Never Gonna Give You Up, Tabletop

[The above image is from the tabletop roleplaying site MyRPGame.com. It's pretty cool, check it out.]

It’s Friday, and I’m feeling a little lazy, so I thought I would relate something that happened at our game table.

In this particular campaign, we are now 16th level, and we are planewalking. Not the normal D&D planes, but something a lot more like the Nine Princes in Amber version. Only there are regular gates, which we must find and open. Mrs. Darkwater is playing Tamsyn who is a person Of The Blood that allows her to sense and open these gates. Recently we found a Pattern, which helped us figure out where we should go next. (I was serious about the Amber thing) We’re trying to make a map, and establish some trade routes on behalf of the King in our parts.

I’m playing Lurinda Sabelaqua, an illusionist. If your Latin is good, you will note that Sabelagua is kind of Latin-ish for “Darkwater”. This might make you suspect that perhaps Lurinda has fabulous red hair, and is an elf. She does and she doesn’t.

Lurinda is in fact, one of the first characters I ever played in tabletop RPGs. She was Second Edition Illusionist. When I rolled her up, (using the 4-choose-3 method) one of my stats was a 5. No really, a 5. My die roll was two 2′s and two 1′s, of which I got to pick the best three.

But I got to put that into whatever ability score I wanted. The only thing is, under AD&D (aka Second Edition) rules, whatever ability score I put that 5 into would determine what class you could play. If you had a 5 or lower in Strength, for example, you could only be a Wizard. In Int, you could only be a fighter. In Wisdom, only a thief, Dex only a cleric. And if you put it in Con (!) you could only be an Illusionist (which was broken out from Wizard, with a quite different spell list in that day). So that’s what I did.

In that group, my first gaming group, we cross-dressed all the time. We’d roll 50-50 for character gender, because, well, why not? We’re role-playing, right? Our GM was a woman, she played all the male NPCs, so no big deal right?

So about one minute after I decided to make her an Illusionist and name her Lurinda, my friend Chuck announced that he was making a female wizard named Luinda. Oddly, this gave me a good portion of Lurinda’s personality. My reaction was, “Wait, you can’t do that, my character is an Illusionist named Lurinda!” And thus the rivalry was born. It was so much fun to snipe at each other, that years later, Chuck and I could drop back into it in an instant, much to the mortification of his wife, who had never, it seems, seen him play D&D. His kids thought it was pretty cool, though.

Also Lurinda was vain. Once she got a little money, she bought a wagon (and team) to go adventuring, and two tents. Why two? Because, silly, one’s for her clothes, so they don’t get wet.

Our GM had made a Markov chain to model the weather in his world, and one night he announced it was raining. Nobody else had even bought themselves one tent, so they all crowded into Lurinda’s tents, getting her clothes all wrinkled, wet and nasty. It was horrible, I tell you, horrible.

But Lurinda was also brave and loyal. So brave that she got caught in a Cone of Cold which one-shotted her. Constitution 5 in Second Edition was only worth -1 hit point per level, instead of the -3 it would be in 3rd Edition, and she rolled well, but she was still pretty fragile. So she died. And now the party had a problem. A Raise Dead spell had a significant chance of just flat-out failing because her Constitution score was so low. Not to mention that the spell, even if successful, would knock another point off her Con.

So they got a Reincarnation instead. A druid Reincarnation. There’s a table you checked to see just what sort of woodland creature you come back as. The DM taunted me for about two weeks with that table. He pointed out that one of the possibilities was a bugbear. This of course, would be mortifying to Lurinda.

So when the big day came, she woke up in a fury,

“You got me REINCARNATED!?!! WHY DID YOU DO THAT? I could have been ANYTHING! I could have been a BUGBEAR! OMG, give me a mirror so I can just LOOK. WhatamIwhatamiwhatami?

….

Oh. I’m an ELF! Well never mind then.

I still don’t know whether he cheated the die roll or not. I’m guessing yes.

***

But that was a long time ago. In addition to Tamsyn (Mrs Darkwaters character), we also have a barbarian, Elta, and an elf (not dark elf) with two scimitars Selena. Lurinda is a social climber and a ersatz elf, whereas Selena is actual royalty (she likes to growl, “I’m a duchess not a princess, get it right!”) and a natural-born elf. They don’t get along. It’s glorious.

