Consequences, memories, and making an impact

Warning: This is going to be one of those rambling, stream-of-consciousness posts. A few different ideas have been thrown at my head recently, and they’re all twisting together in my brain, and I have to write my thoughts down to sort them out.

First, Ysharros wrote about wanting her actions to make a real difference in an MMO world: Persistence: ourstory

Then Ascii Dreams wrote about Permadeath (which also touches on emergent gameplay), which got me thinking about risk in MMOs.

In my comments on Ysharros’s post, I first wondered how developers could build a game in which every player can have a measurable impact on the world, and still remain fiscally solvent (the devs, not the players). But as I navel-gazed on Ysh’s dime, I started to wonder about what matters more: our actions having an impact on the MMO world, or our actions having an impact on us?

I decided that I, at least, don’t really care if my character’s actions change the MMO world as much as I care that my character’s actions leave me with rich memories of virtual adventures. I can remember adventures and exchanges from launch-era Ultima Online and EQ1 – things that happened 10+ years ago. But I remember very little from my time in Warhammer Online or Age of Conan, games I played in the last year. Nothing worth remembering happened in those games. I mean, I remember playing the games, of course, but I have no “Tales of Adventure” that I could share with you.

Again in the comments at Ysh’s, Tesh suggested that killing Onyxia when hundreds of other groups had already killed her is a weak substitute for telling your own unique stories, and yet one of my most recent “Tales of Adventure” comes from a similar (lower level!) encounter in WOW, and that was fighting General Drakkisath in the pre-Burning Crusades days. As a hunter, it was my job to ‘kite’ Drak away from the battle so that the rest of my comrades could take down his minions before fighing the General himself.

A zillion people had done this before me, and yet (in my mind at least) it remains one of my “Tales of Adventure.” And why is that?


I knew if I failed, Drak would return and wipe out my comrades.

For 99% of the things I do in MMOs these days, failure brings with it consequences so light as to really not matter. And that’s how I’ve wanted it. Wandering into the wrong area in UO and being ganked and stripped of everything I’d worked so hard to acquire was not fun. Dying in EQ and losing a level was not fun.

And yet those were the games where real memories and adventures were formed.

As MMO players, we argue against anything not-fun. We want insta-travel, hate death penalties, don’t want to grind, don’t want to have to spend hours at a time playing in order to accomplish anything. We want everything convenient and risk-free and for the most part, developers have obliged us.

And what we’re left with is games where we don’t have stories worth telling because nothing we do entails risk, and without an element of risk, a story isn’t worth telling. Without adversity, there can be no heroes.

I’m not arguing that grinding is adversity, or that having to run 10 minutes is, either. No, but these ‘features’ are deterrents. If we know that failing means having to grind for another hour (or even run for 10 minutes) to get back to where we were, then suddenly failing has real meaning, and from the real meaning comes emotional involvement.

I don’t know what the solution is, or if this is even a problem for very many people. I think back on my “Tales of Adventure” and I’d love to experience that kind of intensity in my gaming again, but I’m not willing to put the rest of my life in a box in order to obtain it, and that is surely what I was doing back then. UO almost cost me my job and my relationship. Kiting Drak only happened because I was unemployed. These days, when I can only squeeze in an hour to play an MMO in a given evening, I don’t *want* to have to spend it grinding or running around.

And yet, the games feel like games now, not alternate worlds of adventure. And damn, do I miss being a hero.

Game surfing vs game diving

Yeah, I just made those terms up, sorta.

As regular readers know, I’m in a relationship with another gamer. We have similar tastes and similar behaviors in a lot of ways, which is (presumably) why we get along so well.

But though we’re both gamers, we’re very, very different kinds of gamers. I flit from game to game, dropping in, riding the rush of a new experience, having fun and then paddling back out to the gaming ocean to find another ride. (Yes, apparently I’m going to torture the titular analogy to death.)

She, on the other hand, dives deep into the nuances of a game that grabs her. She’s been playing EQ2 since launch. That’s over four years, for those not counting. She loves the game, knows it so well she’s like a walking EQ2 encyclopedia, and is loyal as hell to it. I’ve tried to tempt her into other MMOs time after time and I don’t think she’s ever lasted more than a month.

She’s the same way with single player games (which, honestly, she didn’t often play until recently). I got her Animal Crossing: City Folk for Christmas, and it took her a good two months to get around to trying it. Once she did, she was hooked. She logs in every single day. She has charts and printouts of all the fish, bugs, art and fossils you can find, and tics them off as she adds them to the Museum. She took in-game snapshots of the terrain, moved those over to her PC so she could exactly match the palettes, and developed patterns for the game that blend in seamlessly. She used these to create pathways through the world so that the grass doesn’t get trod down. She has the town’s individual acres marked out with other patterns so she can focus on getting a ‘perfect’ score for the town.

