Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV -- A Skeptical View 1

What's the big deal about Grand Theft Auto IV?

I can't figure out why so many industry people are hyperventilating about this game, even to the point of guessing that it will be the "Highest-Selling Game OF ALL TIME." What is it that makes them think this game will be so successful both critically and commercially?

To explain this view, I probably should mention five points:

  • I'm an avid Explorer who enjoys open-world games like Oblivion and Two Worlds and sim games like Spore.
  • I prefer the fantastic to the mundane.
  • I think computer games play a small part in forming our culture.
  • I play PC games. I don't even own a console.
  • I haven't played any of the previous GTA games.
So just speaking for myself to start with, I haven't heard anything about GTA IV that excites me. (Not like, for example, Spore, which really excites me.)

The one thing that sounds nice is the open-world aspect. I like the idea of being able to roam around and do the things I want to do when I want to do them. Linear games like Portal and Half-Life2 can be powerful when the story is good and the characters are interesting, but part of me likes having more freedom to create my own story in a rich gameworld.

That's a point in favor of GTA IV, then. But simply being an open-world game isn't enough -- the world, the setting, has to be interesting enough to want to spend hours there. And that's where I suspect the GTA series leaves me yawning.

I'm just not interested in "gritty urban" stuff. I don't care for cop shows or detective novels; when I want to be entertained I look for things that take me out of this world. The setting and characters of the GTA games just aren't interesting to me.

The realism also concerns me as it applies to the game's content. Zapping aliens and slicing monsters are sufficiently distinct from our reality that no cultural message is really being sent... but shooting cops and jacking cars is uncomfortable to me. It's close enough to a simulation of reality that it raises questions of whether that kind of thing should be tolerated even as mere entertainment.

Please note that this is not the simple-minded "video games are teaching our kids to kill!" complaint. I've never said anything like that and I'm not saying it here. What I'm saying is that games, like other media, are part of our culture; they both reflect and -- to some small degree -- create the culture in which we live. What we tolerate in our entertainment seeps into our real-world lives.

If so, then how should I feel about a game like GTA that glorifies the seedier, illegal and unethical aspects of modern life? How can I justify promoting even a small additional chipping away at a culture of courtesy, honesty and restraint by buying a game like GTA IV?

I don't want to make too much of that argument. I won't be out boycotting GTA IV; it's not that powerful. But I also don't see any reason why I should be expected to tolerate any "lawlessness is cool" message implicit in its gameplay by participating in its commercial results.

On the console vs. PC front, I've already talked about that.

Finally, there's no nostalgia factor for me regarding GTA IV. I never got sucked into playing the previous entries, so there's no "what happens next?" value in buying the latest installment.

So much for me. What about everybody else?

How far off am I from the mainstream gamer? Am I a lonely voice in the wilderness? Certainly I am on the PC vs consoles issue! But what about the other stuff? What is it about GTA IV that leads industry types to believe that it will appeal so massively to so many gamers?

In short, what does this game offer that I can't get from some other game that doesn't carry the same negative cultural baggage?

Monday, April 14, 2008

How Many Characters Per Server? 3

One of the arguments I've heard recently in favor of allowing players to run multiple characters per server (MCS) is that it benefits Explorer players.

I'm not convinced of that... and I'm probably one of the more hardcore Explorers you'll ever run into. Looking at MCS with my wannabe game designer hat on, I see it more than anything else as an issue of gameplay balance. That makes it primarily an Achiever concern.

In a typical MMORPG that's balanced for a single character's abilities and resources, someone playing five or eight characters on one server who share resources (skills, inventory slots, etc.) as though they were a single character -- an "ubercharacter" -- will have a significant advantage over someone who (for whatever reason) runs a single character per server.

Why should someone who plays their (single) character like an actual character in the gameworld be disadvantaged versus a player who treats characters not as people but as tools for beating a game? Why should the game be designed to provide a multiple-character-per-server capability that's primarily going to be used by some gamers to crank out a bunch of alts that have no identity as characters themselves, but are only used as person-shaped boxes that provide free skills and resources to a main character?

