Star-Fired Beef


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The One Reason Your Dream MMO Will Never* Be Made

Other people – people who have to want to build it, and people who have to want to pay for it and play it – are not you.

Q.E.D.

*Perhaps when the Singularity happens, and you can copy your personality a sufficient number of times, you – all copies of you – will be able to design, build, and populate your dream MMO. The ultimate in playing with yourself.

(NSFW – language)


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Blizzard is just phoning it in now.

I couldn’t help but get caught up in Aywren’s excitement in January, for the Manderville Gold Saucer in FFXIV. The addition of a new area dedicated to entertainment rather than combat or grinding dailies, as the cornerstone of a major patch, was pretty impressive to me. The one thing that got my attention the most, was the chocobo racing. And breeding. It just felt like a serious effort to add a long-lasting, addictive in-and-of-itself activity that deepens the player experience and enjoyment.

Contrast that to WoW’s latest 6.1 patch, which also added racing. At the one area of the game that is supposedly dedicated to entertainment rather than combat or grinding, the Darkmoon Faire. Yet instead of FFXIV’s intricate, in-depth system that pits players against each other in an exciting race to the end of the race, Blizzard has offered…a solo, time-trial experience. With no progression. No competition. No reason to repeat. No investment for the player. The WoW-chocobo mount is not yours to train, all mounts are exactly the same, and there are no rewards that affect future races (afaik).

When I first got wind of Darkmoon Faire racing, I was actually excited. Sure, it was yet another case of Blizzard trying to rip the wind out of another major MMO’s sails by blatantly copying their ideas, but usually there is a unique spin on it that adds value and makes it worthwhile. This, though…this is disappointing in the extreme. To me, it reeks of a major lack of care and commitment to quality from Blizzard. It feels like they are just throwing in whatever hot new thing they read about, with minimal thought and effort, just so they can point to WoW and say “look, we have it too!”.

It’s just sad.


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Steam Challenge – World of Goo

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

I’ve come to devise a new system for my steam challenge – I’ve put all of the pure puzzle games in their own category, and thus they don’t muddy the waters when it comes time to choose my next game. Instead, I choose one of the puzzlers and make a habit of playing through one or two levels every day or two. Just a 10-15 minute dip into the game, but it is perfect for getting that sense of progression, keeping my mind muscles toned, and avoiding the frustration of being stumped and hitting my head against a wall repeatedly. I’ve become much better at letting it go if I do hit that wall, content in the knowledge that I’ll come back to it tomorrow. Since I don’t have that pressure of wanting to finish it before I move on to the next game, it doesn’t bother me that it might take weeks to complete.

The first beneficiary of this new system is World of Goo. I’ve already written about their second game, Little Inferno, and my experience with that were amazing, so I went into World of Goo with very high expectations. Turns out, I was not disappointed in the slightest. For one thing, the puzzles themselves are a joy to work on. There are many ways you could solve them, as you are building your own path to completion. The different types of Goo balls make for an interesting variety of challenges, too. I really liked how in some levels, you look at the starting setup and think, “oh my gawd this is impossible”, but once you start building and experimenting the process gradually reveals itself to you. It might take several tries, but you are rarely just shooting wildly in the hopes of hitting on a solution.

The soundtrack is incredible. It manages to combine a sense of mischief and fun with a sense of sombre gravity, in a way that no other game I have played has been able to do. The sound effects are cute, the art direction is very distinctive and extremely well done, and the story…well. In both this and Little Inferno, games which could very easily stand on gameplay alone, the storytelling style is both intriguing and lighthearted. They manage to tell a serious story, with deep social or philosophical commentary, in a fun way. It’s difficult to describe exactly, but I am a great fan of being led through a story via cryptic clues and odd questions, rather than exposition.

The only problem I have with World of Goo is the lack of video and audio options. The other options I don’t mind so much, but I very strongly disapprove of not being able to control the volume in-game!

Anywho, two massive thumbs up for World of Goo. Definitely worth it at full price if you are a fan of puzzle games, otherwise still worth checking out if it’s on sale.


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Steam Challenge – SBCG4AP Ep. 1 & 2

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People was a must-buy when I saw it. I love everything from the Homestarrunner.com crew, and I was pretty stoked when a point-and-click adventure game revived the joy after the site stopped getting regular updates.

