With Friends Like These I’d Rather Be Podkilled

It’s one thing for there to be bad guys who want to blow your stuff up and take your loot. It’s quite another for your allies to be abusive.

I can’t give details. In some way this is a completely normal thing in the culture at large. The logic appears to be that abusing people is “good for them” and will “teach them” and “motivate them”. And the more intense the shaming, the more powerful the lesson, so the thinking goes.

I’ve been a teacher, both in higher education, and in martial arts. I’ve trained people to perform at very high levels.

It is very important to flag mistakes as mistakes. Associating shame with those mistakes has no value whatsoever. In fact, it has negative value. I have very little patience with shaming.

Sigh. My hyperbole-detection wetware has gone off. Intense shaming has some value in prevention. People will avoid doing whatever it is that got them shamed. That’s reliable. But the strategies of avoidance that they use might not be the desired ones. They might just leave the game entirely. And then how do you get your fleet numbers?

I should add that I have absolutely no issues with anyone in my corp. What little issues there are (nobody’s perfect), I can handle. it’s the flyby “You’re an idiot” and “Everyone in California is a faggot” that gets irritating. What’s worse is that I can’t challenge it, because that would create difficulties for the corp. Most of whom I like and don’t pull this crap. There’s a lot of teasing, but it doesn’t seem abusive. Did I mention I like them a lot?

On the plus side, the sort of crap I don’t like seems like it’s on a downward trend, which is good.

Overheard in Jita Local

Last Friday night, I managed to get in a Harpy fleet. Once in fleet, I found we were going to killmail whore on a POS shoot. In English, that means that someone else (a bunch of stealth bombers in this case) was shooting the Player Owned Station, and we were going to go shoot at it too to make it die faster so that they were exposed for a shorter period of time.

Yeah, that’s it. That’s the ticket.

The good news is that I have something on the TNT killboard, and it included one final blow. The bad news is that that was the only fleet I was able to get on.

Most of my EVE time this weekend was spent trading PI materials in highsec with alts. The new deployable modules required some P3 and P4 components for construction, and demand was through the roof.

My spreadsheet that identifies profitable P4 manufacturing stupidly used sell price instead of buy price. A huge gap developed between these with the people running buy orders being pretty stubborn for a while, but the sell orders got very heavy trade. Eventually, I figured out what was what and was able to make a few profitable trades.

The planet I use in Perimeter (one jump from Jita, where Planetary Interaction is not allowed), has seen its customs office change ownership three times already, I think.

Anyway, during all this, I saw the following discussion of bitcoins in Jita local:

Capsuleer Abel When I finish my bitcoin I’m just going to sell it.

Capsuleer Baker Yeah, you can’t make any money at it now unless you have the new ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circult). You can get them on a USB.

Capsuleer Abel I have the USB ASIC, but the rest of my system is cheapass.

Capsuleer Charlie Yeah, bitcoin farming is just for rich people now.

Capsuleer Baker You have to spend money to make money.

I think it’s entirely fitting for this conversation to have taken place in Jita Local, which is very likely the highest concentration of scams and scammers in the known universe.

I Came Here To Be Geeky

I’m back playing EVE Online again. The news that Gaff (formerly known to me as Skippy, sometimes called Meclin, but always El Supremo) was running the corp now in my old little corner of nullsec was too much for me, and I resubbed, fired up the client and got back to doing internet spreadsheets, er, I mean spaceships.

This happened a couple weeks ago now. I’ve been planning to post about it, to try to describe why I would want to play EVE again, since many people I know don’t get it. They hear about all the scamming and the naked predation and the general unfairness of the EVE universe and wonder “Is that even fun? Why would you do that? Why would you muss your fabulous red locks with the interstellar detritus of EVE?”

I’m not going to be able to answer that in one post. So I’m going to take several!

Armored Knight Sits at keyboard with four monitors, playing EVE Online.

Now that's some armor tanking.

