Game Master Tools

In my ongoing experience as a Game Master for Knight Online I have found an ever-present challenge: that of a distinct lack of in-the-moment relevent tools.
By no means am I griping. It’s just this need for effective, relevent tools to facilitate the Game Masters’ roles of maintaining and enhancing the in-game play experience strikes me as an [other] opportunity to distinguish one’s game from the rest of the pack.
By “in-the-moment relevent tools” I am talking about tools to help GMs do things like identify patterns of player behavior so as to respond most effectively. I’m thinking of activities like tweaking tool interfaces so as to allow for the most efficient possible GM activities, creating new tools to help mine through various metrics to find useful tidbits, and working with the technical producer to identify what metrics would be most important to track.
The Game Master crew can be the best direct feedback mechanism for ongoing product development/fixes, so exceptional tools will likely enable [more] exceptional work. I think this may even be important enough that sacrificing GM staffing levels in favor of a full-time [web] developer devoted strictly to the development and maintenance of GM tools would yield a net profit of surprising levels.

Over its shelf life a game changes. The community changes, and the challenge is to keep the game relevent to the customers. It’s an ongoing challenge, and the Game Master crew is in the position to play a significant role.

That’s a thought that’s been simmering for a while now. For the time being I am flexing Excel and VBScript as much as I possibly can to make the tools I find I really ned on a day-to-day basis, but I am hitting the limit of what’s possible outside of more serious development work. I’m seeing opportunities for some really useful metrics creation that can be done without the need to hassle the game development staff. Sara Jensen would be proud 😉

User Generated Content… Game Industry Job too

Gamasutra had an interview with John Smedley posted here. I thought the following quote indicates SOE’s Free Realms will be a very good project to watch:

I rather give people some lines, and say “color inside these any way you want.” Then you can’t just generate whatever you want, but you have users creating content themed towards our goals.”

On a tangential front, I just got a job with K2 Network in Irvine. So, this means I’m moving from London to Irvine- I’m there now, in fact. I’m very excited, and I start work tomorrow!

Since it’s a Korean-developed game imported and translated to Western markets, I will be most interested to get some first-hand knowledge on the issues surrounding the Play for Free business models, cultural translations, and the art of operating an MMO (rather than producing it in the traditional sense).

User Generated Content

i want a new expansion with content!!!!!! … just (trying to) chatting with friends ingame who never logon anymore and to decorate my houses is simply no long term solution… (from here)

And then later on in the same comments thread on the SWG release of Chapter 6: Masters of the Wild at MMORPG.com….

The only thing this does for SWG [Chapter 6 expansion] is it helps those who promote fictitious fun by providing a means to generate their own content through the Story Actor Event Perks. PEX’s team is being downsized and these changes are to assist his department through redirecting a workload onto the customers; not a terrible thing honesstly. (from here)

From the comments on Raph Koster’s post “Quit being snobby about user-created content”:

User-generated content, like all human creative endeavor, is subject to Sturgeon’s Law…. The free market tends to act as a sort of crud-filter….. User-generated content also needs crud-filters. We used to have ways of doing this on MUDs….. The threat to the scalability of our approaches was that they were largely top-down… Modern… techniques tend to be more democratic. However, there are inherent problems in these systems….. Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of clips on YouTube have 4 stars? I’ve seen the same phenomenon on NetFlix. To me, it would seem as though mass voting on a star rating isn’t very expressive or useful for many kinds of content…. I think that the case for user-generated content is not helped by the kind of wild, anarchic approach we see in Second Life… (from here)

I see two widely-attempted approaches to take care of the “crud problems” of User Generated Content: the MUD-style top-down Wizard, and the user-rating system. Both obviously will not work (and have not worked) in MMOs. In many respects, I think we would all agree with the statement that the free market tends to act as a crud-filter.

The top-down approach doesn’t scale enough, it relies upon the good nature and time availability of the people in the Wizard roles, and it is an “unnatural” solution, in that it relies upon a contrived demi-god role to be filled by members of the population.

