)
 
Bulletin Boards and Matchmaking
 
So with a profile created, how about setting up bulletin boards where players can go look for other players with similar styles?  I’ll even go back to the low-tech way we used to do it for our tabletop games—tack an index card to a bulletin board at the local hobby store with the game you’re interested in playing or refereeing, and what kind of group you are looking to join, the times/days you are available, and a button to open direct chat or send in-game mail.  There most likely would be a time limit set on the posting (perhaps 30 days for guild openings and 4 hours for PvP, raids or dungeon groups?), and the list should have some ability to filter and search through the postings.  I’m actually surprised no one in the MMO space has tried this yet—please let me know if there’s a game out there I've missed.
 
Improved Mailboxes
 
And while we’re out it, why don’t guilds have mailboxes?  In Warcraft, it’s surprisingly difficult to get in touch with a guild, even if they are accepting new members.  Often, you need to exit out of the game to find the guild’s website and make contact completely outside of the game.  Sure, there are some addons out there, but for some reason, developers seem to feel that chat is sufficient for talking to other players in game.  Sometimes, you really want to sit down and write a longer message and send it to a mailbox; it certainly would help players introduce themselves and let guild members screen prospects.  Even if these features are too expensive to create in-game, how about setting up dedicated servers and websites associated with the game, so that this information centrally located and easily accessible?  Or at least partner more closely with a company like Guild Launch for official guild services, and create hooks between in-game features and the website?  Like hooking up regular mail to in-game email, so that players can catch both in and out-of game?
 
Speaking of Chat…
 
It’s time to blow it up and start over.  Really.  The General Chat is like looking through a funnel only to see a stream of never-ending acronyms—“LFG 2 DPS + Tank BWL” or such scintillating discussion such as “Jst pwned u NOOB!!!”  Can’t we do better?
 
In olden days, it was necessary to stand outside and play town crier in order to pair up with a group, but with the Dungeon and Raid Finders today this is really not necessary.  And wouldn’t a bulletin board, as suggested above, be a much better place to look for this kind of stuff?  Instead of spamming chat 100 times, or taking a chance on a Dungeon Finder PUG, just post what you are looking for – the board would be as popular as the bank or auction house, and would help you sift through what you need quickly and actually start a dialogue with the group that looks a good match.  The notice could be automatically removed as soon as the group is formed or the opening filled, or after a set time period if the posting is abandoned.  This kind of communication is also less likely to end up in a random group of disparate skill levels.  Finally, you might actually have a real discussion instead of watching alphabet soup.
 
Ventrilo vs. Chat
 
So am I advocating removing chat altogether?  Well, not completely.  There may be some times you want to open a discussion to General Chat, or just watch the chatter or trade/sell an item outside of the auction house, but I do think we’re far along enough now that general chat could be turned off by default—let players decide when they want it turned on.  The chat window is useful when you are in a dungeon or raid and can’t communicate over Ventrilo, so the window could appear on entry to the group.  But typing is such a clunky way to communicate when you are in the middle of a pitched fight that I really think it’s time for game companies to start thinking about partnering with and bundling a Voiceover IP service such as Ventrilo or Mumble as part of a subscription.  MMO companies might work a deal with headset companies to offer deals there as well.
 
Party or guild chat is another window that could prove useful at large gatherings of grouped players, but for smaller groups, are chat bubbles enough?  People who are hardcore raiders probably prefer the efficiency of a common chat window or Ventrilo, but roleplayers might prefer chat bubbles.  Again, VOIP services are better than either and serve both groups.
 
Promote Informal Grouping
 
I’m really happy to see more of this in many of the new games coming out.  Guild Wars 2 has dynamic events, where people in a particular area can team together to complete common goals—with difficulty scaled for a range of players.  Rifts started this trend with a similar feature, and even Warcraft has introduced “scenarios,” which are a short instanced quests designed for 3 characters of any type to informally group up.  Loot and experience rules are being cleaned up, so that that helping fellow players does not penalize their take of the spoils, and characters are awarded items that fit their character, eliminating “loot ninjas.”
 
Get Players Talking To Each Other
 
Finally, what are some ways that games can make it easier for people to just start talking to each other?  Sure, plenty of people do talk in line, but is it really promoted by the game in any way?  This idea is along the lines of setting up player housing, how about creating instanced or guildhalls?  I was actually thinking about AOL and CompuServe the other day, and remembering the “walled gardens” these places used to create for communities on the internet.  While that ultimately went away as people realized they could access the internet directly, there was something attractive about the sense of community these areas fostered.  Within Lord of the Rings Online, cities have instanced zones where players can set up their own housing, but what if something similar was to be created for guilds?  This would create a place where members could gather and discuss guild business, hold holiday and special events, gain access to special guild services, bank, plan strategy, perform crafting (group crafting of special PvP items or siege weapons), roleplay, decorate, drink beer.  The problem I've seen with the instanced housing zones is that they can easily become ghost towns if there's not enough incentive to hang out there, so there needs to be activity.  That may fall to players, but it's something game developers need to keep in mind if they go down this path.
 
