Calm Under the Hell of the AFK Cloaker

When I joined Black Sheep Down [BAAW], I needed to gather up a few skills before clone jumping out to my old stomping grounds in Deklein. Once I got there, the rest of BAAW was deployed in Curse, which is an NPC-sovereign region of nullsec, engaged in basically a training exercise. (I trained to fly a doctrine Harpy, but I didn’t finish before the deployment ended.) So I spent several days puttering about my old stomping grounds, getting myself up and running. Of course, some nights there would be a hostile present in one or more of the systems I went through. They were what’s known as an AFK cloaker.

Often one doesn’t see the hostiles directly. Their ships have an IFF system, and so all in a system know everyone who is there. (This is not the case with W-space, which is entered via wormholes, but it is everywhere else.) So naturally, if you see that someone belonging to a neutral or hostile alliance/corp is in system, you are on your guard. The countering tactic to this is the AFK cloaker. Someone using this tactic will get a ship that cannot be scanned down, due to having a cloak. Then they will leave themselves in a system for hours on end just sitting there present.

They present a constant threat. At any moment they might appear and try to blow you up. Worse, they might “hot drop” on you, gating in a bunch of enemy ships that will tear you apart in seconds. More than one of my corpmates has lost an expensive ship to hotdropping, including a carrier (a capital ship, one of those expensive ones you’ve heard about, though not the most expensive.)

My first night encountering one of these, I simply quit the field. Docked back up, didn’t try to do anything with the threat present. This is one of the intended effects of AFK cloaking – suppression of the economic activity of your enemies, which reduces them in strength in comparison to your allies. Sovereign warfare in nullsec depends on strong finances – ships and ammunition are expensive.

After a couple nights, I got more back in the groove, remembering how to operate and get things done even when there are AFK cloakers about. And I remember, this is why I came to EVE. (That, and the new possibilities for fabulous stylings of my scarlet follicles that EVE presents.)

Let me try to unpack that.

I study martial arts, when I’m not playing EVE or tabletop RPG. My school, Danzanryu jujitsu, was created in the 1920′s in Hawaii by Seishiro “Henry” Okazaki. Okazaki was an American of Japanese descent. He conceived of jujitsu as a “do”, which was a recognized thing in the Buddhist church he belonged to. “Do” in this sense means “way”, the same as the Chinese “Dao” sometime rendered “Tao” as in “Tao te Ching” or “The Tao of Physics” or “The Tao of Pooh”. All of which to say is that he cared more about satori, which we in the modern West would call “personal growth”, than he did about kicking people’s asses.

In a short essay he titled “Esoteric Principles” he wrote

Whatever the trials or dangers, even “Hell under the upraised sword,” remain calm and remember the doctrine imparted to you by your teacher.

“Hell under the upraised sword” is a pretty good description of what it feels like to try to do something in a system where there is an AFK cloaker. It also describes the feeling I got the other night when trying to go to VFK to pick up a skill book and a ship fitting that I’d bought.

I jumped through our jump bridge just as 5 neutrals entered the system. (“Neutral” it turns out, is a mostly-irrelevant distinction made from “hostile”. In our space, if they aren’t allied, they are trying to kill you. And we are trying to kill them.) I reported them in the intel channel, jumped to a random planet and burned toward empty space while turning on my cloak. I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t opted for a larger, non-cloaked, transport. This falls under the category of “remember the doctrine imparted to you by your teacher”, since my corpmates on voice coms coached me to do exactly that roughly 5 seconds after I started doing it. Which was gratifying.

I waited patiently while the neutrals hang out jump back and forth to a neighboring system, and some allies come in and try to kill them. Eventually, they are successful, posting kills in the intel channel. However, another neutral comes into the system. After a long wait, I decide to chance it. He is reported to be in a Caracal, which is very dangerous, but not capable of putting up a warp bubble, which is the main thing I fear, so I warp to the gate and jump through.

