Louis CK Explains Barrens Chat

Actually, he doesn’t. He explains why he thinks that children shouldn’t get smartphones. But it still applies.

The fundamental problem with digital communication is that it eliminates non-verbal feedback. As he describes, when you tell someone, “You’re so fat!” or, as is more often in MMOs, “You’re such a loser! You suck!”, you don’t see their reaction. Their face does nothing at all, nor does their body.

There are two parts to this. First, you can’t tell if anyone is listening. When you speak to a room, there is a palpable sense that the room is listening, or not. If you are speaking, you aren’t analyzing this, you are feeling it. The rustles sound different. Sometimes they get quieter, sometimes noisier. It makes sense emotionally.

But when our avatars, or our mere digital presence, doesn’t reflect our emotional state, that channel of feedback is lost. But that’s not how it feels. It simply feels muted, like no one is listening at all. So the normal human response is to dial your message up. Speak louder, swear more, get in people’s faces more. Above all, get a reaction. Is anyone listening? So this restricted channel encourages escalation.

This principle reminds me of a former guildie who’s drama and escalation in the level 80 channel on Butcherblock made our server somewhat famous – noted on EQFlames.com for one thing. Once I met someone in RL who played EQ2 and when I told him I played on Butcherblock he said he had added BB level 80 chat to his chat feed because it was so entertaining. I think of her escalation as a normal response to the unresponsiveness of the medium.

And also, there is the absence Louis describes. We can’t see the adverse reaction when we say something stupid or hurtful. The feedback loop isn’t closed. We have no clue about what other people might be feeling. We only experience hurt when it become an escalated angry message. And then our impulse is to win.

I don’t quite know how to fix this. Voice chat can be helpful, and it can be obnoxious. It’s a weak channel compared to face-to-face. Of course, SOE now has /soemote which will allow a webcam to track your face and animate your avatar’s face accordingly. This seems valuable, but it doesn’t solve the problem of Barrens chat. (Which, I understand, isn’t really much of a thing any more.)

None of this has much to do with anonymity. In fact, in an MMO, one is pseudonymous, not anonymous. Anonymity can be a factor, but so can the above.

Another complication is how easily we form identities and divisions. We divide up into teams almost automatically, based on the tiniest differences. For example, we might decide that redheads are superior (which is, of course true), and divide the world into two teams – redheads and inferior creatures. Once people divide into tribes, they take actions that will give their team members greater benefits than non-team members, even when the overall benefit to their own team members is smaller as a result. Winning is more important to us than flourishing.

And if this weren’t enough, it seems that humans (and elves, even if they are 3000 years old) have trouble maintaining a circle of relationships with more than 150 people. But our servers routinely are much bigger. So they will fragment. In some sense, that’s what guilds are for. Perhaps we could have smaller server populations, but that can be risky.

I don’t have solutions. But I think now I have a better idea what the problem is.

Everquest Next is People

Tipa is feeling very, very skeptical about Everquest Next:

I’m trying not to be caught up in the EverQuest Next hype. It’s such a blank slate at this point that people feel free to read anything into the various teases. People in the public chat channels in EverQuest 2 speak with absolute certainty about things that contradict what some other certain person believes. As far me, I haven’t seen any evidence of any gameplay, some thread through the game that keeps people logging in. I fear it’s just going to take the usual sandbox route of being PvP focused — “the players are the content!”.

I … am somewhat more caught up in the hype. But really, I understand the skepticism, and the wariness about PvP. Actually, a person’s experience in PvE can be every bit as obnoxious and painful as it can in PvP. And there’s no way to shoot back. So yeah, pickup (groups, raids, etc.) Consider this story she tells.

I also have this weird hangup about joining random groups. I’m paranoid that people will call me out for being a crappy player. This is because people regularly call me out for being a crappy player. We were working through a raid a couple weeks back and someone said they should start a vote to boot the crappy controller. Me, being the only controller in the raid, agreed, and said we should boot her right away. Nervous laughter — wondering, maybe, if I understood they were talking about me. The vote was taken, I was kicked. I spent the rest of the night flying around cities alone, listening for the hum of exobits and wondering why I just didn’t log off and delete the game. The other guys successfully completed the raid.

