Archive for the 'casual' Category

Social and family gaming #2: History – How Dani Bunten Berry has said it all already

Well I am kind of sorry for the overly flashy title of this entry. But to be honest I am kind of sad how the gaming industry has developed with regards to social gaming.

Today one really has to look long and hard for game designs that put the social relating of gamers in the foreground. This is an odd critique because I’m sure many people will tell me that we are in the exploding age of “social games” which is “casual games” + “social networks” and surely a social network is nothing but social relating!

Well, yeah, but that’s not what I mean. I do cheer for these developments. But these developments happen kind of away from the mainstream gaming industry, or if they relate to the mainstream, are newly formed satellites to tapped a newly discovered market. Because “social games are exploding right now“, it’s 2008. But it is another reason to be said, because “social games” with another definition already made a kind of splash back in the 80s.

Dan Bunten aka Dani Bunten Berry is a very prominent figure in the history of game development. Surely loads of people know her, and if not loads know games of her. And there is a persistent thread through her work: social and multi-player gaming. 

I’ll be quoting or loosely refering to loads of sources. Most notably  the charming laudatio as part of the CGDA Lifetime achievement award (1998, she died shortly thereafter from lung cancer). Pre-AIAS hall of fame induction interviews  of industry colleagues (2007). Essential late speeches with the titles “Imaginary Playmates in Real-time or Why Online Games Suck” (1997), “Game Design Memoir“, “Online Multiplayer Games” (1996), a Salon article/tribute (2003), the Halycon Days interview, Interviews on World of M.U.L.E., 1-UP’s “The 50 Essentials – 19 M.U.L.E.“. I’m sorry for the heavy sourcing.

Dani Bunten Berry’s most frequenlty quote is this:

“No one on their death bed ever said, I wish I’d spent more time alone with my computer.”

She was a champion of what today we would call multi-player games. In fact she was the main pioneer of the notion in the form we know it today. But I’d argue she also pioneered “social games” in the sense that social relating of gamers was important.

In this sense the quote is to be understood, but it actually goes deeper, it not only talk to the need to having spend time with other people being important (and more important than high-scoring solo) but also it at the same time is a catchy one-liner for what she believed to be “what gamers want”. It’s quite radical if one traces the mainstream gaming development since the 80s. But it really shouldn’t be.

If one traces the chain of games she released you’ll find indeed this one persistent thread. Multiple people play the game. It binds multiple people to a joint activity. The first game she released “Wheelers Dealers” shipped with a button controller for 4 people. This was the first ever multi-player controller and it was a flop at the time (1978 for AppleII).

But the game Bunten is most praised for is M.U.L.E., a multiplayer economy game with action elements. The game uses resource competition and market auctioning to create a competitive setting but already contains other elements as well, such as random disasters or rewards. Despite it’s aweful graphics, even fit the time (1983) it was an instant classic. In MULE the player’s decisions interplay with other players decisions immediately. It’s competitive but it has a subtle (and possibly often missed) cooperative layer.

After commercial solo-play smash hits (7cities, heart of africa) Dani Bunten Berry left solo-only games competely (1986) and produced probably the first multi-player only game in “Robot Rascals”. What’s so interesting about this project is that she spoke about the importance of accessibility here already, she discovered how one can make the process, discovery and learning skill interesting (something that later devs would not know of and hence call the “journey an f–ing lie” mostly because of a lack of ingenuity how to make the journey interesting). She said she wanted to think of it as a “family game” though realized that people weren’t looking for family games back then. Hence once certainly could give her also some credit to have pioneered that concept!

Further innovations, like the first commercial modem game in “Modem Wars” (1988) followed. Like other innovative concept (Rascals, Wheelers Dealers) it was a commercial flop, way ahead of its time. Two more model games followed with more success, and Global Conquest (1992) introduced what today we would call RTS.

Bunten was an innovator on many fronts, but I want to keep with the social, because not only I but many other commentators do see this as the common thread. The 1997 CGDA award laudatio says this:

Nobody has worked harder to demonstrate how technology can be used to realize one of the noblest of human endeavors, bringing people together.

This again is a deep quote. Because it begs the design question: What would bring people together to play?

Let me take this question as the operative definition of what I mean by “social games”. If you replace people with “family” you get “family games”. This is of course different from the newer definition that “casual games” + “social networks” = “social games” but bear with me… I think this is the richer and more immediately constructive definition.

So what did Dani Bunten Berry have to say about game design?

From her 1997 keynote:

I started out my career as speaker [..] in 1990. I told everyone that if we want to reach the mass market in this industry we’re going to have to become part of the main stream and stop being such nerds. I recommended that they go home, meet their neighbors, get married, have kids and to stop spending all their time alone in front of computers.

Be “people focused” not “thing focused”.

What kicked me into motion was a conversation with a “marketing specialist” at a recent online game conference. He said something innocently grandiose about how great it is that the online service he worked for has got the full gamut of games to cover all possible demographic groups.

You have no clue about demographics even if you say otherwise.

There were (and still are) numerous possibilities for social interaction and interesting play with the shared computer kind of design. However, there were a number of logistical issues related to getting groups of people playing games around a single computer (such as, it’s not usually centrally located and people need to be “invited”). Online games “fix” these problems while still offering several of the social advantages of multi-player games.

It’s nice to share in front of one game, but networking lets remote people share it too.

What I mean in my title, “Imaginary Playmates in Real-time”, is that for nearly all intents and purposes the current crop of games (and even the next crop that I’m aware of) have simply taken standard computer game genres from the pre-online era and replaced the AI opponents with humans.

Industry assumtion is: PVP solves tuning problems and dumb AI. She observes: You haven’t designed an inherently multi-player game.

If you’re playing one of those games, your interaction with those humans is at the same level as it was with the AI ones. What we’re experiencing now is just the fact that people make better opponents. They will do more interesting things than any algorithm. Those of us who have been pushing multi-player games for years have known this part.

