An Elf’s Best Friend

Recently, Michael Abbot of Brainy Gamer posted that “Games Aren’t Clocks”.

The thesis is:

The primary function of a clock is to tell time. We may admire its appearance or the intricacy of its inner-workings, but the moment it ceases to function, its value diminishes for most of us. What good is a clock that can’t tell time?

What is the primary function of a video game?

He decries criticism of video games based solely on gameplay:

I say it’s time to let go of our preoccupation with gameplay as the primary criterion upon which to evaluate a game’s merits. It’s time to stop fetishizing mechanics as the defining aspect of game design. Designers must be free to arrange their priorities as they wish – and, increasingly, they are. Critics, too, must be nimble and open-minded enough to consider gameplay as one among many other useful criteria on which to judge a game’s quality and aspirations.

I can’t say that I can endorse this. More later.

In response, Dennis Scimeca of Punching Snakes retorts, “Games ARE Clocks”. After bemoaning the state of terminology for games, and quickly touring the breadth of video games (going from art games like Jason Rohrer’s Passage, to The Sims, he concludes:

Where I agree with Abbott absolutely is in our need to view games holistically. Mechanics are not the end-all of appreciating video games, but asking critics to divorce such a defining characteristic from our appraisal of the medium seems untenable to me. The better course of action is to help identify and define new genres and forms for creators to work in which are similar to, but different than, video games, such that said creators have the choice to focus on design aspects they are interested or skilled in, without the burden of also having to deal with the aspects they aren’t.

Yeah, I’m pretty much there. Kate Cox, of Your Critic is in Another Castle, adds to the discussion with the observation that failure (and success) is an important, maybe even essential component of what makes a video game.

At its most basic, a game is something playable. Whether it’s got a story or not, no matter the genre, system, or type, a game is something that requires player input. You, the consumer, are in some way integral to this experience. Whether you push one button or speak a word into a microphone, whether you wave your arms at a motion sensor or deliberately hold still when you could act — a game requires you to contribute. That’s the sum total of the agreement on our current definition of “gaming,” and really that’s quite a low bar. Small wonder, then, that we keep looping through these arguments.
We don’t just have a win / lose dichotomy anymore. We do have completion and backlog; we have sandbox and short story. But every title I can think of — every title I’ve ever played and a thousand more I haven’t — has either a failure state or a success metric, and some have both. Our metrics aren’t necessarily competitive, and they might be imposed by the player rather than intrinsically by the game. There are little successes and big ones, game-ending failures and completely surmountable ones, but every pixellated problem I’ve ever pounced on has at least one or the other.

I can’t really disagree. But the clock metaphor is all wrong. You wind up a clock and then never touch it. Well, you used to. Now you just put the batteries in. Or plug it in. Maybe you adjust the time every once in a while, or you have to set the clock when there’s been a power outage, say, from a big hurricane that blew through. Just as a random example.

No, video games aren’t clocks. A video game that worked like a clock would be boring. Clocks are useful, but they aren’t exactly engaging or exciting, or interactive. There is certainly clock failure. (See above hurricane mention).

No, video games are dogs. And I mean that in a good way. Dogs are always happy to see you. Dogs, at least your dog, is more interested in you than anyone else on the planet, including your spouse. A dog will gaze deep into your eyes with the question, “What are we going to do now?”

I often play fetch with a pit bull named Doughnut. She’s adorable and she likes me. I take the chewed up tennis ball and I tease her with it. I might throw it high in the air or against the fence or just a bounce on the ground. I might try to fake her out and she might go for it or not (there’s the failure, Kate!). She has her own agenda, but it’s always in response to me. (Dougnut might not read this blog, but her master does. Hi Doughnut!)

Yes, that’s what’s important about a video game – there’s space in the game for me. The experience reacts to what I, the player do. Not always in a good, or desired way, but it reacts. When gameplay components seem to players to be afterthoughts, or poorly developed, the message to players is: You don’t matter. Your choices and/or skill aren’t important. This computer program is a vehicle for me to demonstrate my awesomeness to you, so bow down!