The first reason, I think, is that EVE players are a lot like me. They like spreadsheets. They like computers. They like making software tools to help you play Eve better. And CCP cooperates with them, publishing a comprehensive api for web-smart tools. There is a wealth of fitting tools, of wallet tools, of trading tools and of manufacturing tools. I’ve already made my own spreadsheet that queries the api for the prices of PI materials in Jita and figures out where the manufacturing profit, if any, lies, (in the PI domain).

Life in my new corp is a lot different than my old one. For one thing, some of the people in my corp are actually online when I play! And they seem to have the same dorky sense of humor that I do, as evidenced by the photo above that corpmate Hir provided. Eve has a rhythm all its own, many of them log in to Teamspeak, but don’t always log into the game, playing some other game instead, but are available for a fleet if need be. But they still hang out on Teamspeak because, well, they like each other.

Personally, I just appreciate the fact that they speak a language I understand. And that they post stupid photos like the one above posted by corpmate Hir. It shows a very typical Eve cockpit. Multiple monitors, set up to run multiple toons at once. Everyone multiboxes in EVE, it seems. I’ve even started pushing in that direction.

Here’s another armor tanker. I think that’s a frigate, right?

That looks like a full passive armor tank, must be fit for PVP.

The Harley is a the new frigate from the Sisters of Eve, right?

All I Wanted Was a Little Peace and Quiet

This piece at PC Gamer has some very good insight into the human condition, as Mr. Eames, my English teacher for 8th and 9th grade, used to say. Though I’m not sure if he’s every played Skyrim.

The air fills with the screams of the dying and the streets run crimson with the blood of the dead. As arrows whistle past me, I brutally hack through the neck of a Stormcloak soldier, and his head tumbles away like a dropped melon. My wife and companion, her sword coated with gore, sprints off to plunge her blade into the belly of a distant archer. High above, my summoned dragon wheels about in the sky, lands beside me with a crash, and spits a tremendous gout of fire onto several more city guards, setting a wooden walkway ablaze in the process. Amid the carnage, as I decapitate my next victim, a single thought rises in my head:

It didn’t have to be this way. I just wanted to build a house.

Also, it’s funny.

I too, am playing with the Hearthfire expansion of Skyrim. And I’m having fun with it, but no killing sprees yet.

It’s so easy to go on killing sprees – all that’s required is that you convince yourself that those other “people” over there aren’t people at all, just, oh, disturbances in the ether.

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.

Holy Grails of Everquest Next: Permanent Change

A clutch of griffon eggs from Everquest 2
When Everquest 2 launched, there were griffin towers in Commonlands and Antonica. Some time after launch, perhaps as much as a year later, griffin towers were constructed in Nektulos Forest and Thundering Steppes. There were 3 or 4 different quests you could do at each griffin station, and each completed quest would advance a counter toward tower completion. Also, if you did enough of them, you got a miniature griffin tower you could put in your house.

These quests, and later similar quests were fantastically popular. The biggest complaint about them was that they finished too quickly. I think it took but a single weekend to finish the towers in Thundering Steppes on my server, and only a bit longer in Nek Forest. People who had other things to do that weekend missed the whole thing, and were quite disappointed.

Only a fool of a gamedev would think that doing this live event was a mistake. Ok, well SOE has done some foolish things over the years, but they weren’t quite that dumb. So we got more “live events”, which heralded some transformation of the world.

At the heart of the fourth “holy grail” of Everquest Next – permanent change – is something they are calling a “rallying call”. This is sort of a live event and public quest put on steriods. It’s supposed to last 2 months or more. They are meant to have phases that evolve based on player action and a random or hidden element. Like, perhaps there’s a counter for quests, but it’s invisible to players. Or perhaps it’s just random.

By having phases, they mean that you might be working on cutting down trees and building wooden buildings, and then cutting stone and putting up walls, and then maybe bringing in the gates of a keep, and then maybe you’ll get a bunch of gnolls who have decided they aren’t going to let you ruin their lands, and so attack the gates before it’s finished. Who knows, maybe they’ll get a dragon to help them, and they will bring siege engines to help.

