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

http://www.virtualworlds2007.com/

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Limits of Democracy

At what point does a democracy turn into “not a democracy”?

Heh heh, that question seems a bit silly.  It’s pretty easy to tell a “democracy” apart from something that’s not a democracy.  Valid voting systems, universal suffrage, etc.  However, even in a perfect democracy, there are inevitably groups whose opinions and desires are decided against.  There are segments of the population for whom the tax system is not representative of what they want.  There are segments of the population for whom social welfare programs are not representative of their desires.  So, does that mean those groups are being oppressed or exploited?

The glossary of terms at www.marxists.com has the following definition of “dictatorship”, and I think it’s effective as an anti-definition of democracy:

Dictatorship means the imposition of a rule on others who do not consent to it.

I think there are some interesting principles that are brought to light.  The existence of a democracy is fully contingent upon the population consenting to the governmental decisions being made.  It only exists when the people on the losing side of a vote say, “Ok.  It was a fair vote.  You won, and we will support that outcome.”  If the losing side of a vote says, “We don’t agree with the outcome of the vote, and we will not support it,” then democracy is not in existence.  Interestingly, the existence of democracy can only really be identified in retrospect.

Are there issues that are of such importance that anything but a consensus vote will effectively result in non-democracy?  Does that mean that such issues should generally not be things the government can mess with?

Me and Tools

The following is not a completed thread of thought.  I’m publishing it in the hopes that it will spin off other thoughts that eventually result in further understanding.  Consider the concepts involved rather than the argument as whole.

My awareness cannot be used as a tool.  I can’t use my own will as a tool.  I can use my body as a tool.  I can use the objects around me as a tool.  I can even use other people as a tool.  But it’s my will that’s doing the using of the tools.

My awareness, my will, is to me the ultimate.  Everything else is external to me- everything “not me” is, well, exactly that.  It’s not me.  Even God.  Same deal with other people.

My awareness is quite good at identifying “me” and “not me”, itself vs. an other.  I suppose this ability to differentiate between “me” and “not me” is an elemental analysis that can be found in every single thought or decision one makes.

I think the point kind of boils down to this: if it’s not “me”, then I ask, “What can I do with that?”  We see every “not me” thing as a potential tool.

Really, the only thing I can be convinced of, or take for granted, is my own consciousness.  I am aware.  I have a will.  It’s the only appropriate thing to simply take as a given.  Interestingly, I can study another person’s will and awareness, and I can even get to the point where I have a vast understanding of how it works, how their awareness can come into being.  However, I can’t really turn that analysis around on my own awareness.  Regardless of how far I pick it apart I will always assume my awareness exists.  Edmund Husserl talks about this in “The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology”, in case you want more reading.

How does this matter?  It’s truth.  It’s reality.  If you take for granted something that is not truth, then there will be problems later on.  If you make a decision based upon inaccurate information, that is “not truth”, then later on there will likely be problems.

Tying this esoteric stuff back to MMO game design, if everything in an MMO is a tool, then let’s simply build tools.  That’s how every system and sub system should be designed.  As a tool, first and foremost.