Thursday, May 29, 2014

Start Game. Nope. Leave. Start Game. Nope Again. Leave. Start Game…

The Newbie Blogger Initiative group recently started a Terraria server, which I have been playing the absolutely living daylights out of. More than anybody else really. But it’s still been an absolute blast.

The answer to the question is always, "Yes!"

Terraria, like most games with procedurally generated maps, has a number of resources which are quite limited in nature. It also has a large number of treasures which are completely random. An example would be the Ice Machine—used to create ice furniture—which not all maps have one, so besides actually finding chests that have loot, you also have to hope that the loot you get is the stuff you want. On top of that, some things, like Sunplate Blocks, are extremely limited in amounts in a given world.

Diablo III is another game with procedurally generated maps and loot. An example of this is trying to farm for the Gibbering Gemstone—a piece of loot required to unlock Whimseyshire. I’ve been farming on and off for this item since March when 2.0 dropped, and haven’t had any luck so far. You need to farm a beast known as Chiltara, who sometimes spawns in the Caverns of Frost, which sometimes spawns instead of the Icefall Caverns not far from the Bridge of Korsekk way point, but the location in the field of the cavern is also random.

So not only do I have to find the cavern, I have to hope it’s the right one, and then it’s no guarantee the mob I want to kill will spawn, and then it’s still like a 3% drop rate from there. I think I’ve put in about 8 – 10 hours total farming this thing, culminating in about 30 Chiltara kills, and precisely 0 Gibbering Gemstones.

All of this leads to some very interesting behavior as far as gaming is concerned. The most efficient way to farm for this item in Diablo III is to start a new game, check to see if the bounty is for Caverns of Frost on the map, and if not, quit and repeat. Often you’ll go through about 5 – 8 instances of the game before you get one with the right bounty, and away you go hoping Chiltara will spawn.

For Terraria, if you’re just farming a specific resource it’s not too bad; start a new world, and go find it. If you’re searching for a specific treasure, you need to know what biome it usually spawns, create the world and go find the biome, and search it top to bottom. Or use a map-viewer utility to pin-point it and find that location in-game, which is definitely cheating (though on the degrees of cheating, it’s less than just actively modifying your inventory).
 

But as a designer, is this behavior you should encourage, discourage, or do something else entirely? Or even just ignore it. Players love to be efficient—and I’m completely guilty of this myself—rather than just play around. A lot of gamers are very goal-oriented, even if those goals are self-created. So when that drive for efficiency creates a strange way of playing the game “optimally”, should it be changed?

My personal goal is to finish my treehouse, which requires farming more worlds for a lot more Sunplate Stone.

I’m not asking for things to be handed to me on a silver platter, but when you look at non-procedurally generated content, usually rare items are gated by being well-hidden (easily defeated by a FAQ online), or by being behind some crazy skill gate, like a secret boss or dungeon. In MMOs and procedurally generated content, usually it just becomes a matter of time spent and a little luck.

Personally I prefer a skill gate, because it gives me another goal, and a way to test myself, which I find amusing. But others prefer the time gate, because they love grinding (seriously! They do!), or like the idea that given enough time, they can do everything the game has to offer. This method of farming, quitting and recreating an instance of the game over and over and over again, is something that isn’t much fun for Diablo III, at least, and I wonder if there’s another mechanic that could be used instead?
#GameDesign, #DiabloIII, #Terraria

Friday, May 23, 2014

Dear Blizzard, I'm Not Asking For a Quest About Woman's Suffrage or the Stonewall Riots

I fully admit that this post is probably mildly ironic given my previous post, but here we go.

There’s a Polygon article that’s being linked around the web right now, riling up a lot of people, and I admit, it got me riled up to. The gist behind the article is that developers such as Nintendo and Blizzard are not taking a stance on inclusiveness and basically ignoring women, LGBT folk, and other minorities, saying that to focus on those issues would be the antithesis of “fun”.

The author, Todd Harper, gathered his information from a MIT talk with Rob Pardo, Chief Creative Officer, that he attended, as well as a Rock-Paper-Shotgun interview with Dustin Browder, Lead Designer of Starcraft II. So I decided to dig into the source material, because I was really angry at Blizzard’s statements, and I wanted to find out more from the source. Turns out the truth is a bit more nuanced than what Todd Harper wrote up. On the other hand, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Blizzard, either.

So, I present to you, in full, Rob Pardo’s statements in response to Todd Harper’s question (70:11 to 73:44)
Harper:
So early on when you were talking about Blizzard's values you were talking about providing the most epic entertainment experience possible and the brand is the currency of the company, and also the idea that taking risks should be safe. I'm wondering if you could talk about the relationship between those frameworks and your perceived audience, and the ability of the company to include socially progressive ideas and content as you develop new things for your games.
I guess I bring that up because you specifically called out Bioware, for example, for being a narrative focused company rather than being a gameplay company, which I guess I would say is pretty true of their last few big titles, but they're also one of the companies that's at the forefront of including more socially relevant content in their stuff, so I wonder if you could talk about how that plays out at Blizzard with that separate focus you discussed?

Pardo:
So when you're saying socially relevant you're saying the things they've done in their storylines and kind of the inclusion of gay characters and things like that?

Harper:
That's part of it, but it's not just representing diversity in your narrative content, though that's certainly part of it. I think it really comes down to reflecting the diversity of player experiences, specifically diverse players, but also just the fact you have a lot of different people playing your game and reflecting their desires, experiences, contexts in what you're producing.

Pardo:
Yeah, I wouldn't say that's really a value for us, it's not something we're against, either, but it's just not something we're trying to actively do. I'd say that one of the reasons we do sci fi and fantasy is that we're kids at heart. We're not trying to bring in serious stuff, or socially relevant stuff, or actively trying to preach for diversity or do things like that. I think that sometimes it's not necessarily always the right thing to do, it's just how we develop the game.
There's no maliciousness to it, but I'll give you an example where I think sometimes we struggle is our portrayal of women in the game. Because most of our game developers are guys that grew up reading comic books, so what do they draw? They kinda draw oftentimes comic book looking women which is offensive, I think, to some women. It's something that we sometimes have to actively catch ourselves and go, "wait, we need to not make our women characters wear armor that look like Xena or Sonya" or something like that sometimes.
But it's a struggle for us because the diversity within our workplace is unbalanced. And it's not because we don't want more women developers, it's just what the industry is. If you look at the industry it is kind of like that, and it's very hard to oftentimes, just use female game designers as an example because I hire game designers, I just don't get the applications so it becomes challenging for us, I think.