How about incentivizing player interaction the same way we do questing, or gear, or achievements?  Perhaps participating in guild events could provide a week long buff, or give access to special mounts or crafting materials, unlock hidden high-level quest chains, dungeons or raids?  There are a million things you could do here to make social interaction a goal rather than something to be tolerated or avoided.
 
Older games, such as Warcraft and LOTRO manage to hold many seasonal events, but because those events tend to be PVE, there’s a very static feel to them, and the opportunity for community is lost.  One brilliant exception to this is LOTRO’s Weatherstock event.  In that game, instruments are playable, and there’s a yearly gathering of where players take turns performing songs for all the people that turn out.  Genius.  There’s also small weekly gatherings as well.
 
While I’ve seen plenty of structured PvP in battlegrounds, I’m actually surprised something as traditional as a medieval-style tournament hasn’t been created with PvP in mind.  While Warcraft’s Argent Tournament has a series of quests and achievements that make for a solo storyline in a tourney setting, it doesn’t really encourage any kind of player socializing or PvP contests.  For all those people who like to duel, this would be the perfect place for it – spectators could bet on the proceedings, and PvPers would have a great stage.  Hold straight man-to-man fighting, or jousting, perhaps specialized skill-based “iron-man” combat without gear?  Introduce games of dexterity like barrel rolls, polefighting, straight racing, and of course, jousts.  Approach the design as you might an “eSport” and you create an Olympics-style game-within-a-game that could attract many players.  If you wanted to mix in PVE elements and dynamic events as part of the festival—new ones each year—and mix those as part of the PvP portion of the game, it could create the lively feeling that an event like this needs.
 
The trick for a tournament is to keep that structure around PvP, so that it takes place within the venue.  So if you’re jousting, you can’t just pull out any weapon you happen to have – you’re limited to the tournament equipment and mounts.  It’s like using the house cards or dice in Las Vegas – no bringing your own!  I know some players would prefer completely open, sandbox style events that are created by and for players.  I’m not sure that would attract the larger audience that a controlled setting would produce, however.  Organizing something like this I am sure could be done, but I’m not so sure it could be done consistently and reliably, and this is the reason I think a mass audience might shy away from it.  Convince me I am wrong!
 
In summary, it seems there is huge opportunity for any game to pull ahead in this social space.  Many games have worked hard to produce great stories and atmosphere in their games, and many have created lots “to do” in game, but no one has quite nailed the live, social experience (although do I hear cries of Ultima Online and EverQuest in the background…?) Who do you think is best positioned to evolve?  Do those UO and EQ games simply need to be revamped?  Is there a mainstream game that just needs to make some adjustments?  Or is there some new game, just waiting in the wings to take the whole gaming world by storm?

 

A Cataclysm Retrospective and Intermingling High, Medium and Low-Level Questing

Posted by Ortwig Saturday July 21 2012 at 10:57AM
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Shortly after the final patch for World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion was released, Blizzard posted an interesting interview with Greg Street, one of the lead designers looking back on what worked and didn’t work in this update, and what they wanted to do better with the next one.  One of the first things mentioned was the enthusiasm for redesigning the 1-60 level zones.

Having played in the classic zones in my first days of the game, it certainly was refreshing to see new quests and graphics for the new characters I created when Cataclysm was released.  (Point of note: I started playing Warcraft late, only after the Wrath of the Lich King expansion had been out for a couple years, so my very first level Alliance character was the only one who travelled through the classic zones, and I never did get to see the Horde side of things).
 
The changes in Cataclysm brought along some very nice changes to the quests, and certainly made for a fresher feel to the game – the storylines were interesting, and the “kill 10 boars,” quests were mercifully reduced.  But I also agree with Greg’s thoughts about the problem of linear quests.  Quest storylines and “hubs” are now tightly interlocked, so to progress on, it’s often necessary to accept a chain of quests if you want to level your character, whether or not you agree with the goals of those quests.  In one particularly memorable instance, my character was being asked to drive out native centaurs to make way for a greedy prospector seeking land rights to oil.  As little roleplaying as is needed for to play Warcraft, the whole goal of the quest really rubbed me the wrong way – based on my imagined beliefs for my character, he would not accept such a quest, and I resented having to “complete the chain” in order to unlock later pieces of the storyline (and of course, the all-important gear rewards).
 