So we ended up on this plane where there were dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs. T. Rex, gallimimus, and triceratopses. Lots of Triceratopses. Some got mad at us and tried to kill us. Unfortunately for me, spells did not work all that well on that plane, so I was limited to mostly first and second level spells. Also, all my crowd control was limited by hit dice, and the monsters were too big, so they just flat wouldn’t work. (This is a design I would not recommend, by the way. It has the “I gave you an ability, but no place where you can use it” problem) So one of the things I did was to cast Blur on Elta. Blur means that every time the target is hit by something there’s a 20 percent chance that it didn’t hit after all, because you were just slightly somewhere “else”.

We went through the whole fight with Blur being useless. Elta, being a barbarian, gets hit a lot. Mostly her defense is, more or less, “Arrgh, I’ll kill you!” Every time she got hit, I’d pipe up with, “Twenty percent miss chance!” and the DM would roll it and it wouldn’t help. Bleh. I was thinking, “this spell is useless.”

The last Trike standing (a bigger, nastier one) got a threat on Elta, which confirmed. They hit hard, the damage was rolled, it wasn’t quite enough to down Elta, but it was close. I piped in with “Twenty percent miss chance!” and by the Seer, it worked! The critical hit turned into a miss! There were high fives all around. Well, ok some of them were more metaphorical.

***

I don’t think it’s possible to engineer this kind of thing. This is the reason we roll dice. If we simply made up a story where Blur didn’t work until the end of the fight when it mattered most, that would seem kind of cliched and rigged. But we didn’t, it just happened that way. This is why I think I’ll keep playing tabletop games, even though I love MMOs.

I’ve rarely had that sort of drama in an MMO, either, even though they use a random element. I’ve had things be squeakers, though, where I finish a fight with no health left. But MMOs focus on action, rather than drama and suspense. As a business, focusing on making combat faster-paced was probably a good move, but it often eliminates drama. Of course, MMO devs have been trying to push drama back into their games, anyone who’s fought a dragon in GW2 knows this. Still, that’s mostly preprogrammed drama, awe-inspiring though it may be. Dragon fights in Skyrim, some of which would kill you, got a better feel.

And the story above, about Lurinda’s origin is something else that feels like it belongs to the tabletop. Somehow, the tabletop games engender far more tales about, “Do you remember that time we …” The characters are much more vivid and differentiated. MMOs are pushing in that direction, I think. Most of the people that work on them play tabletop, too.

I’m on a personal quest to figure out how to push the joy of tabletop that I know into the digital realm more. I’ve got some ideas, I need to get them down on paper. Maybe I will share more here.

Have a great weekend. May you have many adventures, and slay many dragons.

Holy Grails of Everquest Next: Permanent Change

A clutch of griffon eggs from Everquest 2
When Everquest 2 launched, there were griffin towers in Commonlands and Antonica. Some time after launch, perhaps as much as a year later, griffin towers were constructed in Nektulos Forest and Thundering Steppes. There were 3 or 4 different quests you could do at each griffin station, and each completed quest would advance a counter toward tower completion. Also, if you did enough of them, you got a miniature griffin tower you could put in your house.

These quests, and later similar quests were fantastically popular. The biggest complaint about them was that they finished too quickly. I think it took but a single weekend to finish the towers in Thundering Steppes on my server, and only a bit longer in Nek Forest. People who had other things to do that weekend missed the whole thing, and were quite disappointed.

Only a fool of a gamedev would think that doing this live event was a mistake. Ok, well SOE has done some foolish things over the years, but they weren’t quite that dumb. So we got more “live events”, which heralded some transformation of the world.

At the heart of the fourth “holy grail” of Everquest Next – permanent change – is something they are calling a “rallying call”. This is sort of a live event and public quest put on steriods. It’s supposed to last 2 months or more. They are meant to have phases that evolve based on player action and a random or hidden element. Like, perhaps there’s a counter for quests, but it’s invisible to players. Or perhaps it’s just random.

