Monday, April 28, 2014

PAX East 2014: Next Generation MMO Trends Panel Recap

The other panel that I went to at PAX East was “Next Generation MMO Games: What’s Next for Multiplayer Trends?” (If you missed the first panel recap on Modernizing Fantasy RPGs, check it out here). Traditionally, Blizzard represents the best of the best of the old guard: the themepark MMO, including raiding, question, and the guided experience. The folks on the panel were from other companies, who are currently innovating in different ways as it’s become incredibly difficult to compete with the incumbent in the themepark MMO space.

The panel consisted of Ian Fisher (Director of Design at Robot Entertainment, Orcs Must Die, Hero Academy), Stephen Frost (Game Design Producer at Carbine, Wildstar), Dave Georgeson (Director of Development for EverQuest Franchise, Landmark), Kjarten Pierre Emilsson (Principal Game Designer at CCP, EVE), as well as Stephen Johnston (President of Guild Launch).
Unlike the Modernizing Fantasy RPGs panel, which was a narrative across the history of RPGs, this panel was presented as a question and answer period, with a moderator asking questions. I’ll admit to not having the time to jot down notes about who said what, unfortunately, but hopefully the responses will still be interesting.

What do you see as the Strongest Evolutionary Force in MMOs now? Over the next 2 years?

Right now MMOs are really lots of smaller games in a single game, with interlocking systems in order for you to care about them (i.e.: crafting is a mini-game, with ties to gathering, which all ties into combat). That will continue to be the case in the future, and expanding to more interlocked systems added on.
Finance is another strong evolutionary force. It takes an enormous amount of money to make an MMO. If you want to be able make games with a smaller team, and smaller investment, we’ll see smaller niche MMOs that do a small number of things in an MMO setting.
User generated content, creating worlds together to play in together like in Landmark and EverQuest Next will be where things go.
More games in the same universe, and interacting with each other in novel ways, being able to affect each other in different games. The emergence of affordable VR technology is interesting as well.
Server sizing is important; letting users and players interact without barriers, and making player communities and how they evolve, enabling them in the future.

What is the most effective business model for a new game launching today and why? Any new business models in the next 5 years?

Different things work for different people; how you monetize your game, and what kind of game you’re making, and how is the economic model tied into it so that you are playing something that is fun, but also fair. It’s a lot like asking what kind of car you should drive. Geography, the game itself, and the players all tie into which model to use.
Free to play really drives quality, as people won’t buy what they don’t like, but also requires volume. It does work for fast gameplay (like League of Legends), whereas a game like EVE with slower gameplay, a subscription model makes sense.
Pre-launch phase of Kickstarter style funding is certainly getting bigger, with getting people excited for the game and actually getting into the game early. MMOs, however, are the biggest, scariest thing to make. A game like Wildstar takes a lot of money, time, failure, iterating to make sure things are good. The problem with Kickstarter is you get your money, and that’s it. If you release it and it sucks, it’s basically, well, sorry about that. Kickstarter isn’t sufficient for an MMO. A lot of the people who give you the money believe $100,000 is a lot of money, and they think, “C’mon, we gave you $100,000, you’re not gonna get the game done?”
Landmark, on the other hand, the Founder Packs and the like doesn’t come even close to funding development. Founders Packs are a gate for people who are super interested in helping them make something better. The people with a trollish nature aren’t going to want to pay $100 to get in. If we were going to talk about a business model for the future, rolling out new features/content and making development interesting could be a good new business model as long as they don’t screw it up the first time.

Player created content has existed in various forms for a long time, but are we seeing a Renaissance?

Wildstar handles this by putting it in its own instance, but other people can visit. It keeps it out of the way, but other people can come visit and get benefits out of your content. It doesn’t affect the outside world as that has issues, but it can still remain social.
Emergent simulation from player content is extremely powerful. Graphics are now prohibitively expensive to continue improving, so we’ll see more people look to AI and player generated content, including social content. Minecraft, DayZ, EVE are all good examples where player-generated content is very much the game and it works well.
Landmark has proven that what players can do with tools is astounding. Giving them tools will produce amazing results. But it’s not just building things, it’s also dungeon layouts, AI, scripting, and so on. This is the future, creating a new platform, where the players are designing.
Content in EVE is very much social content, which is the way people play. It’s a like a chemical reaction that is self-sustained, and EVE created an environment that can maintain this reaction going on forever. The reaction needs to feed on energy, though, or it will die out. The energy in the reaction is the emotions of the player: things like betrayal, or caring for other players. These kinds of social dynamics can lasts for months, or years, and keep this whole thing interesting and living.

How are MOBAs changing the landscape of MMOs?

Wildstar has a lot of skill shot based combat (MOBA like). TERA, Neverwinter also exhibit this. It’s not just tab-target, hit the guy, win. MOBAs have influenced combat a bit.
All games feed into other games. You have things where MBOAs will get into MMO. If there is one thing MOBAs have proven is that it’s okay to be deep, complex, and hard to get in to. We’ve learned is that there is a market out there. We spent so many years trying to market to the lowest common denominator player, but no matter how easy I make it to play, mom still doesn’t want to play Age of Empires, so why are we spending so much money trying to get them to play?
Side quote: “I think the terminology is ‘filthy casuals’.” “Did you just call my mom a filthy casual?”
There’s still a market for casual players, but we shouldn’t be afraid to market to a community who likes that complexity. Heck, if it wasn’t for that community like in League of Legends, how would you learn to play? Or even Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress. And that’s okay.
MOBAs leveled up people’s expectation of pace and skill levels in the industry. Like WoW, LoL and DOTA brought a large number of new players into gaming and the genre, opening up more opportunities for games in all genres.
MOBAs are like an externalized single shard (server) game, fame is the emotion driving the high end, and in eSports people are trying to take down the top position, not just in a single instance of the game, but globally. You could think of this as an activity you could do in an MMO, like watching a sports event.
It would be nice if MOBAs could have more community. MMOs create a lot more downtime where people learn about one another. Maybe that downtime is not frantic fun, but it’s where you build relationships.

