Archive for Gaming

A Cog in the Wheel

Over the years I have discussed with many people my likes and dislike as it regards the concept of “raiding” in MMOs. Back in the days of EverQuest, I was a raider. Not only did I follow other people into battle, but some times I lead them. And really, unless you done both, some of what follows may not make sense.

One thing I constantly say about the way raids are designed in many games is that I do not want to feel like a cog in someone else’s wheel. Finally though, I think I’ve come upon some examples that will really bring across how I feel…

Playing in a group, or small raid, is like a sports team. In basketball, five men take to the court at any one time, in baseball that number is nine, and I just don’t watch enough football to tell you how many are on the field, but I know its a relatively small number… not more than 20 for sure. Playing in a large raid is like being in a full orchestra. Now, let me explain…

We’ll take basketball first because it emulates a typical group size in most games. Five men, they practice together, there are rules and strategies, usually one of them is the captain or calling the ball… but ultimately, the man with the ball does what he does. If he wants to pass, he’ll pass, or if he wants to take the shot, he’ll take the shot. Any player who doesn’t have the ball is going to be trying to get open, or trying to appear that he’s trying to get open so as to distract the defending players. On the defensive side, each player will be covering a man or trying to block a shot. All this happens fairly independently for each man. Of course, as I said, they practice and have strategies, but those are prone to change on the fly in reaction to the situation, or be completely thrown out the window for improvisation when nothing seems to be working. This is like a group in a game… everyone has their role, their skills and abilities, and they do what they can, following the guidelines but ultimately their actions are their own and mutable from moment to moment.

Stepping upward, you put two to maybe four groups together for a small raid and like with larger team sports, the plays and strategies get more rigid, but still each person retains some control over their place in the game. Your healers still pick their own targets, people dealing damage do what they do to whoever they choose. Sometimes, full rigidity is called for on a boss fight, but every player, or at least every sub group of players, retains some autonomy.

Then we get to the big raids… I liken them to orchestras because really, if you are talking big raids like the old 72-man EQ days raids, individuality is really a hindrance. To get through the raid is almost a work of art. There are things that must be done in a certain order at certain timing by certain people… its like a symphony. Sure, you can drop one or your violins and add an extra cello, which will change the tone of the piece a bit, but in the end you play the same symphony. Large raids are run by one person, or a small subset of the people, conducted if you will, and if you aren’t one of those people then you are a piece in the orchestra. They need you to fill out the make up of their raid, and as long as you can do your part, things will be fine. But as gloriously demonstrated by the classic Leroy Jenkins clip, doing your own thing and breaking from formation can get everyone killed.

Some people don’t mind playing in the orchestra, letting someone else write the music and decide how its played and simply doing their own part to the best of their ability according to the plan at hand. Personally, I don’t like that. While I don’t mind giving up some control to the greater strategy, playing to the strengths of my team, I dislike giving up nearly all my control to focus on a single simple task… “Heal main tank”, “DPS”, “cure disease and spot heal”

Of course, by this point, with big raids having been so prevalent (and the fact that EQ often employed the “only one road to success” method of raid design) even as games like WoW’s Burning Crusade try to scale back raiding to smaller groups, many players continue to try to distill raids into single simple functions for their members to perform. Not to mention that the focus on item rewards and loot-centric design encourages frequent perfection causing them to desire getting the win as often and as simply as possible.

So, how can you tell if you are the cog in someone else’s wheel, if you are playing in someone else’s orchestra? Ask yourself about the last raid you went on… what did you do? how did it run? was it fun? If you weren’t the raid leader, and you are a cog, your answers will probably be whatever your class role dictates, smoothly and as for fun, well, that depends on if you enjoy the big raid life. All I know is, I don’t.

The Unfortunate Truth of Success

Last week, Blizzard announced that they are working on another expansion for World of Warcraft… Wrath of the Lich King.

Needless to say, many people were underwhelmed.

I am too. The new expansion looks like its going to be The Burning Crusade part II. Ten new levels, more raid zones, and another couple of tiers of gear. Sure, there is something about hero classes, but from first glance they are either going to be pointless or they are going to be game breaking. In other words, very few people will bother, or the hero classes will be a requirement to proceed in raiding or participate in PvP.

