Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling reports from the front lines* of the Massively Multiplayer Multiverse.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Light and Dark, Good and Evil

In most MMORPGs, morality has little actual influence on gameplay. My characters have done some questionable things in the pursuit of gear, money, or simply experience points. I have toyed with this dilemma in a few stories; but in-game, I continue to maim, kill, and steal without regard to the morality of the quest.

In Star Wars: The Old Republic, players will have the opportunity, regardless of faction, to accumulate light-side or dark-side points based on the dialogue decisions they make (and possibly the methods they use to complete quests, I haven't seen that demonstrated). Tobold started a discussion about morality in games, in which he expressed concern about the "judgements" developers place on certain actions within the context of the game. I can see his point that what the devs think is a moral/immoral choice may not correspond to what the individual player thinks. His specific example, though, is fairly cut-and-dry in the Star Wars Universe, however. "Good" Jedi do not participate in romances, because it leads to attachment, greed/jealousy, fear of loss, and the Dark Side. This comes not from BioWare, but George Lucas. Of course, in the real world, we generally have a different take on romance; at least amongst otherwise unattached individuals (that is, cheating is still frowned upon).
In Rift, the two factions have a difficult morality compared to the real (western) world. The religious fanaticism of the Guardians (including having Inquisitors to investigate/punish heretics) is, at the least, slightly unpalatable to many players. But the the Defiants and their unscrupulous use of souls and "technology" are also morally questionable. Not to mention that these two factions are wasting time and resources fighting each other, when their world is being torn apart by extra-planar beings bent on consuming it. So no real good guys or bad guys there. At least there is no real moral choice within the game that affects gameplay.

 Syp's response to Tobold included this insight:
I’m not a big fan of light and dark side gear and powers, since that will have a stronger influence on how people “game” the system. . . Wouldn’t it be really cool if BioWare makes these choices and stories so compelling that it tears people away from grinding light/darkside points to do what they want to do?
I agree with Syp that it would be nice to have "moral" choices in a game that mattered in the context of the story, without having the end reward be so obvious that, as a player, it only makes sense to maximize the number of moral or immoral choices. Unfortunately, I also agree with Tobold's subsequent response. The attachment of a meta-game goal (gear) to a "moral" choice will inevitably lead to min-maxing your choices in favor of that goal. WoW example: Aldor vs. Scryer in The Burning Crusade. Most players ended up making that choice based on the gear each faction offered, rather than an inherent RP motive.
This RP motive is something I mentioned in a discussion with MMOGC. (I keep going back to that post; see also her response.) I feel that if the RP component is strong enough, the abilities/gear-stats can be made more neutral without affecting gameplay. I have yet to see it.

Illustrations from Sillof's Workshop. If you haven't seen the site, go check it out. 
[EDIT] If you're curious, here is the WoWWiki page comparing the Aldor/Scryer rewards and by-class breakdown of player preferences.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Good and Evil in the Real World

I got involved in the debate over GameStop's removal of a coupon for Onlive from copies of Deus Ex: Human Revolution on Twitter yesterday and today. Since this is my blog, this is where I get to have the final say. I probably won't gain any friends or readers by saying I think the majority of gamers whining about how GameStop is TEH EVULS for this move are completely on the wrong side of the debate, and don't even really have a leg to stand on. Gamers are a whiny bunch in general, seeming to take every game-development and business decision in the industry as a personal affront. Seriously, y'all are almost as bad as the sports nuts talking about how "we" won or lost the game, when none of them were on the field or court. At least I have yet to hear of video gamers rioting, the way some sports hooligans have. Now I have bemoaned the occasional change to gameplay; but ultimately, if I don't like a game or product or store, I just stop playing or purchasing there.

GameStop made a legitimate business decision to remove competitor advertising from products they are selling in their stores--advertising they were not initially aware of when receiving the shipments. The manufacturer/publisher, Square Enix backed them up:
"Square Enix respects the right of GameStop to have final say over the contents of products it sells and to adjust them where they see fit in accordance with their policies."
Many Tweeps think the removal of the coupon constitutes product tampering or outright theft by GameStop against their customers. It was even suggested that they could/should have put stickers on the boxes indicating the removal. I have a question for someone who knows: Was the coupon advertized as part of the package, either in promotional material or on the box itself? If not, then it is a bonus that GameStop customers simply don't receive. The box is still new and can be sold as new, despite claims otherwise by some gamers.

As Tobold assesses, this may be another sign of the end of the brick and mortar game store. Now I am not definitely not one to say "old" companies need to lobby and/or sue to try to hinder innovation. But neither are they obligated to hasten their own demise. Besides it's not the brick-and-mortar GameStop that is a direct competitor with Onlive, it is their own online and streaming enterprise.