By having phases, they mean that you might be working on cutting down trees and building wooden buildings, and then cutting stone and putting up walls, and then maybe bringing in the gates of a keep, and then maybe you’ll get a bunch of gnolls who have decided they aren’t going to let you ruin their lands, and so attack the gates before it’s finished. Who knows, maybe they’ll get a dragon to help them, and they will bring siege engines to help.

Maybe when the gnolls or the dragon knock down the half-built walls, they don’t heal automatically, but you have to build them back again. So killing Fippy Darkpaw before he can reload his ballista would mean something.

It’s important that everyone have the chance to be involved somehow. There was a whole storyline in EQ2 about a plague, and a quest line to find out what it was and how to track it down. But the structure of that event was such that it required a strong raiding force to finish. Only one group could finish the quest, which is sort of necessary to avoid the “Theme Park” sort of feeling – if everyone can make this great change to the world, the world hasn’t changed at all. But most of the players at the time felt shut out, not part of the drama. This is kind of a bad move for an RPG.

I think they know that. What I want is something that will produce changes that are meaningful, and a chance for every player in the game to make a meaningful contribution.

What I like about this, coupled with the emergent AI, is how well it plays as an intrinsic motivator. Everquest 2 was full of Skinner boxes. Almost everything you did set off little bells and flashes and celebrations. The game rewarded you for doing things constantly. You got levels, AA points, quest completions, and gear as rewards for almost anything. As I’ve written before, extrinsic motivation like that leads to lots of enthusiasm, but eventually leads to players doing things like not bothering to read the quest text, and just collecting all the quests at a hub and running out and killing things. You could have two or three quests ding off with a kill, but you had lost all meaning to your actions other than leveling.

The king of intrinsic motivations and emergent behavior is EVE Online. I doubt that Everquest Next will go that far. EVE’s lack of structure puts many people off. However, it is also the only MMO which has continued to grow its audience years and years after launch. Intrinsic motivation – the feeling that a player can say to himself, with a toss of his fabulous red hair, “I think I will try to take over this system” or whatever might come into his 3000-year-old head, is very powerful.

By stretching out the timeline to two or three months, they are going to make sure that everyone who wants to can participate. I hope the long time frame won’t lead to a feeling of “grinding” though. Also, I hope there is a way for characters of all levels to contribute. They are saying that the phase changes will be unpredictable, and I worry about that a bit. There is an embedded time zone problem. What if Fippy and friends attack at 4am EST? Since they don’t seem to be trying to put everyone on the same server, maybe they can designate time zone orientations for servers, so the big stuff will happen mostly during prime time.

I tell ya, I’m expecting dragon attacks. At least baby dragons.

The Holy Grails of Everquest Next: Emergent AI

When I wrote about Storybricks a year ago last May, I could not easily conceptualize how it would make MMOs better, though I thought it would. Then David Georgeson described what I shall dub the Tale of the Wandering Orc bandits. I’m not quoting verbatim, but it went something like this:

Orcs don’t like guards, because guards don’t like orcs. So orcs stay away from cities, because cities have guards. Orcs also don’t like PC’s because PC’s also kill orcs. What orcs do like are roads that don’t have much traffic, but just the occasional traveller that can be relieved of their possessions if not their life.

So orcs will travel around trying to find a spot that they like and set up camp. And should things change so that that camp is no longer suitable, they will move on.

That vision, all by itself, is pretty compelling. Like things actually breaking when you hit them, it seems likely to make the world seem a lot more real. This breaks the “there’s an orc spawn point there and there and there” logic. Orcs were there yesterday, will they be there today? We don’t really know. It depends on what other players did, and just how much the orcs liked or didn’t like it.

This is a world that will be different, perhaps from day to day. This by itself is powerful. Gamedevs just don’t have the bandwidth to do this. So you could look at this as “players will do the work of gamedevs” if you so chose. But really, it’s “players will do the work that nobody else ever did”.

But the responsiveness to player action, in this case collective action, is icing. Maybe you can clear the orcs out of an area, rather than pretending that the 13 of them you killed solved the problem even though you can see them respawning as you leave. In fact, what defines something as “grinding” is the fact that it didn’t mean anything in terms of the game world, or the other people playing it.