SBCG4AP is, like many Telltale games, split into 5 episodes. In this case, unlike the Tales of Monkey Island series, there is no linking story between episodes. It really does feel like each one is an episode of Strong Bad’s email. As such, I’ll discuss each episode separately.

Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner

The tutorial is really worth playing through, as it is amusing as well as informative. The beginning of this episode is a bit slow since you spend a lot of time exploring the house and clicking on everything for the snarky commentary. Once you leave, however, and get the plot moving, the pacing feels a lot better. There is a Teen Girl Squad cartoon maker that provides a very entertaining diversion, and a videogame that you can play for…something?

Alongside the main plot there are collections to complete – luckily, these are optional as I am not really interested enough in them. I ended up having to resort to a guide at one point, though, since I missed the metal detector very early on and it is essential to some puzzles. This was the only real beef I had with the game. While the metal detector itself is way cool, I didn’t like the blind hunting needed to find some of the items for a few puzzles.

All in all, a fun ride, carried solely by the IP – if you don’t like the Homestar Runner style of humour, you will find this to be a fairly bland point-and-click.

Episode 2: Strong Badia the Free

Strong Bad leads a revolution against the King of Town!

This episode is markedly different from the last one. In Strong Badia the Free, you – as Strong Bad, the ruler of Strong Badia – spend most of the game convincing other rulers to join you in deposing the King of Town. There is nice variety in the kinds of things you have to do, although again there is one puzzle that is not adequately explained, and again it involves the metal detector.

The finale consists of a strategic mini-game that I have decided was a net draw. I thought it was good that the designers tried something different, but I didn’t find it enjoyable enough to be able to say it added to the experience. I’d say it was a good length. Any longer and it would have been a chore, any earlier in the game and it would have become a hurdle that dimmed my enthusiasm.

Much more interesting than the first episode, I think. Also, naming yourself Baron von Flexmypecs is something I am totally stealing…

(Warning: nsfw – language)


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Isometric MMOs: Does Perspective Matter?

When MMOs first made a splash with Ultima Online, the graphical experience was similar to that of the great RPGs of the late 1990’s – Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale. Namely, a top-down, isometric viewpoint. Then Everquest and World of Warcraft brought in the over-the-shoulder, third-person view that characterised much of the 3D action games such as Tomb Raider. Ever since the rise of those two MMOs, the genre has settled firmly on their perspective as the standard. Only Runescape has had any real success with the isometric viewpoint.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed that a few MMOs are attempting to break into the market with that isometric design. I’m not including ARPGs like Diablo or Path of Exile here, they are not really MMOs in my books. And I wonder: what can this design bring to the genre to help it stand out?

Shards Online is a good Western-developer example of this. Lost Ark Online is another, Korean-developed one:

I don’t have any answers here, I am merely wondering whether this niggling thought that an isometric MMO could be deeper, bigger, better, has any validity. I guess it stems from the contrast with offline RPGs – for me, listing the great ones has meant almost exclusively listing isometric games. Am I wrong here? I’ve been playing around with Project Zomboid a little (thanks, Eri!), trying to get used to the game, and it struck me just how much more detailed and immersive the experience was, compared to most of the MMOs I’ve played in the last few years.

I can’t quite put my finger on what, exactly, makes me wonder whether there is more potential in the isometric viewpoint. Some wild thoughts have appeared! Revel in their ignorance!

  • It seems to me that art demands are less for an isometric game. Would this allow more development resources to be allocated to mechanics, content and lore?
  • It feels like that the game world could be much, much bigger than in a full 3D game, with less need for load screens or fast travel.
  • I am unsure whether it would mean a more restricted experience. From all accounts, both UO and Runescape have had huge worlds with full freedom of travel. The video of Lost Ark Online, above, seems to indicate a more Diablo-like restricted path structure.
  • Do players identify with tiny, somewhat distant avatars as much as WoW-sized avatars? Would that turn players off?

What do you think?


