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Article of the Week: “Man Plays Civ II Game for 10 Years” or “A Vision For the Future”

June 13, 2012 1 comment

Reddit user Lycerius posted about his decade-long game of Civilization II, in the year 3991. Only three factions remain: the Americans, the Vikings and the Celtic, earth is a nuclear wasteland, humanity is malnourished and harrowed by the ravages of war, and perpetual conflict plagues the land along territorial boundaries.

This is simply one of the coolest stories I have come across in a long time, in part because I feel that with ever-dwindling resources, it may actually be a bleak window into the future. Nearly 200 thousand years from now, when we have drilled the last oil, and harvested the last mineral veins, and burnt the last coals, and wildlife, forests and related professions like ranging and agriculture are dead, what will we do then? Will we look to the stars for our salvation? Will we mine the Moon, or other planets and their satellites? Or, and this is highly unlikely, we realize early on that we are being colossal idiots with our finite resources, that we need to conserve and preserve, and be more prudent with our fuel efficiencies and resource management.

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Thought of the Day: “Bronte’s Hypocricy” or “Bronte’s Oddity”

August 19, 2011 4 comments

Psychochild’s post made me think about an interesting quirk in my video-gaming habits.

I am incredibly forgiving of the lack of immersion (or at least a clear attempt to create the illusion thereof) in single-player games.

But I am viciously opposed, and very disappointed when any immersion-breaking elements pop-up in MMOs.

I don’t know if that makes me a hypocrite, or just plain weird. But I do wonder if other MMO players, particularly those that are vocal about their experiences, feel the same way or completely disagree.

Categories: Bronte, Immersion

“The Artist Previously Known As Immersion” or “The MMO Kill Quest” – Part I

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

The Artist Previously Known as Immersion – MMO kill quest

I charge up my frostbolt, my fingers tingling as I manipulate the essence of winter itself, coalescing into an expanding ball of frozen shrapnel. With the flick of my wrist I lob the deadly projectile at the Blight Wolf, ripping through its hide in a cacophony of tearing flesh and splintering shards of deadly icicles. The beast howls in agony, convulses as the frostbolt proves to be more than a match for his raw strength and ferocity, and collapses on the forest floor. I take a deep breath, content in ridding the world of yet another demonic creation. I shamble over to the corpse of my adversary, weary from the battle and rummage through its remains.

The wolf is carrying a Knights’ Chest Plate, and a Fierce Dagger of Arcanum.

I am reminded once again that I am merely playing a video game, where Blight Wolves can carry 40-pound metal chest plates in mint condition on their person.

A number of my peers are discordant with the above scenario, for I am trying to find raptness and spatial logic in a game where you can fit, literally, several dozen elephant-sized mounts into your backpack, a game where lush tropical forests and frigid snow-capped mountains can co-exist mere yards apart, a world where the forces that threaten the extinction or assimilation of all sapient life forms are indefatigable, and continue to resurrect, no matter how many times you vanquish them.

However, none of that detracts from the fact that captivation, as tenuous and fragile a concept it is, does not need blatantly non-immersive elements to ruin a player’s experience. Wolves should not possess bulky chest plates in their sparse hides, every individual on the server should not have a ‘special’ key to an impenetrable fortress, and water should react to you walking in it, and not stay ripple-free (I am looking at you Dragon Age: Origins!)

Perhaps it would be prudent to delineate immersion first. Immersion is the capability of any entertainment medium to get the audience psychologically invested in the alternate world. Strictly in terms of video games, it implies building an emotional bridge between the player’s reality and the game world, engrossing the player sufficiently to build a tangible sense of belonging. If the player feels a sense of triumph for killing C’Thun, or is distraught by the seemingly inconsequential demise of Duncan, or screams out loud while rounding a corner in the UTC’s dreary hallways, the game has accomplished one of the most critical and elusive elements in contemporary gaming: an feeling of immersion and belonging in the game world.

This sense of immersion is tricky to achieve, extraordinarily difficult to sustain, and incredibly brittle, thanks to a plethora of factors that can dramatically diminish or even reverse immersion. One genre that is especially susceptible to shattering the immersion formula is Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games.

