Toldain Talks

Because reading me sure beats working!


Toldain started as an Everquest character. I've played him in EQ2, WoW, Vanguard, LOTRO, and Zork Online. And then EVE Online, where I'm 3 million years old, rather than my usual 3000. Currently I'm mostly playing DDO. But I still have fabulous red hair. In RL, I am a software developer who has worked on networked games, but not MMORPGS.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

We've Moved.

I know, I know, I haven't been posting.  If you think that was a long sleep though, just think about the 3 million years I spent in cryosleep to visit the world of EVE Online.

But anyway, I'm awake now, and posting at a new site.

Please come and visit, or hang out, or point your RSS reader (but not Google Reader, sniff!) at it.  I promise I'll write more.   I know, that's a low bar.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Success of Bioshock Infinite: Games aren't Movies

Having managed to win Civ 5 with every civ available (with an assist from Spawn of Tolly 2), I went looking for a different gaming experience.  Since Spawn of Tolly 1 had suggested Bioshock Infinite, and my Google+ feed had also been positive, I jumped on Steam and started it downloading for the weekend.

I ran through the game in something like 10 hours - it might have been 12.  I really like that experience, but I'm unlikely to play it much more.  Which puts in a very different category from a game like Civ 5.  The narrative portion of the game is very important, and there are many big surprises along the way.

I'm probably going to end up spoiling the crap out of the game, so you have been warned!

Now, the thing is, I just read this interesting review of the game by Peter Bright.   He titled it "The Failure of Bioshock Infinite:  Writing games like movies"  You might guess from the title that I don't quite agree with him.  Nevertheless, I think overall it's a good review.

What makes this game so different from Civ 5 is the near-absence of what Raph Koster has called ludic choice  (Ok, I'm not really sure if he made the term or just brought it to my attention. But onward.)

The gameplay of BI is pretty standard FPS.   You have weapon choices, upgrades, reloads, and hunting for stuff.  You have a variety of opponents, and a variety of terrain.  You have some special powers that are granted by finding things, and upgrades that can be purchased with money that's found.

Fights are in setpieces, which sit between more pure story bits.  One point that Bright makes is that the hatred of QuickTimeEvent (click on this flashing thingy to keep something bad from happening) is very strong in the gaming audience, and BI avoids them.  Even when the game goes into storytelling mode, and there's only one action you can do to avance the game, the mechanic to do so is pressing the 'F' key, which is what you've been using all along to do a variety of things.  It's the all purpose "do the obvious with this thing" key.   This turns out to be important, I think.

I have to agree that the "game" component of BI is somewhat weak.  Not that I don't like shooting things, I think that's pretty clearly a universal sort of thing people love.  Remember Duck Hunt (and that obnoxious dog)?  Nevertheless, this is a far, far cry from Civ 5.  The choices I make in Civ 5 affect what the outcome is, it is quite easy to point to the map at the end of the game and see the consequences of one's decisions.  You put a city there, but not there.  You burned down this city when you conquered it, but not that one.

This is not the case with Bioshock Infinite.  There is only one outcome, and all choices boil down to one choice - keep playing or stop.  Yes, you will end up with dead bodies, but they were always going to end up dead, because you can't progress without killing them.  The scope for choices exists, but is much more limited.  There are, for each fight, multiple tactics that can be effective.  There are multiple weapons available.  You can choose which upgrades to buy, and there are audio recordings called "voxophones" scattered about the game that you can pick up and listen to.  These explain bits of world setting and backstory.  These are second-order, because there's a predetermined story, and all paths converge to the same endpoint.

I feel I must mention that I hate definitional squabbles and for all purposes I'm happy to accept that Bioshock Infinite is a game, a video game.  It's quite different from Civ 5, though, and I need a way to talk about those differences, that's all.

There is a powerful story in BI, and it's placed in a powerful setting.  And one of the messages of that story is that some points in life seem like choices, but they don't change anything.  In one of the final scenes, you walk along boardwalks that branch before you, seemingly infinitely.  But the branches are probably meaningless, they would lead to the same outcome.  So the medium aligns with the message, it seems.  I think this is an important point that Bright misses utterly.

But I get ahead of myself.  I was talking about pacing.

The game is a game.  It is not a movie.  It is not supposed to have movie pacing.  Bright is trying to make applesauce with oranges.  The mechanic of "press F to let the story progress" has analogs in other computer-enabled art.  For instance, if you go over to  you will see lots and lots of "comics" - serial art that tells a story - in a particular format that has the reader clicking a next button to reveal the next panel in an overlay fashion.  This is not at all like the paper comic book, or even like many of my favorite online comics (Order of the Stick, I'm looking at you.)  The theory behind this format is discussed by John Rogers here, particularly the quote "The reader controls the flow of information".