There are more layers to this, of course. (Remember Shrek?) Perhaps not all half-abandoned roads are the same. Perhaps some are under the protection of an orc King, who is not going to take kindly to harassment by uppity PCs, and will strike back at nearby settlements. Or perhaps the orcs have allied with a dragon nearby, and point out to the dragon where some delicious snacks are to be found. There’s lots of possibilities.

Now it’s possible that this kind of thing could be done as ad-hoc code in some generic programming language, because Alan Turing. The value of a Storybricks is that it puts the structure of the AI into terms that allow the gamedevs to concentrate on what should be happening in their game, and gets rid of details that aren’t all that relevant. That’s what any good library or language should do.

When people say something is “emergent” what they mean is “we have no idea what will happen”. And the reason that they don’t know is that it will depend, in part on what we the players do. That’s exciting.

Holy Grails of Everquest Next: Full Destructibility

May the Good Lord Take a Liking To Ya and Blow Ya Up Real Soon!

Yes, this Holy Grail was about the fact that no matter how pitched a battle you had, the dishes on the table nearby were never disturbed. In fact, the mirror never broke neither. Watching the video above reminded me that for all our sophistication, we really kind of like it when things blow up. Falling down is a good second choice, too. The appeal of Jenga lies in the fact, that at some moment, that tower of blocks is going to fall down. I remember that as a child I loved to stack up bricks in a tower and then drive my toy cars into them to make them fall down. (Yes, I was a child once. It was 2995 years ago, and my red hair was fabulous even then)

So there’s a definite visceral appeal to making the world destructible. Gaming in general has been moving slowly in this direction as computing power and software became more capable. We had rag-doll physics for our enemies. DDO has some places where there are walls you have to bust down. Skyrim went some way toward this, making dishes and things on tables actually movable, so that you could send them flying around, or at least knock them on the floor. After all if the bad guy staggers back into the china cabinet so that it falls forward on top of him, smashing all the china in the process, that’s just more dramatic and arresting, right? So of course we want to do stuff like that in our games.

But this can look a lot like a “window dressing” enhancement that doesn’t affect gameplay much. I think that’s wrong.

Calling this “window dressing” (I’m strawmanning here, I haven’t read anyone who has called it that) ignores the visceral reality of doing something and having the world reflect your action. I submit that this makes it feel more “real” than realistic art. You get more verisimilitude bang for the buck by doing this. That’s not a small thing. Players are constantly seeking more “immersion”.

But we shall see. David Georgeson said that “the world heals back”. So nothing we’re talking about here is permanent. The world may have qualities of permanent change, but the buildings you smash down will grow back after some time. This seems to me to be absolutely necessary as a counter to the roving bands of young wood elves smashing everything in sight just for the lulz. And you kids get off my lawn. The “world healing” will perhaps have the same effect as “broken windows”.

There are consequences to gameplay, too. You will be able to kill things the way Gandalf beat the Balrog, by blowing up the bridge they are standing on. If they are embracing this, they are opening up a whole new level of strategy – winning by making the bad guy fall down a hole, or pushing it off a cliff. In prior MMOs I often got the impression that gamedevs thought that was “cheating”. But it never seemed like cheating to me, just strategy. But this is a fundamental conflict between players and game-masters. GMs often seek drama, whereas players don’t want drama, they typically just want to achieve their goals as efficiently as possible. At least, I do. But never mind.

And sieges become less theoretical, too. The walls can actually be broken down, by catapults, trebuchets (trebuchets!) or bombes. That great scene in The Lord of the Rings where the one giant orc is carrying the bomb that will blow up the Deeping Wall can be reenacted ad hoc. That is, it doesn’t have to be at a specified place and time. I think this will be important.

Also, players will be able to build walls (temporarily) between themselves and the bad guys, that the bad guys have to knock down. Presumably some mobs will do this too.

But the best part of this is what this means for what’s below the surface of the world. Because there will be many layers of content below the surface of the world, and players can tunnel down to it, intentionally or by accident.

Shrek saying, "You see, Norrath is like onions!"

A ought to be really good news for the Explorers out there. Since the world below will be procedurally generated, and old regions will collapse at some point and new regions join. So even though you thought you knew what was under Freeport, it might well be different today. Hooray for more sewer runs!

