Off-topic Rant, er, Essay.

In my last post, I took issue with Wolfshead use of certain gendered terms to describe issues of risk and ultimately, courage. This begins with the word “emasculate” and continues with the use of the phrase, “the ability to [take a] risk separates the men from the boys”. We’re definitely talking about courage here.

I have two problems with this use of language, as common as it is. The first is that it’s cliched. If a writer can’t express a thought in something other than timeworn cliches, I’m not going to be very interested in reading him or her, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with those ideas.

The second is the crudeness of the assertion that courage is somehow masculine. In my non-redheaded mundane existence, I teach martial arts. And courage is on the syllabus. Big time.

Typically, though not always, the males that come through the door are less timid, more courageous. But that’s far from universal. But here’s the thing. Courage is something that is learned and developed through practice. Typically women come in to our dojo and begin to study precisely because they want to be more courageous. And they succeed, provided they stick with it. Men will, at some point, confront their fears also, though not always right away.

I think that this is because of differences in the way boys and girls play with each other. There might even be a hormonal reason, I don’t really know, but the point remains. Courage is learned, and anyone can learn it. Kim Campbell, for instance. That’s some pretty righteous stuff she has.

Courage needs to be placed in a context as well. There are many soldiers who are brave on the battlefield, but who are filled with dread by the words, “Honey, we need to talk!”. It is quite common for men, during an intense domestic discussion to shut down completely, exhibiting the “battlefield freeze”. This isn’t cowardice exactly, but it sure ain’t courage.

So then, gender is not destiny, so quit talking like it is. It’s inaccurate. If, to pull numbers out of thin air, an average man is more courageous than 60% of women, is it then a valuable insight to say “men are braver than women”? That general statement, applied to a specific situation, is only accurate 60 percent of the time. If your spell only hit the target 60 percent of the time, wouldn’t you be looking for a way to improve it? And which do you think is easier to change, the world, or your use of language?

Finally, when we identify an admirable quality with a gender, we demean people and deny the plain evidence. For example, I’m good with children. Some women, well-meaning though they are, have called me a “good mom”. I’m not a mom. I’m a man, and I would post pictures proving it, but I’d like to keep this blog safe for work.

I know many, many men who have at least one character trait, hobby, or behavior that isn’t “masculine”. Are we to make them not men because of this, or to simply appreciate the diversity of our gender? And likewise for women. The important question is not “what are men/women like?” but “What are YOU like?”

This, however, takes more work. Speaking for myself, that work is richly rewarding. Humans have endless variations, each one different, in experience, in character, and in habits. To boil down the world into two genders is to say that there is only two people in the world, and that’s pretty boring.

Tasting the Dirt

Wolfshead has started a discussion of risk in MMO’s, titled “The Emasculation of MMO’s: Part 1 – How Convenience Replaced Risk”.

That title alone irritated me. There is an interesting issue here, but by using the word “emasculate”, and by later on saying “…the ability to [take a] risk is what separates the men from the boys…” he gives a gender to the problem.

Yes, those are stock phrases, but the job of the writer, even a blogger, is to use words well, not to fall back on hoary, outdated cliches. That happen to be wrong, if in a subtle way.

Let’s get back to the main issue. Wolfshead thinks that one ought to be scared while playing an MMO. He decries game companies that are “eager to pander to new subscribers”. And they should get off his lawn, too.

Here’s the thing. I like risk in a game. I play EVE for goodness sake, and every time you undock your ship, its cargo, and your implants are at risk. That’s time and money at stake, and it really doesn’t feel good to get ganked, be it by NPC’s or PC’s. But that’s what gives it the thrill.

So that’s an idea I agree with Wolfshead about. A game structure that associates more risk with more reward is a good one. I think there’s another idea lurking here though. I personally like games where your success is not merely predicated on hours spent, but where the brain behind the keyboard matters. EVE, in pvp at least, often has the property, though it often isn’t tactical, but strategic.

