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Running in the Special Olympics

Discussion of the Evolving Nature of the MMO Industry from an Outsider's Perspective

Author: PhatWOP

The Supremacy of Gear or "Talents or Toys, what defines you?"

Posted by PhatWOP Wednesday February 20 2008 at 1:22PM
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What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this!

Thulsa Doom, Conan the Barbarian

 

Besides being an excellent scene in which Thulsa Doom makes an innocent girl commit suicide to prove both his point and that he is one bad dude, James Earl Jones was also pointing to what I feel is an eternal debate in RPGs.

Of course the most recent and prevalent RPG is the MMO. The riddle of steel that Thulsa is discussing is the question of what is more potent, the steel of the sword or the hand that wields it? In RPGs there has always been a tension between what is really powerful, the character and his own skills or the gear he gets. What really makes the character a hero? Most MMOs (following in the tradition of early games like Dragon Warrior as I mentioned last time) fall squarely in the camp of the warrior’s accoutrement. Though there have been a few expections such as CoH, but that was more for adherence to the genre rather than to answer the riddle of steel. Certainly no naked max level character in most MMOs would stand a chance against a fully epic geared 1337 d00d in a spar, duel or whatever your particular game calls a one on one testosterone showdown.

In fact, I think at this point, after almost twenty years of playing video games where "phat lewts" are your ultimate reward, it had become ingrained upon an entire generation of gamers that they are to be judged based on the quality of the gear above all else.

But does it have to be this way?

Certainly gear plays an important role in legendary epics and stories. King Arthur drew Excalibur from the stone and Hercules had his club, but more often then not, it seems to me that the truest heroes from these stories succeeded through skill and talent. Beowulf was a legendary warrior; he did not rely on a set of uber gear. Acheillies, Odysseus, Gilgamesh and many more were all great because of who they were or the things they did. Even in the cases where a piece of equipment was vital, such as in the case of Excalibur, it was still the character of Arthur that allowed him to wield it and that was his only piece of vital gear. Not a full resplendent set of gear he got from raiding the "grail instance".

Now I realize that people enjoy getting things, who doesn’t love the feeling of ripping open that wrapping paper on Christmas morning? Or winning that random roll for a sweet item? But it all begs the question, are we making heroes or loot whores?

What got me thinking about this was the relaunch of D&D in 4E. They are taking the focus away from equipment and trying to focus more on the strength and talents of the heroes themselves. You still get gear, we like the idea of having magical items and I don’t think that can ever be truly removed from games, nor should it. I simply feel as though the real decisions being made about your character at high level are not what skills he should focus on or what power separate him and make him a hero, but rather the toys and shiny baubles he has managed to accumulate.

Keep in mind I am not claiming games don’t give you any good skills or such at high level. Certainly you have some powers and perhaps they are even somewhat modified by traits, talents or another tweeking word beginning with the letter "t", but it seems to me at least, the gear becomes of prime importance, the ultimate treadmill that all characters, whether they raid, PvP or whatever, eventually must run on.

So I will end this with a question? What do you all want? Do you want to see the collection of gear continue and be the defining aspect of your character or you would rather have your skills and powers be what set you apart?

 

 

The Digital Birth of the MMO or "The Metal Slime Runs Away"

Posted by PhatWOP Monday February 18 2008 at 12:22PM
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Welcome back all,

Today I would like to discuss what I truly belive is the great-grandfater of modern MMOs; Dragon Warrior.

Before I get into my controversial and most likely questionable argument I would like to stave off a few early complaints. The lore of fantasy and indeed even some of the base mechanics of modern MMO certainly draw their pedigree from D&D, which in turn comes from Lord of the Rings, which is in turn steeped in Welsh, Finnish and other European folklore dating back centuries upon centuries.

But I am not concerned with where the lore of fantasy is drawn from or even the ephemeral mechanics. What I am concerned with is the process. The first time a digital representation of an RPG was brough tot the mass market.

Let me take a minute to discuss why I feel that mass-market component is so important. Certainly there have long been BBS and MUDs and even games by mail, but they were always niche and didn't have a large impact on the culture as a whole. Nintendo however was HUGE (I mean, Super-Mario Bros 3 pretty much got its own movie staring Fred Savage) and the time it was popular was just as such that it influenced the generation of programmers and designers who, ten to fifteen years later, would all start desgning MMOs. Dragon Warrior and Nintendo as a whole, were like the Sci-Fi movies of the forties/fifties that inspired a generation of children to become scientists. Well, that and a healthy subsidy for science and math, but I digress.

Dragon Warrior was the first mass market transition of an RPG into digital form and I believe many of the basic elements of the modern MMO (and indeed most future RPGs in general) were in this game.

Dragon Warrior found our hero wandering around a landscape sword, armor and shield in hand. OK nothing unusual here. Our hero fights monsters not by going to specific dungeons or locations as is more classic for the bulk of D&D adventures, but instead simply bumps into them as he wanders around the landscape (with a few notable exceptions such as the green dragon guarding the princess and the black knight guarding Edrick's armor). This would become an MMO staple for many years as monsters just littered and wandered around the landscape, with seemingly no purpose to their existence besides being an XP farm for the occasional wandering PC.

