Gaming as a Model for Life

I never read the New York Times. I don’t live in New York, and it just seems a bit pretentious. Except for yesterday. I had to wait for two hours in the Reno airport, and it was the most interesting looking thing in the newstand.

What I found was an op-ed on Gary Gygax and his contribution to culture that amused me highly. Following that link will require you to create an account, but it will no longer cost you any money, like it used to.

It’s humorous, and proceeds on the thesis that the roleplaying geek gave its’ socially inept players a model for understanding the social world.

We geeks might not be able to intuit the subtext of a facial expression or a casual phrase, but give us a behavioral algorithm and human interactions become a data stream. We can process what’s going on in the heads of the people around us. Through careful observation of body language and awkward silences, we can even learn to detect when we are bringing the party down with our analysis of how loop quantum gravity helps explain the time travel in that new “Terminator” TV show. I mean, so I hear.

I laughed out loud at that. Roleplaying wasn’t the least bit mainstream when I started. And, well, I’m not normal. Living for 3000 years will do that to you.

Roleplaying for me has always been social. With people who had qualities that I admired, whether it be imaginations, or skill with math, or the ability to quote at length from “Soylent Green”. These qualities weren’t always admired by mainstream culture, and the people I played with often had shortcomings that were all too evident. But I liked that. I liked how tolerant they were of MY shortcomings. I’ve never been around gamers that seemed racist or bigoted or misogynisistic. And, contrary to what’s in the New York Times, there were always at least a few girls included. In fact, I’ve never been involved in a tabletop roleplaying game where there wasn’t at least one woman involved.

I realize that not all players have that experience. Many young men who roleplay are reluctant to disclose that to women that they meet, as they fear the wrinkled nose of “what do you want to do THAT for?” Being known as a roleplayer will really cut back on the sex appeal, at least in their minds. You know, I kind of get it. Roleplaying isn’t something the “beautiful people” do. It isn’t the “in” thing.

But let’s face it, most of us aren’t those people. We might be smart, strong, and good looking; compassionate, brave, and thoughtful. But that doesn’t mean we’re “cool”. Roleplaying has taken over the world now. There are many of us, and we’re just folks. Soldiers, doctors, nurses, major-league ballplayers, and action stars. They all do it, and have fun with it. Why not reveal yourself as a roleplayer to a woman (or a man) you’ve met, and be proud of it. Not to exclude them, but to affirm yourself, even show a little courage. That’s attractive, in men or women. Almost as attractive as fabulous red hair.

Millions of people play MMORPG’s now. They aren’t a retreat from being social, they ARE social. By using an avatar with a carefully designed appearance, we cancel our bad hair days, and can play in our underwear. We are judged by our strength, skill, wit, compassion and grace. But not by our appearance. We are the cool.

Finger-Fueled Addiction

Granted, this is about World of Warcraft, not Everquest, but I think it applies. I got this from the blog Mildly Diverting, by kim via Alice (crystaltips in the dialog)

Hactar: So, an idle question: When you hit lvl 70, do you keep earning XP?

Tikker: and, do you keep doing quests? what do you do after 70?

Jonalock: You don’t earn any more XP, no, but the XP you would earn from completing quests gets turned into extra gold instead. You’ll have a bunch of solo quests to keep doing when you hit 70, for which you get more money and sometimes better equipment as quest rewards. Further progression comes from doing instances to get better equipment which then lets you do harder instances to get better equipment which lets you do raids (instances for more than 5 people, typically 10 or 25) to get better equipment which lets you do harder raids to get better equipment which lets you … And there goes your life.

Tikker: when you put it like that it sounds so…..futile….

Jonalock: On the plus side there’ll be an expansion out soonish raising the level cap to 80 and with a huge number of new solo quests and the like .. (and which will also overnight make all your hard-won uber-gear entirely useless – green is the new purple!)

Kieth: you see this is the point I lose the will to live…why are we playing this again?

Tikker: cos it releases crack from a keyboard while you play as a reward.

Kieth: finger ingested rock…that’s it, I forgot

Crystaltips: I feel like framing this thread.

From there it goes into needlecraft. Horde-inspired, of course. So that makes it extra appropriate for pansy High-elves such as yours truly. I’ve even done a little cross stitch in my day. But there wasn’t any pink in it! It clashes with my red hair, after all!

