Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I originally intended this to be an introduction to analyzing Deus Ex: HR missions. But it turned out to be too long ...

Games consist of a simulation, goals, rules and players. That's an iteration of what I have said before on this blog. As a developer we have to focus on the simulation, goals and rules. The rules, in combination with the goals, generate the journeys. If you are confused now, go read my last 15 posts before continue reading *grin*.

The simulation is arbitrary. You can make a game about cows milking each other or worms killing each other or about a guy surviving a nuclear wasteland. Anything, really. Point is that the simulation is very important for selling the game to customers who don't know the game yet (e.g. haven't read reviews). But once the player is in the game, the simulation becomes less and less important. Eventually it is replaced by the meta game, where players reduce the game to its abstract gameplay. You can fight that for a while (and often you should); but you can't win that fight.

For the medium- and long-term success of the game, the goals and associated journeys are important. Goals are rather easy to come by. Most come naturally out of the simulation. Others can be induced by rewards, like experience points. I'll have to make a post on goals eventually.

This post is about the journeys. Journeys need to be 'fun'. Everybody agrees. But what does that mean? Should journeys allow the players to reach the goals as fast as possible? No, they should not. Because the fastest way is to remove the journey and just give the player what he wants.
"Press X to kill all enemies on the map and receive your reward". That's the (almost) fastest journey. It's not fun. (But really cheap to code).

Journeys should be as long as possible. The longer you can make them, the more meat your game has. The better your game is. But how long is 'as long as possible'?

Well, journeys need to be not-boring (the industry calls this 'engaging'). They need to keep the player from giving up. For that, there are three requirements:

(a) The goal needs to be worth the journey.
(b) The journey must not be frustrating.
(c) The journey must keep the player's mind busy.

A journey (or part of a journey) is frustrating, if a player thinks that he shouldn't have to do that. Which journeys are frustrating changes with time and zeitgeist.

(a) is rather easy to accomplish. (c) in combination with (b) is the tricky part.

To keep the player's mind busy, you need to engage it. Possible ways to do this are

- planning (usually exploring all options + decision)
- learning/exploring/searching
- decisions
- educated guesses
- optimization/management under constrains
- interacting with other humans (that's a category in it's own right)
- relaxing/climaxes/tension/adrenaline
- anticipation of future rewards / penalties
- gaining/growing and rewards from nested J&D
- pressing buttons/moving the mouse, the actual execution

That's a copy/paste from the last post. The next posts will be about analyzing different games / journeys by checking how much they keep the player's mind busy. If everything goes as planned, we will find that the successful games / journeys excel at keeping the player's mind busy, while the unsuccessful games fail.

Explaining Questing

The number one question I am trying to answer since I started reading MMO-blogs, and especially started blogging, is "Why is WoW so successful?". I tried to tackle the question several times before.

There are several well-known theories:
1) The perfect storm
2) The Blizzard polish
3) The skinner box
4) The network effect

And maybe some more. Make a comment if you want to add an explanation. My problem with all these explanations is that it isn't enough, in my opinion. I never believed the perfect storm. Sure, the initial conditions were good, but so they are for many other games. WoW grew long after the perfect storm.
The Blizzard polish certainly plays a role. But then, we all know that classic WoW wasn't that polished, really. There still were many bugs, and especially server problems. I still remember my buffs disappearing when I entered an instance for a long time after release. The skinner box might be a good explanation, if other games couldn't just copy it. Skinner boxes are extremely easy to produce. And finally, the network effect is certainly a major factor. But I don't think it is a sufficient explanation.

So, at the end of the day I feel these explanations are not satisfactory.

Regular readers won't be surprised that I now try to explain WoW's success with what I wrote about the last 10 days or so. So, let's have a look at quests. Why quests? Because quests are at the heart of WoW's success. About 99% of the players who ever reached maximum level on their first char did so through quests. Consequently, even though a lot of players claim to never have liked leveling, they all leveled to max level once. And they hadn't done so if it had been that terrible. I do believe that many don't like leveling any more. But that happened after they reached maximum level at least once.

Quests are actually extremely repetitive and do more bad than good for the simulation. So why does anybody like doing quests? Well, a lot of players claim they don't. But in my opinion that's really just a claim. Few people quest because questing is fun in itself, yes. But a lot of people quest to gain levels, explore their characters, explore the story, raid, you name it.

And that's because questing is like improved TV-channel zapping. You wouldn't do it without the option to stay with one channel (a goal). But you really don't mind if it takes a little longer. Quests are the journey to power in WoW. And so we need to look at how they keep the player's mind busy.

While questing itself is very repetitive, it is anything but boring, because it stimulates a lot of different parts of your brain. I'll focus on a typical kill quest.

Classic WoW kill-questing included
- Reading and learning about the quest (and perhaps even the story)
- and planning the optimal route between quests
- and deciding on whether to use teleports
- and anticipating quest rewards
- and execution of the planned route

- Exploration of the new landscape

- Planning which mobs to attack
- and searching for ways how to attack just these mobs
- and decision making as to what abilities to use (long CD abilities?)
- execution of the plan
- and frequent rewards that result from the nested Journey&Destination (J&D) that is killing mobs (Experience)
- and checking ('exploring') the current status of the quest

- Guessing a mob's strength with a slightly higher level
- and deciding on whether to attack
- and planning the attack / deciding how to attack
- and anticipating looting the mob
- or planning as to how to circumvent the mob
- in any way: tension, climax, adrenaline

- Fear of death
- and anticipating the consequences of death
- and corpse running as a penalty
- and planning where/when to resurrect

- Searching for (exploring) places to eat/drink
- and perhaps planning on how to get there
- and deciding whether, where and when to sit down
- and relaxing for a short moment while eating/drinking
- and gaining mana/health

- Checking the minimap for resource nodes
- and decision making as to whether to gather a node
- and planning the route towards it
- and anticipating gaining the resource
- and executing the route

- Gaining new items
- and planning to sell/keep
- and anticipation of future rewards from selling/equiping
- and equipping and exploring them,
- and learning about new items (look, stats, name)
- and managing bag space

- Judging other players, if present. Especially important on PvP servers.
- and deciding whether to work together or against other players, or to stay neutral.

- Anticipating a level up
- Gaining a level every now and then
- and deciding where to spend the talent point
- and planning when to return to the trainer
- and exploring newly gained abilities

If you can think of some activities I missed please leave a comment. It would be really appreciated!

You can see, your mind is absolutely kept busy with all kinds of different stuff. And quite some stuff was optimized away in recent years by Blizzard. Often because it had become 'frustrating' (you know what this means by now) in Blizzard's eyes.

What's interesting is that all the activities seem to fall in a few categories
- planning (usually exploring all options + decision)
- learning/exploring/searching
- decisions
- educated guesses
- optimization/management under constrains
- interacting with other humans (that's a category in it's own right)
- relaxing/climaxes/tension/adrenaline
- anticipation of future rewards / penalties
- gaining/growing and rewards from nested J&D
- pressing buttons/moving the mouse, the actual execution

There is some overlap here, because this is just a blog post ;)

My current hypothesis of fun is this: Add enough of these activities to a journey, combine them in a 'non-frustrating' way. Do it in a way that is not too exhausting. And you gain a journey that does not become boring for a long, long time.

What do you think ?

Definition of 'frustrating': An activity is frustrating if the player thinks that he shouldn't have to do that. Catchword: entitlement. This is a subjective definition, because fun is subjective.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Review

Currently Deus Ex: Human Revolution is running in the background. I tabbed out to write away my anger. That having said, the only reason I would like to do that is because Deus Ex is a good game. Bad games get discarded, not cursed at.

There's a lot Deus Ex does right. And I won't list it, because the post would grow much too long. The reason I'm angry is that I just discovered that I cannot trust the game to lead me to the fun. Instead I need to actively ignore where it leads me.

More specifically, I criticize the character power progression, CPP. In Deus Ex you gain the usual experience for doing quests or disposing of enemies. These experience points are automatically invested in upgrades of your nano su .. erm, augmentations. In addition to that you can buy some augmentations if you have the money, which you have.

So as I venture into the world of Deus Ex I am tasked with missions. These are really fun. You can reach the mission goals in many ways. I really feel like a special agent. I try to stay silent whenever possible, if there's no other way I dispose of an enemy silently. Great fun. But wait ..

I realize that killing in silence gives more experience. And knocking them out instead of killing them gives even more. Just before I finish the mission, I realize that there are a lot of enemies left. Sure, I could finish the mission now, but enemies are a rare resource. There are only so many in the game. If I want all my augmentations as soon as possible, I figure, I should knock them all out silently. And irrespective of the mission goal.