In the classic zones before Cataclysm, you often could accept any number of quests, color coded for difficulty – green for easy, yellow for medium, orange for hard, and red for very difficult (at least solo).  When Cataclysm was released, it became rare to see orange quests, and red quests are now almost non-existent.  In addition, many quests are not “unlocked” or visible to be accepted until your character is deemed to be the appropriate level. 
 
It’s looking like Blizzard understands that there were some things in those classic quests that didn’t need fixing, but beyond bringing back quest difficulty and opening the questlines, I’ll go ahead and suggest going one further: how about introducing the idea of level-based questing within every zone?  What if as a level 60 character coming back to, say, Duskwood, there were quests available in his level range (green thru red)?  Now that “phasing” (the concept of the environment changing based on your characters actions or quests completed) has been successfully implemented, why wouldn’t it be possible for a higher level character returning to a zone he’d visited earlier to see a changed town based on what is going on, with new challenges to be overcome?  Sure, there will always be high-level zones such as Icecrown or Uldum that will require characters to work up to being ready to for them, but it would be great if characters to experience a homecoming in those old zones, only to have to help out with a problem that only a higher-level character could solve.  In this way, quest levels could be stacked within the zones for low, medium and high level quests, adding huge replay value not to mention leveraging nostalgia for those earlier zones?
 
Stacking story within the zones in addition to the (less frequent) building out of new continents for exploration (e.g. Panderia) keeps the world fresh and dynamic, and gives much more flexibility to the designers.  While new zones are always wonderful and new, making existing zones last as long as possible, while keeping players engaged and interested would seem to be planning for the long run – Warcraft is already seven years old, and has proven to be amazingly long-lived for an online game.  With Mists of Panderia on the horizon, we'll see if Blizzard's designers are up to the task of keeping up the attraction.
 

 

What Other Games Can Learn from The Secret World’s In-Game Research

Posted by Ortwig Sunday July 15 2012 at 10:22AM
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So The Secret World (TSW) went ahead and implemented something that, upon consideration, seems a no-brainer—they added an in-game web browser.  Hit the “B” button and you’re taken to Google, and from there, you have access to the entire internet from within the game.  In makes complete sense for an MMO set in the modern day, especially given the need to research clues and solve things like Morse Code puzzles.  Sure, we could do all that in an outside browser as well, but having the browser right there not only keeps the player in the game, but also makes for a more immersive experience.  In several quests, it’s actually necessary to browse out to a website created by the TSW developers to solve the puzzle.  Given the number of times I’ve popped out of other games to look up information in the browser, I’m wondering why more games haven’t attempted to present their lore in-house.
 
There is no internet, of course, in a fantasy universe, but even so, it’s a pretty common occurrence for players in World of Warcraft to jump out and look up a piece of lore in Wowhead or WoWWiki, or watch a YouTube video with tips on a certain dungeon or raid.  WoW did so something with the in-game lore idea by adding the Dungeon Journal, which gives background on some dungeons and raids, as well as tips on tackling the bosses within.  There’s also lore imparted within the quest text boxes, and you can certainly learn a few things by taking the time to read these.  But the amount of information presented in-game is miniscule compared to what is available on external websites, and even in the Journal, only the newest dungeons and raids are included. 
 
Perhaps there will be an effort to bring the lore from the classic areas as well at some point, but it doesn’t appear to be high on the priority list—my guess is that developers may not see retrofitting and integrating lore for a game that is 8 years old as worth the effort at this point; maybe Titan, Blizzard’s next MMO, will be the place to look for it.
 
That’s a shame, because The Secret World proves that including lore in-game helps maintain the atmosphere developers make such great efforts to produce.  In addition to TSW’s browser, characters frequently encounter bits of lore as they wander about the world, whether it be background information regarding one of the game’s three factions, or on one of the many conspiracies that make up the main plot.  This information isn’t presented objectively either, more like whispered discussions overheard or bar conversations—either way, it’s presented with a point-of-view that may or not be trustworthy.  Gradually, the larger picture comes into view, but only after lots of gathering and cutting through the noise.  A piece of lore may not mean anything initially, but may come into sharper focus during a quest later in the game. 
 
WoW did a little bit of this in its vanilla days—a monster might drop an odd journal that contained a story, but often this was just window dressing and local color; the quest you were on resolved any questions in the writing, and only once in a while were there puzzles to solve in order to complete the quest.  I do remember finding a book with a story of a cursed knight in Darkshire that was especially interesting, and actually played into a series of quests, but nothing in the book required me to solve any mysteries.  One journal in Un’goro Crater involved activating crystals in several sites.  But in the most recent WoW updates, books contain no text at all, just a quest to accept and follow to resolution on the mini-map. 
 
