Our Sense of Valid Value Changeth

On Terra Nova Nate Combs wrote about how in Eve Online sometimes pilots develop a bit of a bond with their drones (kind of like pets in other games).

I realize Nate was thinking in a slightly different direction than I am, so I am using his post as a conversation-starter.  It’s fairly obvious we become emotionally invested in a game.  But for the most part I think there is this sense that a game is not “as valid” as, say, building a car, or working in an office.

It’s that sense of apporpriate value, “valid value” that I see games, especially MMOs forcing us to revisit.  In a way I can see a shift happening, both economically and culturally, from the current assumption that “game items are not really valuable and the time spent likewise isn’t truly valuable” to the acceptance that building a physical car is not significantly different than creating a virtual item, and most importantly, the time spent doing so is just as valid.  As such, I see the economies of MMOs eventually being fully embraced by the “real world” economy.

Here’s the extreme:

A person is extremely wealthy in-game but poverty-stricken in real life.  Is that okay?

I think one’s answer that question should be a decent indicator of their opinion on the question of “valid value”.

I’m just going to end it there.  There is currently a change in the general sense of what is “valuable”, and it seems games have forced that question upon us in many ways.

How Games Matter to Reality

Sara Jensen has a great blurb about an aspect of “game balance”, as I interpret it at least.  She is responding to “Nerf, Nerf, Nerf” on Terra Nova (by Joshua Fairfield).  Here’s what Sara says:

I’ve done PvP balance for a long time. I eventually discovered a secret to making changes that feel responsive, rather than change-for-the-sake-of-change or an attempt to jerk players around: wait until the last minute to commit changes. Producers hate it, QA complains, but if you fix a perceived problem and sit on it for two months, nine times out of ten that’s enough time for player ingenuity to solve the problem on their own….  assuming that the game mechanics allow for sufficient emergent behavior.

The part that’s jumped out at me is the “…nine time out of ten that’s enough time for player ingenuity to solve the problem on their own.”  The ingenuity of the masses is something oft ignored- as Joshua put it:

For those of you who don’t play WoW, I’ll just claim that there are quite difficult to find solutions to combat problems, and players move to those solutions with frightening rapidity.

If players have enough tools that allow enough emergent gameplay, most “balance issues” will no longer be issues.  That’s one of my bold proclamations;)  The players themselves will figure out a workaround, and that workaround will be better than any “dev-imposed” one.  And it will be better because it’s not a workaround perse, but rather it is what amounts to an economic development- it will simply be a valid solution to a very real problem.  But, again, that will only work if “the game mechanics allow for sufficient emergent behavior.”

So, how does this matter to reality?  I think if you look at any current hot issue- climate change, health care, energy, etc. the best response from the “devs” (read governement lawmakers) will quite possibly be to do nothing.  Let the masses figure it out.  The real life mechanics most certainly allow for sufficient emergent behavior.  The same people who find combat solutions in WoW with frightening rapdidity are members of those masses.

Maybe that’s a bit trite.  But I think it’s at least pointing toward a valid principle.  I think it will be games, especially MMOs that will allow the results of such “governmental/dev inaction” to be observed and even tested.  I assume MMOs will continue to allow for ever-more emergent behavior- to me that’s the move toward how I use the term “virtual world” (I’m trying to commandeer it back from the likes of Linden Labs 🙂

I will remain open to the possibility that I’m misguided in my opinion on this “principle of government inaction”, but I am relatively confident it will be shown true.  And I think games will play a significant part in that verification [or debunking].

“Virtual World” terminology


The term “virtual world” means things like Second Life, There, MTVs Laguna Beach project, etc.  It has a strong connotation of “glorified chat channel”.  It also lacks an explicit conceit- whereas MMOs like World of Warcraft and Star Wars Galaxies have some stong contextual world and story in which you play.  There and Second Life are utterly freeform playgrounds.

I don’t want that.  That is boring to me.  Well, no, that’s not true.  I find them to be quite interesting.  I just much prefer the route of starting at the “game” side and moving to the “virtual world”.  A definite game world (and conceit) provides much-needed context and a baseline from which players then develop the world.

When I say, “Let’s make virtual worlds,” I am referring to how Eve Online’s market economy allows for independent play styles (be a trader doing your own thing, but it’s economically as viable as combat, which is an explicit play style).  A “virtual world” to me implies that we allow for things like constrained player generated content.  We build things like combat systems, quests, and NPC factions, yes, but we take the next step and make those things respond somehow to what the player want them to be.  NPC factions can be eliminated, species can be driven to extinction, players can develop technology from bows and arrows all the way up to starships (in the extreme).