So Rob Pardo's response, "I wouldn't say that's really a value for us, it's not something we're against, either, but it's just not something we're trying to actively do,” was in direct response to Todd Harper’s question about reflecting other players’ experiences. Basically, Rob is arguing they’re just trying to make a video game they want to play, regardless of the social issues going on around them.

I get that, I really do. But it also underscores an important point here, which Rob Pardo made himself, is that it’s not really malicious, they’re just not thinking about it. Rob Pardo’s point about catching themselves is awesome, because it does tell me they understand the problem to an extent, but they have no real mechanisms in place to enforce it. And I totally get his point about not having enough diversity in the workplace, because that would make all of this easier, too.

But that’s where the crux of the problem lies. They’re not thinking about it actively. So when they make those hyper-sexualized comic book-esque women, or when they make most of their characters ultra-masculine power-fantasy males, that’s what they’ve been doing for 25 years. They’ve built up a reflex within their company culture and, to be fair, within most of the game industry, that this is the way you make video games and tell a story. And for those of us on the outside of the straight white male point of view, we find ourselves wanting for someone we can relate to.

Blizzard talks a lot about how they’re gameplay-focused, rather than narrative-focused. That makes a lot of sense in a game like Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm. There’s pretty much no narrative there, by design. And you could squint and kind of argue that Starcraft and the Warcraft RTS games, the narrative is really a framework to show off the gameplay. But World of Warcraft is a world, with characters, motivations, ideas, and interactions. I could be snarky and say their lack of focus on narrative shows, especially in their Warlords of Draenor storyline, but at the same time I think they’re doing themselves a disservice by claiming that for their Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.

The thing about building a story or a narrative is that you want to ensure you have characters people can relate to. If your heroes are perfect, or your villains are flat, the story gets old really quick. Immutable personal identity, like gender, sexuality, and race are some ways that folks end up relating to characters. But more importantly, when those aspects are missing from a world, the absence is noticed and makes the world less relatable to the consumer. A world where there are almost no strong female characters? You’ve lost a chunk of your female audience. No gay characters? I can’t relate to that at all; that’s not what my world looks like. Why should I buy into yours?

Rock, Paper, Shotgun had their own interview with Blizzard’s Dustin Browder, where RPS asked Dustin Browder hyper-sexualized female characters in Heroes of the Storm.
RPS:
You have some interesting alternate outfits for heroes. Roller Derby Nova, especially, caught my eye. On its own, that’s totally fine – just a silly, goofy thing. A one-off. But it got me thinking about how often MOBAs tend to hyper-sexualize female characters to a generally preposterous degree – that is to say, make it the norm, not a one-off at all – and StarCraft’s own, um, interesting focus choices as of late. How are you planning to approach all of that in Heroes?

Browder:
Well, I mean, some of these characters, I would argue, are already hyper-sexualized in a sense. I mean, Kerrigan is wearing heels, right? We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool. Our sensibilities are more comic book than anything else. That’s sort of where we’re at. But I’ll take the feedback. I think it’s very fair feedback.

RPS:
I have to add, though, that comics might not be the best point of reference for this sort of thing. I mean, it’s a medium that’s notorious – often in a not-good way – for sexing up female characters and putting them in some fairly gross situations.

Browder:
We’re not running for President. We’re not sending a message. No one should look to our game for that.

RPS:
But it’s not even about a message. The goal is to let people have fun in an environment where they can feel awesome without being weirded out or even objectified. This is a genre about empowerment. Why shouldn’t everyone feel empowered? That’s what it’s about at the end of the day: letting everyone have a fair chance to feel awesome.

Browder:
Uh-huh. Cool. Totally.

Dustin Browder, in his response, states, “We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool.” He contradicts himself in the second sentence. By “just making characters who look cool,” he’s sending a message that those are the characters they think look cool. I mean, sounds kind of silly when I lay it out like that, but at the same time, it absolutely is a message. When the grand majority of your female characters are hyper-sexualized, you’re sending the message that non-hyper-sexualize female characters are not cool.

Again, Dustin Browder’s point, not unlike Rob Pardo’s, is they’re not trying to send a message, and that they’re just trying to make awesome games. But media is a message, whether you want it to be or not. Art reflects society and societal norms. My point above still holds, if there’s no one that you can relate to, it makes it harder for you to enjoy the product, or to find it fun. So again, it’s not something they’re thinking about actively, and it shows.

Now, to be fair, Blizzard has done good things in the past. Just because the higher-ups are dismissive doesn’t mean that everything is terrible. If you look at the Alliance, there’s a few strong female characters around, such as Sky Admiral Catherine Rogers, Grand Admiral Jes-Tereth, and Moira Thaurissan. I can’t speak much to the Horde myself, but I’ve heard there’s a few over there. Granted, they’re not in positions of great power—those are still left to the men-folk, apparently—but it’s a start.

And for gay characters, Blizzard did actually put in a tribute for a guildie of mine, Ghemit the Hunter. His late husband, known as Elloric in-game, has an NPC, which isn’t the sort of action taken by a bigoted company.

Let me be clear: some of the things that Rob Pardo and Dustin Browder said are troubling. We’ve seen in the past by the words of Chris Metzen and his “boys’ trip” comment for Warlords of Draenor that again, they’re not really thinking about this stuff. And even worse were the homophobic remarks by the band LVL 90 ETC in a video that Blizzard had shown at Blizzcon really was hurtful.

Blizzard as a company has a clear pattern of ignorance. Time and time again, that ignorance has played out resulting in hurt and annoyed customers, and at what point do we have to stop pointing it out and just start voting with our feet and dollars? I’m not sure I’m at that point myself, especially given that there aren’t that many companies out there that are any better than Blizzard yet, just less vocal and/or smaller. But I don’t blame folks who decide that this was the straw that broke their back.