PVP is trivial, you make the opponent into the proxy for the AI.

It’s just that this is such a tiny aspect of what having human playmates can mean. People can make you feel welcome and accepted. People can teach you and share with you. They can touch you emotionally.

Being a playmate is about bonding, about the ability to share and teach. And the ability to be emotional.

She goes on to critique why solo play ends up designed against human preferences. The argument goes roughly like this. AI is hard and dumb. Human choices need to be limited to what the AI can react to algorithmically. Replacing the AI then with humans has limited the interaction to the algorithmical and not the sensory-human. Rather compelling train of thought.

Another opportunity that I believe the online medium offers is a new demographic landscape. Although to look at the “successful” games online at this point you’d think we were stuck with the 18 to 35 year old male audience that populates the CD games world, it ain’t so. The demographic of web-browsing (see “Online Magazine”) has an average age of 33 and is 31% female. They come primarily from educational and computer-related occupations. Almost 60% have a college degree or better. They are information consumers and have an average household income of $59,000 (these two numbers make advertisers excited).

The original subtitle of this blog entry was “How Dani Bunten Berry lost to testosterone”. I decided to ditch it for a less edgy one. But this quote gets to some of this. If I look at many current online game announcements, they still are the 18-35 male audience demographics, onlineified. Anyone telling me the thought of highly educated tech savvy females when coming up with Age of Conan or Warhammer? Anyway, Bunten was very much attuned to the fact that even in 1997 the online demographics wasn’t the canonical CD buying one. Most of the industry must have slept through it though. Or they were 18-35 year old males themselves, making games for themselves.

She goes on to give specific design recommendations. Let me pick out a few more unusual ones:

* “Zero sum” is bad. Games where I win and you lose are bad. Worse still is “I win and all the rest of you lose”. Notwithstanding the current cultural obsession with endzone strutting by winners, losers do not enjoy themselves and if you can help take the sting out of it, you should. Alliances, cooperative play, ranked “winners” rather than “A winner” with a bunch of losers are all options.

Don’t turn people into losers. We can today ask if PK/PVP achieved this and why designers didn’t hear this? Player-looting PK is violating this badly. But why have it? Bunten implicitly knows that promoting one winner too badly is bad for everybody. People don’t play to lose, they play to play!
Strutting your win is kind of anti-social.

* Strategies need “wiggle room”. People have different personal styles and when playing against each other it’s great to let them “do it their own way” rather than a single approach that all must follow. If possible you should balance the game such that a strategic planner for instance might not always beat the joystick jockey or the detailed tactical type. A game that allows for diverse people to play diverse ways is always best.

Allow diversity! People are different, let the play regardless. Don’t punish people for their differences.

* Court your newbies. Nothing will destroy a player’s interest in your game quicker than being humiliated a few times when they are just trying to figure out what to do. If possible build in inducements for advanced players to help newbies in order to get something to advance further in the game environment — like taking an “apprentice” might be the only path to “master rank”. At the very least try to make starting as safe on player’s egos as you can.

Make it easy to enter, but Bunten’s vision also includes: promote helpful attitudes and make it social to enter as well! Not what one sees entering many MMOs today.

* Use time limits. Whenever possible design your game so it can be played within a fixed time limit. This will allow people to schedule their involvement. A game you can play a couple of times in an evening would be a good design goal. If you can’t end the game at specific times try to at least facilitate a graceful exit opportunity such that a player quits while they are having fun and not after they’re so exhausted they’ll never come back again.

Respect people’s time and schedule. And their desire to take a break/quit to RL.

What specifically she meant is elaborated more in an online article:

When possible, end the game after a certain amount of time. Time limits let players schedule their involvement to fit their schedules and their budgets. Games that drag on and on will let players lose interest and drop out (a disruption to the players) or they finish this game but don’t play again (a disaster to the designer). It’s better to have players finish a game and ask for another play than to go away exhausted and not come back. Games that last 30 minutes is a good goal for a single play and 2 hours should be considered a maximum.

Hmm 30 minutes at a time, and no more than 2 hours max. I guess the 4 hour raid marathons of WoW could learn something here. In fact respecting people’s time and make them come back often but stay on shorter is the standard idea of what today we call “casual games”. The idea to worry about people’s time in game was already there with Bunten in 1997.

* Include chance. Although most players hate the idea of random events that will destroy their nice safe predictable strategies, nothing keeps a game alive like a wrench in the works. Do not allow players to decide this issue. They don’t know it but we’re offering them an excuse for when they lose (“It was that damn random event that did me in!”) and an opportunity to “beat the odds” when they win.

Randomness is there not for varied difficulty only and less predictability. More so it serves a social function! Not making people feel too bad about losing by giving them a neutral and uncontrolable reason for failing!

* Allow handicapping. Let players handicap themselves if they want. Some players are willing to play with one hand behind their back so let them. (The most common use of this will be parents and kids playing together).

Again note the direct reference to “family play”. Again Bunten realizes that people can be different but the goal should be to allow them to sensibly play together. I don’t see this used much at all.

Basically Bunten displays an array of important things to consider when social play is at stake: Don’t allow anti-social outcomes (don’t let one persistently be and feel like the “loser”), promote ability to play together (either via time, or via handicapping), promote helpfulness and positive social play. It may be a tad extreme to say that she has said it all already, but certainly she has said a lot more than one sees in a lot of contemporary designs.