Describing it, she sounds incredibly anal, but all the while she’s doing this, she’s also chatting with the townsfolk and having a blast finding new things, always with a big smile on her face. The few times I’ve dipped into this kind of completionism, I’ve done it with a furrowed brow and I “gotta get this DONE” attitude. She just does it all casually.

It’s fascinating to me, watching her play a game. I envy her in some ways. I wish I could have that kind of focus. I’m a poster child for adult-ADHD (diagnosed and everything); unless I happen to get into a ‘hyperfocus’ frame of mind, I just can’t stick to one thing like she does. And that’s ok. It’s actually pretty fun to vicariously enjoy all the nuggets of coolness that she uncovers; there’s so much hidden stuff in really good games that I would *never* uncover.

On the other side of the coin, I think about how much she misses by playing so few games. She’s not really a ‘student’ of gaming in the same way I am; for her, they’re all about having fun. I have stacks and stacks of games laying around the house. Part of that is because when I’m really busy (this is a recent self-discovery) I start buying games as a broken way of trying to scratch the itch of wanting to play. But part of it is also me really, really wanting to experience all kinds of games. I’m fascinated by what each one brings to the table. I’m a sucker for bargain bins. Grabbing for $10 poorly-received games is totally worth it. Even if the game is wretchedly bad, I’m adding to my knowledge of gaming’s culture, history and technology.

If you’re waiting for me to make a point, I’m gonna disappoint you. I don’t really have one. I’ve just been finding it interesting to watch her play Animal Crossing, and while doing so I realized that she’d solved every Sudoku puzzle in her copy of Brain Age for the DS, and every puzzle in her copy of Mystery Case Files: Millionheir (the two other games, besides EQ2, that I’ve seen her play). That’s when it dawned on me that I was living with a completionist! It’s like lions and antelopes lying down together or something.

And speaking of lying down, here’s hoping you’re all having a pleasantly relaxing weekend. We sure are. Last of the chores (cleaning guinea pig houses, see below) are done, we’ve got no more committments. I’m going to be playing Rune Factory Frontiers on the Wii, and I just got an apparently bad 360 game for $10 (Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom) that I’ll be checking out. Assuming I can pull myself away from Aquia on the DSi!

Unrelated guinea pig picture: it’s so tiring having your house cleaned!

Golden ages & game design

Thanks to Stargrace for pointing me at this post on Of Course I’ll Play It!

I wasn’t at GDC and didn’t hear the Paul Burnett lecture that Dusty Monk (author of Of Course I’ll Play It!) refers to, so I can’t comment directly on that. But from what I’ve read, the quick recap is that Burnett suggests that we all have a ‘golden age’ of gaming that influences our likes and dislikes. Simple enough.

Monk adds his own thoughts to this when he says:

No matter how utterly convinced you are of how fundamentally fun something is, there is always someone else whom is just as equally convinced it is the worst thing in the world. And no matter how absolutely terrible you think something is, there will always be people that think it’s the best thing in existence.

And that, to me, is a golden nugget and something I really need to keep in mind. I should print it out and paste it on the wall behind my monitor, for when I’m arguing with all these crazy kids (git out of my yard!) who think that games shouldn’t have levels or loot or travel times or obstacles or rats or fighting or whatever the next sacred cow they start tearing down is. (Bless ’em for their energy and constant thinking outside the box!)

The timing is kind of funny because I’ve been playing a certain game a lot, and wasn’t really enjoying it until I got out a pad and paper and started taking notes and planning out character development and stuff. And a few times I almost posted about it, but then didn’t really want to have to get into a big debate about how if a game forces you to take notes it must suck. Because I can see how people would think it would suck, and honestly I wouldn’t want to have to do it very often. But for me, for now, it’s kind of a neat feeling of nostalgia.

Sometimes I miss the days when there was *always* a pad of graph paper sitting next to the keyboard. It was as essentially a gaming tool as the monitor, really.

Anyway, thanks to Stargrace for pointing out the post! And I should ask Monk if he ever played Megawars III.

Time to retire guilds?

A lot of bloggers spend a lot of time talking about how the mechanics of MMOs need to be refreshed. The level grind, the loot systems, the payment model, whatever… basically a lot of thought is put into how these games might be improved by the enthusiasts who play them.

I wonder if its time we look at the social aspects. Particularly, guilds. Depending on the MMO, being in a guild can range from pretty helpful to crucial. And on the face of it, guilds seem like a good thing, right? A way to meet people and make friends.

But the flip side is the guild drama. In the past few weeks I’ve heard from several different friends about guild drama implosions in each of their (different) guilds. In all cases this has created a lot of bad feelings for the people involved. In each case, these have been guilds of mature, lucid people who I know to be good-hearted individuals. And yet their guilds fractured amid much drama.