Rogers develops this them in this piece at

“The cool and tempting thing, is that ability to hold back or to make the stuff that he and Stuart [Immonen] did in the [AvX: Infinite] initiative, where you’re able to have different people changing faces on the same page and changing reactions,” Rogers said. “Once you turn the page in a physical comic, that page vomits up everything on it. Even now, I’ll be writing something and I’ll realize, ‘Nah, that’s an odd-numbers page; it’s going to be sitting right there on the opposite side. I have to change this reveal over to an even-numbered page or else it’s not a reveal.’ There are certain storytelling advantages to this experiment that we think are going to be cool and exciting.”

This thing that Bright complains about, is, in fact a story-telling advantage.  That advantage, it turns out, is critical to the emotional impact of Bioshock Infinite.

Suffice it to say that the first-person character, Booker DeWitt, is not a nice person.  We meet him at the end of a long string of unfortunate choices, and in the course of the story, we travel in time and try to undo some of those choices.  We find this difficult.  At one point Elizabeth, your plucky sidekick, and the girl you are supposed to "rescue" (This relationship gets really complicated by the end), tells us, "You're not going to get out of this room until you do this."  It's something that, I think, most players will not want to do, but the choice is:  tap the F key and do it, or stop playing the game.

This is powerful.  It makes the player complicit in the action, rather than a detached spectator.  This is exactly what Marshall McLuhan talked about when he distinguished "hot" from "cold" media.  This happens many times in the game.

So that's one answer to the question, "why isn't this story told as a film instead of as a game?"  I think there are some other answers, too:

  • The story is complex, and very dark.  Hollywood probably would never touch it, given the amount of SFX that it would take to make it happen.  But the gaming audience is far more accepting of things like strange steampunk floating cities with temporo-spatial rifts in 1912.
  • The story is longer than the usual film 2-3 hours.  
  • Other game mechanics can be used to evoke particular feelings.  For example, your sidekick Elizabeth will find things like ammo, health kits, and salts (think of them as mana potions) during fights and toss them to you (when you press the F key).  But there's a critical point in the game where you are separated, and you set out to find her again.  You must fight your way past some people in an environment where ammunition and salts are not really available, so the loss of Elizabeth's help gives you a sense of loss on the level of the game mechanics, not just the story.
It's not a film. It's not supposed to be.  Complaining that it doesn't have the pacing of a film misses the point.  I think Bright actually missed where the game is, because of comments like this:

When playing Infinite there's an uneasy tension. You can either respect the pace and plotting ofBioShock Infinite's story, or you can set the story to one side, killing any sense of urgency but giving you the time to explore.

And this:

For example, I discovered one minor secret "backwards"; I came across a locked chest after visiting the area in which its key could be found.
The first time I went through the location with the key, things were relatively quiet and peaceful—the perfect mood for hunting for items. However, between finding the chest and backtracking to retrieve the key, I unleashed hell in the service of advancing the plot. The result was that rather than hunting for the key in a quiet lull, I was opening boxes and searching the floor in the middle of all-out warfare.
It was incongruous. This was meant to be an exciting, action-packed part of the game, with significant implications for the game universe, and I was walking around looking for a key, completely disregarding the mayhem around me. 
So the issue is that Bright was never really in character.

I have a long, long history of tabletop RPG (some might say a 3000-year history!).  One of the fundamentals of tabletop RPG is "playing in character".  Speak in first person.  Tell the GM "I search the room" or "I shoot the sniper on the rooftop", not "My character searches the room" or "Booker shoots the sniper on the rooftop".   Sometimes, I have to ignore the fact that I have fabulous red hair, and be in character as someone with short, ordinary black hair.

Likewise, when you say things to the other players, you do your best to speak in the characters voice.  More importantly for our purposes here, you do your best to do things that seem consistent with what your character's motivations are, or to find a way to solve problems in-game.

This makes all the difference, even though it doesn't necessarily dictate any other action.  If you felt anxious about advancing the plot, then don't drop everything to search for secrets.  Ignore them.  (This is pretty much what I did, I got stuff when I saw it or could, and mostly just kept going forward.)

But if you want to search around for stuff, then perhaps, in character, you can find a motivation for that.  Perhaps you, Booker, are really curious about what happened and you want to find as many voxophones as you can to solve the mystery.   (By the way, contrary to what Bright says, you don't need to find all of these recordings for the plot to make any sense.  I found many, but by no means all of them.  And the plot made sense.  Well, as much as it can.)

Or perhaps you, Booker, are really worried about whether you'll have enough resources to make it through (it quickly looks like you'll have to battle an entire city) and so he will stop and search out other resources.   There's nothing that says you can't first kill the guys shooting at you and then search for more loot, after all.