Last Sunday, we raided again. I chose the “damage” role that every class can choose so that I wouldn’t be tapped to be a controller. Though I intended to play that role anyway. Entering as “damage” would just ensure there being a real controller along as well. Instead of trying to use crowd control powers, though, I just fed mana continuously the entire raid. Nobody tried to kick me, and we eventually succeeded.

So, what’s “fun” for some is not for others. In fact the best aspect of MMOs is also the worst – there are other people playing. Sometimes you have lunch with other players, and sometimes you are (in my case a fabulously redheaded) lunch. The problem is the expectations of players, or as I’ve said before, the social contract of the game. I’ve played in games, tabletop and face-to-face, where we were trying to smash each other’s face in (metaphorically speaking). But everyone knew that was what the game was, and thus, no problem.

I don’t know how you manage to create a social contract among a player base of a few thousand people. It seems impossible. But SOE appears to know that the can’t do it themselves, and that they need to make EQN attractive to the sort of person that can do it, and make experiences like Tipa’s happen a lot less. The game is supposed to be a social game, which means it’s about the people playing the game.

IGN’s Leif Johnson first echoes some of Tipa’s fears:

In fact, while answering another question a few minutes afterward, Georgeson hinted that such effects may play a significant role in PvP: “I mean, my God, how can we have destructibility without talking about PvP?” If that means what it sounds like, this could be big.

But then a few paragraphs later,

Above all, Michaels stresses that he wants to make sure “seeing other people is never a negative for you”— in fact, he wants us to be happy to see other human beings. “We know that social interaction is the backbone of an MMO,” he said. “Without players, we don’t have a game; without social interaction, players don’t stick around.” Michaels’ language here and elsewhere suggest that he’s planning an intensely more social experience than we find in many contemporary MMOs (especially in the upcoming games WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online), which place a much greater focus on single-player gameplay.

That’s a tall order, though they seem to be focused on game mechanics. No “group penalty” to experience or loot. This has an effect, but it’s sort of a negative effect. So how do you keep players from eating each other? I’ve long been advocating for scope for prosocial behavior. In Everquest, a druid could stand at the Freeport gate and hand out Spirit of the Wolf. This is a form of “pay it forward” that sets a tone for the game as a whole. It creates a game-design problem when this devolves to “pay for buff or transport” – the game isn’t being played the way you thought it would be. But game designers kind of need to suck it up, and get over their irritation at player creativity.

It appears Director of Development David Georgeson and Senior Producer Terry Michaels know this, and they are pinning their hopes on crafters. That’s right, crafters. Everquest Next Landmarks is part of this.

Indeed, much of what we do know about how EverQuest Next will handle social interaction actually springs from EverQuest Next Landmark, the building companion to the upcoming MMO that’s scheduled for launch later this year. That’s partly because Landmark will rely so heavily on crafting. “Crafters are the social glue,” Michaels told me in a private interview. “It’s not because they actually craft,” he said. “It’s because of the personalities that are attracted to crafting. They’re the kinds of people who organize guilds; they set up raids; they solve disputes between players.” In Michaels’ words, they make social interaction “work.”

It remains to be seen whether this will actually work, but I think it’s got a shot. The other piece is that they plan to put lots of things in the game that one person can’t do by themselves. For example, combat. But Leif has worries that I think are justified.

Unfortunately, EverQuest Next’s lack of a trinity bears worrisome of what I call the “faceless” group play of games like Guild Wars 2, in which you play with many people but never have cause to learn their names. “There’s group content out there that requires a group,” we heard during the Q&A panel. “It doesn’t matter how many classes you collect, you’re still only one dude.”

We went through this in the tabletop space when Runequest came out. There were no classes in Runequest. This was in reaction to the very rigid class system of D&D, and a welcome innovation. And it meant that characters didn’t really have any role or niche in a fight. Classes promote teamwork albeit in a very crude way.

But there’s another sort of group collaboration – the building project:

“One of the reasons why you want a lot of people to work with you is because if you want your guild hall have this beautiful mahogany floor,” he said, “you’re going to have to find the Black Forest and harvest all of that.” That forest, he said, might be on the other side of the world, so you’d want to send some guildies to get that and others to search a volcano for obsidian for tiling. I expressed my worry that many players would just start buying all the items off an auction house, but Georgeson seemed nonplussed. “It will definitely be more important than sticking something on the auction house,” he said, and both he and Michaels laughed that there may not even be an auction house.

