Archive for October, 2010

The many forms of “We rule!”

Derek’s post a couple days ago on “I rule!” versus “That rules!” got me to thinking, which is always a dangerous and frightening prospect. While thinking back on my own “I rule/That rules!” experience, it suddenly struck me that my very best experiences in multiplayer role playing games have always come from two very different approaches to “We rule!”

On the one hand, we have the MMO raid endgame experience. There is nothing like 25 voices screaming in victory after taking down a raid boss that the guild has been throwing itself at over and over again for weeks. Progression raiding is painful. It’s frustrating. It’s time consuming. It can tear guilds apart. And it is one of the best video game experiences out there when you finally succeed.

On the other hand, there is the group of role players I am currently tabletop gaming with. We are the Most. Dysfunctional. Party. Ever. Our mage has a charisma of 2, but will take any opportunity upon meeting new friends or foes alike (‘friends’ in this case being defined as NPCs we haven’t made ‘foes’ of yet) to bring out his magic box which will announce to the world that he is “HARWIN THE MAGNIFICENT!” One of our fighters is a greedy halfling, who in his finest hour discovered that the urn he was hauling tightly in his arms back to town to figure out how to open was actually a trap: on our way out of the dungeon the urn evaporated, leaving dear Merbles covered in green slime. The bad kind. Our priest has a relationship with the bottle that can only be described as masterful. But even more important in understanding his personality is to realize he…ah…absconded with the robes and holy symbol he currently wears from a fellow traveler on the roads. He has no idea which deity is answering his prayers (and for our party, we need a great many prayers), but some higher power is indulging his adjurations…at least for now.

I round out the group as our second fighter, a dwarf named Lars the Epithetless, who fancies himself something of a strategist. He almost never gets to enact any great plans due to his fellow party members’ tendency to rush into the next room swords and spells blazing, but last session he finally had his chance to shine. The party had come to a halt in front of a door behind which was a room teeming with rats. Behind us was a room full of caltrops we had picked our way through earlier. 15 minutes of excited scheming and trap setting later, Lars launched into action—the final result of which was a horde of nonplussed rats, Lars’s feet riddled with rat-poop-covered caltrops (cure disease, anyone? no? lovely…) and the nasty monster who was master of this corner of the dungeon alerted to our presence. It was the best role playing I’ve done in weeks.

Our party is terrible. But at the same time, we rule! Because playing these horribly inept adventurers is hilarious. Managing to get out of every mess we’ve made for ourselves so far has actually been something of a two-edged sword. We were never supposed to make it to level 2. Months later, now that we’re approaching level 4, I must admit, I’ll be sad when we eventually end up getting ourselves killed by plunging into the middle of more than we can handle. But that won’t change how we play this group, because that’s who these characters are.

This second form of ruling—the ability to craft a fun player-based narrative, even if it is by playing incompetent characters—is something you don’t see much in single player RPGs. It’s out there, though, if you can find it. One of my biggest “I rule!/That rules!” moments in playing Mass Effect 2 happened during one of the cutscenes. For those not familiar, if you progress far enough in either the “paragon” or “renegade” options for your character, sometimes you have the opportunity to interrupt a cutscene to your benefit. The character I was playing was primarily a paragon, though she would occasionally show traits that could be considered “renegade” under stressful situations. During one particular cutscene, a renegade interrupt became available to my character. But it just didn’t fit her character, so with great difficulty (as a player), I let the opportunity to interrupt the scene pass. Later in the same cutscene, a paragon interrupt opportunity appeared, which my character did activate. It was awesome! It was perfect! By being true to my character and keeping a cool head, I let a chance to be a nasty sort of character pass, and I was given the chance to influence the narrative in a more virtuous manner. The result was both an “I rule!” and “That rules!” moment at the same time. BioWare managed to outdo itself again by supporting this kind of gameplay opportunity, and I was thrilled that I had discovered it. At the same time, I was able to keep my character true to the personality I had crafted for her, which made the moment “rule” for me in an entirely different way.