Those kinds of considerations are something that I consider fun, which is perhaps an odd word for such a dark-hued game.

So I'm afraid that some of the immaturity that he complains about is not in the games, but in the gamers.  There are still choices that matter here - but they matter to your experience of the game, not so much to it's in-game outcome.   And getting into character, identifying with Booker and his past, is what makes this game work so powerfully.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Introducing Rufflebutt

In the last post, I mentioned how my daughter had dragged me into playing GW2.   Here is a screenie of Rufflebutt the Barbarian.

She grew up (known as a family in-joke as ThingOne, taken from The Cat in the Hat) with us playing MMO's.  She was 10 years old when Everquest launched, I think we started playing before she turned 11.

At the first, we had just one account, I got it as a gift for my beloved spouse, who had been playing a text MUD available through AOL.  I think my evenings in those days were spent with Mario64 and Ocarina of Time, and so on.

Well, she had a blast (my wife) and I started a toon on her account.  Yes, I know you weren't supposed to do that.  It was a monk, Aquino.   But it soon became clear that This Would Not Do.

So I got my own account.   And the first toon I rolled up on it was our beloved, fabulous redhead.  Although his hair wasn't terribly red, or terribly fabulous given the state of Everquest graphics.

As time marched on Things One and Two became interested in the game.  Apparently they also thought it was a bit weird.  Kids are like that.

Later, as a young adult, she would sit in our living room with her laptop and talk to her friends over Skype, sometimes doing a "tabletop" RPG via IM and talking in voice.   I have danced over voice chat with some of her friends, forging an alliance with them, our mutual dark purpose being her mortification.  I'm not sure I was wholly successful, though.

Now she's off in Art School, though she wants to be an illustrator, not a modeler or game artist.  And playing MMO's on her own.  A few weeks ago, she posted this on Google+:

So tonight we ran a dungeon in Guild Wars 2 ... Now, I generally play MMOs with the vaunted method of "solo EVERYTHING", so I have no idea how to shot dungeon strategy, and all but one of the rest of us hadn't done any of the GW dungeons. The dungeons in guild wars are MUCH harder than normal PVE, and the one we chose, Ascalonian Catacombs, is apparently one of the hardest in the game.

So we died a lot. It was still a ton of fun (and you make some serious bank), but there was much death to be had.

It was at the point where we were switching to a third strategy to fight a particularly ornery pair of bosses that I suddenly remembered my dad doing raids in Everquest and Everquest 2. As a kid who played WoW by pretending no one else playing the game existed (which is still the best way to actually play WoW), it all seemed silly, and sometimes kind of annoying, that we'd have several hours in an evening with he and mom screaming at guildmates over vent as Vox used them as a human yo-yo. How was that possibly fun?

And now, at nearly three in the morning after a dungeon we started ...four hours ago, I just want to say; [Dad], I get it now.
Yesterday, I asked her if it would be OK to post this to TT.  She said yes, but then a few hours later, posted a link to Paint Stains and Video Games, a blog that she had just been inspired to create.  The first post is titled "My Father's Daughter".    In it, she says this:

I got asked if he could quote a post in his blog. My phone rebelled telling him sure whatever. I went and looked up the blog later. I still thought it was kind of dorky. There was a 'create journal' button over in the top corner. 
Being dorky or dumb didn't mean I was immune, clearly.
Dorky? Dumb?  I'm calling her "Serpent's Tooth" from here on.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Playing Guild Wars 2

First my daughter started playing.  She calls her character Rufflebutt the Barbarian.  She posted screenshots to Google+.

Then my wife, Lobi, started playing, and telling me how much fun she was having.  I was still busy playing Torchlight II solo and with friends.

Finally Dusty Monk posted about his Mesmer.   Given the choices of classes in GW2, it was inevitably the right one for Toldain to be, even though it doesn't actually let you, you know, mez anything.  (Of course I was going to play Toldain, don't be silly!)

So I sighed, and popped off to the store for the game.  Actually, I kept playing Torchlight II until I at least finished the main story arc.  Then I popped off to the store.

Installed from the DVD's, and then - hurry up and wait for all the updates.   That took basically all night and then some.  Sigh.   I'm hearing Carly Simon, and thinking of ketchup:

Of course, when I start the first character I create is my beloved, 3000 year-old-redhead.  However, there are no "elves" in this game.  Sylvari is kind of the corresponding thing to elves, but they are really more of a wood-elf thing.  They have the potential longevity to front Toldain's 3000 years, too.

But the hair!   I don't want leaves for hair, I want fabulousness!   I can have red leaves, but that just didn't cut it for me in the end.