As many in the blogosphere have pointed out, Blizzard has never really been known for innovation. Blizzard doesn’t invent wheels… or for a better analogy, Blizzard doesn’t design new cars, they take existing cars and trick them out in Fast and the Furious fashion.

And why should they bother to reinvent the wheel when they’ve already got 9 million people paying for the old wheels. If only half of their subscribers buy the expansion, that’s more box sales than some of the most successful games in history. This is the Unfortunate Truth of Success… once you have a stranglehold on the lead, trying to further outdistance your competition is a waste of money compared to coasting, enjoying a downhill ride that will net you more money than other people dream of at their peak.

I doubt I’ll be journeying to Northrend or fighting the Lich King. I canceled my WoW account over a month ago because it was clear to me that they are supporting only two types of play: Raiding and Solo casual. Want to PvP? Sorry, you have to raid (or farm gold, or buy farmed gold) to get the gear needed to compete. 5 man groups? Only if you want to grind cash, pots, faction of ramp up to raiding.

WoW lost me as a player, and they aren’t likely to win me back while they continue down this same worn path.

Playing Well With Others

Many moons ago, some friends and I all agreed to pool our money and buy network cards for our PCs. Coaxial token ring cards to do an ad-hoc IPX network. All for the purpose of playing DOOM. We would actually load up our computers in the trunks of our cars and drive over to one person’s house, throw together our network, and spend all night playing, laughing and eating pizza.

It was during these gaming sessions that I was introduced to a little game called Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. We all bought copies and our game nights shifted from DOOM to splitting time between DOOM and Warcraft. It was great, and like the FPS game, the two factions of Warcraft were pretty much equal in design, all that mattered was random luck and a little player skill. When to hold back, when to charge. Warcraft II continued that trend, mostly, and we played the heck out of it.

Then came Starcraft. But it was different than the other games in that the sides were not equal. Supposedly there was balance, but since the units were different, they developed different strategies, and often times defending against an enemy’s attack strategy meant playing to your weaknesses while they played to their strengths. In online play, you either agreed that no one played the Zerg, or everyone played the Zerg because they were strong when the other races were weak. The Zergling rush was very effective and while at the beginning it was considered a cheap tactic, it eventually became a part of standard play with people devising rush strategies for the other two sides. And rush tactics began to invade Warcraft II and Total Annihilation, would become a part of Warcraft III and every RTS game around.

I hated rushing. I liked to settle in and build out units so that we could have later, larger tactical wars that ranged all over. Its not that I couldn’t rush, I could, but I just didn’t like it. It ended the game too quick and utilized so little of the game. Among friends we would set timers and say “No fighting for the first ten minutes.” or something like that, but online, it was nothing but rushing.

Real Time Strategy games were not the only place I ran into this sort of thing. Over in the First Person Shooter world, circle strafing had taken over. Running a circle around a person at high speed (sometimes while jumping, moving in impossible ways), all the while with them unable to reliably target you. Thankfully this was less prevalent in Team Fortress, which I has started playing exclusively. Death Match and regular CTF were closed to me, like with rushing in the RTS games, I could circle strafe, I just thought it was stupid.

When EverQuest came out, I looked forward to the idea of settling back and playing a table top RPG in a 3D world. I’d actually enjoyed UO, even PvP in UO, and this looked to be like a step up. But EQ attracted the FPS crowd, and flaws in (or a simple lack of) game design allowed circle strafe jumping to take over the PvP side of the game. Again, I could do it, I just thought it was lame. Honestly, have you ever tried holding a sword, running around a target in a circle, jumping repeatedly AND successfully hitting that target? Its nearly impossible to hit, and even if you hit that is going to be very little power in that swing. Even now in World of Warcraft, the Battlegrounds are ruled in melee range by circle strafe jumping morons.