Some hour later I realize that I am not having any fun. Instead of playing special agent I am farming experience points. I don't fear enemies, but welcome them. The simulation has been turned upside down. Also, I should restart the entire game, because I didn't maximize my experience points from the beginning. DAMN.

Now, I already know that some commenters will tell me that I have a choice and choice is good. Well, no. Choice is not always good. Some choices are bad. For example the choice between playing like the game was meant to be played and maximizing experience points by knocking each enemy out with my fists. Actually I'm not using my weapons any more: That would be inefficient. And even at hardest difficulty it's just not necessary.

I don't understand why games like Deus Ex have a character power progression when the incentive it induces makes the game less fun. CPP is all right, but the incentives that are created by the CPP have to align with playing in a fun way, or at least in a reasonable way. Trying to find the last enemy in the mission isn't fun - can't be fun. But it is incentivised by the CPP.

So, you say, I should ignore the CPP. Yeah, right. I intent to do this. I just decided to ignore it completely and play from the beginning as if I were a special agent. I hope I am strong enough to resist the temptation to gain extra experience. Anyway, I already know that the constant resistance will make me enjoy the game less. I should be able to focus entirely on the game, and not on gimping myself.

Last but not least a few other points:
- The energy is a terrible game mechanic. The game would even be better if they had removed it completely, let alone iterated it a bit.
- How many air shafts can a police station have ??
- Police starts to fire at me if I try to hack into their computers, or pick their doors, but if I jump into air shafts inside the police station in front of their eyes they couldn't care less ...
- Gather weapons to sell them for easy money. But only do it if you don't want to have fun.
- My pistol is about as good as my sniper rifle and much better than any other rifle at a distance. Since the pistol is the only weapon in the game that can be upgraded to ignore armor, it's even better than the sniper rifle when headshotting helmed enemies.
- If I'm head of security .. where's my team ?
- I like Deus Ex. It is a good game. Yes, really !!

John's New Blog

John Andrew has created his own blog and already posted four times. I've already made a comment over there, but I decided to make a post out of it, if only to introduce his blog.

John writes
Quests and quest-givers are there for those who care about lore and storyline and immersion in general. The ability to kill boars for gain is there for those who enjoy killing for gain -- and yes the two groups overlap. But when quests become nothing more than a transparent artifice to reward players for killing boars, then they no longer serve any real function as story-telling devices and they can end up actually hurting immersion.

Unfortunately, John is wrong. Not in that quests can hurt immersion. That's true. But in that quest givers are there for lore, storyline and immersion. Instead, quests are a very important loop that loosens up the gameplay. And they keep the player's mind busy.

As long as you consider running back to questgivers worthwhile and non-frustrating (you genuinely accept it as 'normal', 'god-given', 'the-way-it-is', it doesn't appear to you that you shouldn't have to do that), it adds to your experience. It is fun. Lore and the simulation aren't as important as the pure abstract gameplay.

If you don't believe me, then answer me this: How do you explain that millions of players over the years leveled for hundreds - often thousands of hours - to level 60, 70, 80? And all they did was kill-mobs, return to questgiver, kill mobs, return to ...

In Cataclysm Blizzard tried to make the story better. But it didn't really work that well, because more important than the simulation is to keep the player's mind busy. This coming from me you really should believe it :).

Monday, August 29, 2011

Blizzard and Controlled Escalation

Rohan writes about Jinxed who writes about Blizzard's desire to smooth the first 30 minutes of gameplay of nplayers.

The question they ask is how much a game like WoW should 'cater to new players'. Well, I think we can agree that, assuming unlimited development resources, games should cater a lot to new players. The question is just what that means.

Apparently Blizzard looked at their statistics and concluded that a lot of players leave because they die. And thus Blizzard decided to prevent them from dieing while alone, if possible for the first 80 levels.

Now, I am not sure about this. I personally agree with Gevlon. He commented
When I first played WoW, I sucked, obviously. I still remember how much I was unable to navigate in the quilboar maze in the tauren start area. But I never thought that the GAME is bad, I knew that I'm bad in it.
You can see his expectation here. I actually share his experience in the quilboar maze. When navigating the (cute, little) maze, neither Gevlon nor I assumed that we shouldn't have to die. That's why dieing wasn't frustrating for us. Instead, it was a simple feedback about what works and what doesn't. That's learning.

Dying kept our minds busy. It satisfied our curiosity and the goal of mastering the maze may even have become more desirable. Most people react with some kind of stubbornness when they fail at something early and even repeatedly. That is just a part of the reaction and it doesn't last forever, but it is there.

But, of course, this can change. If a new player enters a game and expects to not die, then he will feel that dieing is frustrating: And he might add: "boring and without meaning, because I can run back to where my corpse is, anyway." And he would be right as well. It's all about his expectations. If Blizzard could shape this expectation .. and they can ....

And so I slowly start to believe that Blizzard has some kind of plan here. It's not so much about improving retention of new players, but rather about controlled escalation. They deliberately escalate the players' expectations so that players find other games less fun. They deliberately spoil us. They tear down their rules faster than anybody else, and thus gain a competitive advantage. Can this be true? Maybe I'm just paranoid ...

Recommended read: The self-made irrelevance of the RPG

Azuriel's Comment

Azuriel commented some posts ago.

My stance changes in MMOs though, because I understand the game is designed to consume as much time as possible, which can only be done by stacking it with meaningless, boring tasks. That is why I would absolutely be first in line for the tap in the house, and why I have been a vocal supporter for teleports since the Blizz devs stupidly thought they did anyone favors by removing them. "It makes the world bigger!" Bollocks.

Time sinks never make the world bigger, they make the world more boring. You make worlds bigger by adding more things to it. If things like tap water and teleports skipped you past content you actually wanted to see, you would not use them even if they existed - using them to skip things you weren't interested in is Working As Intended. Maybe there is an issue of people skipping interesting things they did not know existed, but using time sinks to force players to see them is simply bad design on the part of the devs.

The problem is that you are not even wrong. Of course, MMORPGs are designed to consume as much time as possible. But you should be thankful for that, because that is in your interest.
Those meaningless and boring tasks are only so, because you either (1) consider the goals not worthwhile, or (2) think you shouldn't have to do the specific journey to reach the goal.

My guess is (2). Look, if you put an 8-year old, who never before played a MMORPG or watched somebody play it, in front of classic WoW (or even original Everquest or Meridian 59), he will gladly run around and have fun. Just like we all once did. He runs, and runs, and runs. Meaningless and boring? not to him.

When you made the first 20 steps with your very first MMORPG character, did you consider them boring? You know, they were boring, weren't they? At least they should have been. Just holding 'W' pressed and moving forward. What could be more boring? Was there any challenge? No.

But fun is not an inherent property of movement. It depends on much more - especially you and your expectations. Games change and your expectations inevitably change with them. Thus, you nowadays consider walking for more than 15 seconds meaningless. (Why not walking for 5 seconds ?). Just like other players consider returning to the town to sell stuff meaningless and boring. And even others think that killing quest mobs is boring and meaningless.

The problem is that we, humans, evolved to solve problems, to overcome challenges. To achieve worthwhile goals. That's what we consider 'fun'. In real life there's always a next goal. We will rest only once we rule the entire universe and every part of matter (and energy) does what we want, instantly. Then we will look back and ask ourselves: "Was it worth it?"

And the answer is "Yes, because it was fun while it lasted.". Well, computer games start at this point. In a computer game every bit (literally) can do your bidding. You already are the master of the universe and it's not fun. That's why game design is all about finding 'good' rules that push you back to a time while it still lasted. Rules restrict you from reaching all your goals with a single keystroke.

But if you think a world without teleports is not fun, then that's the way it is. There's really no arguing about it. If you feel that moving from A to B is something you shouldn't have to do then that's the way it is. Fun is subjective (obviously). But you should acknowledge that this is an infinite rabbit hole when it comes to computer games.

Chances are good you never cared much about the time it took in WoW to mount your horse. Same for me. Then I played a druid with instant flight form. Suddenly I thought that I shouldn't have to wait so long to get on my mage's mount. Of course, Blizzard has already reduced the time from 3s to 1.5s. But why not instant? Well, don't worry, it will be instant eventually.

When you enter a dungeon with a group of friends we both know that you will succeed. There's no doubt about that. Would WoW be a better game if Blizzard teared the rule apart that you have to run through anyway? WoW could check whether you wiped during the last three runs and if you did not, you can enter a 'comfort modus'? In comfort modus you automatically get your 'rewards' for the dungeon run. You just need to wait for the average time of your past dungeon runs. Would that make WoW a better game?

