Lying Begins at Home

I’ve just finished reading Al Franken’s “Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them”. I read this book after considerable internal debate. I know I pretty much agree with Franken’s point of view, since I’ve read snippets of “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot”, and I really don’t see the point of reading books that preach to the choir. In fact, I’ve seriously considered reading either Anne Coulter or Bill O’Reilly on the basis that one should “know one’s enemy”, but both of them just make me feel angry.

In general, it seems to me that the media treat Al Franken as being the “liberal equivalent” of Anne Coulter (a woman who claims all liberals are traitors to the USA, while conveniently forgetting that Ronald Reagan broke his oath of office and then perjured himself about it — or was simply unfit for office — and all in the interests of Hondurans and Nicaraguans having the right to work for $0.10/h in sweatshops). Aside from technical differences — e.g. Al Franken is funny; Anne Coulter isn’t — I really don’t think they’re similar at all. The real difference is that Al Franken is actually quite “fair and balanced” — he is reasonably well-informed (with a definitely liberal viewpoint) and has a grip on reality — while Anne Coulter is either a bald-faced liar or completely nuts. Or both.

So where are the liberal liars? Or if liberal liars are less common or less popular, why is this so?

I have a theory!

The really nutty right wingers in the US seem mainly to be a peculiar form of Christian who thinks that Jesus Christ was in favor of tax cuts for the rich, upholding the establishment, and that anyone they consider socially undesirable should be locked up in overcrowded prisons. In other words, people whose core beliefs involve willful ignorance or self-deception. To paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith, part of the popularity of the Bible stems from its inconsistencies: it’s possible to read into the Bible almost any set of prejudices. For example, it’s easy to find excuses for sexism and racism and slavery and exploiting animals in the Bible (and many have). But there’s really no way to read tax breaks for the rich into the teachings of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say “That thing about a rich man getting into heaven and a camel getting through the eye of the needle, well I was exaggerating.” The only way to be a right wing Christian is to be (a) utterly ignorant of the Bible, or (b) self-deceptive. Or both.

It’s just a theory.

EverQuest and Game Design

Another long ramble on EverQuest and game design…

About a month ago my wife and I returned to EverQuest after a hiatus of about eighteen months (we’ve actually been free of the dread addiction for nearly two years if you discount coming back for about three evenings when Planes of Power was released).

EverQuest has (or until recently had) a very simple-minded content model. (Its new content model is merely simple-minded.) Almost everything seems to be one-off and hard-wired. For example, a weapon is essentially a name and a whole bunch of statistics. There’s no relationship between one shortsword, for example, and another. A “fine steel shortsword” may or may not be better than a “rusty shortsword” (it happens to be better, but there’s no actual constraint on it to be so). Similarly, in order to represent a vast pebbled plain with scattered trees they model a vast pebbled plain with scattered trees. They don’t, for example, re-use instances of trees or pebbles. For a game which leverages creative input so aggressively (see my earlier post on the subject) there’s very little “bang for the buck” here.

The latest addition to EverQuest, and the thing which attracted us back, is the Lost Dungeons of Norrath expansion, which promised to improve EverQuest by actually leveraging content in a way previously seen in rival games such as Anarchy Online and Diablo (I and II).

The model of adventuring in EverQuest used to be that some parts of the world looked a bit more like dungeons than others and that if you found some spot where a bunch of creatures “lived” (i.e. spawned repeatedly) from whose deaths you could benefit then you and a bunch of buddies would hang out there until you grew bored or exhausted, sometimes having to fight your way in and or out. The problem was that there are 5000 players on each server, EverQuest has very little creative input and leverages what creative input there is badly or not-at-all, and so there might be fifty desireable spots (add a new spot and some other spot ceases to be desireable…) to hang out in the entire world at any given time and split among 5000 players this makes for a lot of contention.