So I created Toldain as a human, a noble human.  Except that secretly, he's still an elf who slipped through an interdimensional rift and wound up in Tyria.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

I'm somewhat like Wilhelm in that I always try for the same look, at least in the first character.  He says, of GW2:

I always just try to make me, and this time around the “me” seemed a bit more effeminate than I would like to imagine myself, in an anime hero, pretty boy, male model sort of way. 
Of course, when it comes to Toldain, being a pretty boy is a good thing.   And my hair did come out looking very fabulous.

Actually, it's pretty much the exact hairstyle, color, and facial shape that Toldain had in EQ2.  I am very pleased.  The ears aren't pointy, though.  Sadly, it's very hard to get much of a closeup, at least out in the field.   I'll try to get a better one.

Let's go over a few of my likes and dislikes about the game:

Events and Frictionless Cooperation

This is by far my favorite aspect of the game.  Something's happening in the world, and you can just jump in and do something about it.   Other people will be doing it, too.   

Bandits are trying to poison the water reservoir.  Can you stop them?   If not, then the reservoir is poisoned and you have to try and collect poison globules and bring them to a brainiac, so he can make an antidote.   It's a chance for redemption.  I don't know what happens if this fails, or if it can fail.

But I like the dynamic aspect of it.  I like that there is frictionless co-operation.  In fact, most of the game is built around the idea of "frictionless cooperation".  If I do buffs, they affect allies that are close to me, they don't have to be grouped with me.  Experience, karma, and loot are applied to everyone, there's no need to group, nor is there any sense of kill-stealing.   Yes, this would allow power-leveling, except that the game automatically reduces your level to the maximum level of any area.   Leveled-down characters do seem to be slightly more powerful than true-level characters, but what the heck.

This is frictionless mentoring.   You can just wander into a noob zone and help people, and their's shared risk.  This is what I've been wanting from an MMO ever since EQ2 got this so, so wrong.

Only One Hotbar

You have only one hotbar.  Half of the 10 slots (well, really there are 14, with F1-4 adding more) are predetermined by your choice of weapon.  The other half are chosen from two pools, which you unlock over time with points garnered from mini-challenges within the game.   

The thing I like the most about this is that it presents the possibility of strategy being important.  It's easy to switch weapons when you aren't in a fight, but not so easy when you're in one.  Slot skills can't be switched at all, and you can only switch from one weapon set to one other set, and there's a cooldown on switching back.

At first, the approach among players seems to be "which of the possibilities do I like the best" and they will pick a combination and stick with it.   Psychochild complained that with his engineer he seemed to stick to one thing.   However, there's a huge potential space here, and one that I'm having enormous fun  learning and thinking about.

Persistent Buy and Sell Orders

EQ2 had a "persistent sell order" model.  Player merchants would offer things for sale at a set price and other players could buy them or not.  EVE Online added the persistent buy order, where you put up money and an offer price, and players with stuff to sell could just dump them down.

Of course, a persistent buy order doesn't work if there's no friction to selling, and it's not clear whether there is much friction to selling.   ArenaNet has made it incredibly easy to sell stuff on the Trading Post, and harder to buy.  Selling can be done anywhere, and you can empty your bags in the field.  

There must be some limit to how many sell orders you have, right?   Otherwise there's a spam issue.  I haven't seen it, though.

I prefer this kind of selling to auction selling, especially the sort of auction that charges you even if what you auctioned didn't sell.   That's sort of necessary because of spam.  But it has a chilling effect on sellers, which means that often in mature games with auctions (LOTRO) there would be categories of items that just didn't exist.  It wasn't worth the risk/effort/friction to bother to sell low-tier ore, etc.  This will not be an issue in GW2, I think.  

The Trading Post is not very good for economic game play.  There is almost no opportunity for arbitrage, because it's so easy to sell.  Prices are driven way down.  This is good for buyers and not for sellers.  But I think that's probably what they wanted.   Economic gameplay is secondary to killing stuff.  This isn't EVE Online.


The game is beautiful.  I upgraded my system to play it, getting a quad-core AMD chip, a lot more memory, and a SSD.  I kept my fairly recent gfx card, though.   However, I ended up having a cooling problem.   The computer had this bad habit of just overheating and shutting off at awkward moments.

Dialing down the gfx features didn't seem to help.   So then I found that it was on free-run framerate.  So dialing down the gfx features probably meant that each frame rendered faster, giving me a higher framerate and thus making my cpu overheat even faster!  Sigh.

However, I went out and bought a liquid cooling system and installed it.  Now the thing runs fabulously, in much higher res and art settings.  I will have new screenies soon, I think this is at reduced settings:

Exploration, Viewpoints, and Jumping Puzzles

I have Achiever habits, but I'm really an Explorer and Socializer at heart.  Each area has lots of places to find.  In the lower left of the screenshot above is a vertical streak of light with some sort of flag or parchment on it.  If you look closely, you will see my 3000-year-old self standing next to it.  This is a viewpoint.   You get some experience for finding them, as well as a breathtaking view of the gorgeous graphics.

