“Choking On it’s Own Tail”

I’ve only recently been made aware of “Saving Zelda,” an essay by Tevis Thompson, and the follow up graphic novel that resulted from that essay, called Second Quest, released this year on April 22nd.

Second Quest is a masterwork of graphic story telling and both Thompson and the artist David Hellman deserve all the kudos and respect they get for such an amazing story.  The book exposes the flaws of not just the stale and tepid design that dominates game design (and the Zelda series in particular), but skewers the game culture that reveres those designs above all else, in such an effective and efficient manner, it deserves an essay all on it’s own.

Today though I wanted to talk more about “Saving Zelda,” and since you don’t have to pay to read that (the book is entirely worth the 10 dollars I spent for it in e-form and easily worth the 20 dollar hardcover as well), the essay may be a little more reachable for everyone right now.

There are so many things that I agree with in Thompson’s essay, it’s hard not to just cheer-lead for it unapologetically.  From his breakdown of the cookie cutter design that the series has been trapped in since A Link to the Past, to the polished, balanced, sterile, narrative and design path that herds players along, willingly or not.  There are so many things that he nails on the head.  For example, characters:

“Zelda doesn’t even have central characters.  It has echoes.  Repetitions with variation.  Only one-off characters, like Midna, have a singularity that matters.  The rest are foregone conclusions.  At their best, they can offer nuance or temporary affect, but the very nature of Zelda’s iterative narrative makes it hard for anything to stick. Even the more vibrant versions of characters (Wind Waker’s Tetra, Skyward Sword’s Zelda) are hamstrung by the larger narrative’s conservatism.  Get your crown on, princess.  Go to sleep.”

A pointed and sharp criticism.  The essay is full of similar observations.

Sadly, I can’t unapologetically cheer for the essay because I do have a few disagreements with Mr.  Thompson.  Not enough to argue against his central thesis, but instead more to point to the differing interests of different gamers.  He lionizes the original Zelda as a paragon of game design and challenge.  Citing the many secrets the game held along with the general difficulty of the game as reasons to raise it up.  He points to the modern versions of the game as failures of player progression by forcing players to make use of the “key ring” of items they gather to progress through the closed off sections of the game and the cloistering narrative that pushes players ever onward in their hero’s journey.  For example:

“Zelda would be better if it had no story.  Or more precisely, no plot to structure the adventure.  The first Zeldas barely had any plot, and they were the better for it.  With plot, sequence matters too much.  The early Zeldas had situations, worlds and scenarios that framed the action, gaps to be filled in by the player, sequences to be broken.  Optimal paths and shortcuts weren’t a given; they had to be earned.  Items were the most prominent plot devices, and even they were not unduly strict about order.  You could be slow and steady or blast straight through with a little know-how.  The basic rules of the gameworld were what bound you, not some artificial necessity imposed for the sake of plot.  You could even play through the entire first Zelda up to Ganon without ever getting a sword.”

Perhaps it’s selective memory, or perhaps I’m misunderstanding his statements, but item-locked areas of Zelda games have been a staple of the series since that very first game.  Let’s not forget that in order to even get to the 4th dungeon in the game, you needed the raft from the 3rd.  And in that 4th dungeon, you got the ladder which let you get to the 5th dungeon, and so it went.  So while you didn’t need a sword for most of the game, you certainly needed a lot of lumber.

Perhaps Mr. Thompson was referring to the plot structures that are often wrapped up in the items that modern Zelda games force on you.  You’ll get no argument from me that the extraneous plot is often a detriment to the games.  I’ve railed against the poor plotting in the modern games, more than once.

I think that Mr. Thompson’s fondness for Demon’s Soul give his preferences away.   He’s seeking a return to games that let the players inhabit them, but refuse to hold their hands.  Where the difficulty is a feature of the game, and rewards exist to help push the player on through that difficulty.  I’m a fan of difficult games myself, and his fondness for the first sequel for Zelda, The Adventure of Link I found a near perfect match for in Shovel Knight, a game I talked endlessly about in 2014.  Where the difficulty in gameplay is the main challenge to progress in and of itself.