The Far Country

One of the two primary source threads of a game like Everquest and Everquest 2 is The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. I’m talking about the book here, not the movie, though it was very good. (A good friend in EQ1 said of the first movie, “It reminds me of Everquest”. Fortunately, we didn’t have vent in those days, so he didn’t hear me pounding my head on the keyboard.)

The second is Dungeons and Dragons, written by E. Gary Gygax, and his collaborator Dave Arneson, and subsequent work of Gygax’x, such as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

Gary Gygax died today at age 69.

Gary invented roleplaying games. There was fantasy, from Tolkien and Leiber and Robert E. Howard. And there was wargaming. But to take a single character, and to level him up, adding skills and abilities, that was his idea.

Much of the structure of Everquest gameplay traces back to D&D. Combat is a series of swings where a (now virtual) die is rolled to determine whether the opponent is struck. More dice determine the damage. Personal characteristics affect the damage and your competence. Other stats (saving throws) determine whether you are hit. Characters gain power in “levels”. All of these ideas are Gygaxian. In D&D, characters had six basic characteristics: Strength(STR), Dexterity(DEX), Constitution(CON), Intelligence(INT), Wisdom(WIS), and Charisma(CHA). Does that sound familiar?

Much of our game jargon makes no sense without reference to D&D. We speak of “rolling” a character. There is no rolling involved, it’s a character build. But in the old days, that’s what you did, you rolled some dice to determine the basic outlines of your character. We will speak of “rezzing” someone who has died, after the ultimate such spell in D&D, named Resurrection. Even though the game calls it health, to us, characters have “hit points”.

D&D had humans, high and wood elves, dwarves, gnomes, and a race of short folk who liked food called, to avoid copyright issues, halflings. And there were orcs. Lots of orcs. Undead too, skeletons and zombies, and the really nasty stuff, that had a chance of taking away levels. Permanently. Gygax pioneered the name “treant” too, based on a Tolkien idea, stealing all but the name.

Perhaps the most important heritage from D&D was the notion of character classes. These provided a fairly rigid development path for each character, and defined a role for each character within the framework of a functioning team, which in D&D was known as “the party”. Rigid class roles gave players a reason to cooperate with each other, which, believe me, was an issue in the day. Later tabletop systems notably Runequest and the Hero System, discarded the rigidity of the class system in favor of a very open ended character development system. You could learn a little magic, then learn to fight better. It was up to you. But this seems to take away from the team concept that is still important to MMORPGs.

Fighters specialized in melee, while clerics could heal them, and mages could blast away or perform a variety of unusual utilities. We see all these categories today: tank, healer, dps, utility. The class that hasn’t really survived as such was the thief class, which specialized in hiding, sneaking , picking pockets, finding traps, and most imporantly, opening locks for the party to get loot. Many of these functions survive in some form, but not as a class. Probably the EQ2 Brigand, and the WoW thief are the closest we have. But we think of them now as DPS with some utility.

And yes, the game was very definitely loot-centric. In fact, a fair amount of experience was awarded for getting loot, provided you could find a way to carry it away back to town. We’ve definitely moved away from the experience-for-loot concept both in tabletop and MMO RPG’s. But MMO’s particularly still have a lot of emphasis on loot, in part because it’s more difficult for the format to push a storyline the way a tabletop campaign can.

Wil Wheaton, who portrayed Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, has a memoir of his first D&D experiences up on his blog, and they seem pretty typical. I’m older than Wil, so I was in college when I heard about it, and in grad school when I started playing. Those people are still among my best friends and comrades. After all, we’ve been through many adventures together. And they aren’t over yet.

With tankards raised in salute, we herald his passing: Hail Gary, and well met!

What Shall it Profit You?

After looking at a friends screenshot, I downloaded and tried ProfitUI last night. Actually, it was Profit Reborn, the evolution of Profit after a revision of the EQ2 client seriously impaired the original ProfitUI.

Incidentally, Profit is a big departure from the EQ1 custom UI’s I used in that many of them featured fairly elaborate artwork, often themed to a particular class or idea. There are artwork addons, but out of the box it is very clearly focused on conserving pixels.