Your skill at PvP is a direct consequence of your genes, your past experiences and your time invested to master it. Since genes and past experiences are fixed, it's just a matter of time invested. Does that make PvP boring?

Would WoW be a better game if it could predict your success at an arena game with 100% certainty and thus, conveniently, save you the time to actually fight?

The way is the goal. The fun is experienced while on the journey. That's why you like to zap on your TV's control from channel to channel. Deciding what to watch is much more fun that actually watching most channels.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

This Week's Summary

1) Fun Fallacy. Fun is not an inherent property of an isolated activity.

2) Instead, fun is a consequence of the interaction of journeys and destinations, which are nested into each other, interact with each other and interact with everything around them, including the player.

3) Destinations need to feel worthwhile, considering the respective journey.

4) The journey is generated by the rules of the game.

5) Games have only very few natural rules. (e.g. other players)

6) Journeys become frustrating if the player thinks that he "shouldn't have to do that".

7) Thus, one of the most important things that determine whether a player has fun, are his expectations. To a degree, these expectations can be managed. But usually they have been shaped by earlier games and especially earlier versions of the same game.

8) Journeys need to keep the players' minds busy. (Not just the players). Therefore they should be about things like gaining, learning, deciding, and nested Journeys&Destinations.

9) The teardown of rules creates a competitive advantage. This explains why games become more "convenient" all the time without the players reporting to have had less fun in the past.

10) I repeat. Fun is not an inherent property of an isolated activity.

Remaining questions:
- What influence have rules on goals?
- Do modern MMORPGs try to control the teardown of rules (and thus make it part of the game!) ?
- Is the playground part of the rules?
- Can players' interactions with stories be described within the framework of journeys & destinations?
- Are games just a collection of journeys & destinations ?
- ...

Your comments are very welcome. But please make sure they are on topic.

Note to myself: I should stop using ever different words for the same things.
Rules = Boundaries = Restrictions
Goals = Destinations

Optimizing the Fun into It

When I first raided in WoW, I didn't even know that I am 'raiding'. I just stumbled along some friends and, every now and then, I casted some fireball. There were no dps meters or anything. We were worse than the worst of today's pugs. And we had fun. We didn't compare ourselves with anything or anybody. We were trying to achieve, but more than anything we were exploring.

Now, it didn't stay like that. Step for step we became more professional and serious. We discovered boss guides and simple dps meters. Then, this one thing that more than any other shapes our current age: statistics.

With TBC I started tanking and half-way through the expansion I started theory crafting. I didn't know that there were pages like Elitist-Jerks out there. To this day I don't know when EJ really started through.
I started to be more serious. I lead raids and was known as the best tank of the guild, generally one of the best players on the server, no matter what I did. I also played a hell of a lot. 10 hours a day minimum. I had been the first of my server to get to level 70 - without trying! I had stopped studying. Luckily, that didn't turn out to harm my later career, only scratch it a bit :).

Like older generations I had decided that what society asked of me was stupid, and I just wanted to have fun. And I certainly had a lot of fun. This is a major reason I still write about MMORPGs - even though I have a really hard time playing them nowadays. I spend way more time writing about them than playing them ...

Anyway, eventually I realized that I should try to have as much health as necessary and as little as possible as a tank. How much was necessary was (roughly) determined by the chance of not avoiding several hits of a boss in a row. So, one day, I started asking in the official WoW forums, what the formula for this is. The question I asked was: Given N total hits by a boss, how probable is it to not evade any n hits in a row, assuming the probability of avoiding one single hit is p? Seemed like an easy enough question, considering its importance. But nobody knew an answer, and so I started to read my stochastics books, that I had originally bought for my math degree program, but had ignored since then.

To this day I criticize that universities try to teach us solutions without telling us about the associated problems. They teleport us to the goal, before we even know about the journey, the reasons or any boundaries. That isn't fun at all. Anyway, if I'm reasonably good with statistics nowadays, then not because of my studies, but because of WoW and other games, and because there I was told about problems, I learned about the boundaries, I set out for journeys and often, not always, found the solution, the goal. That's not only fun, but it actually makes you remember what you've learned. Which is the biggest problem with university-learning: You forget it at lightning speed.
If anything, that is what 'gamification' should be about!

Some half a day later I thought that I had gotten the answer to my question. But how to be sure? I started to model the whole thing in Mathematica. Then I ran a simulation of the formula. Here's the outcome.

Where N is the number of total hits by the boss, n is the number of hits in a row and p is the probability to avoid one single hit. This is the chance to not once suffer n hits in a row in a fight that consists of N total hits.

The formula seemed to be pretty good. Did it help me with raiding? No. When I went all out for avoid my healers told me that I was really easy to heal. And if I suddenly died they thought it was their mistake. When I went all out for stamina they told me that I have impressive amounts of health and when I died, they told me that it must have been their mistake, considering the amount of health I had. Blizzard had made sure that you couldn't change your health/avoid so much that you could gimp yourself.

But the formula demonstrated what many years later became common knowledge: Given enough healer mana, effective health rules. Realistically, by stacking avoid, you can't drop the chance to be hit by a series of two or three hits sufficiently low. Even looking at six hits in a row, that's still difficult. And are six hits in a row still 'burst damage'?

Anyway, figuring out that formula had been fun. And I was reminded of it when Stabs wrote about optimizing the fun into games yesterday.

It may not be a coincidence that I stopped playing WoW seriously soon after RAWR had been released for feral tanks. Suddenly, there was nothing left to do. All problems had been solved.

But it would be wrong to accuse us of optimizing the fun away. Optimizing is what is fun. Different people prefer different ways of optimizing and different investments, but still: Optimization is the Journey. There is no other. If anything, I can, and do, blame EJ for optimizing my fun away - and Blizzard for helping them. This was unnecessary.

So, the lesson is: Games are fun, anything is fun, as long as you are on a non-frustrating, interesting journey towards a worthwhile goal. If you doubt the goal - and unless you are a religious person you have to, because you don't believe to know your 'final purpose' - you stop having fun. And if you think you shouldn't have to do your journey you become frustrated. It's important to realize the arbitrariness hidden in 'non-frustrating' which you cannot escape.

Hence, one of my favorite quotes, uttered by myself during an alcohol-laden night among drunken physics students many years ago:
Pursue of happiness is a distraction from doing nothing.
Have a nice Sunday :)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Journeys, Loops, Gray Loot

The most important thing during a journey is to keep the player's mind busy. This applies to all journeys. It's the reason why the salesman at your doorstep talks so much. And it's the reason why the playboy doesn't even stop talking. (Of course, both absolutely love it if you start to talk back). And it's the reason why there is gray loot in WoW.

There are many loops in WoW. Trainers are a loop, you must return to them every level. Combat is a loop. As is collecting loot, selling loot, walking to the next mob, walking to the next quest giver, returning to the quest giver, replacing items, and much, much more.

Grey loot is a wonderful example for how important it is to keep the player's mind busy and what properties that, which keeps the mind busy, must have (and need not have). Most players, even most bloggers, would consider you crazy if you suggested to introduce loot that needs to be picked up, is marked as useless, and has to be sold.

Well, gray loot is also funny, because you could argue that it exists for simulation purposes. But even someone like me would consider this pointless. There's lots of stuff that you could take from mobs that is useless. To have some of it drop is ridiculous.

Gray loot exists to keep your mind busy. It's good at that, because it has a foundation in the simulation, makes you pick something up, makes you execute a decision and makes you sell it for a 'reward'.

The foundation in the simulation is important. If the game designer used something completely arbitrary, like clicking on three lights whenever you loot something, you would think that you shouldn't have to do that. And that means that it made the journey frustrating.

It is important that the gray loot doesn't just keep you busy. It has to keep your mind busy. When picking it up, you are gathering and perhaps you are even making a decision about the space it takes up in your backpack and whether it's worth it. When you sell it, your brain has 'reward' and 'goal' written all over it.

But that doesn't mean that more gray loot is good. If the game designer puts too much gray loot into each mob's corpse, you become bored. The task of picking it all up is tedious. The reward is not enough to justify the journey. And while the question of whether to pick it up or not (because it's too tedious) is an interesting decision, it is the wrong kind of interesting decision: it is a frustrating decision. You shouldn't have to make that decision!

That's a problem WoW had for a few years already, because the number of mobs slain per minute had increased so much. But it became a terrible problem once players returned from Rift and the Rift-AE loot. Gratz to Trion for shifting the players' expectations. Now, suddenly, we consider non-AE loot frustrating. We shouldn't have to do that!