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Steam Challenge – TRAUMA

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

Time played: 1 hour

I’d been waiting to play TRAUMA for quite a while by the time I got to the “T”‘s in my first pass through the Steam playlist. What little I’d heard about it intrigued me – I knew it was short, I knew it was supposed to be a psychological exploration of sorts. But…I expected more than what I got. In the same vein as Dear Esther, there will be an eternal debate over whether TRAUMA counts as a game or an interactive story or just art. There is a slight puzzle element to it, and a small Hidden Object element too, which I guess makes it more ‘game’-y than Dear Esther.

Unfortunately though, I just felt disappointed with the experience. Where Dear Esther made me think and reflect and wonder, TRAUMA just made me slightly bemused. I didn’t feel any connection to the character or her situation at all. It just felt disjointed and random.

I can’t say that I would recommend not playing it, it isn’t bad, per se. The execution is very well done mechanically. However, you aren’t missing out if you decide to skip this one.


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Steam Challenge – Rock of Ages

This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).

Time played: 5.5 hours

All I need to say about Rock of Ages is that I had a blast with it!

The premise is silly, the Monty-Python-esque art style is silly, the music is silly, the whole game just revels in its silliness. It’s fun, it’s great for pick-up-and-put-down play (each round only takes about 10 minutes max), and it seems like it would be really cool in multiplayer. It’s not terribly difficult unless you are trying for 100% completion, so I would highly recommend it as a way to lift your mood after a bad day.

I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t do it, but it is such a perfect fit that I can’t NOT do it…


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Sandbox Stories and Immersion in MMOs – Part III

Finally, we have made it to the last post of what turned out to be a series. In Part I, we discussed how MMO narratives affect immersion for different types of game. In Part II, we looked at the ways sandbox MMOs could introduce direction for players by adopting a top-down narrative structure. Now, we will consider ways that narrative immersion can be implemented in sandboxes from a bottom-up perspective.

Bottom-Up Narratives

These narratives provide immersion by surrounding the player with stories that are playing out around them, that they can dive into or ignore at their whim. The stories are generally short, but can domino into epic quest chains in the right circumstances. They are also generally self-contained, but can have effects on larger-level stories. A reminder that a fail state is a valid resolution to these stories, whether because no players take part in time, or because they avoid the “happy ending” that in themepark quests would be called “completion”. Accepting a contract to assassinate an NPC and then choosing not to, is as much a fail state as allowing the monsters to overrun the village.

Somewhat related to the topic of fail states, are the concepts of exclusivity and concurrency. As these are very small-scale narratives, it is likely that one PC can carry it through to resolution. Thus, many of these “quests” must be exclusive. If you’ve asked one adventurer to deliver this very important basket of muffins to the local captain of the guards, then you obviously won’t be needing to ask others to do it as well. Exclusivity provides immersion by making sure that every player’s experience is markedly different. On the other hand, there are some tasks that NPCs would offer to many PCs. The farmer who wants someone to retrieve his livestock from bandits is not going to sit back and relax just because one PC has trundled off to administer justice in his name. Concurrency means that several players could be on the same quest at the same time. They could be friends travelling in a group, or they could be completely unknown to each other, in which case it turns into a race of sorts. This would provide interaction between players, as there are a myriad of ways things could play out. Will the player rock up to find that the bandits are dead, and livestock are gone? Will they encounter other players on the way and team up, or try to sabotage each other? Will they see someone else already there and quietly slink away, abandoning the quest?

A Secret World

My love for The Secret World is no secret. As far as narrative innovation goes, investigation missions are probably the greatest thing to happen to the themepark MMO space in many years. For those unfamiliar with the game, investigation missions are stories told through the player following clues, which usually require specialist knowledge to solve. Given that TSW has a contemporary setting, it is easy to reference various historical events or knowledge, or require real-world skills like the ability to decipher morse code.

A sandbox MMO that has a fantastical setting has the potential to offer the same kinds of narrative sleuthing, albeit on a more restricted level. For example, clues that require knowledge of obscure or old lore about a region, an item, a country, a prominent family, etc. You would need to find NPCs who either have such knowledge, or can direct you to others who do. Or you could piece the clues together from environmental cues. A piece of heraldry, or a puppet show being performed in a city street, might point the way to the next clue.

Perhaps there could be an in-game skill or profession that deals with obscure knowledge? Historian? Higher competence would mean more information is provided to you by the clue itself.

