Richard Bartle on Art and MMOs

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

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

So what should happen here?

Really the whole thing is good, I recommend it.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost, But Not Quite Entirely Unlike a Brownian Motion Generator

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

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

Hmm, where's the color-preserving conditioner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Smedley is Playing With Me

and then, one day later

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

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

Students do not find jokes about tests funny.

And it’s slightly lesser-known corollary:

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

Satire is hard. And risky.

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

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.

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.

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

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

Introducing Rufflebutt

In the last post, I mentioned how my daughter had dragged me into playing GW2.   Here is a screenie of Rufflebutt the Barbarian.

She grew up (known as a family in-joke as ThingOne, taken from The Cat in the Hat) with us playing MMO’s.  She was 10 years old when Everquest launched, I think we started playing before she turned 11.

At the first, we had just one account, I got it as a gift for my beloved spouse, who had been playing a text MUD available through AOL.  I think my evenings in those days were spent with Mario64 and Ocarina of Time, and so on.

Well, she had a blast (my wife) and I started a toon on her account.  Yes, I know you weren’t supposed to do that.  It was a monk, Aquino.   But it soon became clear that This Would Not Do.

So I got my own account.   And the first toon I rolled up on it was our beloved, fabulous redhead.  Although his hair wasn’t terribly red, or terribly fabulous given the state of Everquest graphics.

As time marched on Things One and Two became interested in the game.  Apparently they also thought it was a bit weird.  Kids are like that.

Later, as a young adult, she would sit in our living room with her laptop and talk to her friends over Skype, sometimes doing a “tabletop” RPG via IM and talking in voice.   I have danced over voice chat with some of her friends, forging an alliance with them, our mutual dark purpose being her mortification.  I’m not sure I was wholly successful, though.

Now she’s off in Art School, though she wants to be an illustrator, not a modeler or game artist.  And playing MMO’s on her own.  A few weeks ago, she posted this on Google+:

So tonight we ran a dungeon in Guild Wars 2 … Now, I generally play MMOs with the vaunted method of “solo EVERYTHING”, so I have no idea how to shot dungeon strategy, and all but one of the rest of us hadn’t done any of the GW dungeons. The dungeons in guild wars are MUCH harder than normal PVE, and the one we chose, Ascalonian Catacombs, is apparently one of the hardest in the game.

So we died a lot. It was still a ton of fun (and you make some serious bank), but there was much death to be had.

It was at the point where we were switching to a third strategy to fight a particularly ornery pair of bosses that I suddenly remembered my dad doing raids in Everquest and Everquest 2. As a kid who played WoW by pretending no one else playing the game existed (which is still the best way to actually play WoW), it all seemed silly, and sometimes kind of annoying, that we’d have several hours in an evening with he and mom screaming at guildmates over vent as Vox used them as a human yo-yo. How was that possibly fun?

And now, at nearly three in the morning after a dungeon we started …four hours ago, I just want to say; [Dad], I get it now.

Yesterday, I asked her if it would be OK to post this to TT.  She said yes, but then a few hours later, posted a link to Paint Stains and Video Games, a blog that she had just been inspired to create.  The first post is titled “My Father’s Daughter”.    In it, she says this:

I got asked if he could quote a post in his blog. My phone rebelled telling him sure whatever. I went and looked up the blog later. I still thought it was kind of dorky. There was a ‘create journal’ button over in the top corner. 

Being dorky or dumb didn’t mean I was immune, clearly.

Dorky? Dumb?  I’m calling her “Serpent’s Tooth” from here on.