Friday, July 18, 2008

The Politics of Far Cry 2

Patrick Redding, narrative designer for Ubisoft Montreal's upcoming Far Cry 2, gave an interview to Gamasutra recently in which he discusses his views on how story and gameplay can both be more effective when tightly coupled throughout the development process.

I respect many of the ideas Redding mentions. For one thing, I admire the willingness of the development team and producers of Far Cry 2 to go big, and if they fail, to fail usefully. For another, it's great to see the positive references to System Shock and Deus Ex -- there can never be enough intelligent games.

Unfortunately, that respect for the intelligent games that Redding cites is severely undercut by a remark he offers early in the interview:

[O]ne of the things we did is we said, "Well, one kind of overriding question we want the player to be asking themselves is, 'How far are you willing to go in order to do the right thing?'" In other words, how much bad stuff are you willing to do, how much of your soul are you willing to sacrifice, in the pursuit of a larger good?

And it's important to say that we're not trying to take a position on that. We're not trying to say, "Oh, the trouble with people today is they're not willing to do really terrible, evil, monstrous things in order to accomplish the greater good." This isn't like some neocon wet dream, right?

Let's set aside the question of whether Redding's disdain for U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq is a proper distrust of foreign adventurism or a foolish blindness to realistic long-term national security policy.

Instead, just consider for a moment that even conservatives play computer games, and more so every day as the kids who grew up with computers and consoles discover their political beliefs. So why is it that so many developers seem, like Redding, to be desperate to go out of their way to stick a verbal thumb into the eyes of a lot of potential purchasers of their product? Purely from a business standpoint, making such comments is dumb.

But let's assume few game consumers will ever notice comments like these on Gamasutra. What about the question of whether this tiresomely juvenile political attitude is shared by the other writers of this game out of Montreal, possibly infecting and weakening the story design of Far Cry 2? (Deus Ex 3, currently being developed by Eidos Montreal, may suffer from the same malady, which would be a shame for a game that aspires to the greatness of its original predecessor.)

I'm not saying I want game developers to have no opinions, political or otherwise, or that they should never express those opinions in the games they make. Some games (and the game developers who make them) can and should challenge everyone's beliefs; that way lies interesting gameplay.

But that means everyone. It's easy to mock only conservatives when all your pals have the same left-leaning political opinions you do; just ask Pauline Kael. That's playing it safe. But that's precisely why this impulse needs to be fought -- if you're going to embed your politics in your game, but you can't bring yourself to develop gameplay and narrative that unflinchingly questions those beliefs, how can you expect any other player of your game to give a damn about that part of the story?

It may be very satisfying personally to use a game as a soapbox for unleashing some political opinion (of any variety). But it's bad business if you're trying to appeal to a mass market, and it's bad game design if you're trying to craft a game that inspires actual thought on topics that matter.

So now, thanks to an offhanded political crack, I have to wonder if Far Cry 2 will be worth spending my money on.

Too bad.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Key Features of a True Strategy Game

Something that's been bothering me for several years came back to me recently.

Gamasutra featured an interview with Soren Johnson, previously a designer for the last two Civilization games and now working on enhancing the gameplay of Spore. I enjoyed most of the interview, but one thing kept jumping out at me: I kept reading references to the "strategy" of real-time strategy (RTS) games.

There's no such thing. If it's real-time, it's not strategic.

RTSs are almost entirely about tactical action. They don't include gameplay elements that enable player actions at a strategic level. There's no coordination of multiple theaters of operation; there's no personnel management; there's no contingency planning for the gain or loss of key transportation nodes; and so on. The usual "send units out to collect resources until the source is depleted" feature is marginally strategic in that it's about locating, defending and exploiting resource nodes. But it's not fully strategic because resources don't persist over time -- they're used up so quickly that they're more for short-term tactical advantage than long-term strategic dominance.

