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.

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.

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

The Success of Bioshock Infinite: Games aren’t Movies

Having managed to win Civ 5 with every civ available (with an assist from Spawn of Tolly 2), I went looking for a different gaming experience.  Since Spawn of Tolly 1 had suggested Bioshock Infinite, and my Google+ feed had also been positive, I jumped on Steam and started it downloading for the weekend.

I ran through the game in something like 10 hours – it might have been 12.  I really like that experience, but I’m unlikely to play it much more.  Which puts in a very different category from a game like Civ 5.  The narrative portion of the game is very important, and there are many big surprises along the way.

I’m probably going to end up spoiling the crap out of the game, so you have been warned!

Now, the thing is, I just read this interesting review of the game by Peter Bright.   He titled it “The Failure of Bioshock Infinite:  Writing games like movies”  You might guess from the title that I don’t quite agree with him.  Nevertheless, I think overall it’s a good review.

What makes this game so different from Civ 5 is the near-absence of what Raph Koster has called ludic choice  (Ok, I’m not really sure if he made the term or just brought it to my attention. But onward.)

The gameplay of BI is pretty standard FPS.   You have weapon choices, upgrades, reloads, and hunting for stuff.  You have a variety of opponents, and a variety of terrain.  You have some special powers that are granted by finding things, and upgrades that can be purchased with money that’s found.

Fights are in setpieces, which sit between more pure story bits.  One point that Bright makes is that the hatred of QuickTimeEvent (click on this flashing thingy to keep something bad from happening) is very strong in the gaming audience, and BI avoids them.  Even when the game goes into storytelling mode, and there’s only one action you can do to avance the game, the mechanic to do so is pressing the ‘F’ key, which is what you’ve been using all along to do a variety of things.  It’s the all purpose “do the obvious with this thing” key.   This turns out to be important, I think.

I have to agree that the “game” component of BI is somewhat weak.  Not that I don’t like shooting things, I think that’s pretty clearly a universal sort of thing people love.  Remember Duck Hunt (and that obnoxious dog)?  Nevertheless, this is a far, far cry from Civ 5.  The choices I make in Civ 5 affect what the outcome is, it is quite easy to point to the map at the end of the game and see the consequences of one’s decisions.  You put a city there, but not there.  You burned down this city when you conquered it, but not that one.

This is not the case with Bioshock Infinite.  There is only one outcome, and all choices boil down to one choice – keep playing or stop.  Yes, you will end up with dead bodies, but they were always going to end up dead, because you can’t progress without killing them.  The scope for choices exists, but is much more limited.  There are, for each fight, multiple tactics that can be effective.  There are multiple weapons available.  You can choose which upgrades to buy, and there are audio recordings called “voxophones” scattered about the game that you can pick up and listen to.  These explain bits of world setting and backstory.  These are second-order, because there’s a predetermined story, and all paths converge to the same endpoint.

I feel I must mention that I hate definitional squabbles and for all purposes I’m happy to accept that Bioshock Infinite is a game, a video game.  It’s quite different from Civ 5, though, and I need a way to talk about those differences, that’s all.

There is a powerful story in BI, and it’s placed in a powerful setting.  And one of the messages of that story is that some points in life seem like choices, but they don’t change anything.  In one of the final scenes, you walk along boardwalks that branch before you, seemingly infinitely.  But the branches are probably meaningless, they would lead to the same outcome.  So the medium aligns with the message, it seems.  I think this is an important point that Bright misses utterly.

But I get ahead of myself.  I was talking about pacing.

The game is a game.  It is not a movie.  It is not supposed to have movie pacing.  Bright is trying to make applesauce with oranges.  The mechanic of “press F to let the story progress” has analogs in other computer-enabled art.  For instance, if you go over to  you will see lots and lots of “comics” – serial art that tells a story – in a particular format that has the reader clicking a next button to reveal the next panel in an overlay fashion.  This is not at all like the paper comic book, or even like many of my favorite online comics (Order of the Stick, I’m looking at you.)  The theory behind this format is discussed by John Rogers here, particularly the quote “The reader controls the flow of information”.