Next consider that each monster gave you some amount of gold and XP. Again, nothing revolutionary behind that, D&D had been doing it for years. But in D&D, there were always alternate avenues to earn XP. Social encounter, role-playing, quest rewards, etc. None of those things existed in the game, only killing mattered. Until the most recent generation, that was true for MMOs as well. Quest and alternate XP was frowned upon and only farming, hours and hours of farming dominated many of the initial offerings of the MMO landscape.

The other big issue of note here was the amount of XP required to level. I remember frequently doing calculations of the number of monsters I would need to kill to level up in DW and it was often in the thousands. One monster at a time, you slowly crawled over 30 levels (the fact that D&D has just now become a 30 level system as of 4E is proof that everything comes full-circle btw). Again, the games designers could have assigned any arbitrary value to the monster death they desired. They could have had you level in 5 monsters, 10 monsters, 100 monsters or 1 million monsters. They stumbled upon the fact that making people kill thousands of things in attmepting to level is an excellent substitute for lack of content. This tenant still serves MMOs well to this day, although admittedly, leveling curves have become far more forgiving in the most recent crop of games.

Lastly and certainly not leastly, gear. DW certainly did not have a large amount of gear. Ultimately, you simply got the one suit of armor and the one sword and the one shield that was "the best" and you were done. This however sets down a very interesting dynamic. Is the hero strong because of his own skills or because of the sword he wields? Is it talent or toys? In Dragon Warrior, you had to have Edrick's Armor and sword if you ever planned to defeat the end boss. The final castle was littered with spots on the ground that would mean a very quick and nasty death from trapsing over them if you did not have this armor on. The armor healed you as you walked, eliminating the need to use your own magic for healing. The mechanic was telling you it was the toys of Edrick that made you a hero, not talent or skill. This same theory has carried across most MMOs to this day. Though skills undoubtedly play a role, I challenge a completely ungeared, naked max-level character to spar or duel a fully uber-geared (TM) character and see if he thinks he has a chance in the world of success. In most games (CoH being a delightful exception) it is most definitly the clothes that make the man.

It is for all of these reasons I believe MMOs launched looking like they did. It is only recently that as the genre has evolved have we begun to break out of the Dragon Warrior mold.

Until next time, may you get that lucky critical hit on the metal slime.

The Eternal Hunger for Content or "Why Galactus will never be full"

Posted by PhatWOP Friday February 15 2008 at 12:41PM
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Hello again,

Today I would like to touch on a subject I touched upon breifly last month in my initial blog entry. The hunger for new content. In all of the games I have played, the player base, no matter what they think of the game when it initially launches, inevitably wants more and more from the humble designers. Now I have not interviewed every player in every game I have played, and indeed have little deisre to talk to those babbling unwashed masses, so I can not say for certain that EVERY player wants these things, but certainly the friends I have spoken to in person and the posts I read on the forums often lean in this direction.

And why shouldn't they? Most players of an MMO want something implemented the game does not currently have. The Acheivers want more levels, quests or raids, the crafter want more recipes, more slaes options and a stronger economy, the Role-Players want new "social" options, cosmetic changes and mini-games and the explorers want more space and land to explore. I discussed the issues with trying to play to all of these bases at the same time in my blog Pulling up a Seat at the Buffet so I encourage you to read that if you want to hear my opinions on those topics. As the wise sages of Van Halen once said, "Everybody wants some, I want some too."

Enough shameless David Lee Roth promotion.

I am going to assume, for the sake of argument, that the developers can in fact create additional content at a reasonable speed to meet some of these needs. The question then becomes can they do it fast enough?

I submit to you they can not.

Certainly from the moment even the most successful MMO launches the designers realize that their product has a lifespan. Like a new child born into the world, it will eventually grow, mature, wither and die. We have only really seen this progression with a few games at this still relatively early period of development in the MMO world, but several titles are certainly showing their age lines (I'm looking at you UO and EQ).

The goal then of the developers is not to continue creating content ad nauseum, but simply long enough to mee the projected end of the project's lifespan. For this, they must keep people subscribing and the current sentiment seems to be that for people to stay focused, you must introduce new shiny bits for them to play with.

Whether or not you agree with this idea, I think it bears fruit in the industry. Content is pushed, expansions are announced and features are updated, all with the idea that the customers will continue to drop their fees and (hopefully) not go explore a new game.

Now  let me explain why this concept is fundamentally flawed from its very onset.

Galactus, a marvel comics character (sometimes depicted as a big guy in a puplish suit with a moe haircut (see the Hercules 4-part mini-series if you don't believe me) and most recently depicted as what I can only guess was stock footage from ID4 in the most recent Fantastic 4 debacle, is a world eater. The thrust of his character is that he must destroy planets and "eat" them in some way or another, hence wiping out whatever race happens to be using that particular rock at that particular time. The real problem with Galactus is that he can't get full. Apparently planets are alot like Pringles, once you pop, you just can't stop.