I feel positive about this because some of the best times we ever had in EQ2 was earning the money to buy, and subsequently decorate our guild hall. However, this kind of focus is tricky. EQ2 tried to promote teamwork/collaboration in crafting and it failed utterly. People made alts to make the subcomponents they needed, because it meant less social interaction. The problem is that playing an MMO isn’t a job. Nobody is under an obligation to show up and do X at any given time, and people are busy with offline things.

So if a project consists of “go out and find X amount of Y” and that’s non-trivial, that’s a very good way to collaborate. And they are thinking that way. They don’t want people to just go and look up where the Black Forest is. I have no idea how they will accomplish that, by the way. Harvesting has its usual nodes with randomized locations, but what they are describing is a whole new level. They think they can cancel out use of trading, too.

The quote is “maybe there won’t be an auction house”. This is coy. There has never been an “auction house” in Everquest, P2P trading isn’t in the form of an auction, but as an “offered for sale” model with the sell limit being less of a listing price (too much sell friction) and more of a “number of slots” thing.

In thinking about the experience Tipa describes, being kicked from a raid, I wonder if this is the work of Achievers or Killers. I’m not sure. But it’s clear that the players they want to be sure to attract are the Socializers and Explorers who also have a streak of Acheiver in them.

Out of respect for Tipa’s allergy for hype I’ll admit that it’s impossible to say if it will work. People can surprise you sometimes. Kids are notorious for liking the box the toy came in more than the toy, for example. But it’s the right thing to be trying to do.

At the moment, I’m playing more Skyrim, my MMO playing is in slow motion. But I want to try to make a push to get the band back together for EQNext. The point of the game is to have people around that are, well, fun to be around, and have something to do that can be done together. Like Soylent Green, Everquest Next is People.

Richard Bartle on Art and MMOs

Richard Bartle wrote extensively about the “social contract” inherent to group games, or rather the lack of it in a recent posting.

Take, for example, role-playing. Suppose a designer created a game specifically for people who like role-playing. Hordes of role-players sign up and have a ball, but a small proportion of the MMO’s players don’t role-play. They don’t see the MMO as being “about” role-playing, or at least not about role-playing by them personally. This is a legitimate position for them to take, but their attitude can wreck the atmosphere and ruin immersion for those who do role-play. The role-players may outnumber the non-role-players a hundred to one; they may desperately want them to leave, but they have no leverage on them. They can’t do anything to annoy them; they can only be annoyed by them. It’s an argument that doesn’t move. It ends when the role-players look for somewhere else to role-play, whereupon those who don’t role-play but who like playing among role-players will follow them and the story repeats.

So what should happen here?

Really the whole thing is good, I recommend it.

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Some MMO players have a disagreement about how to decorate the guildhall

The problem Richard describes exists also in tabletop RPG. Just recently a friend was describing a sort of issue about conflicting issues in her game. Her particular problem, though, was that there were too many players wanting to do exactly the same thing. This can also a problem in an MMO (camps in Lower Guk, I’m looking at you. See also the two dozen rangers all LFG.) And as hard as it is to believe, some people do not think red hair is fabulous!

But more generally, you have the people who want lots of crunch and tactical combat, and the people that want drama and interpersonal interaction while not having a lot of rules. A lot of the RPG blogs I read recommend discussing what people want to get out of the game up front, producing a social contract.

The largest number of people I’ve ever seen get on the same page with something like this is about 50, over the course of a weekend in a LARP. I think it’s instructive to look at how this was accomplished.

  • Characters were all pregenerated by the GMs and printed out for players beforehand. There was some common background sheets as well.
  • Those characters had built-in motivations and goals and connections to other characters, giving strangers a direct motivation to interact.
  • The people running the game knew some of the players (repeat play) and cast players that they knew to be strong in some of the more critical roles.
  • Meanwhile, all players filled out a sort of “what kind of tree are you” questionaire. (Actually, it sometimes took the form more of “what kind of robot are you?”, but never mind.) The gms asked the players what kind of role they wanted to have, and tried to give it to them. Did they want to solve puzzles, lead a group, spy, steal, negotiate, or dramatize. And tried to give them a character that would give them scope for that. Note that the “role” doesn’t address mechanics so much as narrative. These game had really simple and basic mechanics.
  • The game had a definite lifespan. It progressed over the course of a weekend, then was done. This makes everything more meaningful. (Richard notes that persistence adds to the problems. You did read it all, didn’t you?)
  • There are GMs active during the game, and while they mostly adjudicate rules, there is also a little coaching going on, and they confess to often lean their rulings toward “good story”.

