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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

The Neverwinter Nights Experiment: Player-Created Content

Posted by Ortwig Saturday June 30 2012 at 12:50PM
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One of the more interesting experiments in computer gaming was Bioware’s Aurora toolset for the single-player RPG, Neverwinter Nights.  With the toolkit, players could create their own adventures within the game and make them available to other players in the online community.  The tools proved surprisingly popular, and many modules sprung up.  And even though Bioware no longer supports the toolset, the community continues to develop adventures using them, even to this day.
The experiment harks back, once again, to tabletop roleplaying, where players were always encouraged to create their own adventure scenarios.  Sure, many commercial modules were available, and these were always available to groups who didn’t have time to write up their own stories.  But creating your own adventure, running it for your friends, was at the heart of roleplaying—nothing was more satisfying.
The Aurora tookit was created in 2002, and another, the Electron toolset, was released in 2006 with Neverwinter Nights 2.  Although Electron added support for multi-player and persistent worlds, it didn’t catch on as well, quite possibly because NWN2 wasn’t as popular as the original.  Now, Cryptic Studios is working on the Neverwinter MMORPG, and recently announced that The Foundry toolset will be released as part of that game, currently in development. 
I’m not positive, but this could be the first time tools such as these will be available in a true MMO.  Cryptic has said they are introducing a peer-review system, which would allow players to rate and review adventures others have created, allowing the best content to be seen by the most people.  The jury is out as to whether a marketplace will be set up around these adventures, but this all strikes me as great news, not only for the players who wish to create these sorts of adventures, but also for the industry.
The current model for MMOs is for new players to leap in, on the day of release, and play as much content as they can.  For game developers, that same day is the day they begin working on content for the next big update.  Players are always hungry for new content and features within their world, and one of the major attractions to an MMO is that those updates can continue as long as people are interested in the world (and the game company is making money). 
But what if game companies could exponentially grow the number of developers for their worlds by taking on volunteers?  Simply put, they have a whole new source of content that, while possibly not as professional as an official update, has the sheer advantage of numbers.  If 1 out of 10 submissions are pretty darn good and players have a way to find that good submission, you’ve got additional content that players enjoy, while freeing up the development team to work on major features and official content for the world.  Everybody wins.
And I wonder if these player-created adventures might actually teach developers and other players using the tools a thing or two.  Perhaps a unique way of using characters within the game, or an especially challenging way of setting up the terrain for a battle, or an intriguing mystery will make their way through; we all learn a bit from each other about how to craft better stories.  You really only need look at the iPhone AppStore to see how opening up a marketplace can release a well of creativity.
For it to work, though, the tools have to be up to the task.  If the audience for the tools is hardcore programmers, the output will be limited and I would predict, not as diverse.  It looks, however, that the audience for the Foundry will be all Neverwinter players, and that the tools will be accessible in game. 
What are the kinds of things players would want in a toolset?
Dungeon Creation
This one’s a no-brainer, and it looks like out of the box, players will be able create underground maps and such.  My guess is that these dungeons will be instanced, and only enterable by those who have downloaded the dungeon from the marketplace.  Scenario writers should be able to add traps, loot, NPCs, objects (furniture, room features, etc.), and, of course, monsters.
Outdoor Areas
On top of dungeons, writers should be able to create outdoor terrain.  It might be a lot to ask for all the terrain tools that the game developer have at their disposal, but perhaps a subset of these that are easy to select and manipulate would be fine.  Being able to select the locale within the larger world, and inherit that area’s weather effects and other properties would be excellent.  Scenario writers should be able to populate outdoors areas similar to dungeons.
Monster and Loot allocation
If the game is level-based, writers should be able to draw on a stable of creatures appropriate to the level.  Monsters might have additional abilities that can be assigned, or they might be of the generic variety.  The loot budget could also be based on the level, and perhaps the targeted number of players for the scenario.  Writers should also be able to create a number of superior bad guys, or “bosses,” and this would almost be the same as creating a player character.  Special abilities would be assignable to the boss, and you should even be able to give them scripts or speeches, possibly triggering events.