However…

I am no fan of wandering the land for hours/days/weeks desperately searching for the next place I need to go, or the next spot I need to jangle my key ring in front of, to figure out what to do next.  Especially when I’m given a task and expected to complete it.  Nothing frustrates me more or will make me quit faster than a game that says, “Here’s our giant world, go out and do stuff.  By the way, the world is ending, do something about that when you feel like it, okay?”  This is why sandbox games fail so much.  Let’s build a world where you can do anything, and ALSO make them do a main quest in it too, thus missing the point of the sandbox entirely.

I loved the original Legend of Zelda.  And I loved the first issue of Nintendo Power, which published a full and complete map of the overworld and all of the dungeons for the Master Quest.  I never would have attempted it without it.  I do not consider needing a map to complete it a failure at all, rather for me the thrill was in seeing all these awesome tricks and traps that were put in place and how they worked together.  I’ve often wondered, for a puzzle-maker, does the thrill come from stymieing a player or in the eventual defeat of the puzzle?  How clever can you really be if no one can figure out what is going on?  But that’s MY preference, for a resolution to the puzzle, for the answer to the question.  For others, the thrill is in the chase.

Neither are wrong and both have their place.  It’s these differing design preferences that I think make games and game making so fascinating.  Despite this difference of preference, I think Mr. Thompson’s essay is an amazing critique and worthy of spreading as far and wide as I can.  And as good as it is, Second Quest, is even better.  Go get it, you won’t be disappointed.

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Research and future MMO Mechanics articles

So I’m having some difficulty right now, simply deciding on the next piece of the series I want to cover.  My series on MMO mechanics was meant to be a comprehensive look at as many systems in an MMO as I can find.  However, now that I’m done with the theme of economics, I’m stymied as to where to go next.

Be that as it may, I’m still plugging away on new work for the series and astute readers may notice the new page at the top of the site that houses links to all the major pieces I’ve done on the topic.  For now, my research on the subject has taken me far and wide.

For classes, my class-work (hah hah, see what I did there?) has had me studying the pre-nge profession trees of Star Wars Galaixies on their old wikia.  What I find particularly fascinating with them are how mundane tasks that are taken for granted in most MMO’s today, player housing and avatar customization, actually had their own specific class designations in the game.  The politician and Image Designer, a specialization of the Entertainer profession, were setup to help administrate the tasks of guild management (including housing management) and avatar customization.  I find it very interesting how the game used these professions to add an element of gamification to tasks and activities that most modern MMO’s, when they bother with player housing and avatar customization, just give away.  I’m wondering if this is a lost opportunity that modern MMO’s are missing out on.  I have more thoughts on the other non-combat professions and what they bring to the game, but we’ll save that for when we get to our MMO Society discussion.

Remember way back when, one of my first posts was on the Bartle Theory of gamers and which category of gamer you fell into?  Extra Credits posted up their own review of the Bartle Theory and it is WAY better than anything I talked about when I did it.  In addition to discussing the basics of the theory, their 2 videos also go in-depth about how the 4 types of gamers affect each other when you have them all in a game together.  It’s fascinating stuff and, in my opinion, required watching for any would be MMO game designer.  I’ve embedded the two short videos below.

Finally, a brilliant article by one Sam Kabo Ashwell, on “Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games.”  If you’ve ever been a dungeon master and struggled with how to write an effective campaign for your players, this essay is amazing.  It starts with a discussion around choose your own adventure books but ventures into the previously mentioned D&D, and then jumps around to video game design.  It’s an amazing read on how choice structures affect what you’re creating and the best bit I’ve pulled from it is that linear choice structures provide for a great deal of depth to the world you’re creating, while more open choice structures add a great deal of breadth to that world.  What you’re trying to create greatly impacts what choice structures you should use when you’re making a game/story/campaign.  This kind of knowledge, along with knowing what kind of audience you’re playing to, can be essential to how you craft a game.

