Friday, December 26, 2008

Home, Sweet Home

Or should I say "Snow, Sweet Snow" ? I've been in the US for a little over 8 months now, the longest I've ever been away from home. I knew I was homesick, I just hadn't realized how badly until I got to the Dulles Airport in DC and heard some of my fellow Quebecers speaking French while waiting for boarding. That gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling. But I got griefed a couple times on my way home...

It started great with Mesanna and her hubby Michael dropping my Canuck toosh at the airport. So I strut my stuff to the check in counter to have the agent tell me it's going to cost me an extra $100 for my 3rd bag. I'm like wtf? I originally packed 2 bags but Mom warned me the previous night to bring boots and coats because they were getting pummeled with snow and cold weather. My winter coat being Siberian weather proof is quite large and heavy. The coat and boots took a whole 3rd bag on their own. I give the agent my debit card, mumbling the whole time through. Then I go "Hey!! Wouldn't that qualify as a hand bag? It's not too big is it?" He looked at the (fairly big) duffel bag that contained my coat and boots and says "Yeah, that could be considered hand bag." I "yoinked" my debit card back with a big fat grin for saving that bit of cash. He told me that if I had been travelling beyond Montreal with a 3rd bag, Air Canada would have charged me $240 extra! You can be sure next time I'll make sure to verify how many bags I'm allowed!

So after a very annoying and insanely long wait in line to get searched, scanned and w/e the heck it is that they do, I finally get to my gate and start reading Shaman's Crossing while waiting for my flight. I had been meaning to read that trilogy forever but never seemed to have time anymore. I could hardly concentrate because I was getting all fuzzy listening to other Quebecers waiting. But that fuzzy feeling got crushed within seconds as I realized they were all talking about their flights being cancelled because of bad snow storms. Then listening to the anglophones (not sure if they were Americans or English Canadians), their flights too were cancelled. The incredibly long line of people I had seen standing on my way in weren't people lining up to board. They were waiting for customer service, hoping to find a new flight home. Thankfully, my moment of panic was short lived as my own flight was one of the few that had been spared. It was only delayed by an hour!

When the plane was flying over the Dorval Airport in Montreal, I could see the straight lines of lights outlining the streets and the white blanket of snow that covered the ground as far as the eye could see. I got all misty and felt my throat tighten. I never thought I could be such a girly girl. The flight attendant warned us that it was snowy, slippery and cold (-16 C) outside so to be careful. I was curious to see how I would react to the snow and cold not having been eased into it this year as barely 2 hours ago I was enjoying +12 C in Washington DC. Turns out you don't shed out of your system 30+ years of good old Canadian cold that easily. Not only did the cold not bother me, it actually made me all giddy. I loved the sounds of the snow crunching under each step and how my feet just naturally knew where to land to best avoid the slippery ice.

The one thing I didn't remember fondly is on our way home, some of the areas were still burried in snow, the roads a pain to travel through. I've been here a week and every other day we've had over a foot of snow fall, which in fact translates as 2-3 feet of snow to shovel. I would have been miserable without a white Christmas but I could have done without the shovelling :/

But aside from the pains of winter, it was great seeing again such things as a tot being pulled on his sleight by his mom on the sidewalk, our beautiful snow covered parks and just the general beauty of our old stone and brick buildings, which there seems to be so few of in Virginia.

I'm also sad I will be missing all the cool festivals that will be taking place over the next couple of months in Montreal and Quebec City. I was always a big fan of the Ice and Snow sculpting which can be seen at the FĂȘtes de Neiges of Montreal and the Quebec Winter Carnival. Montreal in Lights is another beautiful event where they play with lights and snow and ice to give the city an eery look at night.

In one week, I'll be returning (home?) to VA. It's weird how you can quickly become lost in where's home. On my way here, while filling the declaration form, my instinctive reaction was to write my Montreal address. But that no longer is my permanent address. I did my Christmas shopping in Montreal to avoid the tax headaches at Customs, and every time I showed my Bank of America card to pay, the cashiers would automatically switch to (often broken) English. And even though I would keep speaking French to them, they stuck to English. They assumed I was American and took pride in serving their customers in their native tongue. Trouble is, I was starved for French but didn't have the heart to tell them to speak to me in French or they might take it as a rebuke of their language skills and I wasn't going to go in a story of my life to explain how it came to be that I pay in US dollars.

Part of me is looking forward to be back in my own things and (in a sick kind of way) to be back to work. They always said it takes a sucker for punishment to go into game design, I guess I fit the profile! But part of me feels like I've finally come home from a long trip and the thought of leaving again and especially parting from my family, knowing it will be many more months before I see them again really sucks.

For now, I won't dwell on it. I'm off to Mount Royal to do some skating. With luck, I'll get to do some skiing too, some snow angels and maybe even get away with ganking my brothers with snow balls!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


This is inspired by a post made by a player who deleted his Companion character after a friend threatened to page on him for attempting to sell it. I'm obviously not going to discuss the details of this specific case, but I would like to share my thoughts with you about these kind of situations.

Case 1:

Imagine you are friends with a former Counselor, Companion or Seer that somehow managed to maintain his powers after the program was terminated. One day, you find out he's trying to sell his account hoping to make a bigger profit due to said powers. What do you do? Do you try to convince him to have his powers removed first? If he refuses, do you threaten to page on him if he doesn't? Do you page on him anonymously? Do you let him make his money then page on the buyer? Do you stay out of it altogether? If you do nothing and the buyer ends up abusing those powers in a way extremely harmful, would you feel any guilt? If/when an investigation is performed and punishment is handed down, if your name comes up should you also be held accountable because you knew and didn't prevent it? Or should you be absolved on the basis that you didn't benefit from it?

Case 2:

A while back, an entire guild was banned, including all linked accounts, for duping an exploiting. Admittedly, not every member in the guild took part in the illegal activities but all of them were fully aware of what was going on. If you were invited to join such a guild, would you? If you joined but neither helped duping nor helped stopping it, was it fair you got banned too? If you broke no rules but just allowed your friends to do so, does that make you accountable? Should you only be accountable if you actively took part in the illegal activity? What if you didn't take part but knowingly accepted gifts of duped items and gold? Would that make you more accountable? What if you didn't accept any actual items but enjoyed the benefits of illegal programs such as scripted ghost cams? When you hear the impact on the victims of your guild's activities, do you feel any guilt?


To me, this isn't so much a matter of right or wrong as much as a question of choices and consequences. For every situation, there are 3 choices: 1) avoid it, 2) ignore it or 3) act on it. Avoiding is often the simplest and safest solution. If you do not put yourself in a difficult position, you will not have difficult choices to make. Ignoring is the deceptive one, because as proven by history pretending not to see what is happening does not necessarily shelter you from the fall out. Acting on it can be both the toughest and the easiest. The wise will carefully weight the pros and cons of his decision: "I will stop this because... and I accept the consequences." or "I will take part because... and I accept the consequence." The wreckless will act first and think of consequences later.

You are the master of your own destiny. You make your own choices and you will have to deal with the consequences. If maintaining certain friendships require you to betray your values, you might want to reconsider those relationships. That includes the "if you were my friend..." guilt trips. Take responsibility for your own choices.

The holidays are upon us. It's a merry time, but all too often also a tragic time because of DUI. Will you avoid it by not going out? Will you ignore the people who are clearly drunk and driving, hoping they will make it home safely? Will you act by taking away their keys or by being the drunk trying to drive?

It's all about choices...

Please have a safe and happy holidays.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Highway

Democratic societies always pride themselves in the fact that the people have the freedom to choose what they will be, who will lead them and which direction their community should evolve in. They essentially promote the right of the individual to be happy, to be prosper, to simply be... And then we enter a virtual world and all of a sudden, everyone becomes a dictator. Anything that isn't going my way needs to be removed. Why?

The Felucca vs Trammel saga is without a doubt the one with the most visibility, but it's hardly the only one in the "my way" category. Every time new content is added or a subgroup of the community voices its displeasure with the state of things, someone will come up and say "who cares? your class/profession/facet shouldn't exist anyways. You guys suck!"

And this isn't even just the random flamer. A lot of people genuinely feel that if they and their friends do not actively take part in certain activities or mini-games, those are a waste of resources. Some people feel that people who take part in mini-games such as gardening, cooking, house decorating, raising fishes in their aquariums or even using the checkers/mahjong game boards in UO are silly, wasting their time and completely missing the point of UO.