This argument really has nothing to do with Explorers. Real Explorers seek to understand systems in depth purely for the satisfaction that deep understanding brings -- they aren't concerned with trying to map systems as rapidly as possible for direct gameplay advantage, which is an Achiever way of thinking.

More pointedly, if there really was anything to the "Explorers want multiple characters" argument, such players would be perfectly happy with creating multiple characters on different servers. That would provide the breadth of ways to experience a gameworld that the Explorer appreciates. Those who insist that they "need" multiple characters on the same server are far more likely to be Achievers, who know perfectly well that this will give them a scoring advantage in a MMORPG whose challenge level was (by design) balanced for single characters.

So finding an alternative to an unrestricted MCS design is not about helping players experience a MMORPG as a simulation (which is how Explorers want to see it) or as a drama (which is how the roleplay-focused Socializers prefer to see it). It's about finding a design that insures that the quality of an individual's play within the gameworld is what determines their results, as opposed to gaining advantage by using an outside-the-gameworld mechanic such as running multiple characters on one server. In other words, MCS versus SCS is a question of how best to design the challenge level of a game so that the rules-based, score-keeping part of the MMORPG is the most fun for the greatest number of potential subscribers.

So how do we get there? One thing I have to point out is that at the most fundamental level, making a game means designing rules that are fair -- if the rules structurally advantage some players but not others over the gameworld (or over other players), then it's not a good game. So saying "I need N characters per server" is perfectly valid from one person's individual perspective, but it can't be the whole story when you're trying to design a game whose rules fairly serve the interests of thousands of players. Unrestricted MCS fails that test because it creates an artificial gap between those who (for whatever reason) focus on playing a single character versus those who play multiple characters as one ubercharacter.

That said, let's look again (in a little more detail) at some alternatives to unrestricted MCS.

One obvious and simple hack (which is why developers started doing it years ago) is to tag some items as "no-trade" or "soulbound." This has the advantage of being relatively trivial to implement, but at the cost of being a blunt instrument: while it limits muling/twinking, it also artificially restricts useful exchanges of items between different players. That's undesirable in a gameworld that needs an active player economy.

An alternative to this would be a more targeted restriction against allowing any interactions among the characters owned by one account. This would mean (for example) no trading items between one account's characters, or using the resources (such as bank vaults or houses) of other characters on the same account. This would minimize muling/twinking by individual players without unnaturally interfering with useful economic interactions between different players. Unfortunately, it would do so at the price of adding more complexity to the game code, including a possibly tighter-than-usual linkage between gameplay capabilities and the billing system.

Another way to allow multiple characters on one server might be to design the game such that the level of challenge dynamically adjusts to the number of characters one actively plays on a particular server. Someone who plays a single character would enjoy the same risk/reward ratio as the player who switches back and forth between five characters as though they were a single character will five times the resources and skills a normal character is designed to have. Unfortunately, while this approach could improve the fairness of PvE play, it does nothing to level the PvP playing field.

The best approach may be the simplest: instead of tacking on artificial restrictions to economic exchanges, or developing complex heuristics to try to make unrestricted MCS fair, why not simply allow only one character per server?

The true Explorer who wants to study different aspects of the gameworld can create a different character on every server. The usual counterargument to this is "but roleplayers need to be able to pick different characters to play depending on the other characters in a group." (I suspect that this ostensibly RP-friendly argument is usually made not by roleplaying Socializers but by Achievers who have other reasons for wanting MCS. :P)

What's important to see here is that if everyone lives by the same one-character-per-server rule, then roleplaying friends can all create different characters on other servers as well. Picking which character to play just means agreeing on which server to play on that evening. (I'm not saying that's always an easy discussion, but it's no harder than the same discussion of who gets to run which characters on a single MCS server.)

One final note: I've also heard people say, "But if real MMORPG designers thought that running multiple characters like a single ubercharacter was wrong, they wouldn't permit us to create multiple characters per server." I agree. I'm not saying players are wrong for doing what game designers allow them to do. I'm saying game designers are hurting themselves by building their games to permit players to create multiple characters per server. Maybe the publishers force them to do that; I don't believe there is any valid design reason for allowing players to make gameplay challenges easier than intended by running multiple characters as though they were one unnaturally gifted character.