And some players even call AE loot an innovation. I don't know whether that should make me laugh or cry, really. 3D graphics are an innovation. The basic idea of raiding is an innovation. But AE-loot? Is that the kind of thing that takes a few decades to be discovered? No.
AE-loot is just part of the ever-ongoing breakdown of boundaries. We look back, we remember that single-mob looting was fun. And we have no idea, how! We wouldn't want to do this anymore.

Oh, and we love to watch how the backpack changes when, in Rift, we AE-sell the loot we AE-looted. But don't worry, eventually that will be automated as well. It will happen soon after your merchant always travels with you and the loot per minute has multiplied again. The merchant will pick it up automatically and in return put money in your inventory. You don't believe me? Well, 8 years ago you wouldn't have believed me if I had told you about AE-loot.

This post has been inspired by Tesh's and Straw Fellow's posts.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Value of Boundaries

While I was writing this, Helistar made a wonderful comment on the last post. Wonderful, because I was just about to argue the other way.

Games have no natural boundaries. The developers can give you as many epics as they please. More than you can carry, more than you could ever inspect. More than you could possibly conceive.

The developers can make you rich. Rich enough to buy anything. Rich enough to buy everything! They can make you so rich that you can't even fathom the number anymore. It costs them but a few keystrokes.

The developers can reward you. Give you bonus experience. They can make you level as fast as you wish. They can skip the leveling. And they can teleport you wherever you want. Whenever you want. They can make you be everywhere at the same time, if only your limited mind could comprehend this.

The developers can make you a god. They can make you invincible and all-mighty. Your enemies can be crushed by a glimpse of a single eye of yours. They can even make your enemies die even when you don't look at them. They can make you kill all enemies in the entire fucking game if they so desire. And they can even do it for you, so you don't have to bother.

There are no natural boundaries! But boundaries is what we need to have fun.

It is a fact that as soon as we start to think that "we shouldn't have to do that", we don't enjoy 'it' anymore; 'it' has become frustrating. If you think that you shouldn't have to go to the well (last post), there's no way you will ever have fun again in doing so. But it is also a fact that you had fun before this boundary was destroyed!

Games teach us that everything is relative. Not in the physical sense, but in the psychological sense.

Telwyn wrote about the Rift bonus exp weekends. And I agree. Get prepared for another dating-analogy.

Imagine you are that girl in the night club (the player). And there comes a guy along (the MMORPG) whom you have never met before. And right from the start he tells you that your eyes are the most wonderful and your smile is the stars and all this stuff. And then he starts to buy you drinks. Not one, but three!
Doesn't work this way, does it?

These compliments don't cost him anything. And every guy in that night club is rich enough to buy you three drinks. Or a hundred if he so wishes. That's cheap! If this actually worked, you'd have to sleep with 50 guys a night!

But bonus exp is even cheaper. Imagine he told you that if you spend the night with him, he would actually make it especially easy for you: You two wouldn't have to talk more than necessary! In fact, he has declared this a bonus weekend! For every minute you offer him your attention, you will have to wait one less day to marry him.

I'm not attracted to bonus exp weekends, because they are just as ridiculous. The developers construct artificial boundaries that don't cost them anything and then they destroy them in front of me and this doesn't cost them anything, either. But they expect me to like it. No, I don't. It's cheap!

The art of making great games is making great rules, great boundaries. Because boundaries cause journeys. And journeys, encouraged by goals, are where the fun is actually experienced.

The destruction of boundaries is what creates nostalgia. We remember that going to the well was so much fun (read my last post). But, just like the boundary, the journey was destroyed by the water tap.

In real life that is okay, because there are a lot of boundaries and overcoming them is actually fun. Not so in MMORPGs. There are no natural boundaries. By destroying those that exist, which is cheap, you steal fun from the player. If you allow everybody to teleport everywhere, all other comanies have to follow in suit, because now the players don't think that they actually "should have to walk". You spoil us and you spoil the fun for us!

At the very least you shouldn't do it without the players even asking for it !

Corrupting Improvements

I was reading the comments over at Oestrus's place. I liked several ones of them. It's interesting what kind of enlightened breed of players a game like WoW managed to produce. You certainly wouldn't expect it.

[..] I didn’t find threat fun… but I didn’t find it unfun, either. I find tanking to be fun, and threat was part of that, so I dealt with it. It never entered into my mind to say, hey, let me evaluate this with my funmeter. [..]
Great point, Cynwise!

Humans are really good at accepting the status quo. As long as you think that going five km to the well once a day is what life is, it doesn't cause you any trouble. It's not exactly fun, but if something else, that is fun, depends on going to the well every day, the both things combined can actually be fun.

For example, imagine that every day when going to the well you also meet with friends and you talk about what crosses your mind. There's a good chance that you will miss this when somebody installs a water tap in your home. Now, the tap is a definite improvement of your daily life. But you didn't miss it as long as you didn't have it. And so the improvement is actually not an improvement at all.

However, that doesn't mean that you can turn back time. You can't. Once you got the tap, you won't go to the well. Period. Good memories are all that last.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Raph Koster is Great

The title says it, I think. Not only is he brilliant at holding engaging presentations, he also says a lot of good stuff. And, this time, I am especially thrilled, because he says very bluntly that MMORPGs are like a marriage. Several times.
I agree, Raph.

Here's his presentation.

Goals and Journeys

So, you've read all my latest ramblings and now you wonder what it means for game design?

The Goals
Well, first it means that games need to offer goals. Irrespective of theme park or sandbox, every MMORPG needs to offer the player goals. It can either enforce a few or even one single goal, or it can let the players decide freely. A very common and powerful goal is satisfying ones curiosity, by the way.

Goals can be stacked. For example, a player can first need to go for goal 1 and goal 2 before he can go for goal 3. Goals can also exclude each other. In that case the player needs to make a decision. Decisions, however, are already part of the journey.

We can assign a number to goals that represents how desirable they are. I call that number G.

The Journey
The Journey is were the vast majority of fun is located. Generally, you want journeys to be as long as possible. Even if your MMORPG uses other business models than the monthly subscription. MMORPGs are social games. They become better the more people play them at the same time. It also makes better press if players play your game longer.

But to make the journey as long as possible is also in the interest of the player! Our "fun memory" is quite binary. We either have fun, or we don't. Sure, sometimes we have a hell of a lot of fun, and sometimes just a little. But in retrospect this is usually hard to differentiate. We can differentiate between fun 'moments' (usually, reaching a goal), but not so much differentiate between fun journeys. If we have fun, we want more. The longer we have fun, the better for everybody.

The journey, by definition, is something the player wants to skip. He wants to reach the goal! But giving in doesn't make him happy. Although the player won't support you, you must put a journey in front of each goal.

We can assign a number to the journey that represents how much work it entails. I call it J.

Goal vs. Journey
Generally, G must be larger than J. But just a bit! If the player considers the journey not worth the goal, he will not play your game. But if G is much larger than J, you should make the journey longer, because making long journeys is what games are all about. You are not a nice developer if you allow players to reach goals too fast. Rather, you steal fun from them!

But that's not all. There are good journeys and there are bad ones.

Even if a player embarks on the journey, that journey might harm your game, because a journey can either be fun or frustrating. And this is really the core of the problem of nowadays games, because metrics are very poor at identifying frustrating journeys.

Frustrating Journeys
Definition: An activity is frustrating if the player performs it, even though he feels he shouldn't have to perform it.

Fear of frustrating journeys is what drives most of the "evolution" of games (the rest mostly being technology). Mechanics that were totally acceptable in the past suddenly become frustrating, because players played other games in the meantime and now don't think they should have do this kind of journey (anymore).
It's not easy to turn back the wheel of time, and so most companies succumb to the players. It is usually the right decision, unless you are really good at managing expectations and instilling attitudes.

This is a race to the bottom as a consequence of the competition between game developers. But there's little we can do about it. Developers will eventually sink low enough for some developers to release "radically different" games that turn out to be really good, because they are so different from existing ones (at the bottom) that players don't transfer any expectations.

The problem with frustrating journeys is that players start the journey, but quit your game before they reach the goal. A good example are daily quests or daily dungeons. Players do consider these journeys worthwhile enough to start walking. But at the same time they don't think they should have to do this. Daily quests are damn ridiculous, after all.

Often, a player who performs a frustrating journey, "optimizes the fun out of the game".

Fun Journeys
The job description of a game designer could be: "Design fun journeys".

It's is an art. But a few things can be said about it. First, the by far most important property of fun journeys is that they make players forget time. They achieve this by keeping the player's brain busy enough to not start wondering, but relaxed enough to not become tired.

A few years ago, before competition turned grinding mobs into something players don't think they should have to do, players actually loved to grind mobs. They did it all the time. And when they finished grinding one kind of mob, they started to grind other mobs. Grinding mobs is just varied enough to not become boring. And it is easy enough to not exhaust you or get a headache.
It's similar to gathering resources.

