Changes in Other Industries – Common Thread

Over at CIO Insight, they have a video interview with Atti Riazi.  She’s evidently a big name in the advertising technology world.  Anyways, during the first 5 minutes of the interview she talks about how the advertising industry has changed.  She says she sees it as what amounts to a decentralization of power.  She points out that power has been devolved to the end user.  And, she sees it as a similar kind of change that happened when the mass production of the Model T enabled the masses to have a car- the view of cars changed from a luxury item to a means of commuting.

The point I’m wanting to focus is the decentralization part.  When an item or service goes from the domain of a select few to the domain of everyone, power has been decentralized.  And I would argue things in that area change drastically for the better.  In fact, one of the first examples Atti makes is that the best companies have or are changing from a top-down leader-led organization to one that honestly listens to even the “lowest employee on the ladder”- in effect, the “masses” in the company are empowered, or in other words company power is decentralized moreso than other companies.

Granted the assumption that decentralization of power is ideal may be open for debate, but I think it’s a safe assumption.  However, I will address it more in the future,  rest assured 😉

Strictly speaking, I did not have a goal of bringing this back around to game design, but I think the exercise of doing so would be valuable- and I think it’s not a forced connection.  Meaningful Player-generated content.  I think it could be one of those things that revolutionizes MMO virtual worlds, both in how they are approached from the development side, as well as how the general population views them.  Also, there is the obvious connection with the business decisions aspect of development studios, but since I’m not a pro at that part I don’t feel I have the right to comment.

Eve Online Dev Blog and Virtual Worlds

The following is taken from http://myeve.eve-online.com/devblog.asp?a=blog&bid=440.  It’s from the dev blog for Eve Online, and it’s a response to one of the most oft-submitted player feedback complaints/worries in response to changes in the latest game patch.

We are forcing you into low security and PVP!

Not at all. EVE is about freedom of choice. We simply provide the options, but reserve the right to deliver these options in context. This should also be more clear in what we addressed above, let’s see what the current changes do to the landscape and take it from there.

But is there PVP in low security? Absolutely. We entered an entirely different discussion about low security policing, and that we want it to be done by players. And we would reward them for it. A very reasonable sentiment was that “I don’t want to police, I don’t have the time” and so on. Perfectly understandable.

But here comes the thing. The policing is done by players and player organizations that want to play EVE that way. The ones that enjoy chasing down player pirates and providing havens where they benefit from having pilots basing their operations from.

For short. The beauty of the MMO is that there are so many tasks, so many corners of the universe, so many professions in there. You don’t have to be the police, but you can benefit from other players policing for you. The other people. Don’t forget them.

That is what I want to see more of in MMO virtual worlds.  The goal is to allow for play styles and allow for those play styles to be motivated by real, meaningful in-game motivators.

I say I want to see more of it, but in reality I am sure that’s what we will see more and more of in the future.  I believe it’s the rational, natural progression of the industry, though I would like to see it happen sooner rather than later.

I think Eve Online has done many things right.  They have tried to stick to making the tools to allow for a virtual world, rather than “making a game”.  And when I read the type of thing from the dev blog above, I am encouraged, both from a design perspective as well as a financial perspective- Crowd Control Productions is financial profitable and they are making a virtual world rather than a “game”.

Macroeconomic Terms, Game Design, and Strengths

I happened across a post by Shannon Appelcline over at www.skotos.net while looking for information on balancing a Collectible Card Game.  The post here evoked some thoughts, so I thought it only appropriate to push myself to put words to them.  I realize I may come across as critical, but I have decided to leave it as-is because I think there can be found the tenuous threads of a valuable train of thought here. 

Our field (video game design) is built upon capitalistic forces that encourage us to produce the newest sequel of a sequel, with the skins and graphics changed, but not the actual game play (see an opponent; shoot him).

I don’t agree with the capitalistic forces term.  Game Theory is the term that’s appropriate, heh heh, in more ways that one.  It’s the trying to figure out what other people are going to choose when you don’t really know and you don’t really have a reliable way of finding out.  In the simplest matrix described by Game Theory, each of the two competitors can choose from 2 different courses of action: go balls-out or go safe.

If what Shannon describes is accurate, then capitalistic forces tend to result in people taking the safe route.  I think, and I’m sure Shannon would agree, that different people react in different ways when presented with the “risky or safe” choice.  So it’s not really the capitalistic forces that change a person….