What if fantasy games had in-game resources similar to the intranet….like, um, libraries?  In Skyrim, it’s easy to stumble upon full books of lore, poetry, even works of fiction in-game.  Knowledge can be power, and players who take the time to read these books may come away with just an interesting read, but perhaps there’s a legend in there with a grain of truth that can be pursued if the player takes the time to put two and two together.  Maybe the clue leads to a hidden series of quests, a treasure, or a dungeon that may not be on the official map. 
 
Libraries could be placed in capital cities, and much of that information out on the web could be placed in those in-game books, and there’d actually be value in going in and looking up information within the game.  Histories of various areas in the game would be accessible, so things like the Dungeon Journal would be placed alongside a whole series of other books with subjects ranging from crafting to bestiaries to legendary weapons to wars to religion.  Oddly enough, all this information is already available somewhere (usually on the web)—just not, perversely, in the place you’d expect to find it within the game world!  How about leveraging that content?  Developers could even continue to host the lore on the web, but reference it in game as well, so that it could be accessed from both places as long as it was formatted to appear as in-game content.  Opened books could actually be web pages formatted to fit on the screen.
 
Of course, major city libraries might not be the only source of books.  You might find hidden stashes of books in an enemy’s lair, or in a hidden shrine in the wilderness, or in an ancient ruin.  The books there could contain more esoteric subjects that might lead to even more epic adventures or crafted items.  This also serves the dual purpose of getting players out in the world and adds another treasure besides gear to the game world.  A powerful spell that may not be available in the general lexicon would be a huge incentive to look for items such as these.  Or a journal describing clues to a major enemy’s weakness.  So many possibilities here, and it re-emphasizes what is done so well in The Secret World—ask players to explore, investigate, research and use their heads.
 
Restoring that balance between story, lore and combat is a major accomplishment for The Secret World development team—they deserve all the great reviews they are getting.  Guild Wars 2 is on the horizon, and they, too seem to recognize that putting the lore back into the game is the right direction.  Here’s hoping for more copycats.

Heroic Archetypes and Character Beauty in MMOs

Posted by Ortwig Saturday July 7 2012 at 10:48AM
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One of the things that had me laughing most when South Park did an episode on World of Warcraft (“Make Love, Not Warcraft” in Season 10) was just seeing their Warcraft characters onscreen.  You had Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman all playing these prototypical fantasy types – burly warrior, stout dwarf, and so on—but with the crew’s “real,” squeaky voices.   It’s probably the thing that folks who don’t play RPG’s laugh most about – the geeky kid playing Conan the Barbarian, but in this case it was also cartoons playing cartoons.

 
Of course, anyone who watches TV or movies, or reads comic books likes these heroic molds, the archetypal hero with the chiseled, perfect body.  But then I think back to shows like the 2nd run of Battlestar Galactica, and more recently, Game of Thrones, who had folks like Adama, with his weather beaten, harried look, or like Tyrion, the “bastard” dwarf of House Lannister, or the giant Brienne of Tarth in that same series, and I wonder if we can get to interesting rather than beautiful as the look for our heroes in these games.  If we wanted to go back a little further we could point to Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood Stories, and of course the hobbits of Lord of the Rings, all rather non-heroic looking characters.
 
All MMOs have the initial character setup screen, where you have the options to choose the look of your character.  More recent games have really increased the number of choices here—everything from eye color to facial expression to eyebrow arch and goatee type.  Skyrim, especially, although it’s a single player game, has a huge number of character options.  I note, however, that most of these options are for facial features alone – nearly all games pick the well-known body type of Western culture perfection. 
 
One of the latest and most anticipated MMOs on the scene, Guild Wars 2, is asking this question for its character creation screens, and others have been picked as particularly innovative here (e.g. Star Wars: The Old Republic actually allows overweight characters).  It would be interesting to have a slider to scale your character’s age, girth, height or bust size to something that fits your concept of character personality.  What if you could give yourself especially long legs or arms?  Small or larger hands?  Or, another idea – giving characters a starting point based on a personality trait – “brooding,” “jovial,” “cunning,” “studious,” “savage” – and then letting folks tweak their actual features from there.  You’d end up with a lot more variety in the game, and perhaps characters that better fit your idea of who you want to play.  And why limit it to just humans?  All races should have the options, although perhaps each racial type might have different upper and lower limits on the scale.
 
I’m guessing that, from a development standpoint, one of the challenges of doing all this is scaling all the clothes and equipment to the various sizes.  All these games have literally thousands of pieces of gear which need to scale correctly, and the more options you have here the more work you have on your hands – that piece of work among the thousands of other tasks needing to take place as part of building a game.  But it is a question that comes up regularly, and more players are asking for less “cookie cutter” looks in their character classes.  In an MMO, it especially rankles to pass a character on the street that not only looks exactly like you, but like every generic fantasy stereotype you’ve ever heard of or seen.