However, I don’t think my experience is universal. Larisa responded to Wolfshead’s post by describing the fear she felt as a low level character in WoW, trying to kill the Defias.

Psychochild gets into the act, both in Larisa’s comment section and on his own blog, making the point that risk isn’t the same as difficulty. With all due respect, I think that’s a distinction without a difference.

Failure is the biggest risk for many. It isn’t about how much they lost but that they failed. Emotionally, it can be hard to take, to the point where some walk away from situations where there is a chance that they might fail. Which is a shame. I personally believe that the greatest learning, the greatest growth comes only when one is experience a significant amount of failure. Dying, no matter how you slice it, constitutes failure.

Here’s the thing. Fear abates with repetition. It’s called systematic desensitization. So a veteran player like myself will feel less fear from a situation with equal risk than a new player would. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that the “volume control” on fear varies widely from person to person out of the womb. And life experiences other than MMOs can result in some desensitization.

So there’s a big range of responses out there to the Defias bandits, going from “OMFG, these guys are going to rip me up! I’m never going to figure this game out!” to “Yawn!”. At heart, game companies are entertainment companies, and their job is to make money by entertaining people, not by scaring them so badly that they run off. Making things easier for customers, especially at the beginning is not “pandering”, it’s their job.

I don’t really think there’s one MMO out there that can satisfy everyone. And recall this, the MMO that was going to go “back to basics” with an increased death penalty, more meaningful (read time-consuming) travel, and more elaborate crafting was a crashing failure. This was not because Sony sabotaged it, if players had flocked to it, rest assured that they would have devoted more resources to it.

In the end, I think there are far more interesting evaluative scales than “how big is the death penalty”. I would suggest “How unpredictable is the game play?”- noting that games with a pvp element have a big advantage in the unpredictability department. But to some people, that’s not a good thing. Another, more interesting scale is “How much scope is there for creativity?” Or put another way, is there more than one way to do things? Can different people with different resources and different interests interact with the same content in differing ways? And also there’s “What’s the balance between gear, character level/skills, and player expertise?” Does the game have a risk-reward structure or a time-reward structure?

EQ2 Low-level Spell Advancement Changes

In today’s Test Server patch announcement, it says, among other things:

  • Monks will no longer automatically receive “Silent Threat” and “Silent Threat II.”
  • Bruisers will no longer automatically receive “Slurred Insult” and “Slurred Insult II.
  • Monks will no longer automatically receive “Challenge” at level 8.
  • Bruisers will no longer automatically receive “Abuse” at level 8.
  • Monks will now receive “Tranquil Vision” at level 21.
  • Bruisers will now receive “Shrug Off” at level 21.
  • Monks will now receive “Flow Like Wind II” at level 16.
  • Bruisers will now receive “Smoldering Fists II” at level 16.

That’s just one example. For enchanters, there’s this:

  • Coercers will no longer automatically receive “Mesmerize” at level 1.
  • Illusionists will no longer automatically receive “Entrance” at level 1.

I can’ t say that I get the reasoning behind this, or even a hint of what they are up to. It seems to be a lot of fiddling with what spells/abilities you get automatically, versus ones you have to go out and buy. They are taking away fighter archetype taunts? (Slurred Insult and Silent Threat are the bread and butter taunts of their respective classes). And mezzing for enchanters?

If I had to guess, it would be that they observe that nobody groups at low levels, and group oriented abilities, like taunt, don’t mean much, and they want to fiddle with the progression at that level to make soloing smoother. But mezzing? Sigh. More hate/jealousy of us. It’s understandable, of course; almost as understandable as jealousy of the fabulous crimson do I sport. Mezzing a la EQ1 was hellishly powerful, and pretty potent even as it exists in EQ2, given the right situation. At other times, though, it’s useless.

Maybe it’s just that if you want to mez at level 1, you have to go buy the spell. I hope that’s it.

Flash Opera in Qeynos Harbor?

We’ll know we’ve really achieved a true “virtual space” when something like this happens in a game.