MMO’s, by design, cater to a countably infinite amount of players undertaking the same content in a cyclical manner. This is, in part, necessitated by the genre’s prerequisite for being a persistent world with a massive focus on multiplayer. But that is discussion for another day.

For now, let us observe a sample quest: A mayor of a town asks you to execute 10 bandits that have been operating in the foothills immediately surrounding the town. Let us scrutinize some of the ways in which the illusion of immersion is compromised in said quest.

  1. Why is it 10 bandits? And why are they always multiples of 5 or 10? The arbitrarily fixed nature of this number always gives the player pause, and makes him realize that the perfect cookie-cutter number is a product of a pattern-oriented quest-designer, not a randomized coincidence in the game world. This is especially exacerbated by the fact that each preceding and succeeding quest also asks you to accomplish tasks conveniently organized around the same number. Kill 10 demons. Skin 10 wolves. Retrieve 10 stones. And so on.
  2. You head to the foothills and stumble across the bandits. They aren’t hiding in the dense foliage or lying in silently and surreptitiously to pounce upon hapless, unsuspecting victims. They are simply walking around, tracing random paths across the cluttered forest floor, aimless, purposeless, insipid. They don’t converse with each other, or even attack the throngs of players and NPC’s on the main road a mere 10 yards away. In short, they are literally there to be slaughtered, so you can complete the quest. As soon as that realization sets in, it ceases to be an immersive experience and instantaneously morphs into a chore that you are required to trudge through to advance to the next indistinguishable, uninventive task.
  3. As you go about mindlessly hacking away at the first bandit, none of the other bandits come to his aid in the slightest. They continue to meander, as if in a dreamless sleep, completely oblivious to their comrade being massacred by your over-powered, over-equipped avatar. They move nay a muscle, as you finish off the first foe, relieve his body of any worldly possessions and move on. The only time any other member of this allegedly fearsome group of bandits reacts to your presence is when you get within his numerically-defined radius, or if you start attacking him. Once again, you are reminded that this is a game world, where these ‘individuals’ are lines of computer code that behave and react as fodder for the completion of your ultimately inconsequential mission.
  4. As you decimate a bloody path through the bandits, and their population begins to thin, you suddenly notice a new bandit appear, literally out of thin air, and begin to ramble in the same randomized pattern. For every bandit you dispatch, another one magically appears out of nowhere and takes his place. You realize that your quest is ultimately pointless because you aren’t making any difference in the bandit population.
  5. Ten bandits are dead. You have accomplished the mission. Your sense this being a futile endeavor is further reinforced as you see no quantifiable change in the bandit population. The tangible effect of you spending the last 30 minutes of your life trying to save the town from said bandits is exactly nothing, for no discernable change can be observed.
  6. You head back to town, and hand in the quest. The mayor lauds your efforts, though he has no way of knowing if you actually accomplished your goal. You could have taken a leisurely stroll around town and reported back to the mayor, claiming to have decapitated and disemboweled 10 bandits. And none would have been the wiser.
  7. Finally, as soon as you complete the quest, the mayor turns to another player and offers the same quest with the same rewards. And then another player, and then another player. You are reminded for the umpteenth time that your actions are of absolutely no consequence in the world and nothing you do will ever amount to anything. So thank you developers, for another shamelessly unsatisfying evening of pedestrian content and trite questing.

The bottom-line is that immersion is a very frangible concept that takes an unprecedented amount of change in the way developers imagine game worlds, and meticulous attention to detail as they attempt to build a sense of emotional attachment to the virtual environment. This continued practice of satiating the inherent need to have large numbers of players go through precisely the same content results in a self-perpetuating snowball effect, recursively building upon an already broken strategy. Unless developers are willing to drastically overhaul the conventional methodologies deemed critical to building an MMO, and challenge the norms that define parameters for player inaction with said world, it will be increasingly impossible to build any lasting sense of immersion in MMO’s for years to come.

