23.7.15

Games with Friends on a Saturday Night

With much excitement I received this CD key to a closed alpha online game. It’s part of a franchise I’ve loved, with a brand that cares about its impact. The alpha is very, very good. Even without the leveling system. Even without the unlockables, consumables, or the customizables. It might eventually hearken back to Counter-Strike or AVP2, a place to meet friends on a Saturday night. The problem is it’s difficult to stop. Part of that is me. In 30 years I’ve played too much, about every way you can play too much. So I’m going to be susceptible. There are also a few ways (I’ve argued for almost a decade) that games can challenge our self-control. That distinction between what a game does, and what a person does, is important. There’s only so much a designer can worry about, with an individual’s susceptibilities. It’s why Blizzard, just before their Burning Crusade expansion, talked at a GDC roundtable about not ruining gameplay for the players without issues. And then they phased out 40-person raids. It was a good change. In some of my research, a preference for that grittier, more hardcore raiding held a statistically-significant relationship with reported behaviors like loss of sleep, missing meals, jeopardizing a job or relationship. That is, the functional problems that typically come to mind when we’re talking addiction. World of Warcraft launched with another feature, probably the most emblematic, of how designers can reward players for breaking up their play. In their rested XP system, the longer you’re logged out, the more you build up a bonus to experience gain. It’s effective because of the direct contextual link between the “work” of adventure and rest. What’s surprising to me isn’t how successful or lauded it was by players or developers, but why we don’t see creative extensions of it everywhere. Granted I don’t focus on phone games, so totally might not know good examples, but I’m surprised never to have seen a focused rest system (rewards for getting in and getting out quickly), or a deep rest system (rewarding players for not visiting too often in a given day). If you can keep players from feeling obliged to check a game every few minutes, or from feeling forced into huge daily binge visits, in certain reward contexts this is going to help players to have a much improved experience of your brand. If you can get context that explains why we powerlevel a certain game, or constantly check a specific app, you can design in rewards that cushion that. You can - like Warcraft - make elegant changes to encourage balance. So then, very promising F2P Game, some thoughts: 1. You don’t need to use the World-of-Tanks-style tiered meta leveling. Leveling can happen in game (WoW), in the meta (WoT) or as a hybrid (LoL), but I’m not sure that WoT’s flashy green dress fits on you. Like WoT, not all of your tiered grinds are very fun. Unlocking some of your stuff gives me these cold flashbacks to grinding the AMX 40. Just google that grind, and you’ll get page after page of bitter. What kills me is that your actual game parts are a joy. When you use that tiered meta and tie in months worth of compulsive design? Those will be some painful grinds. Upcoming F2P Game has a proven track record of making fun, balanced games. Chess, say, doesn’t have the same strategic depth if you can buy a slightly better pawn. 2. You already designed in the kinds of customizable characters that are the bread and butter for games like League of Legends. For just one example, those could all be unlockable champions with themed customizations. You’ve already designed those elements into the alpha. Making characters the foundation, rather than unforgiving grinds, it’s a path that’s been proven. 3. There are also already systems in place for customizing the unlocked stuff at different tiers. Aesthetic equippable items aren’t exactly built in to your meta chart yet, but identical pieces are in your game. It would be a significant, but not a monumental graphics/programming task to add them. At very conservative estimates it takes 750 hours of gameplay for one single top-tier tank in the World-of-Tanks-style meta. By comparison, I’m used to spending maybe 25-40 on the other games in your franchise. And besides, there's stellar content in the low tiers that a meta would bury. That would be a shame. There’s one last reason not to bring some of this into your beta. A healthy majority of the players I know take one look at grinds this invested and say, “I know what that is. No thanks.” As is, Upcoming F2P Game might still be the next CS, or AVP2, or LoL. Something I want to play with friends on a Saturday night. So long as my friends can grind.

17.7.15

Married on a Pirate Ship

The goblin auctioneers of Booty Bay were kind enough to help me get the ring to Bepbep, though she was careful not to wear it. First we’d need a good, old-fashioned wedding on a pirate ship. Nothing less, Bep insisted, would suffice. This only hardened my resolve, my ironclad commitment to this enemy combatant I'd met minutes ago. Love at first sight – as unlikely as they come – between a human priest named Bepbep, and a rotting, jawless rogue named Hawtgrrlirl. Invitations were sent.

Bep’s boyfriend Space, sadly, would not attend.