LDoN has “instanced dungeons”, i.e. when you and your buddies go to a dungeon, you visit an instance of a template dungeon and have it to yourselves. Almost all of these dungeons are highly desireable in that the loot, experience, and other rewards for hanging out in these dungeons is as good or better than the rewards for doing almost anything else in EverQuest. What’s more, these dungeons feature more variety than you tend to see in other dungeons, drop a random but reasonable assortment of goodies, and are actually fairly challenging to operate in. There’s really only a few things wrong with them:

(a) They’re incredibly repetitive;

(b) The missions you collect are simple-minded and alike;

(c) The more interesting missions are unreasonably arbitrary and hard;

(d) Missions have strict time-limits, even when it makes no sense;

(e) All missions require a pretty much balanced group to do, meaning that the problem of setting up a group (often the worst part of EQ) is if anything exacerbated.

One of the problems EverQuest has always had is that there’s no point in putting in clever content because 99% of players will read a spoiler site before attempting to deal with it.

It all comes down to leveraging player creativity (without just going PvP).

Talking like they did in days of yore: “Hey bitch, gimme buffs”

A friend of mine pointed me to Greg Costikyan’s blog:

Anyway I found this snippet on his blog:

Player 1: hey bitch gimme buffs

Player 2: Sirrah! Dost thou address a lady thus?

Player 2 is roleplaying; Player 1 is not.

This is a popular view among online “roleplayers”. However, I’d argue that Player1 is roleplaying AT LEAST to the degree that player 2 is.

Consider you are in a life and death situation and you need to cooperate with people who have widely different abilities which you may not understand. And you need to do it quickly.

Surely one would develop shorthand methods of communication, such as:

“Buff me”

Yet, we do not see this in Fantasy (and hardly even in SF) literature.

Similarly, you’d expect people to develop vocabulary for communicating about the intricacies of fighting strange beasts with magic, bows, and so forth:

“Mez the one on the left”

The fact is that people who play online RPGs competently and well have to play “out of character” in order to play competently. This implies that playing “in character” would be idiotic for people in the actual situation.

We would expect Aragorn to have a conversation with Gandalf such as:

“OK wizard. Tell me what you can do. How much range do your offensive spells have? How accurate are they? Can they be resisted? How much damage do they do? Can you fly? Can you deflect arrows? How many spells can you cast before you become exhausted? How quickly can you cast spells? Is there any defense against your spells? Do you have any spells to ward off Nazgul?”

Or at the very least we’d expect evidence of such conversations having taken place in the past…

“Could you hit it with a zinger like the one you killed the troll with back in Umbar?”

It may be out of character for a player to say “You should use your two handed sword coz it does three to eighteen against giants”, but it should not be out of character for a player to express something along those lines. Whether they talk like a pseudo medieval ponce or not is simply a matter of style. “Hey bitch gimme buffs” is hardly less “medieval” than “Sirrah! Dost thou address a lady thus?” except for the word “buffs”, for which no “in character” equivalent is available. Most of the vocabulary used by l33t players is pretty close to medieval in origin — assuming medieval is what you’re going for.

In general, EverQuest and games like it are far more immersive than paper games, for example, ever were. Players aren’t free to prattle on, talk “in character”, crack jokes, and quote Monty Python in the midst of combat. Thus the way they (we) communicate in the heat of battle is perforce more “in character” than the crap that passes for “in character” conversation in paper gaming. Indeed, the player who says “Gimme buffs bitch” is speaking teen l33t online English, but were this to be translated into the Elvish or middle English or whatever language the people in your fantasy setting are supposed to be speaking, it would be perfectly in character. To argue that one must speak idiotic pseudo medieval English to be truly roleplaying is simply silly.

If you want to look for examples of poor roleplaying online, it’s easy. Remarks like:

“That new Trek film reeked”

“Did you see Buffy the Vampire slayer last night? God am I sick of Tara.”

“Who’s going to the Las Vegas Fan Fare?”

are not role-playing.

Addictive Games

As anyone who is close to me knows, I play a game called “EverQuest”. EverQuest (or “EQ”) is an addictive role-playing game — sufficiently addictive that there is at least one “EverQuest Widows” group run by people whose partners, loved ones, and so forth have lost interest in them and switched to playing a rather silly, tedious game.