In this metaphor, Galactus is the MMO player btw, just in case you hadn't picked up on my subtle innuendo.

No the first attempts to "Galactus" all met with failure until eventually Norrin Radd sacrifced himself to become the herald of the monster. Hoping to delay and stall big "G" or just lead him to an unihabited planet.

That is analagous to our modern theory of how to solve what I will call the "content problem". Instead of defeating the problem, we try to simply feed it more, delay it with promises of future updates or distract it with flashy "updates" that don't really add much to the game or simply fix bugs that were already there.

But that is not how heroes work is it?

To stop Galactus, feeding him more planets is a bad solution, we have to defeat the beast outright! Now I hear what you are saying, "Oh you are so clever and hot and smart and..." wait, that isn't what you're saying, sorry. You are saying that's a silly enough analogy, but the fact is people want more stuff in their games, you can't "slay" that desire.

Nonsense.

In the way we designe current MMOs you can't but if there was a concerted effort in that direction. An effort for more creative programming combined with technologies not currently available (but that may well be available in five to ten years) we could slay the beast.

Imagine repeatable quests that were NOT simply Kill X or take X to Y, but changed everytime you repeated them with different goals and evolving stories. Imagine a deatiled crafting system where the properties of the items created were not set, but the game simply had base guidelines based on materials and through experimentation and creation, new items with new powers were being introduced into the game constantly. Imagine a dynamic Raid area that reacted when it was cleanesed of monsters and its bosses killed. Maybe new monsters and new bosses moved in or better yet, the players overtake the instance and can "stock" it as they see fit.  As I said, these ideas are super-difficult, if not impossible now, but in five years or ten years, this is where the industry will need to go if it ever wants to destroy the beast that is "content craving".

The point of all of these ideas, and I am sure that many of you could take it even farther, is that they would minimize the need for additional content. In effect, the game itself would be CREATING new content through its player base. Only new BASE features would ever be introduced through expansions or updates.

Without this sort of adancement, any game is doomed to run on the treadmill forever and still suffer loses through attrition. Their speed of programming can not possibly keep up with the players speed in accomplishing the tasks. Acheivers and Explorers will constantly shift to new games that offer new challenges while crafters and role-players can essentially "ply their trade" in any game that offers a friendly enviroment for those playstyles.

Until next time, read the sign and Don't Feed Galactus!

Death Inevitable or

Posted by PhatWOP Monday February 11 2008 at 11:52AM
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Welcome Back.

In the second and final part of this discussion (for now at least) I would like to discuss an idea that has always been a black-sheep of the MMO industry, clamored for by a tiny few, rejected by a great many. Perma-Death.

But we can't just jump into the deep end of the pool like that, we need some background first. As I commented last time, death systems, like the rest of early MMOs (and indeed a great deal of the RPG VG Genre) grew from D&D. In that game, up until its most recent incarnation (3.5) you lost experience if you came back from the dead with all but the most powerful magics. In other words Death = penalty. Now in a long D&D campaign you're character may not die at all, certainly most people's games, unless they are particularly bloodthirsty, don't have characters dying more than one or two times. So perhaps that was acceptable enough for that system (although it should be noted there have always been great debates about that subject as well).

In an MMO however, the concept of having your character progress through the game without dying borders on lunacy. Character's die all the time, we have come to expect it and internalize it. In some cases its even part of the strategy (Alright - you go run over there and aggro the whole group and then run, we'll get the loot and if you die, we'll just met you back at town or res you). Can you imagine this coversation ever happening in the Real World (tm)? But of course, MMOs aren't really made to simulate reality, they are made to simulate fun.

In the newest edition of D&D (4E coming in June) they are changing some of the details of death. Now I don't have all the details yet, just what has been leaked, but what is relevant are the following two points.

1.) Death will be more rare. Effects that cuase you to Save or Die will not happen as often (at all?) and it will be harder to kill characters in general.

However

2.) Death in the heroic teir (levels 1-10) will be final. New character time. Death in the paragon tier (11-20) may be mitigated in some way with difficulty (read:Time as our last discussion focused on). Death at Epic level (21-30) will be a speed bump.

I think the designers of D&D may be on to something that the MMO industry could adopt as well. Let me explain. In most games the "healer" archetypes can not ressurect at first level (assuming a level based system). This is often a skill or ability delayed until some mid-point. Before that you are often forced into the more painful and time-consuming routes (haha, screw you newb, you can not complete this quest with your friends because you have to go back to the res circle, pwnd).

So we already have some level based progression of how res abilities work. In several games, the various res methods will also vary in the amount of "pain" of death they cause. i.e. different methods of coming back cause different suites of penalties.

Why don't we just take it the rest of the way.