 See, here’s one of these misassignments of logic.  What we are talking about, these “capitalistic forces” is so very often interpreted as external forces, forces larger than onesself that one has little ability to combat.  In reality these “capitalistic forces” are macroeconomic term invented to help make sense of things on a global scale.  Used in this way we are speaking of emergent behavior, and the rules that describe an emergent behavior are not the same rules that ellicit that behavior.

The decision to “go risky or go safe” is up to the individual making the decision, and their decision is fully based upon how they value what it is they must decide upon.  Currently, the scales seem to tip in favor of the “safe” route, as many would attest.  Each individual decision is made weighing the percieved pros and cons as the decision-maker understands them.  The tendency to “go safe” is more indicative of a general cultural outlook on certain facets of the game industry than it is anything to do with “capitalism”, “socialism”, or otherwise.

There are certain personalities that are attracted to maintaining the status quo.  These traits are immensely valuable, and I think where there is lots of value/money/power, there you will find these personalities, sometimes in greater concentrations than lower-valued areas.  I think we all will acknowledge that risk-taker personalities don’t naturally mix well in these circles.  And seeing as the grand new gameplay mechanics come from risk-taker/visionary types, we need to simply accept it and embrace it.  The status-quo crowd has a remarkable ability to take a rough product and refine it.  They have a strength for that.  Great!  Let them do that.  In fact, let’s love ’em for that.  They’re the ones that make things look so slick, shiny, and user-friendly.

Let’s embrace the fact that the risk-taker, visionary game designer is simply not going to be cruisin’ in the high roller crowd, and this is simply due to where their strengths lie, not anything else.  Implicit is that they will be happier in such a position.  And here we find me concluding with exactly what Shannon ended with.  Consider this a parallel statement (hopefully in terms that evoke a further range of thoughts).

You can be a starving, independent designer, putting out innovative games that not too many people will see while living on Ramen noodles. Or, you can be a corporate drone, chunking out identical code for identical games during eternal 80-hour crunch weeks, but at the same time building up nice balances in your bank accounts and working in the industry you always wanted to be a part of. Or, you can be the sheep in wolf’s clothing, the innovator trying to work from within the big gaming houses, but constantly beset by disappointment when corporate refuses your newest good ideas.

There’s no good answer, there’s no bad answer, there’s just what makes you happy.

Time-Based Game Mechanics

On the Thursday of the GDC a few weeks ago, I happened across a soon-to-be college graduate at one of the many tables set up on the career fair floor.  We kind of hit it off, and since he was obviously excited about game design we talked about that topic.

He had just been to a talk by someone who was pushing for alternative game mechanics.  One of the things my new friend had latched onto was the concept of having the ability to create a “shadow” of yourself that you could play through in a parallel dimension.  His thought was that you could use this shadow of your character to jump down into unkown holes on the off-chance that doing so would result in your death.  Interestingly, from what he described, and from how he responded to various questions I had, it seemed he was really just hoping for what amounted to a “leet weapon” with which to dominate the game.

It seemed my new friend had touched upon a direction that could be quite interesting to more fully explore.  Despite the fact that he had come to a faulty conclusion in how to implement the seed of his idea, he had broken into a potentially “fun” game mechanic.  Here’s how I think it could look:

Imagine a Super Mario Brothers style side-scroller.  At certain points you can activate an ability that lets you run ahead with a “shadow” of yourself while your “real” self stays back.  All the game world reacts no differently to your shadow than they would to your real character.  So, you run around herding some strong bad guy in some direction.  Then, when you end this ability, the entire game world resets to the point at which you had first activated the ability.  At that point the game world repeats exactly what it had done when you had been controlling your shadow- in fact you could stand still with your real character and watch your shadow move, and watch the game world “react” to it (and not you, until, that is, time reaches the end of the “replay”).  Or, the game world could react to both the replay-ing shadow as well as your real character.  Whatever the case, it strikes me as a feasible way to introduce the time dimension as a real possibility to incorporate into game mechanics.

Design Document or Prototype?

I’ve read a number of discussions that seemed to conclude that design documents are not as good as prototyping an  idea.  I thought I’d chime in because it seems to me that prototyping an idea assumes what amounts to a design document.

I think the issue may boil down to a difference in definition of a “design document”.  To me a “design document” is the written form of the conceptualization of the systems in the game.  The important part is not the document itself but rather the understanding of how the game works.  It seems one must have a clear understanding of how the various game systems interact with each other before you can create a prototype, and a design document is a hard copy of that understanding.  To me, the “design document” goes as far as high-level pseudocode and high-level system interface logic.  In many ways it’s tied up with the process of wrapping one’s mind around the game systems.