So these added up to some of the most engaging and fun gaming experiences I’ve ever had. They do not scale, however. Because putting a game like this is very labor intensive. All the characters must be written with individual motivations, and there is very low replay value, because much of what drives the game is the fact that there are secrets, that will come out during the course of play. The structure of the game is such that it’s both dangerous to trust people and necessary.

I have no idea how to solve this in a persistent-world MMO, nor does Richard. But I’m still driven by a vision of the 50 player, or 20 player game, adjudicated by a human, with everyone on the same page. This might be possible at a slower pace, with a digitally administered game

UPDATE: Originally I pointed to a post on Richard Google+ feed until he kindly pointed out in comments that it was on his blog too. Changed the above link to point to Richard’s blog, which I’m kind of an idiot for not seeing. A fabulously coiffed idiot, of course, but still an idiot. Though it’s also true that Richard could help out us poor redheaded fools by linking to his blog on Google+.

Almost, But Not Quite Entirely Unlike a Brownian Motion Generator

When I was playing EVE Online, it struck me that the game setting would make a wonderful virtual space for a LARP-style game. In some ways this is true of Everquest 2, as well.

The brand of LARP that I have done the most of is something quite unique. The primary interactions of the games consist of combats, votes, puzzles, interrogations, recipes and widgets.

Hmm, where's the color-preserving conditioner?

In the LARP, widgets are represented by 3×5 cards printed by the GMs. People can pickpocketed, or hold you up at gunpoint, or burglarize your room. Widgets can be combined together to make something cool and useful if you have the right recipe, or you can do experiments to figure out the right recipe. Sometimes the same widget might have different names, because the culture they come from is different.

Mrs. Darkwater still recalls with fondness her scientist who was, in-game, a great theoretician, but who had a tendency to make experiments explode. Her refrain was, “Explosions are good for you. They clear the sinuses!”

The settings of Norrath, or the civilizations around the EVE gate, would be wonderful places for these kind of thing, but there is a basic problem. Items cannot be injected into these games. At the time, it was simply unmanageable. However, now SOE is saying something different. Here’s Kate Cox

The Player Studio will allow players—for now, of EverQuest and EverQuest II, with other games to be added—to create and upload their own in-game items, after which SOE will consider adding them to the shop:

They mean 3D models only. We can’t, as yet, make something with a different name or id tag, perhaps. That might create database problems, if people spam the ability too hard. Nor can we add game-relevant attributes for it. These might be added by a program, the model might function as a skin that’s added to an existing item.

What I want though, is the digital equivalent of the 3×5 card. I want to make a “Brownian motion generator”, and then make recipes that make use of it. Recipes for making things like a death ray. (Quiz: What’s a common object that could be termed a “Brownian Motion Generator” just to make things confusing and fun? Hint: It doesn’t come with a big flower in it.)

In Everquest Next, players will be allowed to design and build structures, and if they meet the art design for Norrath, sell them for use in the new Norrath. For real cash. They will be given a playground coming this winter to try these things out. SOE even says that if your design for a tower is used in someone else’s castle, which they sell, SOE will be able to track this and give you a portion of the revenue stream. This seems pretty cool.

The cynical view is that SOE is getting customers to do work for it. I think that’s overly negative. Our economy is moving more and more toward a more participatory one. We have things like Etsy and eBay and the App Store and Android Marketplace. Likewise Steam. Why not let more people participate? I only hope that this will lead to a different form of engagement with the game, and not further fragmentation.

John Smedley is Playing With Me

and then, one day later

Something like 2000 years ago, I taught college classes. After a serious digression once, a student asked me a question like, “Is this going to be on the midterm?” and I replied, “Oh, yes, of course, probably 20 problems of it.” And then observed a horrified silence in the classroom. I quickly reversed myself. “No, no, just kidding.” They were not amused.

And this is how I came to formulate a principal that is, in fact, broadly applicable in life:

Students do not find jokes about tests funny.

And it’s slightly lesser-known corollary:

Elves, particularly those who are more than 3000 years old, do not find jokes about hair loss funny.

Satire is hard. And risky.

Via Psychochild, who speaks only for himself on permadeath, midterm exams and hair loss. (He isn’t losing hair, it’s simply migrating.) And Everquest Next.