He is waiting at the gate. He sees the jump fire, or maybe he sees me decloak briefly just before using the jump gate (this is necessary). I load quickly, grateful that I have the game on an SSD, and start aligning for my warp to the station. This is the most dangerous moment. After jumping, there a cloak applied to you (to give you cover while the new system loads). This cloak must be dropped before my own cloak is applied, and as soon as I start to align, the gate cloak will fade. There is always a few seconds of vulnerability, where you can potentially be targeted (this prevents cloaking) and scrambled so you can’t warp. Then you are killed, in my case, in short order.

But not this night. I start the align, and then apply my cloak. I did it quickly, he might not have loaded yet. My vulnerability is minimal, and I get away and dock safely. Again, this is “remember the doctrine imparted to you by your teacher”, though in some cases, my teacher has been the School of Hard Knocks.

What first interested me in EVE was this kind of experience. I came here to be podkilled, but I also came here to not be podkilled, to look shame and failure in the face, and not blink. It is a very wonderful feeling, in fact, to not be someone’s lunch.

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 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.

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.

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.


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.

The Perils of Gamification

When my kids were younger, we got them a few “math learning games”. Over the years I’ve wondered why we don’t do more of that. Today I have a simple answer to that question: They don’t work. Stanley Erlwanger, a math education research published a paper studying how a student named Benny had progressed through a math learning program, gaining levels faster than anyone else, but had failed to learn any math whatsoever.

What the designers of the IPI program had intended was that gaming the game required mastering the mathematics. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent people, particularly smart ones, from coming up with alternative systems.

In Benny’s case, this involved developing a complete set of rules for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions. Though his rules were symbolic manipulation procedures that made no sense mathematically, they enabled him to move through the sheets faster than everyone else in his cohort group, scoring 80% or better at each stage.

Whenever his rules yielded wrong answers, he simply adapted them to fit the new information he had acquired.

There’s something familiar about this description. A high school teacher once told me about a student (in high school) who didn’t know how to read, and his attempts to teach the student. This student had learned a bunch of tricks to navigate the world of letters and words, none of which actually constituted reading. But getting the student to walk away from those tricks and grind through phonetics and all the crazy rules that most of us learned in first grade was very difficult.

This is recounted by Math Guy Keith Devlin in a series called “How to Design Video Games That Support Good Math Learning”.

The issue, it would seem, isn’t limited to video games though. Here’s a video showing a similar problem to Benny:

Devlin mentions that the same issues show up in gamification. It’s hard to prove that getting good at a game demonstrates skill in anything at all other than playing that game.

Gamification, to my mind, has other problems as well, the chief of which is that it relies on extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic.

Fabulous Red Hair is not a Game Mechanic, Either

Raph Koster has a post up that seems to explain why I like DDO so much compared to other games. Provided you squint at it a little bit, and relabel some of the nodes. It’s called “Narrative is not a Game Mechanic”.

He develops a picture language that has yellow circles as user inputs, black boxes to represent the ‘black box’ of game mechanics, and blue squares to represent feedback. All of these are necessary to have a game:

Cut the input, and you have a screensaver.
Cut the problem inside the black box, and you have a slideshow.
Cut the feedback, and you have something ridiculously confusing that no one will tolerate.

You can diagram the structure of a game thusly, with the size of the boxes representing the complexity or weight of the components. Here’s a sample.

Feedback can take the form of narrative action: point the camera at a window and press A and you get a fast cutscene of Batman gliding off the rooftop just ahead of the explosion! That’s a small input, a small black box, and a big feedback.

Raph points out that this leads to a problem: The narrative cutscene gets old pretty fast. You’ve seen it before. Due to a well known process known as “hedonic adaptation” fun things lose some of their fun through repetition. (Or is that systematic desensitization?)

Ok, most of the MMO’s I’ve played don’t rely all that heavily on narrative feedback. Yeah, there’s some cutscenes, and a nice death animation, but the big feedback comes in the loot. And I think that has the same problem, if a bit slower. What turned me off of EQ2 was exactly this: Going into an instance with a group had absolutely zero focus on the black box. The inputs were well determined and done as quickly as possible to get the loot. But the loot was random, so mostly you didn’t get the loot that you wanted (How many times did I do Vault of Eternal Slumber, never to get Praetor’s Guard?)