Categories: Immersion, Monotony, Realism

“What MMOs Can Learn From Borderlands” or “Twice the Hogger”

July 12, 2010 3 comments

Most modern MMOs like to define themselves as virtual worlds. What this implies is that even if the player logged off, the world would continue to exist. Bears would roam the forests, wolves would chase down and kill rabbits, Frenzyheart would fight on against the Oracles, the Purple Gang would patrol the West Side Heights, and so on and so forth. This creates a sense of immersion, a sense of belonging in a living, breathing world teeming with its own life.

hogger

The immersion factor is however shattered when you kill a boar, and another one pops up. It does not dig out of the surrounding mud, or come out of a farm enclosure of some kind. It simply… materializes out of thin air. In no other genre of gaming, be it FPS, RTS or even RPG, do your enemies pop out of thin air and re-populate the area minutes after you cleared the menace. The person who gave you the task of clearing out said enemies is still in the same peril, asking adventurer after adventurer to fix the situation for him.

It’s a pity to see Borderlands, which is not an MMO, come up with a viable and intelligent solution to the persistent respawn problem, without succumbing to the same old lazy formula. Last year I started “The Borderlands Chronicles”, a series of posts that recounts my adventures as Bronte the Hunter in Borderlands, providing narrative, critique and commendations along the way. You can find Part I here.

b1-7

The skags spawn out of that cave on the right, NOT thin air.

The later section of this inaugural post covers my fight with some skags, the game’s version of demonic dog-like starter creatures. They too respawn over time. The difference is that they charge out of small caves built into the game world. You cannot enter these caves yourself, they are a little too small. But the overall effect undeniably feeds immersion.

You spot a skag, you snipe it from 50 feet out. Immediately two more skags come snarling, charging out of the adjacent caves. And even if you kill every skag in the area, the respawn process will involve more skags eventually walking out of the caves, instead of magically appearing out of thin air.

The system makes sense. It is intuitive, it allows for the beasts to be persistent in the world without breaking the tenuous thread it has with the implied realism. Why can’t we have that in WoW? Or for that matter, any other MMO that uses the same respawn system? Why must we clear boar after boar in McLure Vineyards, only to have them appear by sheer force of will, out of thin air? Why must we wipe out all the worgens plaguing the town of Darkshire in Duskwood, only to watch them completely bypass the laws of nature and reproduction and re-populate their recently ravaged camp with judicious speed?

More importantly: anyone got a better idea?

“Why We Blog” or “A Love Letter to A Name”

July 2, 2010 2 comments

My post the other day on what WoW can learn from RDR seemed to illicit an interesting spectrum of comments. The responses ranged from complete agreement to thinly veiled resentment. Although I find it odd that the responses were so varied in scope and context, I was pleased to see that the people who wrote them were not only civil, but that they had very carefully and lucidly articulated their arguments. There was an actual discussion on the issue, a clash of ideas, a symphony of thoughts. Kiryn’s response was particularly interesting and then along came “A Name” with the following:

“This is the same gimmick as the Spiderman games. You wander around, someone yells for your help, you go save them, or not. Basically the reason more people don’t do this is because after you’ve saved the wife from hanging once, for no reward to speak of, you just don’t care anymore. Fact of the matter is, half the time these random quests get you accidentally killed while you’re on the way to do something far more important, like chasing live bounties or pursuing getaway bandits.”

Then you have choice, or more importantly the illusion of choice. One could argue that MMOs are filled to the brim with choices, you could level in any direction you wanted, in any particular order, siding with any of the many factions. If you are on a quest, that quest dictates where you must go and what you must do. But you are at least afforded the option of choosing which quest you finish, and which one save for later. In the same vein, if you are pursuing bandits or live bounties, and you come across a random quest, you have a choice. You can weigh the options and decide for yourself which mission you wish to attempt. You may think the former is far more important, I would respectfully disagree. I think helping the poor bastard and his hanging spouse is more important to me, and I would change course to engage in the random mission instead.

“Basically its just crap. Your whole basis for this writeup is years out of date, played out, and entirely useless unless you find a game developer willing to put out random CHAINS, which then affect the WHOLE GAME, and cause something to be SUBSTANTIALLY DIFFERENT once completed. Furthermore, they should never show up again. If I save some dude’s wife from hanging, I never want to see that quest again.”

You feel that the only way random quests will work is if they are done in chains. Again, I respectfully disagree. You feel that things should be substantially different when you complete the quest, and again, I disagree. Consider WoW. In the thousands of quests you are likely to have completed thus far, how many have made a substantial difference to anything? In Northshire, despite millions of human rogues, mages and warriors fireballing and hacking their way through the near-hapless diseased wolves, the wolves still remain. In Loch Modan, despite the fact that you saved the dam from the Dark Iron Dwarves and their Seaforium charges, they are still an ever-present danger. In Blackrock Mountain, you vanquished Blackwing and his seven minions, but the very next Tuesday (and every Tuesday since), he magically reappears, and threatens the world again.