Understandably, players don’t respond well to this. How would you like it if your dog suddenly started acting like a cat? And the snootiest, haughtiest cat around, to boot.

(Once upon a time, our neighbors had a cat that was the most dog-like cat I’ve ever seen. She would fetch and had that same “what are we going to do now?” gaze that dogs do. But I digress.)

Games are not something you watch, they are something you participate in. If that participation seems an afterthought, a little pushback is understandable, maybe even in order.

Bartle Test Results, no Jaymes Sighted.

This is from the fun quiz up at gamerdna.com. Click on the image to take it yourself [Actually, follow the link in the update, it's better, -toldain], and report the results in comments.

Personally, I think it overestimated my explorer score at the expense of my achiever score, but probably not by a whole lot. I tend to stick with games longer than my explorer friends.

As a secondary influence, it describes me as an Explorer Socializer:

Explorer Socializers are the glue of the online world. Not only do they like to delve in to find all the cool stuff, but they also enjoy sharing that knowledge with others. Explorer socializers power the wikis, maps, forums and theory craft sites of the gamer world.

Huh, it’s almost like they’re describing someone who writes posts about the math and psychology involved in games. Do you know anyone like that?

Thank you for your support.

UPDATE: Here is a much better link for taking the quiz. You’ll have to register to get your results.

Pizza and Storybricks


Last Wednesday, I had Pizza in Palo Alto with Brian “Psychochild” Green, along with spouses, girlfriends and daughter. We had a great time swapping stories of RPG’s and MMORPG’s and crazy stuff we’d done in them. Brian works for Namaste, which is running a demo at GenCon this week of Storybricks, a brand new technology and approach which Namaste is trying to bring to the market.

It’s my sense that Brian (and possibly others at Namaste) want to make MMO’s more like tabletop RPG’s. Which I love, so that’s good.

Phil Carlisle of Namaste says this:

What I’m more interested in, is the ability to actually feel like the world is allowing me to play a role. That I’m part of a story and can explore the world while the story unfolds, where the drama of the world evolves over time and where the mechanics of play in the world are less about accruing items and more about social play. Which I guess is why I’m here working for Namaste.

Yeah, that’s the cool thing about a tabletop campaign – the stuff your characters do matters. This could play out at the level of lore. Stephane Bura, also of Namaste, writes:

lore is useful for giving some context to the players’ goals: there are Demon Princes and Forger Kings, pick a side and kill the other one. It’s the wrapping paper on the quests. There is some reason, somewhere, why it’s important to slay demons in this game. This is comforting for some players because it brings a sense of order to the world – a sense that the developers know where they’re going. This kind of lore is also useful for setting up worldwide events and giving context to new content. However, even if lore distilled through quest texts can be very well written, most players skip it (trust me) because, in the end, it’s inconsequential. Players have no influence over such lore and its details have rarely any bearing on what they effectively have to accomplish.

But that’s only one level of lore. Stephane goes on to write about others:

So, there’s this magic item called the Scepter of Life and it control plants. A King owns it. You can bet that the farmers in this kingdom have a completely different life from your stock farmers’. They don’t fear droughts and they don’t need to take care of their lands so much. They’re much better at harvesting, since they do that all year-long. Inns serve soups, salads, jardinières and pies, as much as you want. Commerce is based on the exports of virtually free food, with dozens of caravans and shipments leaving the kingdom every week. Nobles fight over the amount of woodland and arable lands they control. The woodcutters have the most powerful guild. No imagine how all this would change if the Scepter of Life were to be stolen by some Demon Prince…

And the world is ready for virtual worlds that are like this. Liz Danforth, who is joining with the Namaste crowd at GenCon, says this:

Something has fundamentally changed in our expectations about entertainment and our interactions with the things we love. We expect to participate, tinker with someone else’s creations, to contribute and to share what we make. When Time magazine featured an article about fan fiction and the writer gets it entirely right, warts and all … Time magazine for heavensake! … the world has truly changed (and is continuing to do so).