On balance, I think SCS is definitely the right way to go for a MMORPG that allows characters to learn (and unlearn) skills. For a class/level game, however, I recognize that people want to group with their friends but don't want to have to run the same character forever (or, at least, as long as all their friends all run their same characters). So some form of restricted MCS, such as restricting exchanges between characters on the same account, might be made to work for a class/level game. It's still something of a hack, but it would cut down on the majority of ubercharacter action without preventing useful economic activity between different players (as soulbinding does).

The main thing is to realize that unrestricted MCS, regardless of how many people say they "need" it, really is a problem of gameplay design. It makes the game easier than the designers intended. In short, unrestricted MCS makes a MMORPG less fun.

I hope those leaping to disagree with me on this will at least recognize that my purpose is honorable. I'm not trying to make MMORPGs less fun for them (by "taking away" features); I'm trying as best I can by my lights to make MMORPGs as fun as they can be by encouraging designs that don't supply features that unnecessarily undercut the carefully-designed balance of character abilities versus gameplay challenges.

Basically I'm looking for areas where MMORPG design can be improved. Does anyone believe that MMORPGs as currently designed are perfect and holy and must never be questioned?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

How Many Characters Per Server? 2

The specific trouble is with allowing multiple characters per server (MCS) who can share resources.

It's this combination of features that honks up the challenge level of a game balanced for a single character, making the play experience less fun. And yes, I argue that the play experience is made less fun by allowing people to semi-simultaneously play two or three or eight or more characters like one ubercharacter, even if some individual player insists that it's "more fun" for them personally if they can play that way.

I've also heard some players say they "need" multiple characters. "Need?" I think they really mean to say they "want" to have a bunch of alts. Anyone who believes that every player of a game -- not just themselves -- truly needs multiple characters per server ought to provide facts and reasoning to justify that belief, and in particular should show how all players actually "need" this capability, as opposed to the individual gamer simply "wanting" it.

In the meantime, here are some perfectly workable alternatives to allowing MCS.

1. Play one character at a time. When you've fully experienced the game through one character class, get rid of that character and start a new one. Why is this a problem?

2. Start different characters on different servers. If your intention (as I've heard some gamers claim) really is to enjoy different ways of experiencing the game as different character classes, you can do that on different servers. If you're going to claim you can't, then you'll need to explain why you don't just want to be able to share resources to make an ubercharacter.

3. Buy additional accounts. If you're determined to play eight characters like one ubercharacter in a game balanced for single characters, then you should be willing to pay for the privilege of not playing the game as it was designed to be played.

4. Disallow characters owned by the same account from exchanging items. Although players could still use third parties to swap items, this would reducing muling. And while reducing muling wouldn't completely solve the "ubercharacter" problem, it would help.

5. Find a game that's actually been designed to be balanced for playing as multiple characters on a server, rather than trying to push that capability on a game whose challenges are balanced for a single character.
The point to all this is not to be "mean"; it's not unfairly targeting "altaholics"; it's not to be inexplicably looking for ways to make MMORPGs less fun. In fact, the only reason I even express this position (which I know perfectly well that some people are going to claim to perceive as some kind of personal attack on "their" favored gameplay) is because I want these MMORPG things to be more fun, not less. And I'm persuaded that being able to use multiple characters on one server when the challenge level of that game was balanced for a single character makes a game less fun.

It's easy to look at these games in terms of what we personally enjoy. I do that sometimes myself when I put my gamer hat on. But it's not how a professional game designer ought to work, which is I try to emulate when I put my wannabe game designer hat on. If we're going to talk about what's best for a game overall, then we need to judge game features by whether they maximize fun for everyone who plays the game.

On that basis, allowing multiple characters per server for a game whose challenge level is balanced for single characters looks like a losing design, regardless of how passionately some self-focused gamers will demand that capability.

Player-Centered Crafting Design 2

I've previously suggested that we distinguish between "manufacturing"-type crafting for the Achievers (which is the only way it's conceived in most MMORPGs) and "creative"-type crafting for the Explorers. A game with a crafting system designed with that distinction in mind would, I think, be an improvement over existing games.

