Sony Online Entertainment to Act as Honest Broker for Item Sales

Sony has decided to facilitate the sale of in-game items for real-world cash in EverQuest II. While lamentable, this is hardly surprising. They argue that 40% of their support issues have to do with such trade or activates related thereto.

While this is an interesting development, and there will be much discussion of it on the level of “this is a bad thing”, “this is a good thing”, or “this is regrettable but necessary”, as usual the root causes have to do with long held and unquestioned assumptions about what a “role-playing game” is, or aspires to be.

Leaving aside the fact that the only reason, in theory, you play an online game like EverQuest II is to feel some kind of empathy for your character, and that the concept of buying cool stuff using real world cash to make your character more uber so violates this concept that it makes you wonder why you’d play the game at all (or maybe for some people it’s more like accessorising Barbie). E.g. why not simply pay Sony to make a monster you can’t kill drop dead? Why not simply pay to make your character level 75 (or whatever the mostest highest level is)? This is entertainment, right? Would you watch a TV show where the hero escapes from scrapes by bribing the scriptwriter? Well, maybe if it were a comedy about the TV industry…

The root assumptions underlying all of this baloney are simple and can be explored by showing exactly how well the games industry (paper and computer) has utterly failed to provide the experience it has always aimed for in RPGs.

The quintessential source book for RPGs is The Lord of the Rings. The entire milieu of the D&D world and that of its imitators springs from The Lord of the Rings. This applies to assumptions about the way the world looks, people talks, who lives in it, and what they’re up to.

In Lord of the Rings, someone who is basically a country gentleman, of no special skill, and his gardener, a stout fellow, together with two well-meaning idiots (all halflings), go on an adventure which involves a long arduous journey. Along the way they pick up a professional military scout of Royal Lineage, the world’s second-most-powerful wizard (soon to be first), and three professional soldiers (human, elf, and dwarf). They are engaged in a number of battles, in which each contributes in some positive way making the best of both their training and natural abilities.

At the end, the gentleman is all but dead from his exertions, but all four of the halflings have gained confidence, and two have grown physically larger and stronger as a result of magical drafts. The world’s second most powerful wizard has become top wizard owing to the fall from grace of his boss; he may or may not have gotten more powerful. Aside from that, the characters have not much changed as a consequence of experience besides having new stories to tell, and (in the case of the military scout) having gotten married and gained high social position.

Given this inspiration, what did we get?

A game where no-one starts play with a character capable of doing anything much. If you want to play Aragorn, you have to start as a level 1 wannabe.

A game where the only thing anyone ever gets good at is killing stuff. It’s much too hard to make rules about herbalism, but we do have a LOT of different magic swords.

A game which can only represent one kind of hardship — being attacked by monsters. When was the last time anyone cared about going hungry or freezing to death in your RPG?

A game where the content of the game mainly comprises getting more powerful by accumulating experience, items, and money (the latter two by stealing from the dead).

Permadeath and MMORPGs

(The following originated in response to a posting on Lum the Mad’s brokentoys.org regarding permadeath as a way of improving online rpgs.)

Surprisingly enough, in the real world (where permadeath appears to have been implemented) people still (a) do interesting things, and (b) live quite a long time. In many paper RPGs permadeath is assumed, and people also (a) do interesting things, and (b) live quite a long time.

Bushido basically implemented the thing your wife suggested about 25 years ago via the concept of karma. Your character dies leaving a certain amount of “karma” — derived from your character’s level of advancement and manner of death (e.g. heroic death or honorable suicide to express a just grievance == huge karma). This lets you build a better character next time.

Actually I think permadeath is a good idea but only one side of the coin. The other side is the tacit model of character development (inherited from D&D but which most RPGs assume) which is “you start as a weeny, run on a treadmill in a desperate effort to make the character you want to play, and then if you’re lucky end up as a super powerful atrocity that you don’t want to play anymore, probably never having been the character you wanted to play in the first place.”

In particular, a typical protagonist from a good story is not incredibly powerful, merely adequately powerful, and usually has a strange smattering of abilities without being a “combat optimized” horror. This is because the character has to make sense as a person with a history (other than “everything he did was with a view to being the ultimate killing machine”).

So:

1) Permadeath would be good thing.
2) Start with the character you want to play (more-or-less).

Finally, there’s a question of implementing (1) without killing people all the time. After all, action adventures are often dangerous.