Assuming a level based game of levels 1-60 I could see the following progression. 1-10 (or 20) death = death. At this low stage of hero-dom, you die means you die. No resurrection available. 11 (or 21) -40 - Death progresses in much the same way it currently does with different and sensible penalty suites (that are NOT losing XP, I think it is clear that XP loss is almost universally revilled). 41-60 - Death as a Speed Bump - Easily coming back with only the minimum penalties to allow proper game play (no zerging, etc.).

Now I can hear the screams through your computer screens already. ANy of you involved in the industry are laughing at my idea as yet another delusional call for perma death. However, you haven't heard the crux of my idea yet. The changes above, if implemented as written into a modern MMO would simply fail, miserably. They would cause players to get angry and leave. To make these ideas feasable, you have make one giant change in MMOs, you have to make death a far harder thing to occur. For something like the changes I am discussing, you would simply have to die a great deal less.

I remember playing early EQ and my little gnome necromancer had gotten in over his head. A skeleton knocked me down and my bar went from its normal health color to a purple color. The monster then struck me one or two more times and I died. When I asked a friend who had played for a while what this was he said, the monster knocked you out, then killed you. The purple bar was your "unconcious" health. The idea of falling unconscious at 0 was another idea cribbed from D&D that has not been utilized in the future generations of EQ clones.

A clever, easy (and most importantly, quick, no one wants to sit there and stare at the screen while your little digital self takes a nap for more than 10 seconds) system such as an evolved unconsciousness system could serve well to this effort. Allowing defeat (and skills that bring you back to fighting strength) without actually causing death. Mosters would fell you and then most of the time walk away, resetting their aggro and a few seconds later would arise again at a lower health or with some penalties (or whatever) and be able to rejoin the fight. The options for TRUE death could be rare in the game, perhaps even sectioned off to certain instances, bosses or legendary creatures. After all, the heroes of epic tales don't die fighting the chumps and yard trash of the world, they die fighting similarly legendary villains. LoTRO almost did something interesting with the idea you are defeated rather than killed in battle.However, with no other alternative such as really dying, they simply swapped mechanic wholly for another (that does fit better within the lore of the world, but creates no difference ultimately in the way the game is played).

Ultimately, I believe that the way death and defeat are handled in MMOs has a very rich and vast amout of design space that can still be explored and mined for interesting play options. Once again though , I will leave it to you to discuss and decide if what I have said has some insight or are the simple ramblings of a mad man.

Until next time, May death only be a speed bump.

Death Inevitable or "Weebles Wobble but they don't fall down" Pt. 1

Posted by PhatWOP Friday February 8 2008 at 9:46AM
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Hello again all,

Today I would like to discuss that inevitable conclusion that must eventually be written into the stories of all our lives; death. Of couse, being that we're talking about MMOs, death is much less frightening than the real thing. No glorious calls in battle, tearful farwells before war or setting oneself adrift on an ice-flow.

In the first part of this two part series, I would like to discuss death penalties and what each of them mean going forward. As any game moves through the development phase there is without a doubt an argument that arises on that games forums about the death penalty, what is should be and how severe. Opinions usually range from perma-death-insta-character-deletion and goons dispatched to your house to rough you up some for failure to you should instanta-res with zero penalty and free gold for your troubles.

Alright I may be exaggerating a tad.

But none the less, it is a hotly contested issue and there is a great amount of disagreement on where the market should move. Before I discuss the future though, we need to establish what penalties are possible.

XP Loss

Ahhh, the olden days. When games were more or less cribbed directly from D&D, the loss of experience upon death was the norm. Some games had arbitrary caps such as you could not level down (DAoC) while other games cheerfully announced your failure to everyone around you (FFXI). This has been dying recently and most gamers seem pretty happy about it, though a vocal minority vociferiously defends this as the only penalty that is truly "fair" or "correct". This system is undoubtedly the most harsh of all the penalties.

XP Debt

I place CoH as the bridge between 1st and 2nd generation MMO's. The features it offers has a foot in both worlds. XP Debt was the best example of this. They never took away the XP you earned, so you could never go "backwards" but you gained debt upon death and had to pay that off with 1/2 of your future XP earnings until it was erased. Creative, but as the second generation arose, this died away. Less harsh, but still a significant barrier in the way of advancement. Also, I don't know, did Superman have XP debt when he came back after his death? Seemed more like a debuff penalty to me.

Item Wear

Upon death, your gear loses some % of its durability (10%, 25%, etc). This penalty hits you where it hurts the most, the pocketbook. So you may still be able to advance in level with only a minor hiccup in time, but finnancially, you experience some harship and are slowed in that way. One of the milder penalites psychologically although perhaps also one of the harder ones to square with reality. "Oh crap I died, I guess my Nike tennis shoes are 10% less nice now!"

Res/Retreat Points

When you come back, you come back at a res or return point, so you are out time returning to your destination. The true penalty of this depends on how many of these points are scattered in the world and whether or not you are in a group. If there are few points and you are in a large group (that can not res you for some reason if that mechanic is in the game) you are now separated from your friends (by possibly mobs as well as space).