Says who?

What is the "proper way" of playing UO or any other game for that matter? Bashing on monsters 24/7? Killing every player on sight? Strip mining every vein in the land? Role-playing your little heart out? Out-talking every banksitter in Sosaria? In my book, as long as they are having fun, aren't ruining the game for others and aren't breaking the ToS, then they ARE playing the right way "for them".

The fact that you do not enjoy or agree with a certain playstyle shouldn't justify you trying to destroy it. The fact that development time is given to a subgroup you do not care for doesn't mean you should feel cheated it wasn't devoted to yours instead. Every cell and subgroup of the community needs its share of love or it will wither and die. The assumption that by killing a facet or playstyle will get people to migrate to yours is flawed. Cutting your leg off isn't going to cause for a 2nd head or a 3rd arm to grow, it will simply make you crippled. A healthy body is one where every organ and limb is equally well taken care of.

It's not because I love meat that I'm going to try to coherce vegans into being like me. Live and let live. The richness of a community comes from its diversity and the respect of our differences.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Wishing Well

Memories usually seem to consist of our best and worse times. The bad memories, no matter how hard we try to forget about them, they just seem to have a way of crawling back up to the surface. The danger with those is allowing them to dictate the choices we make in the future for fear of a repeat, making us sometimes miss out on great opportunities. On the flip side, good memories are the ones we like to revisit. But just like bad memories, they can be dangerous. When we dwell too much on the past, we fail to appreciate the present for what it is and constantly compare anything we get to what once was. So the question you have to ask yourself is was the past really all that great?

There are a number of things that make something great, often a combination of the right elements at the right time. But put that same something in a different setting or at a different time, and it may very well turn out not to be so great after all.

As a child, there was this great big park a block away from my house where I used to play with my brothers. It was huge! And there was this great river running through it surrounded by swings and slides and all sorts of fun things for children to play with. My brothers would tease me all the time, threatening to throw me in the river. The river was so wide and so deep, surely I would have drowned!

I was about 6 yo when we moved from that house. In my early 20s, I was driving by the area and decided to do a little detour by the park I so fondly remembered. When I got there, at first I thought I was at the wrong place. You see, the huge park that I remembered was really a small park on the corner of the street. The great big river was a small pond that ran through it. It was barely a meter wide and maybe 2 feet deep. There were 2 slides, a sand square, 2 sets of swings and a couple benches.

I was sad and disappointed to see it with my grown up eyes. As a child, it had been a great almost mythical place. As an adult, it was just small, bland and dated. I wish I had not gone back. I wish I would have just kept the wonderful memory of it and not today's reality of it.

People often say "I wish we could go back to when..." thinking they would be happier if they did. This is especially true in UO. Like many players, I wasn't happy with AoS and I had mixed feelings about Renaissance. But would I really be happier on a pre-AoS, pre-Pub 16 or pre-Renaissance shard? On some fronts yes, on others hell no! Globally? I don't know.

The old days were great, no question about that. But it wasn't just the game mechanics that made it great. It was mostly the people, the different mentality, the different era. Times change, people change and expectations change. It took me months pre-Power Hour to GM Mining, and that was with me mining every night for hours non-stop. I won't even talk about how long it took for smithing and lockpicking. I loved the difficulty then, but I would hate to go through that today. I was never fond of having to use reagents to cast spells. I cannot bear the thought of going back to no LRC. But I miss the Seers and Counselors, the slew of player run towns and RPers galore of old. More importantly, I miss the people who have now moved on to other things.

Bottomline, you shouldn't live in the past. It's ok to learn from the mistakes of the past and take some of the good from it, but not dwell on it. You HAVE to look to the future and you have to evolve into something else, and hopefully something better. If you wish for the past long and hard enough, you may just get it. But once you do, you will likely realize it really wasn't what you thought it would be and all you will have accomplished is tarnish and maybe even shatter the fond memory you once had.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Ever noticed how every time a new game comes out, a new feature gets added or a new expansion is released, people always go "OMG, they just copied/ripped this off of (insert copied game here)!!" ? I know I've done it a few times myself but recent events made me rethink the matter.

Every time we do a new publish, some players always find a way to look at the Clilocs to get some spoilers as to what is upcoming. Sometimes, what they see is indeed new content, but sometimes they just see work in progress or internal stuff that will never get in the game. In that specific instance, they saw a new reward I was working on for a future publish. Someone made a comment on the board about it being a rip from World of Warcraft. My initial reaction was "huh?!" but after further thought, I could see how that player would think that.

But while WoW indeed has something similar, this reward was simply a beefed up version of a UO item that existed long before anyone ever heard of WoW. The change is essentially increasing its duration and the buff it provides, making it useful again. So why did the player consider it a WoW rip off? Because the current UO version didn't keep up with the evolution of the game and is obsolete at the moment (hence the revamp it's getting). The majority of UO players isn't even aware it exists while the WoW version is a commonly used item. You could almost say WoW made that type of item popular.

So would it be fair to say that WoW copied its version from UO? Maybe, maybe not. I would lean towards probably not. In truth, how do you determine who rips off of who? Who had the original idea of whatever?

Most games could be called a rip off of an older game. What RPG didn't steal something from D&D? What FPS didn't take from Doom or Duke Nukem? What sand box didn't copy from GTA? Which came first? The chicken or the egg? Does it even matter? A perfectly roasted chicken is just as good as a nice omelet. I wouldn't put chicken in my bowl of cereals, but I wouldn't make a cake without eggs.

There are only so many ingredients to go around. And any way you cut it, there will always be flour and eggs in a cake. Regardless of the amount or type of flour, you will put some in. Whether you put icing on the cake or not, is up to the cook. Replacing the cherries by strawberries in a black forest cake doesn't make it a strawberry shortcake. But you have to ask yourself if the strawberries really belong there or are they just going to go by unnoticed, buried by the overwhelming flavors of the other ingredients.

In the end, the ingredient itself doesn't matter as much as what it's being used for and where. As long as it makes sense, tastes good and doesn't transform your cake into something it wasn't meant to be, then go for it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Thine Medicine...

When I interviewed to enter the design program at the Ubisoft Campus, one of the interviewers asked me what, in my opinion, makes a good designer. And I remember the first thing I said was that the designer must play his own game. That obviously wasn't the only criteria, but to me, that's always been one of the, if not THE most important factors.

You shouldn't only play your own game because other games significantly broadens your horizons. But not playing your own game not only disconnects you from the game itself, but from the community as well. MMOs have a way of taking a life of their own because so many minds, so many playstyles come together and lead it in a path very often unexpected. But beyond that, what looks good on paper, what seems cool on your stand alone, what's pretty darn easy when you're running around in God mode (and even when you turn it off), is often a whole different story on a live server.

Reading comments from players is nothing like experimenting it yourself. Sometimes, you see players complaining about the way this or that was implemented and your initial reaction is to debate whether to pull out a violin or hand them a box of tissues. You go try it out with a regular account and go "yup, forget the tissues, let's send them some cheese and maybe even crackers" if you're in a generous mood. But other times, you try it and go holy cow!! Too many mobs, not enough mobs, mobs too hard, mobs ridiculously easy, drop rate insanely high, drop rate infuriatingly low, grief potential galore, etc.

There is nothing more revealing than walking into someone else's shoes even if only for a short while. That frustration, you lived it first hand. You understand it. I got pissed off (I mean cussing up a storm pissed off!!) fighting one of my own creations. And I thought to myself: "hey stupid, guess what you will do better next time?" And the thing is, what frustrated me the most isn't even what players have complained about on the forums. But in game, I experimented it first hand and witnessed players being aggravated as well. And if not for that, I never would have known the flaws of that design.

And that is the most invaluable information that no forum, book, article, poll or fancy pants theory can ever give you. You have to be there on the field and take that experience into consideration on your next project. It won't necessarily make you a good designer, but it sure as hell will help you at least be a better one.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Rift

Now that we've survived the madness of Publish 56, I'm back to ramble some more. Except this time it will definitely qualify as a rant because this past few weeks have just made this issue all the more obvious, at least for me.

