Eve Online

Eve’s been around for a while, but I’ve been doing something else (i.e. playing World of Warcraft) so I didn’t try it. I generally prefer “science fiction” flavored stuff over fantasy, but MMOs are in large part about sunken cost.

Eve Online is essentially multiplayer Elite (or, if you’re a Mac gamer, multiplayer Escape Velocity in 3D; if you’re under 30 it’s multiplayer Privateer), only with the fun part (dogfighting) removed and the other fun part (trading in slaves and illegal drugs) replaced with something resembling E-Trade. Actually, E-Trade is a lot more fun.

I won’t bother criticizing the back story (apparently some people are just genetically predisposed to liberal democracy) because EverQuest and World of Warcraft prove that a back story can be an uninspired kitchen sink of stolen cliches and the game can still be great. I will say that Eve Online’s back story is essentially fantasy (i.e. the past was great the present sucks) and not science fiction, and that it can only aspire to be an uninspired kitchen sink of stolen cliches.

When you start the game (about 1h after installing it and waiting for it to patch) you have two sets of choices to make: one is your character’s appearance, which can be customized by a pretty amazing set of options (e.g. you can narrow your gaze by increments, give your character a smile, snarl, or twisted leer), and some other stuff (e.g. professional background) that is — I’m told* — very important but for which you have no useful information. So basically, think of this as 200 questions of no consequence determining what your character’s icon will look like (all the 3d character stuff just generates an icon) mixed in with three questions of deep import written in a foreign language (“would you like your character to be a Mixlplk, a Jewwawwa, or a Flnobstrog?”). Good start.

Next, here’s a game with an in game tutorial that takes over three hours to complete. (It took me two sessions.) The user interface (including the interface for the tutorial) is terrible. As a simple example, the tutorial knows when you have completed a step but requires you to click “Done”. If you click “Done” too soon, it tells you to complete the step. D’uh. I haven’t seen this level of bad UI design since I stopped having to use Lotus Notes.

Oh and don’t get me started on left- vs. right- clicking. The tutorial constantly tells you that “when in doubt, right-click”. Guess what? Many crucial game objects only respond to “left-click and hold”. In general, the game uses three “noun verb” conventions: right-click and select from text context menu, left-click and hold (graphical content menu), left-click and click on some palette somewhere. These are all different and mutually incompatible, e.g. you can’t “open” a cargo pod by right-clicking it. You can’t “activate” a stargate by right-clicking it. Or maybe you can. Who knows?

The developers call the gameplay “open-ended”. No it’s not, it’s non-existent. Everything is automatic enough to be no fun, but manual enough to be tedious. E.g. to fly from point A to point B you need to click on point B (almost anywhere, e.g. even on a mission briefing) and then (in one of maybe twenty different ways) select “Set Destination” and engage autopilot. Your ship will then slowly head over there … unless it’s docked. You can’t start on a flight while docked. You need to click Undock and wait 30s first. (This is apparently too much for the Autopilots of the 53rd century.) Once your ship arrives, guess what? Your autopilot disengages somewhere inside the star system (not inside docking range), you need to click on your actual destination again and select “Dock”, and wait a few minutes. Congratulations, you’re Han Solo.

Combat is similarly thrilling. You see a red dot somewhere (e.g. in your “things in the vicinity list” or somewhere in space) and you click on it, then select “approach” or “orbit” and then click on a weapon. Then you wait and you either live or die. You can turn some stuff on and off if you get bored (e.g. your “shield booster” might slow your demise). Eventually, if you win, some cargo pods will appear. Click on one. Click Approach. Wait. Click on it again. Click Open. Open your ship (that’s manual of course). Drag loot into cargo hold. Woohoo, now that’s some flying!

Other folks have remarked on the thrills of space mining. Yes, you click on a rock, click approach, click your mining laser, open your cargo hold, and wait. Maybe your cargo hold fills, maybe you have to click another rock. Will you survive the excitement?

Oh and just so there’s no doubt about how not open-ended the gameplay is. You can play “we got fired from E-trade because we can’t design a GUI to save our lives” in space stations, and you can fly around in quasi-control of your ship in space. That’s the game play. You can’t walk to a cafe. You can’t land on a planet. You can’t board an enemy ship. You can’t get on someone else’s ship and man the guns while they fly. You can’t negotiate loan refinancing with a blaster in the cantina. Heck you can’t even book passage on someone else’s ship to go visit another star system.

You can gain skills while away from the game. In fact, you pretty much can play the game while AFK. Most of the things you do are so time-consuming, you probably want to buy a GameBoy DS or something to pass the time. My newbie character has 13,000 skill points (xp) and 120,000 ISK (gold pieces). So I want a new spaceship. I find one (selling several star systems away) for 30,000 ISK. Now, can I get this sucker … delivered? Nope, that wouldn’t be tedious enough. Instead I need to fly over there (see two paragraphs back for the roller-coaster thrill ride that will ensue) and pick up my ship. (I can assemble and disassemble it with a single mouse click… new interstellar frigate 24,000 ISK. Fedex… priceless.) When I get there I discover I need a new skill to pilot it. No problem it’s 4000 skill points. So I select the skill and click “Learn” or something and … well I logged off when I had absorbed 500 of the 4000 skill points. And then I uninstalled won the game!