So yes, far and wide on the research for my upcoming posts, but I’m excited about what I’m reading and I hope I can bring it together in a way that makes sense and is interesting for you too.  And if not well, I guess we could talk about the old games I’m just getting to playing now, like FTL and Fallout 3.  Verdicts:  FTL is so good I have to stay away lest it consumes me (playing till 4:30am and then trying to get up and go to a day job, not good).  Fallout 3….meh…but only played for maybe a half hour so far.

Stay tuned.

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Short Break this week….

Back next week with more and better content, hopefully.  See you soon!

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The Past and the Future of MMOs

MMORPG.com has been hitting it out of the park this week, and there are a pair of articles on their site worth diving deeper on today.

The first article, is their list of the greatest MMO’s of all time.  It is immensely satisfying to find City of Heroes in the number 5 slot on the list.  While it would be easy enough to do a victory dance because of that, the rest of the top 5 are fascinating choices as well.  Three of the top 5 games in the list are either dead (CoH and Star Wars Galaxies), or were running in maintenance mode as a nostalgia project for their players (The original Everquest).  The top 2 spots were for the current industry leaders, Guild Wars 2 and of course World of Warcraft.

It’s clear though that these older models of MMO’s have endured (or are remembered so fondly) because they offered something that modern MMO’s fail to do.  They offered a diversity of game play not found in any other games.  It’s arguable that many of the top 5 on the list stole tropes from each other and had a lot of things about them that were similar, but none of the other MMO’s on the list from 5 to 35 offered anything remotely close to the game play options available in these top 5.

This echos the other piece from MMORPG.com that I wanted to discuss this week, an interview with Dave Georgeson, former head of the Everquest Franchise from what’s now Daybreak Games.  He discussed a lot of what he’s been up to as well as dropped some tantalizing hints about some secret projects he’s working on, but it was his last answer on the state of MMO’s today that I wanted to bring up.

“It’s pretty obvious that the MMO audience size is not currently growing. It’s shrinking. Why? Well…in my opinion, it’s because most of our MMOs haven’t done much to make themselves unique. We use the same game mechanics (leveling, combat, etc.) and then create some loose fiction and differentiating graphics and pretend to ourselves that we’re making a completely new, unique gaming world. But the truth is that usually…we’re not. The game feels “stale” after playing it for a few weeks because the experiences just aren’t unique.”

The 2 games that most differentiate from that mold on that top 5 list above are no longer playable.  Is Dave right that differentiation is the answer?  I’m not sure.  I do know that I miss those games bitterly, and I also know that those games aren’t around not because they weren’t viable profit-makers for the companies that published them, but that they weren’t profitable ENOUGH for those publishers.  Is it because the audience and the publishers didn’t realize the value they had, because the industry is still trying to figure itself out?  Were there other factors that impacted these games and their ability to go forward?  Hard to say, but very much worth discussing.

Georgeson goes on to offer some prescriptions for how he thinks the genre can fix itself.

“If we want the MMO audience to grow, we have to make the games highly rewarding at a session-length basis, as well as provide long-term goals that require human interaction. But also we need to find new ways to tell stories and involve the gamers in the play of the unique world we’re creating. When have you ever felt that your character did anything to affect the virtual world you’re playing within? The answer? Probably never. There are a few rare examples. Eve Online does it. The RvR aspects of Dark Ages of Camelot did it. But the examples in our genre are few and far between. We can, and should, do more if we want MMOs to grow and thrive. We must let the worlds change.”

Session-length high-reward activities.  Long term human interaction goals.  So few modern games are doing this right now.  How did we let them get away from this?  As for his other prescriptions, they sound a lot like the Everquest game he was trying to make.  I’m not so sure that the game he envisioned will ever come to pass at this point.  Regardless, he drops a few hints about what he’s working on and I hope that whatever he ends up doing, it’s in the MMO space.  His vision, drive, and enthusiasm for the genre are things the industry very badly needs more of right now.

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“You’re already drowning in compromise”

David Brothers is a writer who is one of the best I’ve ever read. His prose is riveting and his logic is superb. While he comes from the world of comics, there’s a lot of universality to the things he says.  One of my favorite pieces of his, is a take on how the X-Man Psylocke is actually a perfect metaphor for British colonialism.