We often hear or talk about how people change once they get a promotion, become famous, become rich or end up in a position of power. We also often smirk at artists who say "I'm still the same person that grew up in the projects! I'm still real!" as they fire their maid for folding their hand towel to the left instead of to the right. But while there is no question that success (in whatever form it may come) sometimes gets to the head of whoever achieved it, it is often the friends and close circle of people who are negatively changed the most by it.

You win the lottery, everyone suddenly expects you to constantly shower them with lavish presents or pick up the tab every single time you go out. And it better not be in that old run down diner you guys have been going to every Friday night like clockwork for the past 10 years. You're rich now, so it better be some fancy pants place or you're a Scrooge. To hell with tradition, to hell with the fact that the good old simplicity and casual routine was what you looked forward to every week and what kept you grounded. They want to live the lavish life through you, and as a good friend you should indulge them, no matter what the cost to you.

You got your big break in Hollywood?! Now everyone and their brother knows that if you are any kind of a real friend, you will somehow get them a small part in your next blockbuster movie. What do you mean you can't get them front row tickets to the Oscars? Did you really try hard enough? And how come you're always so darn busy all the time now? Your friends not good enough for you anymore? Who cares that you have been on set for 12 hours straight and that when you get home you have to learn your lines for next day's shoot?

So you landed a cool job at the White House. Stop making such a big deal about the NDA. Friends don't keep secrets from each other. Like you really risk losing your job if you divulge certain things or behave a certain way... You're just on a power trip, aren't you? It's just a lame excuse not to hang out or share info. Just like you're too important now to discuss the healthcare crisis with them, or any other crisis for that matter. And lets not start with the selfish BS about you having brainstormed all day about said crises and when you come home from work, the last thing you want or need is more brainstorming about it. If every single one of your friends want to contact you one after the other, or simultaneously, be it occasionally or every day to express their views about the state of the economy or vent their frustration about the shortcomings of the government you're working for, you should make yourself available and cater to their needs. (dang that was a long sentence!) And why would you take offense when your friends trash talk the government you work for, your colleagues or the project you're on? It's just a job right? You don't have to take any pride in it... And what kind of a friend doesn't help a friend in need? Ok fine, you don't work for Immigration, but it's still government stuff and you work for the government. Surely you can fix your friend's passport issues...

So my point...

I genuinely believe I'm still the same silly girl with the same silly sense of humor. But over the past 6 months, the number of people I've stopped talking to altogether or that I've distanced myself from (or have distanced themselves from me!) has grown exponentially. The past couple of weeks, a few more were added to the "I cannot be bothered with anymore" list.

My time off is no less sacred than yours. My new job didn't make me your punching bag or a commodity to facilitate you getting what you want. I do not come home from a long day's work just so I can get an earful about how you think all that we're doing sucks. There are forums for that. My R&R time isn't it. I'm not customer service, so even if you cry me a river about your in-game assistance needs, I will tell you "I cannot help you with this" so just page a GM. I have nothing to do with accounts or billing so if you managed to get banned, sucks to be you cuz I'm not bailing you out (not that I could anyways). As I didn't get injected with a superdose of uber knowledge when I got the job, I cannot enlighten you about server side issues because I'm a designer, not an engineer. And since I'm not tech support either, I also cannot tell you why running Vista on your specific machine seems to be causing issues with UOA. In fact, had you seen me struggling to install my new video card on my PC, you wouldn't ask me any tech support advice. And that question you messaged me 20 times about over the last 4 days? You would have gotten the answer in 2 seconds had you Googled it.

To me, a buddy or friend is someone whose companionship and conversations I enjoy. Someone I get to relax and do cool stuff with. And in rougher times, someone who will support me and who I will support in return when needed. The same way they say don't bring your work at home, leave your friends' job out of your relationship. The person who changes the most often isn't the one we think.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Pulling Hair

Two or three years ago, I had one of my most aggravating summers over the griefiest, stupidest thing ever. I came home from work on a very hot summer day, and the minute I opened the door, I was slapped by the most horrendous stench. So I covered my nose thinking "omg, what the heck?!" as I headed straight for the kitchen. That had a very distinctive smell of rotting meat and I figured I had probably forgotten something on the kitchen counter and the extreme heat did a number on it.

Trouble is, get in the kitchen, nothing suspicious in sight. At that point, I'm almost gagging, so I open all the windows and all the doors to let some fresh air inside. Then I methodically search every nook and cranny in the kitchen. I open every cupboard, the fridge, the oven, move both of the latter to make sure nothing fell behind them. Nothing...

The smell clearly seems the strongest around the fridge but despite my best effort, I find nothing. I look through every other room to no avail then back to the kitchen for a 2nd thorough search but nada. At that point I figure maybe it's something from the pipes, but it's too late to call a plumber. He drops by the next day, takes a whiff and goes "nope, that doesn't come from the pipes". There is something decomposing somewhere. But knowing I've checked everywhere, and since I'm gonna pay him anyways, I ask him to have a look through the drains and everything just in case. He does and as he predicted, nothing.

A couple more days of this, including a cancelled dinner because I am just too embarassed to have friends over under these conditions, I suddenly think of checking the dryer's air vent. I remember my mom used to have issues with birds nesting in hers and thought maybe one died in mine or something similar. But nope. This nightmare went on for a few weeks then the smell just faded away on its own, and one day it was gone. While I was happy, I was also really upset and concerned that I never found it because it could very likely resurface at some point in time.

About a month later, the light bulb near the sink area in the kitchen went out. Having a cathedral ceiling, I had to get a small ladder to reach it. So after I removed the ceiling light fixture, I turned to put it on top of the fridge and noticed a small white tray with something dark on it sitting at the far edge of the fridge. I remember saying something in French that could be translated as "are you freaking kidding me?!" but in a very unlady-like fashion.

There it was, a steak I took out one day, while trying to reach something else in the freezer and that somehow got pushed all the way to the back. And I was so angry with myself because I had checked the top of the fridge but didn't climb on anything to see all of it. It was a very big and tall fridge. I just had a quick glance from where I was standing and blindly patted the top as far as my hand could reach which wasn't all that far, despite my 5'8". I mean, to have been this thorough with everything else and so careless with this one... Granted, I NEVER put anything on top of the fridge except for the occasional quick swap of items so I had no reason to expect this and yet...

So you're wondering why the heck am I telling you this? Because to me, bug fixing is a little like that infuriating incident. You are faced with an unpleasant situation and follow your nose to the source. Sometimes, you're lucky: the problem is sitting right there on the counter and you can just dispose of it however is most fitting. Sometimes, it just fell between the stove and counter. Move the stove out of the way, and bye bye problem.

But sometimes, it will be sitting on the far edge of the fridge, at that one place you will never think to look. You know the problem involves the fridge and you'll look inside the fridge, around it, under it, behind it, you'll even empty it and trash everything inside, but you'll never think to look at the back edge. And because sometimes, just like in my incident, its properly wrapped and therefore doesn't leak or trigger any other visible sign that could point you to the back edge. So you'll resort to the most far-fetched and improbable alternative causes, like the pipes and air vent. And it will take a burnt light bulb, sometimes weeks, months or years later for you to finally see where that darn thing was sitting all along.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Out On A Limb

Like a lot of people, I was part of a band when I was younger. Did the bar scene, and even scored a few gigs that were significantly more important. Every time I had to step on that stage and grab that mic, those dang butterflies would start playing a football match in my stomach. And it didn't matter how many times we performed, that stage fright would always be there. But fortunately, for me at least, getting the first note out was the hardest. The minute I would sing that first line, the stress would drop and then I would just roll with it. That is when the public enjoyed the show. But when they didn't respond well, that was a whole different story...

Then I grew older and decided I didn't fit the "starving artist" profile. So I moved on behind the scene and watched others perform. As a Stage Manager for nearly 10 years for the Montreal Drum Fest (among others), I got to meet a lot of pretty big names in the showbiz and it always blew my mind to see how nervous some of those really seasoned artists would still get before getting on stage.

And then I became a game designer for a MMO and it feels like I've gone right back to those band days. Back then, I was one of the main composers of the group, did vocals and keys. So every time we performed, I was putting myself out there to be judged both for creativity (song & lyrics) but also as a performer. And it was nerve-wracking because any way you cut it, your creation is a part of you. When it gets rejected, even though you know better, it's hard not to take it to heart. Sometimes it was good material but bad timing. Sometimes it was downright poor material. The hard part is knowing the difference and learning from the mistakes.