And a note on that player-driven technology development.  When I say, “Players can develop technology from bows and arrows all the way up to starships,” I am not referring to dev-created items and technology skills that players must “discover” in the sense that they simply earn the ability to use them.  I am implying that the developers have created a system by which players are able to truly invent items the devs never had in mind.  I am saying we should fully embrace emergent content.  All of this, mind you, is set in the context of a dev-created world, complete with seeded factional tensions, seeded player cities, seeded economies.  “Seeded” only in that doing so seems to be necessary to show brand new players what is possible, and here I’m referring to intial server boot-up.

A “virtual world” to me is not Second Life.  It’s a more extreme Star Wars Galaxies (but not in the direction of Second Life).

I can see terminology is an issue in this discussion on virtual worlds vs. games.  So, I will try to keep hammering at it.

Long-term MMO Success

JZigishness: How to Get People to Talk

The theory is that it’s not precisely the game mechanics and overall enjoyability that results in a successful MMO, long-term success especially.  It’s actually the “talk-about-ability” of the game.  It’s whether or not your playerbase talks about the game (in a positive tone) in the real world, [both with fellow players as well as well non-players].

Interestingly, this strikes me as an excellent tool by which to tune an existing MMO, and somehow it can be used in the design process as well- I haven’t thought about that as yet.  I’ve read several posts from people saying what they liked most about X game was the exciting events that happened in it; especially the fact that they talk about them with friends outside the game, so I think it’s quite a valid point.

I’m at a loss for profundity for some reason.  I’m not sure why- maybe I’m tired and need to go outside.  I know this topic that Ben is addressing- players talking with each other about your game (positively)- is very important.  My sense is I need to let it “simmer” some, and later it’ll come to me how its fundamental aspects connect with game mechanics and the game in general.  It’s good stuff.  Granted the posting is a bit old.  but I like it.

When Games Become Real Life

Raph Koster’ blog: Paternalistic or Libertine?

Specifically jumping off from this:

So China has set up time limits for MMOs. I think this is actually the final implementation of the plan they announced previously, but whatever. People’s Daily Online reports that under-18 players will only be allowed to play for 3 hours a day at full XP rates, with declining XP gain thereafter until at 5 hours there’s no advancement at all. After five hours, you’ll get spam warnings every quarter hour telling you to go log off because it’s unhealthy for you to keep playing. And games not compliant by July 16th will simply be shut down.

What about the shift in people’s conception of value from tangible goods like cars and sunglasses to intangible goods like in-game epic equipment?  The limits on value being attached to only tangible assets are being lifted with the advent of online games, especially virtual worlds.  The limits on friends being those whom you can physically interact with are further being removed.  The end result will be a more equal weighting in virtual assets vs. “real” assets.

I predict that someone could even sit in front of a computer all day long and make a good living doing so!

There is some good debate on whether or not kids present a different, special scenario.  However, I would argue that if an individual kid has a bad compulsion to play WoW constantly if you were to remove WoW that kid would be doing something equally destructive.  In every case of compulsive behavior (gambling, over-eating, what-have-you) there are deeper issues that need to be taken care of before the compulsive behavior ceases.  The specific act itself is just an instance of the problem.  You can kill instances all day long and it doesn’t effect the root “spawn spot”, as it were.

A mention on the self-policing of online communities, or any communities for that matter.  The critical thing that’s required is the ability to self-police.  Most online games don’t allow for effective self-policing, so until that kind of mechanism is figured out, it’s tough to conclude we need government intervention.  And there I’ve just mooted the debate on if self-policing mechanisms are even possible.  That would be a thoroughly enjoyable project to work on.

Original Intellectual Properties

Here’s the tangent-starter: Psychochild’s Blog: Licensed Game Design.

I’ve read various things by Psychochild and I think they are quite well-said.  This time he talks about some of the challenges of licensing an Intellectual Property (like Lord of the Rings and Stargate) to make into a game.  I’m going to look some more at the pros and cons of doing so.

Why use a licensed world? One advantage is the available features of the world someone else has put in the world to make the world seem real and (hopefully) internally-consistent. But, the main advantage is the built-in fanbase.

I’ve read this a number of times in various places, or at least things that seemed to imply as much.  I guess I would like to challenge it a bit in the hope that some new insight will eventually come.

When I think of designing a game (MMO) around an existing IP, the best thing seems to be the fact that there is already an existing world; the task of the designer is to make that world a “reality”.  The existing fanbase is great, true, but it seems that just means you will get more people willing to give it an initial shot.  True, you may have more sales at launch, but it’s the mid to long term that determines profitability, and that is dependent upon the actual gameplay moreso than the IP and “rabidness” of the fanbase.

I guess I see the prior existence of the IP world as being the greatest asset when one attempts to design a game with it.  You have more obvious constraints, and at least for me I work better under tough constraints.  In addition, tough constraints put you in a “position of necessity”, and we all know that necessity results in innovation.

