Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fighting some WoW Legends

People tell me to go fight higher level mobs if I wanted a challenge. So that's what I did.

I also tried out vimeo as an alternative to youtube. The video itself is just a 16 minute run of the last dungeon of the Scarlet Monastery. Oh - and I let my tank die, because he wants to fight mobs, while I am busy killing a boss. Or so ..
The dungeon run itself is rather typical nowadays. So if you think about giving the WoW leveling game another try. This is what awaits you.

Here you can actually download the original version that I uploaded. If you are interested in the difference.

I returned to 720p and played around with some of the more mystical options of the encoder. Tell me if it helped ;)

That SW:TOR Launch Date

It's supposed to be 22.12.2011 and a lot of people are arguing a lot about it. Here's just my one thought. EA doesn't use the 22.12. despite a lot of people not able to play. They use it because a lot of people aren't going to play. If you want to have a smooth start for an MMO, that anybody interested in playing at launch day is going to buy anyway, the 22.12. is your best bet.

I don't really like Youtube

Late this evening I started to explore what the youtube second encoding actually does to the quality of the video. And unfortunately I found out that it is quite disastrous. I created a useless 1080p test video which you can watch at youtube, if you want.

At frame 320, that is after 10.68 seconds, when I am just turning the camera at high speed, I looked at three frames: the original frame of the 2.7 GB video with lossless compression by Fraps. The H.264 CRF=20 encoded frame (37.3 MB) which I uploaded to youtube. And the frame of the youtube video at 1080p (19.2 MB).

Here are the three pictures. For example open them in different tabs of the browser and quickly switch back and forth to spot the differences. Make sure that any zoom is off.

The difference between the original and the H.264 compressed pictures are visible, but negligible. The difference to the youtube version, however, is not negligible at all. And that's the 1080p version. The 720p version, let alone the 480p version look simply terrible. At least when I think of all the effort I put into creating the perfect quality/bandwidth solution.

Does anybody have an idea?

Monday, September 26, 2011

My Priest

Laszarus, my undead priest, still lives. He has some advantages over my warrior. I actually never really healed in WoW before as in contrast to dpsing and tanking. I did heal some ten times with my druid in late-TBC raids, but found it extremely boring. If everything goes well you have nothing to do. And if something goes wrong you can shine. But WoW being WoW, less and less went wrong in instances, and raid healing was a pure spam at late-TBC.

But the Cataclysm healing revamp is actually a lot of fun. At least up to level 38. I actually can go out of mana quite easily and training to save mana - even if you wouldn't need to - is very effective at keeping the mind busy. In addition to that, my discipline priest can actually do damage and heal this way. Quite often this is sufficient. Actually, the tanks that pull enough mobs in the dumbed down leveling instances to ever require anything but me dealing damage are rare. The skill is called atonement; have a look at the pic.

Now, the leveling game is ridiculous with my priest. He is virtually immortal even if I jump quest lines and try to do quests of my level! There's no way I am going to suffer through this !
But the dungeon running is fun. If the tanks are cautious, like most unfortunately are, I can do damage and heal more than enough at the same time. If the tanks are boisterous a dungeon run takes about 7 minutes and is quite fun. And sometimes I can even join as a DD. This is, however really not fun at all in my experience. I go oom really fast as a shadow priest and without the ability to do ae damage stuff dies before my dots had any chance of ticking through. As a consequence I often don't even switch to shadow and rather annoy the healer of the party by damage-healing everybody. It got me kicked a few times ;)

Waiting times for healer/dd is about 1-5 minutes for me most of the day. It becomes much worse late in the evening for some reason. My goal is to get to 85 and do some random raids. Will I get there? I really don't know - actually I doubt it. WoW with this kind of dumbed down leveling is not worth paying 12.99€. And it's not like I need the 12.99€ for something else. If WoW went f2p I would probably play a bit, but I would never pay a dime. Pick your poison, Blizzard, or improve the leveling game.

Here are two youtube videos. One to demonstrate how much fun a good tank is. And one to demonstrate why I will never, ever play the leveling game in its current state. These are 1080p (1920x1080) and H.264, CRF=20. They look considerably worse at 720p, just so you know :).
I actually found out that my i5 2500K 4x 3.30GHz in combination with the 2x Samsung Spinpoint F3 in raid 1 configuration and the 16GB ram can encode a video, play WoW on highest details, record this session and upload one to youtube all at the same time. The case does get quite hot this way, though. Yeah, sorry for bragging, but I was honestly surprised ;).

Just a silly comparison: This zombie hits me for about 40 with every hit. That is 2.64% of my 1513 total hit points. Now have a look at this. These guys hit my level 5 warrior for 20. And he has 136 hit points (and is a warrior!). That is 14.70% with each hit. Not only does my priest at level 32 take 5.57 times as many hits as my level 5 warrior. He also can heal himself at a much higher rate without ever losing mana and has a myriad of abilities to use in case of an emergency. These are fundamentally different games, really. You could also say that I have 11x as many hit points, but the mobs only do about 2x as much damage per hit. Ridiculous, eh?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Exsanguis, Video Encoding

You probably want to know what Exsanguis did after he got to level 10. Well, he decided to see what life's like at level 20. He even recorded some snapshots of his adventures. Here's the youtube playlist.

Do you remember this guy? That's Exsanguis at level 5. He sometimes loses against mobs of his level and has no chance in hell against more than one mob. Same for Exsanguis at level 4 or 6.

Now have a look at this guy. This is Exsanguis at level 20. He tanked all the four dungeons of his level once. (I tanked, because I didn't want to wait 45 minutes each time.) Now, think of this: Who plays the more hardcore game? The new player at level 4-6 or the advanced player at level 20?

Remember, Exsanguis didn't do any BGs. He doesn't wear any heirlooms. He never had rested exp. He didn't belong to a guild, which had 'supported' him with an exp bonus. He never learned any profession, which award advantages and exp nowadays. He never used the auction house to buy better equipment. He certainly didn't enchant his equipment or used any potions.

Now imagine Exsanguis wanted to complete the level 14 quests he suspended to run each LFD once. He is in for some very mind-numbing experience that doesn't even reward him in any way but with the story. And even though that story has become better, it's not that good.

Level 4-9 were fun. Maybe even a bit too hard. Playing perfectly it should be possible to beat two mobs, I think. LFD-tanking is arguably fun. Unfortunately there aren't enough dungeons to level up to max without repeating dungeons many, many times. And it's only fun for tanks anyway. A mage at that level drinks more than he casts when he encounters a tank like Exsanguis. And a healer is finding himself doing damage unless the tank overpulls all the time. Am I going to continue playing Exsanguis? No, thank you.

WoW's reputation as an overly trivial leveling game is absolutely correct. But not for a new player. WoW's leveling is only trivial for advanced players of level 10 and especially level 20 and higher. For low level players WoW is actually pretty difficult. The notion that Blizzard wants to dumb WoW down to appeal to new players is therefore either wrong or assumes that Blizzard spectacularly failed at dumbing down.

About the making of these videos:
I used Fraps and Virtual Dub. Here are a few screenshots:

I use the standard settings of the codec and control the quality and thus size of the video with H.264 single pass crf=23.0. crf=0 is lossless and crf=51.0 is the lowest quality I can use. I have WoW run in a window at 1280x700, which equals youtube's 720p. I tested recording my native 2560x1600 resolution and while it was technically possible, it doesn't make a lot of sense to upload such a thing to youtube. I would have to downsize it and that results in hardly readable text and generally a worse quality. The cutscene with Sylvanas is actually 1920x1080=1050p. It was feasible because there was not much motion going on. However, if you watch the 1050p version on youtube at 720p it looks significantly worse than a native 720p. It also doesn't make a lot of sense for watchers who don't have a 1050p screen. According to my blog's statistics that's still the majority.

I also tried recording to a 32GB USB 3.0 stick, instead of the HD raid 1 that is also used to load the game. If USB 3.0 would actually work as promised that should get rid of any stuttering. Unfortunately it doesn't. At 1280x700 that isn't a problem anyway. But at my native resolution I would probably have to turn the raid into a raid 0 or just dissolve the raid for two different HDs. Alternatively I could use the SSD, but SSDs become slower the less free space they have available and also don't live forever. So I don't want to use it for raw, unencoded video data that easily grows to 100GB in size.