You claim that once you save the husband and the wife, you never want to see them again. What of the daily quests in WoW? How many have you completed? Which ones have you done regularly for reputation gains or items gained through higher reputation? That doesn’t annoy you a lot worse than a random quest in which you have to save a family from marauding bandits? What about the Kill Ten Rats cookie-cutter quest mechanic. Shouldn’t you, by definition, be sick of MMOs because regardless how how creative they manage to make the monster, at the end of the day, killing precisely 10 of them is what will do the trick. Except it won’t, because somehow it never does.

The point is that you cannot claim my argument to be at fault or being “just crap”, because the current MMO design does not facilitate substantially changing world events through player (inter)action. A random quest chain does not have to bring about game-altering changes for it to be effective. I think you and I are suggesting the same thing but in separate capacities. There needs to be impact in MMOs, some form of a tangible reminder that what we did mattered, and wasn’t just a mechanism for experience gain so we could move on to the next (non)crisis. And in that I agree, if I rescue that husband and wife, I don’t want to come across them again. In fact, it would be nice if the next time I visited a major city, I find them selling fruit on the streets, grateful to me because without me they wouldn’t be alive or have each other. That small gesture right there would be enough of an impact for me, it doesn’t need to be substantially game-changing.

“Also you compare RDR, which is basically a single player game with no substantial multiplayer or MMO content and only the re-playability you can come up with yourself, to WOW, which currently entertains 11 million people at the same time, changes every 2-3 months, constantly re-balances and reinvents itself. Why do the quest givers stand in the same place giving the same quest? Cause you can only do it once, but the game is shared with the other 10.999 million people still, several thousand of which may be on your server at any one time. There are around 4-5000 quest in WoW. If even half of them were randomly encountered (Which some are actually, in the form of drops from monsters you just happened to kill) you would spend your whole life just LOOKING for them.”

First, the topic of the post was not: “Why WoW needs to be more like Read Dead Redemption”, the topic was “What WoW can learn from Read Dead Redemption”; it is like when I suggested that WoW adopt the spawn mechanisms from Borderlands, because they made more sense in an MMO context than mobs appearing out of thin air.

Second, I understand why quest givers stand in one place and why player experience should be generally similar; but that does not mean there cannot be any randomness involved. By all means stick to what you know best, hell stick to what we as players know best. But at least give us the option of randomly coming across a flaming wagon under attack with kobolds and their goddamn candles!

Finally, You stated there are about 5,000 quests and WoW, and then made an argument around the premise that “if half of them were randomly generated…” This is where I disagree, I think that would be a nonsensical number of randomly generated quests. Consider Northrend. Each zone has roughly 80-100 quests. Even if 10% of them were random, it would give the game a flavor it currently lacks, and it would still allow players enough content to level through even if they never came across (or completely ignored) every random encounter. My point wasn’t that random quests should be forced on the player population. My point was that there should be a choice for doing them, if you so please.

“Live Action Role-Playing” or “Experiential Video Game Theme Park and Resort”

May 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Via Massively, Game Nation wants to explore a novel concept in MMO gaming: a real-life, customizable game-world ripe with possibility and only limited by your imagination. At least that is what the marketing lingo claims.

“Game Nation™ is the world’s first Experiential Video Game Theme Park and Resort. Visitors will become players as their dreams and fantasies come to life in adventures yet to be told. You will become anything you like and live out the character you create. But this is no game. It’s real!”

Aside from a threadbare website and glimpses of purported grandeur, there is damn near no other information available on the precise details of such an ambitious project. All we know is that over the next 12 months, the company will select the ideal location for said experiment, and obviously we will be updated accordingly via the website and the Twitter account.

While the above seems like a incredibly bloated and preposterously all-encompassing statement, I wonder if there is any truth to the matter. LARPing, or Live-Action Role-Playing has evolved significantly over the years, and we have seen countless examples that go from absolutely, abysmally (happy Milamber?) absurd to incredibly immersive and impressive.