Maybe when the gnolls or the dragon knock down the half-built walls, they don’t heal automatically, but you have to build them back again. So killing Fippy Darkpaw before he can reload his ballista would mean something.

It’s important that everyone have the chance to be involved somehow. There was a whole storyline in EQ2 about a plague, and a quest line to find out what it was and how to track it down. But the structure of that event was such that it required a strong raiding force to finish. Only one group could finish the quest, which is sort of necessary to avoid the “Theme Park” sort of feeling – if everyone can make this great change to the world, the world hasn’t changed at all. But most of the players at the time felt shut out, not part of the drama. This is kind of a bad move for an RPG.

I think they know that. What I want is something that will produce changes that are meaningful, and a chance for every player in the game to make a meaningful contribution.

What I like about this, coupled with the emergent AI, is how well it plays as an intrinsic motivator. Everquest 2 was full of Skinner boxes. Almost everything you did set off little bells and flashes and celebrations. The game rewarded you for doing things constantly. You got levels, AA points, quest completions, and gear as rewards for almost anything. As I’ve written before, extrinsic motivation like that leads to lots of enthusiasm, but eventually leads to players doing things like not bothering to read the quest text, and just collecting all the quests at a hub and running out and killing things. You could have two or three quests ding off with a kill, but you had lost all meaning to your actions other than leveling.

The king of intrinsic motivations and emergent behavior is EVE Online. I doubt that Everquest Next will go that far. EVE’s lack of structure puts many people off. However, it is also the only MMO which has continued to grow its audience years and years after launch. Intrinsic motivation – the feeling that a player can say to himself, with a toss of his fabulous red hair, “I think I will try to take over this system” or whatever might come into his 3000-year-old head, is very powerful.

By stretching out the timeline to two or three months, they are going to make sure that everyone who wants to can participate. I hope the long time frame won’t lead to a feeling of “grinding” though. Also, I hope there is a way for characters of all levels to contribute. They are saying that the phase changes will be unpredictable, and I worry about that a bit. There is an embedded time zone problem. What if Fippy and friends attack at 4am EST? Since they don’t seem to be trying to put everyone on the same server, maybe they can designate time zone orientations for servers, so the big stuff will happen mostly during prime time.

I tell ya, I’m expecting dragon attacks. At least baby dragons.

The Holy Grails of Everquest Next: First, We Kill All the Classes

The most interesting part of the Everquest Next debut for me were the four “Holy Grails” that were revealed to be part of the new game. These all had the quality of “things we’ve talked about doing for years”. Those things are:

They called this “change the game”. Or perhaps, get rid of class-based character development.
Fully Destructible World
Anything in the game can be destroyed or blown up. Nothing is immune, assuming you can hit hard enough, or have the right too.
Emergent AI
This makes the sentient beings in the world more responsive to what the players are doing.
Permanent Change
A lot of game activity will be structured around “Rallying Calls” which are sort of public events, only with a much extended scope, and a permanent effect on the game world.

A brief recap of these can be found, for instance, here. The original video of Georgeson describing these is in the part 2 video posted here.

The theme that ties all four of these together is player agency. Players can do more to affect their own gameplay and the world. They are also saying things that make me think crafting will be important to – yet another avenue for player agency. I’m excited about that. There is definitely potential for things to go very, very wrong, though. Large groups of people can behave in unexpected ways.

But for this post, I’m just going to address the first one – Multiclassing. They say there will be 40 “classes” available at launch. I imagine that these classes will be some form of ability tree that you obtain or earn or unlock somehow. They say that you will need to explore the world to find them all, presumably that means that they will move them around periodically. Maybe there is a nexus of power in an underground lava cave that teaches you fire magic? This could be cool, but it could also end up in spawn camping, which would suck.

They are also saying that what abilities you have will depend on what weapon you are carrying. Furthermore, weapons can be tweaked by adding crafting based items to them. (In fact, it will be possible for crafters to create completely new items – at least completely new skins – but that’s a topic for another post).