The user-rating systems depend upon the general population caring enough about the content to be willing to rate the crud as “crap”. I think that to rate something as “crap” often feels judgmental, complete with all the connotations of that word. At least that’s something I feel whenever I rate some User Generated Content as “crap”, even if it is indeed crud. I think it takes more dislike to rate something as “crap” than it takes liking something to rate it “good”, and this for the same reasons that it takes a whole lot more provocation to get somebody to fight than it does compliments to get someone to smile (who here liked Fight Club). So, seeing as the fundamental “crud-filter” mechanism in the free market is to keep on walking past whatever it is you don’t like, that is, inaction rather than action, the user-rating system will always and forever be skewed toward higher ratings, and fewer votes, than what people actually feel. I suppose, then, this would imply a simple increase in the “this is crap, toss it” threshold would go a long ways. That or keeping track of the number of player impressions some object gets and compare that with how many people voted for or against it, assuming some percentage of non-votes is in effect a “no” vote. However, the “game” of campaigning for “yes” votes would jump into full swing, and when confronted with having to say “no, I’m not going to vote for your crud” or just voting “good” for something you don’t care that much about, most people will tend to just vote “good”… again, for similar reasons as the fight mention from above. So, I guess my opinion is that the user-rating system can be improved to a degree, but it will always be flawed.

The free market acts as an effective crud-filter because the “voting” is only done by those who like the content enough to give something tangible to its creator. The actions are what matter- as we’d all expect from “actions speak louder than words”. If someone voted “good” that means they gave resources to the user who created the content. In short, money does the talking. This is different, however, than a voter saying, “I like your stuff. Here’s some money;” that would be no different than a user-rating system. The only way for it to be different, I think, is there must be a transaction. The user content must be something the voter wants to take home and put to some sort of use. The user content in general must be capable of being tangibly useful for others.

In economics terms, the User Generated Content must add value, and that value-added product must then be something someone else can use to create value.

Currently, User Generated Content is restricted to the aesthetic and imaginary world. The comment “The only thing this does… is it helps those who promote fictitious fun…” is really very accurate. In my MMO experience, serious role-playing seems to amount to make-believe. There is no value-added, economic product involved. It does not use up scarce resources, so there is no tangible risk or investment required, other than emotional- it requires extra effort in the suspension of disbelief. Not to say it’s bad. I’m just saying what is required of serious role-players is currently being required of all players in regards to User Generated Content.

Make User Generated Content matter financially, and you’ve made it work. It will then be in the same vein as crafting in a player-driven economy. How? You have to build upon the schematic/blueprint aspect of existing crafting systems. Players need to be able to create new blueprints that produce new objects that look different, are shaped different, and behave differently than any dev-created object. In SWG, you could produce items with widely-differing stats that influenced how a player used that item. We need to go further and let crafters change what an item actually does. The game Spore is doing something similar, though with creatures. In the extreme, we will need to allow for a crafting system to allow for players to go from bows and arrows all the way up to starships and jet packs, all without a single hair of dev influence. And if there are multiple server shards, that crafting system needs to allow for one shard to have a completely different set of in-game items than all the others.

That paragraph describes what I believe has to happen in order for the User Generated Content problem to be solved. Holy complex, Batman. But how freakin’ cool would that be?!

I Need Context to Do My Job (or answer a question, or…)

When I was at GDC07 in San Francisco earlier this year, I landed an interview for a Design position that was opening up.  I spent hours writing out thoughts on as many issues as I could think of in an attempt to more precisely answer possible questions.

But, after all my preparation, the one thing the interviewer really focused on was the question “What would you do to balance our game?”  I briefly outlined a few general strategies, such as cash flow analysis using statistics and design goals, but for whatever reason I did not have an “ahah! moment” answer, which all the best answers are.  And, ever since, I’ve been pondering why a perfect answer didn’t click into place.