Even the rare RTS such as Star Wars: Empire at War that does offer a strategic feature like semi-simultaneous theaters of operation (in this case, different planets) undercuts that gameplay by making it real-time as well. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what "strategic" means. When even the high-level gameplay is real-time, when you're given insufficient time to gather data, assess its value, and weigh alternatives, then that gameplay is no longer about planning. What's left may be a kind of gameplay, but it's not strategic gameplay.

I've discussed the definitional differences between tactics and strategy in multiple essays already, so I won't belabor that point again here. Please visit my Strategy vs. Tactics and Combat Modes and Player Ranks in a Star Trek MMORPG essays for an in-depth discussion of what these terms of art actually mean.

In brief, though, here's what the Wikipedia entry on military tactics says: "Tactics should be distinguished from military strategy, which is concerned with the overall means and plan for achieving a long-term outcome, and operational art, an intermediate level in which the aim is to convert the strategy into tactics."

There's nothing hard to understand about the distinctions between these levels of the application of force. So it's very strange to hear an experienced game designer like Soren Johnson -- who presumably understands the difference between strategy and tactics -- repeatedly talking about RTSs as though they give those gamers who long for truly strategic-level gameplay any chance for that kind of activity. Calling these things "real-time strategy" games is misleading.

Under other circumstances I might push this as just a technical gripe, similar to fussing about the way people misuse the word "aggravate" (which means "to worsen") when they mean "annoy." But there's no point in ranting about some mere error in word usage. Besides, Johnson clearly does have pro experience with the strategic level gameplay in the Civ games.

The reason I'm highlighting the meaning of the word "strategy" is not to complain about words; it's to point out that there seems to be a game design opportunity here. We talk about RTS games as though they're strategic, when they're actually not... so why not make a game that really is about strategic play?

To some extent, of course, we already have those: as the Wikipedia entry on strategy video games points out, they're the hex-map wargames and 4X-type turn-based strategy (TBS) games from whence RTSs sprang. But lately even the TBS games (Civilization, Master of Orion, Galactic Civilizations, and to some extent Sins of a Solar Empire) aren't much about actual strategy; they're more about moving units around in a tactical fashion than about making strategic-level decisions. These days about the closest we come to strategic decision-making in games is allowing the player to set a single overall tax rate and then allocate that tax income among military, scientific, or cultural production. While from a strategic perspective it's better to have that than nothing, it's not much better than nothing since for most players it's a "fire and forget" function -- it's not something that can really be counted as active gameplay, which is what sells games.

I think there's an opportunity here for some developer to make a game that highlights actual strategic functions as active gameplay, that's a different kind of fun because (unlike most games) it rewards competent high-level thinking. To highlight this as a key product differentiator, and to avoid making the game overly complex, some of the tactical features people take for granted in TBS and RTS games today would need to be minimized or even eliminated.

Some readers may be shaking their heads at this point and thinking, "typical noob designer mistake, putting the setting before the gameplay." Not so. I'm not looking to define a set of game rules solely according to whether they fit some finicky technical definition of strategy -- that wouldn't be a game, it would be a military strategy simulator, and that's not what I'm after here. What I'm trying to do is take a closer look at the real-world definition of strategy to see if there are any aspects not currently being exploited as rules in a game. My goal is not to try to fix existing strategy games, but to explore a more rigorous definition of strategy to see if it can be mined for new gameplay ideas... or, if not new, at least ideas that have been neglected for a while.

I haven't finished my thinking on this subject -- this essay (like my earlier essay on a "Living World game") is just a first draft of some ideas in the direction of something different. So don't expect The Answer here.

That warning given, here are some design concepts I'm currently considering for a strategy game that would actually support strategic play.

1. Consider eliminating individual units altogether.

Having units always seems to incline game designers to tactical-style design thinking driven by the conceptual simplicity of unit-against-unit gameplay rules. Once you decide to have units that players can move, it's just too easy to start building your gameplay around assigning strength and defense values to those units and making up rules for how they interact... at which point you've got another game of tactics.