It just so happened that a pirate ship was free, in a secluded cove to the South of the rolling hills of the Arathi Basin. Bep was beautiful, with her frilly blue pirate hat, white dress, and scimitar. I, the undead groom, wore a tuxedo and a Gnomish mind-control helmet. I invited a few friends: Recrimination, a Vietnamese-American living in San Francisco, and Piroshky, that old, reliable Russian main tank. Most of Bep’s friends came from a notorious social guild Horde-side: Zombie Puppy Fun Times; many of these players lived in her hometown. Bep’s Maid of Honor and real-life best friend – the particularly not-to-be-fucked-with attack hugger Nika – would, two years later, wind up being the first person from the World of Warcraft I’d meet in person. Bep's Horde-side friend Unctuous would preside over the seaside ceremony. Because many screenshots were saved – World of Warcraft making me both groom and wedding photographer – I know that the text looked a bit like this:

[Unctuous] says: We are gathered here in the sight of God and the GM's and in the presence of these witnesses,

[Hawtgrrlirl] says: afk bio
You are now AFK: bio

[Unctuous] says: To Join Hawtgrrlirl and Bepbep in Holy Matrimony.
[Unctuous] says: which is an honorable estate, instituted by Jeff Caplan in the time of Closed Beta, signifying to us the mystical union which is between Bep and Her RP'ing fetish. 

Unctuous points at you.

[Unctuous] says: Hawtgrrlirl, do you take Bepbep to be your in-game wife?
[Unctuous] says: To Quest and to Grind, at Full HP or Out of Mana, to Level and Rank, till logging do you part?

You are no longer AFK.
[Hawtgrrlirl] says: Damn straight!
[Hawtgrrlirl] says: I do.

The rest of the ceremony was in Common, the language of the Alliance. At best a jumble. I recall one or two bits like:

[Preest] says: [Common] faergas ador.

Until she equipped the ring.

There were showers of flower petals: which players could save from Valentine’s Day events; as well, the guests cast wide columns of white light: holdovers from a Warcraft holiday based on Lunar celebrations. We stood together, an Undead Rogue, a Human Priest, in love, joined despite all boundaries. And since no self-respecting World of Warcraft funeral or wedding would be complete without a violent surprise attack from the opposing faction, Alliance players swept down on us like Valkyries riding from Valhalla.

The Zombie Puppy Fun Times players were the first to go, flattened like dough under a rolling pin. Fast as I could, I swapped out the tuxedo for some hard-won PvP gear. Recriminations was killed, then Piroshky. Because my lovely bride, Bepbep, was also Alliance, she could but watch as her festively dressed high-seas wedding guests one-by-one were ejected into the game's temporary afterlife. The tuxedo-clad groom brought down all but one of the attackers, and then was the last to be slain. 

Cool wedding.

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(7/17/2015) Pretty sure the blog is going to skip forward a few sections, maybe even to the parts on architectural space. I'm not completely sure whether it's disliking some of the academic bits, or just being really in love with the story bits. Community is a place where I've got literally decades of online game stories to share, seven years of WoW alone. I think that the wedding story captures it, and maybe that's the problem. It's really hard to one up a pirate wedding.

Maybe I want to write more - beyond what even got into In Play - about the little stories. These game friends pop up everywhere in the book, just like they popped up in League of Legends earlier tonight. I feel like there's something in the chapter that I failed to say about the power and the beauty of that. 

‘Tis new to thee

My first World of Warcraft wife and I had an unlikely meeting.

Not far away, players smothered each other in blankets of ice and fire, or filled each other with arrows and bullets, or hit one another with axes and daggers and all sorts of Very Dangerous Things. We were supposed to be killing each other.

I saw her dancing, this human female priest named ‘Bepbep,’ and could not resist the urge to abject goofiness. My grisly undead character was a decomposing wreck, missing a jaw, along with most the graying flesh around his elbows. His name was ‘Hawtgrrlirl.’ I’d been playing him, now and then, when my healer wasn’t needed by the Eternity Dragoons, my very serious raid guild.

Since Hawtgrrlirl was a rogue, he could sneak past the other humans and dwarves and elves that liked to attack things. It was doable. Getting closer, I noticed that Bepbep’s guild – which appeared as text under her name – read . This advertised a certain willingness to be silly. To cast the spell ‘mind control’ (MC) purely so that she could improve (Buff) the fortitude of enemy combatants (me and my rotting brethren)! She lived up to that name, and cast mind control the moment I left the safety and total invisibility which rogues can find in midday shadows. So it was that before I could make another move, I was under her power. She buffed me, and resumed the dance.

We danced.

The killers killed.

In these early days, humans couldn’t speak to the undead. The words literally got garbled. The game, and especially this cutthroat server, encouraged either attack or escape. Dance gave odder players a classy sort of way to give a firm middle finger to Warcraft's restrictions. To find common ground.