However, at any given time, you will have only 8 abilities available to be used. There will be no hotbar clutter in this game, no sir!

The first classless RPG was the tabletop system Runequest. Initial character builds had stats (I don’t recall if they were rolled or bought, probably rolled) and skills that were bought up with build points. During play, skills increased only with use. Also, you could learn some magic, also during play. It was more or less expected that every character in this world would learn a little magic. If you’re not interested in historical crunch, skip the next paragraph.

The improvement model was this: During an adventure, any skill which you succeeded a roll for got checked off. At the end of an “adventure”, all checked skills got a roll to improve. A skill ranking was a number from 0 to 99, and the chance for it to improve was 100 minus the skill rank. So to improve a skill, you had to both succeed at the skill at least once during the adventure, and “fail” at it during the “do I go up” test. So skills in the middle were the ones that went up the most often. Also, the lower a skill was, the bigger the increment it went up by 0-19: +5, 20-39: +4, 40-59: +3, 60-79: +2, and 80-98: +1. You could not have a skill higher than 99.

In the end, I don’t really like the Runequest skill system, which I’ve used more playing _Call of Cthulhu_ than RQ itself. It always makes me feel incompetent. This is a completely subjective effect – you could argue that a 40% attack chance with sword is pretty much the same thing as a +8 base attack bonus, but it doesn’t feel the same. But I digress.

The MMOs that have done something along these lines are Guild Wars 2 and EVE Online. Guild Wars 2 uses the “only 8 abilities at a time” idea, plus the “different weapons give you different abilities”, but it’s still class-based. There’s really no mixing and matching. EVE Online has no classes, only skills. Skills however, are what permit you to fly certain ships, and use certain weapons and defenses. But when you change ships, you change roles completely.

One other recent game of note that did multiclassing-like things is Skyrim. Role flexibility was partially limited in Skyrim, because you could not reconfigure your enhancement points, which came at the rate of one per level. But there was complete fluidity in what skills you could learn, and what gear you could use. I did a lot of gear-switching with at least one of my toons, who eventually got good enough that he could sneak up to someone in heavy armor. Often they wouldn’t survive the first attack.

It remains to be seen how they will implement this – for example, how do weapons interact with classes. Do classes give one, say, four abilities per weapon? If so, that’s a whole lot of abilities, even if it’s per weapon type. Or perhaps classes have abilities tied to only a few weapons? Or some abilities that are independent of weapons? All of these could be fun.

So the good part of this is that it means that a player can have agency, and also flexibility. A while after Alternate Advancement (and Alternate Abilities) were introduced in Everquest 2, a mirror which allowed save-and-restore of AA configurations was made available. I think this sort of thing will probably be more widely used in EQNext and available from game launch. I expect that there may never be AAs. (But who knows?)

But yeah, one can use the abilities that are fun, and work best in a situation. So that’s very exciting.

But there are some worries here, too.

The first concern is that the class system promoted teamwork. Your class more or less told you what your role was, and what your value to a group was. At least, that’s how it worked in D&D. Fighters were meatshields, thieves opened the locks and dealt with the traps, clerics healed people, and wizards mostly toasted marshmallows while every once in a while going ZAP, and winning the encounter for you.

In Everquest, this translated to the Holy Trinity – tank, healer, mezzer. This Holy Trinity was modified in later games by dropping the mezzer role and recognizing the dps role. (Much to my redheaded dissatisfaction!) They want to get rid of it altogether. Some claim that the “taunt” ability exists because early games did no collision detection, hence it was impossible to block mobs from attacking the casters. I’m not sure if that’s true historically, but blocking is certainly how we manage things in the tabletop game. So more recent games have eliminated taunt as an ability, and modified the AIs of mobs. They do pay attention to who’s doing the most DPS, though.

But that means there is a loss of a sense of “team”. Everyone will come to the party with the same abilities, and that will be difficult. It’s something to watch.