I read an article about social networking in the Gallup Management Journal- they gave me a free subscription (thanks, guys!).  A researcher by the name of Jon Kleinberg mentioned that any random person is much more likely to try something new if he or she has 2 friends doing it or trying it.  So, a large, rabid fanbase will give you quite a good number of people willing to give it a try.  But, just trying something does not mean they will stick around.  People stick around for the gameplay, the sheer novelty of “existing” inside another world, and the friends they make in the game world.  Even if people are sticking around for friends, they still have to enjoy the game in order for them to recommend it to their friends, which, incidentally, is what you need to get the really big subscriber numbers.  It’s the rabid fan base that gives you a built-in playerbase, but the flip side is that the game has to be such that they recommend it to their friends who are not the rabid fans of the IP.

So, in short, I think the most valuable part of the IP is the creativity it can spark gameplay-wise.  The built-in fanbase is great, but that kind of just amounts to a cheaper launch marketing budget.

Language and Vocabulary in Game Design

How much of the current raging debates in the game industry, or any debate in any industry for that matter, boil down to the opposing sides’ deficiencies in adequately communicating the full nuance of the concepts of which they are thinking?  I think the answer is “a large part”.  And I think the ramifications of such an answer are the following:

1. Since game design, especially MMO design as I see it, is immensely complex and nuanced, getting to the very core of what it is to be human, the most effective conversations and debates will happen among people who “get” each other to a decent degree.  In other words in most cases friends, coworkers, and a relatively small number of outside colleagues.

2. Large-scale, industry-wide debates will tend to be inefficient due to the sheer number of non-common terminology, differing connotations, etc.  Rarely will conclusive decisions be reached.

 By no means am I implying that industry-wide debates are useless or that they should be discouraged.  What I am saying is that the participants of such forums must recognize the situation and be fully aware of the communication problems inherent in it.

The interesting part is that the most meaningful debates on the core issues in game design will be rather decentralized, that is, in each development studio, especially in each team.  As such, it would seem quite important that team members trust each other, both personally and professionally, and it seems critical that the team as a group have regular focused discussions on various “deep” elements of their design.

Who is My Customer?

Joe Ludwig wrote a great post title “Who is my Customer?”.  At the time I read it I thought it was great and it helped clarify a number of things design-wise.  However, I wasn’t struck with a tremendous “action item”, as it were, that I could employ right now in design ideation.  Then, after re-reading Damion Schubert’s powerpoint slides of his talk at GDC 2007, it hit me, specifically by slide number 12:

As a designer writing design documents my immediate “customer” is the programmer.  I need to write directly for them.  Nobody else.  The programmer’s “customer”, in turn, is the artists and designers (not the ones writing the design docs of course).  Their “customer” is more the end user, though this is where it becomes iterative and circular.  The designer doing design docs may have to adjust the design docs based on what the designers and artists encounter.

Hmmm… that’s not quite as profound-sounding when I read it.  We’ll just chalk it up as a mid-level profundity then.  I like it anyways.

Death Penalties Musings Responses part 2

Quoting from the comments on Damion Schubert’s Zen of Design blog article discussing death penalties:

Maybe XP loss/debt is no longer the answer. Maybe game developers should use alternative methods to make gamers avoid death.

Excellent thought.  Death penalties seem to be an impossible problem given the existing assumptions about what a MMO game is.  Like how the “problem of evil” is an impossible problem assuming some all-influential deity.  An impossible problem should be a cue that we need to reexamine some fundamental assumptions we have on the issue at hand.

In a largely single player game death penalties can work fine.  In an MMO virtual world death penalties seem to break down and introduce problems.  Dev-defined death penalties are essentially one of the many game rules contrived to present players with high-drama tradeoff decisions.  In reality, almost never are we faced with such decisions.  When we play what we perceive to be a “game” we expect these kinds of decisions.  When we play what we perceive to be “reality” we don’t, and “reality” doesn’t work with such decisions- nothing is so black-and-white.  We all know that to force issues to be so results in borked relationships, screwed up politics, more damage than is strictly necessary, etc.

People aware of MMOs are more and more considering them a viable way to spend time, that is, MMOs are being incorporated into real life.  And in many ways, MMOs are indeed part of and thus “real life”.  So, if an MMO is approached as an extension of “real life” any mechanics that are too “gamey” will result in exquisite exasperation.  A mechanic that’s too “gamey” is one that makes sets of decisions too black-and-white.  Now, in real life to make decisions too black-and-white is usually to inappropriately oversimplify complex situations.  In an MMO to make decisions too black-and-white is done by the developer and really actually makes the situation simple.  In real life the “player” interprets situations as black-and-white; in a game the developer crafts situations to be black-and-white.