DeBuff

When you come back, you have a debuff, such as a flat negative to max HPs, damage done, attack power or some other statistic. The penalty here is that you can not jump right back into the fray without hesitation and it can interrupt whatever you are doing for a few minutes. This is likely the lightest of the penalties depending on the length of the debuff. This is also the penalty most likely to illicit the quotes from the Princess Bride such as "Give him a break, he's been mostly dead all day."

Corpse Hunt

In this system, you rise as a spirit or something of that nature and have to run to your body. This is a pure time penalty as opposed to the Res Point return as generally in this spirit form, you can not interact with the rest of the world (or be attacked, etc). Again, the true penalty of this depends on where your corpse is and how far you have to go to get there.

Note that of the five systems I list above, many games use more than one penalty, some even giving you options to choose whether you want the wear or to corpse hunt for example. I think it can be stated that the industry and the market as a whole wants to move away from the harsher death penalties. Vanguard had recently touted its "Extreme" death penalties during production only to have to soften their stance as the game developed. The game flopped by modern standards (though that probably had more to due with bugs and negative press than the death issue).

Notice also that all of these penalties really break down to the same thing, to the one ultimate currency that we can not make more of, no matter how hard we try;TIME. If I lose XP, I must work to regain that XP, costing me time, if I suffer item wear, I must spend money to repair it, which takes more time, and so on. Ultimately, the penalty for death in these games is some amount of time. Time is the one currency we as human beings hate to lose because each moment wasted is one moment closer to our own deaths, and sadly, I have not seen any res circles for us as of yet.

The question then becomes how much time is appropriate to "charge" and which penalty has the least psychological impact on the player. Obviously the company would be interested in minimizing the psychological impact because each time they mentally "injure" the player, there is more a chance he will stop playing.

I do not know what exactly the correct answer is, we need some penalty to stop zerging and make it feel worth it when you succeed, but not so much that people become timid and refuse to try anything heroic or epic because of the fear of death. Ultimately its something that will happen to every character, so we are not just deciding something arbitrary, but a part of the game everyone will experience as surely as they will hit level 10 on their way to 50 (assuming a level based game of course).

I am not going to give my answer this time, but instead allow some discussion to fester over the weekend, that is assuming anyone actually reads this massive bloated and most likely boring post.

Until next time, Don't you go dyin' on me!

Moving a Chair or "I can make fire from my fingertips, but I can't move a napkin"

Posted by PhatWOP Wednesday February 6 2008 at 9:03AM
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Welcome back,

Much has been made in the past few years (especially since the emergence and dominence of WoW) about the difference between a Rollercoaster game (the EQ Model) and a Sandbox game (the UO Model). I certainly do not want to start that debate again, but I would like to discuss an issue that I feel is underpinning this debate: Interactivity.

I feel the real thrust fo the people who support the sandbox is a drive for interactivity. Now understand, I don't mean community here, or interactivity with their fellow players, I mean with the world that has been created for them to inhabit.

i.e. When I went outside of Mos Eisley in SWG, it might look totally different than it had two weeks earlier. Buildings, Harvesters, NPCs, etc all might have changed because of what the players have done. Compare to when I walk into any given part of the Barrens, it will be exactly the same as it always has been (barring a patch or someone in the middle of training the area).

As I said, I do not want to discuss which of these is superior, only that I feel people prefer the first situation because of the increased interactivity with the world.

In our real lives (or RL for you crazy kids), some part of a great many peoples motivation is to have a lating impat on the world. We work, write, research, create and share iwth others in the hopes our efforts and labors will bring about some lasting change to the world. Whether we are working to cure cancer or just trying to teach our children to read and write.

So it would make sense that our digital selves also have a deep seeded desire to have some lasting impact on the world. But this need is often unsatisfied even at the most basic level.

The title refers to the fact that in many games (be they sandbox or rollercoaster) I might be capable of amazing feats; shooting fire from my eyeballs, summoning demons, flying, crushing hordes of foes with one swing of my oversized axe, whatever. However, when I walk into a city and look at a napkin or candlestick sitting on a table, I can't move it. For all my power to shake the earth and send villains fleeing in terror, a simple table place-setting defeats me.

Now currently, this sort of thing most likely happens because of simple technological restrictions. The server and our connections to them can not process the hundreds of thousands of interactable objects that would be required to truly move things or have the most basic of innocuous effects on the world around me. Everyone would simply lag out and the game would resemble something along the lines of a slide show being run on a 286. To show just how serious this is, let me give an example. In the early days of SWG they were starting to get large amounts of server wide lag. They couldn't figure out what was doing it, but they suspected that as the players populated the world with more and more items (houses, harvesters, etc) the servers were lagging. They ran a server wide test and found the problem was not with the players specifically, it was with melons. Yes, fruit was their bane. You see each character, upon creation, received three melons in his or her backpack. Food was not required, so most people did nothing with these melons and just let them sit in their back-pack since space was also abundant. It turns out, there was so many thousands of melons it was dragging down the servers (among other items).