(By the way, since this whole MMO thing started it's either got a lot easier to hire more artists, or a lot easier for  an artist to drop a buttload of architecture into a game.  Probably both.)

Sometimes it isn't all that easy to figure out how to get to these spots.  Sometimes it involves combat, sometimes it involves jumping places.  Sometimes there's both.   I got a viewpoint last night in Kessex Hills that required a blind jump off a cliff.  I was rewarded with a little exp and a breathtaking view of a waterfall.  Which like the in-the-moment rube I am, I completely forgot to screenshot.

It doesn't matter. I love this.  I got all 50 stars in Mario64, after all.  I haven't done a true "jumping puzzle" yet, I look forward to it.

Server Interaction

All of your toons must be on the same server.  I imagine this made more sense when you could arrange to do an instance or otherwise hang out or do battle with people on another server.   However, this isn't working now.   So I can't play a toon on my daughter's server.  I could move everything there, but it's marked as very high load.  And if I'm sitting in a queue for an hour waiting to log on, I'm not actually playing with her, am I?

I really like the EVE Online model where everyone is in the same universe.  In a fantasy MMO, however, putting that many people in one place would pretty much crash everyone's experience, both from graphics, and from server lag.   Still I can dream, can't I?

I'd really like them to get this working.

Last words

I leave you with my Asura Engineer, Festus Wockle.   Festus comes from tabletop RPGs, where he was a gnome with a high voice, an inclination to sing, a love of bright colors, no fashion sense, and a slightly irritating manner.   I think he's realized quite well.  I love all the techno-gibberish in some of the Metrica quests, or whatever they are called now.  I look forward to seeing what they've done with the other races.

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Monday, November 05, 2012

Getting the Band Back Together

Somehow, a few summers ago, we all stopped playing Everquest 2.   I stopped logging in because when I did, no one else was logged in.  I moved on to other things.  I played EVE Online for a while.  I tried out DDO.   We had some fun with that, but one of the key members of our little band, Milia Flibertigibbet, didn't care for it.  And these days, where Milia goes (or doesn't) Jioja goes as well (or not).

Phritz and Lobi and Karaya and yours fabulously truly made a go of it for a while, but that kind of ran out of steam as well.  I think the changes to AC and attack rating were kind of the straw that broke the camel's back.

However, Milia reported on Facebook having fun with Torchlight and suggested Diablo III or possibly Torchlight 2 (which was announced as having a multiplayer mode, even though Torchlight did not) as a game we could all get together with.

Torchlight II launched a few weeks back, and all of us jumped into it.  We've been having a great time with it, and it's great to hear Milia's voice on coms again, even if only on weekends (time zone differences are hard).  Karaya is doing crazy builds that kick complete ass (no one is surprised).  Phritz is building armies of undead that swarm our enemies, and at least get in their way, and look impressive.  I have a redheaded embermage named Toldain, (of course).  However, unlike Torchlight, there appears to be no Charm spell in the game, so that's kind of sad.   Tolly is more along the lines of mad ranged dps and no hit points.   He also has a fluffy dog named Agnes, who throws a mean fireball.

So we had to figure out how to make internet shared instances.  At first we just made them and marked them "friends only" but that tag appears to be cosmetic.   Practically the first night we did it, someone none of us knew came into the instance, said hi, and wandered off to dungeon.  On subsequent nights, more obnoxious people came into the instance, so we started using a password.  Tagging a dungeon "friends only" appears to have no effect.  As opposed to searching for dungeons which are "friends only", which makes it easy for us to find each other.

Soon it developed that Milia had several alts, which was expected, which were all named "Milia", which was not.  And so the plot was hatched.  Phritz contacted us via side channels and fronted the idea that we would all level up toons named "Milia" and then all come into an instance with Milia, as a prank.   Of course, we loved the idea, and have been cooking it up for perhaps 3 weeks.

Our toons have been ready for maybe a week, and we've been waiting for the right opportunity - Milia is logged in and the rest of us available.  I'm sure that hurricane Sandy slowed us down, since it killed power at Karaya's house for several days.   But this Sunday morning the stars aligned.

Karaya, Milia, and I were doing some stuff to gather the Power Source for Nantiya, if memory serves.  I joined them with Festus, my engineer.  I began to wonder if I should wake up Lobi and Phritz, but the change from Daylight Savings Time was against me.   When Lobi woke up of her own accord and wandered out to me, a quick negotiation revealed that she wasn't quite willing to call Phritz and wake him up, neither was I.