I can see how a small-ish team would not necessarily need a design document.  If they are working on a subsystem and the designer of that subsystem is part of the team, then assuming the designer truly has a complete understanding of how the subsystem works there does not need to be an official “design document”.  Instead, the team goes right on to making a prototype of the subsystem.

So, I think the elimination of a design document in favor of prototyping is not a universal debate that has a universal answer.  It’s a case-by-case basis.  From my experience though, writing out a thought typically results in improvements to that thought, and every single commentary on project management will support the notion that more planning at the beginning results in less heartache costs later on.

All that being said, I guess I consider prototyping as more of a proof-of-concept task than something that can replace a design document (as I think of them).  Once you have the system design figured out, using the creation of a design document as an aid, then you pick out those aspects of the system that need some confirmation, and you build a prototype to help determine the feasibility of the design.  I will most certainly agree that a design document is all pie-in-the-sky conjecture, not meaning a thing if it can’t be done.  However, the complexity of especially MMO virtual worlds seems to me to absolutely require extensive design conceptualization.

And maybe that’s the real issue here: virtual worlds are in many ways fundamentally different than “games”, and as such, “design document” means something different in that context than if it were being used in the context of making a first person shooter.

Day/Night Maps

You could have a night/day map that modifies the instantaneous spawn chances of creatures and nests.  It may only add a couple extra sets of calculations to the “does it spawn” roll.  I’m assuming the server only spawns nests (and creatures) within range of a player, and then drops them after some period of no player coming within range of them, though since you could “follow” a fleeing jedi by “following” creature nest spawns, the player range should be greater than his view or there should always be some percentage of spawns.

How would a night/day map work?  Each creature has a “time of day” attribute that determines when it tends to spawn.  This is just a negative, zero, or positive value.  The day/night map is a gradient map consisting of -1,0,+1 that is moved across the world map.  Every time the computer is calculating spawn chances, it just multiplies the two to get the “day/night” factor used in the “does it spawn” calculation.   The greater the negative in the “time of day” attribute, the more extreme the nocturnal behavior of the creature.  The greater the positive, the more “only daytime hours kept”.  If it’s zero, then it can be found equally in the day and night.

Every time the computer rolls a “possible spawn” opportunity, it gets what the current “day/night” factor from the day/night gradient map, uses that to eliminate the critter nest that would definitely not spawn at that moment, calculates which one actually spawns, and then spawns it.  So there would be two extra sets of calculations, in addition to database hits.

Immersion would be something else, and I think the implementation shouldn’t be too tough.  Besides, if we found the server load to be too high from it, all we have to do to drop it is eliminate the day/night calculation from the “does it spawn” calculation and disable the movement of the day/night map.

Imagine locations where player actually feel a sense of urgency to leave an area before it gets dark.  At night, the big nasties come out.  Imagine getting stuck out in the dark where you can’t see very far, and as your group is making their way back to the safety of a fort, your flash lights swing around to reveal an enormous, slobbering Rancor about to pounce on you.  You could do some serious horror-like stores and events.

Items – static or arbitrary attributes

In Eve Online all in-game items have been dev-created, and everything called, say, a “civilian armor repairer” will have the exact same attributes.  This results in a commodities-based economy as opposed to a unique item economy.  For crafters the competitive advantage comes in 2 ways: doing research on a blueprint to make it cheaper or sourcing materials cheaper.

This is strking me as a pretty important discussion- a crafting system that results in either commodities or unique items.  I see pros and cons to both, so it’s possible they are two distinct ways of approaching the MMO world, and as such neither one is “more right” than the other.  However, I get the sense it would be possible to mix the two systems successfully; but that’s for another post.

If you go the unique items route, like in Star Wars Galaxies, you end up with zillions of player-crafted, say, acid launchers, each of which could have different attributes.  If another player is in the market for acid launchers, he has to not only locate acid launchers but he has to somehow sort through all those acid launchers’ attributes until he finds one with the kind of stats he wants.  I think this has a number of extensive ramifications to the gameplay: it results in a “bazaar” feel where shoppers roam throughout the merchants’ tables examining their (unique) goods, and I think it more strongly creates a “local economy” than a “global economy”.