Since I am completely new at video making I had to learn a few things. Theoretically you could transfer a very high quality encoded video to youtube. For example CRF=10. But I don't have that kind of internet. 30 seconds are about 15 MB at my setting right now. Once youtube has the video it encodes it again. There's some loss happening there. If you uploaded a 1050p video at a time when youtube didn't offer 1050p videos, it would still be stored in the original version. Later, when youtube supported streaming of 1050p videos, it would just look at your original video and whether it was good enough for 1050p. If it is, youtube then offers the 1050p version, too.

Therefore, if I had an extremely fast internet, I could record at my native 2560x1600 and then encode it without loss, or a very low crf. Then I could upload those tens of GB to youtube. And should youtube, in the future, ever support 2560x1600, the video would automatically be offered at that quality setting. Alternatively, I could buy some space online and just offer my video for download there. This way I would circumvent youtube's second encoding which does still lead to some significant loss of quality.

WoW was dumbed down for the Hardcore, Part III

Final part of this series, I think. I figured out how to make reasonably good looking movies and upload them to youtube. And to put my new-found skills to work I created an undead warrior and leveled 1-10 with him. I took snapshots of every level to show you how dramatically the difficulty varies.

I play quite well - certainly better than you would a newbie exspect to play. But I sometimes pull extra mobs to make a point. "Resson the Needler" is almost not beatable at level 7 with a warrior, by the way. And he is certainly not beatable at level 6, which my priest managed to do.

At about level 5-6 it is basically impossible to even beat two mobs of equal level. Later it becomes a bit easier. At level 10 I beat 4 mobs of equal and higher level easily. Even a fight against one orange level 13 (only orange one in the videos) with two adds is finished without even having low health.

If a newbie doesn't put Rend on mobs first, doesn't use Thunder Clap right after and doesn't plan to use Victory Rush effectively, he doesn't stand much of a chance against more than one mob; until level ten. Keep in mind that I don't have any green items and only wear what the quests give me.

Here's the Youtube playlist. Make sure to switch to 720p for highest quality. The entire playlist is about 10 minutes long. But it can be watched one by one.

This should be the final proof that WoW never systematically dumbed the early levels down. Some stuff is absurdly trivial (e.g. drowning, falling damage, level 1-3). But level 4-6 are hell for a newbie. Even single mobs can kill you if you have an unlucky series of misses and parries or some delay in pressing keys.

Once you are LFD-geared and don't actively fight the outleveling of content, the leveling game becomes the joke we all know. Perhaps I'll make a few vids about that soon.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

WoW was dumbed down for the Hardcore, Part II

Yesterday I gave you a few videos for my level 6 undead priest Laszerus. Today I'll give you two videos for my level 11 undead priest Laszerus.

You remember the video where level 6 Laszerus almost gets killed by a level 7 goul, do you? Now take a look at this. I easily drop two mobs at the same time without even taking damage. One is my level, the other one below. It was hard enough to find those, because I already started outleveling the area just from doing quests.

Most mobs at that time were level 8-9. A fight against them looked like this.

These are my stats:

And from there it gets worse and worse. Hit level 15, do a few dungeons and soon all mobs are grey. You don't even kill them before they reach you: you often one-hit them.

My point stands: If Blizzard tried to dumb down the new player experience, they spectacularly failed in the level range 4-9. A level 4-9 warrior, for example, dies whenever he pulls two mobs of his level in the undead starting area. And this starting area is one of the most popular. But as soon as you hit level 10 and get your specialization the sky is the limit. I easily killed four mobs of my level yesterday, but unfortunately didn't capture it.

The only explanation I have is that Blizzard only made a half-hearted effort at dumbing down the new-player difficulty. They dumbed down level 1-3 and level 11-85. But they forgot about 4-9. They are either stupid or just don't really care about the new player experience all that much. If new players really rage quit when they die too often, they would all ragequit at level 4-9. Of course they don't. They rather boredom-quit at 10-85.

Would this kind of inconsistency remain in heroic raids? Just imagine one boss is trivial, the other is really hard. Would Blizzard adjust balace? Yes, within a few days. If need be they would re-invent the paladin. And all that for a few heroic-mode raiders. But the new players that Blizzard supposedly caters for are stuck with massive balance inconsistencies for months, if not years now. And I am not even talking about battlegrounds (look at the HP).

I worked a bit on my video encoding skills and thus the text on the vids is actually readable. File size is still below 5MB each.

Friday, September 23, 2011

WoW was dumbed down for the Hardcore

The title says it. Let me explain by showing you my new undead priest. His name is Laszarus. He is now level 7, but a few minutes ago he was level 6. He has done every single quest up to that point and killed just a few extra mobs.

On his way to Brill he encounters the Cold Hearth Manor. He gets a new quest near the road to kill some of the undead.

He succeeds. Here's the video. As you can see, he does fairly well. (Look at the health bars!) Even extensive theoreycrafting would not increase his performance by much. He survives the fight barely. His enemy in the video is a level 7 normal undead he needed to kill for the quest.

Then he encounters Ressan the Needler on the field. Ressan is a level 9 rare mob. Laszarus decides to kill him. The smart new player that he is, he first clears the area. Then he starts his first attempt. As you can see, Laszarus did the mistake to pull with Shadow Word: Pain. This mistake seals his death.

But Laszarus doesn't give up. This time he does everything right. He pulls at max distance, casts Power Word: Shield on himself first. Lets his mana fill up again. Then he first casts a Smite followed by a Shadow Word: Pain. He then continues to keep the Shadow Word:Pain on the target while recasting the Power Word: Shield on himself when it falls off. He also allows his health to drop to about 50% to allow for higher dps and more mana, doesn't panic when his health/mana gets low and chains casts without latency delay. Here is the video.

Just barely, Laszarus prevails. This is a high-quality screenshot of his stats after he killed Ressan the Needler. And once more via google.

What do we learn? WoW for the new player is a thrilling experience. He can win most fights he encounters, but some require him to do everything right. It's exactly the kind of game I used to love. Until about level 10. And unless you use heirlooms.

WoW was not dumbed down for the new players. It wasn't dumbed down at all for new players. Or Blizzard spectacularly failed at dumbing down at level 1-10. Honestly, that sounds less probable than it is ... Of course, WoW was absolutely dumbed down after level 10!

WoW was dumbed down for, and more importantly by, the hardcore. Only the hardcore have an interest in leveling extra fast with their twinks.

My interpretation (remains): WoW is maintained by hardcore raiders. And these raiders have no idea about the casual or new-player experience. They are forced by their management to also maintain the leveling game and normal raids and stuff. But they don't really care. They just want heroic raids and high-end PvP. They half-heartedly dumb down arbitrary content trying to fulfill their obligations.

From a hardcore raider's point of view there is no way to make leveling more interesting. A hardcore raider sees no point in solo-kiting mobs for two minutes. It's trivial. That's why they just make it shorter and more trivial, so that it's less of a pain in the ass.

In case you want to test this yourself: just doing quests, it takes about an hour to make it to level 6 and Ressan the Needler (without reading quest texts, of course ..)

In the following posts I give much more proof and high quality videos to further strengthen my point. You should especially take a look at this post.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Which Unfortunately Matters

There are two things about MMORPGs that unfortunately matter.

First, it matters a lot to me whether I can play from the start. A lot of the early fun in MMORPGs is in the exploration of the game and its world. And “to go where no one has gone before” is always something that significantly increases exploration-fun for me. To explore something that is already very well documented on several internet-wikis and has been experienced by every player I encounter already is – unfortunately – less fun.

Second, to play a game that matters. A big game. This is something indies have to struggle with – unfortunately. A lot of the fun in a MMORPG comes from the feeling that you are not playing some niche game, but THE game. Of course, the time of THE game may be gone by now. Just like the time of THE weekly blockbuster is gone.

Don't call me irrational. I know I arguably am. That's why I call these things unfortunate. I would be better off if I could ignore these things. And I certainly try to do so. But at the end of the day I have to admit they unfortunately matter.