Social and family gaming #1: Preamble

I wanted to write about social gaming for a while and in fact if you look back you’ll find some on social gaming in various guises already. The following comment by PurpleCar caught my interest:

I am the Mom. I have a lot to say about this. In fact, I could go on for hours about how I feel that the gaming industry is ignoring me and my family. For one thing, my husband and I, both in our mid 30’s, have a hell of a time trying to find an E or Teen rated multiplayer quest game to play with our 7 year old girl (we’ve played every playstation 2 game there is that remotely fits that description). For another thing, I have no real games of interest for me. Sims was too un-end-user friendly, and generally stupid/boring. The rest have too much fighting, which is again, boring.
Don’t give me that crap that there ‘isn’t a market’ for me and my family. I’m not the only mom out here who grew up in the arcades and see nothing wrong with a little family game play. And don’t tell me to buy the Wii – we don’t want tennis. We want more shrek, teen titans, spongebob, etc. 4 player adventure games where we work as a team against bad guys and not against each other. And throw in a few games for just me, ya head-in-the-sand-prejudiced-blind-stupid-arrogant fucks.

(sorry, that last bit wasn’t very ‘mom’ of me. I’m seriously pissed off, though)

while the debate this was contained in focused only on the multi-hyphenated explicative, I’m more interested in the parts that I set in italics.

See a lot of dev discussion takes the assumption about some “core” market. And in a way there seems to be the notion of that “core” market being the end-all of what keeps you afloat, while the casuals are a great way to add growth and sales. But the “core” is what will pay subscriptions, shell out extra cash for collectors boxes, and buy all expansions.

Looking at 2006 PC game retail sales, two francises dominated: World of Warcraft as a single title, and Sims2 as a game with many expansions. WoW courted the casual market at least initially, while Sims2 is by no means a traditional “core” game, yet people bought expansion over expansion in 2006. The PC retail market grew for the first time that year, after steady declines the years prior. (Note that these numbers don’t include subscription sales, and online downloads, they also don’t contain any alternative business models, “casual games” or browser games).

The data is from NPD, analysts who track many markets, including game retail markets (console and PC separately).

So given the Mom’s complaint above it really got me thinking. Why do I not know that many family-friendly but high production value retail games? Yet I can name many war games, many RPGs, FPS even adventure games, sports games and RTS. I know so-called family games, but they don’t jump at me as filling massive shelf space at my local game stores.

But independent of family. Where are the games that focus on social, joint play. That focus on collaborative gameplay, rather than emphasize solo or competitive gameplay. WoW certainly is all this: solo (lots of the leveling), collaborative (group PVE, instancing), and competitive (PVP, competitive instancing). But in marketing competitiveness is often emphasized. Recent MMO titles like Warhammer are advertised as PVP heavy.

I always liked games that are about playing together to achieve a goal. I never really liked games where I beat up on my friends. It’s certainly a personality thing. But given that I’m attuned to games that allow one or the other and I can’t help but claim that collaborative models are underrepresented compared to solo and competitive models.

It may be rather shocking in a way that only last month NPD released a press-note with the following title: “PLAYING VIDEO GAMES VIEWED AS FAMILY/GROUP ACTIVITY AND STRESS REDUCER – New Study Busts Myths on Attitudes and Behaviors of Various Gaming Groups“. Well, OK the title isn’t such a shocker. What is shocking is that this title busts myths about attitudes and behaviors! Anyone surprised that people play games to reduce stress? And it certainly isn’t shocking for PurpleCar, as she’s been looking for more family-friendly games all this while for NPD to announce this as an analyst-discovered need at the brink of 2008.

Let’s see what they say:

while heavier gamers are much more inclined than lighter gaming groups to prefer playing games alone, both groups are equally inclined to enjoy playing games as a family, group or as a party activity, and both groups value gaming as a way to bring their families closer together.

Now that is a shocker. How many game devs seriously put into their game description: “We thought long about how that game looked to a whole family playing it.”? I don’t know but I haven’t read many articles for sure!

What a shocker too when people want to bond and unwind together, rather than, what some devs promote as fun, be constantly challenged and brought to moments of failure and competition?

Family gaming amplifies the picture because the question is not only “how social is a game, how can a game be played together”, but also, “is this the kind of message I want my kid to receive?”

In future additions to this sequence I want to try to carve a little bit at these questions.

Your Mom! Beyond opposites and 1-dimensional design: Can the core/casual assumption be upheld?

It’s a funny thing. I’ve long been worried about the whole hardcore vs casual thing. And I wanted to post about it for a while. Now a wave of magazine articles and blog posts got ahead of me. I forgot though if I ever discussed Wolfhead’s last post. Even if I did I want to mention it again, as part of a wide arc about widely held models of gamers among developers, vis-a-vis gamers view of the same. Fittingly the post by Wolfhead from June 2007 is titled: “Are MMO’s in Danger of Becoming a Spectator Sport?“. This post really is of interest in the light of remarks of game designers. Jeff “Tigole” Kaplan, the WoW lead raid designer, has praised the rise of e-games and respectability of gaming as a serious endeavour in various video interviews, I specifically remember one at BlizzCon 2007 and Blizzard has featured exhibition games of top ranked raid and PVP guilds and runs public arena tournements.

So in a sense these are two sides of the same coin.

But before I go on I want to contrast another two sources, one is hard to cite though. One is a recent “scare” by Raph Koster (and I think I have figured him out, he sure knows how to create buzz by taking extreme positions or at least controversial titles, titles like “death of high fidelity games” is another example verifying that theory) compared to a much more level-headed discussion as the title feature of the 4/2007 issue of the German game dev magazine /GameStar/dev called “Casual booms, background, analysis and forecasts” (my translation, all futher english quotes from that source are also my translation) which contains the opinions of many game developers ranging from casual only developers to Igor Manceau of Ubisoft and Tim LeTourneau of Sims fame.

While Raph thinks that casual gaming threatens the “core gamers”, none of that scare appears in the discussions of the other developers. For example Igor Manceau emphasizes that casual games are simply different “The best [core] game is the one that keeps players in the game the longest [..] With casual games this is completely different, because the point is to repeat the incentive on a daily basis rather than within a playing session.” I.e. for Manceau a casual game just has a different focus, and is not better or worse. It emphazises fun for short sessions but repeatable on a daily basis. I think some “core” games like WoW could learn from that design difference even. But the clue is that the difference in design outlook is value free. Short game sessions are “OK” in fact desirable. 

