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.

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.

The Holy Grails of Everquest Next: Emergent AI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Grails of Everquest Next: Full Destructibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While I Was Snoozing, They Made a Thingy

Mrs Whiskerson said in a comment on my last post:

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

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

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

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

Clippy saying "Hello there, can I help you"

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

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

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

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

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

Also

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve Seen the Future and it’s Furry

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

Character renderings from Everquest Next

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

Everquest next characters rendered in underground scene with lava.

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

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

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

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

Which gets us to Jalena’s boob window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Long Slumber

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

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