However, the technological limitation argument is moot. Eventually, 5 years, 10 years, whatever, we will conquer that barrier. Our bandwidth will be large enough, our computers fast enough, our servers robust enough, to be able to handle the load.

What then?

What happens when people have the ability not only to summon comets from the heavens to crush their foes, to cause the air around their enemies to freeze as ice and lock them in place, to summon the raw elemental fury of nature, but also to pick up a chair in an inn and carry it with them?

In the real world, we don't go around randomly moving things for many reasons. It's rude (and we are socially conditioned not to touch others things), there's not much reason to greif in RL and most importantly, chairs are heavy and awkward. Why in the world would I carry a chair around?

In a digital world however, where there is no "weight" restriction (and to implement a system like that has just as many problems, loot, multiple outfits, weapons, all things we have become accustomed to) what is to stop people from simply rearranging the world at their whim?

Can the world, whichever digital world it is that achieves this feat, survive if we have the level of interactivity we seem to want, to crave?

I am not ending this article with an answer, just he question, as I feel this is a major issue developers and gamers will be grappling with in the coming years and growth of this genre.

Until next time, may you not be weighed down by three melons.

IP's and MMO's or They're Remaking THAT Again?

Posted by PhatWOP Monday February 4 2008 at 8:58AM
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Let's take an imaginary walk into the future. I say imaginary because of course we can't really do that. If we could, I would have already went to the future, stole a book of sports game results, come back into the present and caused a whole host of hilarious and wacky hijinks that would need to be solved, most likely in a sequel.

But I digress.

On our imaginary walk into the future, besides paying heed to our evntual robotic monkey overlords, I would like to examine the landscape of MMO's in that time period. I am particulary interested in a sub-set of the MMO genre in the future, MMO's built on established IPs (Intellectual Properties). A breif examination of the current crop of available games and the upcoming games scheduled, rumored or in the works shows me that we are already mining deep into the established IP vein of ore. So question becomes, what happens when this vein runs dry?

What will we do when there are no more super-popular IPs to build upon? No preset fan-bases to attract simply because of the brand the game is associated with?

Answer: It will never happen.

Let me explain by way of analogy. Movies, another form of entertainment media, are often based on established IPs. However, the well never runs dry for in addition to sequels (another popular convention in both MMOs and Movies), you can always simply remake the movie. Consider that since the inception of film, Pride and Prejudice has been remade more than 8 times for both television and the big screen. Last year's big budget extravaganza I Am Legend was at least the the third remake of that novel. How many times has a Superman movie been made for television or the big screen?

I did not pick twenty years into the future randomly or arbitrarily. It is roughly a generation, roughly the amount of time it takes for something to pass out of the social conscious and beg to be reintroduced. Batman Begins was alsmot twenty years after the original, which was roughly twenty years after the television show and so on.

I submit to you that the flagship MMOs of twenty years from now will look strikingly similar to today's MMOs. In fact, somemay even be remakes of MMOs during our time period that have gained enough mainstream fame to become their own popular IP. It certainly seems resonable that twenty or thirty years from now, an all new WoW or CoH could come out and ply on nostalgia for the "early days" of MMOs to build marketing traction.

In fact, we may already be seeing the earliest part of this trned right now. We are all familiar with the rumor of the Star Wars relaunch under Bioware. That would be the first "remake" of a great IP where the initial one has passed away (in this case due to ineptitude, but it could just as easily be due to time for other IPs).

So as usual, our walk into the future has not produced visions of flying cars, jet packs or food in delicious pill form, but instead, a world that looks much like our own. MMO's with names like World of Warcraft: The New Beginning or Lord of the Rings Experience, etc. On the bright side, that also means if there is currently an MMO in existence or development based on one of your favorite intellectual properties and you don't like the direction its going, just wait twenty or so years; they'll remake it.

Until Next Time, May you only experience the Best version.

What's In A Name or A IPWNj00 is just as dumb by any name Pt. 3 (Final)

Posted by PhatWOP Friday February 1 2008 at 8:31AM
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Welcome back for (mercifully) the last time on this topic. Naming.

Today, I thought I would talk a bit about the evolving nature of the Name Police. Before that though, let's review our four main species of Namer. 1ee7 Kids, Funny Namer, Same Namer and Name Copiers. I should also note that in discussions with various people,  many have said "I tend to name things funny, but sometimes I will also reuse a name" or something similar. The point they are driving at is that they never fall completely into one single psychographic profile. Well of course. In practice, at the moment you are staring at the character creation screen, watching your freshly created digital self stand around and stare back at you, begging for an identity through those sad 1's and 0's, your motivation may be any of myriad possibilities. The groupings just state what you will do in the long term. That is to say, if you name 100 MMO characters (as I am sure I have, creating heroes in CoH may have been more fun than the game itself), the profile is the way you will act most of the time.