But today, I wanted to talk about his recent piece on compromise and liking bad things. I’ve talked about this subject before, but his piece on the subject is short, well-conceived, and brilliant.  Given the challenges we face finding things we like that do not cause harm in one form or another (hint, everything has a problem with it in one form or another), it’s important to keep some perspective about what our choices mean and what we can actually do about them.

Go read the piece. It’s definitely worth your time.

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Problem Guild Players and Social Contracts

So in perusing my links this week, I came across this great video by Quinns from Shut Up and Sit Down, a board game review site.

 

While the video is focused on board games and the dynamics that players bring to board games, I think a lot of what he says applies to guilds, guild events, and guild management as well.  In the video, he offers some great advice for dealing with problem players and really focuses in on something that we tend to forget.  Sitting down and playing together, whether it’s at a board game or an MMO, is a social contract that you are making with other people for the purposes of having fun together.  Different people have different definitions of fun, and it’s important that we find ways for everyone to be able to have it when we come together.  Go watch the video, Quinns is really on point, and it’s so much better than me trying to explain it.

 

 

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Urbanite Update and Links Links Links!

Okay, today we highlight others who are doing really great work as well as a few housekeeping chores for those Urbanites who still pop in every now and again.

A reminder for all of those who backed the City of Titans project, the time limit to get your name on the backer wall is coming to a close, so get that in if you want to/can.

We’re also actively running dungeon runs in GW2 right now on Saturday nights for those that are interested.  Shoot me an email or leave a comment here for details.

And now for links!

link

Note:  Most of these links come from Omar Elaasar who did some great curation of games writing on Twitter the other day.  His work can be found here, and I particularly liked his piece on video game difficulty levels.

Permission to Fail

Gita Jackson is brilliant and everyone should be reading her.

The Framerate Debate

True Romance: Sex Ed through Games

On Colonialism

John Thyer has some amazing insights into some themes we’ll be talking about here in the near future (hint: limiting player choices).

There are no Safety Nets

Designing Drama

A Mega-Man 2 Dissection

The Maturity of Zelda 2

Lana Polansky is ridiculously talented and we don’t deserve her.  She’s 401 level material guys, but I swear just reading some of her work makes me feel smarter.

Against Flow

Coherence and Dissonance

Lastly, J3w3l has a great observation on the “dumb races” found in many MMO’s, and the way these races are problematic with their blatant societal and racial stereotypes built into their design.  This is not okay MMO game developers!  Stop doing it!

Origin of Annoyance

I have dozens more links to share but this is enough for now.  This was supposed to be a ten minute post and then on to other things this week, and of course, I started following all the great links and now my time is GOOONNEEEEEE!

 

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The Secret to MMO Class Design

Psssst.  Hey.  Come here.  I gotta secret I want to tell you.  Everybody who’s making MMO’s these days?  Yeah, they’re doing classes wrong.  Way wrong.  And it’s primarily why MMO’s can’t seem to rise above the current level they’re at.  It’s why there’s no sense of stickiness as some wonder.  It’s why class distinctions are largely irrelevant, and everyone just plays really expensive solo games.

This post owes a large credit to J3w3l again, who’s recent musings on skill trees in MMO’s was pivotal to my own thoughts on the matter.  She talks at length about how skills tend to be hard to figure out and make a character feel largely directionless and difficult to play.  You should go read that post, it’s very good.  I got to thinking about my own play habits with games these days.  I’ll go pick up a video game and try it out for a few months and then put it down and never go back to it.  Even if I do think it’s a really good game.  Some games have managed to pull me back (I’m currently in Mass Effect 3 multi-player right now, god help my carpel tunnel).  But without a really good hook or something else compelling about the game, I rarely return to them.  This is behavior that happens irrespective to whether or not the game is an MMO or a regular single player game.  MMO’s don’t make me deviate my behavior any from single player games.  And they should.  That they don’t, is a problem.

But that’s the secret.

It’s not horizontal versus vertical leveling progression, that’s the secret to success with classes.