Music and your Eyes

Yesterday I decided to create a little game just for myself. I looked for pictures of my screen resolution at google and bing. I typed in terms like “love”, “violett”, "snow", “loud”, “water”, “heat”, while first listening to Metallica's Outlaw Torn. Note the e-guitar solo near the end. It's one of the best there is.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dear Syl: Microtransactions

This is my latest attempt to convince people that microtransactions (MTs) are (mostly) bad for MMOs. It was encouraged by Syl's comments in my last post.

First, let's talk about immersion, or more specifically, consistency of the game with its underlying simulation. The possibility of using real world money to make an in-game difference bothers me. Period. This is completely subjective. In my opinion, a virtual world should be as closed as possible. To open it up to the vast real world wealth differences is unacceptable. One reason to play these games is escapism and this just doesn't work this way. For me.

This is really something you have to accept, Syl. Because it's not something one can argue about. I mean, sure you can sell a different skin for the client of the game. That would be the kind of microtransaction I could perhaps agree with. But apart from that: I don't like it. Please accept this.

But I also have a more general problem with MTs: They are part of a strong trend in our world towards obfuscated payment schemes and contracts. To understand why this a problem, is not as easy. Take this Wikipedia quote:
In economics, a perfect market is defined by several conditions, collectively called perfect competition. Among these conditions are

- Perfect market information
- No participant with market power to set prices
- No barriers to entry or exit
- Equal access to production technology

The mathematical theory is called general equilibrium theory. On the assumption of Perfect Competition, and some technical assumptions about the shapes of supply and demand curves, it is possible to prove that a market will reach an equilibrium in which supply for every product or service, including labor, equals demand at the current price. This equilibrium will be a Pareto optimum, meaning that nobody can be made better off by exchange without making someone else worse off.


This attribute of perfect markets has profound political and economic implications, as many participants assume or are taught that the purpose of the market is to enable participants to maximize profits. It is not. The purpose of the market is to efficiently allocate resources and to maximize the welfare of consumers and producers alike. The market therefore regards excess profits, or economic rents, as a signal of inefficiency, that is of market failure, which is to say, not achieving a Pareto optimum.
Payment schemes do not become more obfuscated over time, because it's good for consumers. They become more obfuscated, because this way the suppliers can circumvent one basic assumption of the free-markets theory: Perfect market information.

Many free-market advocates in our world understand this theory very well. They understand the political power the idea of free markets have, not the least due to this mathematical proof. And they understand that the proof, that perfect markets create a Pareto optimum for everybody, can be misused! If you make the free market so incredibly free that you allow the suppliers to obfuscate payment schemes you can gain a lot of economic rent and move away from the Pareto optimum.

The U.S. debate about regulations for the financial markets is one perfect example of this. But so is the complex mobile phone payment packages I recently went through. Or that contract you agree with when installing games.

Nobody reads this stuff. And those who do, do not understand the implications of the §paragraphs. Some of it is necessary for a complex society to work, of course. But a lot exists, because suppliers can get away with it. Because consumers aren't educated enough and not organized enough to make a difference. Oh, and because we have only limited time and calculating the correct decision is not without economic cost. Which is something the perfect market model ignores.
Take the “You don't own your character, you only own the right to access it and we can take that right away whenever we want.”. Do you think that this is the Pareto optimum?

Actually, the Wiki Article forgets to mention rational consumers. They are required for free markets to fulfill their promise. (And for the mathematical proof to work).
But humans aren't rational, of course. And this fact can be exploited. And that's exactly what microtransactions allow the supplier to do really well. I listed many of the ways how this exploitation works in my prior post that you say to disagree with completely. I can't see how one can even disagree with every single point there, Syl.

Psychochild and Tesh simply argued that monthly subs can be misused as well. That's ridiculous. Monthly subs can be misused, yes. But the potential for misuse is very limited. There's no way to make me pay more than the monthly sub per month. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Psychochild likes to argue that he knows perfectly well how much he paid for F2P games, but not for WoW. Now, the only explanation I have for that is that Psychochild wrote down all his expenses for F2P games, but not for sub-based games. Which is already telling.
If he hadn't done that, it would be much easier to find out how much he paid for the monthly subs: He would just have to multiply the months with the monthly sub. While he would have to research his credit card payment history to find out how much he payed for the F2P games. Which of the two is easier to do? (Oh, and don't start to argue that WoW's MTs were used. That supports my point.)

Syl, you wrote just recently:
So, I did it. And again, and again. The first set was shockingly bad and then I bought a wrong one by mistake (it was called Transcendence, what can I say). So I bought one more that I finally liked. And since I have 2 characters I play on different servers, I bought another for my high-level priest, too. This is my story on how I spent 40 Euros on virtual wardrobe until I was out of cash to even buy that bag.
Sorry if that quote is out of context. But did you consider that you bought a virtual wardrobe for an amount of money that you could also had used to play World of Warcraft with all instances, raids, dungeons, all quests, all areas, most items, .. for three months?? I mean, isn't that a bit out of proportion?

Among the things that are 'exploitative' about MTs, is that they are always there. Whenever you play. Humans aren't perfectly rational. We have irrational weaknesses. (And irrational strengths, of course). If you play a game just for two hours a day for one year that makes about 500 hours that year (roughly). Now, if your brain has just a 0.1% chance per hour to spend irrational amounts of money in an compulsive purchase, you have a 39.4% chance to do it at least once during the 500 hours! And that's just one consumer!

Humans aren't perfect, aren't always in control. We are fallible. Just like the communist ideology failed, (among other reasons) because humans aren't selfless beings, the free markets can fail because humans aren't always rational agents inside a perfect market. A societal system needs to respect this and turn our weaknesses into strengths, like the market economy originally tried to do. But the wind is blowing the other way. And microtransactions are one manifestation of the problem.

You are not so smart. Read just this one post by McRaney.
In Seattle in 2001, a 26-year-old woman who had recently ended a relationship held up traffic for a little too long as she considered the implications of leaping to her death. As motorists began to back-up on the bridge and become irate, they started yelling “Jump, bitch, jump!” until she did.
But better read all his posts.

The topic is, unfortunately, vast. I tried to give it some structure, but this post cannot be the final answer that I would certainly like it to be. If this doesn't convince you, there's really not much I can do. There's a chance you will be able to circumvent the traps the psychologists developed for you. But think of those who cannot! If playing a sub-based game like WoW could ruin people's lifes by making them invest more time than they should, what could a microtransactions-based game, that is as compelling as WoW, do to peoples' lifes?
And they wouldn't even speak about it. Shame is part of the plan.

About Tomorrow

Microtransactions have won. And it hurts. It really hurts me to see it, but it's obvious. There are many players nowadays who think that microtransactions are good. Sure, there are also about as many (perhaps a few less) who hate them, but the problem is that those who love microtransactions don't like subs in return. There's 'balance'.

Given the choice, the companies go for the more profitable business model and that's microtransactions by far. The really popular games can still have a sub and box costs – but in addition to microtransactions!

There are people out there who think that they can actually buy fun with microtransactions. I read those comments myself; it's not second-hand knowledge. Ironically, they are right. I mean, buying stuff does make people happy. And it is the dream of every businessman on earth to sell a virtual pink hat that people buy because they get fun out of the shopping itself instead of the actual hat. Which soon gets replaced by the virtual black helmet, and put back to storage, where the player collects his treasures. We could call this storage Gollum's cave.

As a consequence I will probably have to give up my resistance against these games. I will probably have to play them if I want to play any AAA MMORPG at all in the future. If it required any more reasons to assume that capitalism doesn't always gives the best answer to consumer demand, here it is. Which doesn't mean that I have a better system in mind, of course.

What will be next? I have an idea! What about a game that has a cost for the box in addition to a monthly and yearly sub? Yes, why just one sub? Those who play more should pay more! Totally just, don't you agree? Then we add microtransactions for content, power, vanity, style, .. everything!! And we add a hourly rate! Brilliant!
This completely obfuscated business model allows us to keep every single transfer really low! And so far there are no regulations for the small print in MMOs, as far as I know! What about a choice for the consumer between eight different payment packages – including a credit-based financial solution; just in case you don't have the money, but also want to buy the next three games in the series for a special price (they haven't been released yet).
Of course, all the prices depend on the supplier's best guess about what you individually would be willing to pay. They have statistics! – welcome to the future: Consumer surplus was yesterday!