At the same time, it’s not terribly hard to make this right. I’m not asking for quests about women’s suffrage, or the Stonewall riots. I’m just asking that we have some sort of respectful representation in-game. Heck, it can even be a villain for all I care. Some dude trying to take over the world, oh, and footnote, his husband died so that’s why he’s so angry. Or more ladies who aren’t scantily-clad and have positions of power. You don’t need to convert all of your characters into nuns, because there are women out there who do like to dress sexily because it empowers them, rather than the sole purpose of making themselves the object of someone else’s desire.

To write off the issue as some developers happen to like comic books and so portray women like they do in comics, or to say it’s difficult because you have no diversity in the workplace are excuses, and not  great ones. I sincerely hope they’re actively looking to fix that, because they have the power to do just that, and to not do it just perpetuates that ignorance and makes it willful, as well.

This isn’t an insurmountable problem. It’s not even that hard to fix. All it takes is to think about it, just a little.

#Inclusiveness, #Blizzard

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Plans Change, or The Dangers of Developer Communication

I remember a time, nearly a decade ago, when people would rage at the empty, echoing space that was the WoW forums. The developers, you see, would rarely deign to respond to the populace with the exception of disseminating patch notes, and even that was generally through community managers. Nowadays, partially thanks to the efforts of an extremely thick-shelled crab by the name of Greg Street AKA Ghostcrawler, you see lots of WoW devs all over Twitter and blog posts on Battle.net.

You also see something similar from the Landmark developers, and the folks from the Wildstar. Lots of indie game developers also have an open development model, where they share the entire journey from start to finish. While I love having a much more real-time view of the developer stream-of-consciousness, I wonder if it’s a net-good thing.

Nerfs tend to be pretty controversial subjects. Many don’t particularly care, some rejoice because they’ve hit a wall, and others are upset because they don’t want their achievement to be watered down (like leaving the cutting edge achievement despite nerfing the content), or just like having extremely difficult content around. I think most people are pretty resigned to nerfs at this point, but what I really found interesting wasn’t the nerf itself, but folks’ reaction to it.


A month ago, Watcher mentioned that they didn’t have any plans to create a zone-wide nerf, but they were looking at targeted nerfs to smooth progression. What if they decided later that they liked the progression curve, but thought it was just a little too flat, i.e: each boss was relatively tuned to each other correctly, but everything was just a bit too hard? Well, the only response to that is either do nothing and let folks be frustrated, or nerf everything a little.

Both Balkoth and Kurn argue this flies in the face of what Watcher had stated a month ago. At first blush, I played word lawyer and said, “Plans change. They promised nothing.” I mean, it is a nerf, let’s be clear. But what Blizzard said a month ago may or may not apply now.

However, given both had such a strong reaction to the tweet, maybe I was missing something bigger here. Perhaps us mere mortal players should never get to view the direct stream of developer consciousness? If you dig into Blizzard’s past, you’ll find the ruins of aerial combat, the dance studio, and the Path of the Titans. All cool features that were cut due to not enough time or developer resources, and the outcry for each of them was quite vociferous. Would Blizzard have been better off not announcing them at all?

Or talk about another feature they announced just the other day, class accessories. A feature that is already stated won’t make it into 6.0. Heck, the feature is still in its inception phase, according to the linked blog post. So when/if this gets cut, is there going to be a collective surge of disappointment and anger from the playerbase?

Is there a middle ground, where the developers talk about only the sure-shot stuff that they know won’t get cancelled? Or is it worth it to be extremely open about your game’s development to generate interest and dialogue, in the hopes that all of these outcries from your playerbase amount to just the Internet being the Internet? Should you as a dev talk about your day-to-day decisions, like whether or not you have plans right that moment for something? Or should you only talk in absolutes? Is that even possible?

I’m not sure.

It’s funny, because I’ll be in the exact same position in a month and a half or so, with the opportunity to be quite open about the game I’ll be working on. I’m looking at the reactions of folks about Watcher’s tweets, to the extreme side of things: the very angry folks on Twitter who are blaming Ghostcrawler for the last LoL patch—despite the fact that he hadn’t even started on the team yet! Having to watch exactly what I say, the absolute precise wording of it in fear of being misrepresented, and even then being taken to task for it is a bit intimidating.

I’ll still do it for my game; I’m way too excited not to. But at the same time, I’m a little bit trepidatious. I suppose one can only hope that people realize that developers are people too? We get excited, we get happy, we get sad, we get angry, and we want to share plans with folks in the hopes they get happy, excited, sad, or angry, too.

And for one last look at history, I leave folks with a one of Tseric’s final forum posts, a well-known community manager who mysteriously left Blizzard in 2007, nearly 7 years ago to the week:
Can't help it.
Posting impassionately, they say you don't care.
Posting nothing, they say you ignore.
Posting with passion, you incite trolls.
Posting fluff, you say nonsense.
Post with what facts you have, they whittle down with rationale.
There is no win.
There is only slow degradation.
Take note. It is the first and only time you'll see someone in my position make that position.
You can be me when I'm gone.
#Developers, #Personal

Monday, May 19, 2014

[D3/D&D/WoW] Garbage Legendaries

With the legendary drop rate in Diablo III doubled, I’ve found myself playing a lot of the game. It’s pretty satisfying to run through a rift and get anywhere from three to five legendaries per run, and I’m not even running through them that quickly, to be honest.

How Diablo III handles loot gives rise to the concept of “garbage legendaries”. When even your most awesome of items are largely random, you’ll get versions that aren’t salvageable for wearing, and only useful for salvaging, even with the ability to tweak on of the stats on it. Compare that to a game like D&D where the equivalent (an “artifact”) is something the players may only ever see once in their entire 20 – 30 level career and has to be AWESOME, or even WoW, where you may only see one an expansion and it’s guaranteed to make your character that much better.

I’ve written on the concept of using gear as a type of alternate advancement before, but Diablo III takes the opposite approach from WoW today: each item can have 1 stat changed, and may have gems. There’s no hit cap to manage, the gems are reusable (you can even salvage the item and you get the gems back!), and other than rerolling a single stat, there’s nothing else to really customize the gear from a gameplay perspective. Replacing gear, especially in the early stages of the game, is a simple matter of dropping in the new stuff when you think it’s more powerful than the old. This makes going for those incremental jumps in the power curve easy to do, and satisfying. Seeing it in practice in Diablo III makes me feel that much better about what they’re doing for WoW.