When I was working on console games, I compared the profession more to that of a writer, a novelist. You create your fiction, your characters, the world they evolve in with all its rules, however wacky they may be, at your own pace. And once you're ready and you believe you got it right (or marketing puts their foot down!), you bring your "masterpiece" into the world and hope critics will kindly welcome it.

But with a MMO, it's more like being that stand up comedian that must come up with new material on a regular basis, because you just can't keep feeding them the same joke week after week. And every time, you look for that inspiration, that stroke of genius that will make your public go ooooh! aaaaah!! And while you're dreaming of the stand up ovation, all you really think about before you step out on that stage is "please, let it not be boos!"

When I ran player events, I would get nearly sick with nerves in the minutes that preceded it. It's incredible things that you can tell yourself when it's too late to back down: "What the heck was I thinking? This thing sucks!! They will laugh at me! They will say it's lame and retarded! They will (insert other random self-depreciating comment here)". And I would wonder why do I put myself through this? And the answer would always be the same: I just need to create, I need to write, I need to do this. And then the event would take place and it would be well received for the most part (there will always be the disgruntled few), and it made it all worth it.

And now that I do this on a much larger scale, with significantly more people to judge my work, it's all the more terrifying, but at the same time, all the more exciting. And to continue the comparison with a comedian, while my goal is to get them all rolling on the floor laughing themselves to tears, if I can at least get the majority to give me that grin, that giggle and better yet that laughter outburst, then I will have had a good performance.

But regardless of the outcome, I will be right back at my drawing board because, just like the musician, the comedian or the dancer, the "artist" within just need to express himself. (You can translate that as "we're suckers for punishment!")

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Grind

Of all the things in gaming, Grinding is probably one the most annoying things, right next to Griefing. There is nothing I hate more than starting a new character in any MMO and knowing I'm going to spend the next however many days, weeks or months doing the same repetitive, boring thing over and over and over again, ad nauseam and beyond.

Funny thing is, it didn't bother me 11 years ago when I started playing UO. I was a pure crafter and I would spend hours on end, days, weeks just mining the hell out of every mountain in Britannia. And then spending some more hours just making the same armor pieces in the hope of getting that coveted 0.1 skill increase. And boy, was I happy...

Today, the mere thought of training another miner makes my skin crawl. Identically, the prospect of leveling another character in WoW or LOTR or any new/existing MMO is just a big fat turn off for me. Grinding is purely and simply not fun, not when you've been there, done that as much as a majority of seasoned gamers have. It's mind numbing and it keeps us from what we really want to get to: the fun part, the end game PvP or PvM.

I can understand why so many games use the Grind as a training/leveling method. The Wikipedia article actually covers fairly well a lot of those aspects so I will not bother repeating here. The problem for me is that Grinding, imho, is a cop out and fails to fulfill its real purpose which is to train the players.

In many of the Grind games, the training quests can be summed up as 1) go fetch, 2) go deliver, 3) escort, 4) kill X number of, 5) kill X number of to get Y amount of and last but not least 6) gather X amount of. How does any of these make a better warrior, a better priest, a better crafter, etc?

If I'm going to spend an extended amount of time "training" a character, I would expect that by the time I've reached the highest level, I would know how to play that template well, in all its complexity and uniqueness. And if I'm a new player, I would expect that when I'm done training that character, I would have a good understanding of the game world in which it takes place.

My first WoW character was a holy priest. As such, you would think the "Grind" would be focused on my class and require me to perform tasks in keeping with the role I would be playing during raids. So why have me kill thousands and thousands of mobs for weeks when I will hardly ever be doing that in the end? A little bit of it doesn't hurt, but putting me in situations where I had to manage my shackles, fears, fade, lifting debuffs and diseases, the whole while keeping larger and larger numbers of NPCs and myself alive in increasingly difficult environments would have helped me become a better healer. Wacking 30 panters, 30 Raptors and 30 Tigers does not.

But one of the First Aid quests portrays well what I consider a class/profession appropriate quest. If I recall properly, it's in Theramore where an NPC physician gives you special bandages and you have to heal a number of wounded soldiers ranging from mildly to critically injured. You barely have any time to think as you must quickly assess who most urgently needs your assistance because the critically will die fast. If you let more than a certain of your patients die, you fail the quest.

In UO, our training is also a Grind. But our world is so complex that even veteran players often forget a lot of the mechanics actually available to them. Some other tools are simply not used because players aren't used to them, don't understand their importance or are uncomfortable handling them. If they had been made part of their daily routine through training, they wouldn't be so alien to them. It would also be a good way to teach players, newbie and veterans alike, about the world they live in and make them familiar with things they may have forgotten or never known about.

Any fighter/hunter template should be taught the specials and abilities specific to their class. You're a mage? Then your quests/training should require you to demonstrate you have mastered the use of your spells according to your level: curing/healing self or 1+ other(s) (could be something similar to the WoW First Aid quest), Fielding (you must keep a certain creature from reaching a certain location for a preset amount of time using e-field or para fields. At higher levels, you may also need to keep an NPC alive by healing/curing and casting walls to prevent enemies from casting on him), Dispelling (enemy fields or summons to make your way to/escape from some area), etc. If you're an archer or a dexxer, have quests with objectives that force you to use your various specials/weapons, from dismounts, to mortal, to moving shots, to chugging (arm/disarm macros), to healing or cross-healing using bandages, spells... And while at it, quests that show you were you can gather arrows, bandages, etc.

Crafters, such as tailors, should gain skills/experience from gathering the raw materiel (picking cotton in fields, sheering sheeps, gathering leather...), transforming those materials into cloth with the spinning wheels and looms. Have objectives that range from creating dyes (we need that!), dying specific items, crafting/enhancing others, and (if I had my way!) forced out into danger zones to harvest magic resources directly off the back of live boss monsters.

If training/leveling was more oriented towards teaching players how to play the characters they made instead of making them read play guides, I strongly believe it would be seen as less of a chore and definitely not a Grind.

Monday, September 8, 2008


A former classmate and I were reminiscing about some of our favorite design classes. One thing leading to the other, we ended up discussing Emergence. Every industry has its buzz words. In video games, Emergent Gameplay is definitely one of them. Essentially, it's when a new, totally unintended gameplay suddenly appears in game. Or in other words, when players make an unintended use of the game mechanics to achieve a goal. Does that description sound familiar?

For the longest time, I thought of Emergent Gameplay as a fancy word to describe an Exploit. In many cases, the games where emergent behavior was noted were combat or FPS games. The unintended behavior was labelled "strategy" and was not only condoned but encouraged. In fact, in the majority of our design assignments, our teachers often asked what elements of our design would help promote emergence.

So what's the difference? An Exploit is detrimental to the game, gives an unfair advantage to the user, creates imbalances and/or has a negative impact on the community. Whereas Emergent Gameplay enhances the game, creates new opportunities, adds gameplay and is generally beneficially to the overall gaming experience.

For example, a player finds a loophole that allows him to dupe infinite amount of gold which ruins the economy. Another realizes that combining certain skills, certain equipments and performing certain actions in a specific sequence allow him to one-hit kill everything and everyone, making it impossible for anyone to compete against him. In both cases, on a stand-alone game (PC, Console), we would just call it a cheat because frankly, the NPCs could care less. But on a multi-player game, the response is quite different as it hurts the player base.

But with Emergent Gameplay it's quite the opposite and in a game like UO, it can be a really beautiful thing. Once I wanted to have a talking dragon for one of my player run events. And it was Soar (founder of the QuestMasters) who gave me the perfect solution: 1) we have communication crystals which allow a player speaking through the emitter to be heard by anyone within range of the receiver, no matter how great the distance between emitter and receiver; 2) back then, white wyrms and dragons shamelessly looted anything they killed; 3) tamed pets can be made to follow anyone, even if they are invisible; 4) players with high hiding skills and stealth can move around unseen.

Four completely independant, unrelated game mechanics combined to create a new one...

So I put a receiver in my backpack and attacked the white wyrm who chewed me up in a blink and looted the crystal off my corpse. The tamer then told the white wyrm to follow our stealther who then hid. I got resurrected and ran off inside a house a few screens away. When the players taking part in the event arrived at the wyrm's location, the stealther moved towards them unseen, followed by the pet. All the players saw was a white wyrm coming towards them at a slow pace as if of his own free will. When the stealther reached the designated location, he informed me in party chat and I began talking through the communication crystal. The players saw my words appearing above the white wyrm as if it was the one talking to them.