The simple terminology for this is “I hate grinding”.

Ok, so most of the instances I run in DDO don’t drop anything I actually upgrade to. But they are interesting. One reason for this is that the game system itself is interesting. And that’s true because it’s D&D. It was developed to be interesting on the tabletop, where there is no cinematic cutscenes. Although there is, to be fair, loot. Well, at least sometimes. My daughter’s game is notoriously lean on the loot.

We get rewards: success. Sometimes its obvious what to do, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes (in DDO) we have to try again, or snatch things back from the Precipice of Wipe. That’s just darn fun when you can pull that off.

Granted there is also the more visceral, media-based feedback: Holding a dance contest in the middle of the dungeon to see which demon is the best dancer ranks right up there. It’s just fun to see them dancing when Karayasama uses Otto’s (Theoretically) Resistable Dance. It’s also fun to see which outfits show off the fabulous red hair to best advantage. But those sorts of things existed in EQ2, as well. They probably aren’t quite enough to drive continuing subscription on their own, and they aren’t game mechanics.

The striking thing to me is that as black boxes go, DDO isn’t very black at all, maybe 18% neutral gray. At least to me, the D&D mechanics are second nature and public. There is a die roll, but that’s the only element that is unpredictable. Everything else is based on mechanics from the tabletop RPG, where how everything works is spelled out.

Yet, it’s still fun. Interest comes from not knowing what the mobs will do, and not knowing whether your spells or swings will miss, hit, or crit. Reacting in the moment is the joy.

The past few Mondays, Karayasama, Johnson (the cleric) and Marty (my tank with thief tendencies), have been running instances in Sentinels of Stormreach. And we have been tearing them up on Normal difficulty. Maybe it’s time to move to Hard? Our ease surprises me a bit. Different groups have had more difficulty with these instances, particularly the Bazaar. (Remember how I mentioned the Precipice of Wipe?). We blasted through it. Not that it wasn’t complex, it was just that we handled it.

Does this mean we’re going to get bored with DDO and stop playing? Well, it might. We play a lot less. Karaya is playing SWTOR now, and I’m stuck on Skyrim. I’m not sure what Phritz is doing, and Lobilya is playing Skyrim, too.

Where Rage and Zen Coexist

Rita, aka Karaya, in a comment on my last post:

I definitely agree with your assessment that I work in that rage-to-master realm. Though I think there are two sides to that coin, and you and I each represent a side. This is really just an amusing brain-tangent; obviously the world isn’t so categorical as this mental construct:

When I used to play Soul Calibur games all night with my friends, two of us were clearly the best players: Foley and me. For those who don’t know, Soul Calibur is a console fighting game series, like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat (Though far superior to either, imo). I was unequivocally regarded as the best player in the group – the one to beat. But once I got into my groove, Foley still had a chance of beating me in any given fight. He was the only one. And everyone else pretty much dreaded having to play either one of us.

There’s a huge psychological component to SC when you know your opponent as well as my friends know each other. You really get insight into the way that person thinks in a high-pressure, fast-paced contest over the course of milliseconds. You develop an instinct for anticipating her/his next move. Not to mention, we played so much of that game that our respective characters became extensions of our own limbs, really. So it was all about the mental game.

Now, as the night went on and we played battle after battle against each other, we’d get warmed up and start thinking and reacting faster. And faster still, to keep up with each other.

At our peaks – in our grooves, if you will – we each had a distinct method of mental processing.

Foley’s method we called “Synapses”, following a battle during which he commented that his “synapses [had] to fire faster to keep up!” His processing during our battles would take place consciously. He had to focus on my movements and keep his knowledge of my idiosyncrasies in mind, and make constant active decisions to counter my actions.

My method we called “Zen”. Once I got in my groove, my processing mostly seemed to take place subconsciously. In fact, at times I had to be careful not to actually focus on anything, as I’d risk “thinking too much”. I would tend to stare *through* the screen and watch both our characters in my peripheral vision. I would act and react instinctively.

Somehow I see a bit of a parallel when I compare you and me in the role of MMO enchanter. And I think it’s most visible in DDO, illustrated by our choices of Wizard and Sorcerer, respectively.