Even then, what unifies all the discussion though is the tacit assumption of two categories describing player populations well: core vs casual.

It’s part of game dev lingua, of game dev assumptions, and also of gamer language who worry about game tuning and gaming experience enough to post about it.

The more sophisticated will allow this to be a one-dimensional object, a line continuum between the extremely casual (whatever that is) and the extremely core (whatever that would be). The graph posted by Nick Williams in his Gamasutra article (also a “scare”) about a supposed dilemma for nintendo. I also remember Jesper Juul, an academic studying game design used a linear continuum to categorize games along casual vs hardcore in a talk I heard. It’s very interesting to note here that in Juul’s graph World of Warcraft was the most hardcore game on the chart. (Sidenote: Casual games always existed, but they didn’t get that label. Tetris, mine sweeper, little computer people, duck’s ahoy? What is new is the label and the awareness of it as a separate design and market.)

Contrast this with what Jonathan Blow had to say at the Montreal Game Summit about WoW (via gamasutra):

Blow believes that according to WoW, the game’s rules are its meaning of life. “The meaning of life in WoW is you’re some schmo that doesn’t have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button and killing imaginary monsters,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or how adept you are, it’s just how much time you sink in. You don’t need to do anything exceptional, you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else.”

Does that sound like a description of a hardcore game to you?

What according to Blow is cheap food to get the masses addicted, is the extreme end of hardcore in current gaming for Jesper Juul. I actually asked Jesper what he meant by a “casual game” and he said something along the lines of that a casual game is that you can pick up, play immediately for a few minutes and drop immediately. Clearly in that view WoW isn’t casual. There really is nothing interesting to do in WoW for just 3 minutes, just traveling to where you want to continue from your inn will take up that time and returning to the inn may or may not be immediate depending on whether your HS is available (or if it is even set to a desirable location!). In fact 10-20 minute trips are not unusual.

But I don’t actually care to take a position regarding whether Blow is right or Juul is right. In fact they are both right with some mental flexibility (and possibly modulo some specific reservations).

It much rather goes to show how deeply ingrained the tacit assumption of the words casual and core is in individuals minds and how these can be extremely stark, and also have utterly incompatible uses.

The Raph & Nintendo scare posts can be understood if one is an anxious gamer who considers WoW generally to be rather casual. While the positions of most developers in the GameStar/dev/ magazine take a more neutral position and embrace casual gaming as a separate category of gaming.

But even going back to the WoW design Rob Pardo discussed the design assumption of core vs casual (see the first blog entries I ever made). What is interesting about Pardo’s remarks is that indeed Blizz realized that the casual market is faster growing than the core but they tried to define game content for hardcore (instanced, grouped) and a path to become hardcore as entering instanced content.

There is a lot of data that Blizzard has that I would love to see. Specifically this specific one: What is the time spend in game by average long-time subscription gamers? And also: How many subscribers enter dungeons?

I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually turned out that most gamers even if they don’t play that much do enter dungeons in WoW. In fact Nick Yee’s article about how people play mostly alone in WoW actually gives the surprising indication that at level cap players spend 60% of their time grouped, i.e. don’t play alone (casual) at all! (People only play alone a lot while leveling, which may be more a function of levels causing dividers for joint play.)

And I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that in fact Jesper Juul is perfectly right in classifying all current WoW gamers as hardcore by some rather meaningful metric derived from the data that Blizzard has! But of course someone who expects hardcore to play 7 days a week for 4 hours at least will have to see a large fraction of the player base as casual. Because 5 days a week for 30 mins to 2 hours or even just 2 days a week for 1 hour is a vanishing fraction of time spend in the game. Of course I wrote about the extra time-dimension with respect to hardcore vs casual very early on.

But this doesn’t cover it really. Because the tacit assumptions run deeper. Read the following list of assumptions:

* Whoever doesn’t like PK/PVP isn’t hardcore

* Treadmills are ways to cater to no-skillers aka “skill is not accessible”

* Pressing buttons is easy aka “if a macro can do it it’s easy”

* Your mom sucks and so do games she would like

I disagree with all of these because they collapse dimensions of what makes games good. (Or just make assumption without testing them or are assumptions that having nothing to do with games but flow into categorizing players as hardcore vs casual)

Let me just pick up the last one because it appears in the arguments I quoted above.

Raph quotes a post by IQ212 who talks about the mass market of casual gamers based on the Mom example. While Raph concludes that “Core gamers are almost certainly going to have to adapt to a world in which a lot of developer attention is going towards a much broader array of titles than in the past.” IQ212 however actually had a positive intend with his Mom example. He writes:

So as you consider the gameplay, theme, platform, difficulty level and marketing of your game, consider your mom as a mirror of the mass-market. Don’t ship without observing your mom playing your game cold, and seeing what she finds fun, rewarding and challenging. Doing so could expand your market reach, and the average American represents a potential market of 300 million people.

Note to the guys making “Panzergruppe Tactics 4: Eastern Front”, you already identified the 59 people who will buy your game, so good luck with that.

For the rest of us making games for the mass-market, we’ll keep thinking about your mother.

Clearly he doesn’t see anything wrong with your mom finding a game “fun, rewarding and challenging”. IQ212 doesn’t paint a mom that has no sense of fun, of reward, or of lack of interest in challenge. Rather he pains a Mom who for her specific gaming need has a right to access fun, reward and challenge.