It is important to understand that even good journeys eventually become 'not worthwile' or frustrating. For example, nothing lasts forever, and players eventually (and understandably) became bored of grinding mobs.

One important building block of journeys are decisions. Decisions can either be interesting or meaningless. Meaningless decisions can be used to add alternative content that a player can explore with a twink. Often meaningless decisions are superfluous and a waste of resources. (Should I invest mana to cast the highest dps spell? .. yes, always!)

Interesting decisions are either fun or frustrating. We already talked about that.

Good games confront the player with goals that encourage fun journeys which consist of fairly high-frequency decision making. Look at Angry Birds, Tetris, Chess, Soccer, Super Mario, etc.

If you forget everything else I wrote, please remember this: "Fun journeys" are not fun in themselves. They are fun because of the goals. And the goals are fun because of the journeys.

Fun is like a Firefly

In German they say "Der Weg ist das Ziel", "the way is the goal". It is obviously wrong, and yet it is obviously right.

MMORPGs are perhaps the best way to observe this truth. Virtual items are not only cheap, but really cost next to nothing to produce. And everybody knows that getting virtual items is fun. A lot of people even say that WoW was so successful, because it pushed players into a skinner box. Players would subscribe and as a reward they would get fed with epics.

But that can't be true. If it were true, making a smash hit MMORPG would be ridiculously easy. If that were the secret behind WoW's success, all other MMORPGs would be at least as successful; and they would give the player more epics per re-subscription than WoW. So, what's wrong?
Well, getting epics is fun! That's not a hallucination.

But the fun of getting epics is also diminished with every epic the player gets. And that is, because getting the epic is only fun, because you tried/hoped to get it. Yes, to find a surprise epic can be fun, too. But it is a very short-lived fun. Give players more surprise epics and very, very fast they don't want them anymore.

Hunting for epics is where the real long-term fun is at. Some call it working for epics in a attempt to discredit it. They don't understand. The way is the goal. Going towards the goal is where the long-term fun is. Reaching the goal is the more fun the longer the way was, and as long as it felt worthwhile. The real fun was in the hunt, in the way, not in the goal.

That's why the way is the goal.

Games should not be frustrating, yes. But what is frustrating? Frustrating is an activity that a player feels he should do, but shouldn't have to do.

Imagine you go to a party. It takes 2 hours by bus and train to get there. Once there, the host tells you to stand on one leg for 1 minute before he lets you enter. Nobody will watch you. There's no way around this.
Now, that is frustrating, because you feel like you should do this (you just spent 2 hours getting there), but then, actually you shouldn't have to. Also, it doesn't make any sense, it is arbitrary and exhausting. But it's also the reasonable thing to do. Actually, even should you decide to return home, you will be frustrated.

Now imagine the same situation, but the host offers the guy, who can stand on one leg the longest, 50.000€. If you are a normally rich person you will consider this totally silly, but worthwhile. Should you even manage to stand on one leg longer than anybody else, let's say for 4 hours, you will celebrate. It wasn't frustrating at all! Arbitrary, yes, exhausting, certainly, but not frustrating. In fact, the more of your competitors gave up, the more exhilarating it got! I promise you, you never had as much fun in your life than during the last 30 minutes of standing on one leg watching your competitors tilting.
Sure, the host is an idiot, but 50.000€! Damn! You will probably thank him with your best fake smile when he hands you the money!

Every time a player works for something in your game just as much has he would be willing to work for it and then gets his reward, you win. Well, and he wins. Yes, he wins! This is something I need to focus on more I think. Players don't like to be coddled. Yes, they deny it, but it's true nonetheless. Players like to be challenged, they like to hunt! The hunt is what creates meaning. Without hunt there's just nothing in life, only emptiness.

Every rich person can tell you, money alone doesn't make happy. Every playboy can tell you the 25th girl doesn't make him more happy than the 24th. Every 1st world citizen can tell a 3rd world citizen that eating and drinking alone doesn't make one happy.

Nothing makes happy, it seems. But then, most things do.
Most investors continue to invest long after they earned more money than they can ever hope to spend. Most playboys consider the process of 'hunting' much more pleasant than the 'endgame' - especially if the target is hard-to-get! But no western citizen considers hunting for food fun: We think it is frustrating, because we shouldn't have to do that!

That last part is important. It is why you can't turn back time. Once players know that you give in, they will genuinely hate you, and leave the game, if you don't act according to their wishes. Hi, Cataclysm!
Having to do something, that you feel you shouldn't have to do, is always frustrating. But keep the players from developing this attitude, and most things have the potential to be fun!

Just like giving players ever more epics is no solution, not giving them enough isn't a solution either. This is important to understand. Your game doesn't necessarily become better, just because you reward your players less. The trick is in the balance. The magic question is: How much can I ask my players to 'work', 'suffer', 'hunt', 'walk' before they leave?

The answer to that question is the amount of 'suffering' you should ask of them! They might complain, cry, shout, offend, maybe threaten you. But only if they hope to be able to change your decision. If it is commonly known that you don't surrender to demands, they will suck it. They would fear to appear silly and socially awkward. And if it is even completely obvious to them that there's no other way, they can actually gain the most fun out of it.

The trick is to make a game that seems worthwhile as much as possible! One way to do that is to make it known that a huge amount of players play your game. Another way is to release great trailers. Yet another is to make your players dream about the possibilities in your game. Like one day flying a dragon.

Once you made the game as worthwhile as possible, once you created that really big carrot on the horizon, that is just near enough and absolutely credible to seize, you put as many obstacles in front of the players as possible. Just as much as you can get away with.

Because the fun is not in actually flying your dragon. Every WoW player can explain to you how much fun flying was at first - and how 'unspectacular' it then became very soon. What a game needs is a perspective, a goal that seems worthwhile. And the more worthwhile that goal appears, the more players will be willing to invest into your game. And the more you make them (= allow them !!) to invest into the game, the more fun they have. Because that investment turns out to be where the fun actually is.

Fun is like a firefly: it disappears with a flash the moment you seize it.

Please Love Me

One post on this topic isn't enough. Here are some examples on "How to be loved".
Remark: I use some strong language to make the point and sometimes I exaggerate to make it a fun read.

Imagine you date a supermodel. It is a bright summer's day. Do you keep your sun glasses on? Think about it. The answer is 'yes'.

Imagine you meet Miss supermodel at the nightclub. She asks you to buy her a drink. Do you do it? The answer is 'no'. That fact alone that Miss supermodel asked you, already means that you will not "get her".

Women are fascinating, especially as a man. It requires years, often decades to figure out what they want. And at the same time there are ugly, often even poor, guys who date the most beautiful women. What the hell?
Actually, most women don't understand themselves. Women joke that they try to change their husbands, but stop loving them once they succeeded. Well, it's not always funny and quite true.

Women are fascinating, because they are natural super talents at figuring out how to select the smartest/fittest/etc. guy out of a crowd. After all they can have a baby only every nine months and only a limited number of babies. While men can have, well, endless amounts. No, that's not what the genders consciously think; it is just the evolutionary rationale behind their behaviour.

Vice versa it is much easier, at least theoretically. If a woman wants to appeal to a man, she just needs to look good and be reasonably intelligent. That sounds sexist, I know. But if you look good as a woman, most men will be willing to fuck you. That doesn't necessarily mean that they want a relationship, of course. But if you look bad as a woman you have a big problem. If makeup doesn't help, you have to either stay single, or settle for a "lesser type of guy". Incidentally, they sometimes turn out to be quite a good choice.

Imagine you want to found a new religion. You dream of being the high priest of billions. Now, one of your minions wants more rights. What do you say? Well, of course you say 'no'; and then you exclude the minion from your community. And then you ask your followers to kill him.

How many religions do you know? Are they comfortable and convenient? Are their high priests lovely guys? Not while the religions expand!

High priests demand that you do not drink and eat during day. They demand that you pray all the time. They demand mass suicide! They demand that you turn the other cheek. They drown the ground in thousands of liters of your blood, while you construct world wonders for their glory. Religions demand that you fight holy wars. They demand of their high priests to never have sex !

Religions don't buy you a drink.

At the heart of this topic is the question of how to make something that somebody, the consumer, loves. The obvious way is to appeal to the consumer. And this isn't completely wrong. Of course, not buying a drink doesn't make girls fall in love with you. Nor does demanding suicide make people pray to you.

It's not that easy. You still need to convince the consumer/supermodel/minions/etc. that you are worth their attention and eventually love or devotion. But you don't do this by fulfilling their every wish! Instead, you do it by convincing them of your greatness - indirectly.