You tend to study the situation at hand and try to consciously choose your tools and strategies to match it. When you fail, your reaction tends to be “I brought the wrong tools” or “I had the wrong plan”, and you adjust accordingly.

I go into a situation with the same set of tools every time and no real plan. Because my tools (spells) are always the same, they’re practically extensions of my body. I don’t do much planning ’cause I hold myself to the standard that my skill should be sharp enough to handle any situation on the fly. When I fail, my reaction is “This is a worthy foe” or “My skill is lacking and must be honed further”.

So in our approach to the spider cave, I see you focusing on the spawn cycles, the wandering patterns, the placement of mobs in that particular situation. Then you consider your tools and draw up an over-arching strategy (subject to adjustment, of course).

I, on the other hand, focus on my reaction time, my awareness, my instinctive understanding of myself and the fundamental mechanics of the game. In my mind, if those items are sharp enough, I will be victorious.

Now regardless of where each of us *focuses*, obviously there is overlap in our experiences. And both of us failed many times and then eventually succeeded. It’s just interesting to consider the contrast of styles between the two high elf enchanters of Glory ;)

The difference she describes is real. I’ve played Soulcalibur a bit. Mostly I played Xiang Wa. I would never try to beat anyone with speed and reaction time, but rather with “timing” or what is called “meiei” in many martial arts. I would look for “gaps” or opportunities and hit them.

This involves some cognition. But it needs to go down into the “fast path” of the brain to execute. So I wouldn’t make too much of the differences, we’re more the same than different.

The graphic at the top is the Zen Mistress’ keyboard layout for DDO, which she shared with me a little while ago, as described for her cleric. It is wildly remapped from the “out of the box” layout. I adapted this for my DDO characters, and it’s starting to work, though it’s a strange position to have my hands in relative to the keyboard.

I Came Here To Be Podkilled: Vanguard Spider Cave Edition

I learned a new phrase recently, “rage to master”. I have a feeling that at least some of you have a gut-level understanding of what that is, but I’m going to tell you anyway, and relate it to my current gaming, so there! (He says with a toss of his fabulous red hair!)

I’ve been playing Vanguard again. Karaya suggested it, she said she had run out of things to explore in DDO, so while keeping our regular group time, she was going to go explore the vast world, and challenging gameplay of Vanguard – properly this time.

As it turned out, I had played Vanguard for a while, and was entranced by some parts of the game – the diplomacy system, for example, and the crafting system. The combat gameplay featured classes that by and large followed the Everquest archetypes, with a couple of added twists. And I absolutely hated the models they used for high elves. My face, in Vanguard was positively skeletal.

They replaced those models with something a little more healthy looking, fortunately. So I re-upped and started poking around. Some of the best gear is dropped by quests offered by a group known as the URT – United Races of Thestra. (Thestra being my home continent.) I’m starting to get an impression of URT as a bunch of incompetent nincompoops who keep asking me to do horrific things to cover for their mistakes, but never mind.

One quest in particular, given out at Shoreline Ruins, has us investigating the disappearance of a roughly 10 year old girl while her family was at the medieval equivalent of a beach home. The clues finally lead us to a cave facing the northern ocean. The girl is in a cocoon at the back of the cave. The cave is infested with spiders.

These spiders see through invisibility. So no dice there. I had to fight my way through it. Now, I am a psionicist, which is Vanguards version of an enchanter. So I die very quickly when things go wrong.

I spent probably 10-12 hours last Saturday trying to finish this quest. It would go like this: I approach the cave, buffed. I pull something and start my root-and-rot sequence. Something would wander by and add and I would die. Or, maybe I’d make it a ways into the cave first. And something would respawn on me and I’d die. Or mobs that were around a corner would come when I pulled and I’d die. At first I wasn’t using a charmed pet, but after a while I did. Which added the charming new failure mode of “Charm starts to break just as you pulled”. Along with the failure mode of “Charm starts to break immediately on recharm and since it was in the middle of a fight, you die.”