So the dungeoning continued.  We completed the dungeon and were back at the Imperial Camp and afking and so on.  I sent a whisper to Nantiya that I was going to call Phritz, but I had no idea how we would work things.  Because, you see, it was Nantiya's instance.

If you leave an instance of the game that you created, you may not re-enter it.  The game persists on behalf of other players that may be in it, but once they leave, it disappears.  But in order for Nantiya to log in as Milia, she would have to leave.   I called Phritz and told him, "we're all online, I have no idea how we're going to arrange this."

Once we are all online, Lobi asks, "what's the lowest level toon y'all have?"  There are replies of, "sixteen" and "twenty" and thereabouts.  For all of us, we're speaking of our Milia.   So Lobi says she wants to play her low level toon, could we do that.  Sure, we say.  Lobi says, "Ok, I've started an instance, come join me."

Phritz chirps up with, "Log on, Milia".   Milia, after a moment, says, "Oh, you!" or something.  She is being teased about having many toons named Milia.

So we start logging in.   Milia says, on voice coms, "I see two Milias in game, does anyone else see two Milias?"   Since I'm looking at a list of four Milias currently in game, I say, "I don't see two Milias".

Soon we are all gathered around her in the Estherian Enclave and the game is up.  "You're all named Milia," she says.  It is precious moment.

Three of us are outlanders.  My toon is a berserker.  Four of us, I think, have cats as pets.  This is because Milia's cat is legendary for it's desire to either disrupt Milia's game, or play it with us of it's own accord.  (Perhaps I should state that in the plural, since I'm pretty sure there's been more than one cat climbing across her laptop's keyboard as she stomps orc butt from the cozy confines of her bed.)

Our DPS is nothing short of amazing.  The game will scale the number of mobs you face for the number of characters nearby, but they do not stand up to us for any length of time.  In short order, we are ready for the boss.

This fight doesn't go quite so well.  The Grand Regent has a ton of hit points, summons lots of friends and has a few hits that go right to the bone.  I died a few times before I remembered to run away periodically so that I can heal before diving back in.

Finally, The Grand Regent is vanquished (I will avoid gendered pronouns, it is a hideous thing from dimensions that know only insane gibberings.  I think gender is at best a meaningless concept to it.)  And we do the "run around and grab up all the loot and coin dance."

And thus ended the saga of the Five Milias, which is sure to go down as only slightly less noteworthy than the Seven Samurai, the Forty-Seven Ronin, or the Twelve Angry Men.

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

In Which I Invoke Robert Johnson to Talk About Storybricks

Let's get the cliches out of the way.   With the failure of 38 Studios, and the, well, mixed success would be a polite way of describing Star Wars: The Old Republic, it's clear that the MMO world is at a bit of a crossroads.   (This is where Robert Johnson, he who learned to play guitar when he met the Devil at the crossroads, comes in).  These failures are very, very different, but still, it gets you wondering whether MMO's have any future at all.

Here's stuff that I know to be true:   People like adventuring and computer gaming.   That's still true.   People also like doing it together.

I see two big issues with the MMO model.    First is the lack of social contract between players.

In any tabletop game, there is a social contract.    The players and GM will agree to meet at certain times, to play with certain rules, and often, on what the focus of the group will be within the world of the setting, be it home-brew or store-bought.   There was also some agreement as to decorum and language.    I'm not just talking about coarse language, but also about homophobia, or political commentary, and so on.    What sort of things are talked about in OOC, and in what way...

Not all groups start this way, but any good tabletop game ends up with a sense of shared mission among the players.    MMO's completely lacked this.   Small groups could recreate this, and the raiding game could give a guild this.   The lack of social contract in the population of an MMO at large has been highly corrosive to the public aspect of these games, which is why pick-up groups have become such a problem.   The best pickup group these days just pounds through an instance at top speed, saying almost nothing to each other.

The second problem with MMO's is their persistent nature.   Player characters can defeat great evils and destroy threats, and they will respawn in 15 minutes, so that the next group of PC's can defeat them.

The drive to have an impact has shown up in such things as appearance gear and house (and guild hall) decoration.   Players absolutely loved these features in EQ2, who did them better than anything else I've seen, though I'm by no means a sampler of all things MMO.

I think the drive to have an impact on the world is also what drives people to grief.   Developmental psychologists will tell you that children will repeat whatever behavior got them the most attention, regardless of whether that attention is positive or negative.    There's also a bit of regression involved as well - since most gamers these days, even though they are now adults, started gaming when they were children, they continue to behave as children while they are gaming.    But that's back to the social contract issue.