House decorators in UO are also phenomenal in their ability to use game mechanics in unexpected ways to create amazing illusions. It's surprising what an axe, the right mix of items inside a to-be-axed crate, clever item stacking, cloth/item dying/cutting, funky combinations and unusual house customizations can turn into. As an EM, I ran a couple house deco contests and some of them just knocked my socks off. In the Halloween contest, Sarmi's Whimsy Witch just blew my mind, from the stacked black and white pearls to create peeping eyes through the roof, to the amazing witch and vampire. The tanks in Demented Pleasures were also very clever. (Sorry if the pages aren't sexy. They were quickly slapped together so the other EMs could help me pick the winners). But I'm still speechless from the Christmas Deco contest again from Sarsmi, her Winter Wonderland. I personally had the greatest time turning my own houses into puzzles thanks to house customization like the stairs/teleporter maze and the clock puzzle from my Wheels of Time event (did people ever suffer in that one! LOL).

The more you create game mechanics that interconnect, the greater the chance of seeing new unexpected gameplay emerge. It is both a wonder and a concern, especially in an online game. But it certainly helps take it to a whole new level and give it a life of its own.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Behind The Scene

I originally planned for my next blog entry to be about one of the many nightmares one can have when relocating to a new country, but I decided to keep that self-pitying post to another time (sorry, you won't avoid it!!). Instead, I felt I needed to acknowledge some pretty awesome people who all too often get no recognition from the player base, except for flames when things don't work out. And these folks are the QA Testers.

When the first video game studio opened in Montreal, having no experience I told myself if I could get a job as a QA Tester, it would be my way into the industry. But now that I am in the business, I can tell you that I'm not so sure I would have cut it. It takes a certain type of person to do a good job of it and a hell of a lot of passion and commitment. People often romanticize what a Tester's job is like. Yes, you're running around in a game all day, but you're not actually "playing". You are testing, trying all the crazy stuff players could do and event try to think about stuff no one in their right mind would deliberately do because you know that some way, somehow, some dude WILL do it.

Granted, some of the testing can be fun. I mean, who wouldn't want to be the first to try fighting this cool new monster or riding this cool new mount? But then take the case of the latest gardening additions. Started off with just the cocoa tree. No biggy right? But then I decided to add new plants. For each new plant, we're talking new seeds. Then I decided they would spawn at a certain rate on a certain number of monsters. Then I decided, you know what? lets add a few more seeds and a few more monsters and play around with the drop rate. Then oh wait, after a quick design meeting, taking player feedback into consideration, I make some more changes. Lets instead divide the seeds in smaller spawn groups and monsters in various groups also to make it less frustrating for players to hunt the seeds. By the time I've reached the final design QA has gone in and tested, retested and retested how many times?

Now keep in mind whenever we talk about drop rates, as a designer I provide QA with a chart of expected results. So guess what? They go in and kill every single designated monsters hundreds of times and draw up a chart of the results to see if they meet expectation. And that's how they found out certain seeds weren't spawning at all. Some were spawning on the wrong mobs, etc. And then they grow each plant making sure every label is right, the growth rate is appropriate, the grown plant meets requirements, and so on. And each time we change our minds, they start all over again.

And to thank them for their awesome work, I went ahead and designed something else for factions which needs some thorough testing on damage output. To give you an idea, imagine if I was talking about an explosion potion. Now it's straight forward enough right? Toss a pot and the total damage from the pot will be divided by the enemies within range. So QA comes along, create the pot, makes sure the pots can be used stack and unstacked, that it doesn't lose it's properties when unstacked, that it can properly be thrown, that it does the damage expected, that the bottle is then destroyed, etc. But then here comes the crappier part, he then needs to layout what the damage received was on various characters: with or without armor, under curses such as corpse skin, if the thrower has alchemy and the impact of the alchemy level, if the player uses potion enhance, and so on. And test under the various combinations of these factors and whatever else the designer didn't think about. Now we, the designers, look at the results and decide ok, is this overpowered or not? If yes, then we change the base damage and who gets to retest all over again? That's right...

I don't think I would have the patience and thoroughness for this. Personally, I think if I had just fully tested something such as the purple potions just to have it come right back a couple hours later for retesting, I would be banging my head on the walls. But our guys are so awesome. Never a complaint, quite the opposite. In fact, on a few occasions, I had one of them walk into my office to get a bit more info about something he was testing for me or pointing out some of the game mechanic issues which could be circumvented with a slight design adjustment. And some of those resulted in a lot more work for them and that was not an issue. It was all about trying to get things out as right as possible.

Truth is, QA Testers keep the Devs honest. They will not let us cut corners. I hate getting a bunch of DevTracks about bugs found, but I am grateful for QA catching my screw ups and often thinking for me about stuff that never would have crossed my mind. And you know, mistakes will still happen and things will manage slip by, but without QA we would be in serious trouble. So when I see people criticizing our QA, I'm like you guys don't know a good thing when you see it because our guys are awesome. (Yes, I'm sucking up right now because the next things I have in store for testing will be quite painful!)

But kidding aside, I just wanted to say to the UO QA team, much love and many thanks!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Reality Check

I recently joined the Game Developers Group on Linkedin and while browsing through the various articles, I stumbled on a link to an "ambitious MMO" plan. That definitely got me curious, and I decided to check it out. By the time I finished reading the post, I was wondering if the guy who wrote it 1) had balls of brass, 2) was on crack or 3) needed a serious reality check.

His very long post didn't actually detail what the game would about, it was more of a recruiting spiel. He first states that a new revolutionary MMO is required because all others that have been done before have miserably failed to meet players expectations and new MMOs are nothing but a reheated version of existing ones. While I think this is an easy generalized statement, I don't disagree that MMOs still have ways to go and that there is too much of the same out there.

The problem was more with the second part where he introduces himself. Essentially, he states he has no design training or experience of any kind (not even fiddling with map editors), has no programming skills either, but that his extensive gaming experience made him an authority in what players seek in a game. His team was still very small (only 2 other people who I seem to recall also had no professional experience) but they would welcome anyone reading the article who were daring, creative and willing to embark on that wild journey. My immediate reaction was "you're joking, right?" but I knew he wasn't.

I'm always a little baffled when I read stuff like that because I wonder why he feels HIS extensive gaming experience makes him a greater authority than other gamers. It's not like game developers aren't gamers themselves. But beyond that, being a great driver doesn't make you a great mechanic, just like being a straight A student doesn't make you a good teacher.

It takes so much more than a few cool ideas to put a game together. Even coming out of school, I didn't realize just how many different talents were required to make a game until I actually started working in the industry. Despite that, I'm still discovering new things today I didn't realize needed to be done because other departments of the team are handling them. And creating a MMO is even more ambitious and demanding.

Generally speaking, I love the idea of an independent developer and there's nothing greater than an unlikely success story. But you also need to douse your ambitions with a bit of a reality check. When the Wright brothers tried creating an aircraft they didn't start on a spaceship, they started with kites, then gliders and then included an engine, etc. If he had talked about making a flash game or a DS kind of game to wet his feet, he would have had more credibility and a better response. It would be a good learning experience and help him develop some tools, build relationships and expand his professional network in a fairly short period of time. And if the game is successful, it would also help him build the financial means to achieve his end goal: a MMO.

But a MMO takes years to create with a large full-time team. If you've got too small a team or only work part-time because your team has to work elsewhere to make a living, by the time your game will be done it will already be dated. In truth, if making independent games was so easy, don't you think a majority of game developers would just go rogue and have their own start up so they can enjoy true creative freedom? And for those who have, how many such start ups have failed?

Even though he's biting way more than he can chew, I hope he won't choke to death on it. And once the piece that got stuck goes down, if he's smart he'll take a step back, take smaller bites and get to live to enjoy his dessert.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Duping Woes

Duping is such a nightmare for everyone, not just the players, but as much if not worse for the Devs. It's like a cancer that just keeps eating away at you. And just when you thought you had gone into remission, boom, there it is again.

Players cannot begin to understand how much time and energy we devote to tracking down and banning dupers, removing illegal items for the game and finding ways to fill the holes that allowed the dupes to occur in the first place. But dupers are like cockroaches. You kill one, 10 more come out. Some of them are easy to catch. They're amateurs spotting a pot of gold and in their greed allow themselves to be caught red handed. Those are my favorite as they're not only easily disposed of, but they also usually cause the least damage to the community.