But we could take this even further. What if we could design a single crafting system with four integrated emphases:

GuardianAchieverGamistmanufacturingmass-produce items to compete in economic sub-game
Artisan[Manipulator][Experientialist]craftsmanshipvirtuoso use of tools to enhance aesthetic or functional properties of items
RationalExplorerSimulationistcreativityexperiment with crafting system to invent new kinds of items
IdealistSocializerNarrativiststory-tellingtag item types and some individual items with backstories for roleplaying

(Note: These are just suggestions for gameplay that would expose the non-manufacturing and non-sales aspects of crafting that are attractive to other kinds of gamers. I'm sure there are other possible crafting features that could do as good a job or better than the gameplay ideas I've tentatively proposed here.)

Current MMORPGs make all would-be crafters play through the Achiever-oriented crafting features in order to get to the limited amount of creative or artistic or dramatic gameplay that they actually prefer. In a crafting system like the one I've outlined above, players would be able to specialize their characters in the modes of play that are fun for them.

Of course there'd be a cost to this "additional" development. The question is whether those costs would be offset by the revenue from the non-Achievers looking for a more balanced gameworld.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Player-Centered Crafting Design 1

I recently heard crafting in MMORPGs described as a "pyramid." At the bottom are many low-level crafters making lots of junk, while at the top are a few high-level crafters cranking out the same few items.

As a production system existing only to service a game economy, that probably seems like it makes sense.

As gameplay, it sucks. It's not much fun for anyone, which is bad news if your game economy depends on people actually wanting to be crafters.

The thing is, why does the pyramid appear in the first place?

As a possible answer, I go back to my theory of player-centered design. The crafting pyramid appears because the rules of crafting gameplay are designed as a production system, so they attract the gamers who think of "crafting" as production. The rules that promote this behavior attract the people who enjoy this approach, so we see even more of it over time because the rules create a constituency of supporters with the veterans at the top protecting their trade from the newcomers at the bottom.

Which makes sense if you think of crafting as a trade. But aren't there other ways to think about crafting?

What about the gamers who make things because of the pleasure they feel in making things? Why are the artists and the artisans neglected when crafting gameplay is being designed?

I think we see the Pyramid Problem because crafting designers are failing to ask: Who is crafting for? Once you know that, then -- and only then -- should you create the rules for how it works. (That goes for any game system, actually.)

This, I think, is where most MMORPG designers err. Instead of seeing crafting in its larger constructive sense, crafting in most MMORPG is viewed as a necessary evil for keeping fighters stocked with weapons and armor. It's just another game subsystem that has to be cranked out to support combat mechanics.

Game designers aren't wrong that letting players supply each other with arms and armor can be effective. Combat is an important part of most MMORPGs, and combatants don't like having to rely solely on random loot drops for their gear. So a player crafting system usually looks like a good idea... but that's where things start to go wrong, because a crafting system that exists only to serve cold economic necessity is just no fun as a game. And the result of such constrained thinking is gameplay that is lethally boring because it's no better than a manufacturing system with some character skills tacked on to make crafting a "game."

The usual gameplay features for crafters basically turn those players into machines -- push some buttons, make a widget; push some buttons, make a widget; repeat until you get tired of being treated like a machine and leave the game entirely. That's not player-centered design -- it's system-centered design, which may work well when you're being paid for it, but when you're the one paying for it (as entertainment), it breaks down. That's where pyramids appear.

It's no wonder so many game economies don't run well. That's what you get when game designers view item creation as a production subsystem in which gamers are treated like cogs in an economic machine, rather than realizing that some people actually enjoy making things and creating gameplay that rewards and encourages the creativity of those subscribers.

In short, the Pyramid Problem comes from game designers thinking of crafting as a manufacturing/sales game. Crafting systems in MMORPGs will continue to fail to function as imagined until game designers realize that crafting needs to be designed to be as much about artistic creativity and virtuoso craftsmanship as about manufacturing and sales. When designers start offering gameplay features in which the value of a crafted object is defined at least as much by its creator as by its purchaser, and generating gameplay systems accordingly, then we'll see the crafting pyramid turned upside-down so that with increasing character experience comes increasing ability to make new and beautiful things.

But not until then.