That being said, let's move onto the topic I brought you here to discuss. Naming policies. In the early days, naming policies were pretty loose. The l337 d00Ds flouished and I remember several great articles online doing things like having "an actual interview with a 1337 d00d", etc. As time has progressed, the poor 1337 dudes have suffered the most. Naming policies mostly ban numbers and strange capital letters from names. Funny namers will suffer depending on how serious the lore-nazis are of that particular world as will the name copiers.

The only group that has escaped the stricter naming policies more or less unharmed is the Same Namers. They can happily continue on, repeating their palatable name over and over through multiple incarnations. It seems, as a sub-culture, MMO enthusiats have spoken and the consensus is that we don't like those shenannigans!

At least, that is what the game-makers seem to think. They have changed their naming policies to respond better to market forces. They have no incentive to apply random rules or restrictions and drive people away, so they must honestly feel that this is what people want. But is it really?

As I have stated, 3 out of the 4 "main name species" I have identified have their tendencies restricted under the trend of modern MMO polices. I submit to you that this is not because we all want to use lore-appropriate-names, or have a character, I submit to you, that this is another case of racing for the bottom, the Lowest Common Denominator theory if you will.

Let me explain.

Each group can generally be annoyed by at leat one other group (maybe more in the case of the 1337 d00d). So the funny namers complain about the 1337 d00d (that's not funny, it's just stupid), the Same Namers complain about the Funny Namers (because its not in character), the Funny Namer's complain about the Name Copiers (because, again, still not funny, just stupid, jeez these people are lame) and then everyone complains about the 1337 d00d (because they just got ganked by them). The whole time the only thing that no one is complaining about is the Same Namers (because they are not standing out enough to draw ire for their monikers).

To the developers however, all they see is alot of complaints that eventually pile up. They ban one type of infraction, then another, remove a certain option from names, then another. Until eventually, all you have left is vanillia. Boring, cardboard, lore-palatable names. Many people may ask, "Is there a problem with that?" My answer is "I don't know".

Maybe that isn't a problem, perhaps that is really what the market wants. My concern is simlpy that things are being removed from name possibilites because of a vocal minority when if the name was held up to the majority, most would find it perfectly acceptable. At the very least, we have progressed, in the digital world, to far stricter naming regulations than exist in the real world, where parents are naming their kids Winner, Loser, Orange Drink and other assorted craziness (see Freakanomics if you want to see a real indepth and fascinating examination of modern real world insano names).

I worry about Circus Freak(EQ), Kermit DaFrog (DAoC), Imature (UO), Middle Manager (CoH), Papa Smurf (DAoC), BigGreenPuffball (WoW) and so many more character's I have created and laughed at in the past and wonder if that type of name is walking that final Green Mile. I certainly hope not.

Until Next time

If someone insults your name, just tell them it's french they are insulting your cultural heritage, its pronounced Cer-coos - Fru-eak.

Whats In A Name or A IPWNj00 is just as dumb by any name pt. 2

Posted by PhatWOP Wednesday January 30 2008 at 8:31AM
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Hello again all,

I would like to continue our little discussion about naming today with two more very popular archetypes. My hope is that with some furhter anthropological exploration, we can determine more about these strange and exotic species.

Let's start with a group I call the Same Namers. Same Namers use the same name for their character's in every game. It doesn't matter what game it is, they have a set name for a "character" and that is simply what they use. So if Ragabon is their Warrior in WoW, it is also their Bounty Hunter in SWG, their Black Orc in WAR and so on. This group is the most mystifying to me and also the most stealthy of the namers. YOu have to either a) know them over several games or b) know them personally to even be aware of their habits. That's right, you too could currently be good friends or even guildmates with Same Namers and not even know it. This group is also made up of two major psychogrpahic profiles. The first type of person who inhabits this group doesn't particularly care about names at all. They play the game for some other reason besides "inhabiting the digital world". They care very little about Role-Playing and simply want to get at the crunch of the game. As such, they long ago decided on a vanillia name that serves their purposes well enough and they see no need to change.

Ironically, the second major part of this group is the exact opposite. The second part of this grouping has developed a Character. They are strong role-players and no matter the game they are playing THAT character. They also like the ability this constant name gives them to be recognized by friends and guildmates across multiple platforms. Perhaps this character originated outside of MMO's at a table-top game, perhaps it represents a deep-seeded part of the players real psychology that goes underexpressed in daily life. It's hard to say for sure. Whatever the true reason for this manifestation, they are playing that character. It could be a bad-ass warrior woman who takes no guff from her male counter-parts and has had to strugle for respect her whole life, or a mischevous roguish type that is a perrenial con-man with a heart of gold. Whatever the character, it's malleable enough that it can fit into any genre with very little coaxing. This species is definetly a herbivore, with standard day/night cycle rotations and a strong pack mentality.