What is the biggest challenge facing MMOs in the next 5 years?

Funding is the biggest issue. These things are multi-hundreds of millions of dollars to make. Going to investors and saying, “This will take six to eight years, hopefully it’ll be good, and hopefully people will continually pay us money to keep making it.” It’s a really hard pitch to make. Instead we’ll see people make sub-sections of games (i.e.: dungeons, housing, trade skills) which should be independent games with connections, rather than dropping the entire thing on the players at once. If these games don’t sell well, they’ll start dying out.
It’s getting harder to get noticed with more games out there, and have low barriers to entry so people will jump around a lot. The challenge is making a good game that’s an interesting enough game to keep people around and keep people coming back.
MMOs have the unusual challenge of building games for ten to twenty year lifespans, and keeping people entertained for long, long periods of time. EverQuest just hit its 15th birthday, and that’s a really long time to have a community for any game. It really means you have to have something really special to keep people’s attention.
Kids these days have been immersed in a virtual reality, and have been living there for a long time. Even though it’s not a 3D immersive one, it’s certainly a virtual reality they’re using on an everyday basis. Trying to understand how that generation thinks, and how they use different ways of communication and devices, how do you create an experience that can translate to that reality? Do you need to spread the game across the various means they use to communicate? Walking around with an avatar is not adapted to that kind of context, so how do you give these players agency in these kinds of worlds?

What do you imagine as the future for MMOs?

VR stuff is really intriguing. Where will that take us? There are a bunch of MMO concepts making it into other games, so we’ll see mutt-genres in the future.
On the other hand, games may not be that different. Games we logged into 10 years ago look pretty much like how games we log into today. Things have changed some things are better, but games haven’t fundamentally changed in the past 10 years. Content may be very different, with more simulation and more undefined sandbox, where players have most of the impact on game state.
We’ll be wearing mylar armbands, space goggles, augmented reality and be playing MMOs that way. You won’t stop playing PC games, you’ll just play them everywhere.
Hopefully there’ll be changes in the way you play, even if the tech doesn’t change. Want to make worlds that are more meaningful than real life. The impossibility of reaching towards a goal like a virtual world where you are doing meaningful things in your virtual world. Today, you go to a bar to socialize. Tomorrow, maybe you log into your virtual world, and maybe someone will give you something in that world that has actual value.
The interface is the piece that hasn’t changed in 30 years: keyboard and mouse. Why are we still pressing those buttons and clicking that mouse. The Oculus is interesting that may change the interface in the next 10 years.

Question and Answer Period

Compared to big companies, Indies can get away with less, because they’re focused on the fun. If you want to make something, try to make something no one else has made, so you don’t deal with expectations. If you’re trying to make something that someone else has made, it’s really difficult because expectations are extremely high.

How much thought is there about how much a person’s life is going to be required to play this game?
Fun is the most important part, if it’s so much fun you want to play all the time, it’s a win. As a game designer you want to make sure people can have fun in 20 minute increments, and leave it to the player as to how many chunks they want to consume.

Gone is the sense of wonder in games. Nowadays by the time a game is released there’s strategy guides, maps, tips, etc. Is there anyway to get that back?
For EQN and Landmark, we got tired of making static themepark worlds. There’s a lot of really good ones out there, but we wanted to make something different. Player created content is appealing because they’re building dungeons, and PvP areas, and areas to explore, and even if you as a player aren’t creating that content, you still get that sense of wonder because it’s all new and you aren’t getting guides for that.

A reoccurring issue in a lot of MMOs is that there’s two phases of the game: the leveling and the end-game. It ends up creating 3 problems: You have people who try to get through leveling as fast as possible to get to the end-game. You have folks who pick a class, and they may love that class at end-game, but getting through it levelling is meh. Then you have the people who love a class though leveling, but when they get to end-game, they can’t do crap. Moving forward in MMOs, do you think leveling will stop being a thing? Or is there really value in the leveling experience and how do you create that value?
Leveling is helpful because it teaches the player a lot of different and interesting things. The designer’s job is to make it not painful, but fun. You have to have something to do for everyone to play at the end, or people leave.
Player interaction and community is important, and the end-game is just what you do during that interaction time.
There doesn’t have to be two games. The objective in an MMO is to make it fun all the time. Leveling is a fine mechanic, but unfortunately it creates a race mentality where they have to get to the end and win, but then they lose because it’s not the game they wanted, or there are people there who are complete uber gods and it’s impossible to compete with them. Leveling is not required, but you have to have an open mind.
Eve is interesting in that things you do on day 2 is still useful in some capacity 6 years later. You can fly entry-level ships, and they have a role in later events, even if you’re flying a battlecruiser later.

When you make a new game, where do you expect players to come from? Migrating from other MMOs, or RPG players?
All over the place, basically. Because it’s a massive game with so many different things, you have to have all sorts of stuff. But if you don’t like MMOs, you still probably won’t like Wildstar, for example.
A lot of crossover between MMOs, with mass migrations between MMOs. All depends on the people you play with.
It used to be our demographic was males aged 18 to 25. Then we got older, the MMO demographic got older, wiser, international. When you’re interacting with someone online, you don’t know where they live, what their race is, what their religion is (unless they tell you), in general you’re judging people by their actions, not who they are or where they’re from. Today, when asked what our demographic is, we don’t have one. It’s everyone.