I love it. I love how it animates the singers, and engages the onlookers. This sort of thing is one of my favorite things about living at this point in history. How can we put more of this into the virtual spaces we inhabit? Is there anything like this in Second Life? Some games, like City of Heroes, now have user-generated content, I guess that’s in this direction…

3D Gaming in the Works

It’s strange to think of this as “old school” but when we used to talk about 3D graphics, we meant that all the components of a scene were modeled as three dimensional objects, painted with colors or textures and ultimately rendered onto a flat, two-dimensional screen that represented a particular viewpoint in that world.

But those times are changing. 3D movies, like the recent Avatar, using stereoscopic imagery, go all the way back to the 1890′s, and include favorites such as “3D House of Wax”.

Stereoscopic 3D depends on presenting two images, each photographed or rendered from a slightly different viewpoint, the distance between them being roughly the distance between your eyes. Then some system is needed to make sure that each eye sees only the image meant for it. Watching both images with both eyes results only in blurriness and headaches.

This is usually managed with a pair of glasses. In black and white films, the glasses could filter images by using colors — one lens would be green, the other red. The brain would blend these into the customary grayscale and create the 3D image in your head.

There are other technologies now for doing color 3D, mostly involving polarization of light.

But what does this all have to do with gaming, you ask? Both Sony and Nintendo have announced their intention to bring this sort of 3D to your living room gaming, via new product releases:

At the Electronic Entertainment Exposition, better known as E3, the two giant Japanese game makers on Tuesday touted their own visions of the 3-D future. The longtime rivals agreed that 3-D is about to go mainstream, with numerous 3-D games from top developers in the works, but each had its own vision for the technology.

Sony is going for the living room, special TV, special glasses, same console.

Sony is focusing on the big-screen televisions in consumers’ living rooms. Its PlayStation 3 console is capable of playing 3-D games on those TVs, thanks to a software upgrade the company made available in April.

Nintendo, on the other hand, is thinking small:

Nintendo is concentrating on a much smaller screen. The company plans to release a new version of its DS handheld dubbed the 3DS that will play 3-D games.

But in the article, the Nintendo spokesman said something that mystified me.

While Nintendo’s version of 3-D will require consumers to buy a new game machine, it will most likely be much more economical than Sony’s. Nintendo hasn’t announced a price yet for the 3DS, which will come out sometime before April. But consumers will be able to play 3-D games on the device itself, rather than needing to buy a new TV, and they won’t need to wear special glasses to see the 3-D effect.

“Man, those glasses, that sort of fashion-forward statement doesn’t come cheap,” Fils-Aime noted in a dig at living room 3-D technologies.

Ok, I don’t get this. Stereoscopic 3D depends on presenting different images to each eye. There isn’t another way of doing this. Unless the device has the stereoscopic part built in. Hmm, does that remind you of anything?

I can understand them not talking about this until release, because Viewmasters are kind of wierd, clunky, old-school, and nerdy. But this form factor has incredible potential. Most smart phones these days have accelerometers, so they always know which way is up. In fact, they also have compasses and GPS so they always know where they are and what they are looking at.

What does this mean for your living room? You could take a device that you hold to your eyes and have it show you different things when you turn your head.

This takes you from having a portal to that other world, your TV screen, to being in that other world. When you move your head, the viewpoint changes. This is incredibly powerful.

Sony’s direction makes business sense, since they likely see a trend toward consumers getting 3D equipped televisions for watching 3D movies. And so they are fitting their existing game platform into that new ecosystem. They will be successful, they will make money. But my money is on Nintendo to release a product that does something like what I’ve described above, and to capture all the mindshare with it, just as they did with the Wii. Time and time again, they have proved themselves to be much smarter than the rest of the gaming industry.

The Sweet Steepness of EVE

Wilhelm2451 over at the Ancient Gaming Noob posts about Eve Online’s steep learning curve.