Real men don't smile while flirting.

For example when you see a beautiful woman in the night club, you don't just go for her. Instead, you go for the guys she's out with. (Beautiful women are always out with other guys). And then you talk to the guys. You entertain them. You talk about "manly topics". Of course, you boast a bit, but just a tiny bit. And you ignore her.
Eventually she will try to make contact with you. But you have to ignore her until she starts to try to appeal to you. For example, she will try to add to the conversation by telling you that she likes mountaineering, as well. And that she always wanted to do it. Now, you got a start.
You may even say something like "At first I considered you rather uninteresting, but I might have been wrong". You continue to make her find reasons for why she is worth you. You might have to help her if she's not very good at it. But whenever she is successful, you reward her with more attention and successively more compliments.
Oh - and you never exert physical force outside of sex. I just wanted to have said that. Applying physical force - even a tiny bit, like holding her too fast - is a weakness and as such unattractive.

I shouldn't go into more detail. Read Magic Bullets by N. Savoy. But try not to buy it; it is excessively expensive. You may be able to guess why.

I've yet to read a book about how to become a guru, but it is very similar. At first you convince your future minions that you are great. Now, that is certainly a challenge; that's why there aren't that many gurus. You must do this without boasting too much or making them feel like you want their love. You despise them! The reason you are talking to them at all is because there's no other way. Figure out some brilliant reason! Oh - and you always have way too many followers already, of course, and not enough time.

Then you make your minions find reasons for why they are qualified to enter your community. And you reward them if they find good reasons. Once they are in the community, you demand of them! The more you can demand without them quitting, the more you can demand next time.

I write in a funny way. Partly, because the topic is funny. But make no mistake: if you want somebody to fall in love with something, you need to make him/her fall in love. You must not try to appeal unless he/she tries to appeal first.

Good games are funny distractions. They are much better than bad games which are outright punishing to play. Good games constantly try to appeal to you. And that's why you become bored of them so fast.

In contrast to good games, Great games don't try to appeal to you; at least not directly. Great games make promises to you. They make you dream. They make you dream of what you could achieve, but they never allow you to achieve it. Think of Limbo. The main reason to play Limbo is to find out why the hell you are even doing this!! Of course, some 10 hours later you have found out why you do it. And you never touch Limbo again. Limbo is a great game, but it wouldn't work with a subscription.

Good games make you move forward by feeding you with carrots until you hate carrots. Great games make you hunt this one carrot for as long as possible. At all times you think that the carrot is just within reach. You are convinced that soon you will be there - but you are not. The more often you succumb to the carrot, that is you make a step but fail to get it, the more likely you will make another step. Great games enslave you.

Excuse my drastic language. But I really want to make this point! Getting epics is not as much fun as hunting them. Read the last sentence again, please. And again. Getting epics is not as much fun as hunting them. The trick is not to shower the player in carrots, but to make him hunt them! Showering the player in carrots is harmful. It proves to the player how worthless they are!

Humans aren't rats. Skinner boxes don't really work. We don't like to eat ever more cookies, we get sick of them fast! But we love to hunt for cookies.

In contrast to what Brenda says, players never played MMORPGs because the second-to-second gameplay was so much fun. It was terrible! Please open your eyes! Tell me one smash hit game, especially MMORPG, that was so much fun at the second-to-second gameplay!

MMORPGs - especially original World of Warcraft - seduced the players; they did not appeal to them! Hundreds of hours grinding gold! Tens of dungeon runs until you got one tiny piece of gear improvement. Dreams of beating Ragnaros! Farming reagents first.

MMORPGs used to promise much and demand even more. And this made them successful. The promise was credible enough to make players work for it. Millions complained that it was like work - and they continued working. The promise, the dream, the anticipated long-term reward is what drives players to sink thousands of hours into virtual achievements.
Don't hunt the ghost that is the perfect short-term gameplay. You won't find it. It's not there.

Don't treat the player like the overweight girl from next door. We are supermodels and that's why we don't play games that try to appeal to us too hard. The game needs to be worth our attention and if it buys us too many drinks, then, in our eyes, it becomes a funny little distraction. Not worth a long term commitment.

If you haven't read my earlier post on the topic, go do it now. I demand it! ;)

Edit: "Don't treat the player like the overweight boy from next door. We are supermodels ... ..."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fun is not a Number

MMORPG designers nowadays seem to be stumbling in the dark. Maybe they have always done it. Maybe. But I think the problem started to become most apparent when game designers stopped wanting to make this fun game, and instead tried to make any really, really fun game. And when they tried to work in a scientifically sound way. Metrics played a very important role.

Guild Wars 2
But first things first. I read a bit of GW2 today and among a lot of interesting stuff I found this:
The slower-regen idea seemed so good on paper, but in practice the original design was just more fun. As we roll into this next demo season, there are a few major changes that we thought we should tell you about, and without further ado, here they are.
To me this is exactly what goes wrong. Apparently the game designers carefully created some kind of slower-regen game mechanic. Maybe they thought about 'interesting decisions' or prevention of 'optimizing the fun out of it' or general flavor.

Subsequently, they tested it and found it to be lacking. Now, I wasn't there. So, maybe they were right and the new mechanic was awful. However, my guess is that they tested something for a few days and then decided that it's unfun to use in a MMORPG which players are meant to play for thousands of hours. Maybe they looked at players playing the game at conventions were the players behave and think radically different than at home.

Fun Fallacy all over again
Let's use one of those chess-analogies. Imagine you test chess to find out whether it's fun enough. You make three moves. It turns out that it is totally boring; each single one. You scrap the project.

At the heart of this evil is Brenda's quote. At the time I first found it, I didn't see it for what it was. I considered it an interesting piece of "wisdom". But, in fact, it isn't even wrong. And that's among the worst things you can say about something.

Game designers nowadays assume that fun adds up. Just like a number. A wonderful way to explain why this is wrong is the soup analogy. You can add a lot of salt to a bad tasting soup and it tastes much better. You can still add quite some salt to a good soup and it tastes better. But you may add just a pinch of salt to a really good soup, otherwise you spoil it.

Salt represents a game mechanic that is the more fun, the worse the game. And there are lots of them. For example exponential character power progression, or starting out as a hero at level 1. These things make the game more fun if the gamer coincidently found out about it and decided to test it for 3 minutes. But ultimately they make the game worse.

What keeps you playing
Looking at metrics, designers found out that the highest potential for more players is keeping them from quiting during the first few minutes of play. Consequently, they figured the most important thing wasn't so much to make a fun game in the long run anymore, but rather to enthuse players during the first few minutes. Now, I don't dispute that it's good if a game is fun right from the start.

Rather, I fear the kind of fun that is used to achieve this. In the beginning, since the player doesn't know the game yet, he has no ambitions, little expectations, no dreams. And instead of giving the player something to dream about, the game designers give him something "awesome" and "cool". This is short-term fun. Just like playing an arcade game is short-term fun. It is a distraction. Salt, a sensation.

Compare that with one of my very first WoW experiences: I was on my way to the first city and saw some guy fly over me. What I didn't know back then: He was just flying on a flight route. And the route had deliberately been bent this way to make new players 'dream'. This dream was a more powerful motivator than short-term gameplay fun could ever be.

What made me play to level 60 in original WoW wasn't the short-term fun. In a way, the game was awful. It was highly, no, it was extremely repetitive.
What made me play to level 60 were dreams about exploration and power. If somebody had given me the isolated leveling gameplay out of all contexts, and asked me whether I looked forward to doing this for 300 hours until I reach level 60, I would have told him that making three moves in chess isn't fun, either. Actually, that's what I told some friends when they asked me how playing WoW can be fun.

Had I played original WoW pre-release at a convention, I would have left dreaming about playing it. I would not have remembered how heroic I felt while I played it.

Dreams of Denial
Game designers nowadays make games that want to be loved; not games that make you fall in love. Game designers nowadays go to conventions like attention whores; wanting to be praised for their badass dragons. And they iterate their game until it is exactly the way you "wanted" it.
Game designers nowadays are like the cute boy in school who did everything you asked of him; until you considered him creepy.

That's not the way it works! The most powerful art has the most agonizing flaws. The most engaging people have the most distressing weaknesses. The most attractive partners never do what you want.

The best games never succumb to you; they keep you dreaming.

My New Computer

I just bought a new computer to play the games my current computer can run just as well. :|
I have a tradition to buy a new one every one and a half year. But this time it was especially hard to justify .. can it be that development has slowed down, finally ?