I don't work for GameStop. DE:HR is not a game I personally care about playing. I don't have dog in that fight. But I am annoyed as hell about the whining in this "community."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Once You Start Down the Dark Path, Forever Will It Dominate Your Destiny

The following video came out during Gamescom '11 that just wrapped up (I guess) in Cologne, Germany. It is of course, hosted by Total Biscuit, the Cynical Brit. Thanks to Zelibeli of Multiplaying.net for posting the link in Twitter.

While long--over 25 minutes--I enjoyed the banter of Total Biscuit and his interlocutor, Stephen Reid, known on Twitter as Rockjaw. I have been avoiding videos like this up 'til now, wanting to keep The Old Republic fresh for Launch Day. My experience with Rift was that, while participating in the beta and seeing the game in beta was helpful in making the decision to buy the game (yes. I am one of those beta testers), it spoiled the game a bit. By launch, my lovely fiancée and I had been over halfway through Freemarch several times. We now focus on Guardian characters, partly because of Defiant fatigue.

I knew nothing about Rift prior to December, 2010, when several of my fellow bloggers and tweeters started mentioning having gotten into the beta, sharing a secret I wanted in on. I found out a little more and signed up for the beta. And I am glad I did, because Rift is an awesome game I would not have subscribed to without a little preview.

SWTOR, on the other hand, is a game I have been looking forward for well over a year. Who needs spoileriffic videos of an unfinished game? Buuuuttt, we're getting much closer to the release date now, the game is mostly finished. People are in beta testing already. So I want to see some stuff.

I have questions about gameplay. The video answered some but not others. For instance, I intend to play as a duo with sctrz. I wasn't sure how we were going to be able to do that with two different class storylines. In the video, they discuss the individual character phases--small instances--and how the player could join a friend in the friend's phase.

The Sith Warrior apparently develops rage by fighting, which dissipates when out of combat, just like Warriors in WoW. I saw an Inquisitor in the Tatooine walk-through earlier today that showed more of a mana driven ability system, which is to be expected. I wonder what they call the rage bar for Jedi Knights, as rage is not something Jedi should be indulging in.

One thing that didn't get answered is how customizable will the User Interface be? I am not talking about addons, though I think that can OK in an MMO. I am talking out of the box. And there is no reason, given that games like Rift and STO have the UI elements easily movable, that BioWare can't do the same for SWTOR. The devs at Bioware have talked about the work they put into the UI. But in the end, I think most players, including myself, would just like to be able to have UI elements where we want them, not where some designer thinks they should be.

The death and resurrection system is actually pretty similar to Rift, with the ability to rez-in-place to a stealthed mode, a la soul walking in Rift, or rez back at the "Med Center." I couldn't tell from the video whether the player could make a corpse run like in Rift or WoW. Given the "defeat" as opposed to true "death," the spirit or corpse run might not be a mechanic in SWTOR. Of course, anyone reading this who has experienced the game is probably laughing at me right about now.

As discussed in the second video by Total Biscuit, the combat itself seems pretty standard for an MMO. Some people will be disappointed with that, always wanting combat to involve more "skill," which I have come interpret to mean more complex button pushing. After all, we're not talking about actually learning to use a lightsaber or force powers. Since skill-based combat is not why I play MMORPGs--the story/characterization is--I think the combat system in SWTOR will be just fine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Class Warfare in the Old Republic

Last Tuesday, the MMO Gamer Chick consolidated the trailers for the different classes in Star Wars: The Old Republic and asked Which Class Will You Choose? (Much of this post is transcribed comments I made there.)

The most recent video of the Jedi Consular is awesome, but only swayed me a little. I’ll have the Sage (healer) as my third alt.

My second (solo) alt is definitely the Gunslinger, has been since the armor progression video, “long” before the trailer showcased him. Gunslinger would be my main if my beloved fiancée wanted to play on the Republic side.

However, since she has to be a Bounty Hunter, looks like I’m gonna go with Inquisitor, probably the Sorceror. It looks like she'll have a force-related stealth capability (see the video at 0:56) The AoE force lightning at 1:23 looks pretty bitchin', too. (Yes, I am a child of the '80s.) Did you see her suck the life-force out of those Geonosians at about 1:38 I was undecided until re-watching the video. Not anymore. Now I just have to convince my sweetheart to role a male BH. Of course, GeeCee says it shouldn't matter, we can both role females.

The Jedi Knight doesn't really appeal, despite the fact that (youngish) Obi-wan Kenobi is my favorite character. I love Ewan McGregor's performance in Eps. 2 and 3, the only redeeming part of 3, to be honest. But the Knight as an MMO class? Meh; same with the Sith Warrior. I wonder how many Knights and Warriors will be running around on launch day. Or will those classes seem too iconic/vanilla and be largely ignored?