Those are some well chosen examples. Wilhelm2451 cites the ability to compare missle launchers. In my first few weeks of EVE I made a spreadsheet that compared all the T1 hybrid ammo types. It was a very worthwhile exercise. It looked like this:

Which is pretty much what Wilhelm asks for in-game.

One of the ways I know I’m weird is that I didn’t resent having to do that. It felt good.

What I learned from doing this is that the answer to “What’s the best ammunition?” is “It depends”. In the case of ammunition, it depends on what range you are going to engage at, and how much capacitor drain you can stand. And also on how much money you want to spend. Antimatter has the highest damage rating, but it also has the most capacitor drain, and the biggest range penalty. Nevertheless, checking prices indicated that it was far and away the most popular hybrid ammunition. Because people like their dps.

This is linked, (inextricably, imho) to the matter of strategy. Strategy matters in EVE in a way that other MMO’s don’t come close to, though we’re seeing some move in that direction. For example, in EQ2 I have hotkeys that switch out sets of gear for tradeskilling, dpsing, and mezzing. Actually, I have several tradeskilling gearsets, so that I can better handle the tradeskill instances.

This is probably the thing that endears EVE to me. Brains matter. Analysis has a payoff, sometimes a big payoff. There’s nothing that makes me happier than wading through a pile of data, knowing that there’s a payoff at the end.

The other example Wilhelm cites is that of finding agents:

EVE Online has the most awe inspiring map in any game I have ever played. If you want to get somebody who likes outer space interested in the game, just open up that map. The map is a selling point.

And the map has just gotten better and better over time. I love all the information it provides.

But it won’t tell me where the nearest level 4 Amarr Navy agent is. And it certainly won’t tell me what are available to me.

I suspect that the CCP team has stayed away from this sort of thing for economic reasons. They choose to focus on implementing interesting game mechanics, to maintain the interest of the player base. It cannot be said that this is an unsuccessful business strategy. The adoption rate is slow, but the game is very sticky.

But they’ve done something else: publish all of their game info database. You can get access to your accounts, or others by permission. You can get a dump of all the systems, all the jumps, all the modules, all the skills, everthing about the game that is fixed and immutable. And you can use that database to make software tools that go with EVE. In short, CCP has said to its players: You do this.

And do it they have. With a bullet. They haven’t made the tool Wilhelm wants, though, not yet. That’s an opportunity for someone. The tools are far better than could have been made by CCP, or any game company, on its budget. And there’s a clear economic reason for it. The players care a lot more about these tools than the company. Tools to digest information, I submit, do not add a lot to the bottom line.

The Fishing Life

I had an aha moment the other night while playing EVE. Several of my corp members were engaged in a mining op, and listening to them chat on Teamspeak, I realized that they were doing the equivalent of fishing. Right down to the beer.

Like a lot of EVE, the important part of mining is strategic. Where are you going to mine? Which kinds of rocks will you mine? What ship will you use? How will you fit it? For maximum efficiency, you will need someone to deal with the rats that might spawn in the belt, and someone to haul the ore to a station somewhere for processing. There are bonuses to output – buffs – to be had from having the right people and right ships in your fleet.

But once all that stuff is in place, there is lots of – well, I won’t say dead time – but space for kicking back. You can’t make it go faster by hurrying. The focus is on efficiency, not speed. Which cultivates a relaxed mind-set, and gives opportunity for conversation.

Which is like going on a fishing trip. The important things about fishing are mostly strategic: where will you fish, what equipment do you use, what bait to use, and who is going with you? Who’s bringing the boat/camper and the icebox? And so on.

And once you are on-site, at least with many kinds of fishing, the pace of affairs is dictated not by you, but by the fish. Which is the main appeal of it, I think.

I’m not much of a fisherman. This is doubly odd, since I grew up in a place where fishing was a business, in NW Washington State, with uncles who owned fishing boats. The kind of commercial fishing they did was a lot more active than EVE mining, though.

And my father was an avid fisherman. Mostly he did fly-fishing, which looked pretty fun, but I never got to lay hands on his expensive poles. We also did a little salmon fishing on Puget Sound, which I loved doing because A) I liked being out on the water and B) it gave me a chance to read.