It was extremely interesting to hear these industry veterans talk about where they think things are headed, and I really appreciated the diversity of MMO-types the designers represented (themepark, experiential, sandbox), as it gave us some pretty different answers.
#PAX, #GameDesign, #GoodDesign

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Fantasy Monopoly meets Snakes and Ladders

I’ve been really busy with work and a few other interesting things that I hope I’ll be able to talk about soonish, hence the lack of posts over the last week. There’s still one more PAX East panel I want to dive into. However, this weekend I went up to Vancouver, BC to hang out with some friends of mine from high school, and we played a little game known as Talisman.

So apparently the current edition is the 4th, which means there were 3 editions before it, and it was actually originally released in 1983. From what we’ve heard, it was supposed to be fantastically fun epic fantasy, and a mainstay of any board game group. I have no idea what is wrong with those people, because, rules as written, Talisman was probably one of the worst board games I have ever played.

So what’s the deal? The game plays two to six players, and the box states 90 minutes, which is laughable (our game of 5 people took 270 minutes or so). The objective is simple: get a Talisman, get to the center of the board, and be the last person standing. Actually achieving that objective is brutally difficult, because you have nearly no control whatsoever about how you get there.

You get randomly assigned a character (in our case we house-ruled it to three characters and choose one), and that character has a few abilities as well as statistics: Strength, Craft (magic), Life, and Fate. Abilities range from the Warrior using 2 dice in combat and choosing the higher one, to being able to hide from enemies in the forests as an Elf, or beguiling your fellow adventurers and taking their stuff.

As you can see on the image of the board above, there are three loops. The goal is at the end of the innermost loop. Movement consists of rolling a die, moving clockwise or counter-clockwise, following the instructions (which almost always involve drawing a random adventure card), and then that’s the end of your turn. The second loop has more difficult spaces to deal with, often dealing damage or just knocking you right out of the second loop. The third loops is more ridiculous, but I’ll get into that later. Needless to say, you’re far more likely than not to be kicked back out to the outermost loop and have to make your way back in again, hence Snakes and Ladders (or Chutes and Ladders for you Brits).

Getting into an inner loop was ridiculously difficult. To get to the second loop, you either had to get lucky by landing on the Tavern, and then rolling a 6; find an axe or buy a raft from the adventuring deck; or defeat an extremely powerful Guardian. To get into the innermost loop required you to roll 2d6 and roll less than your primary combat statistic. If you failed, you lost one in that stat. Given how long it can take to get even a single point extra in a stat, unless you get really lucky, this requires you to hedge your bets and really try for high ability scores before actually making the attempt.

This flowchart is literally on the back of the rulebook. Don't be fooled by all of the yes/no, there's only actually two spots where you make decisions.
The flowchart above delineates a typical turn. The MOVE is where you roll and choose, and the only other decision on that flowchart that isn’t mechanical is whether you fight a player that you’ve landed on or not, and how you fight them. Of course, since movement is a precise amount (1 through 6), and you cannot move more or less, you often end up missing other players a lot. Even with 5 of us, we only landed on each other’s spaces a handful of times. By the end of the 4.5 hour game, we’d only done PvP combat twice (both initiated by me, funnily enough. I might be a jerk).

Adventuring cards weren’t much better. A massive deck of possible outcomes shared amongst the entire board, and the majority of spaces were “Draw 1 Card” from the adventuring deck. Most encounters consist of combat or random events, and combat itself is a random outcome. If what you’re fighting is Strength-based, you take your strength, add d6, and see if that’s more or less than the enemy’s Strength plus d6. If yes, yay, you win, take your trophy, and potentially upgrade that statistic if you have enough trophies of that type. If not, you take damage, and the monster sticks around for someone else to fight.

In theory Craft and Strength should be equal in terms of how often they came up, but the definite feeling at the table was Strength was far more useful than Craft. That may have been coloured by my Warrior’s massive Strength stat, though. But I could effectively ignore Craft entirely and it was no skin off my back. Since the Guardian to get to the second loop was Strength-based, all of the casters were effectively hosed unless they got really lucky. While I could walk up and womp him, everyone else had to rely on a one-in-six chance if they could hit the Tavern, or find an axe.

When you weren’t grabbing adventuring cards, or fighting baddies, most other spaces had a random event on the board. Roll a d6 (or 2d6!) and see if something bad or good happened to you. Most spaces had a 50/50 chance, but some were definitely far worse than others. You could easily end up gaining a Strength, or losing a Craft, or be teleported to another square (probably in a lesser loop, to boot).

The only mitigating factor to all of this luck were the Fate tokens. Characters started with somewhere between one and three tokens, and you could spend those tokens to re-roll any d6 that you rolled once. The problem was that Fate tokens were extremely hard to come by. If you were a specific alignment (Good, Evil) there was a single space where you could refill your Fate tokens to maximum (assuming you could even land on the square), but if you were Neutral? Hosed. And even with the refill option, they were still really hard to come by.

A couple examples of where this immense randomness really screwed players. One player had gotten a companion early on called the Hag via an adventure card. The Hag chased away all his previous followers, and he couldn’t get any more followers. He spent about ten turns attempting to land on the Village, overshooting it as he flipped back and forth across it turn after turn, so he could rid himself of this debilitation. Oddly enough, he only reached the Village due to a global adventuring card, Blizzard, which forced everyone to move 1 square a turn for two turns.