So there’s a hunger for worlds that players can change, and canvases which are collaborative and expandable. That hunger goes back to Tolkien, who imagined Middle Earth to be a place where others would dally, and write songs or stories about. This is an entirely different approach to fiction from that of, say, Lois McMaster Bujold, who ascribes to “just in time” world creation. There’s a lot fewer continuity issues to fuss about her way, to be sure.

Anyway, I got a demo today of the Storybricks system pretty much as it will be demoed at GenCon. Kelly Heckman of Namaste took time out of her own preparations for GenCon to show me the latest build. What I saw was in two parts. The first was a screen that looks like the graphic I’ve posted above. The second was a typical Medieval street scene, with a guard, a citizen, and a thief. I watched as Kelly added Storybricks to say that the citizen would be happy to see me and the thief would be angry. The guard stayed neutral. As the player character approached each of these characters, it triggered animations that portrayed those attitudes. The guard turned to look at me, but showed little emotion. The thief glared and put a hand up in the universal stop sign. The citizen seemed very happy to see me.

These are the basic building blocks of storytelling. I’ve seen this kind of thing in a few places before. Specifically, once you did enough writs for the Qeynos Guard in Everquest 2, guard members would sometimes stop and salute as you ran past them. I have to say, that felt fantastic. Presumably this was done, for EQ2 via special ad-hoc programming in a scripting language and added to the guards. Storybricks, at the level that was demoed to me, would codify that kind of thing, and make it easy for content creators, be they professional or amateur, to add this kind of thing to a virtual world.

Tools matter a lot. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that writer productivity is a lot higher now than they were in the days of Tolkien, who wrote all of his manuscripts by hand in soft pencil and then wrote over them in ink. And at that level, Storybricks already looks to be something useful. The system will allow one to describe changes in attitude. For example, you might retrieve a Philtre from a crypt on behalf of a shopkeeper, and he will be grateful when he finds love. You might think that the point of the episode was that sword of smiting that the player gets, but it might be that the point was to make people happy, because that would foil some other plot. Or make someone like you. The potential for matchmaking is there, and that will definitely encourage competitive shipping. I can see it now: Factions competing between making Bella like Edward or Jacob more.

Err, never mind. Namaste isn’t really promising that. But they’re dreaming about it. Psychochild described to me, over that pizza, how you could have instances in which Bella preferred Edward and instances in which Bella preferred Jacob. (Actually he was talking about the dictator of Freeport Lucan D’Lere who has a crush on Bella and …. never mind) And by their interactions with those instances and the characters, one of those realities would get promoted to the default reality. ( I think we can safely say that three-ways are out of the question.)

So, I think they are on to something that players will like, and that’s possible. It’s a big job, though. But they have the sort of goals that, even if they don’t make all of them, they will still probably get something very cool. My only request is a Storybrick that says: “If (elf has red hair) then (NPC thinks he’s fabulous)”

Why Do I Game?

K. Cox of Your Critic is in Another Castle asks “Why do you Game?” She wants as many responses as possible, so please, hustle over there and give her your comment. She’s a fellow member of the Golden Horde, and good people. Go, then come back here, and read my thoughts.

I like solving puzzles. I can’t remember ever not liking this. They might have been jigsaw puzzles as a kid, or wire-loop puzzles, or math problems or whatever. I get a charge from getting the answer. It’s what’s missing when you do the same instance for the twentieth time-there’s no puzzle. So that’s one reason.

I like crunch. I like being able to grind through some numbers and gain insight by doing so. This is one of the big appeals of Eve Online to me. I did several posts here about the combat math of EQ2 and how it works. This is related to solving puzzles, but not exactly the same thing. Combat isn’t a puzzle, but it generates some interesting questions, such as “Which is better, the +4 plate armor, or the +2 plate armor with 3/- damage resistance?”

[If you don't like crunch, skip this paragraph] It turns out that there’s a pretty precise answer available to you for the above question (It’s DDO oriented, by the way). Making one’s armor class worse by -2 means that you are taking 10% more damage on every swing that an enemy swings at you. For that to be better than 3/- damage resistance, the average damage per hit would have to be over 30 points to be of more benefit, because 10% of 30 is 3. At level 8, that just doesn’t seem to be the case.

