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.