Triggers, Timers and Events
There should be a feature that allows players to assign timers to certain events.  Perhaps a trap triggers 30 seconds after a door has been opened.  Or an alarm triggers a squad of monsters that will arrive shortly after a chest has been opened.  You could even assign deadlines for the players to do something, and if not completed, a change in the environment takes places.  The idea here is to allow scenario writers to be creative in the use of timers, and provide as many options and abilities as possible.
Non-Player Characters
Adding other characters that provide information to players through interactive dialogue or scripts is essential, as is the ability to add characters that can assist players in parts of the adventure.  Of course, audio tools that allow you to record character speeches would be fantastic.  Not sure which would be better—using your own voice to create character (hopefully you are a decent actor, or know someone who is), or a text-to-speech engine that has great voice acting.  The latter might be asking for a lot, but perhaps there are already products already out there that could be used.
Objects of Interest
Besides simple loot, items that can provide information or clues to players is important.  A scribbled note, an ancient tome, a tablet with strange hieroglyphics—these are all things that players should be able to assemble and place in key locations to advance the plot.  It would be amazing if writers had the access to a variety of fonts, letting them create unique looking-objects.  Perhaps a standard object—let’s say a “musty old tome” could have an entire history written into it that is key to the scenario, or maybe it’s just an interesting red herring.
Assign Disposition
This is an odd one, but I think a key tool.  If scenario writers can assign any NPC or monster, “friendly,” “neutral” or “hostile,” they can also switch those dispositions to something different based on player actions, in-game triggers or a timer.  This can play a huge role in creating plot for the adventure, and will make for much more interesting adventures.  Imagine an NPC who is triggered to betray the party at right as they are encountering the boss, or a monster that has reasons to be helpful.
Many of these features were available in the previous Aurora and Electron toolsets – it will be interesting to see how they play out in The Foundry.  What are some things that could push them to a new level?  It might be asking for the sky, but hey, might as well throw a few out there:
PvP Mode
What if a referee and/or friends had the option of playing the monsters and NPC’s real-time in game?  If you really wanted to replicate the tabletop experience, you could play the scenario in “PvP Mode”, which would divide the players into 2 teams – one playing the NPCs and one the adventuring party.   With a voice chat client like Ventrilo, the referee could roleplay the monsters in game, and the party playing their own characters.  Perhaps a small icon would appear over the designated party member or monster as they “speak” using the chat client.   The referee might also have additional combat controls, allowing a real person to play the bad guys, turning it into a more challenging scenario than simple computer-generated monsters.  If you have enough players, the referee could enlist friends to play more monsters in the game, making the entire scenario player rather than computer controlled.  By the way, this isn’t actually new—Lord of the Rings Online has PVMP, Player vs. Monster-Player, which basically has players taking on the role of monsters in the game.
Weather and Time Effects
What if the scenario writer really wants to ensure the big confrontation happens on a dark and stormy night?  Or on a sunny morning?   It would be great to ensure that the world effects could be set over the course of the adventure.  The weather would have to be compatible with the weather patterns of the area where the scenario is set, but referees should be able to choose the actual effects inside the instance.  On top of this, the writer should be able to set the overall ambient lighting – is the mood dark and mysterious or bright and sunny?  Again, writers shouldn’t have the full set of developer tools, but perhaps the tools have several packaged settings that are selectable as the scenario writer builds his landscapes.
It’s easy to forget this one, but music plays a huge role in the mood of the scenario – again it would be great if some prepackaged scores (“forboding,” “light-hearted,” “heroic”) were available, or perhaps writers could choose from themes already in the game.  The ability to set a theme to a trigger seems key.
Neverwinter seems to be the only game that’s doing anything in the player-generated content space—Neverwinter was originally a Dungeons & Dragons setting—but it’s exciting to see the tools finally making it to the MMO, where they make the most sense.  Keeping an eye on The Foundry and looking for more news as development of the game progresses—it’s good to see developers remembering online gaming’s roots in tabletop roleplaying.