That’s all for today. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the emergent AI.

The Holy Grails of Everquest Next: First, We Kill All the Classes

The most interesting part of the Everquest Next debut for me were the four “Holy Grails” that were revealed to be part of the new game. These all had the quality of “things we’ve talked about doing for years”. Those things are:

Multiclassing
They called this “change the game”. Or perhaps, get rid of class-based character development.
Fully Destructible World
Anything in the game can be destroyed or blown up. Nothing is immune, assuming you can hit hard enough, or have the right too.
Emergent AI
This makes the sentient beings in the world more responsive to what the players are doing.
Permanent Change
A lot of game activity will be structured around “Rallying Calls” which are sort of public events, only with a much extended scope, and a permanent effect on the game world.

A brief recap of these can be found, for instance, here. The original video of Georgeson describing these is in the part 2 video posted here.

The theme that ties all four of these together is player agency. Players can do more to affect their own gameplay and the world. They are also saying things that make me think crafting will be important to – yet another avenue for player agency. I’m excited about that. There is definitely potential for things to go very, very wrong, though. Large groups of people can behave in unexpected ways.

But for this post, I’m just going to address the first one – Multiclassing. They say there will be 40 “classes” available at launch. I imagine that these classes will be some form of ability tree that you obtain or earn or unlock somehow. They say that you will need to explore the world to find them all, presumably that means that they will move them around periodically. Maybe there is a nexus of power in an underground lava cave that teaches you fire magic? This could be cool, but it could also end up in spawn camping, which would suck.

They are also saying that what abilities you have will depend on what weapon you are carrying. Furthermore, weapons can be tweaked by adding crafting based items to them. (In fact, it will be possible for crafters to create completely new items – at least completely new skins – but that’s a topic for another post).

However, at any given time, you will have only 8 abilities available to be used. There will be no hotbar clutter in this game, no sir!


The first classless RPG was the tabletop system Runequest. Initial character builds had stats (I don’t recall if they were rolled or bought, probably rolled) and skills that were bought up with build points. During play, skills increased only with use. Also, you could learn some magic, also during play. It was more or less expected that every character in this world would learn a little magic. If you’re not interested in historical crunch, skip the next paragraph.

The improvement model was this: During an adventure, any skill which you succeeded a roll for got checked off. At the end of an “adventure”, all checked skills got a roll to improve. A skill ranking was a number from 0 to 99, and the chance for it to improve was 100 minus the skill rank. So to improve a skill, you had to both succeed at the skill at least once during the adventure, and “fail” at it during the “do I go up” test. So skills in the middle were the ones that went up the most often. Also, the lower a skill was, the bigger the increment it went up by 0-19: +5, 20-39: +4, 40-59: +3, 60-79: +2, and 80-98: +1. You could not have a skill higher than 99.

In the end, I don’t really like the Runequest skill system, which I’ve used more playing _Call of Cthulhu_ than RQ itself. It always makes me feel incompetent. This is a completely subjective effect – you could argue that a 40% attack chance with sword is pretty much the same thing as a +8 base attack bonus, but it doesn’t feel the same. But I digress.

The MMOs that have done something along these lines are Guild Wars 2 and EVE Online. Guild Wars 2 uses the “only 8 abilities at a time” idea, plus the “different weapons give you different abilities”, but it’s still class-based. There’s really no mixing and matching. EVE Online has no classes, only skills. Skills however, are what permit you to fly certain ships, and use certain weapons and defenses. But when you change ships, you change roles completely.

One other recent game of note that did multiclassing-like things is Skyrim. Role flexibility was partially limited in Skyrim, because you could not reconfigure your enhancement points, which came at the rate of one per level. But there was complete fluidity in what skills you could learn, and what gear you could use. I did a lot of gear-switching with at least one of my toons, who eventually got good enough that he could sneak up to someone in heavy armor. Often they wouldn’t survive the first attack.

It remains to be seen how they will implement this – for example, how do weapons interact with classes. Do classes give one, say, four abilities per weapon? If so, that’s a whole lot of abilities, even if it’s per weapon type. Or perhaps classes have abilities tied to only a few weapons? Or some abilities that are independent of weapons? All of these could be fun.