A few more odd bits of game humor with Bepbep – weird gestures, messing with the killers who came to kill me – and suddenly I was getting messages from another Horde character named “Space.” Space – I’d later find – was Bep's real-world boyfriend… Sitting at the computer next to her in California. Being Horde (like me!) he could pass along Bepbep's non-garbled messages. The banter (presumably unedited by the faithful boyfriend) was stellar. Somebody floated the idea of in-game marriage. Space provided me with her terms:

“She’ll be needing The Rock,” he typed.

To which I replied, “Done and done.”

The Rock (A Warcraft item with the description: “It’s huge!”) was one of those odd novelties you come across in the vastness of the hundreds of hours it took to reach level 60. It cost 100 gold. The most expensive wedding ring in the game, at that point. 100 gold bought a lot. Bought things that might give a more serious-minded raiding character an edge. That’s nice, but –

You can’t put a price on awesome.

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Intro to Pt.5: Community

Community

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"There is a message contained in the true role-playing game. It is the message of the difficulty in surviving alone, and the folly of trying to profit from the loss of others. The inability of any lone individual to successfully cope with every challenge is evident in RPGs and reflects life."

-Gary Gygax



‘Tis new to thee
Connection
Married on a Pirate Ship
Inclusion
Hands Off the Loot
Reputation
Dragon PUGs
Trust
Heinously Graduated
Responsibility
Fifty Gold Repair
Banter
Nerds of Quality



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Guess I'm still doing this thing. This posting-my-book-at-random-intervals thing. 

At least the Gygax quote is good. 

2.7.15

Deprivation

It’s easy to misread Abraham Maslow, in part because of how easy it is to read the brightly colored food-pyramid style charts of needs people draw up. But he’s not just talking about the people who hit the top, and start searching for their Soul’s Purpose, though I’m sure he doesn’t mind the folks who do (he’s most assuredly one of them). It’s just, not everyone who satisfies every basic need feels the overwhelming urge to go out and change the world. They could be completely boring, unspectacular people. They could be swarthy assholes. Not everyone wants to be a prizewinning physicist or an accomplished writer.

Rather, satisfying all the needs on the pyramid gives a human permission to, according to Maslow, “just be.”

Called B-people in his notes, he was mainly contrasting them to folks who suffered some kind of deprivation on one of the five levels. Someone who goes hungry too long, especially in their childhood, might freak out if the cupboard is looking a little bare. The five levels of the pyramid get more severe, and overriding, the closer to the foundation we get. Take that same person, who’d been deprived of food as a child, and starve them in a locked room for a week. Do that to practically anyone, and they will officially have food on the mind. Then deprive them of air for a minute straight, and the food gets to be a less pressing concern. The more base need: breathing, it takes over. It overwhelms.

One of my favorite metaphors for problems in gaming comes from Dr. Jerald Block, a psychiatrist who consulted with the FBI’s task force on the Columbine shooting. He recalled a specific day in his medschool residency, where two patients came into the ER having lost roughly the same amount of blood. One had multiple gunshot wounds; he came in strapped to a gurney and screaming. The other walked in off the street. The second man had suffered some kind of internal injury that had, over a period of months, very gradually taken him to the point where he could barely function. He had no idea why.

Block called problematic computer use a “Slow Bleed.” A subtle de-skilling that, left long enough, could be just as serious and severe as major depression, anxiety, eating disorders, really any major mental health issue.

Some game realities turn our attention towards a separate set of needs, built out to consume tremendous amounts of our time in compulsive grinds. They invite us to abandon similar needs in another reality, sometimes to the point of deprivation. The quality or thoughtfulness we give our job, the attention we give to our family, the non-toxicity of our food, even our ability to play better games, suffers. Especially given that games can make certain rewards into great achievements, they really can fulfill our dreams. They really can, in that reality, satisfy. It can be possible to, in that reality, “just be.” Which can make it all the harder to find balance in all of our worlds.

It might also give us the confidence to try, where before, all we ever saw on Earth were impossible obstacles. Either way, it helps to eat.

It may also help to not live with your parents. I say from much personal experience.


C'thun

So here we were, 40 beleaguered players split into two groups (20 on one side, 19 on another), waiting another ten minutes for Nilhouse to run through a city of insectoid goo and egyptianesque bugs. As soon as he got in line, these two streams of 20 started to run, perfectly-spaced from one another, into The Final Room, the chamber where C'thun's all-seeing sixty-foot-tall eye bulged over the top of pulsating fleshy tentacles and black smoke. For a moment, it was ballet. Synchronized digital running, a fifteen-minute fight, perfected over the course of months. Sleeze the Warrior got too close to the guy in front of him, which triggered the giant eye to send a lightning bolt careening at his face.