It’s not Trinity versus non Trinity game-play though god help us, we’re going to talk more about that before we’re done here.

It’s not about genre, or end-game content, or even PvP versus PvE.

The secret is Team play versus solo play.

Oh yeah, sure.  You say that’s obvious now, but before I said that, the thought never even occurred to you!

Let’s go on a short history trip.

In the post Ultima days, we got Everquest and Everquest 2 and eventually WoW and all the WoW clones that came after.  In those games, class definitions were focused around team game-play, or more simply, Trinity game-play.  Now as time marched on, people started seeing the limits of Trinity game-play and began to chafe under those constraints.  Bad behaviors by groups that required a rigid setup for content and/or the failure to find people good enough to fill the roles as needed were just some of the problems.  I’ve detailed my issues with Trinity game-play in lots of other posts but as a result, players started demanding games that didn’t require such an intense commitment in terms of time and social capital.  What many gamers thought they wanted, myself included, was more of an ability to solo in our community-based games.  Yes it does sound batty when I describe it that way.  And gamers, and this really needs to be said more often, gamers are absolutely terrible at knowing what they want.  But game developers want our money.  And so they rushed to comply with our new demands for isolation from the carefully built communities they had made and invited us to.

And that brings us to the current paradigm that we have in place now.  An equally bad system where everyone can do everything and nothing matters any more.  Team battles are a convoluted mess of chaos and drama, as nobody knows what the hell is going on, mistakes are frequent, and coordinated efforts require significantly more investment to execute.  Guild Wars 2 is an obvious example and I swear sometimes I feel like I’m punching on that game the way I used to punch on WoW.  Wildstar, another favorite punching bag, has the same problem.  The Secret World is another one that suffers from this paradigm, though everything else, and I mean EVERYTHING else about The Secret World is miles above it’s contemporaries in terms of design and game-play.  I love that game.  But over the years, many developers attempted to cater to players who thought they wanted freedom from the Trinity and rushed to make classes, and characters, and progression paths that would allow for maximum utility and maximum freedom of choice.  And as is often the problem with the paradox of choice, when anything is possible, nothing matters any more.  Blizzard never made this change though.  They just carried on with the Trinity because fuck you, they’re Blizzard and they have so much money, they have a giant statue of an Orc riding a War-Wolf in front of their building.

wow_statue

Yes that is real, and yes Blizzard had it made, and no, they don’t give a shit about your fancy class design arguments.

So what made the Trinity actually work here?  As many problems as it created, the one thing it did really well, was encourage teaming.  That cool dude who could solo that mid-level boss might be around tonight and need some people to help him fill out the dungeon requirements.  That girl that would flirt with you might be healing again and that was always fun.  The guild chat one night that you once made the entire conversation a series of euphemisms, and got accused of being Emperor Palpatine for turning everyone to the dark side?  Those were all good times.  Without strong teaming mechanics, which the Trinity provided, none of these scenarios could have happened.  Teaming gave people reasons to hang out and reasons to come back.

Man did I HATE having to write something nice about the Trinity mechanic.  Ewwww!

So how do you encourage teaming, without the Trinity?  How do you actually do both?  The Trinity fails for solo game-play, and we see how the solo-centric designs are failing team-play.  Most modern MMO’s are screwed at this point.  To completely alter their class systems and combat/questing mechanics to enable better teaming, might be too much change for most. That won’t stop us from trying though.

If we could alter these modern MMO’s to be better for teams, one way to go would be to add mechanics to existing skills and powers that enable or improve teaming within the confines of the combat mechanics of the game.  For example, shield skills in Guild Wars 2, could have an added aggro mechanic that stacks their defense as a player uses the skill, thus increasing their aggro and defense to that aggro, before eventually degrading over time.  Pulling off fixes like this though is tricky.  The first and most obvious problem is balance, of course.  If you over-power something, you then have to take something else away.  This creates a lot of tension and drama from your most vocal players, but may be worth it if the overall health of the game improves (remember, gamers don’t know what they want).  The other trick is that you can’t make these changes optional mechanics, or mechanics you turn on and off.  They have to to be fundamentally built into the powers and skills and mechanics of the game.  Otherwise, they’re going to feel bolted on, clumsy, and self-defeating.