One of my more recent addictions (which I recently realized I’ve been playing for over a year) is Conquer Club. Its basically RISK online, but with a couple dozen or so maps, some with very different rules. Playing random pickup games, I run about a 33% win ratio. I’m happy with that. However, I’m a little envious of some of the people there who have regular teammates and work together to develop strategies. So, last week I hooked up with a guy I’d recently won a game with and we decided to play 6 games together as a team. We created the games on Thursday, and in less than 2 days, we’ve already lost 2 of them. In both games we lost to the same strategy. I spent some time looking around and have found, like rushing and circle strafing, this tactic has become prevalent in the team game world on Conquer Club. I don’t like it. I don’t want to play games this way. It makes the games short, and usually ignores any rules of the map… to me, its cheap. Sure, I could do it too, the strategy isn’t that hard, but I don’t want to. Luckily, the strategy only works in team games, so all I need to do is avoid games against prearranged teams.

Overall, all these strategies boil down to one thing that I don’t like… the best defense for them is to use them yourself. Using any of these tactics dumbs down the game and removes nuance. Both teams are now fighting exactly the same way and the only factors remaining are “luck of the dice” and who can execute the strategy faster. I can respect when someone executes a thoughtful attack and forces me to change my plans to react, but I just find it distasteful when the strategy they use is a trump card: I either lose, or I play the game exactly like them.

Can this be fixed? Should this be fixed?

I don’t know… but I do know that slowly it is driving me away from real time multi player games and more toward single player and turn based games with clearly defined rules of game play. You can find me on Xbox Live playing Catan, Carcassonne, Uno and others.

Multiverse puts out its first release

Multiverse went 1.0 with its game building tools.

Good on them. And now I really need to get my butt into gear figuring out how to use all this stuff.

Money is Time

Most MMOs have a monthly fee. Since Ultima Online, it has pretty much been the rule. Sure, you get the occasional one like Guild Wars that is free or some of the newer ones where you can start for free but the game has a velvet rope you cannot cross without paying (or in the case of Puzzle Pirates, making trades with people who paid). The current threshold for monthly fees is $15.

Tobold asks “How much would you pay per hour of WoW?

It is a valid question, and one I’ve been thinking about recently. See, I just canceled my WoW account. Over the last couple of months, I have played very little. too much work, going to see movies, playing on the 360 and the Wii… it all adds up to not enough time to play WoW. But the problem isn’t just not being able to play WoW, it is that I was also maintaining accounts for City of Heroes/Villains and Lord of the Rings Online, and while paying $15 a month to not play WoW wouldn’t bother me horribly, paying $40 a month to not play 3 games begins to be a bit silly.

The way I see to fix that would be to switch to hourly charges. It would be nice if I didn’t have to pay to not play but could still keep my account active. And that comes from a purely lazy point of view. With my WoW account canceled, if the wife and I feel the urge to log in, we will first have to go reactivate accounts, and the time it takes to go to the web page, verify or enter credit card information, and then get back to the game… if we aren’t playing now because of a lack of interest, jumping through hoops to play isn’t going to help.

I would love to be able to maintain accounts in all the games out there, paying for only the time I play them and not having to actually cancel and reinstate my account every time I lose interest. Without a guaranteed monthly fee I probably would have bought Vanguard after I upgraded my PC. Without a guaranteed monthly fee, I probably would have bought EQ2. Many games have and probably will lose my box sale because I just can’t afford another monthly fee.

Now… on the other side of the coin… I understand why developers like that monthly fee. It is much easier to budget. “X” subscribed players times “Y” monthly fee equals “Z” incoming cash minus “A” service providing costs equals “P” profits, which can either be taken to the bank, or reinvested into the game, or into another game. If they had an hourly charge, you might have “X” players, but only 30% of them might play more than 50 hours a month, and another 30% might play less than 5. The player numbers and revenue wouldn’t be a nice smooth pretty graph, it would be covered in spikes for revenue and it would be a never ending climb to the stars for player accounts. (Hint: the “total residents” in that link does not equal “paying subscriber”.)

I think I would even be willing to settle for a minimal account management fee, of about $1 or $2 per game, with an hourly fee above that for the time that I play. But how much is too much per hour? Without any kind of fixed fee, I think Tobold is pretty close to dead on with 25 cents per hour. If they tacked on a small fixed fee for the account, 10 or 15 cents an hour would be more appropriate.