Or read this as a bullet:

* Accessibility has nothing to do with challenge, fun or reward (if done right)

Basically IQ212 says the Mom test is good. And the Mom test is actually game dev procedure! Cathy Orr of PopCap located in Seattle who specialize in casual games says in said GameStar/dev/ issue:

At PopCap we use the Mom-test to find out if a game works: Our CEOs sit their Moms in front of the game to gauge the success-potential of the game [..] We leave our Moms alone with the alpha- and beta-version of a game. After 30 minutes, we return. If they are still playing, then we have learned that we are on the right path.”

But Raph reacts to IQ212’s description of the canonical mom like this: “Yah, that’s not us, now is it?” Where “us” is of course us (hard)core gamers who have played for ages.

I actually disagree to that for the simple reason that it mistrusts your mom to identify fun, to identify early access rewards, and to identify early access challenges. But Raph Koster sees hope for the million Mom march on games. “In other words — gamers may not want to become like Your Mom. But Your Mom is gradually becoming more of a gamer.”

This brings me back to Wolfhead’s post. A veteran EQ raider and a WoW raid leader. He grieves the loss of access to design for the core due to time constraints. Wolfhead is not your canonical Mom with no extensive gaming experience. Wolfhead is the growing number of demographics of long-time gamers who have a life (due to growing older). The people who became Moms and Dads and by that virtue cannot fulfill a game dev’s fantasy of gaming 40+ hours a week to access desirable content (like the most interesting and lore heavy content of WoW).

These are the new Moms and Dads that want accessible/”casual” design that isn’t dumb. And I dare wager a lot of canonical moms don’t want dumb games either. After all they are a huge demographics buying and solving Sudoku puzzles at substantial difficulty!

So maybe the tacit assumption that:

* Your average mom is dumb

is just a corollary of the equally false assumption that

* Most gamers are lazy

Certainly the core vs casual dimension doesn’t describe Wolfhead or myself, or some of my MMO playing buddies, some of which I know to be Moms in real life.

Rather than designing along a core vs casual dimensions, people should design based on X-tests, where X are gamers you like to reach. And if a designer thinks they can only design a game that passes a mom test and not a elitist-jerk test they haven’t even tried.

Rather than assuming a 1-dimensional model to design one-dimensional games, maybe designers can learn to not assume silly models, and instead design rich, deep, accessible, fun, challenging, rewarding multi-dimensional games.

Also listening to your Mom may have told you a few things earlier:

* Your mom probably likes collaborative games over competitive ones, if she likes competition it’s the friendly competition of a bridge game and not the one of a ranked boxing fight.

* Your mom doesn’t like the idea of killing other players/people

* Your mom considers grieving rude and doesn’t like game mechanisms that support it (like poisoning carrots or nude pickpocketing in UO)

* Your mom wouldn’t want to spend extra cash to bypass arbitrary game barriers via RMT but accepts if RMT is build into the design as sensible payment method.

The vast majority of people switched off PK in UO the second they were given the change. I think that just means that most of us, the “carebears” are legitimately like your mom – in a good way. And your mom would have the wits to identify those that demean others for not liking to kill people as bullies and those that don’t want others to enjoy the game as rather nasty and selfish.

But of course some absolutely want to exclude others, so if that means ditching your mom so be it? Well I guess we gotta be scared of her now if we believe Raph Koster or Nick Williams. After all, games that are designed for her gotta stink big times. Well, not, if game designers have a clue.

Finally, I love the Mom example for another reason. Noone is like her! Rather than having one model for what Mom wants how about people actually get a clue about what “people” want.

Malcom Gladwell’s TED talk is oft cited recently in the comments on Raph’s blog. I think it describes the fallacy of tacit assumptions in an industry perfectly. And the core vs casual assumptions are one of those that need to die to actually serve soup sensibly to everybody. And that’s not one soup for all, as some seem to be scared of. It’s a whole lot of soup and many types of soup that many game devs seem too opinionated to even think about. But to figure it out you cannot be scared of your Mom, Elitist Jerks or players like Wolfhead. They all are right if they say: “I didn’t find that soup fun or rewarding.”


Postscript: Raph posted the following reaction on his blog:

I just read Moroagh’s reply post to this… where there’s the mistaken assumption that *I* am worried about the moms taking over. As I said in the opening to the article, I’m commenting on something I get a lot from core gamers. Me personally, I’m not particularly worried.

My post never really was meant as a reply to Raph’s, but rather a post I wanted to make for a while but got catalysed by various source, including Raph’s article.

Just briefly an actual reaction to Raph’s article. I don’t believe that “core gamers” are a homogeneous blob either and I don’t think people who loved wolfenstein were particularly scared/worried by zoo tycoon or mine sweeper or solitaire being around. So I do still hold that there is a kind of scare going on that tells core gamers they kind of ought to be worried, when for years most never have. Taking Nintendo as an example: I have to date seen no evidence that the booming Nintendo DS market in any way diminished Nintendo’s console market or that the existence and scope of Nintendo Wii has honest-to-good alienated many gamers. Some gamers always look at others and peck against them, that’s a completely different matter though. I for one have not noticed any discussion about “core gamers” being worried (beyond the standard pecking that’s always around) until Raph blogged it as a broad concern. I’d conclude that for most gamers it actually isn’t a topic at all and loads of my core friends happily play Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS alongside TF2, Portal, BioShock or Crysis. And they weren’t worried that their Mom played away at Zoo Tycoon or Yahoo Bridge or some variant of Sims. So my answer to Raph’s blog title “What will gamers do?” is simply “nothing” because most don’t even have the concern, so they won’t as Raph postulates, complain. Those that do complain always have complained about their specific needs not exclusively being met (“only the hardcore should be able to kill Illidan”, “PVP is welfare epics” etc etc), and that isn’t new or particular to Mom gaming.

But all this detracts from my post above which really wasn’t in its core about whether gamers are worried about an increasing casual market. It was about how game designers can be more multi-dimensional and experiment/evidence based in their outlook at gamer demographics and game design (learn from the “mom-test” idea), and it was about how the persistent “core vs casual” assumption and debate is rather very flawed and narrow. “Your mom” is just an excellent way to look at these points and I am indeed grateful that Raph and the GameStar/dev/ magazine articles both brought that idea to my attention (I actually read the GameStar/dev/ article before Raph’s blog entry. That both touched the topic of “Your Mom” is a happy coincidence).