You have to build these kinds of class mechanics into the DNA of your game.  If your game isn’t designed for them right from the start, then it’s going to be much more difficult to succeed.  This means that your combat mechanics must be built to function for teams of varying sizes as well as teams of one.  PvP too.  Questing mechanics must scale, and rewards to encourage teaming also need to be considered.  More xp and loot for teams, how do you balance that?  It’s not easy, but it’s also not as hard as you might think.  Above are some possible fixes for a solo-focused game.  What about games with teaming already built in?  Roll up your sleeves, because now we get dirty.  (Yes, that was a euphemism).

We’re not going to take Trinity game-play as our example because Trinity game-play sucks (ahhh, much better).  The Triangle is awful.  Instead we’ll make a pentagram.  Wait wait.  There’s that dark side again.  Okay, a Hexagon.

TrinityandHexWhile this example will assume many of the rules of Trinity game-play, including aggro mechanics, don’t take that as an endorsement of aggro mechanics as the end all-be-all of combat design for an MMO.  We’re rolling with it because we’ve got the most experience with it.  Moving on.

When adding, buffing, debuffing, and crowd control, we have to make them just as effective from a damage mitigation standpoint as DPS, tanking, and healing.  This allows you to create team roles that synergize in multiple ways.  So this means you’re on a team with no tanker but a crowd controller is shutting down the aggro anyway,  so it doesn’t matter.  Was there a DPS shortage tonight?  Debuffing the mobs works great as an alternative.  Or hey, we could buff the team’s damage instead.  Look at that!  Two totally different ways to do the same thing.  Shut up!

Above I mentioned damage mitigation.  Here I’m defining it as any mechanic that reduces incoming damage to a player.  Aggro control is a form of AOE damage mitigation (for those who aren’t doing the aggro’ing).  Crowd Controll and Debuffing, obviously reduce incoming damage and those can be measured as mitigation.  Defenses obviously provide damage mitigation, but even DPS is a form of damage mitigation in that you can ask the question: how much damage would that mob have done if it were still alive to do it?

But LockOn!  Balancing Trinity game-play was unbelievably hard to do.  Blizzard has arguably never stopped doing it.  When there were just 3 things to worry about, classes got out of control and someone would end up gimped or O.P’ed!  Now you want us to make it work for 6?  That’s too hard!

Here, let me show you what I think of that argument.

Alg-crying-baby-jpg

Now get over yourselves and get to work.

Once you have viable team options, the next step is to take those team roles and make them workable solo.  Are Tanks soloing but don’t have enough damage to level fast enough?  Well maybe we can give them minor self-damage buffs to help get them through their solo fights.  Is your healer not doing enough damage either?  Well what about adding in some debuffs so that their attacks do punch through.  Damage is too flimsy?  Haven’t we spent the last 10 years proving that glass cannons aren’t fun to play?  We’ll add in some crowd control, or hell screw it.  Give them actual defenses.  You can still be a DPS’er, or a healer, or a tank if you want.  But now you have a few extra tricks up your sleeve that give you the ability to do other things too.  Customization within the role.  I haven’t even mentioned the class possibilities with just Crowd Control, Buffing, and Debuffing.  Yes, you make those classes too, because those play styles are ALL viable now.

Holy shit!  By using more than just the 3 roles as defined in the Trinity, you mean we have other options that help mitigate the effects of not enough flexibility in any of those given roles, so that a class can perform solo or on teams MORE effectively??????  All while providing new game-play options that provide a richer play experience all around????  This is madness?  It’s like the Trinity was the whole problem to begin with!

Yessssss, my pretty.  Yesssssssssssss.

PalpatineTauntingLuke

Now go out and spread the secret.  Ask your developers for classes that provide both teaming and solo play options that integrate together and don’t require completely different play-styles depending on when your friends are around or if you just need some quiet time at night.  These are the kinds of classes we really want.  No really.  Now get to it!