Either way, I would love to have more active games and more options to play, if only I could afford to keep them all.

Urban Dead

Thanks to Sanya, I’ve learned about a game I must investigate as I pursue my own endeavor.

Urban Dead is a browser based text adventure. Sure, its not ground breaking, but it is free.

I’ll be checking it out.

The Path Not Spoiled

One discussion that always seems to come up with me over and over again is the problem with spoiler sites.

My first issue with them is that they are usually just information dumps. There is never any care put into the presentation of the information. Here is the quest, here are links to the item stats and maps for drops and comments from users including location coordinates and more. I would love to see sites that actually care for the game offering tiers of information, a couple levels of “hints” before the final reveal. Of course, that takes effort and since many spoiler sites ultimately strive to be ad driven click fountains of cash, its much easier to just dump information in its most Googleable form to generate as much traffic as possible.

The next issue is the justifications used by players who frequent spoiler sites. The big excuse is that they want to know what’s up with a dungeon or instance before they go so as to minimize the chance of a wipe out, especially since wiping out wastes time and costs in-game money for repairs and/or recovery. I tend to avoid spoiler sites, and when I get in groups and head into dungeons, I do my best to force my group to assess fights before charging in, to consider consequences. We don’t usually wipe out, but even if we do I try to ensure that everyone has fun doing it. Encourage people that we can do it and try again. The people who wipe out most groups are often the ones who went to a spoiler site. Either they got bad information, or incomplete information, or worse… they got spoiler tunnel vision. This happens when you need monster X for a quest and find the directions on where to find him and how to beat him, but the page you looked at didn’t mention the trap encounter in the room prior, or the 57 other encounters you have to get past before the one you want. After enough outings like this, the spoiler-reader will just up his research, making sure they know a dungeon inside out, soup to nuts, before stepping foot inside. People justify going to spoiler sites to avoid wipe outs, but it seems to me that most wipe outs occur from people using spoiler sites to avoid actually learning to play the game.

To me, games like MMOs are about the journey, the “how” of getting to your destination. The social interaction, working with others toward common goals, that is where the fun is at. It seems, from my experience, that lots of people focus entirely on the destination, and the answer to “how” is “as quickly and easily as possible.” I just don’t understand why people would invest so much time and effort into the game reducing it to collecting widgets, be it levels or items. Why play a game in a manner that intentionally avoids most of the game?

I used to play tennis. I was actually pretty good. Many of my opponents were confused by my play style (I have no back hand, I actually switch hands to utilize two fore hand swings). But I wasn’t great. I practiced, I played in a league, but as much fun as I had and as much as I wanted to play, there was a ceiling to my level of skill. So, I settled into a level of play where my opponents were challenging, where I had opportunities to both win and lose without dominating my playtime with either. And that is the approach I take toward all gaming. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, and I try to win more than I lose, but neither winning all the time nor losing all the time is fun. But even so, I enjoyed tennis most when practicing and leading up to a match, or playing the match. At the end, I won or I lost, and neither matter to me at long as I felt good about how I got there.

Was I raised differently than most people? Can someone help me understand why so many folks are focused completely on the ends and are willing to justify so many means to skip right to it?

A Tiny First Step

In an effort to move forward on my little game idea, I’ve downloaded (once again) the tools from Multiverse to see if I can make heads or tails of building my own game world. I make no promises, of course, but any motion is good motion at this point.

Bring on the Zombies.

The Wii Parade

I finally got around to setting up our Wii. So, if you read this and you have one, here is my Wii Number:

Wii Number

If you decide to add me, please post your number here or email me (jason at this domain) with your number so I can add you back, since apparently you can’t talk to each other or anything until both sides have added each other.

Wii`ve made a full 360

So, yesterday morning, after breakfast at IHOP, before getting gas for the car, the wife and I swung through Target to see what was what.

The new Xbox 360 Elite was due out, and they happened to have one. Just one. They also had eight Nintendo Wii’s (left from the 20 they’d had just an hour before). In full financial abandon, we bought both.

This should be fun…