The Quiet MMO: Lord of the Rings Online

Posted by Ortwig Saturday June 23 2012 at 11:14AM
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I logged into Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) for the first time a year ago, knowing it was a free-to-play game, and, feeling a little weary of the level and gear grind, wanting to try out an alternative to the World of Warcraft (WoW) leviathan.  There had been something of a hub-bub over LOTRO going free in 2010—it was one of the first to do so—but other than that, I was a bit surprised how such a well-known title had such a quiet following.  Or maybe it was just that the Warcraft crowd was bigger and louder. 
I rolled an elf Hunter (Ranged Damage) from Mirkwood and named him Gilthalas.  Other character classes available are Burglar (Stealth), Captain (Support Warriors), Champion (Pure Warrior), Guardian (Close Defensive Warrior), Lore-master (Elemental Magic Damage), Minstrel (Healing Magic), Rune-keeper (Rune Magic Healing / Damage), and Warden (Ranged Defensive Warrior).  Playable races are Dwarf, Elf, Hobbit, and Man, each with several options for homeland.
There are quite a few more controls during character creation for designing your character look.  In fact, many of the newer MMOs, with the possible exception of Star Wars: The Old Republic, seem to give you more options here – I find that I tend to leave my first character pretty generic, but I do like having these options, especially once I get invested.
The initial scenario is pretty scripted, with Gilthalas being asked to help fend off an attack on an Eriadoran stronghold– these scenarios are designed, of course, to teach new players how to work the controls and introduce them to MMOs.  I distinctly remember thinking that the turning and movement controls felt strange, and ended up opting for using the mouse exclusively for movement; in WoW, I use the keyboard, so again, just noted it as a quirk I would need to get used to.  At the time, LOTRO seemed a little clunky, with small, sometimes hard-to-read menus – not a lot of difference, but enough that I had to work a bit to find my way around the interface. 
That said, there are some pretty significant similarities between WoW and LOTRO.  There’s a hot bar along the bottom, with buttons for commonly accessed items such as bags, character sheet, quest log and special abilities.  A mini-map of the area sits in pretty much the same place as WoW, and many of the keybinds are exactly the same—‘M” to pull up the map for instance.  Active quests are displayed along the right side of the page, and monster and NPC names float above characters, just as in WoW.  Also very similar is the quest pick-up and turn-in model, with rings instead of exclamation and question marks, floating above NPCs who have quests to hand out.  Text descriptions are written out in dialogue boxes, again, much like in WoW.
I played over a few days, taking on the first few quests, several of which were open, instanced dungeons, and then set the game aside.  I remember thinking at the time that overall the game felt like a less-polished WoW, and didn’t touch it again for another 6 months. 
Then came PAX East, the Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World beta weekends, and, in the lull afterwards, I found myself wanting to try out LOTRO again.  And, strangely enough, I found myself pulled back into the game.  I had started slow, but LOTRO has a way of growing on you. 
Some subtle things began to become apparent.  Architecture throughout the world was less “cookie cutter” than in WoW; most buildings look unique and different.  Important buildings such as the inn at Bree are actually instanced, making the building an environment of its own. 
Natural creatures (bears, boars, etc.) did not automatically attack me when I got a little close, even at low levels; instead they “threatened to attack” and often did not.  When they did, and I chose not to fight, they gave chase for only a short while before giving up.  In all, this made for a nicer, more realistic traveling experience.  In WoW, if you step too close, you will always—no question—be attacked.
Most travel is by land (foot or horse), so there is no flying over key content as is possible in WoW, and Milestones (the LOTRO equivalent of Hearthstones) have a 90 minute cooldown; I find that I actually prefer that travel be a consideration, rather than a mere inconvenience.  When using a horse at a stable to swiftly carry you to the next town, you have the option to dismount at any time if you see something interesting. 
And there are a lot of interesting nooks in LOTRO.  Little items that could be significant, ruins in the distance that may not have anything to do with your current goal, but beckon you to explore.  The soundtrack music is quieter, less bombastic, perhaps more bucolic (guitars are heard frequently), leaving room to hear the sounds of birds or wilderness animals; in general, the ambient experience of LOTRO is superior to the cartoon aesthetic of WoW.  At one point, as I was traveling through a field of flowers outside Bree, I was shocked to see a flock of birds making their way across a cloudy sky.   Panning down, the flowers stand taller than my character. 