So the good part of this is that it means that a player can have agency, and also flexibility. A while after Alternate Advancement (and Alternate Abilities) were introduced in Everquest 2, a mirror which allowed save-and-restore of AA configurations was made available. I think this sort of thing will probably be more widely used in EQNext and available from game launch. I expect that there may never be AAs. (But who knows?)

But yeah, one can use the abilities that are fun, and work best in a situation. So that’s very exciting.

But there are some worries here, too.

The first concern is that the class system promoted teamwork. Your class more or less told you what your role was, and what your value to a group was. At least, that’s how it worked in D&D. Fighters were meatshields, thieves opened the locks and dealt with the traps, clerics healed people, and wizards mostly toasted marshmallows while every once in a while going ZAP, and winning the encounter for you.

In Everquest, this translated to the Holy Trinity – tank, healer, mezzer. This Holy Trinity was modified in later games by dropping the mezzer role and recognizing the dps role. (Much to my redheaded dissatisfaction!) They want to get rid of it altogether. Some claim that the “taunt” ability exists because early games did no collision detection, hence it was impossible to block mobs from attacking the casters. I’m not sure if that’s true historically, but blocking is certainly how we manage things in the tabletop game. So more recent games have eliminated taunt as an ability, and modified the AIs of mobs. They do pay attention to who’s doing the most DPS, though.

But that means there is a loss of a sense of “team”. Everyone will come to the party with the same abilities, and that will be difficult. It’s something to watch.

The second possible problem is what I’d call the “Killer Combo”. When there are enough different abilities floating around (and there could be, for example, 40 classes times 8 slots times 10 weapon types equals 320 different abilities that can be used with the same weapon), there’s a good chance that some of them will produce extraordinary results because they are particularly synergistic. I think it’s expected that some combos will work better than others, just as some will be better depending on the situation. But the Killer Combo creates lots of problem. It will channel gameplay narrowly, and people who don’t like that playstyle will be jealous and out will come the nerf bat. This will create more unhappiness, and more jealousy, and more nerf batting. It’s a vicious cycle and one to be avoided. Taking stuff away from people is much worse than never giving it to them in the first place.

But what I hope for is that this will play out like it does in EVE Online – nobody really cares all that much. Because if you want to do Killer Combo X, then go out and get the pieces and do it. And if you don’t like doing it, figure out how to persuade the people who do like to do it, to do it with you.

Where things get really horrid is with the One True Build crowd. Those are the ones with the World’s Best Build, and who don’t want to have anything to do with anyone who doesn’t also have the Worlds Best Build or at least the Build That Does All the Things That the World’s Best Build Doesn’t Do But Still Needs. Honestly, I don’t want to have to spend a lot of energy on that crowd.

I’m Such a Piker

In the midst of an interesting post about True Reincarnation in DDO and other MMOs, Psychochild says this:

TR aficionados tend to throw themselves into TRing. There’s a limitation where you can only TR once per week, and for some people that’s too restrictive. In other words, they work a character from level 1 to 20 in less than a week and have to wait before they can TR again.

[I'm really looking forward to playing a game with face-tracking, because I would totally insert a Toldain face with a WTF? look on it right here.]

I’m not sure I understand how you do that. I just don’t do anything too quickly, it seems. I never have. Well, when you have the lifespan of an elf, there’s no need to hurry, I guess.

Ok, instead of being jealous and resentful (too late!) let’s see if we can learn anything from people who do this.

I think that

  • Twinking is involved.
  • Characters with high dps work better.
  • They have a group to do things with, or don’t mind PUGs.
  • They are a lot better at dodging than I am to do this.
  • They possess a kind of metaphorical hammer which turns all dungeons into the same kind of nail.
  • They don’t spend a lot of time pondering “what shall I do next?” or negotiating with friends about what to do next.

Well, squeezing out the dead, unproductive time is a valuable life skill. But schmoozing with friends is priceless.