As you get closer to the pinnacle of your character, you’re often looking for (random) drops that have slightly better rolls for the same stats, or just one stat that rolls slightly different. On top of that, trying to get set items and the like takes a long time. The amount of effort to get those last few percent of power is disproportionately large compared to the initial investment. I’m pretty okay with that, as it makes it extremely difficult to “complete” the game.

The strangest thing about the setup, though, is that garbage legendaries are not only expected, but required. To reroll stats, or to craft other legendaries or set items, you need materials that drop when you salvage (destroy) the item. The entire item economy demands this. On the bright side, it means that even garbage legendaries are worth something. But on the other hand, the idea of getting an item that is supposedly relatively unique and just going, “Oh, well!” and destroying it for components feels a bit odd.

That’s also an artifact of how quickly you get “legendary” items. D&D, one item for years upon years of work—or if you go with “super-rare”, you’re still only talking one every couple of levels for the entire party. WoW, one item per expansion (so two years). Diablo III? Three to five an hour. But since you have nearly totally random stats, you have to get a lot of the items to even be likely to find one that’s remotely worth it.

Perhaps “legendary” is a poor term for the item type, and it’s really just “super-rare” instead of rare? But that clearly doesn’t have the same ring to it. Perhaps they should just color them purple and call them epics instead?

When you look at a (normal) raid in WoW, you’re getting about 0.2 to 0.24 items per person per boss kill, but the loot tables are pretty well known and not nearly as random, as stats on each item are generally static. You’re almost guaranteed that someone will be able to use the item as an upgrade for the first few weeks. Perhaps you’re capable of downing 4 bosses in an hour (which is a pretty brisk pace all things considered), and you’ve almost hit an item per person for the hour—ignoring the fact that there are some repeats for slots already filled, and sometimes you just don’t have anyone who can use the item that dropped, which all gets worse the more you run the raid as a team.

But with WoW’s model, you don’t have room for garbage items to drop nearly as often. WoW’s economy demands it as much as or more than Diablo III, with enchanting shards coming from destroyed equipment, as well as materials to craft other items equal in power. However, since the game has an Auction House, the materials from garbage items can be pooled across the entire server population so the system already can correct for that disparity.

I like loot. I like getting drops in Diablo III, though the closer to “complete” my character gets, the less exciting non-legendary drops get—which means that once the buff is gone I’ll be back to getting 1 or 2 items per hour, which is only slightly more than the drop rate in a WoW raid as far as time investment is concerned, but at least the drop table is small and known so I can anticipate specific drops. With the sheer randomness of Diablo III’s entire system, I’m not really sure it will be worth my time to play the game on my primary character anymore given how slow the incoming possibilities will be, let alone the fact that most of the drops may be terrible and need to be salvaged.
#GameDesign, #DiabloIII, #WoW, #DnD

Thursday, May 15, 2014

[NBI] The Conventions of Conventions

I love going to conventions: PAX, Emerald City Comicon, GaymerX, just to name a few. They’re great because you’re in a place where everybody else is basically guaranteed to share a large subset of interests with you. Making new friends is simpler in a setting like that. Getting to see new things and talking to folks in the industry is another perk.

As a blogger at a convention, you have a golden opportunity: not many folks can make it to these conventions, and they provide an enormous amount of material you can blog about that few others will. As someone who’s been to a fair number of conventions (13 and counting!), I have some things I’ve learned over the past few years that other bloggers may find useful.

On with the advice!

Ensure you’re allowed to blog

The first thing you should be aware of is a small number of conventions actually disallow blogging, tweeting, or any dissemination of information outside of the convention. Sometimes it’s just specific panels or booths that have that limitation. In my experience, PAX DEV is relatively unique in this aspect. While a convention, it’s about developers meeting in a press-free environment to talk with each other about game development without worrying that folks are there to report on their every word. So before you head off all excited to blog about it, ensure that you’re okay to do so.


Have a plan

Are you going to cover a bunch of panels? Or perhaps the exposition floor or artist’s alley? Maybe find some random folks to interview to get their opinions on the event? Whatever you want to do, I highly suggest making a plan ahead of time. Especially at an event like Comicon or PAX, where there are far more panels a mere human without a TARDIS or time turner can attend. Most conventions have a schedule and who’re the big names attending posted online a few weeks in advance, and you can use that to figure out what you want to cover, and build a schedule around it.


Leave room in your schedule

Don’t pack your schedule to the gills. First of all, you’ll want time to travel (getting across a large convention can be a 15 – 20 minute process in some cases), to use the facilities, to get food and drinks, and just to rest. You’ll also need to give yourself time to stand in lines, because oh my goodness, so many lines. Some panels I’ve had to line up an hour in advance or I’d have never gotten a seat.


In practice I find that I can make no more than about 2 panels a day, interleaved with everything else I’m doing that day. Also, convention parties are awesome and totally worth going to, so make sure you leave room in your schedule for those, too!


Bring your devices

You’ll want to be careful with your devices and ensure they don’t get lost or stolen, but a good smartphone with a great camera can go a long way. Even better is a tablet on which you can take notes. If you can take video of panels to which you can refer to later, it’ll help you create very accurate blog posts. I guess it depends on what you’re aiming for: a rundown of the panel or event, versus creating commentary around the panel itself. Do note that many conventions record their panels and post them on the Internet these days—PAX and Blizzcon, just to name a couple—so this may not be necessary. But if you want to perform interviews with folks, your smartphone with sound recording software may be sufficient. Just remember to get people’s permission before you record them.


A good tablet or phone can also keep you entertained in any lines you find yourself waiting in.


Stay healthy

This is just general advice for any con-goer, really. But if you’re doing any interviewing, you’re going to be in contact with folks a lot more, shaking their hands mostly. I got stuck with the Swine Flu out of PAX Prime 2009, and let me tell you, it was the most miserable two weeks of my life. So, ensure that you have hand sanitizer to use after shaking hands with folks—or better yet, don’t shake hands! Most people are pretty sympathetic if you say why you didn’t shake hands.