OK, so I call it a “silly, tedious game” and yet I play it? Well most games are silly, that’s the point. If you’ve ever seen a perfectly happy couple or group of friends arguing over a hand of Bridge you’ll know what I mean. But tedium in a voluntary past-time seems to me to be strange.

It seems to me that the creators of EverQuest have stumbled onto a “magic balance” of entertainment, challenge, tedium, and repetition that sucks people in. I’m not sure that if the game were, say, more entertaining, less challenging, less tedious, and less repetitious it would be more successful or less. I’d like to think it would be more successful but I’m not sure.

One of the critical factors of EverQuest’s success is the camaraderie of players. One of the reasons for this camaraderie is the brutally annoying, repetitious, opaque nature of the game. For example, all of the “cities” in the game are laid out insanely, have no sign-posts, and are split into “zones” which are tedious to cross (and one can stumble into accidentally). Consequently, most players’ first experience of the game is becoming helplessly lost in their home city with nothing but an almost sadistically worthless map and nothing to do. To deal with this one needs help. One tends to become friends with people one helps or is helped by. This is your entry into the EverQuest “online community”.

Next, everything in the game takes time. A lot of time. So, for example, you might want some rags to wear and a slightly better weapon. This will take you hours if not days. For example, to make one piece of leather armor (of which you may want ten pieces) you need a skin from an animal. Not every animal has a skin, apparently, so you’ll need to kill a LOT of animals. It’s dangerous killing the animals. This will take you a LOT of time and the assistance of your friends. So by the time you’re done you’ve probably played for tens of hours with a small circle of friends, set up consistent times to get online and hook up, and are starting to feel obligations to show up, return favours, and so forth. You’re hooked.

In order to create a game a typical player will play for 20-40h, most game designers put in a LOT of content. For the 20-40h you play their game there will probably be at least 10h of original, seen-for-the-first-time, content. To create this content, a group of writers and artists will have slaved away for six to eighteen months.

Now, to give your small circle of friends their 20-40h of entertainment, collecting pelts, making armor, recovering their corpses, and so forth, the content developers of EverQuest have had to do what appears to me to be very little work. On the down-side you’ve probably only seen 5 minutes (if time is a sensible measure) of original content.

Is it good that EQ is able to “entertain” so much for so little effort. Where is the “entertainment” coming from? Is it entertainment when it starts to seem boring, repetitive, and stupid?

It seems to me that most of EQ’s entertainment comes from the players, but that their contributions aren’t being leveraged at all, while the contributions of the designers of the game (5 minutes worth of original content entertains people for 20-40h) is leveraged hugely.

I think that the game that displaces EQ from the top of the online heap will be the first game that figures out how to better leverage the creativity of players without spiraling out of control.

I look forward to playing it.

Resolution Systems: Sweet Spots

Ideal resolution systems for RPGs ought to have a large “sweet spot”. What’s a sweet spot?

Well, if you use 3d6 (the way GURPS and Hero System do) then your “sweet spot” is the range of “difficulties” represented by having to roll 8 or less to 13 or less… The probability curve is very narrow, which means that in GURPS the range of human capability ends up being pretty narrowly defined (a character with an ability score of 9 is pathetic, while 15 is awesome). In Hero System almost anything you want to do is trivial or impossible.

The ideal system would be exponential in generating probable outcomes, something along the following lines: if score A opposes score B and they are equal, A has a 50% chance of prevailing. For every point by which A exceeds B, the chance of failure is reduced by 5%. For every point by which B exceeds A, the chance of success is reduced by 5%.

Well that’s RuneQuest opposed resolution, right? NO! RuneQuest success chance goes 50%, 55%, 60%, etc. I’m talking about 100 – 0.5 * 0.95^n where n is A-B. In other words, if A exceeds B by 100, going to 101 reduces the chance of failure by a further 5%.

Of course this is a pain in the neck for dice-based games, but it works jim dandy for computers 🙂