All this to say that death penalties are a thing for games.  Penalties for death in “real life” need to result in changes to the world.  If you get killed by members of the Congol NPC faction, the Congols receive a small boost to their attribute, effectively making them more powerful.  If a whole bunch of players get killed by the Congol faction, then the Congol faction gets a significant boost to their attributes.  Or, if you booch a mission given to you by the Congol faction, the Congols like you less.  If a whole bunch of players (all from the same faction) blow a whole bunch of missions given by the Congol faction, the Congol faction actually begins to hate that player faction, even to the point of actively hunting them down and attacking their cities and homes.

The idea is that player actions actually influence the world.  When a player dies, the thing that killed him gets some tangible benefit, but that benefit does not have to come at the expense of the player.  And when a player overcomes, the beaten NPC faction actually experiences a disbenefit.  (The requisite mechanic in this is an intelligent NPC faction system, complete with strategy.  The quick and dirty solution would be to have a person decide global strategies for various factions based upon what has been occuring to NPC members of those factions.  That would be an enormously fun project to build the systems for such a thing.)

Right now, MMOs are experiencing growing pains.  They are in between “games” and “virtual worlds”.  As long as they are “games” posing as “virtual worlds” they won’t work.  As soon as they fit the “virtual world” notion, they will.  In fact, they will become an extention to real life, and cease to be a “game” found within real life.  Now that would be a fun project on which to work 🙂

Did any of that make solid sense?  I am still trying to wrap my mind around the whole thing, so I don’t claim it to be perfect.  I am sure it’s headed in the right direction though.

Death Penalties Musings Responses

Today I’m trying something different.  My goal is to show a statement or comment that somehow “feels” off and I will try to put into words the reasons why.  I think it’ll be interesting to see what develops.

The following comes from the comments at Damion Schubert’s Zen of Design blog.

Death penalties should be variable… not unpredictably variable, but a sliding scale. The hardest content should have the best rewards AND the biggest penalty. It would be wildly unpopular, but I’d love to see a game try it…

This kind of mechanic strikes me as a contrived risk-reward tradeoff typical of a game.  I presume our overall goal is an MMO virtual world.  It would be fine in a relatively single player game like Diablo, or even Neverwinter Nights, but for an MMO virtual world I think it’d be a violation.  Here we have to step back a bit, so it may seem we’re headed off in some random direction, but it’ll tie back in….

We live in Real Life.  A game in relation to real life is something we all understand- contrived rules under which we choose to make decisions.  An MMO game is, well, a game- from our point of view it has rules meant to present us tough, dramatic tradeoff decisions.  An MMO virtual world, on the other hand, really is an extension of real life.  It has contrived rules, yes, but those rules address the logistics of interfacing with that virtual world, moreso than rules that define how we are to “play” in the world.

Take designing a loadout setup as something to demonstrate the differences between the MMO game and the MMO virtual world.  In the MMO game you deal with static items with certain tradeoffs for certain performance.  If an item doesn’t fit, your only choice is to train up your character to have the ability to use it.  In the MMO virtual world if an item doesn’t fit then you have recourse to mechanics to adapt that item to be able to fit- think research, modifications, or having someone craft a slightly less powerful (and less energy-intensive) version of it.

Interestingly, the MMO game is in reverse in regards to how we inherently view and interact with the world: if we want to use some object as a tool, we must adapt ourselves in some way.  In real life, it’s quite the other way around (for the most part).  If we see something we want to exert our will upon, but we don’t immediately have the ability to work with it in the way we want to, then we try to adapt that thing to make it into something we can work with.  Hegel outlines this in his Philosophy of Right, incidentally.

The point is that one’s will sees everything but itself as a potential tool.  And it’s natural tendency in cases where the tool is not usable as such is to try to figure out how the tool can be modified so that it can be used.  It’s not to figure out how it can change itself so that it is then capable of using the tool.  To have one’s will be frustrated by the will of another when the object of one’s will has no ill effect on any other will- in the MMO case by the will of the designer- is “wrong”, incidentally, as Hegel’s theorizing defines it.  Ever wondered why so many people find Monopoly immensely exasperating?  This is why.  The only reason you didn’t build houses last turn was because for some inexplicable reason if you want to build houses you must build them on all three properties at the same time.  And now all your competitors have landed in succession on all three of your properties.  In real life you would have been able to make something work at the time.  There were no rules that categorically prevented you from building some sort of structure on at least one of your properties.  Well, to me that’s frustrating, amongst other things in the wonderful world of Monopoly.

Back to the issue at hand: the best loot comes from hardest MOBs which have the nastiest death penalties.  So you’re telling me Stephen Hawking is worthless when it comes to obtaining the best items?  It’s a great mechanic if you’re playing largely single-player games like Diablo or Neverwinter Nights.  It’s a “game mechanic”, emphasis on the word “game”.  As a “virtual world” mechanic it will be a source of exasperation.

So I’m going to guess that to make this post any longer will result in something far too long, so I’ll end it here.