Rogers develops this them in this piece at

“The cool and tempting thing, is that ability to hold back or to make the stuff that he and Stuart [Immonen] did in the [AvX: Infinite] initiative, where you’re able to have different people changing faces on the same page and changing reactions,” Rogers said. “Once you turn the page in a physical comic, that page vomits up everything on it. Even now, I’ll be writing something and I’ll realize, ‘Nah, that’s an odd-numbers page; it’s going to be sitting right there on the opposite side. I have to change this reveal over to an even-numbered page or else it’s not a reveal.’ There are certain storytelling advantages to this experiment that we think are going to be cool and exciting.”

This thing that Bright complains about, is, in fact a story-telling advantage.  That advantage, it turns out, is critical to the emotional impact of Bioshock Infinite.

Suffice it to say that the first-person character, Booker DeWitt, is not a nice person.  We meet him at the end of a long string of unfortunate choices, and in the course of the story, we travel in time and try to undo some of those choices.  We find this difficult.  At one point Elizabeth, your plucky sidekick, and the girl you are supposed to “rescue” (This relationship gets really complicated by the end), tells us, “You’re not going to get out of this room until you do this.”  It’s something that, I think, most players will not want to do, but the choice is:  tap the F key and do it, or stop playing the game.

This is powerful.  It makes the player complicit in the action, rather than a detached spectator.  This is exactly what Marshall McLuhan talked about when he distinguished “hot” from “cold” media.  This happens many times in the game.

So that’s one answer to the question, “why isn’t this story told as a film instead of as a game?”  I think there are some other answers, too:

  • The story is complex, and very dark.  Hollywood probably would never touch it, given the amount of SFX that it would take to make it happen.  But the gaming audience is far more accepting of things like strange steampunk floating cities with temporo-spatial rifts in 1912.
  • The story is longer than the usual film 2-3 hours.  
  • Other game mechanics can be used to evoke particular feelings.  For example, your sidekick Elizabeth will find things like ammo, health kits, and salts (think of them as mana potions) during fights and toss them to you (when you press the F key).  But there’s a critical point in the game where you are separated, and you set out to find her again.  You must fight your way past some people in an environment where ammunition and salts are not really available, so the loss of Elizabeth’s help gives you a sense of loss on the level of the game mechanics, not just the story.
It’s not a film. It’s not supposed to be.  Complaining that it doesn’t have the pacing of a film misses the point.  I think Bright actually missed where the game is, because of comments like this:

When playing Infinite there’s an uneasy tension. You can either respect the pace and plotting ofBioShock Infinite‘s story, or you can set the story to one side, killing any sense of urgency but giving you the time to explore.

And this:

For example, I discovered one minor secret “backwards”; I came across a locked chest after visiting the area in which its key could be found.
The first time I went through the location with the key, things were relatively quiet and peaceful—the perfect mood for hunting for items. However, between finding the chest and backtracking to retrieve the key, I unleashed hell in the service of advancing the plot. The result was that rather than hunting for the key in a quiet lull, I was opening boxes and searching the floor in the middle of all-out warfare.
It was incongruous. This was meant to be an exciting, action-packed part of the game, with significant implications for the game universe, and I was walking around looking for a key, completely disregarding the mayhem around me. 

So the issue is that Bright was never really in character.

I have a long, long history of tabletop RPG (some might say a 3000-year history!).  One of the fundamentals of tabletop RPG is “playing in character”.  Speak in first person.  Tell the GM “I search the room” or “I shoot the sniper on the rooftop”, not “My character searches the room” or “Booker shoots the sniper on the rooftop”.   Sometimes, I have to ignore the fact that I have fabulous red hair, and be in character as someone with short, ordinary black hair.

Likewise, when you say things to the other players, you do your best to speak in the characters voice.  More importantly for our purposes here, you do your best to do things that seem consistent with what your character’s motivations are, or to find a way to solve problems in-game.

This makes all the difference, even though it doesn’t necessarily dictate any other action.  If you felt anxious about advancing the plot, then don’t drop everything to search for secrets.  Ignore them.  (This is pretty much what I did, I got stuff when I saw it or could, and mostly just kept going forward.)

But if you want to search around for stuff, then perhaps, in character, you can find a motivation for that.  Perhaps you, Booker, are really curious about what happened and you want to find as many voxophones as you can to solve the mystery.   (By the way, contrary to what Bright says, you don’t need to find all of these recordings for the plot to make any sense.  I found many, but by no means all of them.  And the plot made sense.  Well, as much as it can.)