While I Was Snoozing, They Made a Thingy

Mrs Whiskerson said in a comment on my last post:

Jio said he did not like the cartoony look. Too much like WOW. I’m on the fence. …

Yeah, it is kind of cartoony. I sort of like it. I think it’s as much inspired by Guild Wars 2 as WoW. But there’s something going on here that is very powerful for those of us who like to emote at a game table and talk in funny voices. It’s called SOEmote, and it was released by the Everquest 2 team when I wasn’t looking:

With a webcam and a little calibration, your toon can now convey your facial expressions to other players. This is powerful stuff, stuff that would be welcome in any virtual tabletop game, I think. Below is David Georgeson demoing both face tracking and something they call Voice Fonts.

That’s pretty cool, but what does it have to do with the game looking cartoony? I attended a talk once about something called “affect” with regard to animations and user interfaces. The idea of affect is to just give elements of a computer interface some animated movement of the sort that makes humans think it’s alive and thinking.

Clippy saying "Hello there, can I help you"

Don't go away mad, Clippy. Just go away!

One of the worst possible examples of this is Clippy, that animated sentient paper clip in Office that kept giving you annoying advice. The thing about it is that, on the level of being affective, Clippy was successful. One of the reasons that he was so irritating is that he seemed to be alive. In fact, he seemed to be that guy who is always bothering you with advice you didn’t need and didn’t want. And you couldn’t make him go away!

So success on the whole “make you think it’s alive” front, but not so much on the “he’s a useful paper clip to have around” front. We’d probably be far more inclined to ask computers questions if they responded to a summons with a grumpy, “What do you want now?!”

In academic terms Sally MacKay writes in The Affect of Animated Gifs:

As a quantifiable function of physiology, then, the concept of affect has a potentially essentializing and universalising role in its application to cultural critique. But at the same time, affect retains a dimension of contingency, because the term is derived from theories of consciousness that refuse the Cartesian dualism of the mind/body split.

Also

Affect is of the body, but the body is conjoined with mind, and the entire organism is understood to be entangled with its cultural contexts. So, while any specific affective response is particular to the moment and the person who is having the experience, affect can also be theorized at the level of the collective if it is taken into account that cultural conditions have a normative function that may exclude certain modes of response from collective models. Affect is particularly applicable to the online art environment, where relationships between body and mind are fraught, and where dynamics between individuals and collectives are both immersive and politicized.

Whew! Running that through Tolly’s Translator of Academese I get … well let me quote Eddie Izzard:

It’s seventy percent what you look like, twenty percent what you sound like, and ten percent what you say.

That’s a bit better. Affect is how you move, on a not quite conscious level. Affect is how you stand, how your head is forward or back, your shoulders slumped or square, your spine curved or straight, your brow furrowed a little or not. It both reflects your mood and influences it. There’s an immense volume of communication there, and face tracking will capture more of it. This is particularly important on the current internet, since most of that 90 percent that isn’t “what you say” is lost. With face tracking, less will be lost. Characters will seem more like real “people”, even though they look, in a static picture more cartoony. (I’m not sure Voice Fonts will add all that much on top of voice chat, but it sounds fun.)

In a medium where lots of interaction information is lost, e.g. an online RPG, the information that is transmitted will probably get amplified. So scowls will be more scowlier, smiles bigger, and gnome voices squeakier and ogre voices dopier (and deeper).

All of this is live on Everquest 2 right now, and will be included in EQNext. I didn’t know that. Serves me right for sleeping so long.

I’ve Seen the Future and it’s Furry

Here’s a look at the two characters (and the world in background) used for the Everquest Next preview.

Character renderings from Everquest Next

Their names are Jalena, who is a human female who does magic casting thingys, which is all I can call them because, as we shall see, there aren’t supposed to be character classes as such. The big one is Kesar, who is a Kerran male, wears armor and he likes getting in the face of bad guys and smashing them. Here’s another shot of the two of them. This one comes courtesy of mmosite.com.

Everquest next characters rendered in underground scene with lava.

This is a far cry from both Everquest and EQ2. There are several things to note here.

The art style backs off on Everquest 2′s attempt to be “realistic”. Lots of aspects of the characters are exaggerated. Kesar’s armor is reminiscent of WoW armor. The size difference between human and Kerran is much, much more than it ever used to be. Everything looks just a little bit like it’s been painted. I think there’s both a practical reason for this and an artistic one.