I get the feeling that humanity is slowly entering Ray Kurzweil's Singularity. It's just that it get's started by humans, not by AI! The more intelligent specimen of humanity, empowered by statistics and a deep understanding of the human psyche, start to take serious advantage of the less intelligent, less empowered specimen. Those less fortunate specimen experience a singularity. They don't understand anything, but they like working and buying.

A world built upon greed, fear and fun; a remarkable innovation!

Latest WoW changes are good

I actually like the latest WoW changes. I might even resub for a month. The LFRaid feature seems to feature much easier challenges. This leads to a much smoother learning curve once you have a character at max level.
I like the idea to do anonymous raids at very low difficulty where I can learn the fight and experience the story, and then unsub again. Theoretically there's the chance that I get to know other people on the server and move on to 'normally' difficult raids with them. But hoping to get to know people in nowadays WoW, especially via LFR feature, is probably a bit naïve.

WoW is, of course, not really a MMO anymore; not in the traditional sense, anyway. And it's far removed from where I would like the genre go. But taking WoW for what it is and actively adjusting my own expectations might allow me to get some more fun out of it. It might be worth the 12.99€.

Now I just need to find out how to get a max level char, because leveling for two-digit hours while two-shooting mobs and canceling quest lines vs. leveling for three-digit hours while one-shooting mobs and not canceling quest lines, is really one of the worst choices (incomparable) ever in computer gaming.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Gamification done right

Foldit is a multiplayer online game that enlists players worldwide to solve difficult protein-structure prediction problems. Foldit players leverage human three-dimensional problem-solving skills to interact with protein structures using direct manipulation tools and algorithms from the Rosetta structure prediction methodology. Players collaborate with teammates while competing with other players to obtain the highest-scoring (lowest-energy) models. In proof-of-concept tests, Foldit players—most of whom have little or no background in biochemistry—were able to solve protein structure refinement problems in which backbone rearrangement was necessary to correctly bury hydrophobic residues. Here we report Foldit player successes in real-world modeling problems with more complex deviations from native structures, leading to the solution of a long-standing protein crystal structure problem.
The critical role of Foldit players in the solution of the M-PMV PR structure shows the power of online games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems. Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowdsourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem. These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.
Other links: (1) (2) (3)

And here is the paper.

The Structure of Choices

Thinking a bit about the different kinds of choices, I just want to write down the best way to structure them. It's mostly a reminder for myself. This is an iteration of the calculation/incomplete information problem/incomparable distinction by Extra Credits.
Make sure to read the earlier posts on this topic to maximize your chances at understanding this one (1) (2) (3) :)
  1. the player thinks one of the possible decisions is the right one
    1. the right decision can realistically be calculated beforehand
      (e.g. tick-tack-toe, overall WoW boss strategies for the average player)
    2. the right decision can not be calculated beforehand
      1. because the player doesn't have sufficient tools/time
        (e.g. tournament chess against a computer, medium-term WoW boss fights)
      2. because the player does not have enough information
        (e.g. poker, chess against a human, WoW boss tactics)
      3. because of luck
        (e.g. gambling, RNGs, short-term WoW boss fights)
    3. but he is wrong
      (e.g. public quest rewards in early Warhammer Online)

    1. the player thinks there is no right decision
      1. the choice is an incomparable
        (e.g. looking good vs. being more effective, WoW boss fights)
      2. but he is wrong
        (I can't think of an example, can you?)

      Please note that the inability to predict one's own success at execution turns many games into 1.2.2. You don't know whether your next kick will hit the goal in soccer. You have to make an educated guess concerning the probability and use this guess to determine your course of action.

      Please also note that many games become 1.2.2., because the opponent is not predictable. That's why chess against a human also has a lot to do with poker. At the end of the day the distinction between 1.2.1. and 1.2.2. blurs. A neuroscientist might be able to predict your opponent's next move, so it's not inherently unpredictable.

      Finally, 1.2.3. could be considered a special case of 1.2.2. The point really is what the player thinks is responsible for his inability to predict the right decision a priori. If he thinks luck is responsible, his reaction is usually completely different than compared to somebody outsmarting him. Some players like the one more than the other and vice versa.

      Why is this structure superior to the one given by Extra Credits? First, because Extra Credits talks about what is, not about what the player thinks. This might not always be a big difference, but at the end of the day what the player thinks is what counts. Second, because whether the player can access the right answer before he acts is more important than whether there is incomplete information or not.

      Many choices fall into more than one category. WoW boss fights, obviously, also use random numbers, for example. And the player might even start to ponder whether it is more important to do the most dps (look good) or help the team. So WoW boss fights, among other things, also use incomparables. It doesn't surprise me at this point that WoW, despite all its failings, manages to keep your mind busy with so much stuff.

      Sunday, September 18, 2011

      Careful with Incomparables: Tolthir's Comment

      This is the third recent post about “choice”. I'll take a closer look at a comment Tolthir left at the first one.

      Okay, here's a question. You seem to be assuming that a meaningful choice has to have a unique right answer. But the hallmark of an interesting choice is that it doesn't have one.
      A decision, as a response to a choice, is something that helps the player reach his goals. For example, these goals can either be doing maximum dps, or having a cool looking character – or both. Different goals induce different “unique right answers”.

      We can use the Extra Credits terminology: calculations, incomplete information problems and incomparables.
      Calculations can be thought through before you make a decision, incomplete information problems could be thought through before you make a decision, but you miss information and usually have to make an educated guess. Incomparables make you ask yourself “What do I actually want? Do I want the apples or the oranges? Do I want to look cool or do more dps? How much less dps is a good look worth – and vice versa?”

      Calculations and incomplete information problems have a unique right answer, because they have a clearly defined goal. Incomparables don't have a clearly defined goal. They require you to make up your mind about what you actually want – something humans generally enjoy only in small doses in my experience! Should you make up your mind, an incomparable becomes a calculation or incomplete information problem, but many players never ultimately make up their mind. Consequently, the incomparable stays an incomparable forever and only generates transitory calculations or incomplete information problems.

      Incomparables tend to produce less satisfaction compared to choices with clearly defined goals, because the player never really reaches his goal: the correct decision. Incomparables often are frustrating as the player really wants to have the apples and the oranges. Most players want to look cool and do maximum dps. They feel like they shouldn't have to choose. The good thing about incomparables is that the act of choosing never ends. It is therefore cheap 'content', a cheap way to keep the player's mind busy.

      For example, the choice of deck build in Magic the Gathering is interesting. It's not a "flavor" choice (because some decks are more effective than others), but it can't be solved using a spreadsheet (because making a good deck isn't a matter of maximizing a single variable like DPS). You could same the same thing about the choice of move in chess, or block placement in Tetris.
      MtG is an incomplete information problem. If you knew your opponent's deck and how he reacts to your actions you could easily find a unique right deck that maximizes the chances of a win. This, by the way, is the single variable you try to maximize.
      The reason this works in MtG and many other multiplayer games is that players accept the fact that the opponent behaves unpredictably and sometimes irrationally or even arbitrarily. If a boss in a raid behaved this way, most players would consider this frustrating. They wouldn't feel like they should have to fight such an opponent. It would seem unfair to them. A good example for how essential the players' expectations are!

      So here's the question: Why can't MMOs present choices without a unique right answer? Or do they already?
      They easily can and sometimes do. But usually these choices just aren't fun. Humans like to work towards clearly defined goals, like how to look coolest, or how to maximize the dps. But we really don't like to make up our minds. A lot of people even actively seek to stop themselves from thinking about this. That's one reason we marry and get kids and try to be successful in long-term jobs. Trying to achieve something - anything - is generally more fun, than trying to find out what we actually want.

      One could add lots of choices to a MMO that don't have unique right answers. For example, one could force players to choose between leveling fast or experiencing the main story of the game while one-hitting all mobs. WoW does this right now. It is an incomparable. It doesn't have one right answer. It depends on what you want. You need to make up your mind! Do you like this choice?

      Sandbox games like Eve Online are a lot about making up your mind. Do you want to become a rich trader or a pirate hunter? Do you want to do PvP in null-sec or stick to high-sec? Even players who really want to like these games (like myself) suggest that new players just select one (any) goal and stick to it. Pondering about what you want is not a lot of fun. Switching around can be fatal for your fun.