Another example, where the middle tier is extremely egregiously random, is playing Dice with Death. To get past Death, you have to play dice with him. You’re instructed to roll 2d6 for yourself, and 2d6 for Death. If you get a higher score, you win and can continue. Otherwise you lose a health and have to try again next turn. Literally random chance of moving on. You’re just rolling two pairs of d6s and hoping that one is higher than the other. Completely asinine.

And then I finally reached the center of the board. After so many turns, being evicted to the outer loop a couple times, dealing with insanely random events. Nearly dying because my luck at playing dice with death was terrible (and my character could only hold a single fate token, which was used up, so there was no help there, either). I had a Talisman, I got to the crown, and then I sat at the top spamming a spell called “Command” until everyone else is dead. On a 1, 2, or 3 nothing happens. On a 4, 5, or 6, all other players lose 1 life. Seriously? Why even prolong the game? I was so far ahead of everyone else that there was no hope in hell anyone could ever catch up to me, and my turns had been reduced to rolling a single die.

Random starting characters, random movement, random encounters, random solutions to those encounters. Like Monopoly, there are almost no decisions to be made at all. Perhaps this game might be fun as a drinking game (though I think I’d be dead of alcohol poisoning by the end), but otherwise? Big fat pass. We even sat and discussed for a bit about how we’d try to change or tweak the game to save it, and we really couldn’t offhand. Not without radically altering the game as a whole.

Boardgamegeek has a neat breakdown of ratings. How on earth this one rates so highly with so many people is a mystery.

It was released in the 80s, and it really shows. I’d only play this game as an exercise in what not to do when making a boardgame. For some strange reason it's quite popular, and I honestly cannot fathom why. I suppose I also can't figure out for the life of me why Monopoly is so popular as well.
#BadDesign, #BoardGames

Monday, April 14, 2014

PAX East 2014: Modernizing Fantasy RPGs Panel Recap

One of the panels I went to at PAX East was one dubbed, “Modernizing Fantasy [Pen and Paper] RPGs.” It was an interesting look at some of the history behind Pen and Paper RPGs, what concepts we think we should keep, and the way forward. It was run by industry veterans Luke Crane (Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, Torchbearer), Thor Olavsrud (Torchbearer) and Adam Koebel (Dungeon World).

When people look at modern Fantasy RPGs these days, you think dark, gritty settings and expansive rulesets, but it clearly wasn’t always the case. In the early days, the sophistication of current role playing games just wasn’t there. After Gary Gygax released D&D to the masses, the first immediate result was revulsion from some sectors of nerdy fandoms. Turns out the whole idea of hating on D&D and what it stood for isn’t remotely new. So out came Chivalry & Sorcery in 1977, a game aimed at realism but ended up with a horrible ruleset.

Most early RPGs had cover art like this. The industry was not precisely in a place to afford high-quality art.
Shortly after (1978) came Runequest, a game which was level-less, class-less, but entirely skill-based (oh, and it had spell points). Another shining example of those crazy ideas that you might have, and oh, someone already thought of it in the first 5 years of the entire genre. However, what was really important about Runequest was it was the first example of a game that tied rules and setting together. Rather than trying to be just a generic dungeon crawl (D&D), Runequest took the setting and translated it to rules that made sense to convey that setting.

Move forward to 1985, and we have a game called Pendragon. The designers behind this game went the opposite direction of Chivalry & Sorcery. “Fuck realism,” was the precise term used, I believe. You’re a Knight in King Arthur’s court, where does realism come into play? The game featured personality traits, passions, historical and mythological sources, and a deep metagame. But the game was laser-focused: you could be a Knight, or another kind of Knight. The game promised a very specific game, and delivered by not trying to be everything to anyone.

Compare that to Vampire: The Masquerade, released in 1991. The game setting proposes a game where you could expect brooding political drama and high urban fantasy intrigue between vampire clans, but in actuality delivered a superhero game, where you walk into a room and gun down or fist fight all the baddies. Basically, the setting and the rules delivered discordant games.

Then in 1999 Sorcerer was released—a game which reached back to source material of the past, and directly addressed emotional content. The game was all about atmosphere: what makes people do bad things? And so the rules provided a structure and impetus for the players do bad things and experience the fallout from that.

Of course, any panel wouldn’t be complete without the panelists plugging their own products. Burning Wheel was brought up as a game that emphasized player priorities and dramatic play over exploration, loot, and murder. Dungeon World was the exact opposite, being all about said exploration, loot, and murder, trying to bring back that feeling you had playing D&D when you were 12.

So what, in our panelists’ opinions, were the hallmarks of great modern fantasy RPGSs?

First is Task vs. Conflict Resolution. The ability to address success, but also “fail forward,” that is, failure doesn’t necessary mean your game stops. A trivial example of a task would be to pick a lock. Clear skill roll, but failure means you’re stuck. However, conflict resolution might be to gain entry to the chest before the guards appear. Maybe you get into the chest, maybe you don’t. Maybe you do it before the guards appear, or maybe you get in just as they’re rounding the corner. Conflict resolution gives you options as a party and DM to move the game and story forward. The rules should encourage and enforce this.

Second, a comprehensive system that is focused. You want more than just magic and combat to allow for situations outside the generic dungeon crawl (assuming you want that), but the rules should be laser-tight and not trying to be everything (i.e.: GURPS), as trying to be everything to everyone inevitably fails, and ends up with far more complexity than is useful.

Third, a clear and present procedure; rules text that contains the entire game rather than just giving the class descriptions and combat tables and hoping you have a friend who can teach you. Many games are much better about this these days, and rules text that also teaches you how to play is the ultimate goal here.