The Dons, the Master Minds, those are the ones that suck. They are hard to get. They are speedhacking little roaches, that only come out in the dead of night and are pretty much immune to most pesticide you can throw their way. You will never catch them alive. They will throw their minions under the bus, but you won't get your hands on them. They're the ones that really hurt the community and the Dev team and the game. And just like the Godfather, you often have to resort to nailing them on tax evasion. And yes, sometimes this means you need to let the minions run around unhindered a little longer just so you can work the trail back up to the leaders.

Each time, we have to divert development time to track down dupers / exploiters, fix the loopholes, remove the offensive items and investigate their accounts to gather sufficient proof to proceed with a ban. This translate as delayed publishes, canceled new content, lesser bug fixes. For the players, it means their legitimately acquired items losing value while inflation rises. For new players it means a tougher barrier to entry. For the game in general, it means serious imbalances between the haves and haves not, accelerated depreciation of entire game systems because the reward that gave them their purpose is now flooding the market.

So make no mistake: Devs have NOTHING to gain by allowing dupers to run rampant. We don't spam how many people were banned or when we are banning people. That doesn't mean it's not happening on a regular basis.

You would be surprised to know how many people were actually banned in the last wave. What boggles my mind is how eager players are to believe someone claiming innocence. We also have nothing to gain by banning innocent players, quite the opposite. Do mistakes occur from time to time? Sure, no one is perfect. But you shouldn't assume that because someone says "I didn't do it" means they really didn't. Anyone who gets caught speeding will likely try to sweet talk their way out of a ticket. If it works, WOOT! If it doesn't, oh well, was worth the try. That doesn't make them any less guilty. Difference is, the guy who crashed into a tree because he was speeding won't make a fuss, because clearly there's no getting out of that one. Both as guilty, just one more obvious than the other.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Troll Alert!

Since I gave the Cheerleaders some TLC, it's only fair I give Trolls some attention too. But while the previous post was a nod to Cheerleaders, this is more a question mark. I honestly fail to understand why Trolls act the way they do. We often hear the cliché statement that Trolls are just sad people, angry at the world that bullied them, venting their personal failures in real life, (insert other lame excuse here) and who are trying to make others feel as miserable as they do themselves. But fact is, I've known a number of Trolls (and griefers for that matter) who are everything BUT losers or depressive in real life. So why?

I read the forums and it's the same people going on and on about this or that, throwing every insult they can come up with, whining and complaining about everything and anything. It doesn't matter how much you go out of your way to please them, they will find something to be disgruntled about and stir the pot over.

Sometimes, they have grounds to be unhappy but they voice their displeasure so viciously that whatever valid point they were trying to make gets losts in the rant. And the truth of the matter is, once you establish yourself as a Troll, we (the Devs) eventually just stop reading you. So who really gets hurt in the end?

When I read a post and the first line is "Devs, I demand an answer now!!", the first thought that crosses my mind is "I hope you're not holding your breath irl!" That alone pretty much guarantees you will NOT get a reply. And then the posts where some dude is popping a vein over the fact that we're not customizing the game to his specifications. It's like what?! And then they are offended that we don't post or reply to them. But what do they expect? We know they will twist our words and hold everything we say against us. So why put ourselves in the line of fire?

On another forum, this guy was talking about shutting down accounts and randomly ranting about how the Devs' shortcomings had pushed him to this. But reading the thread further, he actually posted how he's really just closing accounts because rl makes it impossible for him to continue playing as much as he used to. And I couldn't help but wonder why he had felt the need to unfairly bash us when in fact it was the changes in his life (that we have absolutely no control over) that impacted his ability to play.

I dont know the English equivalent (and I'm too lazy to look it up!) but in French we have this saying: "you can't catch a fly with vinegar". I will be more enclined to stay after hours to fix a bug or add a feature that wasn't planned in the schedule to make someone pleasant happy. Trolling is the best way to ensure you probably won't be read and that your concerns, however valid they may be, are less likely to be addressed in a timely fashion.

With that said, I would really appreciate if a Troll would hit me up and give me some insight on what's the deal! And not just the trolling against Devs but also the trolling against other players. I would REALLY love to know what's the kicker.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Making certain design decisions can be difficult. When you do your job right, you put a lot of thought into it. It's not just a coin toss or taking shortcuts, it's about what makes the most sense in both the short and long term. Sometimes, these decisions aren't overly popular and make things a bit more difficult for the players, but it's also for their own good.

As a player, I often used to say "wth do they do it that way? Why isn't the drop rate higher? Why can't we just get straight to (insert wish here)?" And today, as a designer I read the boards and get the same questions from players regarding decisions I or the other members of the team made.

I cannot go into the specific case that prompted this but I will give a different example. People have often complained about the artifact drop rate in Doom. It took too long. The same people always seemed to be getting the arties, etc. After a while, players got discouraged and most people stop camping Doom. A number of months ago, that drop rate was notably increased and people flocked back in droves to Doom. Within a month, the value of artifacts had collapsed. Within another month, a majority of people had once again abandoned Doom and mostly didn't care for artifacts anymore as they were now too common. Same thing with the Planar Swords and Shields. The minute people had a dozen, they lost interest in the event.

Finding the right balance where something is attainable with reasonable time and effort is never easy. But you have to do it in a way to maximize the longevity of your design without making it frustrating to the players. If players can get mass amounts of a new item you introduced within 2 weeks of it becoming available, that item will immediately lose its appeal and people will no longer bother with it. And that translates as days, weeks and maybe even months of designing and testing down the drain.

Randomization really serves both the player and the designers. It creates rarity which causes demand, which translates as higher resale value, which makes it desirable and therefore something players will actively hunt (Doom Arties, Crimson Cintures...). For the designer, that means more bang per buck.

So unless an object is highly consumable with default sustained demand (PoF, Potions, Petals...) , you shouldn't expect to have them easily available. Sure it would maybe make your life easier, but you would be bored with it within weeks/days.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Cheerleaders

In my humble opinion, there are 5 kinds of people who posts on forums: the Lurkers (that's me!), the Chatters, the Trolls, the Groupies and the Cheerleaders.

The Lurkers read most threads but don't post all that often. The Chatters are babbling machines with multiple posts in almost in every thread. Most of their posts have little substance but when you trim the fat, they're actually a good barometer to measure the community's general state of mind. The Trolls will simply hate on everything and anything. They will dissect every word you've said and interpret what you haven't said in a way that will enable them to spill as much venom and bile as they possibly can. The only positive comment to come out of them will be to praise someone being even more vicious than they were. The Groupies (in the case of UO) are either sucking up to the Devs or sucking up to the "in crowd" in one of the other 4 groups and occasionally to someone in their own group. They're annoying little things that have no thoughts of their own. They'll just shout a Hallelujah! Amen! to anything their idol says even if it makes no sense.

Then you have the Cheerleaders...

These guys really get a bad rap and I think it's mostly because people tend to confuse them with the Groupies. To me, a Cheerleader is a more contained, healthy mix of Chatters and Groupies. The non-extremist opposite of the Trolls. The optimist that enjoys the fact that the bottle is still half full instead of obsessing about it eventually being empty. It's the person that doesn't sugarcoat things but who gives you that much needed pat on the back when you screwed up.

I mean seriously, when you screw up, you know it. You don't need anyone to tell you or rub your face in it. You KNOW! And when your blunder negatively impacts others, it sucks all the more. The Trolls will make sure to remind you every day until Kingdom come. Getting up when someone is kicking you while you're down can be quite the challenge.

But then the Cheerleader bitchslaps the Trolls and tells them to piss off. Grabs you by collar and pulls you back up on your feet. Looks you straight in the eyes and says "You messed up, you Noob! I know you had good intentions, but you didn't deliver. Curling up in a corner licking your wounds will do no good. So dust that dirt off your shirt, get back in formation and lets play ball! We still got a game to win. I believe in you so you better make me proud!"

And it is that voice that makes you want to try harder, do better and go the whole nine yards.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Culture Shock

When I was at the Ubisoft Campus, my teachers often talked about political correctness and moral issues with video games. Be it violence, sex, religion, racism, these are many of the factors that will affect the potential success/failure of our games and may limit its distribution in certain regions of the world or impact the rating from General to Mature. But just as important is the cultural background of your target audience and the language barrier.