      One of the few incomparables I consider arguably fun is selecting your character in games like Neverwinter Nights. Do I want to play a lawful good paladin or rather a chaotic neutral rogue? Should my wizard be balanced or super-intelligent? This can be fun for quite some time. I tend to spend hours in front of character creators. But I absolutely know that, eventually, I need to decide and stick to my decision to have fun.

      So, to reply to your comment: all choices, except for incomparables, have "unique right answers" xor are meaningless. For a choice to be "interesting", it can absolutely have just one right answer. And while incomparables (which never have one right answer) can be interesting, they are also very difficult to get right as a designer.

      The real problem of "right answers" is that the act of choosing eventually ends. And unless it is repeated, its potential to create fun for the player is thus gone forever. Luckily, most choices in games can be repeated, often under different circumstances.

      Saturday, September 17, 2011

      Choice, Part Two

      Some ten days ago I wrote about choice. This is going to be a follow-up. It will be based on Extra Credits' popular episode “Choice and Conflict”. (You'll probably need to watch this if you want to understand this post..)

      First, Extra Credits doesn't present the broader picture. Choices are just something that keep the mind busy. They are good, because while a player ponders on a decision, his mind is busy. Choices and decisions prevent games from being boring and there is much more about keeping the players' minds busy.

      My newest iteration of the list of things that keep the mind busy is this:
      - information gathering (learning/exploring/watching...)
      - educated guesses
      - understanding/comprehending/setting into context
      - coming up with courses of actions
      - thinking through a course of action
      - decisions/choices

      - tension/relaxing/climaxes/adrenaline
      - gaining/growing/losing/rewards/penalties
      - anticipation of learning/gaining/losing (curiosity, greed, hope, fear, ..).
      - execution: pressing buttons/moving the mouse
      - interacting with other humans (that's a category in its own right)
      (Planing = information gathering + educated guesses where necessary + comprehending + coming up with all possible courses of action + thinking through the course of action + deciding on a specific course of action)

      Next, Extra Credits correctly say that choices are often good in games. What they don't say is that choices can also be bad. Every choice a player feels like he shouldn't have to decide on is a bad one for that player.

      Consider this extreme example:
      ”Would you rather see the end of the game or gain access to a new special ability?”. I am sure you agree that this would be a ridiculous choice that most of us would consider frustrating: We don't think we should have to decide on that. We feel like we should be able to have the cake and eat it, too, in this case.

      Another example are microtransactions. Consider this:
      ”Would you rather spend real money to advance your character faster or kill the same trivial mob 4000 times?”. This is not a cake problem. Some people just feel that they shouldn't have to choose between these two alternatives. This is frustrating.

      When implementing choices in games, making them non-frustrating is very important and a major part of the whole process. The simulation-aspect helps a lot here by convincingly limiting the player's possibilities in a computer game (every byte could do his bidding).

      Choices need to be meaningful and non-trivial, otherwise they are wasted developer time.

      Consider this (imaginary) meaningless choice:
      ”In your 15 – minutes LFG group, would you rather have a fire mage or an arcane mage of equal skill accompany you?”. The WoW player usually wouldn't care.

      An example for a trivial choice are the (old) WoW talent trees:
      ”Would you rather specc your own style, or the most efficient way?” This choice is trivial for many players. From their point of view, the most efficient way is obviously the correct decision. And in combination with other players and the internet, this choice is frustrating for just as many players. They want to be efficient and also play their own style. They feel like they shouldn't have to make that decision. Thus, the talent trees were changed.

      - A meaningless choice is a journey which is not worth its goal (the decision).
      - A trivial choice is very weak at keeping the mind busy and is often frustrating.

      Extra Credits spend most of the video talking about three things:
      a) calculations
      b) incomplete information problems
      c) incomparables

      They state that calculations are not choices, “just decisions”. First, let's note that decisions aren't bad. They are good at keeping the mind busy and many very successful games use them a lot! Moreover, Extra Credits' argument is that a calculation is a calculation, because it can either be right or wrong. This doesn't make sense.

      Take their incomplete information problem, Mushrooms in Super Mario, as an example. There's a right and wrong decision there, too. You just don't have all the data to do a calculation. And, at least as important, you don't have enough time to think it through. All you can do is an educated guess and you might very well turn out to be wrong!

      What makes a calculation a calculation is not that it can either be right or wrong, but rather the possibility of finding the right answer before you apply it. This includes testing. There's always a best-strategy for WoW boss fights. The players are encouraged to find another solution, but if it's too successful, the fight will usually be “fixed”.
      Blizzard wants the players to find the intended (='best') strategy and then execute it successfully. And this is working very well for the few players who don't have access to youtube videos. It's a simple calculation, but what's diminishing it is not this, but that most players have access to boss-guides and youtube videos which turn the choice into a trivial one.

      In fact, the Super Mario mushrooms become trivial calculations if you failed just once. There might still be some choice left depending on your educated guess about your own skill and applying it. But there's no incomplete information left.
      (Of course, you could consider your own inability to predict your success at execution incomplete information. But in that case most games with non-trivial execution are full of incomplete information problems.)

      Anyway, calculations aren't necessarily bad. That's the point of this section. The reason is that they excel at keeping a player's mind busy just as well as incomplete information problems. Most incomplete information problems in games turn out to be calculations, because players can try again.

      I don't share Extra Credits' love for incomparables. I think they can be good, but they often turn out to be meaningless/trivial.

      Take their own example:
      “Would I rather like to make mobs explode into goo or be able to carry more stuff?” Well, even if I liked bodies exploding into goo, I would still prefer to be able to carry more stuff.

      Incomparables often turn out frustrating, because players want to explore the whole game and don't easily accept the choice; they reject it. This was my problem with Starcraft 2's binary “talent trees”. Since I only played the game once and never played multiplayer, I felt like I shouldn't have to play through a second time just to experience the other options (and experience the bland story a second time).

      Finally, defining choices as “internal conflict” sounds great, but after thinking on it for a while, I fail to see how this insight is helpful or even illuminating.

      My main point from last post remains: The act of choosing is a (nested) journey. The final decision is just the goal and helps giving meaning to this journey. As always, the journey is where the fun is actually experienced. It needs to be worth its goal, be non-frustrating and keep the player's mind busy.

      In the next post I will reply to the comments made in the first post.

      Friday, September 16, 2011

      Storybricks Questions

      About two weeks ago I already wrote a bit about Storybricks. If everything goes as planned Kelly will give me a little demonstration this Sunday. This post is about four questions that I had sent to her two weeks ago, and which she had forwarded to Lead Designer Stéphane Bura.

      1) What are the advantages your emotive AI has compared to extensive scripting?
      - The much cheaper cost of content generation
      - The combinatory aspect of each new piece of content (new behaviors, new traits, new interactions), that can even enrich existing stories
      - The simplicity with which you can design stories
      - An unified language for story design and interaction (this is huge and complex to explain. I talk about this in my forthcoming Gamasutra article)
      Sounds good, but since you are answering player questions, not designer questions, more details concerning the final product would have been interesting.

      2) Which released games, which use extensive scripting, could have benefited if they had used your technology, and how exactly?
      Probably none. We’re really offering a new paradigm, a new kind of gameplay that requires that you design your game from the ground up with this in mind.
      Scripting is exactly what you need if you want to control all the aspects of a gaming experience. The StoryBricks present a new way of interacting with a story, as if it were a living system, not a series of gates you have to go through.
      This is almost a revelation! Storybricks aren't actually a powerful tool to do better what is already done. Instead, they require ”a new paradigm, a new kind of gameplay that you design your game from the ground up with.”.
      I honestly can't wait for the new games! However, I am not so sure what the investors think when they read this (?).

      3) Why do you think current AAA MMORPGs don't use extensive scripting for NPCs right now, and why should the developers be interested in the emotive AI then?
      What we’re doing is hard, both at the design and at the technical level, and thus too risky for publishers to even consider. That’s why most of our funding won’t come from the industry, btw.
      Developers *are* interested by emotive AI and living worlds. I’m part of several groups of designers and AI specialists who have been thinking about doing something like this for years. We’re just fortunate enough to be in a company that’s willing to take such a risk.
      I am not surprised at this point that most of your funding doesn't come from the industry. It's like asking traditional car companies 20 years ago to invest into battery research.