Or perhaps you, Booker, are really worried about whether you’ll have enough resources to make it through (it quickly looks like you’ll have to battle an entire city) and so he will stop and search out other resources.   There’s nothing that says you can’t first kill the guys shooting at you and then search for more loot, after all.

Those kinds of considerations are something that I consider fun, which is perhaps an odd word for such a dark-hued game.

So I’m afraid that some of the immaturity that he complains about is not in the games, but in the gamers.  There are still choices that matter here – but they matter to your experience of the game, not so much to it’s in-game outcome.   And getting into character, identifying with Booker and his past, is what makes this game work so powerfully.

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.

Playing Guild Wars 2

First my daughter started playing.  She calls her character Rufflebutt the Barbarian.  She posted screenshots to Google+.

Then my wife, Lobi, started playing, and telling me how much fun she was having.  I was still busy playing Torchlight II solo and with friends.

Finally Dusty Monk posted about his Mesmer.   Given the choices of classes in GW2, it was inevitably the right one for Toldain to be, even though it doesn’t actually let you, you know, mez anything.  (Of course I was going to play Toldain, don’t be silly!)

So I sighed, and popped off to the store for the game.  Actually, I kept playing Torchlight II until I at least finished the main story arc.  Then I popped off to the store.

Installed from the DVD’s, and then – hurry up and wait for all the updates.   That took basically all night and then some.  Sigh.   I’m hearing Carly Simon, and thinking of ketchup:

Of course, when I start the first character I create is my beloved, 3000 year-old-redhead.  However, there are no “elves” in this game.  Sylvari is kind of the corresponding thing to elves, but they are really more of a wood-elf thing.  They have the potential longevity to front Toldain’s 3000 years, too.

But the hair!   I don’t want leaves for hair, I want fabulousness!   I can have red leaves, but that just didn’t cut it for me in the end.

So I created Toldain as a human, a noble human.  Except that secretly, he’s still an elf who slipped through an interdimensional rift and wound up in Tyria.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I’m somewhat like Wilhelm in that I always try for the same look, at least in the first character.  He says, of GW2:

I always just try to make me, and this time around the “me” seemed a bit more effeminate than I would like to imagine myself, in an anime hero, pretty boy, male model sort of way. 

Of course, when it comes to Toldain, being a pretty boy is a good thing.   And my hair did come out looking very fabulous.

Actually, it’s pretty much the exact hairstyle, color, and facial shape that Toldain had in EQ2.  I am very pleased.  The ears aren’t pointy, though.  Sadly, it’s very hard to get much of a closeup, at least out in the field.   I’ll try to get a better one.

Let’s go over a few of my likes and dislikes about the game:

Events and Frictionless Cooperation

This is by far my favorite aspect of the game.  Something’s happening in the world, and you can just jump in and do something about it.   Other people will be doing it, too.   
Bandits are trying to poison the water reservoir.  Can you stop them?   If not, then the reservoir is poisoned and you have to try and collect poison globules and bring them to a brainiac, so he can make an antidote.   It’s a chance for redemption.  I don’t know what happens if this fails, or if it can fail.
But I like the dynamic aspect of it.  I like that there is frictionless co-operation.  In fact, most of the game is built around the idea of “frictionless cooperation”.  If I do buffs, they affect allies that are close to me, they don’t have to be grouped with me.  Experience, karma, and loot are applied to everyone, there’s no need to group, nor is there any sense of kill-stealing.   Yes, this would allow power-leveling, except that the game automatically reduces your level to the maximum level of any area.   Leveled-down characters do seem to be slightly more powerful than true-level characters, but what the heck.
This is frictionless mentoring.   You can just wander into a noob zone and help people, and their’s shared risk.  This is what I’ve been wanting from an MMO ever since EQ2 got this so, so wrong.

Only One Hotbar

You have only one hotbar.  Half of the 10 slots (well, really there are 14, with F1-4 adding more) are predetermined by your choice of weapon.  The other half are chosen from two pools, which you unlock over time with points garnered from mini-challenges within the game.   
The thing I like the most about this is that it presents the possibility of strategy being important.  It’s easy to switch weapons when you aren’t in a fight, but not so easy when you’re in one.  Slot skills can’t be switched at all, and you can only switch from one weapon set to one other set, and there’s a cooldown on switching back.
At first, the approach among players seems to be “which of the possibilities do I like the best” and they will pick a combination and stick with it.   Psychochild complained that with his engineer he seemed to stick to one thing.   However, there’s a huge potential space here, and one that I’m having enormous fun  learning and thinking about.