The second possible problem is what I’d call the “Killer Combo”. When there are enough different abilities floating around (and there could be, for example, 40 classes times 8 slots times 10 weapon types equals 320 different abilities that can be used with the same weapon), there’s a good chance that some of them will produce extraordinary results because they are particularly synergistic. I think it’s expected that some combos will work better than others, just as some will be better depending on the situation. But the Killer Combo creates lots of problem. It will channel gameplay narrowly, and people who don’t like that playstyle will be jealous and out will come the nerf bat. This will create more unhappiness, and more jealousy, and more nerf batting. It’s a vicious cycle and one to be avoided. Taking stuff away from people is much worse than never giving it to them in the first place.

But what I hope for is that this will play out like it does in EVE Online – nobody really cares all that much. Because if you want to do Killer Combo X, then go out and get the pieces and do it. And if you don’t like doing it, figure out how to persuade the people who do like to do it, to do it with you.

Where things get really horrid is with the One True Build crowd. Those are the ones with the World’s Best Build, and who don’t want to have anything to do with anyone who doesn’t also have the Worlds Best Build or at least the Build That Does All the Things That the World’s Best Build Doesn’t Do But Still Needs. Honestly, I don’t want to have to spend a lot of energy on that crowd.

In Which I Invoke Robert Johnson to Talk About Storybricks

Let’s get the cliches out of the way.   With the failure of 38 Studios, and the, well, mixed success would be a polite way of describing Star Wars: The Old Republic, it’s clear that the MMO world is at a bit of a crossroads.   (This is where Robert Johnson, he who learned to play guitar when he met the Devil at the crossroads, comes in).  These failures are very, very different, but still, it gets you wondering whether MMO’s have any future at all.

Here’s stuff that I know to be true:   People like adventuring and computer gaming.   That’s still true.   People also like doing it together.

I see two big issues with the MMO model.    First is the lack of social contract between players.

In any tabletop game, there is a social contract.    The players and GM will agree to meet at certain times, to play with certain rules, and often, on what the focus of the group will be within the world of the setting, be it home-brew or store-bought.   There was also some agreement as to decorum and language.    I’m not just talking about coarse language, but also about homophobia, or political commentary, and so on.    What sort of things are talked about in OOC, and in what way…

Not all groups start this way, but any good tabletop game ends up with a sense of shared mission among the players.    MMO’s completely lacked this.   Small groups could recreate this, and the raiding game could give a guild this.   The lack of social contract in the population of an MMO at large has been highly corrosive to the public aspect of these games, which is why pick-up groups have become such a problem.   The best pickup group these days just pounds through an instance at top speed, saying almost nothing to each other.

The second problem with MMO’s is their persistent nature.   Player characters can defeat great evils and destroy threats, and they will respawn in 15 minutes, so that the next group of PC’s can defeat them.

The drive to have an impact has shown up in such things as appearance gear and house (and guild hall) decoration.   Players absolutely loved these features in EQ2, who did them better than anything else I’ve seen, though I’m by no means a sampler of all things MMO.

I think the drive to have an impact on the world is also what drives people to grief.   Developmental psychologists will tell you that children will repeat whatever behavior got them the most attention, regardless of whether that attention is positive or negative.    There’s also a bit of regression involved as well – since most gamers these days, even though they are now adults, started gaming when they were children, they continue to behave as children while they are gaming.    But that’s back to the social contract issue.

In single-player games like Skyrim or Mass Effect (I, II, and III) the player’s choices have consequences to the world.   You get to decide whether the Stormcloaks win or the Empire wins.   It’s not prejudged for you either, there’s no obvious “good guy”.    In ME, what you do will have consequences later on, consequences which you might not have been able to foresee.