I know my lack of experience played a role.  But I think it was something more fundamental that I now know I needed: context.

In order to answer that question of how to balance the game, I think I really needed to spend a good several days in the staff, on site, talking with the lead designer, talking with programmers and scripters, looking at how the game systems operate, looking at how magic, buffs, defenses, damage, and speed work, and talking with the project lead and publisher.  At that point, I have absolutely now worries that I would know exactly how to balance the game.  Without that, my best answer can only be, “I’m not sure how I would balance your game.  I’d have to see it.  What have you already done in terms of balance?  What problems have you encountered?  How is your combat system set up?  Do you already have “reference point” items/loots/xp gains?”

I realize now that my answer should have been exactly what I felt it should have been: questions for him on the game, what they’ve done, where they’re stuck.  But instead, in my desire to impress, I succumbed to the worry there was already a canon of game balance techniques- and not knowing them by heart was a “wrong answer”-  so I tried to give a “right answer”.  And it went poorly.  Heh heh, they didn’t even give me a “thanks, but no thanks.”

I do not intend this to be a sob story.  I know I’ll be in game development some day, most likely the Producer side, but for now I just have loads to learn.  And one of them is that in order solve problems I need to know as much about everything as possible.  So if I ask lots of questions, please don’t hate me.

Frustration of Reasonable Desires

I’m linking to a Raph Koster post, as I’m sure any self-respecting games blogger is obligated to do on occasion 🙂  He wrote a little ditty entitled “A brief SF tale“.  Take a quick read-through before going on…

There is an important principle here that goes to the very root of game design.  If a population wants something, and that something is reasonable and not overtly “wrong” (like stealing cars or killing someone) then there is very little that can prevent that desire from ultimately getting fulfillment.  Someone is going to figure out how to get it, and shortly thereafter word will spread.  I’m using Raph’s post, and the military-bandwidth-internet-security issue he was responding to at some level, as a jumping-off point; I’m not directly commenting on either any longer.

At the moment, I can think of two primary ways a desire can be frustrated

The first is that of cost.  If a random person has the choice between obtaining a thing legally and reasonably-priced (to them) vs. obtaining it illegally and for little to no cost, I think more often than not they will choose the legal way.  The key is whether or not the price is reasonable to them. So, if someone wants to discourage such an illegal activity [that can be replaced by a legal one], then it’s “simply” an issue of pricing or compensation systems.  When the price for a desire is inappropriately high, the individual is thrust into an unnecessary moral dilemma, complete with the commensurate stress.

Another scenario in the frustration of a desire is that of prohibition.  If a person wants some thing, but is prohibited from obtaining that thing by some sort of rule or edict, but that desire is actually quite reasonable, then I believe the frustration experienced by that person will more often than other types of frusration lead to a destructive response.  In the extreme, imagine a very aggressive police state that cracks down on the wearing of, say, shorts when there is really nothing, culturally or otherwise, that prohibits the wearing of shorts- in fact, since it’s hot out shorts make a lot of sense and people really want to wear them.  This is unnecessary frustration.  And you can bet there will be no small amounts of protest (there had better be).

An interesting facet I think is that the first “cost-type” frustration will not have as much protest as the second, the “edict-type” frustration.  In the first, there are workarounds.  In the second, it’s just plain not possible to fulfill the desire[largely].

In game design, it’s a bit of a unique situation, since the “edict-style” frustration of a desire is a distinct possibility.  The most obvious example is if a game mechanic prohibits a player from equipping a high-level sword purely because he’s not obtained a certain level. That’s an “edict-style” frustration of a very reasonable desire.  The other side of restricted player activity is when a mechanism for a desire does not even exist.  I don’t think the lack of the ability to fly starships pre-“Jump to Lightspeed” Star Wars Galaxies was a point of player protest.  Protest seemed to be focused on broken specials, balance issues with certain professions, and a number of bugs- it was centered on certain “edicts”, whether active or passive, that prevented players from doing what they had a natural desire for.  It wasn’t the lack of a feature that made players protest, it was the frustration involved with an existing feature.  Granted, the cost of fixing certain bugs is sometimes seemingly too high, but I guess my opinion is that as much preference as is humanly possible needs to be given to them over adding new features. 