Profit has a wealth of UI shortcuts. For example, in the group window, each member of your group has icons for each type of impairment they have, e.g., arcane, noxious, trauma, or elemental. Clicking on this icon when it is active will result in curing that character with your appropriate skill (or potion if it will work!) without change of targeting.

This significantly enhances one’s ability to cope with stuff. So much so that sometimes it feels like cheating. It isn’t cheating, not by SOE’s standards, nor is the EQ2 MapInterface, which they wholly endorse. On the other hand, using a tracker hack is definitely illegal, as is a “bot” program.

But this is getting blurry. When is it just a UI and when is it a bot program. Let’s look at an example: I’m an illusionist, we have very fast-casting spells, and we have AA’s we can get that make us cast faster. There’s Perpetuity, the bottom of the AGI line. Every time I cast, I get a buff that stays up for a couple of seconds that increases cast speed. If I cast while its up, I get another version of it that my cast speed further. Up to five levels of fast. And I have a debuff/buff from the same line that slows the mob and speeds me up. Add this to the troubador speed casting buffs and it can get really crazy. It’s sometimes hard to move your mouse fast enought to hit all the buttons maximally.

Ok, so it would be cool to have a UI enhancement that would do two or three spells at once. You can sort of do this, but it doesn’t work the way you’d like it to. Let’s say that I want to cast Ultraviolet Beam, my fast casting DD, followed by Abolish Hope, a dot. If I put these two on a macro in that order, all will be fine if I click the macro while doing nothing else in particular. Beam will begin to cast, and Abolish Hope will be queued. Ok, so far so good.

But what if you click the macro while you have another spell in flight? First, Beam will be queued, then Abolish Hope will be queued, rudely bumping Beam out of the queue into the bit bucket. That wasn’t what you meant to do.

Clicking ahead is the key to keeping all that fast casting going, and the key to getting the best DPS from an illusionist, and to a coercer, too. So macros aren’t going to work here. But it’s entirely possible to make a macro system that implements its own queue, and thus produces the desired behavior. Would this be cheating? Would it constitute botting?

I don’t really know what SOE would think, so what do I think?

I would have thought that the retarget, cast, retarget implied by the “cure impairment” button would have disqualified it under the Everquest 2 terms of use, I would have thought. The relevant passage is “You shall not ….

(ix) use any third party hardware, devices or software or modify any game client, software, or Content (such as through macros, hacks and cheats) to modify or unfairly impact the Service, allow for unattended game play or use of the Service or to decrypt, modify, parse, scrape, interrupt or intercept any data or information relating to the Service or transmitted between client and server; in addition, you may not create, facilitate, host, transmit, re-transmit, mirror, link to or provide any other means through which the Service may be accessed or viewed by others, such as through server emulators or mirrored websites;”

Ok, allowing unattended gameplay is double-plus bad, as is mucking about with the packets sent back and forth on the internet. It says we aren’t to use macros, though. But the game provides them. So I don’t know what this means. Perhaps it means that if you do something like Profit does, keep a low profile and make it look pretty? At the nub is the phrase “unfairly modify the service.” What constitutes unfair? And how can we figure out if a GM will decide if something is unfair.

Well, the thing is, Profit isn’t doing something that you couldn’t do on your own using the current macro system. In theory. Let’s say that you are grouped with Alice as your main tank, and Bob as the healer. You can make a macro that says “/target Bob; /useability Cure Arcane; /target Alice” Assuming you are using the implied target, this will have the same effect as the “cure arcane” icon next to Bob’s name in the Profit group window. So Profit isn’t really adding any new capability.

If you were targeting the mob directly, things get trickier, but you could, in theory, write a macro that replaced “Alice” with the name of the mob you were about to attack. No one would do this except maybe on a raid named, because it’s too time consuming. But it could be done. This puts you on a pretty solid footing. By the way, the tactic of making special targeting macros for nameds is pretty widely used in raiding these days.

As a practical matter, it is very difficult for SOE to determine if you are botting from the server side. Not impossible, but very difficult unless you do it for a long period of time, such as crafting. I would guess that most bans on this score are due to players voicing their suspicions of other characters to the GM’s. Then there’s the odd case of players posting screenshots of themselves using banned enhancements on forums. (I’m looking at you, Jinxeyes!).