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Crafting

This post is a continuation of a series of posts I’m running on MMO mechanics.  The good, the bad, what could be done better.  The first post in the series on MMO Economies is here.  Next up is loot, which can be found here.  Now, on to Crafting.

So let’s get this out of the way first.  Are you crafting, or are you collecting?

Crafting in most MMO’s (and non MMO video games too), isn’t so much about making anything, as it’s a resource collection and conversion game.  Hunt for stuffs.  Get stuffs.  Hit a button and “make” other stuffs from that stuffs.  Rinse and repeat until you have all your stuffs.

Not shown: The ridiculous waste of time you spent crafting this useless potion.

Not shown: The ridiculous waste of time you spent crafting this useless potion.

True crafting is about making things.  Furniture, wood-carvings, cross-stitch, houses, stories.  Crafting as a collection mini-game is a sham, and that it makes up most of the content that games devote to “crafting” illustrates just how poorly and unsatisfying most crafting mechanics are.

Making things.  This is the draw, and allowing people to make things is the brass ring.  It’s what you really want to shoot for.  But how to do so?

Minecraft is the obvious example as it and it’s clones represent one of the few ways to actually make stuff in a video game that has proven popular and sustaining.  Daybreak Studios is hard at work with their Minecraft clone, Landmark.  They’re trying to piggy back their next MMO launch off of this world building tool, but the audience cross-over between a world building game and an MMO doesn’t seem to be as huge as some might have hoped.  Given that the experiences between the two games are so dis-similar, I can’t see the MMO audience diving as deeply as they might need to in a world-building tool set to get what they really want.  Just as I can’t see world builders devoting much time to anything other than their craft.

It’s worth noting though that both communities have existed in MMO’s to various degrees in the past, and just because the match up may not be ideal, it doesn’t mean it can’t work.  There are ways to do making things in an MMO that can be gratifying for an MMO audience.  You don’t just HAVE to rely on the collection mini-games.

Setting up homes is one obvious and well known feature for MMO players that can act as a gateway to crafting.  It’s actually a staple of the MMO genre, for better or worse, and the smaller scale required to set up a home may be the key that makes it more palatable for an MMO audience (though that’s hardly proven).  Sadly, the concept is still executed poorly on a regular basis.  By over-stylizing their base plots and placable items, Wildstar’s house crafting system was awful.  It was unsuitable as a building tool, and became little more than doll dress up for any character that purchased one.  WoW’s garrison feature also failed to hit the right spot for this niche.  But other games have done better.  The best ones I’ve seen are the games that produce enough variety of building materials, that inventive builders can make use of them to do unconventional things.  Book cases flipped around to make wall paneling.  Light fixtures as glowing stairs.  The more items you have, the more inventive your player base becomes.

Avatar customization is another area that is less obvious but also provides some interesting options for making things.  And I don’t mean picking from a list of options with this idea either.  Most character creators are awful.  A handful of choices for face, hair, build, etc.  Why not make an open source texture or 3d editor for your game and allow people the option to make their own costume pieces, or even extend it further and let them make their own weapons and armor?  The best pieces can be submitted to developers as options to go into the game, and you end up with a crafting community that’s making content for your game that most development teams never seem to find the time for.  Some would say this is unpaid development work, but there are ways to compensate players for their time if they get a winning entry, if you chose to go this route.  It also gives those players a tactile relationship with the game world.  Something they made that they can actually see, and show others.  But this would require an editor that was easy to use or easy to learn, or perhaps both.  And the barriers to entry for this might be too high.  Still though, if an MMO could pull this off, you’d have a potential endless stream of new costume pieces for avatars for as long as you encouraged the community to make them.

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Once you’re making your own characters, the next step up is to make your own stories.  Neverwinter has a player-created content system called the Foundry.  City of Heroes had Architect Entertainment (eventually you’ll realize that every post I ever write is secretly a City of Heroes post).  Both of these systems allowed players to create their own quests/stories for play.  While significant investment in systems such as these is required to even make them functional, let alone the resources needed to deal with the griefing/exploitation issues, they can add a layer of depth to your crafting system that your players can use to create their own form of emergent play in your game.

