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More design issues in Star Wars Galaxies

Anonymous sources have pointed out that Lee Sheldon has written a number of articles on writing and storytelling in virtual worlds, and that these articles also point out flaws in Star Wars Galaxies.

From Less Is More: Chinese Menu Quest Systems & Storytelling:

"The missing boy is never mentioned again. We just blow up a lair of creatures, the generic game mechanic of all the destroy missions. Then it?s on to the next mission, laid out in identical text, to rescue the next boy in the family tree (assuming the parents are so prolific that they can churn out sons as fast as rabbit-like gnorts drop babies), or is it the same son who can?t keep out of trouble?"

"Then to spare players chasing all over the landscape when they get close to their objective, the game provides shafts of light descending like deus ex machinas from the sky to illuminate the player?s goal. There is absolutely no indication in the world what generates the lights."

From The Quest for Story: NPC Quests in Star Wars Galaxies:

"It is so easy to do true multiplayer quest creation in this lowest common denominator type of quest, why not do it? Why write quests that can adversely affect the retention of your player base and their immersion in your world if you don?t have to? The most rational answer to this is not particularly flattering to designers: they don?t know any better. "

Even if you are not involved in MMOs, I recommend reading these articles for a clear description of the problems that are caused when the integration between the fictional (storytelling) and mechanical (gameplay) sides is badly handled.

Design issues in Star Wars Galaxies

Professor Timothy Burke has written a detailed critique of Star Wars Galaxies that I found interesting because it mentions some of my favorite game design issues: designing game mechanics that integrate well with a game's fiction and designing game mechanics that are entertaining and offer interesting choices. According to Professor Burke, SWG fails in these, and other, areas.

(From Game Girl Advance.)

(Update: Raph Koster, lead designer on SWG, has left some comments on Game Girl Advance.)

(Another update: an anonymous source has informed me that Lee Sheldon has also jumped in. He has written some comments to the post on GGA that are definitely worth reading. Meanwhile, my weblog is gathering dust.)

A discussion with female MMO developers

I don't usually write much about MMO games, but I found this interview with female MMO developers about what it's like to be, well, a female MMO developer, quite interesting.

On the one hand, I wonder if the MMO aspect is really relevant: that is, would the experiences of female offline game developers be very different? On the other hand, because MMOs are so socially oriented (compared to offline games), they require some skillsets that are either not found in the typical game developer (because they involve the "soft" sciences), or that women tend to better suited to than men, if I may be allowed to make a very rough generalization. Now that I think of it, most of the female game developers I know work on MMOs.

(From Slashdot games.)

Real world military settings too close for comfort

Sony video game to omit Quebec separatist mission to blow up Toronto subway.

Although I find that Quebecois separatism always carries a note of involuntary comedy, I believe this is the first time that authorities complain about the realism and appropriateness of the setting of a video game because it impacts the public's physical safety, rather than their moral safety. Given the current fashion for real-world techno-thrillers featuring special forces agents, either alone or in squads, I'm surprised it took that long.

(From Slashdot Games.)


As you may have noticed, I've cleaned up the navigation bar and made the content bar wider.

I've also added a Google search box, but it's not that great. I may switch to a different blogging system in the future.

Update: the Opera / Windows glitch that made the side bar disappear has been fixed. Note to self: do not use < or > in normal text: use HTML entities &lt; and &gt; ... Funnily enough, Safari, Mozilla, IE6 and Opera / Mac didn't have any problem.

The Drake equation for games

The Drake equation was devised in the early sixties by Frank Drake to calculate the possibility of life on other planets. It looks something like this:

N = R * fs * fp * ne * fl * fi * fc * L

N is the number of possible civilizations to communicate with, R is the rate at which stars capable of sustaining life are formed, fp = the fraction of these stars which have planets, and so on.

I realized it is possible to do something similar to calculate the possibility of a game development project being successful or not. Naturally, this involves many generalizations and simplifications. On the other hand, many projects seem to fail because of the same few problems. Although it is possible to argue with every single element of the following equation, I still think it is an interesting exercise.

So, here is Jurie's equation for success in game development:

Ps = Ptm x Pts x Pfi x Pbd x Pcv

Ps = Probability of a game being successful. My definition of success here is a combination of critical and business success. The game is "good quality" according to some not-too-subjective measure, say average ratings, and it made more money than it cost to make.

I am not considering the long term prospects of the company or team making the game, even though this is unrealistic when there is a significant delay between mastering and getting paid.

Also, I am considering the chances of success of a single game. A more strict equivalent of Drake's equation would calculate the number of successful games, probably in a given period of time, but I feel this is less interesting.

Ptm = Probability of the team being motivated enough that it jels and all the team members can and will focus their energy towards the product. This indirectly includes the effects of the actions of the management of the company the team may belong to.

Pts = Probability of the team members having all the skills they need. This can be roughly subdivided into: design (i.e. understanding both interactivity and entertainment), code, art, and management [and audio and writing and and and - 2018 Jurie]. The latter applies to all levels: project, discipline (e.g. code) and self.

Pfi = Probability of having sufficient funding for the duration of the project. This usually involves pitching, both internally and externally, and then successfully managing the relationship with the source of funding for the duration of the project. If you're self-publishing, you have the additional uncertainty of whether you will be able to make enough money fast enough to survive.

Pbd = Probability of being lucky enough to avoid a business disaster, such as the company going out of business, the publisher going out of business, the platform manufacturer going out of business, the publisher deciding to cancel the project, bad marketing, subcontractor failure, bad localization if done outside of the team, incompetence on the part of another link of the value chain. This basically includes anything which cripples or kills the game and which is beyond the control of the team.

Pcv = Probability of the game being commercially viable in its market by the time it comes out. This can be influenced by the team (by choosing to make the right game, actually making that game, and aiming for and hitting the right time window), but is also affected by forces outside of the team's control. (Remember, the goal is breaking even, not making a smash hit. That is even harder to predict.) This factor does not include design or other development issues that reduce accessibility or entertainment value.

The actual values of the factors depend on the situation and are unique to each game.

It is possible to weight these different factors, but I'm not going to do that here. I think that even if people agree with the factors and their meaning, everyone will have a different opinion of which factors contribute most to failure or success, based on their experiences.

Having worked for developer-publishers for most of my career, I have always been lucky with funding, but I've experienced my share of business disasters. I've mostly done OK with the team factors, but have had problems with commercial viability: Albion, for instance, was graphically outdated when it came out in the US. Plus it launched at the same time as Diablo.

How well does the formula work for the projects you've been on? Are any major factors missing?

Some random links

While writing the earlier post about violent RPGs, I came across a few items not directly related to the topic, but still worth mentioning:

  • Here's how your actions affect your virtues in Ultima IV. Quite sophisticated. I don't know of any current game that evaluates actions to this degree.

  • Some people are remaking Ultima IV. They're not quite there yet, but this will beat finding a DOS emulator for OS X.

  • Other people are remaking Ultima VII. This is cool too. I own these games, but even if I could emulate DOS, I blanch at the thought of trying to get Origin's memory manager to run. (Update: actually, this will be a rewritten engine that uses the original assets, not a full remake.)

  • If you can run DOS, well, why not download the original Ultima IV (at the bottom of the page). Apparently Origin allowed for it to be distributed.

  • If you liked the idea of a farming RPG, how about Legend of the River King, a fishing RPG?