The way to do this is to deal with most potentially fatal situations in a non fatal way. E.g. instead of characters fighting (at full capability) until dead (another D&Dism), maybe make severe injury kind of debilitating. Then when someone gets hurt, they’re out of the fight, but only if their entire group is wiped out or their opponent would rather finish off an incapacitated enemy than defend him/her-self against a live one, will the character die. Similarly, characters could find themselves imprisoned rather than dead.

Another is to occasionally allow people to come back from the dead via plausible excuses (the way they do in long-running TV shows) but only if the right groundwork is laid. (E.g. getting someone brought back to life might involve a complex quest).

All of this involves throwing off the mental shackles created by D&D.

Redmond Simonsen Passes Away

I never met the man, but he is probably one of the single greatest influences on my life. Greg Costikyan worked with him for several years, and it’s worth reading his blog entries on the subject. There’s also a NY Times obituary.

Update: Greg’s blog is — I hope temporarily — out of order. Here’s a link to my page on the history of wargame design on my Project Weasel site. This page cover a lot of related ground.

One afternoon in 1979

Autumn 1979. I’m in high school in Armidale, a small town in Northern NSW. A friend has suggested I might like to stay after school and check out the wargames … club. (There’s no formal club, just a bunch of people who meet to play games after school, supervised by a teacher who shares the interest.)

My friend is no veteran of the group, he’s heard about it somewhere. (Our school is only 500 or so students, so the fact that this group has escaped our attention for so long is actually pretty amazing.) We go there and are given a rather strange game to play, it’s called Napoleon at Waterloo and it has a small board, which simply and clearly shows the layout of a famous battlefield subdivided into hexagons, on which we place pieces which, somewhat less intuitively, represent formations of cavalry, infantry, and artillery.

An hour later the game is over, and I’m hooked for life.

Unfortunately, for SPI the end was already near. Board wargaming had peaked, and already role-playing games and computer games were eating their market. Within a few years, SPI would be gone. Within 10 years the best “refugee” companies formed from SPI’s designers would be gone.

(Now, I wasn’t entirely new to this kind of game. I’d seen some people playing similar — much less well-designed — games when I was younger. I hadn’t had time to learn the rules, so I had gone home and tried to design a similar game, inferring what the rules must be like from the game layout. The most ambitious game I worked on was an all-encompassing game of interstellar war and colonisation — and in trying to complete it I encountered every problem which SPI turned out to have solved: e.g. what constitutes a complete, usable set of rules?)

The game was from SPI, and Redmond Simonsen was credited with the graphic design of every one of the 400+ games SPI produced in about a decade. SPI didn’t invent board wargaming any more than Apple invented the home computer. SPI invented the process for designing and developing board wargames in a manner that made them consistent (where consistency made sense). SPI credited game designers (Costikyan credits Simonsen with coining the term “game designer”), put play testers and blind testers in its credits, developed standards by which game rules were organized and printed, and developed a process for taking a game from idea through design to testing and publication.

SPI created the games industry. And Redmond Simonsen — along with James F. Dunnigan — created SPI.

Farewell Redmond. RIP.

Secunia, Techworld, Mac OS X, and various Reality Distortion Fields

Recently, a Danish (I am told) internet security firm named Secunia has gotten a lot of free publicity, largely by making the pronouncement that Mac OS X is no more secure than other operating systems, notably Windows XP and its variations, which it considers the most secure of all.

Apple has gotten quite a bit (not a huge amount) of bad press over this, all of it citing Secunia’s Press Release. The most vehement I have encountered is on Techworld.com: Apple Shames Itself Again Over Security.

Unlike some pro-Apple bigots I am not entirely immune to doubting the utter superiority of Mac OS X to all alternatives, so I decided to do a little research. Something, apparently, no-one at Techworld is required to do.

If you visit Secunia’s website, and I suggest you do, try looking at their archives of security alerts, under Apple: Mac OS X, and Microsoft: Windows XP Professional. I won’t link directly, since you should go find these things yourself to (a) prove how easy it is, and (b) demonstrate that I am not cherry-picking my results.

First of all, in their summary graphs and tables, Secunia reports fewer security alerts for Mac OS X (all versions including server) than one variant (Professional) of Windows XP. But, hold your horses, Windows XP Professional is reported as having no serious issues, none, zero percent (out of 67).

