Skip to main content

links for 2006-10-19

A reason to stop playing World of Warcraft

Here is an interesting post on a blog called Soul Kerfuffle. It was written by a former officer for a top World of Warcraft raiding guild. The post describes why he stopped playing.
I just left WoW permanently. I was a leader in one of the largest and most respected guilds in the world, a well-equipped and well-versed mage, and considered myself to have many close friends in my guild. Why did I leave? Simple: Blizzard has created an alternate universe where we don't have to be ourselves when we don't want to be. From my vantage point as a guild decision maker, I've seen it destroy more families and friendships and take a huge toll on individuals than any drug on the market today, and that means a lot coming from an ex-club DJ.

I feel this guy's pain. Since I have not worked since mid-May, the only reason I don't play WoW all the time is basically sheer will-power. And you know what? I manage. I do well. I play, I have fun, but I don't overdo it.

Except about two months ago we started doing 40 man raids, and that was new and exciting, and suddenly I started playing more often. Suddenly I was involved in the guild again (I am an officer), raiding about three nights a week, grinding for consumables or reputation in between. Between playing, chatting (in-game and on IRC) and the forums, I was spending a lot of time on that game.

So I recently reduced my playing again, went out, met friends. It's not as extreme as the case described above, but I recognise it. And I have to think of a friend from the guild, a very nice guy, who suddenly stopped playing completely. Rumour had it he had stopped because he was playing too much. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew he had more level 60 characters than me, and his /played time (a year ago, just on his first character) was several times mine. So, even though I miss him, I'm kinda glad he hasn't come back. It makes me wonder about some of my other friends on-line. Since a significant part of the fun of playing World of Warcraft comes from the camaraderie, are we creating each other's drug?

(Thanks, Wolfgang.)

links for 2006-10-18

links for 2006-10-17

Chris Crawford's new interactive storytelling technology

On Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow describes a demonstration of Storytron, the new interactive storytelling technology developed by Chris Crawford. Additionally, Dr. Dobb's Journal has an interview with Chris about it.

It looks like a next generation version of his previous effort, the Erasmatron, only this time it has a bigger team (i.e. not just Chris), and it looks more accessible. This is not damning with faint praise: I feel the Erasmatron had a lot of unrealised potential, and the Storytron seems a better attempt to, well, realise it. I also think the world might be a bit more ready for it this time. It's going to be interesting to see how it will develop.

Greg Costikyan on Process Intensity

Greg Costikyan has just posted a kick-ass blog entry on process intensity over at the Manifesto Games website.

Process intensity is a key concept in game design, defined about nineteen years ago by Chris Crawford. Greg correctly points out (as Chris did before him) that the industry has been going for the low-hanging fruit for the last two decades: data intensity. Graphics, sound, video. Things that, while not completely worthless, are not related to the inherent and unique qualities of electronic games as an entertainment medium.

To put it another way, we've been doing precious little actual game design; we've mostly been implementing new versions of existing game styles, but with prettier graphics.

But as I've argued, we've come to the point of diminishing returns along that road. In future, we have to do something else.

I will spare you the metaphor of ever higher low-hanging fruit and the evolutionary niche of the giraffe (it would be too close to Chris's koalas versus goats). But basically, the industry has painted itself into a corner, and the consequences are becoming clear. I am not a pessimist, so I won't say video games are dead or the industry is doomed, but I think it's obvious that the level of production values that are expected nowadays are hard to achieve, and that the costs are enormous - not just direct monetary costs, but the costs in terms of lost creativity, and lost customers (and developers).

Greg points out the crucial difference between procedural content and process intensity - basically, the former is a subset of the latter. I would go a step further and argue that procedural content, in and of itself, is a solution to production problem - how do you generate a ton of content without doing it by hand. (Arguably, it can also solve a technical problem - how do I get content to the graphics chip using limited internal bandwidth and memory - but meh.)

(And by the way: I could rephrase my recent post on 3D graphics to say that 3D graphics are more process intensive - they are procedural content - and thus give more freedom to the designer.)

In my opinion, the key thing that makes the procedural content in Spore cool is not that it's procedural, but that it's user-generated. The procedural part of it makes it possible to exchange user-generated content using relatively low amounts of data, but this is a technical / logistical issue. It is not inherent in the game's design, it just enables a key feature.

When people say that 'procedural content is the future of games', I think most of them are thinking of production issues, and you could easily spend another decade or two implementing all of the cool SIGGRAPH papers of recent history and procedurally generate clouds, landscapes, trees, people, you name it. And this is cool and potentially useful and I actually really dig that kind of stuff. But it's still eye candy.

Unless. You can use procedural content to enable shared user-generated content, a la Spore. But you can also link the procedural content to the actual game design, to the rules and simulations that constitute the core of the actual game. Perhaps trees, clouds and creatures change as a consequence of the player's actions. Perhaps they can be used by the player in order to achieve the game's objectives. As soon as the procedural content starts to become a part of the outcome that is affected by choice (Mark Barret's definition of true interactivity), new things become possible.

But you can go further. Procedural content remains a subset of process intensity, even if you link the knobs and levers of your clouds and trees to the algorithms of your actual game. I don't want to split too many semantic hairs, but, well, content. Doesn't that remind you an awful lot of... assets? Static data? Stuff that is... not interactive?