Instead, allow players to place directional pointers (arrows) or goal markers (stars) as guidance to strategic forces. This would let players suggest the high-level direction of movement of resources without shifting the focus of the game to personally managing each movement of specific units.

If you just can't bring yourself to try something so radical, then consider allowing units, but treat them as large-scale objects with very limited movement and behaviors. Rather than being specialized units with this combat strength or that movement rate, units would mark locations of force projection.

The idea here is to take the focus off of the management of individual units, which elicits tactical thinking, and base gameplay instead on mechanisms by which players can define and perceive patterns of force spread over relatively large swaths of space and time. The goal should be to allow players to make choices similar to that faced by Gen. Eisenhower in the European Theater of Operations of World War II: support the "knife-like thrust" into the heart of Axis territory favored by Field Marshal Montgomery, or order massed movement along a "broad front" (which is what was actually adopted)? That's the level of strategic thought that would be fun to enable in game form.

2. Focus diplomacy features on strategic-level concerns.

Diplomacy as usually implemented in TBS games is actually more of a grand strategy feature in that players are able to negotiate directly with opponents who control all aspects of all possible assets. In effect, players (including opponents, whether human or AI) are empowered to act as the supreme rulers of the faction they represent. While that's a kind of very high-level strategy, it's maybe a little more high-level than the textbook definition, which is what we're considering here.

A truly strategic-level diplomacy game would impose some constraints on the power of players to determine the selection, collection, and allocation of resources. This might take two forms. First, players would need to establish and maintain positive relations with multiple representatives of the dominant cultures in a theater, rather than with a single fully-empowered entity. Part of the challenge would be to acquire strategic assets (access to key resources or intel) through various means, such as playing representatives against each other, offering inducements, making shows of strength, or even veiled threats. The challenge here would be to try to achieve strategic ends through non-military channels.

Second, the role of strategic leaders is to develop plans for achieving the overall vision of those who do control the entire institution. So strategic-level diplomatic gameplay might also involve taking very high-level direction from the leader or leaders of one's faction. For example, the player might receive direction from civilian commanders to take and hold -- by whatever means necessary -- some strategic resource (e.g., a large refinery or a FTL jump point) and the transportation lines leading to it from secure bases. It would then be up to the player to determine and set in motion the best means of accomplishing this task, whether that would be negotiation, force, or some combination of those forms of persuasion. A strategic leader might also be faced with the interesting challenge of working with political interests in his own faction in order to obtain desirable internal resources such as negotiating authority, advanced weapon systems, or troop increases.

3. Movement of resources should always take time.

This significantly increases the value of planning-type thinking, which is key to good strategy. Since resources need time to move from where they're produced to where they're needed, part of the strategic game is to anticipate both production and application requirements, as well as transportation and distribution capabilities. In other words, a strategic game is also in part a logistical game.

During a game, new sources of raw materials or constructed goods will be located or captured, and existing sources will be depleted (which should be rare), replaced with better sources, captured by the enemy, or destroyed. Similarly, different resources will be needed in different locations due to advances or retreats, and to the types of challenge present at different locations. As all of these events occur, players of a strategy game will need to modify their transportation models continuously so as to insure that every need is fulfilled as accurately and as soon as possible.

Transportation systems also factor into this part of strategic gameplay. The number and location of routes in the player's transportation network, the maximum speed and loading of the mobile elements on that network, and the placement, number and capacity of storage depots, all determine the player's distribution capability.

In a way, maintaining and enhancing this distribution network (and trying to foul up the distribution network of enemies) could be seen as a defining element of a strategic-level game. This doesn't mean embedding a version of Railroad Tycoon; letting the player lay down specific transportation lines is too low a level for a strategic game. (See item #1 above.) But it does mean having gameplay that enables players to demonstrate an understanding of logistics. Functions allowing the player to invest in different kinds of transportation modes (where different modes have both advantages and disadvantages), to assign priority weightings to different resources, and to establish the general number and capacity of storage depots are examples of gameplay elements that could be found in a true strategy game.