Other small bits: character housing is available, and dyes are available to tailor the look of your clothes.  A few other things I haven’t spent time figuring out yet are bartering and deeds, and I am sure much more.  The crafting system is similar to WoW’s, but somehow feels more organic and natural.
But more than all this, I found myself actually reading, and being drawn into, the quests.  Part of this, I think, is the influence of the books on the overall tone.  Character voice plays an important part in this—all quest dialogue is written in the high Tolkien style—but it’s also the feeling that the quests carry more weight in this world, that you are participating in, and doing something that really is affecting, the story.   
One quest begins with a local dwarven blacksmith asking you to help find the culprit who has stolen one of his swords.  A bit of poking around and you find the perpetrator, but his story is that his family is being threatened unless he produces a blade for group of local ruffians.   Oddly, the other local townsmen mention that the perpetrator “always has an excuse.”  Interesting.   It turns out that the fellow is being threatened, but that the sword doesn’t do him much good.  When the brigand tests the stolen sword on some local wildlife, it breaks, and the brigand killed (hmm, the dwarf was bragging about the quality of his blades, too).  The gang retaliates by kidnapping the perpetrator’s daughter.  Of course, Gilthalas is asked to rescue her.  The rescue is no picnic either – you need to break into the brigand stronghold and protect the daughter from being killed in the escape attempt.  Turns out this last part of the quest really could use a group to handle the number of bad guys, but by this time, you feel pretty invested in the rescue, and want to help the poor girl out of her predicament.  Quest quality I think is one of the main reasons I am really beginning to think of LOTRO as a game I will be playing more often.
One other note—I think LOTRO may lend itself a bit more to roleplayers.  WoW plays its fantasy with a bit of a wink and a nudge, while LOTRO maintains that high Tolkien style; the other players I ran into during the game were friendly and tended to help each other out.  I was invited to group up on a number of occasions for small quests, and the talk over the line, if not in character, was at least in plain language instead of acronyms.  Not once did I see “DPS,” “Tank,” or “LFG” in the trade channel, and this in itself was refreshing.
I really do commend the group over at Turbine.  They’ve really stuck to the Tolkien ideal here, and have done the books justice – the John Howe-style artwork seems to be the inspiration for the way the game looks.  The world feels expansive, and more importantly for fans of the books, true.  With all the bluster of the big MMOs—Warcraft, Star Wars, Guild Wars 2—don’t overlook the quiet (1-2 million player) MMO that’s been around for 5 years now.  Lord of the Rings Online is better than you remember.

“The Serendipitous World 'Isn’t Fun'”

Posted by Ortwig Tuesday June 19 2012 at 7:35AM
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At a recent meeting with a group of game developers we were discussing the merits of quest chains vs. open, serendipitous questing. 
The original Ultima single-layer games used an open system – as you traveled through the world you might talk with a person in a village who, if you asked him about a particular subject (using a method similar to the old Zork games – trial and error typing in your own subject line), he perhaps could tell you a story with a lead you could follow up on – he might tell you of a person in another city who knew more, or possibly of an area in Brittania where an object might be found if you investigated.  There was no guide telling the player the exact location, just the name of the city or locale, and taking of notes and using your map was certainly necessary to keep track of the thread.   At any one time you might have 4-5 threads you were following, and decent-sized notebook.  If you had somehow stolen from the character or attacked him previously, you might not get the clue or thread in the story.  Ultima kept track of your behavior in the world.
Fast forward to the modern MMORPG, where “quest logs” are considered a standard model.  When you speak to your “quest giver” he or she gives you a short story, usually a text description, but sometimes in an animated cut scene – the conversation is one-sided, and most games don’t give your character the opportunity to interact other than to accept or decline the quest.  Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic uses their standard “dialogue wheel,” where you generally get to choose from 3 types of responses (typically friendly, neutral or hostile), and this has some small effect on the conversation and/or quest.   Once you have your quest, your main map almost always sprouts little markers showing you where the target of the quest is located, and your minimap often has little arrows keeping you on track for your destination.  There is no need to keep a notebook in the modern game since all the details are kept in a quest log where you can simply re-read your accepted quests. 