Fourth, player agency. If your GM is being a shit, players can go to the Player Agency to file a complaint. No, actually, this is talking about persistence of character, player priorities, focus of action on the character story rather than just the GM binging his module and driving everything. An interesting aside to this is what the panelists referred to as the “Nuremburg Defense of Gaming,” an essay found in the Vampire source book. Player agency is well and great, but being a dick to your fellow players just because, “that’s what my character would do,” is a terrible way to play what amounts to a cooperative game. That’s not to say there are not ways to play evil characters and parties, but it’s a tricky balance that most players are incapable of maintaining without the game devolving into useless party self-immolation.

Fifth, narrative. Formally acknowledging “story” and drama, and producing the capability to either deliver a complete story or episode in a single session, or a complex interwoven plot over many sessions. An interesting point brought up was that there’s a myth in gaming that the only game worth playing is the two year campaign with all the same players in the same game and the same story and everything is ruined if someone leaves. One-shots and other formats can be equally as fun and valid.
Early fantasy women were there to be enslaved or ensorcelled. Nowadays? I wouldn't want to tangle with this Pathfinder Paladin. She's pretty badass. The boob armour is still a bit odd (studies show that's just going to get a sword through her sternum), but companies are getting better.
Once we covered all of the above, the panelists covered some odds and ends and went into some miscellaneous points as well as answering questions.
  • Fantasy has a bad rap. It’s seen as puerile, and with good reason given some of the awful cover art (especially from the 90s). But it is pretty cool that we’re airing our dirty laundry and getting better at representation of anyone who isn’t just the straight male.
  • The RPG industry is going through a bit of an old school Renaissance, where games with really small but focused rulesets to convey a specific setting/feeling are coming back into vogue.
  • Roleplaying has exploded over the past decade. All sorts of ages and people playing these days.
  • Video games and RPGs have a bit of a cyclical relationship, where each borrows from the other. Board games were a good impetus for creating procedural rules in games.
  • A game’s rules can set the tone for interpersonal dynamics, but cannot fix someone acting in bad faith. Your only recourse is to get them to change their behavior or kick them from your group.
  • A game should have enough rules to be a good game. If you’re trying to experiment with the smallest number of rules, you probably won’t end up with a good game.
  • The rules are the setting. The intent of the mechanics should absolutely change with the setting. A sword fight in a medieval game can be quite in-depth about scoring hits, but in science fiction you’ll just cut them in half because SPACE SWORD. As such, mechanics can imply things about the setting.
  • Game rules are modifying the behavior of the people at the table. If the players are constantly making poor decisions, you need to change the rules to incentivize the right decisions.
  • Things like ability scores are not necessarily obsolete. They create a boundary and comparison for characters. If you need to know if you’re stronger than the orc you are fighting, it’s an important statistic. If you’re making a dating game, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re stronger than your date.
  • When a player is at a loss as to what to do, the first thing they do is look at their character sheet to determine what options they have, making the character sheet an extremely important way to convey information and options.

Overall, it was a pretty interesting panel. Definitely lots of good information that can apply outside the Pen and Paper RPG genre, as well.

#PAX, #GameDesign, #GoodDesign, #BadDesign

Saturday, April 12, 2014

PAX East Day 2: Diversity Lounge, Cosplayers, Game Design Panels

Day 2 of PAX East was quite the doozy. Once again I tried to get to the Blizzard booth, but the line was 4 hours long once I got there, which is to say completely ridiculous. I had far better things to do with my time than stand in line for content I’ll probably end up playing no matter what in… six to eight months.

This was the line to get into the Expo Hall 30 minutes before it opened. It was twice as big by the time 10 AM hit.
Game Design Panels

I also went to a couple of panels that were absolutely fantastic looks in game design.

One was “Modernizing [Pen and Paper] Fantasy RPGs”, run by
  • Adam Koebel (Kobold, Mouse Guard)
  • Luke Crane (Dungeon World, Burning Wheel)
  • Thor Olavsrud (Torchbearer).
It was a great rundown of the history of Pen and Paper fantasy RPGs, and the concepts they think are really being brought to bear in modern game design.

The other was “Next Generation MMO Games: What’s Next for Multiplayer Trends?”, run by
  • Dave Georgeson (Director of Development, Landmark, SoE)
  • Ian Fisher (Director of Design, Robot Entertainment)
  • Kjartan Pierre Emilsson (Principal Game Designer, EVE)
  • Stephen Frost (Design Producer, Wildstar)
  • Stephan Johnston (President of Guild Launch, who seemed to be there largely to plug his product).
They talked about where MMOs have been, where they think the future is, and what are the biggest hurdles to developing MMOs.

I’ll be putting up far more in-depth coverage of those talks later here on Gamer By Design, but for now just know that some really cool content is coming. They were fantastic talks.

Cosplay Interlude

Lulu, Auron, and Lightning. Wonderful details!
Ringabel! And the book is a fantastic touch.


Diversity Lounge

Later I went to check out the Diversity Lounge. For those who don’t remember, a while back there was a kerfuffle when news of said Diversity Lounge leaked. In a nutshell, the Diversity Lounge was to be a space set aside for PAX attendees to get information on women, LGBTQ, people of colour, disabled folks, and mental health issues in gaming. The Internet being what it is, of course people blew up, panicked, and nobody on any side of the aisle was happy.

How’d it turn out in practice? Not too bad. There were actually three pieces to this puzzle.

The first was an actual gender-neutral restroom. Granted, they had to convert a ladies room into one, and due to local bylaws and rules at the convention center, that was as far as they could go, but it was pretty cool.