4. Make personnel assignment part of the gameplay.

Something that's a crucial factor in strategic decision-making that might also be fun to replicate in a game is the fact that no one can do everything. A strategic leader acts through subordinates who are entrusted with performing the operational design tasks necessary to successfully achieve your strategic goals.

So I'd like to see a game in which you have a vast number of subordinates, some of whom you'll need to select to fill the roles required to meet your strategic needs. I imagine this might work as one window where you can define strategic goals and the functional roles necessary to meet those goals, and another window containing a tree of names showing the current hierarchy of assignments. In the tree of names you could click on any name to bring up each person's "service record," and then assign individuals to desired roles. Each subordinate would have enough freedom (defined by the game rules) to translate your strategic goals into tactical actions for their own subordinates to carry out. They could even provide evaluations of their fellow subordinates, or suggest (competing) ideas to the player for which strategic actions to take.

Notice that this game feature has several ramifications. Imposing a time delay from assigning a subordinate to getting the results of the tactical actions they order, as well as simply getting a subordinate into the right location in the field for their mission, creates an additional kind of logistical problem for the player to solve. And if subordinates are implemented as non-player characters who can react to your decisions affecting them (and perhaps even the different factions they might represent), choosing which NPC to assign to a high-prestige role could be its own fascinating political subgame.

To return to the example of Eisenhower during WWII, the complex struggles among Montgomery, Bradley, Patton, and other top generals for Eisenhower's favor are legendary. Even in a relatively simple form, a feature allowing for such machinations could add significant depth to a strategy game.

5. Minimize the tech tree.

The tech tree as usually implemented in turn-based strategy games is probably not right for a true strategy game. What a tech tree feature really amounts to is the imposition of policy controlling scientific research. Some games (like Civilization) implement this in a kind of unit-like fashion; the player is able to choose specific technologies to research. Other games (like Master of Orion II when the "Creative" perk is not selected) only permit the selection of broad fields of research; the specific technology learned from a particular field is randomly selected.

In both cases, however, the player over time is able to specify something like a research policy. (I say "something like" because in practice most games implement so few technologies that by the end of the game the player has usually learned them all, which means that no real policy preference can be expressed.) While I've personally had a lot of fun with that kind of thing, it strikes me as somewhat suspect as a feature that's appropriate for the strategic level of action. Eisenhower, for example, didn't get to tell Rolls-Royce to do the R&D that led to the Merlin engine used to power the P-51 Mustang fighter. Instead, he defined high-level mission goals; some subordinate translated that into equipment procurement requirements; and the Allies got whatever was available to meet those requirements.

Something similar might be appropriate for a strategy game. Rather than exposing the elements of a tech tree to the player as a gameplay feature, if a tech tree is appropriate at all for your game, keep it internal and let the game rules determine when some new technology becomes available. The player would then need to react appropriately to this development -- perhaps to exploit it, perhaps to prevent an opponent from obtaining it, perhaps (as with the atomic bomb) both. (Note that a game in which new technologies can occur should take care to define only technologies that have strategic value. There'd be little point in implementing a "Coffee Grinder" tech, for example, but even the mere threat of building "Ballistic Missile Shield" technology could have major strategic effects.)

The one caveat to the advice to minimize the tech tree might be to implement some version of the "military-industrial complex." In such a game, the player -- in addition to other forms of negotiation -- would need to manage relations with production sources. Working with equipment suppliers to negotiate supplies of vital goods or services might be an interesting gameplay feature in a strategic-level game. (Or it might be lethally boring, or just not a good addition to more obviously strategic play. If there are enough other features, this one might not have enough value to be worth implementing.)

In any case, as with management of individual units it's probably best to forego the tech tree feature in a game that aims to let the player focus on strategic decision-making.