In the end, I’m not sure how well the MMO style of ruling and the narrative crafting/role playing style of ruling can coexist. As I wrote in the comment section of Derek’s post, an MMO raider serious about progressive raiding isn’t going to be worried about whether his character’s arachnophobia should be decreasing his competence against the spider boss, nor would his teammates appreciate him playing that encounter “in-character” by /cowering in the corner during the entire fight. On the other hand, a munchkin/rules lawyer tabletop player may not be seen as the optimal partymate for a group of gamers who are injecting a lot of player-based narrative into a gaming session. Therefore, as game designers, one of the challenges we face is determining what type of gameplay experience we’re trying to build in our game and make sure that the content we’re producing allows that type of experience to shine.

“I rule!” vs. “That rules!”

On her blog Creating Passionate Users, game developer and author Kathy Sierra has often written about the need for products to create an “I rule!” experience for their users. And at their best, the web’s most popular apps do just that: Facebook makes us feel more connected, Twitter more popular, Basecamp more productive.

Those products are designed primarily for utility. For products that are meant to entertain, however, the intended reaction is less “I rule!” than “That rules!” We might get lost in the action of a movie or empathize with the protagonist of a novel, but the experience doesn’t need to leave us feeling more powerful for it to be compelling.

Part of what makes game development so challenging, I’ve recently realized, is that games can provoke both types of reactions. Intuitive and responsive controls, a steady increase in difficulty, a satisfying conclusion: these elements add up to an “I rule!” experience for players. Story and aesthetics, on the other hand, are key to provoking a “That rules!” reaction. The difficulty isn’t just that we need to worry about both goals when creating games; the goals themselves are sometimes at odds. Games that spend too much time in cutscenes, for example, risk making the player feel like a passive observer no matter how well written and rendered they are. And satisfying the player’s desire to rule often places constraints on the stories that we can tell or how we tell them: an unexpected death can be a powerful moment, but not if it causes the player to quit the game in frustration.

Considering the need for games to strike a balance between “That rules!” and “I rule!”, it’s not too surprising that some have trouble seeing games as art. Done well, a game is both art and application, art and not-art — and that’s one of the things that makes creating a good one so rewarding.

What we’re playing: Lord of the Rings Online

LotROI loves me my MMOs. The old cry of “SOW PLZ” from the trade channels of Everquest still ring in my ears (kids, ask your gamer parents). Though I’ve tried a great many, I never got very far in most of them. In fact, of all the MMOs I’ve played, I’ve only reached the endgame content in Daddy WoW. I made a great group of friends doing 10-man raid content in WoW:BC and WoW:WotLK. That time, alas, is past.

As Nick mentioned, it’s quite remarkable how much creating new worlds from scratch can devour one’s free time. Parenting does an impressive job of p0wning the rest. (L2P means ‘learn to parent while playing MMOs’, amirite? Haven’t mastered that one yet. I’m such a n00b.) It’s crushing me to watch Cataclysm’s release date approach and know that I won’t be able to play it. Because the fact of the matter is, while I’d still love to play, I can only seem to squeeze in a couple two-hour sessions a month no matter how hard I try. This, dear friends, makes the $15 subscription fee to continue the work of my beloved tank to free the world from evils great and small while keeping my friends from getting their faces melted cost-prohibitive.

So when I heard that Lord of the Rings Online was moving to a freemium model, I was thrilled. I’d stuck my head in the LotRO door a couple times in the past, so I already knew I’d love this game. Creating a new character and logging back in, it was everything I remembered. The graphics are gorgeous, the music is compelling, and there’s enough quest content to keep my lizard brain extremely satisfied smashing mobs and returning lost trousers to townsfolk in need. Plus, LotRO has something WoW will never have. Soon after I created my character, he crossed paths with a shadowy gentleman who went by the name of Strider. Strider was helping a Sackville-Baggins who was being pursued by a Ringwraith, but Strider in turn needed my help. He explained that there was a different Baggins that needed protection elsewhere–the true target of the Ringwraiths. Strider needed to get to that Baggins quickly before the Ringwraiths realized their mistake.

Um. Wow. Yes sir, I will help your cause.