You can’t have this experience in most MMO’s.     Of course, the one exception to all this is EVE Online.   You can build space stations in EVE, and you can blow them up.   You can build ships, and you can destroy them.   When you mine out an asteroid field it’s gone, although another one will pop up soon.  However, since there are a large, but limited number of spaces for space stations and mining and so on, it is absolutely necessary that EVE be PVP, and that the game mechanics not preclude players blowing up other players stuff.

Which means that EVE has a social contract, of sorts.   The contract is roughly a lowest-common-denominator contract – anything goes, as long as you’re not hacking the game system itself.  Lie, cheat, steal, ambush – go for it.   If you’re ok with that as a social contract within the game, then EVE offers you the possibility of doing things that impact everyone.   Things like Jita Burns

However, if that’s not the social contract you’re interested in, there isn’t much out there for you.

So, those are the problems that we face today.   However,  there are some things that are still true.

  • People like to play computer games.
  • People like to play those games with other people sometimes.
  • People like to have adventures.
  • People like to express themselves.

I have a long background of tabletop gaming.   I’ve played in weekend-long face-to-face live-action RP games.   We played with about 50 other people, with pre-set characters and a one-shot scenario and plot.   It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.    However, LARPS of this character require an extraordinary effort on the part of the writers, with not much payback.

I think that to go where I want to go, then, will require more participation by non-paid GM’s, and worlds (servers you could call them) that have smaller populations.   And those GM’s are going to need lots of tools to help them create interesting worlds for their friends to play in.

And that’s where Storybricks comes in.   The point is to build tools that will let non-professionals populate a world with characters that do things that seem human and reasonable and not simply “one-path”  amusement park rides.   It’s an interesting approach.

After getting walked through the tool by Kelly Heckman and Brian “Psychochild” Green,  I spent some time last week (while on vacation) playing with their demo toy.

Before I tell you my reaction to it, I want to tell you a story from my mundane software development days.   Another guy in my group took over a parallel-C programming language product about the time I started work.   We had a parallel FORTRAN project that was very popular.    He found that there were very few customer reported bugs, but as he worked on it, he found a lot of problems on his own and fixed them.   With a new release, the customer-reported bug rate went way, way up.

At first this disappointed him, until he realized that what it all meant is that before his work, everyone had written off the product, and weren’t trying to use it at all.  Now, they were encouraged enough to file bug reports.   They cared.

With regard to Storybricks, I found that I had several frustrations with the demo, but on reflection, all those frustrations mean one thing, I want to use this tool more, and I want it to be better, so that I can do more with it.   And that’s a good thing.

The 3D browser package Unity3D isn’t very stable.   I had several crashes and freezes, which were frustrating.   Currently the only models available in the game are male, and this was an issue for me.   I wanted to be able to name the characters myself.   I wanted to be able to create new objects.   I had problems with the program not saving the dialog I typed into certain boxes.   I want to create a character named Toldain with fabulous red hair, you know I do!

With my software developer hat on, I understand all of these problems.  It’s a demo, not even an alpha.   And my frustration means, among other things, that I want to use this more.

My personal efforts, in my spare time, are to push tabletop gaming into the cloud more – to go turn-based, social, and maybe even mobile, to exploit what computers can do to make things simpler for users and GM’s.    I would preserve the “live” GM, if for no other reason than I want players to be able to pick up a fork at the dinner table and stab someone with it.    In a programmed world, forks are for eating and swords are for stabbing.    Bridging the gap is a deep, deep AI problem, which as far as I know has been outstanding for 30 years.   So my approach is “keep the GM and give them tools to make their life easier”.

Storybricks is working on the same problem, but from another direction.   They are trying to push MMO’s in the direction of tabletop RPG’s.  Or as the phrase is in the MMO world, towards more “user generated content”.  It’s a welcome approach to me, and I support it.  The world is full of very creative people who do really cool stuff in their spare time.  If you don’t believe me, cruise YouTube some time.  So let’s give some of those creative people the ability to create multiplayer online roleplaying experiences.

Anyway, I’m pledging to their Kickstarter campaign, and so should you.   As I write this, there’s about 25 hours left.    Show some support.

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.