      4) Assuming a successful development, how will this affect the player in practice? I.e. how will the queen, in your prominent example, react differently to the player due to the emotive AI?
      This is a vast question because it applies to every detail of our design. Regarding that specific example, once a relationship is established between two characters, it alters the type of interactions they can have together (you can ask something from a friend that you wouldn’t from a stranger, you’re more likely to help a friend than a stranger, etc.). This also means that more plots can be triggered that involve these two characters (righting a wrong done to your friend, protecting them from a threat, involving them in a conflict of interest if, for instance, they’re friends with one of your enemies, etc.).
      This answer is too vague. If you want to convince me (and others, I assume), you need to come up with a more detailed vision of what storybricks actually mean for the p(l)ayer.
      This is really what drives me mad when reading your web page. It's all very nice. But after reading it I still don't know what exactly storybricks are going to be like for me, the player.

      Thursday, September 15, 2011


      Now, before I write a second story bricks post tomorrow and before I write a desperately needed "Choice II" post, here's what I came to think about while I was trying to decide which game to play this evening. I ended up writing this blog post ...

      Most people like to jump into games and just have fun. It's no different for MMORPG players. Sure, we also like to 'work' for a goal that is worth it (and non-frustrating and keeps the mind busy), but sometimes we, too, just want to have fun.

      Of course, we are still starved for a MMORPG that feels worth our time investment. So just like everybody else, I have been playing other games recently. Deus Ex 2 and Crysis 2 were good games, but I finshed them very fast. Playing a second time is difficult as I am bored by the stories.

      So my main game for the last few months whenever I “just wanted to have fun” was Civilization V. Thank god they didn't add a developer-made story there yet! But all this games-playing leaves a sad taste in my mouth. I feel like I am getting nowhere. Like I am not investing in something. And of course my feelings are perfectly correct; I am not.

      For MMORPGs this means that they can and should offer short-term distractions, like grinding mobs, doing BGs or questing. And if these isolated activities are fun in themselves that's great. But what really makes the difference is that I feel like I am building something.

      This not only keeps the mind busy (anticipation of future rewards/fun – very powerful!). It also increases the value of my goals. But I don't want to get too technical in this post. I just wanted to tell you that all the games on my computer feel like meaningless distractions right now. And I am not used to that after half a decade of MMORPG playing.

      Wednesday, September 7, 2011


      Oh, I have one more post in the queue...

      There's been some talk about choice recently. Mostly it was the usual stuff that you can read and watch every few months. That's why I decided to make a post that tells you that you got it all wrong. Yep, everything. *grin*

      Take the (original) WoW talent trees. Some people argue that if one specc is more effective than another, it stops being a choice. Consequently, they conclude that all speccs need to be equally effective. Yet others reject this, because if every choice is equally effective, the choice becomes meaningless. Both are correct! And that's why both are wrong.

      What is fun about a choice is the act of choosing. The final choice is just the goal and gives meaning to the journey. The journey is the act of choosing, the act of deciding. It is where the fun is actually experienced.

      I don't know about you, but I found the 'talent tree' choices in Starcraft II not fun at all. They were about flavor and they were mutually exclusive. This lead to a meaningless choice at best. And a frustrating choice at worst ("I shouldn't have to play through twice to experience each option"). Actually both. If you could have 'respecced', the only reason this choice had been fun, had been for exploring and experiencing all options; not for the act of chosing.

      The important thing to understand is that making a choice, deciding on something, is a journey. It has to take some time, it must not be trivial. But it also must not be too hard! If you make the process of "figuring things out" especially hard, you remove the fun from 99% of the players and move it towards the Elitist Jerks. That's not a very smart thing to do as developer.

      Choices (Journeys) that happen just once can never add much fun to a game on their own. It's like trying to make a huge quest that lasts the entire game and is fun every step of the way. It's not possible.

      What does this mean? Do we have to stop asking the player to chose a specc? No, not at all. We just need to stop demanding that this choice adds a hell of a lot of fun to the game. It cannot!

      If you make a choice about flavor, it is meaningless, if you make it about efficiency it soon stops being a choice, unless you make it especially hard to figure out, in which case the only players who have fun are those with spreadsheets. And only so long until they actually have figured it out. Developers really need to resist trying to make the act of chosing require a spreadsheet. Only a very small proportion of players can get some fun out of this. And that's not good game design. Well, unless you think that players who need to read up on their speccs are on a really fun journey. Do you think that?

      A good choice about where to place a talent point should take a minute at most to figure out, and must not require a spreadsheet. It adds fun for that minute and then it is gone. And that's ok. You can't get more fun out of this single journey.

      A right choice is a goal, the choosing is a journey. And everything written about journeys applies. A single journey that keeps a player's mind busy with just one decision cannot add a hell of lot of fun to the game on its own. We need to accept that.

      Tuesday, September 6, 2011


      Just want to let you know that I'll have no access to a computer for the next few days.

      Monday, September 5, 2011

      Two Reasons

      Last Friday John blogged about why he left Rift. Mostly, he said he just doesn't know. So I asked him a question: "(1) Was there something left you wanted to achieve in Rift and it turned out to be not enough fun to bother? (2) Or did you just stop wanting to achieve anything?"

      At this point, please take a second and decide for yourself. And do it for WoW, too. Which of these two reasons would best describe why you don't play WoW / Rift anymore?

      Done? Good.

      Now, John said that it was the latter. And that's what I'd say for both WoW and Rift for me myself. It's not that the gameplay suddenly became boring. I still like to play my Mage or Druid. Every now and then I think like I should resubscribe just to do that. But then I don't really see why I should do that. Where would it get me and what would I actually do? Kill random mobs? Wait in queues to half an hour later spam a few spells? Why should I bother?

      An analysis of this will be in my next post, when you hopefully commented a bit on this one. Thanks ;)

      Sunday, September 4, 2011


      In general, I think that if players play something it can't be that bad. Thus, to make a good game one should try to make players play it a lot. In my opinion a grind can be a good grind if the player accepts it. However, not every tool that increases /played is a good one. Loss aversion is not.

      When World of Warcraft introduced daily dungeon quests in TBC I welcomed them. I liked that running dungeons would gain me some advantage, because I thought that too few players were running them. I soon changed my opinion when I realized that I forced myself through one dungeon every day.

      When Blizzard introduced daily quests I understood their desire to use some techniques of the fabulously successful leveling game in the endgame. And I understood that there needed to be a limit. Daily quests seemed like a useful thing at first. I soon changed my opinion when I realized that I forced myself through daily quests every day.

      What really happens with dailies can be explained with loss aversion. Players feel as if they miss a sure gain when they skip a daily (/weekly). By introducing an artificial limit of how often an activity can be conducted per day (/week), Blizzard also introduces a potential permanent loss. If you don't do a daily today, it will be lost forever. Thus, you feel like you really should do the daily.

      This is a completely different situation than the typical grind. Since you can always grind as much as you want, you can advance your character at your own pace. What you don't grind today, you can still grind tomorrow. This leads to players playing not as much. Just like you are much less inclined to do your homework today if you can still do it tomorrow.

      But it also leads to players who are more probable to play when they actually want to play; and not to avoid losing something.

      I am relatively unafraid when it comes to making players grind for something. If they do it they probably like it. Loss aversion, however, is different. It burns players out. Players play even though they hate the content! Now, the moral aspect is one thing. But even for the long-term success of the game, I don't think this makes any sense.

      At the end of the day, the company is not interested in players playing. It is interested in players paying. And players who don't play, don't cost a thing. This, of course, assumes a monthly subscription-based business model. Microtransaction-based business models depend on using cognitive fallacies, anyway. Expecting them to not use one as prominent as loss aversion is fatuous.

      But a monthly sub model is perfectly fine, if players play only when they feel like it. From the company's point of view, the important thing is not that they play a lot, but that they remember a fun time from the last session and always feel like there's still something worthwhile they could do in the next one. Some goal to strive for. As long as they feel this way, they won't cancel the sub; irrespective of how much they actually play. In fact, the less they play the longer they need to consume all the content (hint).

      Thus, to use dailies the way today's WoW does, doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Sure, it makes players play more. But why should Blizzard care? Players don't become more satisfied customers by doing dailies! They rather burn out and stop playing as an act of liberation. These players are much less likely to renew subs or return after they canceled them.