Don’t Call Me Junior

In a similar vein, successful tomb raiders should be required to have extensive knowledge of the game’s lore. I think there is potential for a deep archaeological system in an MMO. Imagine being able to specialise in a culture, and apply that cultural knowledge to maps or clues. As you gain a reputation for your skills, you could be hired by powerful people to retrieve precious artifacts, or identify items that they have acquired. And as anyone who has watched an Indiana Jones movie knows, there is always a sinister, shadowy faction intent on getting that precious artifact first, or preventing you from obtaining it. Maybe this shadowy faction has hired other players to retrieve it, in direct competition to you?

Guild War…er, Organisational Conflict…er, Club Fight?

There are so many organisations with narrative potential in an MMO world. Religious orders, thieves’ guilds, merchant guilds, professional organisations, military orders, farmer’s groups, gypsy-equivalent groups, mercenary groups, smuggling networks, pirate groups, all sorts of magical organisations, rebel groups, feudal Houses, the list goes on. Having a relationship with each of these groups is an endless source of narrative potential. You can operate as an agent of them, you can incur the wrath of them, you can become indebted to them or have them indebted to you, you can spy on, or for, them…so many ways to make them a major part of your narrative engine.

A Game of Politics

On a more personal level, you can play the political game, where you gain favour or disfavour with individuals or small cliques within an organisation. These can open or close doors to quests depending on your standings with certain NPCs. Greater trust and intimacy with the more powerful individuals can lead to discovering secret information, such as black ops, covered up scandals, hidden histories, and so on. This information, in turn, can lead to other quests.


Bottom-up narratives have the advantage of being immediately relevant to players. They pull players into the world in a direct way, and players can see the changes to the world that they are making, in a concrete fashion. They make the game world feel more alive in ways that top-down narratives might have trouble doing. Unfortunately, they are also very developer-time-intensive. In a really successful implementation, the developers would be constantly – as in, weekly or even daily – monitoring the status of quests and crafting the next chapter of each little story, depending on what happened beforehand. Not to mention, creating new stories. That likely isn’t viable for any MMO, not until AI has progressed far beyond current capabilities and can write and respond to stories on the fly.

The final step in the bottom-up narrative ideal is integrating player quests with the NPCs in game. Imagine that a (PC) mage needs a certain ingredient for research purposes, and puts up a notice seeking players to source that ingredient for them. If that ingredient is mythical in nature, then we come back to players needing to consult NPC sources in game to try to find out more about where that ingredient might be. Plus, a religious order might wish to prevent that particular ingredient ever seeing the light of day (for religious reasons, naturally) and so might try to do something about this search. And so on.

I suspect that I may have ended up rambling incoherently in this post, so don’t be surprised if this is simultaneously bleedingly obvious and highly confusing. Of course, I would love to hear about any other ideas for inserting narrative into sandbox MMOs without restricting player freedom or being too disjointed.


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Sandbox Stories and Immersion in MMOs – Part II

At the end of Part I, I asked: How can we bring more narrative immersion into sandbox worlds, which tend to focus on activity-based and player-interaction immersion? I’m going to look at a few possible ways in this post. The ideas presented are not mutually exclusive, I think it would be cool to have as many different approaches included in the same game as possible, but obviously the more ideas you incorporate the more work it is for the developers, and feature creep is a thing. Also note, that this post is about PvE-generated narrative, which although it may be influenced by PvP interactions, isn’t created by them.

Glory & Consequence

Before we get started on the ideas themselves, I want to address a common foundation that underlies all of these scenarios. I believe that one very, very important distinction separates themepark narratives and sandbox narratives: a fail state. In themepark narratives, the story is already written. You are simply playing through it. If you fail a certain challenge (“boss” fight, finding your way to the next questgiver, locating a lost item, etc) then you simply cannot proceed any further until you go back and do it successfully. You aren’t technically stuck in the game, since you can go and do other MMO-ish things, but most themeparks won’t allow you to access a lot of content without following the story. On the other hand, there is no true fail state either. The story remains there, unchanged, eternally available, until you complete it.