You’ll also want to ensure you have a bottle of water on you at all times, and bring healthy-ish snacks like granola bars to keep you going between times where you can get food. Also, try to eke out as much sleep as you can manage. It’s hard, especially if you’re going to a party until 1 AM one night, and have to be at a panel at 10 AM the next morning, but a lack of sleep makes you dumb and susceptible to illness.


Step out of your shell

This, I think, is the hardest bit of advice to follow, especially if you’re remotely introverted. Tens of thousands of people crammed in a couple of buildings, and you have the worst nightmare of many introverts. But remember: all of these folks are there because they love the same things you do! I find far more awesome people than awful people, even standing in lines. Actually, lines tend to be the easiest place to meet new people. Play a game with them, ask if you can interview them, or just dive into a conversation around you.


When in an exposition hall or artist’s alley, you’ll want to introduce yourself to artists, authors, developers, marketers, and so on. They’re all there to promote their products, and will gladly talk your ear off about what they’re making, so don’t be afraid to just walk up and simply say, “Hi! Please tell me about your game/comic/book!” That’s enough to get them launched, and as you learn more you can ask clarifying questions. Also, grab marketing materials to refer to later.


Write about it while it’s fresh

Finally, you’ll want to jot down the information in your head and materials into somewhat cogent posts as soon as possible, even if you don’t publish them immediately. Human memory is fallible, and even with reference materials, you can often lose a lot of contextual information. So take fifteen to thirty minutes sometime each day to get what you’ve seen out onto “paper” in a rough form, and go back to polish it to your normal bloggy-sheen later on. Get down the facts, and a few notes on your opinions, and then fill out the rest later.


Have fun!

You’re there to have fun! Do some things just for you, which you don’t necessarily need or want to blog about. Chances are that as an independent blogger, you paid for your ticket rather than getting a press pass (because outside of E3, most cons don’t give random bloggers press passes), so make sure you get your money’s worth. You’ll also feel better about the con itself.


Get excited! Make new friends! Play new games; see new artists! Go to parties! Enjoy yourself, because that’s what most of these conventions are really about: fun.

#NBI, #Blogging

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Do You Wanna Build a Snow… er, Video Game?


While trying to rack my brain for a good blog topic for today, I kept bumping into something lodged in my thoughts. See, while I really wanted to contribute to the Newbie Blogging Initiative 2014, I’ve been rather distracted by large changes in my own life.

For the past 7 years I’ve been a developer for a very large company, building difficult and complex features in a giant suite of applications that literally hundreds of millions of people use on a daily basis. While that’s been a fantastic learning experience, and extremely satisfying to see users enjoy the work that I’ve done, it isn’t what I’ve wanted to do with my life.

I graduated University back in 2006 with a degree in Computer Science. But that only tells half the story: the other half is I also have a minor in Mathematics and a concentration in Video Games Design. Blogging as I have for the past 8 months has really shown me how much I love dissecting, discussing, and developing games and game systems.

So when the opportunity came to jump onto a game project as a developer, I seized it. My last day at my current, stable job that I’ve held for years is at the end of this week, and then I’ll plunge into the world of developing games for an indie game company. Moving from working on sub-teams of 70+ people in a project that has hundreds of, if not over a thousand, developers to a small endeavor of three developers within a team of probably fifteen or so people. To working a project can absolutely never be cancelled or cut, to a product whose future isn’t yet written.

I’m extremely excited to be doing this, to actually be putting my experiences and passion into practice. And for those who follow my blog, chances are you may get a few glimpses into the development of said game. The specifics remain to be worked out, so I’m not sure as to what depth I will be writing about it. But I’ll still be writing about other games I’m playing; that won’t change.

One final week at my current job, a month and a half of “funemployment,” and then diving right into game development. Change can be terrifying, but can also be refreshing. As I take a leap into the next stage of my life, I’m glad to have a platform to share it with.

So, yeah, I’m gonna build a video game!
 
#Personal, #GameDevelopment

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Fifteen Lessons Video Games Have Taught Me

A while back some folks started posting the top 15 games from their lifetime. For some, it was the most influential or the most memorable; for others, just the most fun. For me, I’m going to take a little bit of my own twist: the lesson that video game taught me about life.

It’s not that my parents didn’t raise me or have any influence on my life, but I was an extremely independent child, doing a lot of my own raising and growing up. I can say that video games were a positive influence and helped shape who I am today: a successful, confident person who knows where he wants to go in life, and has the skillset to do it. So let’s get to it. The top 15 lessons video games taught me.



Stupid dog.
Duck Hunt
1. Getting laughed at is infuriating.
2. If you don’t like the rules, change them.
Along with Super Mario Bros. this was the first game I played way back on the NES. Anybody who has ever played the game Duck Hunt remembers that damnable dog, who’d laugh at you each time you missed a bird. And trust me, you missed birds a lot. At the tender age of 6 years old I learned that getting laughed at when you failed sucked. I’m clearly not the only one, because how many people out there wished you could shoot the dog and not just the ducks?

This game was special, too, in the fact that while the intention was clearly for you to sit 5 feet away from the television and aim and shoot down the ducks, my enterprising little mind deduced that if I sat right up at the TV screen, I’d almost never miss. It wasn’t my fault that the equipment didn’t prevent me from doing that. And despite warnings from my parents that it would ruin my eyes, it never did. So chalk that up to a lesson, too.



Seriously, best character ever.
Super Mario 2
3. It’s okay to be a lady in a video game, because sometimes they got the best powers.
It’s funny, because I look at gaming culture today and kind of shake my head at the crazy cultural struggle going on around sexism, because it wasn’t always the case. My sister and I played a lot of Tetris (and while it almost made this list, the lesson learned was awfully similar to this one), and she was pretty good at it.

Super Mario 2 gave you the ability to play as one of four characters: Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach. Peach had the best power of them all: the ability to float in mid-air for a brief period of time. It made all of the dodging and platforming elements far simpler. Once I figured out her power, she was the only character for me. Mario didn’t have anything for crying out loud, who’d ever play as him? Luigi’s jump was too unwieldy, and Toad’s ability required a finesse that I just did not possess. But Princess Peach was awesome.


Turns out Peach was great in all the Mario Kart games, too.