Game devs learning from gamers (yes, I know it’s hard), part II

Good communication between gamers and devs

The original intend of the series of posts is to discuss the learning devs
can get from gamers, and look at the difficulty involved in the process.

A good chunk of it got sidetracked in the specifics of the first post in the
pair, so I don’t actually mean these to be read as a sequence. The first will
muddle the clarity of this one. And this one doesn’t want to really touch the
specific terrain that the first one did.

Here I want to give positive examples and discuss more what gets in the way
on the player’s side.

I want to be rather concrete and take concrete examples:

The trash debate in WoW raiding

An interesting example of the interplay of game developer and gamers is the question of “trash” in raiding.

First a quick explanation of trash. Trash is a colloquial word for mobs that are in a raid instance that are not special named mobs. They typically occupy the path between named bosses and may or may not respawn after a given amount of time.

In TBC raiding especially in the beginning, there was a lot of arguing and complaining by gamers about trash. Sniplets like “too much”, “annoying”, “time sink”, “respawn too fast” would dominate the debate.

In this debate we did have the devs comment on their choices. Jeff Kaplan
(“Tigole”) who is lead raid designer of WoW had the following to say to the
trash complaints of the gamers:

”Trash” Concerns

Equally interesting yet non-epic-dropping non-bosses (or “Trash” as he community likes to call it) has been of concern lately on these forums. In all of our 25 person raid zones we’ve made a number of bug fixes and tuning adjustments. For example, the trash should be significantly easier to clear in most cases – and take less time. Also, we’ve lengthened the time between respawn on a lot of the trash. Yes, trash will respawn in some cases. It’s a pacing mechanic and one that works well when tuned correctly. For example, the trash before the Prophet Skeram or the trash before Attumen the Huntsmen or the Maiden of Virtue works well. You get a couple of tries on the boss, and if you fail, you spend a short time re-clearing. Yes, there are cases of the trash respawning too fast or the trash being too difficult or too lengthy. Those are the cases we hope to fix. We’ve also fixed some bugs that were allowing the trash to respawn after the boss for a certain area was dead.

Basically Kaplan was confirming the gamer’s observation about the scaling of
trash and they responded to it. He also includes the motivation for trash
respawns, a mechanism that not all gamers feel is really necessary. But
overall Kaplan’s post reflects a desire to understand the concerns of the
gamers and make an effort to explain the function of the mechanism in the
game.

Later on during BlizzCon when they unveiled the plan for the second WoW
expansion, Kaplan presented a video of a fictitious raid instance that
consisted only of bosses without any trash between them. It was a fun way to
display the need for trash to create a build-up to boss mobs and make them
special and also make the context more realistic.

But at the same time Kaplan admits to more questionable trash designs,
specifically the magic immune trash after Curator and the length of the clear
up to Aran.

In many ways the exchange on Trash in WoW raiding has very good
qualities. The devs do see the core concern and make adjustments.

The video is of course more humorous than real part of the debate. I don’t
recall people really calling for no trash, mostly no respawns.

Kaplan explains the issue pacing. This doesn’t invalidate the gamer’s
observation that trash respawns aren’t really a fun mechanism, rather they
are a mechanism in place to achieve something necessary (pacing) in lieu of
having yet a better more fun mechanism.

In many ways I think this is a good example of gamer to dev communication and
a good example where game designers were open to observation of gamers about
a design. And the designers learned and adjusted.

In many ways this has qualities of good dev/gamer interaction.

That doesn’t mean that the phrase “Equally interesting yet non-epic-dropping
non-bosses” became a running joke in the community. Nor does it mean that all
comments were constructive.

“It’s so loud I can’t hear you”

A very real problem is indeed the noise floor and the sheer amount of
feedback that devs get nowadays. Another problem is that the gamers may have
sensible requests but they cannot be met easily for whatever reason (balance,
technical, time).

One of the biggest problem of raiding is how to accommodate diverse time
commitments. People often ask “what is the intended minimal time commitment
for raiding” even hardcores discuss how to “reduce the time investment“. Yet
of course the developers are torn between making raiding that withstands the
onslaught of raiders that will raid 6 hours a night 7 nights a week, and
raiders that would love to raid 3 hours a night 2 nights a week. That’s 42
hours a week vs 6 hours a week or a solid 7-fold factor in
time-investment. What is a proper mechanisms for pacing raiding that would
serve both settings and everything between?

The real question is not if the 6 hours a week players are slackers or
lazy (“free epix crowd”). It’s how to design a game that allows all people to experience content
and gameplay that in principle they enjoy.

A big problem is in fact spite. Some of the 42 hour folks in fact do not want
the 6 hour folks to see the same content. Why? “Because they didn’t deserve
it, they didn’t work for it”

So far there is still a prevailing attitude that buys into this spite. This
isn’t necessarily dev to gamer communication. It’s also gamer to gamer
communication.

“Carebear” is a player who does not enjoy adverserial player-to-player
play. Rather than this choice being neutral, some players will seek a
derogatory like “carebear” to display their disrespect for different
preferences.

In terms of balance some players will want to indeed have content to be tuned
exactly to their specific need, while at the same time have it tuned to make
it harder for others. This more overtly happens with respect to PVP where one
class may call for another classes nerf, and it may be hard to distinguish
the legitimate concerns compared to the ones that actually seek imbalancing
ones.

Case in point are hunters in arena. Hunters said as early as March 2007 that
hunters are grossly disadvantaged in WoW arena play. Only late in 2007 did
detailed statistics surface that indeed did show hunters least represented in
all top ranked teams. Only then did the hunter class see rather drastic
changes to their gameplay (see my post on deading the deadzone).