I like computer gaming because I’m an introvert. I like people, but interacting with them uses up energy. An intellectual challenge, time alone with the computer, actually charges me up. (And wipe that smirk off your face, that’s not what I’m talking about!). Gaming brings me serenity, it is often very soothing. Although you might not think so if you were to listen to me curse at Alexander the Great after he declares war on me for the fourth time. But really, that’s but a moment’s ripple. The problems one encounters in the game world are by and large tractable. You can just start a new game, or a new character, after all. Some might call this “escapist”. I invite them to closely examine figure 1. I call it therapeutic.

One of the primary reasons that I like tabletop RP so much is that I’m a frustrated actor. I did drama in high school, and was reasonably good at it. I love projecting a character, and making other people laugh because they know the character, and know how vain he is about his hair. Just as a random example.

Which brings me to another reason I game: It’s social. I like doing things in teams. And yes, I’m an introvert. No, that isn’t comfortable, but it’s true. One of the reasons I loved being an enchanter so much in EQ2 is that it was very group focused, and very tactically focused. So there’s the social, and the puzzle aspects of it. Enchanters didn’t do so much damage themselves, as much as they enabled a group to achieve far, far more, both via mezzing and via buffs.

Finally, I like creativity. Games like Sim City or Civilization (and Eve) appeal to me because there’s a lot of freedom and not just one narrow “right answer”. There’s definitely things that don’t work, but obstacles can be taken as inspiration, rather than deterrents. I’ve always liked taking a group that doesn’t have the “ideal” composition and being successful with it. One time Chuman, Conseca, and Toldain took down a boss named in Lavastorm. That was a Paladin, Wizard, and Illusionist in EQ2. We had no idea if it would work, but it did.

Why do you game?

Fabulous Failure Fun

Today seems to be the day for lots of people to complain about the lack of failure in MMORPG’s. Except they didn’t really say it that way.

First up, Psychochild links to Tobold who links to an article by Doctor Professor titled “Addicted to Fake Acheivement”. Doctor Professor describes the difference between a performance orientation and a mastery orientation:

It turns out there are two different ways people respond to challenges. Some people see them as opportunities to perform – to demonstrate their talent or intellect. Others see them as opportunities to master – to improve their skill or knowledge.

Say you take a person with a performance orientation (“Paul”) and a person with a mastery orientation (“Matt”). Give them each an easy puzzle, and they will both do well. Paul will complete it quickly and smile proudly at how well he performed. Matt will complete it quickly and be satisfied that he has mastered the skill involved.

Now give them each a difficult puzzle. Paul will jump in gamely, but it will soon become clear he cannot overcome it as impressively as he did the last one. The opportunity to show off has disappeared, and Paul will lose interest and give up. Matt, on the other hand, when stymied, will push harder. His early failure means there’s still something to be learned here, and he will persevere until he does so and solves the puzzle.

The language he uses demonstrates that Doc has a definite preference for mastery orientation, by the way.

The two kinds of players are separated by failure. Someone who is performance oriented – or who might be otherwise described as just looking for a little mindless fun – will walk away from an activity that serves them repeated failures.

Next is Pete Michaud’s article “Achievement Porn”

One salient example is our education system. Like a role playing video game, one educational challenge leads to the next, with each challenge being trivial for the people who are at the right level to undertake it. After years on a treadmill that’s too easy to fail at, players—students, in this case—are acclimated to the game of education, rather to real achievement. Their work for those years is not valuable at all, and often doesn’t even simulate what valuable work would be like: they have only managed to repeat patterns they’ve been shown back at the educators. This is the game.

An all-too-common complaint about the educational system. Just keep going and you will move through the system. There’s no real failure here. Pete says “The easy part to culling the bullshit is to ask yourself: Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life?” I think this misses the point. As Psychochild points out, self-actualization is pretty important.