Grind those slimes!
Dragon Warrior
4. If you can’t win yet, go work on it a bit and try again later.
My first RPG wasn’t Final Fantasy, but Dragon Warrior. I remember the cool box art, and the awesome manual that came with it. From the very first slime I defeated, I was hooked. It was to the point where I could traverse the first dungeon without ever using a torch because I had it memorized (and therefore was just walking around in the dark). Being an RPG, you could grind out gold and levels in it. Time became a proxy for character skill, because to be honest, there wasn’t that much strategy involved in the original game; it was mostly just about numbers and when to use your healing spells.

While this lesson is slightly inaccurate in the grand scheme of things—because time isn’t really a proxy for personal skill since most people still have a skill cap—it’s still largely applicable in many situations due to the idea that practice makes perfect. That entire thing about doing 10,000 hours before you can be an expert and all that jazz.



The beginning of a venerated franchise.
Civilization
5. Sometimes, you just get unlucky.
Ah, Civ. I spent so many hours at my friend’s house and his family playing this on their computer, long before my own family had a PC or could even afford one (it wouldn’t be another couple years before we got ours). We’d play this for the entire day and my friend’s dad would have to kick us out on occasion—not that we minded, the trailer park we lived in had a ton of parks to play in.

But while the game taught me a lot about crappy DRM (where’d that manual go?), a little bit of history around technologies and wonders, and the idea of strategy, at the end of the day when your Battleship or Armor got pulverized by a mere Phalanx on a hill behind some walls, you learned that, well, sometimes the dice just don’t fall in your favor. Infuriating, but random is random. Just bring more Battleships next time.



Now I want to go play this again...
Super Mario World
6. People like to watch video games as much as they like to play them.
7. Patience is a skill not everyone has, and takes time to learn.
I remember when we got the Super NES. It was Christmas, and my brothers and I were ecstatic. And oh my god, it came with Super Mario World? YES! We set it up immediately, and all began to take turns. It was colorful in a way that the Nintendo never accomplished, the experience was smooth, the music awesome, and Yoshi was brilliant, up until you accidentally dropped him in a bottomless pit because you hit dismount in mid-air instead of the attack button.

A few months after we got the game, it became clear that I was immensely good at the game. So good that I could actually beat it from start to finish without dying. And being the smart, manipulative eldest child I was, I conned my youngest brother into combining our turns and play two-player. Thing is, if you didn’t die, the other player didn’t get a turn. So I’d go beating stage after stage, and he would just watch me. In the rare occasion his turn came about, he’d die pretty quickly, being only four years old and all. But he was content with this relationship; he honestly liked watching me play, he didn’t really care. My mother finally caught on to what was going on and banned me from playing with him, and frankly he was more upset than I was. But in hindsight it was still unfair of me.


On the other side of the coin, my other brother, a middle child, had no patience for the game. To the point where he’d throw controllers when he was frustrated. I don’t think he ever broke one, but it was a little scary. But between myself, and my brothers, it really drove home the concept of patience as a skill and not everyone had that same skill at the same level.



ATMA Weapon. The creature of dreams, since it dropped an awesome weapon of the same name.
Final Fantasy III
8. Do the right thing.
A ragtag band of heroes saving the world from Evil with a capital E. Not exactly the most original of stories, but Final Fantasy III (now more appropriately known as Final Fantasy VI) really sucked me in and taught me the message of doing the right thing, even when everyone around you is telling you something else. Locke, a treasure-hunter, gets involved despite his self-interests; same with Setzer, a gambler and free-spirit. Celes is the ultimate example, being a General in the opposing army and deciding to break free once she saw the tyranny that existed there. Cid, as well. It would have been easier for Edgar to just go along with the Empire and save his people the trouble, but he knew the road it would lead down.

So many characters, each with their own motivations. But it all boiled down to one thing: do the right thing, regardless of how difficult that road may be. I can say pretty solidly and proudly that JRPGs are responsible for my strong moral fiber. Sure, I’m a lot less idealistic now that I’m over 30. But for my teens and twenties, it was a strong self-driving factor.



Culex was a beast of an optional boss.
Super Mario RPG
9. Doing something just for the challenge can be immensely satisfying.
Super Mario RPG is really two things to me. The first is, besides being an awesome game, it was the only game my sister beat before I did. Granted, she monopolized the time with the SNES all weekend to do it (and I could hardly begrudge her that fact, given she didn’t play many other games otherwise), but it’s something to this day she’s pretty proud of.

The second thing, though, is a bonus boss named Culex. This boss was extremely difficult compared to pretty well every other fight in the game. He did drop an awesome item though. I think the first time I beat him, I was pretty close to max level. The second time I played through the game, however, I decided to go for it at a much earlier level. Where I beat him at level 27 the first time, the second time it was at level 16. It took me over 30 minutes to do it, but I managed it. And boy, was I ever proud of that fact. It was difficult, it was awesome, and it was totally worth it. To this day that fight is something special to me.



The JENOVA theme song is still one of my favorite tunes to this day.
Final Fantasy VII
10. Not everything is black or white. People can think they’re doing the right thing, but still come into conflict.
Where Final Fantasy III taught me to pursue the right thing, Final Fantasy VII taught me about shades of gray. Sephiroth, insane as he was, thought he was doing right by his “mother”. Barret and Tifa thought they were doing the right thing with AVALANCHE, but clearly regretted those actions later as they brought the death of many innocent people, despite fighting against an evil force. Cloud himself was driven by false memories and mental illness, and even when he did sort that out, he defined himself by who he was not, and let that be his motivating factor.

The game doesn’t really hold up well to modern scrutiny, but at the time it was amazing. And another story that I dove head first into and came out with some great memories and lessons. Doing the right thing is important, but sometimes people’s motivations aren’t pure either.



While the game wasn't terribly complex, the execution of a graphical MUD was brand new and really cool.
The Realm Online
11. People online can be wonderful, and making friends online was awesome.
My parents didn’t really like the idea of interacting with people online. They bought into the fiction that everyone was shady and out to get me. In fact, they were so bought into it that even in 2004 (at 21 years of age) if I had met a person online they thought I was crazy and putting myself in immense danger—despite the fact that I had been meeting people online then in real life for well over 3 years at that point, and yes, taking precautions like meeting in public first. I wasn’t stupid. Their concern, while natural and understandable in hindsight, was extremely vexatious at the time.

