“I Don’t Make Games, I Make Toys”

Will Wright, creator of SimCity and Spore, among others has a chat with my favorite college-dropout WoW-playing, comic-reading blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It’s always great to find other people who appreciate Nickel Creek, by the way.

I really like where Wright says that they don’t set the goals for the player, the player decides, in the case of SimCity, what kind of city they want, and then try to do it. That’s the way I always approached tabletop role-playing.

“[A game that is appealing] has a large solution space. Most of the games that are very engaging are ones where the player can apply a lot of creativity.”

In Everquest 1, there were tons of different killing strategies. Kiting, quad kiting, fear kiting, aggro kiting, root and rot, and charm double killing. In addition to tank and spank.

Once, I managed to wipe out a huge train in Karnor’s Castle by charming one mob at a time, and letting the rest kill him.

Those days are gone, mostly in the name of what, game balance? I like a lot of things about the newer games, but the solution spaces are definitely much, much smaller.

How to Make a Bad Impression on a Dumb Ogre

A step-by-step guide.

  • Ask him to join a group in Ravenscale Repository.
  • After accepting, tell him that he’s going to be tanking.
  • Have only a Fury in the group to heal him.
  • When he tells you that he doesn’t know the zone well, tell him that’s ok, but don’t tell him any strats for named mobs.
  • Go crazy with DPS so he can’t hold aggro very well.
  • Don’t log in to group voice chat, or say much in the text chat channel
  • Make it clear that you are talking in your guild channel instead.
  • Shoot at his body pulls before he engages them.
  • Send him personal tells that he should skip certain bosses, but shouldn’t tell the others that you have said so.
  • Bounce around continuously, making sure that you have a vocalization to go with the jump action, just for that extra kick.
  • Take a 10 minute break in the middle of the dungeon to “go to the store”.
  • Break group just as I pull, and then don’t respond to invites to reform the group for five minutes.
  • Leave while he’s and some others in the group still have one more kill to go for their shard mission.
  • Wear the guild tag of a high-profile raiding guild proudly.

I’m not mentioning the name of the guild because other members of that same guild have behaved well, came in to help with heals, and the paladin we got to tank the last few bosses stuck around to get the last kill needed for the shard. (I had no objection, by the way, I was really not able to hold aggro with all the defensive buffs I had up.) All these folks were courteous and responsible.

I highly suspect that alcohol or its equivalent was involved. It was a strange night.

This is what gamedevs are up against, when they try to encourage more interaction.

Interdependence: A Review of EQ2

Brian “Psychochild” Green takes on the issue of interdependence, and uses crafting as an example of design for interdependence. In particular, he cites EQ2:

EQ2 took this to new levels when it launched. In addition to a unique interactive crafting system, most of the components were created by other professions. I didn’t play back when the original system was in place, but as I remember reading: A scholar required ink, paper, and a quill to create scrolls. A scholar could only make paper and had to get the other components from other crafters. Even producing something like ink was a complex multi-step process: you had to process dyes then make the inks. If prices weren’t good (or you didn’t just roll an alt), it could be brutal for a crafter. Most serious crafters had alts that made the materials and passed them along through shared bank slots.

Yep, been there, done that. For the record, there were two stages of the revisions to crafting to get to the basic system we have today. The first one removed interdependence by introducing new skills called Geomancy, etc. and recipes based on them that would allow you to make all your own components yourself. But you wouldn’t get skill gains in your primary crafting skill from doing so. And you wouldn’t gain experience either.

A much later change is what changed making a skill from 11 combines to 1. That was huge, and probably necessary. 11 combines to make an improved skill was just too much. The market for them failed. People were rather irritated when friends asked them to make the improved skill for them, because it was a royal pain in the butt.

In a sense, this is a market failure. All of these problems are market failures. I’m not sure I see a way around that though. Let me explain. If the ink (probably takes 7 of those 11 combines for a combat art) were widely available at a price that made advanced crafters think “Oh, why bother with logging on my alt and making it, I’ll just buy some” that would be a functioning market. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Just last night my buddy Phritz was making an airplane in the guild hall. Yes, it’s kind of a hobby with him, making odd items by assembling the in-game house items in some unusual fashion. Creativity in action. He was browsing the broker looking for something he could make a fuselage out of and found some sort of chest that he could make. He asked me to see if my spouse could log in and make some with her crafter. I said I could, but he should check the price on the broker first. He reported that there were 8 for 1g each, and yeah, at that price he would just buy them. That’s the sort of pricing that makes markets work.

In order for that to happen, there would have to be someone who thinks, “Making inks is fun!” or alternatively, “I need some cash and making and selling ink is the best way I personally have of doing that, at least for right now.”

Most players have high level alts. One way of making money is to go hit a high gray zone and just loot body drops. This activity can be interrupted at any moment safely, since the zone is gray, and your autoattack will probably win the day. So making ink has to be at least as profitable as that. And if we’re talking low-level ink, the problem gets worse. So instead of thinking “The best thing I can do to make plat is craft these components,” the thought tends to be, “I’ll be damned to have spent all that time leveling my crafting and buying/harvesting components just to make a few silver per each product that took me half an hour to produce.”

Making ink for sale on the broker never worked economically. You couldn’t charge enough to make them worthwhile. Some tried, I guess they had some success. There’s always someone out there with more money than time. It was like that with deer meat for a while, which was a tier 1 harvestable needed for a HQ. A t1 character could sell them for 1g, which was a LOT of money for that level. This is good.

But nobody spends more than a day at tier 1 any more.