Killing us all.

The trick to getting inside is not standing too close to the person in front of you, and trusting the person behind you. Not the easiest thing in the world, if they've been subbed out at the last minute.

Ezbake sneered, “Focus, cocksuckers! On my mark!”

Followed by a mystery bong hitter.

Then laser beams would shoot from the gaping eye in the center of the huge, black underground temple. Anyone hit would probably live, if barely. But then the laser would arc to any other player too close to that first guy. Since it did double damage to the second guy, their chances of living were pretty small. If it hit a third person, it doubled its damage again, so that third person was more or less assured destruction. Ever since our first attempt, where the fucking laser had arced to near every single one of us, ultimately doing something like four million damage to the last recipient, the importance of experience had been made pretty plain.

Once inside, the room was bigger, but there were 40 of us. And that first laser could fire off any time. Which got problematic, when C'thun also created an entire wall of red lasers that he rotated 360 degrees. A trick that would melt anyone who so much as tapped the thing.

Giant eye-stalks also sprung up from the ground, and needed to be killed fast, lest they do that extra bit of damage when that main laser hit, very nearly killing someone.

To say nothing of the giant fucking Eye Deity in the middle of the room.

It was rumored that taking him down would require about 15 solid minutes of fighting. No fucking up, no dying, playing at the very top of your game for 15 intense minutes. These days it's considered courteous to pay a visit to youtube, and watch someone else die to all a monster's lethal little quirks. That way, when you're in it for the first time you're not, say, trying to jump through a big red wall of lasers. When we were fighting C'thun, the Eternity Dragoons were among the very first guilds to see some of these bosses. Those that were ahead of us (on other servers) weren't exactly publishing notes. They weren't sharing the love because it was a big fucking race. To be the first, worldwide, to take down C'thun would be A Big Deal. Even being the first on our server would be something. On some level, we didn't really know what would work and what wouldn't. Part of what we tried came from word of mouth – friends of friends on other servers – people anywhere on the internet with an idea of how to kill this ugly son of a bitch.

This time, I knew something was different when C'thun swallowed me.

My first thought was, well fuck. They'd told me what to do if I got swallowed. I hadn't been listening. I knew that even as a very squishy, very weak healer, I was expected to actually kill something. It was a pretty big deal. That I was standing next to the beating heart of this digital god. At first I balked, spending all my mana just keeping myself from being dissolved by his stomach acid.

Fucking attack it someone shouted over voice chat. Maybe they were talking to me? So I start. And I do absolutely, positively, zero noticeable damage. Then I realize I'm nearly dead. I heal myself more. I'm about to die. I had a one-in-forty chance of getting sucked in here. The fight's almost over, and we've made it as far as we ever had. A few of us are already dead, and I really shouldn't die. I've got the ability to bring a more useful player back to life. Suddenly Sleeze the damage-dealing warrior is in here with me. He's hacking at this thing in the center of C'thun, and I'm ejected back out into the fight. I make it another couple minutes.

This is the farthest we've ever come. I think it's been longer than 15 minutes, but nobody is sure. Everyone is nearly dead, including C'thun. I resurrect someone. I get cornered by an eye stalk. With a shriveling feeling in my stomach, I watch as my character falls out of the fight – dead.

And a few seconds later, I watch as C'thun sinks down into a pool of his own steaming, black blood.

As one, the Dragoons erupt into the upper decibels. It sounds like a football game, forty people bellowing. The elation of six, six whole months working on this City of Ahn'Qiraj, two on C'thun himself. It's over. It paid off. We did it. We're the first in our class. It's done.

I join in, scream a little, and hear my parents stir.

Then remember I’m not in Hawaiʻi anymore.

Then look around, and have the curious thought that the room seems vaguely familiar. It’s pretty dark, really, but the computer monitor lights up the general shape. I take off my headphones, and it’s quiet enough that my ears ring. I think it’s been three months since I lived in Hawaiʻi, but I’m still not quite officially graduated. And then I think,

I’m right back where I started.

Which lasts a couple moments, before I’m back at C’thun’s smoking corpse, posing like some sunburned fisherman in front of a gutted trophy marlin.