GeeCee also commented on the Sith Inquisitor and Jedi Consular being very similar in playstyle. That may be, but I hope they are not mirrors of each other. If I have to compare, I'd say the Inquisitor will have a Warlock feel, tapping fel powers for personal gain. The Consular is a typical carebear priest. Which is fine, I enjoy that role. GeeCee, in her review of the Taral V Flashpoint from PAX East, mentioned that the Jedi Consular seems perfectly capable of tanking in a dungeon group, as well. If this is the case, it is pretty awesome.

I have long argued that the tank role is unnecessary, as it is created by a game mechanic (threat tables). Each class in a game should be formidable enough to absorb or mitigate significant damage, and the players should be smart enough to back off the DPS when they do. The healer should only generate threat by "stealing" it from the target of the heal. If they have too much threat, another healer/DPS can step in. It might be a little more complicated from a gameplay standpoint, but it brings the battle closer to reality, I think. In a real fight, would you go after the big dope that is mostly yelling at you, or the mage throwing nasty firebolts your way? In PvP (which I dislike, but for different reasons) there is no tank, because the opposite players are too smart for that. The pseudo-intelligence should be similar, IMHO.

As far as the classes having mirrors, some seem obvious at first, but I began to question that assumption. So Sith Inquisitor equals Jedi Consular, and Jedi Knight equals Sith Warrior. Seems obvious, but I also thought that Trooper might equal Warrior, because what else really does? I think possibly BH, but that seems like the obvious Smuggler analog. And Agent doesn’t seem like a Trooper analog either.

I was thinking/hoping they’d mix it up a bit so there wouldn’t be a straight mirror of the classes. That would keep it a little more interesting. They could still maintain some sort of PvP balance by having mirrors among the advanced classes, but those wouldn’t have to match class by class.

So, Dear Reader, assuming you're going to play SWTOR, which class do you intend to role first?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Of Dungeon Masters and Quest Givers

Please don't fall over in shock, Dear Reader. I know it is strange to see two posts in as many days. And I know it'll be late when I post this, but it is still today and not tomorrow. Hopefully, this will become more commonplace. I did promise more thoughts on the subject of StoryBricks, as partially inspired by Spinks' post about NPC realism and interactivity.

In the old days--of the 1970s and 80s--young people would gather around a table with dice and stat sheets and weave a tale of adventure with an element of chance. Each player would assume a role and pretend to be that character. The key to this adventure was the player known as the Dungeon Master. I say player, because I believe the DM was as big a player as anyone else, in addition to being the chief storyteller and referee. Sometimes the scenarios were taken from "canned" adventure books; other times DMs made it up themselves. I never actually got to play D&D or other PnP RPGs when I was younger--or older for that matter--so my knowledge of them is limited to having read several AD&D sourcebooks and novels, as well as conversations with PnP gamers. As I understand it, the DM was responsible for planning the scenario that the other players would participate in, as well as controlling the Non-Player Characters, both friendly and hostile. The friendly NPCs (and occasionally the hostiles) helped round out the story of the players' adventure, providing the motivation to go out on epic quests, or just letting folks know about the treasure to be had in yon dungeon.

Multi-User Dungeons were designed soon after D&D came out, and became popular among college students and others with network access in the 80s and early 90s. Many of these followed the emphasis on Hack and Slash violence that tended to occur in D&D. Because of its similarity in gameplay to D&D the DikuMUD became a popular flavor of MUD and was the main influence of Graphical RPGs such as Ultima Online, Everquest, and World of Warcraft.

Omigosh, I just totally digressed. My point was that with the advent of computerized RPGs, the Dungeon Master no longer had to be actively engaged in the moment-to-moment play of the game. Through a script, the DM could describe the setting and action for the player or players. At first this was textual, but eventually much of the environment and action could be visualized instead of described. Now the DM was a group of video game developers. So how were they going to convey the impetus for going on adventures? To potentially millions of players across the planet? At once?

Most current MMOs have dialogue boxes where the the player can read the necessary information before heading out to kill the ten rats. As Spinks mentions, NPCs are just "person shaped lumps" that players can interact with to get quests or goods. There are many who decry this method of interactivity as non-immersive. Is this any less immersive than a live DM sitting at the table voicing 10 different characters? I think maybe some people just don't like to read.

My point is that the Dungeon Master duties have been taken over by computer software, not that this is a bad thing. It means that I--who have never had a chance to sit around a table and roleplay with friends--can sit at my computer and roleplay with friends from halfway around the world, all from the comfort of my bedroom or living room. Or hotel room. If you've read this blog for any length of time, you've probably figured out that I don't put much stock in the assertion of some gamers that "themepark" MMOs are inferior to "sandbox" games. They each have their place, I suppose. But, at least one other blog I read a while back pointed out that, oftentimes, if you could do absolutely anything in a game, you end up not doing anything. You have no direction. Questing and other related content give structure and goals to a game, just as the PnP games that are the ancestors of modern MMOs had structure provided by the DM.