In single-player games like Skyrim or Mass Effect (I, II, and III) the player's choices have consequences to the world.   You get to decide whether the Stormcloaks win or the Empire wins.   It's not prejudged for you either, there's no obvious "good guy".    In ME, what you do will have consequences later on, consequences which you might not have been able to foresee.

You can't have this experience in most MMO's.     Of course, the one exception to all this is EVE Online.   You can build space stations in EVE, and you can blow them up.   You can build ships, and you can destroy them.   When you mine out an asteroid field it's gone, although another one will pop up soon.  However, since there are a large, but limited number of spaces for space stations and mining and so on, it is absolutely necessary that EVE be PVP, and that the game mechanics not preclude players blowing up other players stuff.

Which means that EVE has a social contract, of sorts.   The contract is roughly a lowest-common-denominator contract - anything goes, as long as you're not hacking the game system itself.  Lie, cheat, steal, ambush - go for it.   If you're ok with that as a social contract within the game, then EVE offers you the possibility of doing things that impact everyone.   Things like Jita Burns

However, if that's not the social contract you're interested in, there isn't much out there for you.

So, those are the problems that we face today.   However,  there are some things that are still true.

  • People like to play computer games.
  • People like to play those games with other people sometimes.
  • People like to have adventures.
  • People like to express themselves.
I have a long background of tabletop gaming.   I've played in weekend-long face-to-face live-action RP games.   We played with about 50 other people, with pre-set characters and a one-shot scenario and plot.   It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.    However, LARPS of this character require an extraordinary effort on the part of the writers, with not much payback.

I think that to go where I want to go, then, will require more participation by non-paid GM's, and worlds (servers you could call them) that have smaller populations.   And those GM's are going to need lots of tools to help them create interesting worlds for their friends to play in.

And that's where Storybricks comes in.   The point is to build tools that will let non-professionals populate a world with characters that do things that seem human and reasonable and not simply "one-path"  amusement park rides.   It's an interesting approach.

After getting walked through the tool by Kelly Heckman and Brian "Psychochild" Green,  I spent some time last week (while on vacation) playing with their demo toy.

Before I tell you my reaction to it, I want to tell you a story from my mundane software development days.   Another guy in my group took over a parallel-C programming language product about the time I started work.   We had a parallel FORTRAN project that was very popular.    He found that there were very few customer reported bugs, but as he worked on it, he found a lot of problems on his own and fixed them.   With a new release, the customer-reported bug rate went way, way up.

At first this disappointed him, until he realized that what it all meant is that before his work, everyone had written off the product, and weren't trying to use it at all.  Now, they were encouraged enough to file bug reports.   They cared.

With regard to Storybricks, I found that I had several frustrations with the demo, but on reflection, all those frustrations mean one thing, I want to use this tool more, and I want it to be better, so that I can do more with it.   And that's a good thing.

The 3D browser package Unity3D isn't very stable.   I had several crashes and freezes, which were frustrating.   Currently the only models available in the game are male, and this was an issue for me.   I wanted to be able to name the characters myself.   I wanted to be able to create new objects.   I had problems with the program not saving the dialog I typed into certain boxes.   I want to create a character named Toldain with fabulous red hair, you know I do!

With my software developer hat on, I understand all of these problems.  It's a demo, not even an alpha.   And my frustration means, among other things, that I want to use this more.

My personal efforts, in my spare time, are to push tabletop gaming into the cloud more - to go turn-based, social, and maybe even mobile, to exploit what computers can do to make things simpler for users and GM's.    I would preserve the "live" GM, if for no other reason than I want players to be able to pick up a fork at the dinner table and stab someone with it.    In a programmed world, forks are for eating and swords are for stabbing.    Bridging the gap is a deep, deep AI problem, which as far as I know has been outstanding for 30 years.   So my approach is "keep the GM and give them tools to make their life easier".

Storybricks is working on the same problem, but from another direction.   They are trying to push MMO's in the direction of tabletop RPG's.  Or as the phrase is in the MMO world, towards more "user generated content".  It's a welcome approach to me, and I support it.  The world is full of very creative people who do really cool stuff in their spare time.  If you don't believe me, cruise YouTube some time.  So let's give some of those creative people the ability to create multiplayer online roleplaying experiences.

Anyway, I'm pledging to their Kickstarter campaign, and so should you.   As I write this, there's about 25 hours left.    Show some support.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Tunneling Horde

I run a D&D 4e campaign about once a month. A couple of old friends, my wife and my daughter play in it. We met last weekend. The party had a new mission - In exchange for a draconic artifact that they needed to gather, an ancient green dragon named Or'rin had asked them to take out a temple of Lolth that was near his territory. In part, this is because the priestesses were subverting the kobolds that Or'rin felt he should have absolute sway over.

