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.

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.

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.

Toldain Darkwater, Skyrim Edition

On Christmas Eve, someone on my Google+ stream mentioned that Skyrim was on sale for 33% off. (For the next 3 hours or something). I was lost at that moment.

The rest of my family had already been playing it on their gaming computers. Lobilya and Thing2 had been playing it since launch. (And swapping stories about it at shared mealtimes, too.) Thing1 spent her savings on an XBox360 and the game. Given she plays her XBox on the TV in the same room where my gaming computer is, I could hardly not stop and watch her while flying cross-country on Randolph the Reindeer in Vanguard doing the latest Unicorn Rescue.

So I was primed. It took most of the evening to download, which was fine, because Christmas Eve was otherwise taken up with presents and food and general celebration. At your left you see the PC version of Toldain Darkwater, Skyrim Edition. Unfortunately my fabulous red hair is covered by that hood. It’s cold, you see…

The game is achingly beautiful. For example, the lighting effects. That shot was taken at the top of the mountain on a cloudy, stormy day. The light is very white, and very dim. It’s different at other times and places. The walk up the 7000 steps made me very nostalgic for the backpacking trips I took as a teenager.


One of my favorite novels by Roger Zelazny is Roadmarks. It describes a road that is a time travel mechanism, traveling along it moves one through time and space and there are exits at many interesting places in history. Chapters are labelled either One or Two. Here’s what Roger said about it:

“I did not decide until I was well into the book that since there was really two time-situations being dealt with (on-Road and off-Road—with off-Road being anywhen in history), I needed only two chapter headings, One and Two, to let the reader know where we are. And since the Twos were non-linear, anyway, I clipped each Two chapter into a discrete packet, stacked them and then shuffled them before reinserting them between the Ones. It shouldn’t have made any difference, though I wouldn’t have had the guts to try doing that without my experience with my other experimental books and the faith it had given me in the feelings I’d developed toward narrative.”

Bethesda is no newcomer to making Fantasy RPG games, and the world of their games has been developed over several titles. Skyrim’s full name is Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim after all.

Skyrim reminds me of Roadmarks for two reasons: First, it’s full of non-linear storytelling. There is a Main Plot, much like chapters labeled One in Roadmarks. But that is such a small, small part of what makes the game interesting and engaging. It’s not so much that there are a lot of side quests to choose from as there are entire lifestyles to choose between. You can develop and express your character by joining the Empire or the Rebels (they are called Stormcloaks). You can marry someone and set up a household (or many!)[EDIT: You can have many houses, not many spouses. You only get one of the latter, but it can be of whatever gender you wish.] You can aspire to political power, stay in an ivory tower or be a hermit, it would seem. You can aspire to be a master smith or enchanter. You can try to collect all the books in the game. There’s no reward for it particularly save for the satisfaction.

The other similarity with Roadmarks? Dragons. In the case of Skyrim, lots of them. I’m hoping to write another post about the battle I had with a Dragon this morning.

But this post is about the sandboxiness of Skyrim. After the initial stuff, which is pretty linear, I went over to a den of bandits to clear it out on behalf of the Jarl of Whiterun. When I finished it, I looked up at the mountain it was on and thought, “Hey, that sort of looks like a path up that mountain, I wonder if I can go up it.” I could.

I climbed to the absolute top of that mountain. On the way up, I ran across a Vigilant of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). He invited me to visit their lodge on the other side of the mountain. When I got near the top of the mountain, there was a little shrine there, with fires burning and offerings made. I’m not sure to whom. The peak was nearby. I climbed to the top of the rocky outcrop, just because it was there. Just below the outcrop was none other than Talsgar the Wanderer, a bard who likes to get out of the inn and have adventures, dammit! He had apparently just bested two bandits. On that mountaintop.

Continuing down the other side I found a temple to Mehrunes Dagon, which was locked. And well it should be, since, as I found out later (through reading in-game books!) that Dagon was at the center of the Oblivion Crisis (Elder Scrolls IV, I think), and must needs be safely locked away. I kept walking.

I visited the lodge of the Vigilants of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). Their slogan is “May Stendarr have Mercy on you, because the Vigil will not!” Yes, they’re crazy. But they were nice enough to me.

I kept walking. I fought a few creatures and ended up on the northern coast in Dawnstar. The Jarl there was Skald the Elder, but he acts like a child, and everyone says so. When they aren’t talking about the nightmares they are having. There was a priest of Mara there, and Toldain is a follower of the Goddess of Compassion, regardless of her name, so I helped him. We set things right at the Nightcaller Temple, but he had a habit of saying, “Oh, did I forget to mention…?” In the end, the nightmares were ended.

There are so many more adventures. Those all were Two. Eventually I got back to One.

When the Nintendo64 came out, it brought 3D graphics into everyone’s living room. Miyamoto Shigeru, in making Mario64 demonstrated that 3D meant a lot more than something looking nice. That game had a lot of non-linearity in it, along with a dose of “whatever works, works.” There were known solutions, but not prescribed ones.

Skyrim adheres to this and makes it so much bigger. Combat isn’t about memorizing a sequence of button pushes to get you through a game level. But it does have a fair bit of “fast-twitch” to it, more so than DDO. It’s definitely heir to FPS games. Aiming matters, unless you aren’t an aimer but a summoner or a basher. Then it doesn’t matter. Much.

I’m nowhere near an expert on this kind of game, I’ve focused mainly on MMO’s and economic sims. But it seems that the accomplishment of Bethesda on this game can be summed up in three maxims:

1. If you can see it, you can go there.
2. When you go there, there will be something to do.
3. If you can do it, it will work.

Most of my very considerable RPG experience has been with other people. My only wish is that I could do this, or something like this, with other people.

(UPDATE: “Morrowind” corrected to “Oblivion” Crisis in reference to Mehrunes Dagon, a very Lovecraftian name, by the way).

An Elf’s Best Friend

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

The thesis is:

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

What is the primary function of a video game?

He decries criticism of video games based solely on gameplay:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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