Anyway, I decided to spend no more than 2000 Euro and got the whole thing including prior dead-pixel test for the monitor, assembly, compatibility/stability test and transport for 1.990,07 € at

Chassis: Fractal Design Arc

Power Supply: 580W be quiet! Straight Power CM BQT E8 80+ Silver Modular

Motherboard: ASRock Z68 EXTREME4 S1155 Intel Z68 ATX

CPU: Intel Core i5 2500K 4x 3.30GHz So.1155 BOX

Heatsink CPU: EKL Alpenföhn Brocken AMD and Intel S775, 1366, 1156, AM2(+), AM3

RAM: 16GB G.Skill RipjawsX DDR3-1600 DIMM CL9 Dual Kit (4 modules)

Monitor: 27" (69,00cm) Dell U2711 6ms 16:9

Graphics Card: 1536MB Asus GeForce GTX 580 DirectCU II Aktiv PCIe 2.0 x16 (Retail)

HD: 2000GB Seagate Barracuda Green 5900.3 ST2000DL003 64MB 3.5" (8.9cm) SATA 6Gb/s

SSD: 120GB Corsair Force Series 3 CSSD-F120GB3-BK 2.5" (6.4cm) SATA 6Gb/s MLC asynchron

DVD: LiteOn iHAS124-19 SATA Black Bulk

Keyboard: Microsoft SideWinder X4 Gaming Keyboard Black German USB

Mouse: Logitech G500 Gaming Laser Mouse Schwarz USB

Monday, August 22, 2011

Morality, SW:TOR

Ten days ago Scrusi managed to kick off a debate about morality and gear in games, more specifically in SW:TOR.

It is a hard problem to solve in an MMORPG. On the one hand side you want the player's choices to matter. That means that there needs to be some kind of consequence that has an emotional impact on him. On the other hand, you don't want players to game the system in a way, that they make their decision based on that consequence alone instead of morality.

Let's have a look at how it works in real life. In real life most of us feel a strong emotional impact if we decide to do or support something that is immoral. But that's because there are no resets. If I could destroy my neighbor's car and a minute later it respawned, it wouldn't have much of an emotional impact. Furthermore, if my neighbor were a MMO-like NPC there would probably be no emotional impact at all.

So, the first problem is that the emotional impact is extremely hard to achieve with frequent resets of the consequences of the player's choice. The second problem is that all the player's choices are about NPCs. The resets are the bigger problem of the two.

A morally wrong action is one thing. But the choice isn't really a choice without a temptation. Destroying or not destroying my neighbor's car isn't really a choice, because I have no reason to do it.

For the choice not being a no-brainer, the temptation needs to be about as strong as the emotional impact of the wrong moral choice. And, for the reasons just outlined, this emotional impact is extremely weak in SW:TOR.

In MMOs the overarching goal is usually to create a strong character. This kind of temptation is much too strong compared to the weak emotional impact of the moral choice. Thus, gameplay goals as temptations don't work.

A comparatively good implementation is via moral dilemma. Would you kill two children to prevent somebody else from killing four children? Moral dilemma still suffer from the very low emotional impact of moral choices (resets, NPCs), but are automatically balanced.

Summing up, for a moral choice to be anything but a no-brainer, the emotional impact of the consequence of a player's choice needs to be balanced against the temptation to do the wrong thing.

Since the emotional impact of doing the wrong thing is very weak in MMORPGs (resets, NPCs), the temptations needs to be equally weak. Since moral dilemma are automatically balanced, they are natural candidates. Implementation of a good moral dilemma is, however, not always easy from a story-telling point of view.

Biowares tries to solve the problem by carefully designing temptations. They create mini games, like collecting light/dark points or story points which have no or little impact on the player's performance.

Problem is that if those points have no effect at all, a lot of players ignore them. And as soon as they have some kind of effect, like slightly changing the character's appearance, they may already be too strong a temptation.

Will Bioware succeed? I doubt it. They may find some not completely terrible way to implement moral choices into a MMORPG, but I don't see how even a mildly satisfactory implementation is possible without moral choices affecting players, instead of NPCs, or having consequences that are not frequently reset. Resets and NPCs make the choices just not meaningful enough, to matter to our moral decision making.

Maybe Bioware should not try to actually implement moral choices, but rather encourage us to select some kind of moral alignment in the beginning and then incentivise us to maximize the corresponding points. This is the "embrace your enemy, if you cannot defeat him" - kind of solution.
It would work comparatively well, I think. But the reason is not that the 'choices' would actually be choices or even 'interesting decisions'. Rather, it would work well, because mindlessly succeeding at playing a good/bad guy is pleasing from a narrative point of view.
Of course, this doesn't work once the engame is reached and the narrative has ended. But SW:TOR's endgame will be a completely different game, anyway.

Finally, there's still the awkward problem of random players of different moral alignments playing together. For as far as I know, it's going to be like that: I meet a random stranger, we do an instance. We can either slaughter the innocents or save them. I select 'save them', he wants to slaughter them. We roll a dice. He wins. We slaughter the innocents. I get light side point. Yeah, right.

This never-inconvenience-the-player attitude creates a game that tastes like a worn-out chewing gum.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Need .. to .. streamline .. iterate ..

Lately I enjoy thinking about how to streamline games like WoW even more. It's partly an ironic endeavor, and partly quite interesting.

For instance, let's look at item progression systems. WoW uses the typical str/dex/end/hit/crit/... kind of system. It has already been streamlined a lot. Nowadays you can safely assume that any item with a higher item level is a good choice. There's a bit of reforging going on and you can min/max a bit, but most players just go for the higher item level.
Blizzard wanted it this way. They didn't want players to encounter a complex world that has not been fitted to their desires. They believed the forum posters who cried: "My chest has too much str and not enough dex, stupid Blizzard!!"

Now, if you ignore the bit of min/maxing, that only a few would describe as 'interesting decision making' anyway (you just load a web page to optimize your gear), we can indeed streamline this system without losing anything; and gain a lot!

Instead of increasing character power by increasing an item level, then calculating attributes for different speccs and then balancing it so that each specc does perform similarly, we could just increase the character's performance (dps, hps, survivability) continuously with the item level.

The attributes were severed from their simulation-roots long ago, anyway ("Oh, you are 2531 times as intelligent as I am, interesting!"). We gain a system that is very easy to balance, because everything depends on just one 'attribute', the item level. You gain item level to become more powerful. No designer has to think about e.g. which rotation profits more from str than from dex and how to balance accordingly.

On the other hand, this shows the trouble with Blizzard's purely iterative approach. Without a long-term vision for your game, you run into problems like this. It's like a slightly flawed local optimization algorithm working on a very complex game design possibility space with the vast majority of local optima not even near the global maximum. You might end up in blind alleys.

This, by the way, applies to all complex systems. It is no coincidence that one of the least flexible political systems has been one of the most successful in recent centuries. Regarding MMORPGs, as well as regarding political systems, it is important to understand that most things that seem good at first glance turn out to have serious side-effects.
What is problematic, of course, is if the environment starts to change. If the speed of technological change becomes ever faster, the optimal balance between conservation and progression is changed, too. I fear that's the root problem of many political systems today.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


They appeared in 18th century's Roulette. Let's ignore the bank for a second. You can bet on red or black numbers and the chance to be right is 50% for both. If you are right you gain 1€ for every 1€ you invested. If you lose, you lose everything.

Now, if you play once this is a pretty dangerous game, especially if you invest a lot of money. But you don't have to. In fact, you can use a betting strategy that will make it extremely likely that you will win money in the end. It is called Martingales.

It's not even hard:
1) Bet 1€ on any color. If you lose you ..
2) .. bet 2€ on any color. If you lose you ..
3) .. bet 4€ on any color. If you lose you ..
4) .. bet 8€ on any color. If you lose you ..
5) .. bet 16€ on any color ...

As long as you go on with this system you will always gain 1€ eventually.
For example, let's assume you lose four times in a row, but win the fifth game. You lose 1€+2€+4€+8€=15€. And you win 16€ in the fifth game; 1€ profit. More mathematically, 1+2+4+8...+N^2=(N+1)^2-1

Now, there's nothing that keeps you from starting the same with 1000€ instead of 1€. In that case you always win 1000€ eventually. Of course, casino owners know this. That's why they have a limit.

Let's assume you play with a limit of 100€. To reach the limit you need to lose seven times in a row: The probability of losing seven times in a row is 1/128. That means that on average your strategy is successful 127 times out of 128. And each of these 127 times you win exactly 1€ for a total profit of 127€. But once in 128 games you lose seven times in a row and can't continue, due to the limit. You lose 1+2+4+8+16+32+64=127€. So, on average you make 0€. In fact, it is mathematically proven that there is no strategy that changes the expected value. All you can do is change the structure of the risk; repackage the risk.