The practical reason is that, as we discovered with Blizzard, low system requirements mean that more people can play your game, and thus, more people will play your game. Also, the game is going to be free-to-play, though it’s far from clear whether “free-to-play” will mean like Guild Wars 2 and DDO, which I like, or like Everquest 2′s FTP model, which I hate. And a more painted-like style allows for lower polygon count, lower res textures, etc. On top of that, computers and graphics cards are much, much more powerful now than at EQ2′s launch.

The artistic reason is drama. For people who want to play someone who’s big and strong and wears heavy armor, you have to make them look big and strong and like they are wearing heavy armor. If you were in the same room with someone who was big and strong and wore heavy armor, you would have lots of cues that are missing from a videogame. The armor would creak a little. It would affect how someone moves, even the biggest and strongest. It would affect how their footsteps sound, even when they are sort of standing still. Lots of that sense is lost when you have to look through a glass monitor at the character, so the artists exaggerate other aspects to signal that truth about the character.

Which gets us to Jalena’s boob window.

Let’s not kid ourselves, SOE is not above providing a little fan service. But of course, this is concerning to any woman who plays the game, who all must be wondering, “Will I be able to wear something that doesn’t have a boob window?” I think we are all aware that most women, at some time or another, want to show off a bit, and show some skin. In point of fact, there are some men who want to do that, too. Just how often and how much varies a lot with the individual. But I think the primary concern is “Will I have a choice about how I look?” I sincerely hope so. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t always do so well with all races and classes. Some of them have very limited options when it comes to deciding how much skin a female avatar will show.

That said, artists who make figures of women are presented with a problem. I think most people playing a female character want other players to notice that they are female. Just as people playing a male want that to be noticed. There are a few races in a few games where the difference is subtle (Lizardmen come to mind, just as in RL). And that’s a thing too. Sometimes we have people in the mundane world who don’t want to present either male or female but something else They might want you to use the pronouns “they” and “them”. The key is that they want you to recognize what they perceive about themselves. They want to signal their gender.

And like with being big and strong, a lot of gender signals get dropped on the floor when you are dealing with a virtual world character. Pheremones, to pick one. The subtle differences in posture and mannerism, too. I’ve observed this in miniatures for a long time. When you are dealing with a figure an inch high, if you give it accurate proportions, the gender signal becomes drowned out. And so they get exaggerated.

Now historically, most sculptors and artists have been male, and have focused on two or three physical characteristics to signal gender: breast size, hip width, and length of legs. The length of legs thing is odd, since it isn’t a gender signal in the real world at all. Women do not have proportionally longer legs than men, as far as I know. But women often, as a fashion choice, do things to make their legs appear longer. Things like wearing heels, and wearing things that draw attention to the line of the legs.

But there are other ways to signal gender. The cat race of Guild Wars 2, the Charr, uses very unorthodox methods to signal gender. The rumor goes that the lead designer refused to put breasts on female Charr, noting that if they forced her, she would put six of them on, since that’s how it works for cats. Nevertheless, there are gender-signalling differences, just not the normal ones.

Back to Everquest Next, one other signal seen in the character design above is size. We think of men as being larger than women, and in a statistical sense, this is true. The largest humans on the planet are, by and, um, large, male. But the smallest humans? Not necessarily female. And there is considerable overlap. Mmos have actually given a lot of scope for men to express this variability. You could be a giant barbarian or a tiny gnome, or a sturdy dwarf or a slender half-elf. (Also, you could be an elf with a keen sense of fashion and fabulous red hair, but I digress.)

So costumers and character designers of Everquest Next please give people a choice about how they look in the game. Players are not scenery. In many ways, this game appears to be granting far more agency to players than we have seen in MMO’s before, don’t neglect the agency of people playing female toons.

My Long Slumber

When you’re three thousand years old, you need a lot of sleep.  Also, the fabulousness is on full display here, though green is really not my color normally.  (The artwork is by Heli Härkönen, from here.

I’m still playing a lot of Civ V, the new expansion is really fun.  Fun to play, but it never seemed to inspire all that much writing.   But something did inspire me to do more writing.  Actually, two things. Continue reading