Why do these games try to force us into large guilds? Such groupings aren’t natural. We live in a culture of small, liquid groups. Outside of our jobs, what other activities do we, as adults, partake in that requires us to bind ourselves with large groups of people to work shoulder to shoulder with them? The only think I can think of are team sports, and those are generally small groups of people.

Outside of a game, when’s the last time you gathered in a group of 25-100 people to the extent of labeling yourself as a Member of this group and interacting directly with all members of that group. I’m not talking about “joining” a gym or a church. In instances like those, you aren’t directly interacting with all members of that group.

Guilds were a fine idea when we were all 15 or 20 and had endless time for playing games and no other pressures on us. But as the gaming population gets older, we by nature get less flexible as the matrix of our lives grows more complex. Free time grows more precious to us. Political views solidify. We develop Ideals.

The idea that I can find a group of 25-150 people that I can get along with day to day in a specific leisure-time activity is, frankly, ludicrous. I’d feel really really fortunate to find a dozen such people. I’m not saying there aren’t 150 people I can get along with in my social circles. I’m saying there aren’t that many people doing the specific activity (ie, game) in the specific place (ie, server) that I am.

I’m not talking about abolishing grouping or raiding. But I think a better system would involve allowing players to form small-scale long term groups (essentially friend-lists on steroids) and then allow those “micro-guilds” to come together for the purpose of accomplishing a specific task, then going their separate ways.

I realize nothing prevents this from happening now. But game developers could build in better tools for aiding this kind of short-term aggregation. It might be as easy as re-working the “looking for group” into a “forming a raid” system where you could list your group in the window and a raid leader could build a raid by inviting a selection of groups that fit the raid’s needs.

I admit I’m pretty biased in this, as I’m not very social to begin with. But it bothers me to see my friends being upset because of guild drama/implosions, and I don’t think we’d have this kind of drama if games weren’t developed in such a way as to favor large guilds over small ones. Let people form Friendships based on, well, LIKING each other’s company rather than on needing more warm bodies to fill out a raid.

Let’s place the value on the strength of the relationships between players, rather than on numbers alone.

Breaching the gap

So it’s Friday. My daily post for IT World is written. Guinea pig houses are cleaned. Shopping done…in short, all my chores are done. Time for some gaming. But what to play?

I have no clue. And this has become a pattern in my life; one that I’m not sure how to break.

There’s a kind of inertia to my game playing, I’ve found. Once I pick up a game, I can enjoy the heck out of it as long as I keep playing it. But once I take a break, my focus drifts and I start gazing at new gaming horizons with a feeling of longing. And that’s a problem these days.

Let me back up a little. My fulltime job runs 36 hours/week these days. I divvy that up as 4 9-hour days, Mon-Thursday. Then I have my blogging job, where I’ve committed to 1-2 posts/day for IT World during the week. So in theory, Friday I have a couple blog posts to write, but otherwise Fri-Sun is me-time (of course that isn’t always true…both jobs sometimes slop over into weekends)

So assume I’m really enjoying a game over a weekend. Then I hit Monday when I have both jobs to do. By the time I get to the gaming part of the day its often after 10 pm and sometimes as late as 11. I still squeeze in a bit of whatever game I’m playing though. Ditto on Tuesday. But usually by Wednesday and Thursday, the fatigue of the work week has built to the point where I just don’t have the energy to keep going so late, so I don’t get any gaming in on those days.

By Friday, it’s been a couple days since I’ve done any gaming, and four since I’ve really been deeply immersed in the last game I’m playing. My inertia is shot to heck as I’ve been hearing all kinds of interesting gaming news for a week, while not ‘reinforcing’ my habit of playing my current game. Does that make sense?

So I’ll feel like starting something new, but at the same time I know I have 2-3 days before the cycle starts all over again. And I find it really hard to return to a game I’ve started and put down in the past. That shiny new game smell has worn off (I’ll be past all the tutorials but won’t really remember all the nuances of how to play, or in the case of an RPG I won’t remember the story or what I was supposed to be doing to finish whatever quests I’m on.)

Often I’ll end up watching TV or reading rather than playing. And then at the end of the weekend feel like I’ve squandered my time because I didn’t get any good gaming in.

I’m not sure what the solution is to this problem, but what’s more interesting is wondering if this “gaming inertia” is something unique to me, or if others experience it too. I kind of think they do, because I’ve seen people who’ve been fanatical MMO players forced to take a break for a few days (for a business trip or family holiday, say) come back and no longer have any urge to play the same game that was driving their lives before the break.

I guess what I need is for developers to start designing ‘bite-sized’ games that still offer a lot of depth. I know there’s a big debate over game length, but frankly I’d rather have a great 15 hour game that I could finish over a weekend, than have an 80 hour epic journey that I’m never going to finish, or even get into the real meat of.

What about you? Can you set a game down for a long period of time and pick right up where you left off, or do you suffer from a gaming inertia problem, too?