There are some other features that a truly strategic-level game would likely need in order to be fun. After all, if it's going to be a game, the player has to be allowed to do things!

I'll probably return to this "Real Strategy Game" concept in a subsequent essay as I give some thought to what those other player activities might be. For now, these suggestions seem like a reasonable starting point for thinking about what such a game ought to look like.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Comparison of Oblivion and Two Worlds: Exploration RPGs

I enjoyed both Oblivion and Two Worlds. In fact, I've had more fun in both of them than I've had in a number of other recent games.

That's actually the first point to make: for all their differences, Oblivion and Two Worlds are much more similar to each other than either is to other games. In both of them, you can spend 40-100 hours wandering around exploring. I happen to really enjoy exploring, so I'm already predisposed to like both of these games. Fortunately, despite the flaws of each game, both of them were rich enough and polished enough to keep me exploring.

I liked Oblivion better for letting me create my own skill template. I don't mind the occasional swordplay, so I could handle Two Worlds just fine, but the stealth-mage character I was able to develop in Oblivion fit my preferred playstyle a lot better.

The downside was that this build was perhaps too effective! Combining the 6x backstab modifier with fully-leveled-up magic (including an easily-enchanted dagger that does 100 Health damage) meant that pretty much everything became a one-shot-kill. While that kind of power is initially satisfying, it eventually gets boring. If the rest of Oblivion weren't interesting, the high-level combat would not be a reason to keep playing the game.

Combat in Two Worlds, on the other hand, soon starts feeling like an exercise in mouse-clicking. But the "combine like items" minigame that allows you to create more and more powerful gear provides a rationale for continuing to engage in combat that Oblivion lacked. (It's not long before collecting glass and daedric loot in Oblivion is a waste of time unless you enjoy seeing how much money you can accumulate.)

Speaking of exploration, the world of Two Worlds is larger than that of Oblivion. There's just more world to explore than in Oblivion, which, although it seems large when you start the game, is soon revealed as quickly traveled even without the instant travel. (The question of instant travel is a wash, by the way; both of these games allow it. In fact, with the teleport stones, it's actually more powerful in Two Worlds.)

Another exploration note: the feature in Two Worlds of marking with a gray overlay any locations you haven't yet visited is nice. It's fun trying to expose every possible location. (Although as someone on the Two Worlds official forum said, it would have been nice if "percentage of world uncovered" had been a tracked statistic.) Trying to find all of the teleport nodes was an enjoyable subgame as well. Oblivion had something like this in its "find all the shrines" subgame, but with far fewer shrines in a smaller world, this subgame was over too soon.

It's hard to say which game's vistas I preferred more. Oblivion was extremely pretty, with the glow that everything seemed to have, while Two Worlds was a little more photorealistic. (I say "a little more"; it certainly wasn't photorealistic to the degree of, say, Crysis, which itself was only semi-photorealistic at a distance.) In both games I really enjoyed climbing up mountains to see if I could find a really picturesque view, and I was often successful in doing so in both games.

Weather was handled better in Oblivion. Rain in Oblivion was more visually appealing; it was more frequent in certain locations; and it was specific to locations. Rain in Two Worlds just seemed like a graphics effect; it happened anywhere (even in the desert -- ?!); and if it was raining anywhere in the world, it was raining everywhere in the world. And don't even get me started on how often the annoying fog showed up in Two Worlds.

On voice acting, I don't think it's fair or correct to say that the voice acting was "bad" in Oblivion. It wasn't bad; it was just that other than Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean, Bethesda only used about four people to do the dialogue of every NPC in the game. Even great vocal work couldn't overcome the repetitiveness of hearing the same voices over and over.

In certain cases, however, the voice work in Oblivion was superlative. Specifically, Sean Bean's voice work as Martin, especially in the later stages of the game, was award-worthy. As much as I enjoyed Armin Shimerman as Andrew Ryan in BioShock, and Ellen McLain as GLaDOS in Portal, Sean Bean's performance in Oblivion was outstanding.