Finally, Syncaine complains about upcoming changes to Rift:

While the above is not yet live, and hence I have not experienced it myself, it looks like Trion is nerfing expert dungeon difficulty. That’s pretty sad, because honestly right now they are a solid challenge while not being min/max/ubergear hard (some are too long thanks to trash, but that has nothing to do with difficulty).
[...]
Casuals: Why MMO players can’t have nice things.

Syncaine has some pushback from commenters, claiming that “casuals” are necessary for the financial success of MMO’s such as Rift. He holds up EVE Online as a counterexample, but Eve Online was launched with an investment of $2 million, not $100 million. Eve is not different in this one dimension, but in many dimensions. The accomplishment of EVE Online’s design is that the game has an easy mode, and you can stay in that easy mode for a long time, or you can choose harder stuff. There is no “leveled progression”, but there are lots of invitations to do harder stuff.

Where is the failure? In comments (hat tip to Wilhelm Arcturus, who has several comments there):

At a high level, I don’t think it’s really that difficult; design content so either someone improves, or they don’t progress. The current model is basically “if you play well, you progress 2% faster. If you drool on your keyboard, it will take you a extra day to become a god-slayer”. That’s pretty terrible for long-term player education.

I think this is the same discontent – there’s no failure, as such.

I have spent the last 10 years or so learning to love failure, primarily through the vehicle of martial arts, specifically ju-jitsu. If you go to throw someone and they don’t fall down, the failure is obvious. It’s also pretty darn frustrating and embarrassing. At least, until you learn to remap the meaning of a failure. I now teach ju-jitsu to kids every week, and one of the most valuable experiences I can give them is failure. The normal social meaning of failure is “I’m a loser” – it’s shameful. We give them failure in an environment of laughter, affection and fun. I want those kids to lose their fear of simple failure. It’s ok to be afraid of getting shot or losing money, but the fear of the shame of failure itself isn’t very functional.

There’s a reason I post every single time I get podkilled in Eve. Sometimes, the stupid burns, but I want to learn from it, and celebrate it. Because that’s how I’ll get better. So, I’m kind of there about wanting failure.

I haven’t played Everquest II for nearly a year now. There are two reasons for that. The first is social. I ended up being online with pretty much nobody else I knew from my guild, and lonely. Leveling yet another alt, by myself, just stopped being interesting.

The other reason is that I too felt the game was now too easy. When the PUG you are in pulls an entire room and then burns them down in a button-mashing frenzy, then hustles off to do the same thing in the next room and then the next instance, and then…

That’s not what appealed to me about these games. I’m more puzzle/strategy/skill oriented. There were a few instances that had puzzles in them, but the groups I was in had someone who had done it before and just did the stuff with little comment in chat. I had no chance to fool with the stuff myself.

There’s nothing to keep me engaged. Keeping me engaged may not have meant only failure, but exploration and mystery. But exploration and mystery have that element of failure. This is where failure is truly necessary to enjoyment: Consider a novel or a movie. As it goes along, you form expectations about what’s going to happen next. Would the novel be interesting if all those expectations were accurate? If you were never wrong? No, it would be boring. Agatha Christie novels would lose something if she wasn’t so good at fooling you. But she is, and it feels good to be fooled. It must, or we wouldn’t read the next one, or complain about how other writer’s plots are easier to see through.

So I play Eve Online, and DDO and Civiliazation 4. I’m currently trying to win Civ on harder levels, and on different maps. I’m exploring the space, different maps, different sizes, different game speeds. Surprises are fun, but there wouldn’t be any if you were never wrong.

What I don’t agree with, though, is the idea that MMO’s take no skill. They do. I’ve been developing those skills for more than 10 years. (More than 30 if you count tabletop experience). It should not be surprising that I’m good at them. It’s often hard for people to see their own skills.

We’ve been playing DDO for about a year now. Going back to the starting dungeons on the island, we find that we blow through them now, they seem much easier than they used to be, even with minimal twinking. I think this is an unmistakable sign that we are more skilled. (When I say “we” I mean me and Mrs. Darkwater).

And yet, we keep finding new modules, new instances that can kick our butts. It’s glorious. (Vault of Night, I’m looking at you!)