What's interesting about this run is that after the usual travel time and roleplay of character beats, things took a turn to the unexpected.

Even though the group meets face-to-face, I run them using Maptools. I love how maptools can handle line of sight and fog of war. I can put stuff on the map and have it be hidden from them. Also, it has a macro capability that allowed me to run a lot of monsters without utterly losing track of who has how many hit points and which powers and so on.

So I'd spent about 10 hours laying out the map to the temple of Lolth, which was carved into the side of a mountain. I hadn't fully populated it, because I ran out of time. And I figured that they had to come in the front door, that was the only one, right?

So I put an encounter outside the door, so they could have a taste of combat for the day, and figured the rest of the day would be taken up in roleplay and travel.

We had some good roleplay - first, the party stopped by to check on some Rage Drake eggs that were about to hatch, and which they hoped to turn into mounts. So they were present for the hatching so that they could each imprint on a hatchling. Gnf, the gnome wizard, tried speaking Draconic to his, but he rolled badly and the hatchling widdled on him.

After this and some other roleplay, the party got to the Forest of Wyrms (yes, I'm using the Forgotten Realms map), and did some scouting. During the scouting, the Ranger Aprilane said, "Hey, didn't we have a scroll of Control Insect?"

About that scroll. Many levels ago, the party was charged with transporting a shipment of gold from one city to another. A group of thieves tried to steal the gold by subverting an entire colony of Giant Ants to carry away the gold at night. The scroll was the explanation for how they did that. As in, I made it up. D&D 4e doesn't even recognize the category "insect".

I arbitrarily assigned the level of the ritual to be 12. After all, controlling insects wasn't something I wanted the then-4th-level party doing on a regular basis.

As it turns out, the party is now level 12. In particular Gnf, the wizard who can cast rituals, is level 12. So he learned it, and they started scouring the Forest for insects.

This was something of a crisis point for me. The adventure had come off the rails a bit, but they were worried about assaulting a temple, and some extra cannon-fodder wouldn't be a big deal, right? Right?

I kind of believe in having plans AND in improvising. So I figured, we'll take this idea and run with it. I scanned through the Monster Manual for insects that I thought might be found in the area, and rolled some chance of which the ranger could find.

I came up with Stirges (mosquitos, right?), various beetles, and Kruthiks. I figured they'd go for stirges, since the swarm of stirges was the highest level - 9th, and so had some chance of dealing damage on "level-appropriate" encounters.

But then they started talking about digging holes into the temple. I looked more closely at the Kruthiks. It says here that the adults have a movement mode of "burrow 3 (tunneling)". Looking this up in the glossary, I found that they could go half speed through hard rock.

So, every round, with 2 movement actions, these Kruthiks can carve three squares through solid rock. And Gnf has the means to control them for 24 hours.

He managed to target and control the Hive Lord, and so despite the fact that he had direct control of only a third of the others, the rest of them followed the Hive Lord to protect him. So we now had a horde amassed of 12 adults, 14 young, and 21 hatchling Kruthiks, one half-orc fighter, one drow fighter (their liaison with Or'rin), one half-elf bard, one human ranger and a Kalimshite avenger, dedicated to destroying the enemies of Selune, along with the Hive Lord and a gnome wizard riding him.

They then made a 10 hour hike over some low mountains, to avoid detection, and commenced tunneling. I gave this a visual representation in my map below. Bear in mind they knew only where the entrance to the Temple was. Oh yes, they had recruited some goblins to play tricks on the perimeter guards at just the right time, so they were distracted and had little chance to notice the Horde. You see, the bard has hung out with goblins a LOT, and knows just how to impress them and befriend them.

They dug through, round by round, with me laying down a different texture and removing the vision blocking layer that represented the stone walls. After maybe 10 rounds they broke through! This was the picture:

Not exactly state-of-the-art graphics. Red diamonds indicate Kruthiks under control, red dots distinguish adults from young. The smaller ones are hatchlings.

I tell this story because it's fun. And I want to illustrate why tabletop is still interesting to me in these days of Skyrim. Don't get me wrong, I love Skyrim. I want to play it with other people. I don't know that it's possible though to do the sort of improvisation in a computer game that's possible when there's a GM. Of course, that's what makes PvP games so interesting to their audience - there's another person there, and they might do anything.

I want to build this kind of game up. Some claim the tabletop game is dying. Wizards of the Coast has admitted to be working on D&D Next, and they are making a virtual tabletop part of the whole deal. I don't have a lot of confidence in their ability to produce good software though. It's hard to do even for companies where it's their core business.

But I want the live GM aspect of tabletop gaming to remain. And so I want tools that enhance a person's ability to tell a story, not tools that eliminate the need of a GM. It's perhaps a subtle difference.

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