The second was the AFK room. A quiet space off the beaten path for folks who are overwhelmed to come sit and chill out, and talk to mental health professionals on site if they wished. I walked by it and didn’t check it out (and certainly didn’t take any photos of the space), but the concept was again pretty cool. I didn’t see how many people were using it, but having the option is awesome. Kudos to Khoo and company for this.

The third was the Roll for Diversity Lounge itself. The area had a number of booths, including a couple of Seattle-based ones (an LGBT book publisher called Northwest Press and a local gay-gaming comic strip), a transgender in gaming booth, a women in Magic: The Gathering booth, a Toronto LGBT group, an Ablegamers table dedicated to disabled people and gaming, a race and color in games booth, and an University-provided Ethicist who you could ask questions of. There were purple-pink lanyards you could use for your badge, and there were a couple of tables and a bunch of bean bags for people to use. The Northwest Press booth in particular had a fantastic sticker, which the URL gives you the gist:, but it is amazing!

On Friday the lounge was rather empty for the couple times I passed it, and Saturday morning it was also rather empty. Saturday afternoon, however, saw the tables full, the bean bags full, and every booth had two or three visitors, which was really cool to see. The folks at the booths seemed happy to be there, and excited to chit chat, and the enforcers were awesome as usual.

I talked with the Ethicist for a bit, asking him the slightly snarky question of why an ethicist? He responded quite well with everything from how people are represented (or lack of representation) in games, to things like gambling addiction and Free-to-Play models. I was rather impressed, and he made some excellent points.

I think overall, the concept is a net-positive for the show; however, the one thing that still nags at me is the fact that they’re separate spaces. Less so for the AFK room, as that makes sense, but the Diversity Lounge rightly should be a space on the Expo Hall floor, like the Indie Megabooth. The fact that there’s a sequestered space, while on the beaten path if you’re going to panels, but still to the side, still feels wrong to me. The entire show should be a safe space, and the Diversity Lounge should be placed in a spot where more people will see it and have the opportunity to ask the questions they need to ask.

#PAX, #DiversityLounge, #Cosplay, #GameDesign

Friday, April 11, 2014

PAX East Day 1: Awesome Indie Games and 20,000 Steps in 4 Hours

I’m a bit zonked from the 3 hour time change from Seattle to Boston, so I didn’t spend much time Friday at PAX East. There was only a single panel I wanted to go to, and outside of the indie game booths, not a whole lot interesting going on at the Expo hall itself. But I did get to check out a few super neat indie games. There were a tonne, but here’s the ones that caught my eye:

Colliding Forces

This was a cool little take on Air Hockey meets Greek Elements on tablets. The gist is simple: you need to get a puck of each of the four Greek elements into the other player’s goal first. You summon pucks at gates, you can upgrade pucks (Earth -> Fire -> Wind -> Water), or you can fling pucks The more Earth pucks you have, the more turns you get in a round; Fire pucks destroy other pucks when they touch, then it dies too; Wind pucks repel other pucks; Water pucks put out a zone of control across the board. Pretty easy to pick up concept, but seems like there’s a fair bit of strategy to be had.

The lady demoing the game to me thoroughly trounced me, but I made some pretty basic errors (hey, it was my first time!). Seemed like an interesting game overall.

Fit for two-players in the same meatspace on iOS and Android, it is available right now.


This game was described to me at the booth as, “Metroid meets Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, with procedurally generated dungeons strung together with story-based dungeons to move the game forward.” I mean, you had me at Castlevania: SotN, really. A 2D Action-RPG platformer for PC/Mac/Linux, it seemed pretty sweet. I didn’t get any hands on time (someone else was playing the demo), but it seemed pretty nifty. The gentleman said it really was a love letter to the videogames they grew up and loved.

The premise behind the game is you’re a soldier who deserted the army after getting a letter that told you to get back home. On the way back, you end up in a mining town, but you cannot leave (in fact, the town is a love letter to Pac-man, as when you leave one side, you come back on screen on the other). Over time, more NPCs will get stuck in town with you as you try to figure out what the heck is going on.

Currently available for pre-order for both Steam and DRM-Free,

Darkest Dungeon

Most games our heroes are just that, heroes. Very few of them deal with the stresses and mental damage that a dungeon crawl really would put people through. Darkest Dungeon looks to remedy that. Your party of four heroes venture deep within the earth on an adventure through narrow passages. The mental tolls that adventuring puts on your party turns into very real consequences for your characters, and you need to manage them as well as the normal combat and dungeon crawling aspects.

Combat is also an interesting affair. Everything is in tiny passages, so both parties end up in a line. Where you are in that line determines what abilities you have for use. If you’re a caster and too close to the front, you’re relegated to melee abilities. Far in the back and you can lob spells with impunity. Granted, monsters have the same concept, so battles almost become a puzzle.

Another game I didn’t get any hands-on time with, but the concept intrigued me greatly. Currently available for pre-order for Windows, OSX, or Linux.

Delver’s Drop

I’ll admit, this one caught my eye because it is pretty. Very, very pretty. An action roguelike which has the smoothest action I’ve seen in such a game (rather than the usual grid-based system), and like most games in the indie showcase, procedurally generated random dungeons. Besides it being really pretty and the fluid mechanics, I didn’t see much else to set this game apart from others in the genre, but given a lot of roguelikes tend to be staid grid-based, pixel-art dungeon crawlers, this may have enough of a leg up to be worthwhile to play.

Available for pre-order on desktops (Windows, OSX, Linux) to be released mid-2014, and late-2014 for mobile and OUYA (wait, really? Someone’s actually developing for the OUYA?).

Hand of Fate

This game was extremely intriguing. Advertised as a deck-building action RPG, it has roguelike elements to exploration, and Batman: Arkham Asylum or God of War action combat sequences. I got to play a little bit, and I have to say, this is my pick for the coolest game by far.