But of course the forums were filled with how hard other classes had it and
they were also filled with hunters who derided hunters who tried to point out
the problem as whiners. Even when the statistic appeared there were some
arguing that there just wasn’t skilled hunters and the distribution was
fine. Some of those were hunters.

For practical matters, the gaming community provides a tremendously noisy
environment where legitimate concerns are covered between lot of other not so
legitimate things.

In PVE the spite principle also holds. For example a raid group may have
passed a stage, or an attunement. Some of these raid group will heavily
complain when if attunements are lifted or content is retuned, even though
they long left that content behind. So remarkably the changes do in no way
impact their actual gameplay. It only impacts their self-perception.

For example in WoW TBC when it cames out both attunements and comsumables
were way out of tune. Despite that fact there were advocates for the
situation. Famously one of the top-tier guilds argued heavily on the Elitist
Jerks forum that the consumables situation wasn’t so bad and provided
screenshots to supposedly support the point. The shots however showed that
most players had multiple consumables on them, which clearly for that very
specific group was acceptable. But more importantly the out of tune state of
consumable favored groups like Death and Taxes. They could race away from the
rest easier because the rest had a harder time meeting the consumable
requirements.

The same was with attunements, even now Death and Taxes argues against
lifting attunements they have long passed on the Elitist Jerks board and clearly it now mostly
serves to slow down groups that are behind them. The easy argument is that
they are “slackers” otherwise and didn’t “deserve it”.

So some players do not only want a game design to be good for them, they also
want a game design to be bad for others. However clearly a good game design
does not cater towards spite of that kind. The consumable situation was
rectified and some attunement (though not all) was lifted.

I had a while back liked when Kaplan actually commented against the lack of
accessibility of raid game design
. Again a sign of insight into the troubles
here. For me this is a sign that a game designer if he has open ears and mind
can hear what’s in trouble even despite the substantial noise floor we have
and make good decisions regarding a game design.

Time to put the blogosphere on hold

I learned a valuable lesson while trying to discuss attitudes towards cheating, perspective taking, tolerance for multiple personality types or just the sense that it’s OK to relax after a hard days work after a too long stint on Raph Koster’s blog.

It’s an interesting sequence at the tail end of the cheating debate that evolved like this

  1. Adrian Lopez said on Consider it a statistical argument. The fact that some players are unable to figure out a particular puzzle isn’t enough to make it a bad puzzle, but a significant number of frustrated players strongly suggests there’s something very wrong with it.So, assuming the statistical argument is correct, how many players annoyed is too many players annoyed? I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s the designer’s job to minimize player frustration while simultaneously presenting interesting challenges. Someday, perhaps, I’ll figure out how to do that.I think a designer’s job involves promoting player progress more than it involves blocking it.
  2. Raph said on Here’s another way to look at it: must a given game be both a freshman course and also a graduate seminar? Can’t you have games that are only graduate seminars?Shooting for everyone being able to progress, or even most people, kind of precludes the graduate seminar.
  3. Morgan Ramsay said on Adrian Lopez wrote:

    …but a significant number of frustrated players strongly suggests there’s something very wrong with it.

    No offense, Adrian, but that’s a crock! Guitar Hero 3, Expert difficulty, “Through the Fire and Flames” by DragonForce. There’s nothing wrong with challenge.

    You, the player, are responsible for being ready to overcome that challenge. If everything could be done by anyone, everyone would be anything they dreamed of being. I’d be a billionaire, take over a small island, and establish my own civilization because the only effort I’d exert would be interacting with the one-click ordering button.

    Challenge creates difference. Without difference, there are no individuals, no concept of identity, and we are simply nameless, faceless drones in a world without wonder.

    Raph wrote:

    Shooting for everyone being able to progress, or even most people, kind of precludes the graduate seminar.

    I don’t understand why some people can’t grok this truth, Raph. Perhaps we can blame for-the-children governance and the spoiled-brat culture?

    Some people abhor change, always fearing the unexpected and always overprotective of their expectations. They never want to see gray skies. When they wake up from sunny days to the reality of change, they grumpily roll out of bed, stomp their feet, and grimly travel to work wishing the day away.

    These people avoid obstacles, opting for the longer and less eventful road. When confronted with a maze, they look for a map. When they have a map, they want their hand held before proceeding down dimly lit corridors.

    Silver spoons, golden bowls, and power-player rolodexes—these people want to be gifted privileges, rights, and rewards. Easy and effortless are their bread and butter. What a shallow life to live. Challenge is not a bug. Challenge is what makes life worth living.

  4. Moroagh said on

    What a shallow life to live.

    Yes, because wasting away ones life tiatribing a gamer blog is deep and profound. And certainly beating GH3 on hard is… just unspeakably good use of a person’s time.

    Think I have pretty much decided you’re beyond hope. Some things are just completely out of whack here if someone believes that the depth of a life is defined by achievement in computer games.

    To think that making people spend more effort in an escapist world instead of going out and actually doing something useful for society is about as meaningful as a priviliged slacker denegrading others as priviliged slackers to feel good about himself.

    Complete lack of perspective, seriously. And an arrogant anti-social outlook on top. Lovely. And no I don’t see any need to respond to opinionated one-liners anymore, it’s clearly pointless. I mean this in all honesty and friendliness: Get help or at least wake up. And I’m gonna heed my own advice and spend no more time on here… there are may more important things to learn (and teach) than are being taught here.

    Thanks, that was actually a valuable lesson to learn.

And it’s true. It’s time to spend my time more meaningfully. As part of that I don’t expect to post here much at all if ever and I don’t expect to read or comment on any blogs for the time being.

Will Wrath of the Lich King bring social raiding back?