Needless to say, I’m really enjoying LotRO, as little as I get a chance to play it. It’s firing on all cylinders for me. There’s just one problem. When you play as intermittently as I do, you end up missing out quite a bit on the “massively multiplayer” part of the MMO experience. I find myself agreeing with Leigh Alexander in her recent Kotaku post: no matter how much fun a game may be, it’s always more fun with a posse. But how can you gather a posse when you’re just not around all that much? We’re trying to answer that question in our own way with Bastion: Call to Arms, but I’d love to figure out a way to play with friends in the MMO environment as well, even if it’s just a couple of times a month. Has anyone else figured out a way to do that?

What’s wrong with Civ V?

I’m a long-time fan of the Civilization games, old enough to remember playing a cracked copy of the original Civ games on the university computers while in high school. (Yes, I pay for all my games now, thanks for asking.) When a new iteration of Civilization comes out, it’s a joyous event: not quite Christmas, but bigger than Halloween, y’know? So when I got my sweaty palms on Civ V, it was with a great deal of anticipation.

Developing a game doesn’t leave you with much time to play other games – one of those ironies they don’t tell you about. But I’ve managed to sneak in enough time with Civ V to end up… a little disappointed. Not such that I won’t play, or enjoy myself while doing so, but I’m not enthralled, not yet. Civ 2 and Civ 4, I each played for five years, all the way through until the next version came out. Civ 3, I played for maybe six months. There’s a danger Civ 5 will be another Civ 3 for me.

Why? What’s the problem? Did they simplify too many things, or the wrong things? Maybe, but I think it’s something else. I think it’s the vaunted new combat system – or, more precisely, the secondary consequences of that system.

One of the largest changes to Civ V is the elimination of stacked units. Now, each combat unit occupies a space that cannot be shared with any other unit. This, combined with the introduction of hex spaces, pushes the game into the tactical realm inhabited primarily by war games. And it does make the combat more interesting, on a per-engagement basis.

However, to make this work, each civilization needs to end up with an army that is much smaller on a per-unit basis than was common for any prior Civ game. There’s just not room on the map for them otherwise, and presumably they also wanted to limit the amount of time players needed to spend each turn just moving their armies around the board. Instead, you have tougher units, and more attacking and withdrawing and so on.

At least, that’s the theory. And sometimes it works out okay, and you get nice consequences, like more “leveling” of units as they survive and gain experience. But the big problem is that this means they need to make each unit more expensive to field. Creating an up-to-tech unit takes much longer in Civ V than in previous versions, and costs a whole lot of schmuckers to buy outright.

Okay, so what? Well, if we push further down the train of consequences, we get to this ugly one: if you defeat your enemy’s initial forces, they can’t rebuild in time for it to matter (unless the enemy is very large). As a result, it’s all about the early battles. Win those, and you will collapse the enemy’s empire and take it all for yourself. There’s a middle ground, but it is small.

Civ IV, by contrast, had both small and large wars. A number of things worked against large-scale conquering: the slow process of assimilating new cities, the effects of culture on newly-acquired border cities, war unhappiness, the ability to manufacture reinforcements reasonably quickly, and the ability to stack units in cities (which not only protected those cities, but also kept the reinforcements safe until there were enough of them to meet the enemy in the field). Civ V only has unhappiness penalties for new cities (and it doesn’t matter whether you are at war or not, so this is not a disincentive to further warring), and some policy and wonder bonuses available to boost combat prowess within one’s own borders – which won’t matter once you’ve lost your army.

And that’s really too bad, because it eliminates a whole dimension of gameplay, and makes the game swingy: be the first to bash another Civ’s head in, and you have a big leg up on the rest of the game.

Civ V gets a lot of other things right, particularly the addition of city-states, which are a huge and clever innovation that adds both to the mechanical gameplay, and to the realism factor in the game. And I will continue to play it, with some measure of happiness. But the main thing I’ve come away with is a renewed appreciation for the potential for unintended, second- or third- or nth-order consequences in the complex, dynamic system that is a game (especially one with as many variables as a Civ game). Something to watch out for.

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