A sandbox narrative will need a fail state. Not only individual storylines, but the grand narrative – the game as a whole – as well. I think the developers (and players too!) need to be willing to see their server world be destroyed or otherwise unplayable. They need to be willing to say, “We’re closing this server down in a week, you lost the game. A new world/server will start in two weeks.” And this fail state needs to be a real possibility, without being too hard to avert. On a smaller scale, individual storylines must be able to end in a fail state, or tragedy, if they are not completed in time or if the player reacts inappropriately. In other words, let that farmer and his family die to the band of roving monsters if nobody helps them. Let the treasure you’re searching for, be found by someone else first if you take too long getting there. If your escort quest fails because your charge dies due to your incompetence, then they stay dead and you reap the consequences of that. None of this “going back and starting again” business that you have in themepark narratives.

My view of sandbox MMOs, of “living worlds”, is that they are defined by glory and consequence. And as far as I am concerned, there can be no glory without consequence. Any narrative structure introduced into such a world must incorporate and reflect that ideal.

Top-Down Narratives

There are two main ways that I can see narrative becoming a part of a sandbox world. A top-down approach, and a bottom-up approach. The top-down approach will keep the world- or regional-level events as the focus of developer effort, and players are enabled or restricted in their play by those events. This approach isn’t concerned so much with individual stories, but with grand, sweeping narratives.

The External Threat

One way that sandbox MMOs can add more direction for players is to develop a high-level, existential threat to the game world. This can be done to various degrees of subtlety and visibility, but the end goal is to make players think about their choices in a larger context. The presence of this external threat means that if enough players either ignore it or actively aid it – directly or indirectly by hindering those who are dealing with it – then this threat could become dangerous enough to bring on a fail state (destroy the world, the galaxy, the civilisation, etc).

Firefall has made attempts to implement this kind of external threat to a limited degree. The Chosen are able to push into areas and capture bases which affect players in those areas, and the devs even run events where they take control of some Chosen as part of an invasion. This is a good direction to be heading, but it remains the case that if everyone ignored the Chosen incursions, the game world would not be overrun. There is no fail state at the moment.

An example that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is in EVE. The majority of the narrative there is player-driven, yet there are some small tidbits of lore that are sprinkled throughout the game and in the newsletters. I remember reading a snippet somewhere that mentioned the possibility of the Sleepers being a remnant of a race that originated in another galaxy. What if the Sleepers started to wake, and become active? Rather than sitting passively in their inert bases, only responding to direct intrusion, what if they began to send out recon? Attack player-owned stations (POS)? Intercept fleets? Destroy moon bases and planetary industries? What would that do to the current nullsec balance of power? What if there were hints that this was the prelude to a return of the creators, an invasion that the players are going to have to deal with? It wouldn’t have to be an overwhelmingly powerful force to make major waves in the alliance political scene. And yet, if those alliances went on a backstabbing spree and overextended themselves, they might just let the Sleepers grow into a major threat.

The Internal Conflict

In a different kind of MMO, one where there are established political entities that are in conflict with each other, there is always opportunity for devs to manage an ongoing narrative at a high level. The players cannot be forced into any one faction, but they could choose to ally themselves with, or serve, one or more of them. Warring city-states, or rival countries, or even race-based conflict are easy enough to fit into this mould. Changes to the high-level narrative would affect players in both direct and indirect ways. They may be refused entry to certain towns or areas, they may be attacked on sight by members of another faction, they may be able to earn commendations and other rewards and recognition for acts that are hostile to their faction’s enemies. Indirectly, they may see a shortage of certain goods in markets they frequent, or they may be able to profit from trade routes being closed. If they own property, they may see taxes or rents go up in wartime. All these things can change as the political landscape changes, though. The devs could keep total control over how and when these changes occur, or they could allow players to influence things to a greater or lesser degree.

These top-down narratives are not really supposed to be followed closely. They aren’t detailed, must-read-every-word lore depositories. They are supposed to bring a sense of direction to an otherwise mostly directionless gaming space. The key here is that they reward players for following the narrative attentively, but they don’t punish players for ignoring it. They can be scaled to fit whatever percentage of the game world the developers like, and they can be ended or modified whenever the mood strikes. I like the flexibility of top-down narratives, and of course, they can be supplemented with bottom-up narratives too.

That discussion will have to wait until Part III, unfortunately, as this part is already fairly long. I would love to hear any further ideas for top-down narratives in the comments!

 

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