Sadly, that points out the quality of the dialogue writing and voice acting for Two Worlds (at least the U.S. version that I played). It wasn't the worst ever, and as noted above there were some funny bits. But it wasn't Oblivion-quality.

It also wasn't Oblivion-quantity. While most the quests in Two Worlds weren't badly done (I can only think of a couple of gripes), it felt like Oblivion had more quests. (I say "felt like" because it's possible that the size of the world in Two Worlds made it feel like quest-givers were spaced farther apart.)

That said, NPCs in Oblivion were definitely much more fully realized -- with more lines of dialogue, they felt more like people. In both games, NPCs occasionally wandered off into the wilderness and got killed, which is interesting from a "state of the art in AI for computer RPGs" perspective, but Oblivion gets the nod for having more interesting NPCs. (It's worth noting that Bethesda has mentioned that it plans for Fallout 3 to have fewer NPCs than in Oblivion, but that each NPC will be more fully drawn as a character.)

Both Oblivion and Two Worlds featured a kind of alchemy subgame. I liked Oblivion's a bit better because plants respawned, and that feels more natural. Plants couldn't be allowed to respawn in Two Worlds because certain plants could be used to create permanent-effect potions (as opposed to the temporary-effect potions of Oblivion). After maxing out my Alchemy skill in Two Worlds, late in the game I was able to use all my permanent-effect resources to crank out potions that turned my character pretty much into an untouchable killing machine. So while collecting resources in Two Worlds was sort of fun, it paradoxically wasn't as much fun as Oblivion's less-powerful version of plant harvesting.

Finally, I found horses more trouble than they were worth in both of these games. They get killed too easily in Oblivion, and they're way too hard to steer in Two Worlds (sort of like the Mako vehicle in Mass Effect, only with a mind of its own).


There's more, but the point is that these two games balance each other pretty well. Neither is perfect, but both are enjoyable if you like long-playing combat/exploration RPGs.

No reason to avoid buying either game, especially at current prices. Both will provide hours of exploration fun.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Competition and Cooperation in MMORPGs

I've heard it said recently that "the difference between competitive and cooperative is purely in style."

I disagree strongly with this statement. Behind each of these approaches to problem-solving lies a fundamentally different understanding of what the world is like.

Competition typically assumes a zero-sum world of finite resources. In this environment, winning is defined as accumulating more of some scarce resource than everyone else. There Can Be Only One.

Cooperation typically assumes a world of infinite opportunities. Winning in this environment is about adding to the pool of resources by creating new things, allowing multiple winners.

Those are two radically different ways of looking at the world. In practice things are rarely so clearly defined -- you can have people cooperating in order to compete (corporations), or competing in support of a larger cooperative goal (Olympics).

But I think it's safe to say that in general, individuals will naturally hold to one of these worldviews or the other. They either see the pool of available resources as finite, in which case their solutions to problems tend to be redistributionist, or they see it as infinite, and their solutions to problems will tend to be expansionist. (I don't base this theory on James P. Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, but it's an interesting take on the subject.)

Where I see this relating to MMORPGs is that the developers of these big gameworlds tend to focus on controlling the rules-based play experience in the belief that this is necessary to maximize fun. (I don't disagree with that, except that it mistakenly defines "fun" to be rules-based play only.) That control is a lot harder to exercise if you allow (or expect) players to make their own content. Consequently no major MMORPG provides features permitting players to make truly new kinds of things in the gameworld.

Since it's not possible for players to expand the resources inside the game universe through creative effort, it becomes a zero-sum world by default. And in that kind of universe, there's no incentive to cooperate except in pursuit of a redistributionist competitive victory.