Optionalism

Though Warcraft traditionally hasn’t allowed the open trading of USD or Euros for their gold (a practice called RMT, real money trade) RMT has been a longtime selling point in games like Linden Labs’s Second Life. Players spend real money on shirts and angel wings and comically oversized strapons, and the sellers can use that currency to pay their monthly fees. Games like FarmVille take it a step farther. It’s part of what Bogost was critiquing, when he let Cow Clicker players pay real money to skip the four hours they’d normally need to wait before clicking their cows.

It’s also part of what Zynga CEO Mark Pincus meant when he said, at a conference, “I did every horrible thing in the book to – just to get revenues right away.” He wasn’t only talking about the compulsion loops built into the game, or telling players they were donating to charity (and taking a healthy chunk from that). It was the big green button they could push at any time, to skip it all. They could literally pay to not have to play the game. They might also spend their time taking arduous online surveys, for the privilege of more activity points in an arduous game.

In Cow Clicker, Bogost calls optionalism the choice between rote acts and, “delegation or, more often, spending cash money.”

Since the rapture of Bogost’s cows, even in the last couple of years, optionalism has become a major trend such that the only game expected to be a major challenge to Warcraft’s supremacy: Star Wars: The Old Republic, switched from charging players modest monthly fees (the Warcraft method), to “Free-to-Play.” They allowed new players to create a few characters for free, and level them up, but functionality like in-game email and player-to-player sales, all that requires that you spend a little cash. You want to level up super ultra fast? You have the option to spend dollars. Want the speeder bike with a 500-banthapower engine, to travel the drudgerous distances? You have the option to spend dollars. Sadly, the only thing that distinguished the game from every other “WoW-killer” MMO, or even Warcraft itself, was the game’s in-depth stories. Which became free. The rest of the game might have looked like Star Wars, but it played almost exactly like Warcraft. Only now all the grinds, embedding, and other painful bullshit had been strewn with deadfall money pits and cash landmines.

We didn’t need that. Warcraft was bad enough.


Epic Mount

Gold is always at a premium in the World of Warcraft. I guess it’s sort of like the rest of life that way. Generalized reinforcer par excellence, and all. In 2005, even 100 gold could buy a tremendous amount, for the raider looking to boost their power. As much as I joke about it, even I, paragon of laziness, spent a couple hours out fishing in the oceans outside Gadgetzan, farming rare voodoo essences in Winterspring, and scraping up ghoul drool in the Plaguelands. A couple hours, for every night of full raiding. Buying gold would have been faster.

Especially for an epic mount. Every Joe Blow had his 100 gold mount. The riding tiger, or giant wolf, or flaming black shadow steed. The 1000 gold one was a bit harder. The Eternity Dragoons all had theirs, of course. They flew by me at high speed, as we all made our way to the raid entrance. I’d catch up eventually, usually to some loud sighs.

You could always buy gold from the Chinese farmers. The 2010 documentary Gold Farmers tracks hundreds of Chinese youths, starting with a shot of a whitewashed office space in Zhe Jiang Province, and eventually showing cramped, dark buildings where young men walk around shirtless, in boxer shorts. One farmer estimates 500,000 professional gamers, in China. One farm owner says, “Gradually we have developed to more than 100 computers and more than 200 workers. This is just medium size in this industry.”

The farmers talk about the scarcity of work in China. One says, “I used to work at a zipper factory… this one offers free food and bed.” He worked Warcraft from 8AM to 8PM. It was easy to ID the farmers from the comfort of a Hawaiʻian dorm room, they’d just be in the same spot, killing the same thing, for hours on end. One farmer noted, “Because this is his job and there is pressure from the boss, he has to stay there. If some other players come to that spot, then he has no choice but to fight with them.”  I’d killed my share, usually only if they were hogging some specific tiger, whose mystic claw I needed for Mighty Epic Quest #73.

The gold is often bought by Americans and Europeans – typically via PayPal transactions – then delivered on burner Warcraft characters. If you’re a well-off programmer making eighty bucks an hour at your day job, maybe it makes sense to buy gold. Skip a little farming, here and there. Even though it’s strongly prohibited in the legal agreements you click “agree” on, before you can play. Even though your accounts could possibly be obliterated for the infraction.

A few months after my escapades with the Dragoons, and C’thun, a 31-year-old Manhattan woman reportedly sold her body over Craigslist, for the 5,000 Warcraft gold required to pick up one of the coveted flying mounts. By the going rate of farmed gold, on her server, it was probably three to four hundred US dollars worth.

Journalists had a lot of fun with their headlines, like, The Oldest Profession in the World Catches up with MMO Worlds, and Escort Quest. Her original Craigslist ad, much embellished by various good citizens of the internet, read, “Hello I need 5000 world of gold for my epic flying mount. In return you can mount me.”

I guess we pick and choose our grinds.