      Edit: Sunken cost fallacy didn't exactly fit. I replaced it with "loss aversion".

      The World Upside Down

      For a long time this blog had the motto "MMORPGs should be as credible and consistent as possible and as little as necessary". In my opinion, developers did not try hard enough to make MMORPGs consistent with the simulation. I changed this motto a few weeks ago, but the reason was that I wanted the freedom to blog about a bit more than just MMORPGs.

      I still think that "MMORPGs should be as credible and consistent as possible and as little as necessary". But recently I found myself on the other side of that battle. I tell people that what they want to do is a part of the "[..] and as little as necessary".

      Before I go on, I'd like to talk a bit about "(abstract) gameplay" and "simulation". This distinction is at the heart of this debate. Every game has abstract gameplay. It is what is left after you removed all the "fluff". From the gameplay PoV it doesn't matter whether I shoot my rifle and hit you for 3 dmg, or whether I shoot a fireball and hit you for 3 dmg. It's exactly the same. I could just as well throw leaves at you for 3 dmg.

      Most older games are very abstract. Take Chess or Poker. The simulation is there, but it is very weak. In Chess the simulation is war, in Poker the cards just kept their names (queen, king, ..) after hundreds of years of iterations. There are reasons why the Ace is a powerful card generally and not the 9. And these reasons are found in the simulation, because from the gameplay point of a view it really doesn't matter.

      As time passes, players reduce games to their abstract gameplay; it is often called the "meta game". Players try to ignore everything that is "fluff" and concentrate on how to achieve their goals. And that's why the abstract gameplay is important if you want to keep players playing. Because if the gameplay is bad, the game does not last long. Even if you had the most wonderful graphics.

      From a publisher's point of view, you can say that the simulation is the more important the less a player knows about the game. And the gameplay is the more important the more a player knows about your game. Unfortunately the two not always agree. E.g. from a simulation point of view wooden houses should burn down when you throw fireballs at them. And it's quite possible nowadays to technically make it so. The reason it is not done is usually for gameplay reasons.

      What I have been arguing repeatedly on the blog is that when facing a problem like above, one should try to find a solution that combines good simulation and good gameplay. Current AAA companies don't try hard enough, in my opinion. And they are especially venturous when it comes to harming the simulation with the business model and for no gain in gameplay, Psychochild.
      But let me be very clear: If you can't find a solution that combines good gameplay and good simulation, gameplay first!

      It is important to understand that the pure simulation often isn't all that hard to code. If Blizzard wanted to not have you buy water after you killed the god of death, they could. If they wanted a combat AI that is more consistent with the simulation, they could. They wouldn't need a sophisticated combat AI to do that. E.g. they could just remove threat modifiers for tanks.

      When I tried to figure out how to make MMORPGs more consistent with their simulation (of a fantasy world), I found very early that I would first have to understand why a game like WoW can become the most successful MMORPG of all time. After all WoW is quite terrible at the simulation. They ignore it all the time. And still even I played that game for years. Can't have been that bad, can it!?

      You can call that "understanding your enemy". Before you try to beat somebody at something, you need to understand what makes him strong in the first place. Yesterday, on Azuriel's blog, I told him that if he doesn't understand why millions of non-raiding players played the lvl70 endgame of TBC for literally years, he shouldn't try to argue that the changes in WotLK were for the better. Especially since the statistics don't really support that assertion. If you don't understand why your car works, don't dabble with the engine.

      A lot of players think that it would be very cool to have player homes and castles to fight over and actual trade and many more things. Count me among them! But if you want to make a game that introduces these features, you better make sure you understand why current games don't have them! Because, Blizzard isn't stupid. They, too, see what players would love. There are reasons why they don't always do what players want (Thankfully. - They cave in much too often since WotLK).

      That doesn't mean that you should clone WoW when you make a new MMORPG. Please no! But it does mean that you need to understand Blizzard's reasons for not introducing open PvP and battles over player-owned castles, before you implement it yourself. If you think that Blizzard is just too stupid to see this opportunity, then you are the fool.

      I am going to blog a bit more on storybricks in the future, I guess. I wanted to keep this post abstract.

      If you want to improve NPCs' consistency with the simulation in games like WoW, you first need to understand why current AAA companies didn't already do it. Because NPCs could be made more life-like very easily with a little scripting. There are reasons the companies don't do this and rather overhaul every single class mechanic (no, the team is not lazy. But the management should try to invest that $100 million monthly profit instead of buying stocks back, in my humble opinion).

      If you assume that the only reason they didn't improve NPCs already is that it's too expensive (=too risky), I disagree. This plays a role, yes. But it is not the only reason they are careful. They also have no idea about how to get good gameplay out of it. If you can solve that problem count me among the enthused.

      Saturday, September 3, 2011


      Kelly Heckman from Namaste Entertainment has asked me to blog on storybricks. I had considered this several times before, since Psychochild has talked about them on his blog. But back then I had decided against it, because I didn't think that I had a lot of good things to say. Now that I was asked, I decided to add my few cents.

      I'd suggest to read articles on the web if you don't know what storybricks are yet. Their home page is a good source. For those of you who just want a quick reminder, here's a quote from Massively.
      Storybricks uses this visual programming language to let you create characters as simple or complex as you like and then send them off into the world to lounge about, go on quests, or give tasks to other players. Do you want to create an NPC guard who hates the player on sight until the player proves himself by rescuing the guard's daughter from certain doom? You can do that. Do you want to invent a royal dowager with a secret past or a thief with a heart of gold who's trying to make right some past wrong? You can do that too. Your imagination just became part of the development team.

      When you want publicity, the good thing about bloggers is that they are cheap and can easily be convinced to write about something. The bad thing is that they really have no incentive at all to write something positive. Now, considering the nature of my blog, I guess Kelly knows that I generally like to review things by pointing out what I don't like. So, I hope it's not too much of a disappointment that this is what I am going to do with storybricks.

      Let's start with the reason they go public now. Frankly, in my opinion they are not so much looking for feedback, as for publicity. Which is perfectly legitimate. It's what I'd do if I wanted to get investors on board and wanted to prove that my concept is able to inspire players. But I doubt that the feedback I give as a blogger can actually be used to improve the concept.

      Generally, I am not optimistic about storybricks. First, because they try to solve a problem that doesn't exist the way Namaste assumes. Second, because I doubt they're going to improve games by much. And third, because they point in the wrong direction for MMORPGs (interaction with NPCs, instead of active/passive interaction between players).

      If Blizzard or EA wanted to make NPCs that are more consistent with the simulation (=more life-like) they could today, easily. Instead they keep using NPCs that are completely passive and give you quests that you can agree on as fast as possible. Why? Because they haven't yet figured out a way to make them more credible while still benefiting the abstract gameplay as in contrast to the simulation.

      NPCs with their own agendas sound great. But, just like a better combat AI, the reason it is not done today is not that it's too hard. The problem is that it doesn't necessarily makes for good gameplay if NPCs wander around. Do you remember trying to find Rexxar for the Onyxia questline? This was borderline terrible. At least that's what a lot of players came to think. I never had that much of a problem with it, but I, too, used the internet to find the exact path he followed. Now consider NPCs that wander around even less predictably.

      But even if you ignore movement, are storybricks going to provide high-quality stories? I rather feel they are going to provide lots of more or less consistent short-stories. None of which matter to the player all that much. For storybricks to make a difference they must beat typical NPCs not at the simulation, that's easy. But at the gameplay.
      That is, they must not feel frustrating, the journeys they offer must be worth their goals and they need to keep the player's mind busy while he interacts with them. I don't see how storybricks are going to do that. It rather looks like a "let's introduce players fighting for their homes, because that would be cool" kind of idea to me. Storybricks look cool, but they don't seem to promise introducing a better simulation while at least retaining the quality of the gameplay.

      When it comes to virtual worlds, better NPCs are among the least of my concerns. It's rather an idea for games like Neverwinter Nights, games that offer highly instanced content. But even there I don't see how storybricks are going to beat hand-crafted characters in player-created campaigns, let alone developer-created campaigns.

      For virtual worlds, the philosopher's stone lies in player-generated content, not in player-created content. The difference is that player-created content needs players who act as game designers. While player-generated content makes players play the game and, using a sophisticated set of rules, have their actions influence each other, and thus produce enjoyable content. The most trivial examples are PvP (active) or an auction house (passive). Eve Online is all about player-generated content.