Small wonder then that the behaviors typically seen in these gameworlds are so competitive -- the gamers attracted to such a game will be those whose finite-resource worldview is being validated. And the corollary to this is that MMORPGs won't attract more cooperative players until the nature of the game universe is changed to offer features that enable players to create new resources.

If you want to attract cooperators to your gameworld, build it to be non-zero-sum. Certainly that would be a very different definition of "fun" from the hardcore, tightly controlled rules-based play enshrined in current MMORPGs, but would it really be so terrible to have a few such alternatives?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ownership of Items in Online Games

A recent post by Tobold on "virtual property rights" has been setting the geekosphere all a-flutter, so as a geek I figure I might as well weigh in on this again myself.

I agree that some folks seem, for whatever reason, to want to view this "who owns in-game objects" issue through a Marxian lens... but I'm not buying their conclusions any more than I buy other arguments that reduce to "because I want it."

What you do in a game isn't "work." When you pay to play a game, you aren't paying for a product, or for an opportunity to expend labor -- you're paying for an entertainment experience. On that basis, the whole notion of player ownership of any game object evaporates.

Let's say you rent an ATV for a couple of hours. When you're done, you don't get to keep the ATV. It was a tool for enabling you to enjoy an entertainment experience, and all you were doing was renting the use of that tool. In this light, whether the ATV is real or virtual is irrelevant; all that matters is whether you had a reasonable chance to have fun.

IANAL, but as I understand it, the product provided has to be fit for its communicated purpose. (That might make for an interesting legal challenge related to a MMOG, actually.) But again, the fitness qualification should apply regardless of whether the experience-enabling product is real or virtual. If the ones and zeros are being rented to you to allow you to have fun, then you don't own those ones and zeros any more than you own the ATV.

To the argument that game-specific virtual worlds are somehow unique by being RPGs, that an entertainment experience based on letting you pretend to be a literary character somehow grants you more of a right to ownership than some other kind of entertainment experience... I'd like to see that line of reasoning. How does it matter that you're pretending to be a character who can store objects in some inventory slot?

Again, I don't think being virtual makes any difference when what's being sold is an entertainment experience. Suppose I'm playing a character in a real-world Alternate Reality Game of your devising. As the operator of that ARG, you've bought a bunch of props to hand out to the people playing your game. Let's say that one of those props is a hammer, which you assign to my character for use as part of the game. If I then assert that because you let me use that hammer, I now own it, how would you respond?

More pointedly, suppose that in preparing for people to play your game you buy a hammer, some nails and some boards. You then assign those items to my character as props. If I have my character build a birdhouse out of those items, do I-the-player own the birdhouse?

If you say I do own it, what is the basis for that conclusion? If you say that I don't own the item I created in your game, then on what basis can you assert that players of a computer game own the looted or crafted objects in that game?

All that said, I will agree that the question of object ownership gets trickier for non-game virtual worlds like Second Life. And it's right to note that admitting the possibility of user ownership of in-world IP in non-game virtual worlds forces a need to try to distinguish between game and non-game virtual worlds. Since we can easily imagine gray areas between those types, that blurs somewhat any bright line we might want to draw.

But having acknowledged that there can be gray areas, I think we can still say that anything not in the gray area, anything that's clearly a game (such as WoW), creates no expectation of user ownership of anything other than time expended. All you're doing as a player is renting ones and zeros from a game operator to enable an entertainment experience. So far I've yet to see a satisfactory argument that being able to "create" "things" -- i.e., add more ones and zeros to the game operator's database through crafting a sword or other object -- during an entertainment experience creates any legally defensible expectation of ownership of those ones and zeros.

Of course, while I believe that a lawyer who understands virtual worlds could make the above case to even a gaming-impaired judge, game publishers obviously don't share that belief -- at least not to the extent that I do. And considering their lawyers would probably be arguing such a case in California, which case would therefore rise on appeal to the "we'll just make up whatever laws we want" Ninth Circuit, I can't say that the publishers are entirely wrong....