An example of the former category (ridiculousness and context debatable) is as follows:

The later category includes events like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. larping. You can find some images from this event here, and I a posting one below as well.

It is an interesting concept for sure, and it certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt considering its embryonic stage. It will be interesting to see how, in a setting such as this, the developers will deal with the ever-present issue of the illusion of choice. Will ‘players’ (participants?) be given meaningful choices? How will they safeguard against trolling, or the potential damage too much free will can cause in such an ambitious live role-playing arena?

Beyond these concerns, I am also curious to see how successful said experiment will be. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. LARP event above was attended by hundreds of individuals, but that was an isolated incident. How will the developers garner enough attention to ensure the potential player base leaves the comfort of their homes, the Double Big Mac with cheese with large fries with a diet coke, and trek out to wherever they set up and participate in the events. And that too for a (likely) a price.

I’ll keep a close eye on this intriguing new concept, and update here if anything new rears its head.

Categories: Immersion, LARPing, Opinion, Realism

“Six Days of Controversy” or “Intolerable Hypocricy”

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Two days ago an anonymous source claimed that Six Days in Fallujah was finished and vowed to get it published.

That’s the news. Now let’s analyze it.

Six Days in Fallujah Controversy

Six Days in Fallujah epitomizes hypocritical doubles standards applied to video games. Developed by Atomic Games, Six Days is described as a survival horror game. It focuses on the second battle of Fallujah during Operation Iraqi Freedom, covering the lives of a squad of U.S. Marines for, brace yourself for this may be shocking, six days.

Halfway through development, with Konami on board as a publisher, the game was engulfed in a blinding haze of controversy regarding its content and appropriateness. Concerns were raised about the focus on real world issues that were a little too recent.

Why is SDiF Different From Any Other Shooter?

The game was developed by Atomic Games upon the request of a battalion of marines that returned from Fallujah. The game features authentically constructed locations, situations and battles, complete with the real life names and likenesses of the marines. Atomic Games conducted over 70 interviews with marines, other military officials, war historians, Iraqi civilians and even some insurgents to create one of the most historically and psychologically accurate military shooters ever built.

In addition, the game was labeled as ‘survival horror’, but not in the same vein as traditional survival horror games, such as Dead Space, Silent Hill or Resident Evil. The horror in Six Days in Fallujah comes from the incessant barrage of unpredictable life and death situations. The psychological traumas of war, while often portrayed in movies and and regularly permeating our media and collective conscious, is still something we can’t quite wrap our head around because most of us have never been in the same situation. But I am digressing now.

All said, the game must have captured some of the visceral tension and the unforgiving nature of the field of battle, because in April of last year, Konami dropped the title. Atomic Games was then thought to be near bankruptcy, with reports of mass lay-offs, and a skeleton crew managing the title. Two days ago, however, an anonymous source, my bet would be Peter Tamte, claimed that the title was finished and vowed to get it published.

Why the Double Standard?

That pisses me off. Konami dropped the title because it was mired in controversy and chose to tackle subject matter because it was ‘too soon’?

The World Trade Center towers fell on September 11, 2001. In April 2006, Paul Greengrass released United 93, less than five years after the plane’s fatal final flight. Similarly in August 2006, again less than five years after the incident, Oliver Stone released World Trade Center. Operation Phantom Fury (which the game is based on) was conducted in November 2004. It is March 2010, over six years later. But this is waaaaaaay too soon.

Give me a break!

Why is it that for some strange reason, video games always bear the brunt of the  punishment for engaging controversial content, whereas film and television simply hide behind a thin veil of ‘artistic expression’ and ‘portraying reality’. Do the words ‘video game’ really have such a negative connotation that no subject matter ever covered can be taken seriously, and if it is, it is only under the pretense of ‘inciting violence in youth’.

Video games have all the capability and ability to not only capture the essence and realism of a situation, they can also convey the intensity, emotional trauma and psychological complexity of real life, a facet that the film and television medium has dominated for so long. Stating or believing otherwise is just stubborn hypocrisy, for the same standards don’t seem to apply.

Oh and just for the record, in case you think I am an Atomic Games fanboy, I think Six Days of Fallujah will be a mediocre game at best. But I will defend to the death Atomic Games‘ right to publish it.