Every possible wrinkle or complication that can make this difficult was used. The level designer of this cave used every trick that he or she could muster. Hidden mobs, wanderers, fast respawn, and a few mobs that are tougher than the rest and respawn randomly. Psionicists have a snare, and so can kite, but it’s not really possible in a restricted space, such as that cave. By the time you’ve killed your way to the back, the mobs in the front have respawned.

My youngest child, taking a break from playing Skyrim, wandered past and watched me playing for a bit. “Why do you play this game?” she exclaimed, somewhat bemused by the uncharacteristically foul language gracing my lips. It was hard to explain.

All I could manage was a vehement, “I can do this!”

There were lots of little internal metrics that told me that I was getting better at it, and that’s something I enjoy. For example, the number of kills I could do between deaths was getting bigger. I revised my damage sequence and the mobs were dropping faster. Sometimes now, I could throw up my fast root when things had gone bad and run away and survive. My experience bar was moving forward even though it was three steps forward, and two steps back when I died.

And I was learning every spawn point, every hidden mob and every aggro range in that cave. I knew what to do in each situation.

At about midnight, I reached the back of the cave, freed the girl and started to fight my way out. This has an extra dangerous aspect to it. Respawn is roughly timed to take place after death. Since I’d killed the mobs from the front of the cave to the back, they would respawn in that order. Which means that when I first hit the edge of the respawned mobs on the way out, I would be standing in the spot where the next respawn would take place – at any time now.

My first attempt failed. So did my second. Part way out, lose it, lose the girl. I had to go all the way back to the back of the cave to get out. My second attempt failed as well. As it turns out, Psionicists have an evac ability. So I started to wonder, “Will the girl come with me when I evac?” If it didn’t work, she’d be stuck in the cave and I’d have to fight my way in again.

I decided to chance it. It worked. I took her back to the quest-giver, logged out and collapsed into my bed, happy as a clam. (Ok, I chatted with Phritz a bit first, getting him started on the diplomacy system, for which the tutorial is more than a bit lacking.)

I was describing my Saturday to a friend and she said, “Rage to Master”. I blinked. She said that the phrase was coined by someone who studies gifted children. Apparently that someone is Ellen Winner

I found a quote from the book on this wikipedia page (it seems a bit dodgy, but the quote seems good enough).

Gifted children have three telltale characteristics, Winner says. First, they begin to master an area of knowledge, or domain, such as math, drawing or chess, at an extremely early age, before starting school. Second, they need little help from adults in that domain, solving problems in often-novel ways, with each discovery fueling the next step. And third, they have what she describes as a rage to master their domain, working at it intensively and obsessively, often isolating themselves from others in order to pursue it. These children push themselves, achieve “flow states” in their work, and beg their parents for the books, musical instruments or art supplies they need to feed their passion. They need stimulating environments to develop their talents, Winner says of these children, but the demand comes from them, not the parents.”

Winner may be describing the extreme cases, but I’ve seen this phenomenon play out a lot in significantly less rarified air. I often feel cheated if I am with a group that has a known, set strategy for a dungeon or an instance and just want to grind through it quickly.

All the deaths I had meant little to me. They were data points, not judgements. My blood was up, and so there were exclamations and expletives, but the deaths were quickly forgotten. Getting to a flow state includes a lot of failure. And that flow state is like a drug, really.

I don’t really think this fits into the Bartle personality type of Achiever, by the way. I am not highly motivated by extrinsic rewards such as in-game “achievements”. Leveling is good, but not the point. Standing in one place grinding away for hours with basically no variation and no risk isn’t terribly interesting. I’m not a bot, don’t make me play like one.

I’m pretty sure Karaya is like this, too. That’s probably how she got good enough at videogames that her parents say, “She made a deal with the devil” There was no mention of any crossroads, though. I mentioned the spider cave to her and she said, “stupid spiders”.

Phritz also has his moments. When we take the Bartle test, we all come out as some degree of Explorer/Socializer. And right now, we’re exploring Vanguard. Normal people think we’re kind of crazy, but if you’re someone who reads this and thinks, “Yeah, right on!” drop me a line in-game.