A few weeks ago, when I was asked to write the Death of the Council event, I was pretty psyched at the opportunity to do an event that would stray from the invasion/monster bashing type and go with something a bit more interactive. But I quickly realized I really needed to rein myself in because some of my puzzles, though they seemed pretty obvious to me, turned out not to be that easy for others. And while I may be a big mystery fan, the event still needs to cater to the players that aren't.

But the biggest shock came when I was asked if the event text was ready to be sent to Japan for translation.

It suddenly hit me that the Rebus puzzles I put in the quest can prove to be a significant challenge for non-anglophones. French is my first language and though I consider myself fluent in English, it's still tricky to me at times. So I'm thinking about the Japanese players and wondering how they will fare with English word plays. In the end, the Japanese team had to change the rebus passwords to something more culturally accessible to their players.

It reminded me of when I used to work as a sound engineer in movie dubbing. We were recording the French version of the movie Sphere and there was this scene where the crew is going down to the space craft that landed in the ocean and they are breathing helium. They were making all kinds of silly comments with that funny helium voice and one of them said "follow the yellow brick road". I was surprised when the director asked me if I knew what that meant or referred to. And I said yeah, and explained how the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz had spoken those specific words with an helium kind of voice. To me, having been extensively exposed to the American culture, the Wizard of Oz is a classic known to all. But to the director and actors who were more versed in the French Canadian culture, this was not common knowledge. Unfortunately for them, they had to try to convey the same message (or at least intention) as the original movie, in the same lapse of time and make the actors' words fit with the lips movement on screen. Synch 4tw!

So this little reminder has given me a greater appreciation of the work done by the localization team. It will also likely impact the kind of puzzles I come up with in the future.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Are you kidding me?!

I used to be a real game junky. It didn't matter what the game was, if it was new and I didn't have it, I was buying it. Then I started playing UO and slowly but surely stopped buying other games. Granted, I play plenty of real time and turn-based strategy games, lots of those Shockwave puzzle and dash type games, the occasional random action adventure game (hell I did play Thief and Splinter Cell and GTA!) but I'm really picky with the games I enjoy playing.

My beloved brothers (all four of them!) started giving me an earful about that. What kind of game designer are you if you only play a select few games? There's nothing worse for a girl than to admit that your brother is right. Seriously, it sucks! But I can't help it that I dont get excited at the thought of playing yet another FPS, and the sports games don't do it for me either. Combat games can be cool though, especially when I whoop my brothers!

So I went shopping for a few console games and grabbed a few recent games that I normally wouldn't bother with. I have a thing for older games (who would have guessed right?). I had just finished replaying Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy and was itching for another game of the type, or something like Soulreaver when I spotted Full Metal Alchemist in the discount bin.

I get home and decide to start with the Alchemist (Devil May Cry can wait a little). Intro starts, a few cut-scenes here and there, here goes the tutorial. So I get on this train and have a few meanies to fight. Aight, bring it! They tell me to hit the circle so I can transform something (I think it's a box) into a spear. Then once I have the spear, I need to press the Triangle to equip it. Ok, so far so good. Then they tell me to perform this combo: Square + Circle + Square + Square. Hmmmm ok, I can handle that. I dont think I got it right a single time but who's keeping counts right? And the tutorial keeps going so I must not suck all that bad. Oh wait a minute, new combo. Now I have to hit Square + Square + Circle + Square + Square... At least I think that's what it was. Moving right along, here comes the next combo. This time it's Square + Square + Circle + X + Square.


I know I hit Square, not sure what I hit after but it wasn't the right combo, that I know for a fact. Right... I don't think I want to know what the next combo will be. I simply cannot picture myself button mashing those combos everytime I want to spank some baddy. So I put down the controller, turned off the TV, put the game back in its box and played some LOTRO.

The Devil will wait a little longer. Tomorrow, I'll see how I fare with Mass Effect...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Hook Up

People have a certain impression of what being a game designer is all about. The usual reaction when I tell people what I do for a living is "OMG, that is soooo cool!" and more often than not followed by a "you dont look like a gamer!" -_-

Most of the time, they will ask me how I ended up in that field, how did I "score" such a job. And I tell them I've been playing games for as long as I can remember, that for many years I wrote and ran events and fiddled for quite some time with graphic design programs, level editors, etc. which in turn allowed me to build a decent enough portfolio that got me accepted in the game design program at the Ubisoft Campus. From there I was given the choice to do an internship in a video game company or do the school project. I went with the intership and got hired there, until the day I moved to the US to work on UO.

Since my joining the UO team has been announced, it's funny the number of people that didn't use to give me the time of day who suddenly think I'm the sweetest person under the sun. But beyond that, it's incredible how passionate those same people are about game design and how they feel they would be the perfect fit. Invariably, they ask for some sort of a hook up. "Can you get me in? Can you push my resume if I send it to you?"

Now here is where I get offended. It's not the fact that they are trying to use me to get where they want to be because I understand that sometimes you've got to be ruthless to get places. If that's what you have to do to get your foot in the door, then better shameless than sorry. No, what gets to me is the fact that these people do not actually care about the profession, and often they dont even care about the game or have quit playing it.

It's all about the glamour. Being able to brag about having "the cool job". When you ask them what they think the job entitles, they have no clue. They give me ignorant remarks such as "adding stuff to the game?". When you ask them what their qualifications are, why they think they deserve an interview more than the next guy, most of them fumble. Have you ever been a DM? A what? A DM, you know a Dungeon Master? Errr no? Hmmm, ok, have you ever writen fiction? Short stories? Fantasy tales? Quests? Puzzles? Errr no, none of that either. Wow, ok... Have you ever tried to create your own map with the map editors that come with certain games? Hell no! That looks too complicated. Sheesh, lets see. Have you ever done anything game related at all? Graphic design? 3D modeling? Scripting? 3D animation? Been a QA tester anywhere? Something? Anything? Oooh you Beta Tested a couple games and you feel that should suffice to qualify you as a game designer? I see.

So hmmmm, assuming that by some sort of miracle I do manage to get you an interview, how are you going to convince the team that you can do the job? You don't know? Haven't gotten to that part yet?

This is not a game.

All the people on the team, be it the artists, the designers, the engineers, the testers and yes even CS (despite all the bad press they get) are really hard working, passionate and creative people. We don't play games all day. We WORK.

You want to work in games, earn your place. It doesn't have to be with a billion diplomas or years of experience. But it certainly has to be with undeniable passion and commitment. You cannot just wake up one day and expect to be handed over a game design job (or any other job) without some sort of credentials or verifiable talent or skill. You can't afford to go to school or there are none in your area teaching that field, then you build yourself a portfolio at home. Start playing with the map editors that come with your games. Start learning programs such as Maya and 3DS and Photoshop. Take advantage of the free online scripting programs. Start writing some fiction. Start setting up some player run events. Do the work for a bit to see how that shoe fits. Once you know what kind of work we're talking about, then you can ask for the hook ups.

Stop asking for free rides.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Insider Trading

As a game designer, working on a MMO is so insanely different than working on an offline game. It is mostly different because imho, to be a good MMO designer you must also play your game as you cannot fully understand the repercussions of your choices, the players, the community, their needs, struggles and aspiration unless you are right there alongside them. But if you do play the game, every decision you makes as a designer also affects your own gameplay, with the power to tip the balance in your favor or against yourself.

And with this power comes knowledge... knowledge which can also be your worse nightmare...

So here I am with my guild. We just finished a spawn and are rolling for scrolls at the GH. One of the guildmates tosses his 105 on the ground. A few others do the same with their 105 and 110. I look and say nothing. But I know in 2 days when the publish hits, those scrolls will actually be worth keeping for the extra turn in points. That first guildmate then proceeds to throw a map of Sosaria on the floor. I stare at him for a couple seconds and clear my throat saying "you might want to hang on to that, it could sell for a pretty penny". He goes, "Pfft, I have those coming out the wazoo, so does everyone else. Can't even give them away! Let the damn thing decay. Anyways, I've thrown most of the others out already".

I bite my tongue. In a couple of days they will be worth 10k pts. I should know, I coded that myself...

I try to think of a good way to get him to keep it, but frankly I can't without making him suspicious that I have insider info and maybe even blowing up my cover. I keep quiet...