The exploration mode is a “dungeon” made from tarot cards. You can see the backs of the tarot cards, so you know what kind of encounter is coming, but you don’t know what the encounter is precisely—unless you’re moving backwards through the dungeon, in which case you get to redo encounters over again. Each move costs food, of course, and if you run out of food, you start losing health.

Combat encounters themselves were pretty fun, at least the ones I played. I got thrown into an arena, and had to fight off some bandits. You have three basic moves: attack, counter, and dodge-roll. Attack and dodge-roll are pretty self-explanatory, but counter was interesting. If an enemy is winding up a big attack, they get a green timing bar above their head, and if you hit counter, you hit them an interrupt their attack. Attacking auto-targeted enemies, and hitting attack over and over again made my character jump from bandit to bandit. Felt pretty smooth, if a bit simple.

I like the idea and the execution of the game, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on it. Available for pre-order to be released on Steam (Windows, OSX, Linux), and developing for the PS4. Their website states in the first quarter of 2014, but that’s clearly passed, so I’m not sure where that sits now.


Other things at PAX East
So many PCs

So many people

So much Tabletop space

The thing about PAX East is that it really feels BIGGER than Prime. The Expo hall at Prime is definitely larger, but there seems to be so much more space at the BCEC than the Seattle convention center. I managed to rack up about 20,000 steps according to my FitBit, in only 4 hours of time (and an hour of that was sitting at the Writer’s panel).

Apparently the badge that I got is confusing, because it states I am a “Special Guest”, which confused at least one security guard. Would have been nice to just have the normal 3-day pass, but eh, I’m pretty special I like to think. I’d post a photo, but I’ll wait until closer to the end so someone can’t try to counterfeit it.

The Writer’s Workshop was pretty good. Not really anything I didn’t already know from my forays from writing fiction in the past, but was good review. Find a writer’s group; always write down everything; learn from all sources; self-promotion is important, even when going traditional publishing; so on and so forth.
Still all Orcs.

The Blizzard booth in the expo hall was crazy. There was seriously a line for the line. Blizzard had Hearthstone for iPad, Heroes of the Storm, and Warlords of Draenor all available for playing. I wasn’t going to stand in a 2 hour line for any of that, though. I can wait, thank you very much.
The coloured templates were sadly only prototypes. Being able to put down blasts without lifting all of the minis? Awesome.

I also found these nifty tower things for miniature gaming. Basically, if you have flying creatures/players (or aquatic), it’s a pain to keep track of heights and position. Not anymore! A couple of towers and big giant platforms that are totally customizable as far as heights go and now I’m set. These will be great for D&D!

I got to get a glance at the Diversity Lounge and perhaps it was because I was ravenously hungry and wanted to escape, I was both happy and a little disappointed with it. I'll be checking it out in closer detail tomorrow to see if my initial feelings stick.

Overall, I’m having a blast, despite only spending half of Friday at PAX, and looking forward to more tomorrow. Tonight I’m having dinner with one of the healers that I raid with, but for now, nap time!
#PAX, #IndieGames

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

PAX East 2014: Pre-Flight Inspection and Itinerary

Tomorrow I head off to Boston for PAX East! It’ll be my second PAX East and my 10th PAX overall. Yes, I’m a bit of a PAX fanboy. There’s something about just immersing yourself in the excitement that is 60,000 people in an area, completely stoked about gaming in general.

While this is my first PAX where I’ve also blogged, I always have some goals in mind, and this PAX is no exception. It just so happens that a lot of what I want to see tends to be the kind of stuff I’d want to write about.

First, these so-called Diversity Lounges. I’m intrigued by the possibilities, and terrified of how the execution may get botched. I want to go check it out for myself, and hey, if I learn of any new queer or LGBT games coming out, bonus!

Second, panels, panels, panels. Granted, I always check out at least three or four panels every year, but of course I always have to pare down what I want to see with what’s realistic. So, panel wishlist:

Third, Tournaments! More specifically, I am a Settlers of Catan fiend. I didn’t get to play in the Catan tournament at PAX Prime 2013 because it was some official thing for US citizens only, and as I’m Canadian, no go. But the East tournament looks to be less official and therefore I can go kick ass and take names. Hopefully!

Fourth, the Expo Hall. It’s so much fun wandering the Expo hall and seeing all the developers strutting their stuff, from indie game devs and figuring out what’s new and awesome there, to the big names like Blizzard, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, ArenaNet, and many, many more. Also, cosplayers, everywhere.

Fifth, Games! The flight to and from Seattle will be a great time to get in some FTL on my iPad, and perhaps dig into a game or two on my 3DS that I own but haven’t finished. Or maybe I should catch up on some writing? I rarely feel productive on flights, so I’m thinking just sleeping/games it’ll be.

I’ll be having dinner with one of my guildies on the Friday night, and probably heading out to a party on the Saturday night, but no plans as of yet for Sunday before I fly back on Monday, so I may have my PAX debriefing Sunday night. If not, expect it closer to next Wednesday.

To PAX I go!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Complexity and Depth, or Why WoW Devs are Axing Abilities

A topic that pops up again and again, especially in World of Warcraft expansion discussions, is the twin ideas of complexity and depth. The two definitely often have a correlation, but their relationship isn’t precisely simple. When you hear people talk about things like modifying talent trees, or pruning the number of abilities, the devs suggest they are removing unnecessary complexity, and your random smattering of forumites complain about the devs dumbing down the game.