The “bazaar” feel kind of precludes the possibility of centralized commodities markets that deal in large quantities of identical items.  If the crafting system results in unique items with unique hash numbers, then quite obviously you don’t have large quantities of identical items.  There is no common, universal reference point for an item’s attributes and value, so you end up with a more informal, local economy where prices are relative to the local population rather than, say, a regional population.  Granted, Eve Online has it’s markets programmatically segmented into regions, so it has a similar thing going on, but I think it’s a different effect when it’s done that way. 

Implicit in this discussion is the issue of player-generated content.  If you go with a commodities economy you reduce opportunities of meaningful player-generated content.  If you go with a unique item economy you obviously allow for meaningful player-generated content.  I think static, dev-defined items inherent in a commodities-based world results in a bit of a “static” feel to the entire game.  The goal of the player is to find the “best” build.  In a full-fledged unique item, player-generated content kind of a world players look for the best build, yes, but they equally look for ever-new ways of countering and surprising their foes, and in addition there is the whole vein of research and development.  In the long run, this is the best route.  I’ll write more about it some other time.

Who the heck am I?

In Eve Online I’ve discovered my character is a bit gimped in what I am really interested in.  I love exploiting inequalities in the market.  Another region buys and sells the same item for a notch less than they do in another region.  I want to buy loads from one and sell them in the other.  Quite simple, but you need to have a big ship in order to make your time worth it.  The race/class/career I chose back when I started over a month ago is ill-suited to train the skills needed to get there.

Now there may be some debate about this complaint that I can’t fly the enormous freighters- “You have to put your time in before you can be an elite class” kind of a debate, which I will admit is quite valid.  However, that’s not really point, is it?  I’m not wanting to be l33t immediately.  I’m simply irritated that my totally ignorant decisions on things I had no real way of knowing about are now coming back to haunt me.  I have certain challenges now because I had to, for all intents and purposes, arbitrarily make choices on what I thought I might like in the game without knowing what I would like in the game.  And, these choices forever influenced my game experience.

That’s fine, nothing is served to you on a silver platter.  You have to deal with the cards dealt.  However, let me define who I am as I play, rather than having some element of that definition be decided in one fell swoop from the beginning before I have any solid understanding of what that choice entails.  Just give me a blank slate just like everyone else, and let me take it from there.  Let my informed decisions define who I am, not some decisions forced upon me before I even play the game.  Besides, it would allow the game developers to devote more time and effort into the more interesting systems.

GDC Thoughts

In an interview I had while at the Game Developer’s Conference last week, the primary question they focused on was approaches to MMO game balance.  They wanted a strategy on how to set item attributes, loot tables, gold drops, spawn rates, etc. so that nothing in the game was out of balance.  How do you ensure there are no game-breaking holes that result in too much money being generated, too much boss camping, over/under-use of a particular character build, etc.?

The game the interviewee was making was not meant to be a “Virtual World” style MMO (think Raph Koster’s vision of Star Wars Galaxies).  They were making more of a City of Heroes, Guild Wars, or Diablo II type game, hoping to make something that would allow players to be able to jump in and out of the game without having to invest too much time building up characters and such.  A noble goal as I see it, but I think it’s a bit of an impossibility to truly balance such a game.  That just means that you must be willing to accept a certain level of “borked-ness”, and you must realize there will always be justified playerbase frustration.

Here’s a quick blog post that’s says it pretty well by Brooks Brown.

However, that being the case, it has got me thinking about what various approaches there are for MMO balance.  Well, the balance of any RPG-style game, Massively Multiplayer or otherwise.

One thought is to analyze things from a cash-flow perspective.  Figure the max theoretical income situation at a few character level ranges, then compare those with theoretical expenses at those levels.

I would like to hear some others.

Post GDC

Well, made a last-minute decision to go to the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.  I’m living in London for the time being, so I had not seriously considered going until a wild thought the Friday before hit me and I checked out plane tickets.  In addition, I figured that if I really intend on joining the game industry it was time to start making some serious moves in that direction.

In short, the GDC was the best possible thing I could have done.  I gained some direct experience with the industry and I now have a “feel” for things.  I don’t have the audacity to say I know everything, but I am confident I will be quite able to make significant contributions to any game development team, especially those working on MMOs.  And, for the first time I have a quiet confidence that is the case.  In all my jobs prior to now, I’ve either not enjoyed them or not been confident that I am playing to my strengths.

More specifically, I will do well in game system design, scripting- both dialogue/quests as well as game mechanic scripting.