But the Realm Online was fascinating. It was the second graphical MMO to ever exist (Meridian 59 being the first), and I was hooked. I remember in particular someone I had shortened to Tundra (I want to say his full alias was ArcticTundra, but my memory is fuzzy) who had helped me level on a few occasions, and even gave me some sweet items. He asked for nothing in return, he was just helping a newbie (back before it was shortened to “noob,” or Zeus forbid, “nub” *shudder*). The Realm Online was my gateway into the wonderful world that was the Internet.



Don't be fooled by the screenshot. I played multiplayer a couple weeks back, and the game looks like complete mud in split screen.
Goldeneye 64
12. You won’t get better unless you challenge yourself.
I have this thing where I’m a natural at games. I have an extremely short learning curve, but I tend to peak pretty quickly, and that frustrates me. So usually the first few times I play a game with someone else, I’ll wipe the floor with them, but after that, I find it difficult to win.

With my group of friends, we had this thing where we’d play Goldeneye 64, split-screen 4 player, but with One-Shot Kills, Pistols, Auto-Aim off, and 3 vs. 1. If you were the one, you’d stay the one until you beat the other team, at which point whoever had the fewest kills that game would be the next one. Needless to say, there were days where I spent the entire gaming session being the one. It was frustrating, but man, did I ever get good eventually. You had to, really. A little bit of Darwinism, I suppose, but it was still a lot of fun.



One of the only turn-based Final Fantasies. The HD remake has been pretty fun so far, too.
Final Fantasy X
13. Question everything. Someone’s viewpoint might be biased or stagnant.
There are other games which teach this lesson as well, such as Tales of Destiny, and Final Fantasy Tactics, but I think Final Fantasy X’s was the purest and most powerful form of that lesson. Heck, it was the entire underpinning of the plot.

The populace had a religion and tradition for a thousand years, unchanging. With no outside point of view, they never considered bucking the trend, even if it would cost them their lives. That is, until someone came along and questioned their basic tenets and motives, which changed everything.


To this day, I even sometimes question my own motives. Why did I do what I did? Why did I react a certain way? Why do I believe what I do? And while many people detest having their motives challenged, sometimes it is necessary.



Oh man, I had dreams/nightmares that consisted of nothing but arrows scrolling past my vision.
Dance Dance Revolution
14. People like a spectacle, and I liked being in the spotlight for being really good at something.
I was a hardcore DDR junkie in University. I learned to play thanks to my new friend in the dorms, who I think we bonded by me seeing him playing StarCraft or something like that while he had his dorm room door open. Strange in hindsight, dorms have an interesting culture all to their own with people leaving doors open to the hallway so folks can just drop in and out as they wished.

Anyways, he taught me how to play, and being musically inclined I took to it really fast. I’d go to the campus arcade and watch the super good players with awe, wanting to be as awesome as they were. I spent far too much money on the game over those four years, but given how it was my primary form of physical exertion at the time, I think it’s what kept me fit. By the time I got to my second year at Uni and my friend and I started rooming together, I had become a pro. Not quite as good as the folks I looked up to, but good enough for others to look up to me. I could beat a few 10 footer songs (the hardest ones).


I’d end up at a local movie theatre (Eau Claire for you Calgarians out there), throw on a difficult, flashy song like “Rhythm and Police,” and just go. And then there’d be a huge crowd behind me applauding at the end. While I’d blush, I was also crazy happy about it. Perhaps I just crave validation in everything I do, but that was a great way to get mass validation. I don’t really play much DDR anymore, but Karaoke is more what I do for that these days.



Oh wow, I didn't know I still had screenshots this old...
World of Warcraft
15. Time is finite. Spend it on what is fun and what is important.
I played WoW starting in Vanilla, back when the game was a grindy Everquest clone with more actual Quests. My mage was Arcane, and yes, I had to stop and drink every battle. I also had tried a Hunter on a PvP server (and got constantly ganked, no thank you). The furthest I got was level 48 on said mage. Blasphemy, right? I love WoW, but I actually quit it back in Vanilla because of time constraints. Leveling wasn’t that much fun for the amount of time I was putting in, and with full-time school and a full-time job, I couldn’t afford to put any more time into the game.

I was fascinated with raiding culture, read a lot about it, and heard a lot about it in-game, but never quite got there. In fact, I wouldn’t return until the tail-end of The Burning Crusade. By then I was pretty scornful of raiding and those elitists, but my then-boyfriend convinced me to give it a try, and I’ll be honest: it was fun. I wouldn’t really divest myself of the “those elitists” attitude until Icecrown Citadel, but it was a super fun romp and totally worth the time, especially since leveling had been made just easy enough that it didn’t take six hours to go from 47 to 48. And I’ve been playing non-stop since.


But between quitting because I wasn’t having fun and didn’t have the time, to rejoining and actually enjoying the new activities, I really learned to ration my time and ensure what I was doing was enjoyable. There’s only so much time in the day, and while as a teenager I could while away hours on a mundane task like grinding in a JRPG, that wasn’t the case once I was in my early twenties.


Conclusion

So that’s 15 lessons across 13 games. I have more games that were just as influential but didn’t make the list (i.e.: Tetris, Pok√©mon, Zelda), but these were the more interesting and biggest during my developmental years that I can still remember to this day.
When people tell me video games are for kids, or are useless entertainment, I can correct them. I clearly learned a lot of valuable lessons from the games I’ve played, and hopefully will continue to do so.


#Nostalgia, #Top15Games

Thursday, May 1, 2014

[WoW] Raiding in Warlords: The Good, The (Maybe) Bad, The Strange

Now that Blizzard has published their raid retrospective and how it all feeds into their design decisions for WoD (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), we can finally start dissecting their big picture, from valor points to heroic 5-mans, to the raids themselves.

The Good


The greatest things that Blizzard has “discovered” were the idea of having multiple difficulties, and the idea of raid sizes not being static. I put discovered in quotation marks because, as Ion Hazzikostas even mentions, difficulty levels in video games isn’t precisely new. In fact, it’s a very old concept; but no one until now has really applied it with rigor in an MMO. Wrath of the Lich King really was the start of difficulty modes, but rolling into Warlords of Draenor we’ll have four official difficulty modes: LFR, Normal, Heroic, Mythic. LFR being tourist mode where you can faceroll your way through, to Mythic being the hardest of the hard.