Persistent Buy and Sell Orders

EQ2 had a “persistent sell order” model.  Player merchants would offer things for sale at a set price and other players could buy them or not.  EVE Online added the persistent buy order, where you put up money and an offer price, and players with stuff to sell could just dump them down.
Of course, a persistent buy order doesn’t work if there’s no friction to selling, and it’s not clear whether there is much friction to selling.   ArenaNet has made it incredibly easy to sell stuff on the Trading Post, and harder to buy.  Selling can be done anywhere, and you can empty your bags in the field.  
There must be some limit to how many sell orders you have, right?   Otherwise there’s a spam issue.  I haven’t seen it, though.
I prefer this kind of selling to auction selling, especially the sort of auction that charges you even if what you auctioned didn’t sell.   That’s sort of necessary because of spam.  But it has a chilling effect on sellers, which means that often in mature games with auctions (LOTRO) there would be categories of items that just didn’t exist.  It wasn’t worth the risk/effort/friction to bother to sell low-tier ore, etc.  This will not be an issue in GW2, I think.  
The Trading Post is not very good for economic game play.  There is almost no opportunity for arbitrage, because it’s so easy to sell.  Prices are driven way down.  This is good for buyers and not for sellers.  But I think that’s probably what they wanted.   Economic gameplay is secondary to killing stuff.  This isn’t EVE Online.


The game is beautiful.  I upgraded my system to play it, getting a quad-core AMD chip, a lot more memory, and a SSD.  I kept my fairly recent gfx card, though.   However, I ended up having a cooling problem.   The computer had this bad habit of just overheating and shutting off at awkward moments.
Dialing down the gfx features didn’t seem to help.   So then I found that it was on free-run framerate.  So dialing down the gfx features probably meant that each frame rendered faster, giving me a higher framerate and thus making my cpu overheat even faster!  Sigh.
However, I went out and bought a liquid cooling system and installed it.  Now the thing runs fabulously, in much higher res and art settings.  I will have new screenies soon, I think this is at reduced settings:

Exploration, Viewpoints, and Jumping Puzzles

I have Achiever habits, but I’m really an Explorer and Socializer at heart.  Each area has lots of places to find.  In the lower left of the screenshot above is a vertical streak of light with some sort of flag or parchment on it.  If you look closely, you will see my 3000-year-old self standing next to it.  This is a viewpoint.   You get some experience for finding them, as well as a breathtaking view of the gorgeous graphics.
(By the way, since this whole MMO thing started it’s either got a lot easier to hire more artists, or a lot easier for  an artist to drop a buttload of architecture into a game.  Probably both.)
Sometimes it isn’t all that easy to figure out how to get to these spots.  Sometimes it involves combat, sometimes it involves jumping places.  Sometimes there’s both.   I got a viewpoint last night in Kessex Hills that required a blind jump off a cliff.  I was rewarded with a little exp and a breathtaking view of a waterfall.  Which like the in-the-moment rube I am, I completely forgot to screenshot.
It doesn’t matter. I love this.  I got all 50 stars in Mario64, after all.  I haven’t done a true “jumping puzzle” yet, I look forward to it.

Server Interaction

All of your toons must be on the same server.  I imagine this made more sense when you could arrange to do an instance or otherwise hang out or do battle with people on another server.   However, this isn’t working now.   So I can’t play a toon on my daughter’s server.  I could move everything there, but it’s marked as very high load.  And if I’m sitting in a queue for an hour waiting to log on, I’m not actually playing with her, am I?
I really like the EVE Online model where everyone is in the same universe.  In a fantasy MMO, however, putting that many people in one place would pretty much crash everyone’s experience, both from graphics, and from server lag.   Still I can dream, can’t I?
I’d really like them to get this working.

Last words

I leave you with my Asura Engineer, Festus Wockle.   Festus comes from tabletop RPGs, where he was a gnome with a high voice, an inclination to sing, a love of bright colors, no fashion sense, and a slightly irritating manner.   I think he’s realized quite well.  I love all the techno-gibberish in some of the Metrica quests, or whatever they are called now.  I look forward to seeing what they’ve done with the other races.