Before we can really dig into complexity and depth, it’s important to know what we’re talking about. Complexity, when boiled down to its essence, is the idea of how many “rules,” or things you have to know to play the game. Depth is the possibility space enabled by the game’s rules, or how many meaningful choices can you make playing the game?

A game like Tic-Tac-Toe has both low complexity (the rules are extremely simple), and low depth. The possible moves afforded by the game are extremely low, and frankly an eight year old can master the game pretty quickly. Compare that to the canonical example of the game “Go” as a game with low complexity, but enormous depth. The entire ruleset is small enough that you can learn how to play Go in 5 minutes, but to master the game can take many hundreds of hours of play.

Go (picture stolen from Wikipedia)
An example of the other end of the spectrum would be The Legend of Zelda series. The game is pretty complex when you consider the number of tools like the boomerang, bombs, bow and arrow, potions, magic, bottles, and so on, as well as the concepts of health, magic power, inventory space, and then all of the enemies, bosses, temples, etc. And yet, there is generally only one way to solve each temple, and one way to kill each boss. A lot of complexity, but a small possibility space.

Game designers actually have a name for the idea of low-complexity, high-depth ruleset, which is to say such a game would be “elegant.” But the interesting thing about that concept is that it’s all relative. It’s quite possible to have a complex game with a much greater possibility space. Think of StarCraft, which is definitely a lot more complicated than Go, but has an immense depth, as evidenced by that fact that 10 years after the game was released, people were still demonstrating new strategies, counters, and tactics. So perhaps a better definition for elegance would be a high ratio of depth to complexity.

Elegance is often considered the Holy Grail, or the Theory of everything, of game design. But why is that? The thing to keep in mind is that complexity unto itself is neither bad nor good. There are plenty of games out there that are extremely complex but still are absolutely a blast to play, like the Civilization series. There’s something to be said about the joy of wrapping your head around a giant rule space and managing to make something of it. And like the StarCraft example before, just because a game has a complicated ruleset doesn’t mean that said game isn’t elegant.

However, complexity brings with it a number of issues with it that make game design more difficult than it often should or needs to be.

The first problem is a restricting ruleset. Just because something is complicated doesn’t mean it gives rise to a large possibility space. A trivial example would be you have to race from point A to point B, but you can only turn left or move forward. More rules, but now you’re restricted in what you can do, so therefore your possibility space is smaller. Now, you can introduce more rules like that to make the problem more interesting to solve immediately, but you’re trading immediate difficulties for long-term depth. A restricting ruleset, like anything else in design, isn’t inherently bad or good. But the issue is that the more rules you have, and the more they intersect, the more likely you’re going to accidentally introduce rules which restrict the possibility space in a way you didn’t foresee and is undesirable.

Which leads into the second problem, which is obfuscation. Just because you have complexity doesn’t mean you have depth, and even worse, the complexity may be disguising something trivial as depth. The perfect example of this would be the talent trees in World of Warcraft circa Wrath of the Lich King. As you leveled, you got points to put into the trees, but as there were very few truly mutually exclusive choices, and a few traps that you’d be silly to put points into, it wasn’t really that deep of a system. When you looked at all the possibilities after discarding the traps, it was a really small number of talent trees per class specialization. However, because it was presented in a complex way, it quite successfully hid the fact that it was complex without really adding anything substantial to gameplay. If 99% of your players make the same choice, then the choice isn’t meaningful and therefore is false depth.

Phenomenal cosmic complexity, itty bitty possibility space.
The third problem with complexity is it inherently breeds inaccessibility. The more complicated your game, the steeper and longer the learning curve your game will have. While many folks have the patience and desire to learn a complex ruleset like the kind you can find in a game like Galactic Civilizations II, so many more people do not. So by reducing complexity you increase accessibility, and with it broaden the pool of players with the ability and want to learn your game, which is just good business.

Complexity brings with it a load of issues, and it is possible to create rulesets that are simple but provide an immense possibility space, hence why many game designers believe that elegant design is the best design. Accessible, obvious at first glance but full of nuance and possibility, easy to learn but difficult to master, and so on. Complexity isn’t bad, but complexity for its own sake can actively harm your game. It’s a tough balance to achieve.

So when we apply that to what the developers are trying to do with paring down the number of abilities on our action bars, we have a game that is extremely complex, and each class within the game is their own sub-game, pitted against bosses which each have slightly different rulesets each. Add to that things like buffs, consumables, interacting with other players in your group or raid, professions, quests, etc. not to mention the fact that combat is in real-time rather than turn-based, and you have a game that is quite inaccessible, but not necessarily that deep, either.
Randomly found a UI image on the Internet. This is not the face of an accessible game.
To use an example, Hunter’s Mark. Ignoring the iconic aspect to the ability, in PvE it really only increases the damage of Hunters against the target, and it’s auto-applied by a number of your abilities, so you aren’t really thinking about it. It’s an ability that adds unnecessary complexity but absolutely no depth, so it’s ripe for the chopping block and the 5% damage boost just baked into the class. But if you’re a player digging through abilities, it’s something that you notice in your spellbook, and have to think about on the fly. Nothing substantial about your rotation changes with its removal.
At the end of the day, Blizzard’s developers are trying to increase accessibility and depth, and reduce complexity. On the surface it looks like they’re “dumbing the game down,” but if the things that are being removed or changed had little to no actual consequences to playing the game itself, then are they really dumbing it down, or are they just cleaning up the cruft that’s accumulated over the years and making things a little clearer? And why wouldn’t that be a good thing?

And if all of that was tl;dr, then go watch this video. They do a pretty good job of explaining the concepts:

#GoodDesign, #WoW, #DesignExperiments, #WarlordsOfDraenor