In any case, it seems that many, if not all, MMO’s have some sort of fishing equivalent in them. WoW has, well, fishing. You can skill up, buy better gear, even do quests.
Everquest has fishing. Who hasn’t fished from the docks while waiting for the boat? Come to think of it, camping a room with a group in Everquest was a lot like fishing, once the spawn was broken.

EQ2 has fishing, but don’t be distracted by those harvesting nodes that have “fish” in them. That’s not fishing. No, I posit that the true fishing in EQ2 is gathering shinies. There’s gear to be had (the tinkered shiny tracker), and strategic decisions to be made. It might be more fishing-like if you simply had to wait for the shinies to come along, instead of constantly roaming for them, but then, that’s kind of like trolling rather than still-fishing.

LOTRO has fishing as such. Along with the “what’s going to be on the line this time” fun.

Zork Online doesn’t have any fishing. Maybe that was the Kiss of Death. That’s a game where there is nothing to do except go out and kill things. It kind of seems like a job after a while.

So the success formula for an MMO includes some sort of fishing equivalent, something that doesn’t involve killing things, and something that has a relaxed pacing to it, maybe one you don’t control.

That, and it needs to let you show off your fabulous red hair.

I Know I’m Wierd, But I Can’t Help Myself – EVE Q1 2010 Economic Report Edition

Yes, I play a game so that I can do stuff that many people get paid to do, and go home and play something sane and relaxing like Everquest 2 or even WoW. And I call it fun. Maybe Raph Koster can explain this to me.

The EVE Quarterly Report for Q1 2010, edited by Dr. Eyjolfur Guomundsson, Ph.D., is out.

Some juicy tidbits:

The price of Pyerite started to rise quite rapidly last November, climbing by 8.5%. In December it rose by almost 15%, and this January the rise is over 25%. Two primary factors contributed to this increase: increased Tritanium supply through changes in asteroid reseeding and respawning last June, and insurance fraud.

I didn’t realize that the Eve recession was caused by an increase in mineral supply. There was another such increase.

High-end minerals fell significantly in price throughout the quarter. From December to March the prices of Zydrine and Megacyte dropped by over 30%, while Morphite decreased by 39% over the same period. This is attributed to Dominion’s introduction of hidden asteroid belts in null security space, which increased the supply of these valuable minerals.

My corp has been mining the crap out of these guys. Upgrades to 0.0 systems have the unusual effect of making increased mining activity result in more minerals to be mined spawn. It’s not surprising that this would increase mineral supply. And of course, people are going to focus their efforts on the minerals that will bring the greatest return. The report goes on to say:

The volume of Morphite traded in Q1 2010 was 27% above the traded volume in Q4 2009. On the other hand, the quantity of Morphite used in ship construction in Q1 2010 was only 2.5% higher than in Q4 2009. The story is the same for Zydrine and Megacyte, which grew in traded volume by 34% and 29% respectively between the quarters, while the quantity of these minerals used in ship production remained almost unchanged. This would indicate lively speculative trading with these high-end minerals as the market adjusts to the increased supply. We anticipate more volatility in this market in the coming months.

Translation of that last line from economicese: We expect prices to drop a lot more, and some poor slobs are going to take a big hurt!

Wow, I’m glad I didn’t speculate on any high-end minerals. Somehow, suddenly, I just saw a vision of blue yeti fur.

Overall, the story was one of growth in the number of accounts and number of players online, but deflation across most markets. PVP guys, you have work to do! Blow more ships up, please!

I Ain’t That Extreme

Via Alice, I just ran across a study that says that truly hardcore gamers (not just MMO’s, but all electronic gaming) play more than 48 hours a week. And a third of them are women.

Bear in mind that 7 hours a day is just a little bit more than the time the average American spends watching TV.

Anyway, I don’t think I reach that level, only 4% of gamers do. After all, I gotta get my tabletop gaming time in!