I guess what I’m trying to point at is that the most successful game designs are molded around what people naturally have a desire to do.  It observes human motivators and provides tools that seemlessly allow for those desires to be fulfilled.  It’s the repeated, diverse fulfillment of natural, reasonable desires- that’s what the best game designs do.  Existing games can be “fixed” or refined by noting points of consistent player protest and reevaluating whatever design edict has been imposed.  And I think fixing those kinds of frustrations, the ones in existing systems, are of greater importance than even adding new features.

The Simple

I was reading Joe Ludwig’s Blog and his post Pizza Testing brought a smile to my face.  In short, to get great testing results, bring in a load of gamers, order pizza, and throw that whole mess at your game.  Then stand back, write down pertinent observations, and ask your “test subjects” to tell you what they are doing (or are trying to do).

 I guess I liked how very “human” that methodology is.  It’s a quick, dirty, yet very very effective solution.  Personally, I think it sounds like a blast.

Of note, Joe mentions the cost-benefit is such that he wishes they had been doing it long before.  That’s the part I like- the cost is so low that it is extremely doable.  In some ways I can imagine some amount of QA being offloaded to such sessions.  Or is such a suggestion anathema?

Agile-Designed MMOs

I’ve been reading through the Software Development Process collection of article in Wikipedia in an attempt at getting my mind more fully wrapped around the situation that MMO design is in.  The Big Design Up Front article was the article that prompted me to make mention of this topic here.

While conceptually the Agile-like methodologies out there are very attractive, and I personally find their decentralization  a good thing, I can’t see how an MMOG can be made without loads and loads of design effort before any coding actually happens.

I think this may be the crucial difference between what works and doesn’t work with full-on Agile (or is it more Extreme Programming?) methodologies.  Agile methods are great when making tools.  Loads of design is required, however, when you’re making an environment.  I think there is a difference.  And I’m not saying Agile methodologies are wholly inappropriate.  I just think that good time should be spent early on purely doing conceptualization and design work.

An environment is a big collection of tools.  That’s how humans view everything around them, everything that’s not their own self.  So, when making an MMOG each of those tools should be made Agile-style.  It’s how all those tools are related that cannot really be done Agile-like.  That’s what I’m saying needs to be heavily designed.

So, when I say good time needs to be spent up front doing purely design work, I’m talking about the decisions on how all those tools which make up the environment are connected.  Once all those tools are identified and understood to [someone’s] satisfaction (as well as their inputs and outputs, loosely speaking], then the various Agile or Extreme Programming teams can do their piranha-style devouring of the tool-design and implementation tasks.

Maybe that’s all been hashed and rehashed thousands of times though.  But still, I’m sure someone will get a good idea or make some great connection after reading this musing.

Autonomous Creature System- Useful or Nicety?

A system that autonomously controls creature population maps and creature attributes… it seems like a great idea- remove the creature placement burden, remove the creature balance burden, add extra levels of immersion, and allow for more gameplay paths.  Well, that’s the goal anyways.

Is it something that would be a major game differentiation?  Or is it just something that should be in the “it would be nice, but yeah right” category of the design specs?

In a bit of a crisis of belief on the topic I found myself questioning the realistic viability of my creature system.  In some ways it seems like it would be more along the lines of what real life animal population researchers would be interested in- and possibly find useful.  In a game world though, would it add enough to justify its development and possible maintenance- more likely possible catastrophic failure at some unspecified later time (wouldn’t it be great to have a mass extinction event, after which the world is left with Swamp Rats and a few scattered Spitting Golas?)