It’s funny, because I don’t really Flex raid (which is the difficulty just above LFR today), but I love the fact that it exists. It’s great for folks who want to get into raiding but need some practice at a lower difficulty, or the folks who just want to raid as a group, but don’t really care for progression. I think adding a difficulty between stupid easy (LFR) and moderately difficult (Normal) was good, because let me tell you, Normal raiding the past two expansions has been a bit of a harsh wakeup call for a lot of raiders, especially those of us who raided 10 man in Wrath.


Non-static raid sizes, basically, the raid scaling in difficulty from 10 to 30 people and every step in between, is also amazing. No longer do I need to bench people. I can just have a core 10 people, have a few extras, and go from there. I feel like Heroic raiding will likely still favor static rosters with no bench, as having that solid core of people is still really important at higher difficulties.


The other part that I’m pretty happy with is the idea that LFR—tourist mode—won’t drop tier sets or super awesome trinkets. One of the frustrating things is being “stuck” running lower difficulty content with people who are going to yell at you for being a try-hard just so you can get those pieces. By making separate loot tables, Blizzard is divorcing LFR from the other raid difficulties. There’ll be no reason for someone raiding higher difficulties to venture into LFR, keeping two populations that are often at odds apart.


The Potentially Bad


Now, they have a potential issue here with Legendries. If they pull a Mists of Pandaria and make you run LFR 20 times just to get the random drops for it, then they’ll have undone any of the work they did to separate the two audiences. I think if they want to go this route, they’ll need to be hardcore about really disincentivizing raiders from moving down the difficulty ladder.


Which bring us to another potential issue: raid lockouts. Today, the highest and second highest difficulties lock each other out. If you’ve killed up to boss 7 in your raid, regardless of either difficulty, you couldn’t kill those bosses a second time in a different difficulty and get loot. With the new system, no difficulty will lock the others out. This brings back the issue around high-end guilds pressured to run lower difficulties to get loot to hit those World Firsts. Or not even the World First guilds, but Mythic raiding guilds.


Nobody wants to be the person who’s holding everyone else back, and since the game is largely gear-based, it creates an incentive for players to run as many difficulties as they can to get more loot. This has already happened once before in WoW’s history: Trial of the Grand Crusader. Folks would run it on 10 man normal, 10 man heroic, 25 man normal, and 25 man heroic, every week. Running the same raid 4 times a week is a bit crazy, and draining.


“But Talarian,” you may ask, “isn’t that their choice? Why should we stop people from doing that if they don’t want to?” Well, depends. I’m already on record as stating that game designers can absolutely influence the community and player behavior via game design. If Blizzard is truly concerned about high-end raider burnout, then they’ll do something to keep those raiders from running all the raids during the week. One option might be to only allow for loot from one difficulty a week.


Another interesting option is one Theck brought up ages ago; he proposes that when you defeat a boss on a specific difficulty, you get personal loot rolls for every difficulty below it, on top of the normal loot drops. Basically, you’ve proven you can beat the higher difficulty, and you don’t need to run the lower difficulty. It has some quirks around off-spec items that may need extra UI or thought.


A slight variation on the idea was brought up by Brian Packer on Twitter, where you could tie the lower difficulties to your Garrison and have followers “raid” lower difficulties for you to possibly get loot once you defeat the higher difficulty that week.


Now, to be fair, they’re probably mostly okay for later tiers. Ion is on record that Tier 17 Mythic gear will be better than Tier 18 Normal gear, so if that’s the case, later tiers in the expansion bring the number of raid difficulties with upgrades down to two, which might be just fine in the long term. The first tier is still going to stink though, short of another solution, as everyone will be starting from scratch.


The Strange


One of the strange things about the entire system is how it interacts with Heroic 5-Mans, however. We know that Heroic 5-Mans will be decently hard. Not Cataclysm hard, mind you, but harder than they are today. And gated by Proving Grounds, as well (a silver, which isn’t terribly onerous today). But apparently LFR 6.0 loot will have a higher ilvl than 5-Man Heroics.


The tourist mode, which is already really easy today, will have better loot than the higher difficulty, skill-gated 5-Man dungeon content. Watcher claims that it would kill LFR to make them equal because the Heroic dungeons are available day 1, but LFR is gated; wings appear week to week. But if the harder content has less rewards, nobody will do them. See: Heroic Scenarios today. I’d argue H Scenarios are more difficult than LFR, but they give pretty crappy rewards (well, they are one of those efficient sources of valor today). Don’t see too many people clamoring to do heroic scenarios anymore. But I don’t have that data, I suppose.


Which is another thing. There’s been almost no mention of scenarios in all of this. Were they a failed experiment?


Originally the Heroic 5-Mans were touted as an alternate progression path to LFR, but if the gear is worse, not much of an alternate path, that. If there’s no change, then I think between the gating, the harder difficulty, and no real rewards, they’ll be as empty as they are today, or emptier, even. The only saving grace is you can chain run Heroic 5-Mans, so when you can’t run LFR anymore that week, you might fill other slots with lesser gear. But that’s really not an alternate path anymore either, that’s just filler. We’ll see how much weaker Heroic 5-Man gear is. If it’s not significantly weaker, then it may be okay.


The Conclusion

Overall, I like the changes, or largely indifferent. I’ll be honest, I don’t raid higher than Normal today (Heroic tomorrow). I mean, we’re just starting to dip our toes into the highest difficulty in the next month, but that’s an artifact of an extremely long raid tier. I’m not sure we’ll have it in us to bang our heads against the highest difficulties for long given it’s effectively the same content we’ve been raiding for nearly 8 months already. So with that in mind it doesn’t really affect me around the higher levels of difficulties. We’re just not hardcore enough to worry about running all the lower difficulties all the time. We may dabble in them, but no more than that. It’s an interesting point from an academic perspective, though.


But more difficulties and the flexible raids of all types (barring Mythic) really are great changes that will help raiding overall in my opinion. I’ll be waiting to see how the 5-Mans play out though. I’m pretty skeptical their plan will work well.
#WoW, #GameDesign, #GoodDesign, #BadDesign, #DesignExperiment