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Coming back around to collecting as crafting, it occurs to me that I may have come off above as advocating against it.  Not so.  There are important things that collecting as crafting can give to your player base, but some rules should be followed.  First and foremost, you can’t split your loot system and your crafting system and expect that to not splinter your economy in the game.  You either end up with players who ignore your crafted gear completely or prioritize it over loot drops.  Your crafted loot must follow the same rules for your dropped loot. If not, then solid rules need to be in place to prevent one from over-shadowing the other.  One of the best examples I saw of this was a game where bought or dropped loot all had great stats on a single attribute for the given item.  A similar item made with crafted materials would often have really good numbers in the same stat, but not quite as good as a dropped weapon.  Instead, the crafted item had a random bonus to an additional stat that dropped loot didn’t provide.  It was this trade off that I thought was very clever and well done for all the dropped/crafted loot in the game.  Another option, make all loot craftable.  Even the rare drops.  Just make them hard to craft.

However, no matter what rules you have in place for crafted loot, it’s still not as important as the ability to use this collection-as-crafting system for gifting.

Yaaay!  Presents!

Yaaay! Presents!

This is the kind of thing where collection as crafting systems can really shine.  After all, I can’t build a virtual house, or work in a 3d editor, and I’m probably a terrible writer too, but I can grind out 20 gears to make a shiny toy for a friend.  Or a costume token.  Or a temporary buff.  I like the idea of being able to make stuff and give it to others.  That there’s no such thing as a gifting economy is something I think most MMO’s have missed out on over the years, especially in light of the fact that gifting was never emergent behavior.  Game developers planned for some element of gifting when they developed these systems.  That this behavior isn’t encouraged and rewarded/enhanced is something that I think many crafting systems miss and something that could be wildly successful if encouraged properly.  Everyone appreciates the time and effort that goes into a gift.  This is behavior that collection-as-crafting systems were made for and should be leveraging.

What else can you make in an MMO?

Crafting and crafters will always be a minority population in any MMO.  You don’t come to one because it’s also got a Home Depot inside of it.  But more people might stick around if more attention was paid to all the ways that people could use your game’s crafting systems for emergent game play.  Even without emergent gameplay though, having something you craft show up for others to see and appreciate is a worthy use of the time to build these systems.  Hopefully, we’ll get better crafting as time goes on.

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Updates and Future Plans

So quite a lot going on lately out in the field.  I’ve been kept very busy with work lately what with a host of inter-office politics and people leaving and being removed.  Combined with the fact that I’m actively job-seeking and you can imagine that it’s costing me quite a bit of time outside of work that’s eating into my writing time.  Regardless, we press on.

I’m finally healthy enough again that I can afford to split my focus up a bit and do various things.  My draft on crafting mechanics is coming very soon and hopefully that will be available mid-week next week.  From there, there’s quite a few bits of mechanics left to discuss.  Social systems, class and leveling, and I’ve still got my fancy pants idea for weather to throw out there too.  At some point I feel like I need to really address genre in MMO’s as well, as that seems to be something that just doesn’t get enough attention.  So plenty left to write about still, it’ll get here.  eventually.

For those who missed my open love letter last week to Paragon Chat and the ghosts of the past feel free to check it out.  It’s probably one of my favorite pieces I’ve done recently and if I don’t toot my own horn, nobody else is going to, that’s for sure.

And now some links:

Over on Offworld, a remarkably unsettling and artistic look at the gamification of the world.  It was quite touch to watch(which is kinda the point) but I hope people will take a look at it anyway as it’s something that we will be forced to discuss further soon enough, whether we want to or not.

On a lighter note, Alec Meer over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a hilarious and amazing series of diary entries chronicling his Metal Gear Solid V exploits.  As a newcomer to the series (something I can relate to), his take on some of the crazier aspects of the game are laugh out loud funny.

Oh, and Transformers Devastation will be out 10/6.  That is all.

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