Again, let me put this in context. If my level 10 warrior in WoW buys a new axe he may not be able to use it, but he can get it delivered. If the seller is in another town he might travel there, avoiding monsters (or killing them) on the way. He can go to the trainer and learn the basics of how to use the axe. If he doesn’t have enough money, he can go kill bandits and get some money. So he can use the axe but he sucks at it? He can go “practice” with it on rabbits, cows, and giant spiders. All of this is to some extent “fun”. Under no definition of “fun” will you find “wait six hours for a number to increment”. The “benefit” of being able to learn “Gollante Frigate 2” skill while not logged on pales beside the benefit of being able to win Eve Online while not having it installed on your hard disk.

It’s not surprising they can run 30,000 players on one server. This game is about as fast-paced and compelling as tic-tac-toe by email with a REALLY bad user interface.

Much has been said of the “gorgeous” graphics. Sure, like most MMOs, you can take some nice screenshots. I think the 3d artists have done a great job of creating 3d assets, and one day the programmers may get around to using them properly. E.g. when your ship accelerates, beams of light appear kind of where your engines are, maybe in front, maybe behind. Looks … stupid. Space is full of really neat mist. Stargates look like giant guns that “fire” stuff to distant star systems, but the problem is your ship doesn’t actually go into them. You go somewhere “near” them and then the stargate “fires” and your ship sits there for a bit and then fades away. The docking sequence is similarly brilliant … e.g. you dock with one of the pretty spiffy looking space stations by flying up to it (or through it — there’s no collision detection worth a damn) and then … the game seizes up and you reappear in space dock.

All of this for $20/month. Golly.

* You can win the game without knowing what the professions are. Just select “Unintall Eve Online” from Eve’s main menu… no wait that’s the Windows XP Start Menu. I get confused sometimes, but I should have realised it wasn’t Eve’s menu because it appeared instantly.

Physics & Game Design

There’s an interesting and thought-provoking article on Escapist about Havok and game physics in general which reminded me of some of the thoughts I’ve had since I started playing with the Unity game development tool.

Unity’s fundamental premise is to wrap pretty much all of the state-of-the-art game technology out there in a graphical, high-level development tool, kind of a 3D equivalent of HyperCard (the HyperCard analogy is more apt than, say, Visual Basic, since the runtime and development environments are essentially the same thing; which is what made HyperCard such an amazing thing).

One of the great features of Unity is its excellent support for physics. Because you can implement physics with scarcely any code, it’s highly recommended that you do so. Recently, I was trying to implement a sailing ship, and I wanted the player’s steering control to move the ship’s rudder. For reasons that aren’t important, I was having problems, and someone helpfully suggested that I use physics… Aaargh!

Now, a lot of discussion of physics tends to assume you know what physics is. I don’t mean formulae or theory, but what physics, as a component of a game, is. In essence, physics is all the behavior you expect from objects as a consequence of their size, shape, and mass. Perhaps the most common example of game physics, present in every game since Pong, is collision detection. In the “real world” two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time, and to simulate this behavior in the game world you need to do collision detection (as a first step) and then do something about collisions when they are detected (e.g. make the ball bounce rather than go through a wall or paddle). In pong when the ball collides with a paddle or wall, it bounces more-or-less the way you would expect perfectly elastic bodies to bounce.

Interestingly, however, what makes pong at all interesting as a game is the fact that the ball does not bounce the way your Physics textbook says it should. Where your ball hits your paddle modifies the ball’s trajectory, allowing you to steer your shot in interesting ways. And herein lies the rub for all the idiots who think adding physics to games will somehow make the world a better place: what makes games good is good gameplay. To some extent physics can make explosions (say) prettier or more impressive, but a nicer deck of cards doesn’t make Euchre more fun than Bridge.

In other words, physics can embellish the stuff that makes no difference to the game’s outcome, but fine control of object behavior is exactly what makes gameplay good. Indeed many of the things that are being credited to “physics”, such as “gravity guns” or “portals” or whatever, are actually hand-crafted, finely tuned violations of physics which mainly use the physics engine to add a bit of convincing jiggle and bounce.

Here’s another way to look at it: you design a game that involves going through a door in the side of a wall. If physics lets you blow a hole through the wall, then opening the door ceases to be a plot point in the game. If you can collapse the wall, blocking the door, then you can create an unwinnable condition that may not be discovered during testing. Either way, putting physics into something that actually matters in the game isn’t helping.

Death to the Games Industry

Greg Costikyan is a very interesting guy.

I accidentally came across some articles of his here:

Part 1
Part 2

It’s quite a read — and the second article is compelling. I don’t think this is so much about remaking the games industry (which is basically impossible) so much as what a viable indie games industry should — and I think already does — look like (e.g. shrapnelgames.com).

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.