      I'd certainly welcome NPCs that are more life-like. But I fear their only place is the background of the game. For example, by following a day-night cycle.

      Now, I always welcome a new startup that tries to make a difference. Especially if a fellow blogger is part of it. And I absolutely wish Namaste Entertainment success. It may be possible to succeed at making a useful tool for the industry. Financial success is possible. But I don't think storybricks are going to have much of an effect on virtual worlds.

      There's, generally, not a shortage of ideas how to design virtual worlds that are more credible and consistent with the simulation. Even with today's tools it can easily be done. The real challenge is implementing these ideas in a way that doesn't harm the abstract gameplay, or maybe even improves it.

      Friday, September 2, 2011

      Ghostcrawler on Tanking

      Regardless of what you think of WoW, the regular game design blogs by Ghostcrawler are generally worth reading. The latest one is very worth reading. Not for the topic itself, which might go a bit too much into specifics if you don't play WoW (anymore). But for the general approach.

      You can watch live how the class designers try to keep the players' minds busy without asking them to do something frustrating.


      Don't read the comments unless you already lost your faith in humanity.

      Understanding Fun

      While the last posts focused on how to make games fun, this post focuses on what is actually achieved when a game succeeds at being fun.

      There have been several blogs in recent days that touched this subject. For example Azuriel's or Eric's.

      Kdansky commented on the latter:
      "There is also the misconception that you can ask people if they have fun. That’s not actually true, because you often get a “Yes” when they are just being Skinner-boxed. I doubt they have fun, it’s just that they do not realize how bored they are due to the constant stream of rewards."
      And this is as good as any contentious comment to encourage your mind to start working. And thus, to increase the probability that you remain reading; especially if you disagree.

      First, a little more context. Have a look at GrumpyElf, one of the few bloggers, I follow, who still play World of Warcraft. Among other things, he says he wants to have a reason to kill mobs; while alone. And I so agree. But wait a second .. isn't that grinding? Well, I guess it is.

      I have fond memories of farming mobs in the Eastern Plaguelands during classic WoW. I did it for gold and the lucky epic drop. And, yes, out of boredom and a myriad other reasons that a psychologist could come up with. One of the most important reasons why I don't play WoW any more is that there just wasn't anything to do anymore that I considered worth doing. All the remaining goals didn't seem to be worth their journeys. None kept my mind busy. Sure, I could still kill mobs, but they died too fast and the gold they dropped was inferior to doing dailies. And I found dailies too boring, repetitive.

      I would expect you to now look at me with a really strange glare in your eyes. Did I just say that I prefer killing mobs to doing dailies, because killing mobs is less repetitive? Well, I guess I said that. That's how I feel. But it doesn't make any sense, does it? At first glance, I suppose, no.

      So, have I been wrong, and farming mobs in Eastern Plaguelands wasn't actually fun. No .. I am very certain that I had fun. Not immensely so, but still, fun. And doing dailies more than once was not fun. I am absolutely certain of that.

      Now, we could compare how dailies and mob grinding keep your mind busy, how frustrating* they are and how they seem worth their respective goals. And I am pretty sure that would explain why the one is more interesting if done for a long time. And why the other is more interesting when done for a not-so-long time. But I did this kind of exercise often enough by now. I'd rather reject something else.

      If you want to determine how fun a game is, you could have a look at the goals and a look at the journeys. And if you were a rational homo economicus, you would then assert that the goals are worth G and the journeys cost you J. And, thus, your profit is G minus J. And a lot of people actually fall for this.

      It's a fallacy, because if it were so simple, the best games would have no journeys. They would just shower you with rewards. All at once. Of course, the game would be over very, very fast. After all, there's no journey, nothing you have to do to reach the goal. But according to this fallacy that would create a spike moment of utter happiness that grows proportional to the number of rewards.

      We know that this isn't true. If I started up a new MMORPG, and right after logging in I got all the best items and the best titles and the best achievements and the biggest pets, that wouldn't make me happy. It wouldn't be fun. And, besides, the worth G correlates with the cost J.

      Journeys need to keep your mind busy, they need to seem worth their goals and they must not be not frustrating*. Thus, the best journey is the one which you undertake without ever looking up. Without ever reflecting on yourself. The best journey keeps you completely focused... Do you remember 'flow'?

      Wikipedia says:
      According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task[2] although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.
      Fun, it seems, really is flow. But I don't want to use the term exactly the way Csíkszentmihályi (thanks for Ctrl-V!) does. For example, I actually think that it is possible to produce flow even without any challenge. Challenge is just one of those things that are really good at keeping the mind busy. It is not a necessary part of flow, only a very useful one.

      Using just the quote as a definition of flow, fun is flow. And my understanding of a good game is this: The longer a game can keep the player as much in the flow as possible, the better it is. This is, of course, a subjective definition as it depends on the subject (the player), and only indirectly on the object (the game).

      This is actually a very controversial understanding, because I ignore the aftermath. What happens if you, ex post, consider the goals not at all worthy? My answer to this: In that case this reduces your fun afterwards, but not your fun while playing the game!

      I did have fun running around in the Eastern Plaguelands. Period. I might consider this ridiculous or wasted time later on, but I did have fun. And, needless to say, I disagree with Kdansky's comment.

      *An activity is frustrating if the player thinks that he shouldn't have to do that.

      Thursday, September 1, 2011

      Analyzing Travel

      Games consist of (a) the simulation, (b) goals, (c) rules and (d) players. When developing games, 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 17 posts or so ...

      I spent a lot of time and effort on listing how classic-WoW questing and DX:HR missions keep your mind busy. I also added that journeys need to fulfill three requirements to make a good game

      (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.

      For Syl and the subjectivity debate: I believe this to be an objective truth. I might iterate it in the future, but I believe this to be true for all ('normal') human beings. However, it is still a subjective statement, because whether something is worth something, whether something is frustrating and what exactly keeps a player's mind busy varies from person to person (from subject to subject).
      And while it does vary, it does not vary erratically. There are reasons behind our differences and they can be understood; at least most of them. By understanding them and by understanding how they effect subjective 'fun', we can make games that more people like more. You could call that objectively better games, if you want.

      Fast forward to what keeps the player's mind busy while traveling

      The player
      - anticipates arriving
      - explores the landscape
      - executes the travel by directing his character

      hard thinking .. yeah .. I think that's about it. The problem is rather obvious: Travel is boring. Now, that's not exactly a revelation. We knew that travel is boring before. What we didn't know was how to change it. The only thing we could come up with was: "you are attacked by monsters". But that's a really thin line there, before traveling becomes frustrating.

      Fighting monsters is ok, if we set out to fight monsters. But fighting monsters becomes really frustrating, if we set out to get from A to B. A different goal means that we need a different journey, obviously.

      Fortunately, we got a list of basic things that keep the mind busy from the last post:
      • learning/exploring/searching/listening/watching/reading/information gathering
      • understanding / comprehending / setting into context
      • decisions
      • educated guesses
      • planning (=imagining the consequences of different decisions)
      • optimization/management under constrains
      • tension/relaxing/climaxes/adrenaline
      • gaining/growing/losing/rewards/penalties
      • fear/hope/anticipation of learning/gaining/losing.
      • Execution: pressing buttons/moving the mouse
      • interacting with other humans (that's a category in its own right)

      And we can go through that list from top to bottom and ask ourselves:

      1) Is there something that we can add to travel that makes you learn/decide/guess/.. ?
      2) Can we make it non-frustrating? A strong root in the simulation really helps here. Arbitrary, abstract games are wonderful at keeping the mind busy, but the player would really think that he shouldn't have to play these games, because all he wants, is to get from A to B.
      3) Would the goal (arriving in B) still be worth the journey?

      And by doing so, we have some tools that help us to make travel less boring.

      Of course, we could also scrap travel completely and decide to make a MMORPG without travel. But that's like making a MMORPG about cows milking each other: I bet this could be a facebook hit! if the abstract gameplay kept your mind busy etc, but I just don't want to play this kind of game. And, more importantly, I want to play a MMORPG with travel that is not-boring.

      *An activity is frustrating if the player thinks that he shouldn't have to do that.