Let us now move onto the second Species we will discuss today. The Name Copiers. They are a completely different species from the Same Namers. These are people who are named Leggolass, legolass, yodahh, Vadar, etc. Their are countless examples and the most interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it is not restricted to the IP's they are copying. Certainly you will see close approximations of the famous characters in LoTRO, but I saw all of these same fellowship copying names in DAoC and UO as well.

But what can we know about this group? This groups closest analogue is actually the 1337 d00d. These tend to be the kinder gentler form of that species. I do believe that this group actually tends to be on the younger side as it is easier for children to try to replicate their heroes and idols in a digital form without remorse or concern over the lack of creativity. This group is the true enemy of the funny name species. The funny name species believes that it has to strive to be original in every game and it wants more than anything to draw attention to itself for it's originality and humor. This group is exactly the opposite in that they end up drawing attention to themselves for their complete lack of creativity. This group is currently on the endangered species list ans naming policies in many MMOs are attempting to eradicate this tenacious species. Despite the efforts, the species lives on, adding secondary and/or nonsensical consanents and vowels at every opportunity.

Next time, in the final Blog on naming, I discussnaming policies in games and whether or not they can ever be successful.

Until next time, may you never find yourself in a group of Leggolass, Aragern, Lucc Skyrunner, Gramm the Punchy and Connnan.

What's In A Name or A IPWNj00 is just as dumb by any name Pt. 1

Posted by PhatWOP Monday January 28 2008 at 9:47AM
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I would like to speak today for a few brief moments on Naming.

In the real world, there are few things more important to our individual ideanties than our name. When we walk into a retail store, we see many employees surrounding us replete with bright blue, red or some-other-primary-color-that-alledgedly-makes-you-want-to-buy-stuff shirts and, most importantly, a name tag. When I call offices, the first thing the person says is usually "This is X Smith, thank you for calling." Our names are what we feel separate us from all of those around us, even if we have a more common moniker, something like a Chad Jones or Bob Smith, our name is still always uniquely ours.

So it would make sense if the same sensibilities applied to choosing the ID for our small digital self when we enter an MMO. Only now, the process is reversed. Instead of our name determining something about us and our personalty by hanging over our head as the sword of Damacles throughout our entire youth, now we determine the name and it has to speak ABOUT us. There are many common sayings that if I know a certain small aspect of a person (the car they drive, the job they have, the fast food restaurant they most often patronize, etc) I can extrapolate to know a great deal about that person. I would like to humbly add to that great list of hyperbole, MMO Names. I think few things are more instructive of the real person's greater personality than the name they choose for their digital self.

I think we can identify a couple major groups of name "species". All members of that name species will have similar characteristics and actions. Let's do some digital anthropology.

The first group is probably not th emost common, but it seems as such based on the annoyance you feel when you see them. The 1337 boi. The l337 kids will generally have names including numbers (if that games name system allows it) and a mix of small letters and CAPS iN tH3 wR0nG p14C3s (again, if allowed). In games with stricter naming policies, they will simply cut to the chase and name themselves somthing like "spitonu" or "pwnjoo". Most often these names also have the undertones of killing, maiming, destoying and/or otherwise "owning" you (but not in a slavery way). The most common assumption is that these are all 12 year old kids who don't have the maturity to act in line with the game in question. I think this is only half-true. The second type of person in this species are fully-grown adults who know that everyone thinks they are children, and use this as a cover to let their id's run wild. Protected by the annonimity of the internet and the stigma that there is no way a rational adult would act in such a fashion, they are free to travel the world, /spit'ing on whomever they choose. I think the defining feature of this group is they do not play well with members outside their species. They are definetly carnivores and tend to be nocturnal.

The second major group is the "comedy" name people. They play the game to laugh and escape. This is a large group and sadly, the group I most likely count myself among. I try to fit withing the flavor of the world if possible, but I want to be funny and that is often more important to me. I think this group tends to be achiever's with a sense of humor and are often detached from the lore of the world they are playing in. Role-Playing is also probably a low-prioity for tihs group as its hard to take a character named "Circus Freak" as my bearded female dwarf in EQ was, seriously. I had an undead rogue named Trenchfoot (I thought that was a nice win, it felt appropriate and funny) and a Ratonga Necro named Reapercheep in EQ2 (which btw, is the funny name I am most proud of in my 10+ years of playing MMOs). I would like to make a special shout-out here to another character I did not name but has stayed in my memory to this day. A wookie from SWG named Tu-Pacca. First off, that is one of the funniest names I have ever head, period. Secondly, Tu-Pacca's back story was something like "Tu-Pacca grew up on the rough streets of Corillia shooting chance cubes in the alleys". I think I honestly fell out of my chair when I saw that. I think the defning feature of this species is that they tend to want to get along with anyone who is funny and drama-lite (tm). They are omnivores and tend to have a normal Day-Night schedule.

That's all for this installment. Next time we look at two new and exciting species Name Repeaters (same name in every game) and Name Copiers (Legolass, Leggolas, Llegolass, etc).

Until next time,

May your name say only nice things about you.