My point in the conversation was that people have grown so bored of this modern model that they rarely read the quests and simply run to the map markers, quickly perform whatever the quest asks, and speed back to turn in their quests, the goal being to “level-up” as quickly as possible.  I wrote about this in my last blog, and was speaking about it here in a group of folks working on improving the experience.  While part of that problem rests with impatient players, I was arguing that game design is also pushing people in this direction.  Why not just place objects in the world, I said, and let the player decide what to do with them?  Maybe they find a ransom note with some clues that may or may not be true?  How about an NPC that spins some tale that is 90% tall-tale, but 10% true, leaving the player to parse out what piece to investigate?  Why do we need quest hubs, quest lines, and decision trees at all?  “Just put the breadcrumbs out there, and let the players pick them up at their own leisure, without an assigned “quest?”  My argument was that we need to stop packaging quests and instead imbue stories within the world, and let players find and investigate them serendipitously.
“Because that’s not fun,” was the reply. 
I was stunned when I heard it, and actually couldn’t think of an immediate response at the time.  “People don’t want to take the time to figure out all those clues – they just want to get on with it.”
Really?  Because I had a ton of fun playing that style of game in my early days.  Figuring it out for myself/ourselves was a huge component of the fun in our tabletop roleplaying, and that fun extended on to Zork, Ultima, Myst, and in more recent settings, Bethesda’s Skyrim and Funcom’s The Secret World.  Sure, you can still look things up on the internet when you get stuck, but there’s a vast difference between an NPC telling you what the plot or clues are and figuring it out for yourself.  Opening that secret door in Myst was an event!  
Upon reflection, I do believe that designers think they’ll capture a larger number of players if they do more leading-by-the-nose.  I mean 10 million Warcraft players can’t be wrong, can they?  And logically, making things easier for players when they first start a game as complex as an MMORPG can only increase the likelihood they’ll stick around.  I understand the argument.  I also understand that people play these games for different reasons, and puzzle solving and roleplaying is only a fraction of them.  Not everyone will think it’s fun.  And yes, there are folks who actively hate this type of gaming, and want to spend more time bashing monsters or other players. 
But these game worlds are also big places with lots of room for different styles of play.  Heck, Warcraft just introduced Pokemon-style “pet battles” which is of course targeted at a very specific demographic.  The designers know full well that not everyone is going to like or play this feature—the great thing about it, though, is that it’s entirely optional; it’s just another part of the game that players can choose to play or ignore.
“It’s not fun?”  It may not be fun for some people, but please designers, recognize that there’s an enormous group of players out here begging you to make us use our heads for things other than min/maxing our character and optimizing our gear.

The Secret World and Level-Free Systems

Posted by Ortwig Wednesday June 6 2012 at 3:17PM
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In 1978, just about 11 years after TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons burst onto the scene, a company called Chaoisum introduced a new game: RuneQuest.  While there were many, many differences between RuneQuest and D&D, the one people point to most frequently is RuneQuest’s percentile-based skill system, and the fact there were no character “levels.”  In RuneQuest, rather than templated character classes (“fighter,” “cleric,” “thief,” etc.) with pre-defined abilities, you placed points into skills, and as you used them, each skill had the possibility to improve.  So a character might have especially good skills in longsword and shield if they were a fighter-type, or magical spells if they were a mage.  Even more of a shock, your “hit points” almost never increased.  Your ability to defend (parry or dodge or block with a shield), could become very high, but your base health stayed pretty much the same throughout your character’s life.  A lowbie character with a very lucky roll could defeat a high powered one who made a very bad roll—something unheard of in the D&D world.

At the time RuneQuest was introduced, it was a pretty radical change in tabletop gaming, and the gaming community quickly formed sides, with arguments ensuring over which system was better.  Not too long previous, though, there had been rumblings in the D&D world about “Monty Haul” gamers whose sole focus was on getting that +5 Vorpal Sword and amassing thousands of gold pieces (which in D&D also translated to experience).   Magazine articles giving Dungeon Masters advice for destroying overpowered items, or cutting back that player who had become “too powerful” for the monsters  abounded.  Sound familiar?  RuneQuest changed the focus of the game system from individual player power-ups to immersion in the adventure.  And power gamers absolutely hated RuneQuest.