But, when you scroll down the page you discover several serious issues listed. Hmm, if there are several, how does this come out as 0%? So either Secunia are incompetent, or dishonest. Certainly, journalists can’t be bothered checking beyond press releases. Well, no surprise there.
What’s more, one of these serious issues has been unresolved for nine months!

And then, there’s the well-known gaping hole of ActiveX (an ActiveX control can do anything it likes to your machine). ActiveX issues are mentioned only once on Secunia’s XP Professional page and shown as having a single serious flaw which has been fixed. (It’s one of the 0%.) Well the fix is that the user has to magically know that this ActiveX control isn’t safe and click “No” while to get his/her daily work done he/she may have to magically know that other ActiveX controls ARE safe and click “Yes”. Whew. Glad that was “fixed”.

World of Warcraft. MMORPG* Suckage. And Other Stories

* Massive[ly] Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (i.e. games like EverQuest)

A while back I saw an interesting diatribe on brokentoys.org (Lum the Mad’s blog) about how it would be nice if there were a critical mass of gamers who wanted to play something other than mage / tank / healer games (pretty much every MMORPG out there, and any vaguely successful one, falls into this category) amd proposed some kind of amorphous global diplomacy thing which made no sense but had its heart in the right place.

I would actually settle for something far less ambitious — a mage / tank / healer game that didn’t suck.

(For those of you not accustomed to MMORPG jargon, a mage is someone who is fragile but does a lot of damage (usually from a distance); a tank is someone who can stand toe-to-toe with an enemy in a fight, not die, and be able to hold that enemy’s attention; a healer is someone who makes wounds go away… Every major MMORPG to date, including those featuring superheroes and “science fiction” settings, is essentially designed along these lines. If you think of these three archetypes as forming a triangular spectrum (like a color gamut) every character option more or less falls somewhere on the triangle).

WoW (World of Warcraft) is shiney and new and we haven’t started to comment on the suckage yet (aside from the obvious — lag, crashes, and downtime), but there’s still plenty of suckage to go around.

  1. As your level increases, content is doled out with a lot of hamburger’s helper, in the form of tedium. I.e. instead of “go kill 20 mobs, collect 15 items, and come back for a reward” it’s “go across the continent to fred, then go across to BFE, kill 200 mobs, collect 10 items, and then go to wilma (in BFE2) who sends you to barney (in BFE3) who gives you a not to take to betty (in BFE4) for your reward.”

    This isn’t clever. This isn’t fun (not the fifteenth time, anyway). This is just EQ with better graphics and dialog boxes instead of /hail.

  2. The reason for the hamburger’s helper is that if you gave people stuff at a decent rate, you’d run out of content. When you run out of content, people stop playing. When people stop playing, they eventually stop paying. Then you go broke.

Is there a solution to this dilemma?

I think there are several, and WoW intends to utilize one of them (by imitating DAoC) but not the others.

  • Make PvP a feature. Folks in my office still play Quake II because PvP never, in a sense, gets old. DAoC didn’t have an end game besides PvP, and WoW will probably be a solid implementation of ideas others have already demonstrated will work.

    But what about…

  • Making the world a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    E.g. if everyone is killing monsters of type X, maybe make them scarce. Have quests impact the world in non-trivial ways. Put a tiny bit of state in the world Not a lot, but a little bit. Just a tiny amount would make the world SO much more interesting. God forbid, one server might seem a little different from another.

  • Make quests a little bit dynamic. Not a lot, but a little bit.

    Imagine if all newbie quests weren’t identical. Suppose player A goes to NPC B and asks for a quest and then gets a “slaughter 10 pigs” quest. But player C comes up and gets a “collect 8 eggs” quest. OMG! This could even interact with the oh-so-slightly dynamic world. (When pigs get scarce, more hungry bears and wolves and bandits appear.)

  • Maybe design it as a multiplayer game.It’s amazing to think that after all this time and effort has gone into designing competing MMORPGs, that they’re still fundamentally single-player games.

    E.g. if you are assigned to go kill Fred Bloggs, so are fifty other people. Since there’s only one Fred Bloggs, he/she just “respawns” and can be killed over and over again. Why kill him? He just comes back? Why rescue the princess? She can just kill herself and respawn back safe in the castle? In any event, killing Fred Bloggs does not rid the world of him, so why bother?

    It’s about time someone actually designed one of these games so that this kind of idiocy didn’t exist. Random name generators aren’t that hard to write…