Now let's move to financial markets. Let's assume that you have no idea where the stock prices are going to go. So you start playing Martingale. You invest 10,000 €. If you lose, you double, if you win, you start again. Other people in the industry see that although the market is extremely volatile (they win/lose 50% of the time), you win all the time. Consequently they give you their money. This raises your limit. You make more money. A lot of money. Your peers recommend you, because you can turn a risky market into a safe market, it seems. The volatility of your hedge fond (or whatever legal construct you use to pay yourself a very high risk-free salary) is almost non-existent.

Unfortunately, some day, you lose some 20 times in a row. Now that was unlikely .. unfortunately you don't have enough money to double again, and thus, you lose it all. Every single cent.

Next time someone argues that an investment is safe because volatility is low, you hopefully know better.

The Reasonable President

I had some fun watching Obama's townhall meetings. Especially this one. Go fast forward to 42:10.

Firstly, the questioner is really good. Secondly, the answer to this question is probably the key to understanding this president. He honestly believes that just being reasonable and not playing any games at all is what he should do.

And, ironically, that makes him a rather good politician. In the US's two-party system there's just no acceptable alternative to him. Will this help him win the next election? It probably does. The votes he loses on the left don't go to his opponent, but the votes he gains in the center and, frankly, on the traditional republican territory not only help him, but weaken his opponent. Also, if left voters were reasonable, they would vote for him, anyway.
Most importantly, he pushes his opponents ever more right, the more he himself moves to the right. Mrs. Merkel governs similarly here in Germany. It leads to low popularity and certain reelection.

So, I don't think being reasonable the way he understands it is the worst reelection strategy. But it makes him a bad president. For some reason he assumes that telling people to become more reasonable helps. As if voters were reasonable. Churchill was right when he said:
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
Perhaps what the US needs is a change of the political system. The current one doesn't seem to be as efficient as it has been a hundred years ago.

By the way, apparently Churchill also said:
You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.
So, perhaps Americans will indeed elect one of those Republican candidates. The following years could be fun to watch - from afar.

Unfortunately, as the reasonability-strategy turns into the unpopular, but rather effective become-your-opponent-to-defeat-him strategy, the country also loses something: A honest discussion of good ideas. I just read Mr. Stiglitz latest book. And I agree 80%. My guess is that the President also agrees 80%. But his reasonability-approach prevents the country from discussing good ideas. The public dabate is all about how bad/good republican ideas are, and nobody is talking about any other ideas. That's bad for America.

You're welcome, Blizzard

Blizzard is once again looking at all options to make the LFD work. But, just like in the past, they are not radical enough. Here I present to you what will be needed to balance the LFD roles.

1) Don't allow non-tanks to pull mobs. Don't allow misguided individuals to cause a bad mood.

2) Always have mobs attack the tank, no matter what. Don't inconvenience the tank.

3) Don't allow any group of mobs to be pulled that is not in line. The dungeons are linear for a reason. Remove aggro ranges.

4) Add a minimum dps that is sufficient to beat the dungeon. This minimum dps magically removes the hitpoints from mobs in combat. The question should never be whether a group successfully finishes a dungeon, but only how fast. The worst possible group should not need more than about 15 minutes to beat a dungeon; your customers live busy lifes. Always encourage time investment, never enforce it.

5) Don't allow the mobs to kill the tank just because the healer doesn't heal him. Instead, tanks should become immune to damage when at about 10% life. Don't allow anybody, including the healer, to affect the tank's mood in a negative way. Rather, encourage the healer to keep the tank's health over 50% by increasing his chance at acquiring minipets/titles/beta invites/etc.

6) Add lots of messages that automatically pop up when a player's performance drops below average. Tell the player that it is your mistake and how sorry you are. Make the customer's computer download a 'hotfix' next time he starts the game.

7) Develop an AI that praises each player every few minutes. Make it appear as if the other players are the source. (You might think that players are too smart for this kind of thing, and you're right. But it makes them happy, anyway.)

And a general advise: in case that your customer numbers drop further I suggest to give out more legendaries.

Much luck, Blizzard !! Only a few more steps and paradise awaits!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Guild Wars 2, Gamescom 2011

Here's the latest commented gameplay video of Guild Wars 2. Nice graphics, I think. Generally, a rather innovative game in a lot of ways, too. So I continue to plan to have a look into it when it is eventually released.

I won't say much about the gameplay, because the presentation was unable to tell me anything about how it feels to play GW2! Which leads me to what I want to say.

The commenter is a complete disaster. When you want to convince somebody about a product you don't compare yourself directly. You don't say "Isn't THIS awesome!? No other MMO does this!".
That's like saying: "I am richer than most guys you have ever met, which is why I am qualified to spend time with you this evening".

It's wrong for two reasons.
First, you want the audience to draw its own conclusions. To tell them what they have to think doesn't work. ... Unless you have the game magazine press in front of you and want to make it especially easy for them to "analyze" your product.
With customers that are not interested in writing about the game to make a living, but rather interested in playing the game, this just doesn't work.

Secondly, you want to behave as if extraordinary things are completely normal to you. To say "This really big dragon is actually one of our smaller ones", is like telling the job interview guy "Actually, I am even more awesome than I have just proven!".

Even ignoring the commenter, the whole presentation is set up the wrong way. I didn't get the feeling as if I were on some kind of adventure, instead I felt like a tourist and not really interested in anything. That's an inherent problem with current gameplay-presentations.

Generally, this kind of presentation is like showing one-minute-long snapshots of 20 different soccer games to prove to me how great soccer is at building tension.
Don't say what you want to prove, instead prove it! Or, at least, send an emotional message. Make me understand what playing Guild Wars 2 feels like.

Have a look at TV ads. For instance, if they want to sell you a car, they don't say "The new steering technology makes the car more dynamic. No other car company does it this way". Instead, they show you stuff like that*.
Now, you know that they are overexaggerating, of course. But they get an emotion across, instead of just bragging about it.

While a MMORPG TV ad should be similar to the linked one, a 45 minute presentation should, of course, be more truthful.

Current MMORPG presentations are set up as if by game designers for game designers, while cutting all the stuff game designers would actually be interested in.

The perfect MMORPG presentation feels as if your big brother plays this fascinating game that you don't really understand. Yet.

* Notice how this ad is about a succession of interesting decisions. More specifically, evading ground effects. Notice how you wonder how it will end. This curiosity makes you watch it until the end.

** Of course, if this ad were a MMORPG ad, the car would be showered in lightning effects and destroy the clouds with two-mile-long nuclear missiles that appear out of nowhere.

WoW Threat

Removing threat from WoW. Oh, this is just silly. I don't even think it's necessarily a bad idea. But I lose all respect for this WoW team. Once again, they seem more driven by the 'unforeseen' consequences of their past actions than by conscious game design.

Oh Blizzard! Why don't you just make a new game when you want to make a new game !?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An Anthem

Reading lots of news about lots of different opinions about Europe's future, I eventually stumbled over Europe's anthem.
That's right, we actually have one ;)

Naturally I tried to find some music videos. That wasn't at all easy. At first I found this guy. Now, that wouldn't even be all that bad, if he hadn't recorded himself on video. Perhaps, in the far future people will look back on our age and determine that this kind of video was characteristic; I hope not.

Anyway, I continued my search and really couldn't find the English version being performed by a professional. So I will link you to the original German version.

However fitting it may seem to have an European anthem with German text, it's not a good idea, in my opinion. Anyway, you might want to know what the text actually says. That's a challenge even if German is your mother tongue.

At first I found this. Oh my god! That's actually funny!

Eventually, I found a nice German/English translation of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Enjoy ;)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Are Aventurine reading this blog ?

Aventurine produces Darkfall. A game I never played, but always observed.

Now they are about to release Darkfall 2.0, which is considered a new game. I think that's a good idea. Reading some of the changes, I found myself laughing.

Character skill set customization and role selection through the implementation of Darkfall’s new armor system and through attribute boost via achievements: What armor you wear greatly affects which skills you can use effectively and it makes others ineffective. You’re highly specialized in one role making your character extremely efficient and effective in that role. The major attribute boost works exponentially to give your character access to special items and weapons setting him further apart from the hybrids.
New skills are going to be added, and redundant ones will be removed from the game.
Skill and attribute gains have changed considerably. If a new player focuses on a single role, he will excel at that role in a relatively short time frame through casual play. More options and more roles will become available to him. Players can use one specialization at a time however.

Now, if that isn't my role system. The "What you wear is what you are" idea. The transfer of EVE Online to a fantasy MMORPG !

Well done, Aventurine! And thanks for testing my idea ... Is it actually possible to copyright such ideas ? ;)