I think if we can figure out how to allow for a rich enough autonomous creature management system there will be a whole new level of emergent phenomena in that the creatures themselves self-balance and even create complex webs of symbiotic relationships.  Grauls eat various critters, which eat other critters, which cannot live in the presence of a certain competitor, which depends on the presence of rats and in doing so allows for Graul nests to survive long enough for its young to mature before they are destroyed by said rats, etc.  Not a very good attempt, but the point is that they system will work best if it yields a natural symbiosis of various species in any given area.   Maybe even starting the food chain off with with things as basic as plankton and green algae- that’s a bit extreme, but interesting.

I think this creature system may not be a big selling point itself, but I think it will be a sort of crucial building block that allows for bigger, better gameplay mechanics that are themselves the grand selling points.  So, in that way it’s almost part of the game engine, and thus higher on the priority list than a “that would be cool to have” item.

Wouldn’t it be Cool if…

I indulge:

I’ve noticed that in most every MMO I’ve played there is a sense that one can just go out, make some money, and then buy that leet Sword of Perth, or whatnot.  The important part is that being broke is never seen as a permanent thing.  Making money is assumed to be not only possible, but quite doable.  So….

Wouldn’t it be cool if real life laws and lawmakers (in the future) figured out what it was exactly that brings about this complete and utter economic optimism?

Obviously, most MMOs put the players in the situation of hunter-gatherers for the most part, that is, the “outside” world and the accompanying resources are limitless, and as a result wealth comes from outside the “village” (read player communities).  Whether or not real life is the same is arguable nowadays, since much value is found in what amounts to virtual assets- stocks, debt, services of other sorts.  But that’s a bit outside the scope of a “wouldn’t that be cool if…” musing.

This is where games, especially MMOs, will become of immense relevence.  Finding those players who are begging for in-game cash and figuring out what prevents them from seeing the opportunity in the game to make loads of it themselves… then finding the parallels in real life will be seriously useful.  The point is that I am confident the barriers to in-game thriving are going to parallel the barriers to real life thriving.

That’s why games matter.

What’s the Most Important Part?

Zen of Design has a post that covers what system requirements to design for.  In short,

…MMOs are all about reaching social critical mass. About your virtual world being the place to be. Accessibility is key, and while for most designers this means silky smooth tutorials, intuitive UIs and a candy-coated level 1 to 10 progression, the very first accessibility test is whether or not your game runs at 4 frames per second in character creation on a machine that was top of the line just 3 years ago…    Think of the children. Think of the wives. Or at least, think of their hand-me-down machines.

An interesting reaction I had was that it may be difficult to always separate the system requirements from the player who is willing to buy those system requirements.  To design an MMO for extremely high system requirements is in large part a question of graphics, and in several ways it strikes me as akin to making more and more demanding Windows themes.  The functionality isn’t particularly affected; it just looks ever more nifty.  But if looks are key, we all know where those go over time- they become inferior.

I guess graphics to me seem secondary to the gameplay, systems, and usability.  Ideally, the graphics and even the user interface could be swapped out just like a Windows theme.  Given a broad enough range of valid gameplay styles, then, the game could stay “relevant” graphically by “simply” releasing what amounts to graphical theme packs that re-skin the interface.  I’m not advocating this as something to dramatically pursue, but I can see that being the direction things are headed- different “skins” for cell phones, computers, Xboxes, even old Gameboys or something.

My real point is that the graphics are secondary to the gameplay systems, and the user interface is a mediator between the two.  The long shelf life that Damion mentioned comes from the gameplay mechanics and clever user interface, not particularly the graphics.

Lest I come across wrong, I realize graphics are quite helpful for immersion as well as achieving that “critical social mass”.  But I kind of think that we’re at a point where “middle of the [current] road” graphics are really quite fine, and given great gameplay, things will be just dandy…. hang on, that’s World of Warcraft.  So maybe I’m right… well, Damion said it before me, so maybe I’m just copying 😉