OK, so BioWare announces that the quests or missions in Star Wars: The Old Republic will be fully voiced, something that to my knowledge has never been done. So the quest givers will tell you verbally what you need to do. Start Trek Online has a few Featured Episodes that are at least partially voiced, but they still have the readable dialogue boxes. I hope SWTOR still has a quest log where I can read what I need to be doing. Otherwise I will forget everything I am supposed to be doing.

But even full audio interactivity is not good enough for some who want even more "immersion." "SWTOR will be more of the same old "on-rails" questing we see in WoW," they say (which I think is exaggerated). Maybe the new StoryBricks concept will catch on, where NPCs will have "motivations" and "desires" that PCs will able to satisfy. I can see how the system will make it easier to design content, but I am not sure how it will change the actual gameplay. I am looking forward to seeing that in action. But I don't know if the detractors of the current crop of MMOs will be satisfied.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

StoryBricks and the Monkeysphere

Man! I have got to get more posts on here. My readership has probably dried up. I was reading a post from Spinks the other day about Namaste and their new system of NPC "motivation" called StoryBricks that seems pretty innovative from a game development perspective. Spinks' words inspired me to write a post, because I have been thinking about realism/immersion in MMOs. This post may be a bit scattered as it represents the convergences of two lines of thought I've had over a few months actually.
101 Freeway, Burbank Blvd. and Ventura Blvd.
I grew up in Southern California, in Ventura County. On several occasions, I had the opportunity to drive through the San Fernando Valley (the home of Valley Girls) on my way to Los Angeles. It didn't matter what my destination was, it was usually not the Valley itself. The 101 freeway  (US 101) winds through the south end of the Valley past towns like Encino and Van Nuys. When I did stop in the Valley, it was at a mall or other commercial enterprise. I never thought much about the million or so people I drove past on those trips into L.A. Several years after moving away from SoCal, my then-wife and I took our toddler to visit my mother-in-law in Encino for Christmas. While at a park one afternoon during our stay, I looked around in amazement at all the people who lived their lives in this city that I had driven past all those years.

Now, did their lives affect mine? Possibly remotely. Maybe some of them manufactured things I used. Maybe some of them drove alongside me on the 101 Freeway. But they didn't ever really affect me, though I lived only a few miles away. Heck, even most of the people who lived in my hometown of 120,000 only affected me peripherally, if at all. Why is that? A humorous analysis of a theory called the Monkeysphere can be found on Cracked. The TL:DR version is that we humans only have the capacity to develop reciprocal relationships with--to care about--a maximum of about 150 other Homo sapiens. Wait, that number may include our friends from Felis catus and Canis lupus familiaris, as well. Hmm. I wonder if it includes fictitious characters, too. That would explain why I cried when Spock sacrificed himself to save the ship.

You know that nice cashier at the store? You remember her because you are in there every week. She won't remember you at all from the hundreds of people she serves, unless you come in just about every day, and talk to her a bit. But you still won't be friends. To your life, it doesn't matter if she takes your money for that loaf of bread, or someone else does. It doesn't matter if she is a single mother with three kids, or a college student with a lousy boyfriend. You're just a customer and she's just a shopkeeper.

"What has this to do with my MMOs?" you may be saying, Dear Reader.  Referring back to Spinks' article, I don't care if the NPC shopkeepers wander around and "have lives" independent of my game playing. Actually, I'd prefer that they be there when I need to sell my junk or buy some mana juice, not off making digital dinner for their virtual children. I don't need much interaction with them. The interface with them needs to be simple and efficient.
To be honest, most of the other player characters in an MMO are also outside our Monkeysphere. Those decrying the horrible state of communities in WoW, for example, need only walk out their door and drive to the mall or some other venue where crowds of people gather. You'll find that you care very little for any of them. Is this bad? Not necessarily, as long as you're courteous to them and they are to you. Unfortunately, we tend to fall outside the Monkeysphere of other players, just as they fall outside our sphere. This explains the behavior you find in many modern MMOs, and indeed, most of the Internet. You simply are not a real person to most monkey brains.

This is not to say we can't form friendships and even fall in love through online games. I know people who have, and I myself consider many people friends whom I have only ever met online.

It may seem cold, but the reality of our lives is that most of the people around us are merely peripheral shadows, barely registering. We interact personally with a few people at work or school, our friends and family. Strangers may as well be “window decorations” for all we care. Most NPCs serve the same function in our games.

I have decided to discuss the other line of thought in another post. Part two coming tomorrow . . . I promise.