This in a nutshell is one of the core questions I have for the second WoW expansion: “Will social raiding return?”. There are really two parts to this question. One is “Will the game design allow social raiding comparable to WoW 1.0 or even more so?”. This is a game design question and one of decision making and learning for Blizzard’s designers. The second is “Will people who have left because raiding wasn’t designed to be accessible to them anymore in TBC return?” This really is a question of how much damage was done with the current design and tuning.

Rather than talking again about past content, lets give examples of content that would not have the kinds of symptoms we have now:

  • 10 man content is optional for 25-man raid groups.
  • 10 man content is on half-week or shorter lockouts.
  • 10 man content is split into size blocks that can be cleared in less than 3 hours after all is learned.
  •  All content is tuned to allow for minor mistakes by individuals.
  • Tune content not on peak gear but on average gear, possibly without pots.
  • An entry level 25-man instance exists that is easy for veterans and is a good learning ground for newcomers.
  • Attunements are designed having typical raid group churn and rerecruiting/regearing needs in mind. I.e. Attunements should not stop an existing and progressing group from reentering content if they lose a small number of members and have new hirees to bring.
  • Design content to allow for fluctuations in raid composition.
  • Optional content is good.
  • Well designed strategies for early bosses should be explainable in raid chat or web posts in brevity.

What’s interesting about this list of course is that in some cases original WoW had this right already and somehow it got ditched for TBC. However these are just the bare basics of social raiding. Social raiding is characterized by heterogeneous groups (needing accessiblity time-wise, flexibility in raid composition and tolerance in encounter sensitivity to individual error). It’s also characterized by low attendance and fluctuation in individuals attending and it’s optimized around happiness of the participants (fair raid slot distribution (no benching if specific classes if at all possible) and flat loot distribution (no favored players to optimize performance) and not speed of progression.

Luckily if one hears the recent numerous appearances of devs, one can be hopeful that at least the design side will improve. Naxxramas sounds like the entry 25-man instance (without prerequisites) that TBC raiding so badly needed. They talk about attunement and how it was too harsh. But for the tuning and design of everything else, we’ll have to see. And then we will see if people come back to raiding who realized that TBC raiding wasn’t designed form them anymore.

Catching up: The leveling curve, alt play and the hurdles

In my very first post I quoted from Rob Pardo’s Austin Conference keynote as transcribed on Raph Koster’s blog. Back then I was interested in how the WoW designers thought about their customers with respect to gaming behavior (beginner vs core, doughnuts etc).

Now I want to cite a different passage from the same talk but this time the interest is the leveling game, alt play and the time it takes for a new leveler or alt leveler to catch up to his level cap and raid attuned friends. One caveat here. I’ll assume that end-game raiding is the primary desirable activity for the leveler. This is important to note because time invested for attunements only affects them.

With that let’s hear Pardo on the leveling curve:

Pacing: the bridge between depth and accessibility. Once you have all those deep features, then you have to figure out how you get from the newbie experience to that core experience. For WoW, that’s done through the levelling curve. When I hire designers for Blizzard, one of my pitfall questions that I ask is “why do you think WoW was successful?” One of the hidden answers is the levelling curve — if you extend the levelling curve too far, it becomes a barrier. You hit a levelling wall. Our walls are shorter and there are less of them.

The short levelling curve also encourages people to reroll and start over. We had some hardcore testers who would level to 60 in a week. There was much concern within the company. But I would tell them that we cannot design to that guy. You have to let him go. He probably won’t unsubscribe, he’s going to hit your endgame content or he’ll have multiple level 60s. In games with tough levelling curves, it discourages you from starting over.

Now TBC has increased the level cap. There are new newbie zones, and there are some minor changes to the leveling game, very few quests added, but a number of flight paths which at least help curb traveling time.

Having almost completed another leveling act (will be my third level 70, my first releveled from scratch, started very recently). Time to get to 60 (I have five level 60 characters and one more close) is cut short on efficient leveling by about roughly 12% thanks to leveling experience, flight paths and the occasional quest. Overall leveling from 1-60 is not substantially faster and new characters will still take about the same time to level their first. However taking the total time 1-70 it takes around 150% of what it took to get to 60 efficiently. (All these numbers assume fairly efficient leveling, no more than 8 days to 60 and 12 days to 70).

Hence the time investment to get to 70 is substantial. In addition, questing has actually gotten harder. Why? Because in zones 20-55, zones are virtually empty. There is no grouping help or cursory relief by some trash mobs being cleared and access to quest results being faster. More time is spend clearing trash that surround quest goals than before.

Instancing from 20-69 is generally much harder for the same reason. People in a certain level range are too scarce as people are spread out over a larger range of levels.

Overall I’d say that the hurdle that Pardo has been talking about as success of WoW 1.0 start to appear in TBC just from the lack of retuning the leveling time to about the same time-frame it took to get from 1-60. There is a lack of extra quests (a handful per zone at least would have helped leveling speed, at best there is one occasionally. Exception is a new quest hub in Ashenvale, which new levelers may, however miss if they don’t level in Kalimdor early.

Entry to the raiding game still requires the lengthy Karazhan attunement chain. Comparing to MC attunement, or ZG access this is an additional contradiction to the success model that Pardo describes (and apparently forgot to enforce for TBC design). While on paper there is open access content, in reality Karazhan attunement is completely mandatory. Virtually no raid group will take on people who can raid Gruul, Magtheridon, Serpentshrine Cavern or Tempest Keep without being Karazhan attuned.

Basically the leveling game doesn’t seem to be in tune with the original principle any more. There is a stark difference in leveling structure between the new starter zones, the old leveling content 20-60 and Outlands and to rescue the leveling game there needs to be content added in the range 20-60, to (a) increase the pace to bring the new leveling time to level cap closer to the old one and (b) add variety for leveling.

I for one don’t see myself leveling another character to 70 from 1. If level cap is raised to 80 and there isn’t some serious retuning of the leveling curve, there may be no catching up.