At their core, games are about interacting with dynamic systems, with rules, algorithms, simulations. Play is a form of learning and exploration (see Chris Crawford, Will Wright, Raph Koster). In my opinion, the most promising avenue of progress in interactive entertainment is in the processes at the core of gameplay. (The use of physics in games is a potential example of this, but too often physics are a part of presentation, rather than interactivity.) Deepening the processes at the core of our games will make them richer.

More and more games track a player's reputation with certain groups (think Fable or Frontier Development's The Outside), but single-number-per-group reputation systems are really simplifications of individual agents with memories and social abilities. If many games 'tell' a story, and stories are, fundamentally, about people, then surely interactive storytelling should be about simulating people? Not using 'true AI' or speech recognition, but with simpler techniques that make NPCs into believable characters that players can interact with - in ways that are meaningful to the gameplay itself.

This is where I believe increased process intensity can have the biggest pay-off.

The Holy Grails of Console Game Collecting

Whether you're a real or wanna-be console game collector, or whether (like me) you dig the 'Lucky Wander Boy'-esque vibe of the incredibly obscure video game, you might get a thrill out of the Holy Grails of Console Game Collecting by Racketboy. Some of these are gems of obscurity, just waiting to be glimpsed in that little dusty shop you'd never noticed before and can't find again (I went to a store like this in Leipzig, but sadly, all I found was dust).

Treasure is known for releasing their masterpieces in low quantities, but Bangai-O: Prize Edition is so rare, I'd wager most collectors have never even heard of it; a quick search on the internet will bring up next to no information.

The original issue of the Dreamcast shmup, Bangai-O is actually a cult favorite (it is one of the best shooters on the Dreamcast) and demands more cash than your normal Dreamcast game, but it pales in comparison to the rarity and value of this extremely limited edition.

This version of the shooter was given out by Treasure to exactly five people as the top prizes in a Japanese high-score competition. While the game itself is identical to the original Bangai-O, the Prize Edition can be identified by a sticker on the case declaring itself as a winner's trophy.

In the past, two of these games have been sold, both very quietly. It's unknown the price of the first sale, but the most recent was placed in the inventory of an online store for $500, and at that selling point was quickly snatched.

I am not a hard-core collector, although I've bought some older games on Ebay. I know a few real collectors here in Vienna (like Subotron). I could never come close to these guys, even though I own around 8 consoles.

(Via Slashdot Games.)

Update: Speaking of hard-core collections, I just found this collection of pre-video-game Nintendo toys via Boing Boing.

The problem with 'casual'

Robin Hunicke and Jane Pinckard both went to the IGDA San Francisco chapter meeting, where people from Telltale Games and Ubisoft held a speech on the CSI games.

They both comment on the use and misuse of the 'casual' label for games and gamers.


It struck us both, I think, that the core audience for the game exhibits anything but "casual" behavior. They are crazy for the game. Over 80 percent finish the games, and 76 percent (I think - I don't remember the exact number) are repeat customers. They probably don't play any other game but this. Isn't that sort of focused attention the definition of "hardcore"? There's a big semantic problem here. The tendency these days is to almost ghettoize the games that don't appeal to the standard male 18-34 demo as "casual games." Hence, everything from mobile games to kid's DS games to free flash games to CSI The Game are lumped into "casual."

I agree. Ample evidence has floated past on the web in the last year or so to suggest that so-called casual gamers can get very hard-core about their casual games. In my opinion, what is really happening is that people in the industry often tend to hand-wave a bit too much when defining their audience (similar to game duration, see an earlier post). Usually a vague definition is good enough, partially because of group-think, partially because the overall level is crap. I would hope big game companies (e.g. EA, Activision, Microsoft) know their audiences, and I've seen some signs that they do, but who knows.

As a small developer, you probably have neither the funds nor the know-how to really find out about your audience. You might have access problems too.

The ironic reality is probably that 'non-casual' gamers are a niche market...

(More on Robin's post later.)

Update: Here is some news about a market research company who divide the market into 6 groups. It seems to me people could belong to more than one group, but hey, that's simplification for you.

Update: 'Is The Core Gamer A Myth?' asks Next-Gen in an article about a report on gamer segmentation by The NPD Group.

The Video Gamer Segmentation Report separated gamers into six groups: heavy gamers, avid console gamers, mass market gamers, prefer portable gamers, secondary gamers, and infrequent gamers.

Update: It turns out Robin has blogged about this before. I must have missed it.

This Is Waiting is a site expressing the displeasure of European gamers about the PS3 in general, and it's late arrival in Europe in particular, using pictures, some of which are amusing.

(Not unlike UK Resistance's Sony Lie Watch.)

Right now, it sure looks like Microsoft and Nintendo are doing well in the console wars compared to Sony. Still, I wish it were all over and we could play some games on the Wii.

(Thanks Ronny.)

Update: It seems the site above is a minority view, as European gamers 'don't mind' launch delays, according to a Sony VP. Well, I guess that means Ray "Extremely Disappointed" Maguire, senior vice president and managing director of Sony UK, is not a gamer. Boy, if Sony has people who don't put their feet in their mouths every time they say something, they're sure hiding them well.