(By the way, this touches one of my favorite pet peeves about LOTRO and WOW. Auctions, especially those that require a posting fee, reduce the amount of good available. I suspect by quite a bit.)

Things are different, though hardly better in LOTRO. Routinely on the broker you will see raw materials selling for more than the intermediate components made from them. Which means that you will only make those intermediates if it’s necessary to do so to level up. And the intermediates aren’t going to be available when you need them.

—–

However, EQ2 has put together a few interactive crafting bits that do work. First the tradeskill epic. It requires you to have someone of each and every tradeskill class make you something that is NOTRADE. So you can’t do it with an alt. You only need one combine from them, and they are all, or have been, in the same boat. It worked. I did some combines for strangers, and they did some for me. And I helped, and got help, from friends.

The second example of interactivity are the tradeskill missions. I did quite a few of these until I got all the rewards and faction I wanted. You can do these solo, but having more people there makes it go a lot faster, and you get the same rewards. Mostly. Plus there’s a story there. So, it’s a nice way to spend an hour with some buddies. I never did it with strangers though.

Time is My Enemy

That’s what Kendricke says:

Time is my enemy. I recognize that the most important number on any raid is not the mitigation of my tank, the health of my target, or the damage of my raid force – it is time I have left on this raid.

This is at the beginning of an essay he calls “My Raiding Manifesto.” In some ways, I think its pretty accurate. Raidleaders and raiders in general have to be very focused to be successful. Which is why I’m not a raider. Honestly, I think it could be fun to learn to raid well with the right group of people. I’ve even dreamed of doing it myself. But I read this and I think, do I really want spend all my waking hours thinking about raiding?

I find little fault with Kendricke, although he didn’t put in one thing which I think is likely true.

All through this, I must maintain a good attitude and try to ensure that while we’re being successful, we’re also having fun.

I strongly suspect Kendricke does this. I know some other raid leaders who do it, or maybe its just such a part of them. I respect them, and I respect their raiders. I just don’t want to do it. Go read.

Playing MarioKart 64 From a Browser

David Perry, of GaiKai has a demo up of GaiKai’s technology. This allows users to play any video/computer game they have installed on their servers from any web browser on any computer. That’s right, it reads your clicks, sends them to the server, which generates video and audio which is streamed back to the client.

David says:

(1) No installing anything. (I’m running regular Windows Vista, with the latest Firefox and Flash is installed.)

(2) This is a low-spec server, it’s a very custom configuration, fully virtualized. Why? To keep the costs to an absolute minimum. We had 7 Call of Duty games running on our E3 demo server recently.

(6) We designed this for the real internet. The video compression codecs change in realtime based on the need of the application (or game), and based on the hardware & bandwidth you have. (For Photoshop we make sure it’s pixel perfect.)

(7) Our bandwidth is mostly sub 1 megabit across all games. (Works with Wifi, works on netbooks with no 3D card etc.)

Make no mistake, this is an impressive technological acheivement. I’m just not sure what its good for.

David claims a ping time of 21 ms from LA to Fremont, CA (20 miles from here, 400 miles from where he sits, in LA). I think that’s probably only achievable with commercial service DSL or T1 or something. Well, I checked ping times to Google (83ms) and Yahoo(15ms) just now.

You see, your mileage may vary. This gets to the main point of my skepticism. It’s called control loop latency. The longer it takes for you to see the results of your changes in control show up, the harder it is to control. And remember, the games already have some control latency, it’s inevitable. Computers are fast, but not instantaneous. At 30 fps, there is a guaranteed latency of about 33ms and video systems these days often introduce another 33ms of delay with buffering systems built into the monitor or projector.

Let me highlight the issue with a game that should be familiar to most of you. Just today I adjusted the sync on RockBand and it measured at about 70ms. I had it set for about 40ms, and the game felt wrong. I couldn’t tell what was wrong, but I was missing a lot of basic repeated beats that should have been easy, but I’d keep breaking streak on them. It was just off. After I reset the calibration, BAM! Stuff that should have been easy, was, in fact, easy. That was from an adjustment of about 30ms.

So, this stuff matters. But the less synchronization a game needs, the less it will matter.

My second concern is the cost model, David said they had 7 copies of Call of Duty 3 running on one server for an E3 demo they gave. Meaning that for every 10 players (lets be generous) you need another server. And there’s a fairly high maintenance cost, since all the software must be installed and updated, on perhaps all the machines.

If you go with servers that are dedicated to a particular game, it makes install and patches much easier, but then you have sort of a forecasting problem. After all, how is a customer going to feel when he or she wants to log in on, oh let’s say, the 4th of July weekend from Mom and Dad’s computer and there’s no server available.

Long-term, I could see mmo type companies using GaiKai as their primary hosting, provided their game design avoids the need for high responsiveness in the control cycle. Just as a for instance, Illusionist DPS depends greatly on speed casting, at a rate of one spell about every 800ms. This could have big problems with Akai. A slower caster, like my Defiler, would have less of a problem. But timing your spells with your autoattack swings could become trickier. Still, that already has to deal with control latency.

In any case, that’s a lot more computing power per player on the server side of the internet than is there today. How will that cost be supported? Ultimately, the players of games will pay for it, so the question becomes how much will players be willing to pay for no download/install/patch time and play-anywhere?

Yeah, I’m not thinking it’s all that much, either. The answer has to be “considerably less than I’d pay for nice laptop that can play the game”. The upside is that the platform requirement under this just became really low, and Blizzard has shown what a good thing that is.

Still, I think there has to be a killer app for this technology. Maybe it will kill off flash games? Invent a whole new genre of games? Hard to say.

What do you think?