Another Chaosium game was published in 1981, using essentially the same system, called Call of Cthulhu.  Based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu was the first horror RPG.  In it, characters were fundamentally less powerful than the god-like monsters, and could be quite easily killed in a pure combat confrontation.  Outwitting the monsters (sometimes fighting) was your best chance at survival, and even then it was never easy.  Call of Cthulhu became one of the best-selling tabletop RPGs of all time.  Perhaps power gamers did not have as much an issue with a skill-based system in the horror genre.  Or maybe it attracted larger numbers of the roleplaying crowd.  In any case, Call of Cthulhu continues to live alongside D&D as one of the longest-lived, most popular RPGs.
Fast forward to 2012, and note that nearly all MMOs use D&D-style, level-based systems.  Credit D&D for being there first, and perhaps also for tapping into a need for structure.  Level-based systems certainly create a sense of progress, the feeling that your character is improving as he or she moves along.  There’s also that template to latch onto – you know your Druid’s specialties, and it certainly defines you as different from other character types.  But that steadily growing complaint is the same one we heard back in the tabletop days.   “There’s too much standardization in the ways a character type is played.”  “It’s just becoming a long grind for the next piece of gear.  It should just be called GearQuest.”   “Why do we need this “holy trinity” of warrior, healer, and damage dealer?”  “I’m tired of killing 10 rats to get to the next level.”  “Why are the people in pick-up dungeons such obnoxious twits, and why did they just steal my loot?”  “Why do I feel like my character is on a hamster wheel?”
I submit that leveling systems have an inherent flaw in that they encourage selfish, power-hungry behavior that leads to in-game anti-social conduct.  Ironically, these games are meant to encourage teamwork and fellowship.  It was true of D&D back in the day, and I think it’s still true in the today’s online gaming. 
This isn’t to say leveling systems can’t be fun.  A good gaming group or referee can certainly have a great time with any system.  I remember when we switched over to a more story-based campaign in our early D&D days, and how surprised people were when they found they could define their characters more with their background and experiences.  Suddenly the +5 Holy Avenger became less important than what each character had learned about the world in the last adventure.   We took to writing up what each of us had done between adventures and contacts and friends we had made.  The adventures themselves became the next big chapters in the story. 
And our Warcraft guild has players who understand that it’s more fun figuring out the dungeon than it is berating each other for not having the appropriate gear level.  When the game becomes about a power and gear comparison, well, to me it’s the sign of an immature group of players.  Some folks eventually learn there’s more to gaming than simply attaining the next level—it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination.  My sense is that skill-based systems lend themselves better to this kind of gaming because they better balance character growth with the game world at large. 
The Secret World (TSW), perhaps because it owes some of its modern day horror inspiration to Call of Cthuhlu, is the first MMO I have seen that uses a skill-based, level-free, classless system.  I got a chance to play on the 2nd beta weekend, and already I think the system is doing what it should – for characters, it allows them to create the style of character they want to play without worrying about what class they should play, while also giving them lots of skill options.  For those who want the structure of a class, TSW also offers templates that show recommended skill builds.
As characters progress, players can pick out new skills, eventually to the point where they can swap out skillsets based on the current need.  The world is rich enough in story that gear becomes incidental, and while nice to have, not a goal in and of itself.  It remains to be seen whether there will be “gear requirements” to participate in instances, but already the system seems to jive nicely with the environment.
RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu, while popular, never matched the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons. In the end, where sales numbers are critical, I’m predicting the ratio of level-based to skill-based systems will remain pretty much the same in the MMO space as well—people will play what they are comfortable with.  However, in looking at new systems such as The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 and even Rift, it seems game developers are beginning to better understand the pitfalls of mechanics that lead to behavior that doesn’t meet the goals of a social MMORPG.  Warcraft certainly has enough time logged to see what things work and do not.  While I would never recommend trying to solve all social interaction problems with code and game mechanics, there are plenty of places where a mechanic has an obvious detrimental effect, and can be fixed by taking a fresh look.  Here’s hoping we have more game developers and publishers willing to do so.