For a minute there, I think of picking it up. I mean, I could use those 10k points myself. But then I feel like a sleeze and leave it there to decay. I don't know if anyone ever picked it up. But I remember thinking if I had been smart, I would have picked it up and given it to him when the publish hit. Oh well...

The next day, I'm in Luna. I need some explosion kegs but I'm too lazy to make my own. While shopping, I see tons of items for free or dirt cheap which I know will be worth a bundle of points. This guy is selling forged metal for 50 gp, they will be worth 250 pts tomorrow. Talk about a good deal! He's got at least 15 of them on his vendor. I buy 4 and as I'm about to buy the 5th one, it suddenly hits me: this is insider trading!

I try to rationalize this: 1) I'm not doing anything illegal within the rules of the game, a player has the right to buy off a vendor; 2) if I dont buy them, someone else will plus the seller is getting the price he asked for; 3) if I wait til tomorrow when everyone else knows, I will be at work when it hits the shards and by the time I get home, it will all be sold out...


Another player has no way of knowing about this. The vendor would (and will) raise the price if he knew about this. Tomorrow, other players too will be at work when the news is posted on the Herald and they too will miss out. I mumble for a while then walk away. I grab my keg and recall out.

The next day after work, I rush to Luna and straight to the forged metal vendor. He sold out... Big surprise... I check out the other vendors nearby. The few that still have forged metal are selling them anywhere between 5k and 10k a piece. What a rip... I cuss some more and recall out. I'm annoyed and slightly frustrated but at the same time, I somewhat feel good about myself for not abusing my priviledge.

Then I get in vent. My guildmate is cussing himself out for losing well over 100k points because of all the maps and virtue armor pieces he threw out... Our GM tries to cheer him up. I feel bad all over again...

I discussed my dilemma with my colleagues later on. The consensus seemed to be that I can't help but knowing what I know and I cannot share that knowledge with players, friends or not, even if they're screwing themselves over. And that at the end of the day, as long as my actions remain within game rules, what I do for myself is between me and my conscience.

I guess sometimes knowledge just sucks...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Wormy Tale

The following is a fiction inspired by real events. The case displayed isn't at all an actual request, just a made up example to demonstrate how things aren't always as simple as they seem.

* * * * * *

I wake up a fine morning, all excited to head out to work. The project I'm working on only needed a wee bit of tweaking then off it went to QA for testing. I don't really want to start on my next big task until QA passed the first one so, having some time to kill I glance at the forums and see players request yet again for something we promised them a while back and some other stuff they've just been wanting forever because it was omitted originally.

Feeling like a good Samaritan (and frankly to quell the outcries too), I grab one issue which seems like it would be a quick fix and start digging through the code...

If you're a fisher, come see me, I've just uncovered the bait stash of the century!

So the players were saying "Why can I write in the red and blue books but not in the burgundy ones? Can we please write in the burgundy books?" I figure, heck, I don't have a problem with that. It's just fluff, doesn't create imbalances and if it will make them happy, have at it!

I dig up the code controlling books thinking this is a 10-15 mins job. Then I start reading through it and feel a cold shiver running down my spine as it downs on me there are actually 5 different scripts controlling things. So I open each script look through them and realize how one is included in the other or inherits from that one and how this other function defines how the blue and red books react and dictates what interactions are allowed with all other books.

I take a deep breath...

"You can do this, girl! It seems more complicated than it really is! Just think how happy the players will be once Com posts it with the next patch notes!"

So I changes a few lines here and there. Go to next script, change a few more lines, add a couple more. WOOT! It compiles! Test it in game. Ugh, talk about miserable failure. Go back to the code, fiddle some more. Doesn't compile. DANGIT! Work on it some more ("OMG, has it really already been 2 hours I'm at this?!). Yay! It compiles! Test it. Hmmmm, this part works, but now I've just broken all other books. Wait a minute, worse than that!! I've broken All other items!!! I don't think double-clicking a trashbarrel should open a writable book gump.


A little bell goes off... I just received an email from QA. My previous task passed successfully! Go me! I have to write and setup a new event, which is fairly important... at least definitely more than being able to write in the burgundy book vs the red and blue ones. Plus in terms of bang per buck, there really is no comparison...

By now, the worms are crawling all over me and throwing a party on my desk, high fiving each other.

Decision time...

I take another look at the clock. I've already spent (wasted?) 4 1/2 hours on this dang thing. I know what the problem is, and if I fiddle with it enough, I know I can fix it, but it will be another hour or two atleast. If I stop now and revert what I've done so far, it will truly have been a waste of time. So I shake off the worms that were nesting on my arms and plow on. Another 1 1/2 hours later, touch down!

So 6 hours, lots of hair pulling, head banging on the wall and thousands of worm squashing later, players can finally write in burgundy books without it breaking previously working features of the game. Yay?

I'm a little annoyed it took so long but I'm happy it's done and smile at the thought some players will be pleased at that little bone thrown to them in the next publish.

* * * * * *
Two weeks later...

The patch notes of the latest publish have been posted. I'm curious to see players' reaction to all the stuff the team and I have worked on the past weeks/month. For the first couple of days, no one seemed to even notice that burgundy books are now writeable. I'm a little disappointed but shrug it off. Then someone finally seems to notice and starts a brand new bandwagon:

Player 1: "Wtf? Instead of working on balance issues, or major bug fixing, or new content, you Devs have nothing better to do than allow players to write in stinking burgundy books? You morons need to be fired! Get a (censored) sense of priorities!"

Player 2: "No kidding! This is (censored) pathetic! No wonder this game is going to hell!

Me: *sighs*

* * * * * *

Another two weeks goes by...

A colleague drops by my office to ask a few question regarding something I submitted to make sure QA is testing the right things. While talking, she mentions some request she saw on the forums and points out a couple which she felt might be worth taking a stab at, despite our pretty tight schedule. She didn't look at the script (that's not her job anyways) but unless she's wrong, she thinks it might be a quick fix.

I smile and reply "yeah, I read it as well this morning". She says "Ok, cool!! Just thought I'd throw it out there if you had time to kill". I nod at her, still smiling, while she saunters out of my office. The nodding turns into headshaking. I had a quick look at one of the issues and a conservative guess says a full day for that "quick fix". I let out a sigh that almost sounds like a painful moan. As I turn back to my monitor to continue on my current task, I spot worm trying to crawl its way back up the top of my desk. I flick it off. "Dont be so impatient you slime ball. It isn't time for you to party yet. You'll get another turn soon enough".

Saturday, July 5, 2008

What was I thinking?!

I've been debating for a while what the first topic of my blog should be, not for lack of ideas, but because there are so many things I do want to talk about. It took a news snippet on CNN to finally convince me to get off my lazy bum (well not really since I had to sit to do this), and finally set up my blog and start writing.

They were talking about AoC, WoW and Warhammer. Somehow, Ultima Online managed to get a nod. It was funny to read the UO forums and realize players had a reaction similar to mine when they viewed the footage: "Argh!! Of all the things from UO they could have shown, they presented the oldest, least exciting stuff!! Dangit! Oh well, at least it's some exposure". From there, another thought crossed my mind, a question I've been asked so many times before I joined the UO team and even more so now that I have: Why UO?

Why indeed!!

Lets see here...

Left a good job where I was working on a next gen game? Check
Passed on teaching game design to aspiring new designers? Check
Left family and friends just to be lonely in this foreign land? Check
Moved to an overpriced new city where I feel out of place? Check
Working on an old game with dated graphics and code? Check
Making less money because of the cost of living here? *mumbles*

So what the heck was I thinking?

I could go on a long explanation of why, but I will simply give an analogy.

Remember "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"... Jessica, the bombshell married to the clumsy, goofy rabbit. She could have any toon (and probably most men too!) that she could possibly want. But nuh uh, she wants the rabbit. Why? Because HE makes her laugh, not the rich dude, not the "omg you make me drool" sexy guy, just the plain silly little rabbit.

I've worked on next gen games. They're cool with their bad ass graphics. Didn't love it, didn't hate it. It was a cool job. And when that job would be over, I would start another job on another cool game, with kick ass graphics, that I didn't overly care about either.

So what was I thinking?

That working on a game you love beats working on one you don't.
That it's awesome to actually look forward to Monday mornings.
That UO doesn't make me laugh but it sure as hell makes me smile.