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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hoisted from Comments: Psychochild on RE5 and Legitimacy

Psychochild has a very good comment on an earlier post:

This could be an emotional Rorschach test. The scene in a game shows a bunch of black people beating a bloody sack, do you:

1. think they're killing an innocent?
2. think they could be killing a threat?
3. withhold judgment?

Part of the problem with that scene is that horror movies and (especially) horror games thrive off of ambiguity. Not knowing if that body ahead is a real corpse or a motionless zombie is what makes the Resident Evil games so suspenseful. But, you take that ambiguity and apply it to a different area and suddenly you're stomping on culturally sensitive areas.

Of course, this could also be a calculated PR stunt by Capcom. Put a bunch of questionably racist stuff in the game, let the mainstream press get in a tizzy about it, and get free coverage for your next big game. If this is the case, then it definitely goes against the struggle for legitimacy for games. Sadly, it's not easy to rule this out as a possibility, given the depths that game-related PR and marketing has gone to before.

On the other hand, I'm a bit worried that all this discussion might be happening just because it's a game. There might be perfectly acceptable explanations for the apparently racist scenes; as people point out, the white woman being dragged to her presumed death by the black zombies is actually a character from an earlier game. Even though the scene of the "black brutes dragging away the helpless white woman" is filled to the brim with racial issues, particularly in the U.S. It is a known technique to use a provocative image like that to challenge people's assumptions; I think it can be done well as long as it's appropriate to the story.

I firmly believe that art includes the ugly parts of life as well as the beautiful. And does anyone doubt that games can include "not-fun" stuff on the way to being fun?

In thinking about this issue, I find it useful to distinguish between the concept of "racism" and "bigotry". Racism I define to be the existence of associations on the emotional (non-thinking) level that are clustered around racial characteristics. That is, if you find black skinned characters to be more scary or more likely to be violent, you harbor racist associations. Here's the thing: most people do, and that includes me. If you don't believe me, try taking the Harvard Test of Implicit Associations.

The test gives you a simple task, pick quickly between two words that align with something "good" and something "bad". Maybe those two words exactly. But they try to confuse you by showing two pictures underneath those two words. And then they measure how many times you screw up. So, to be a bit more explicit, they measure how many times you clicked "bad" by mistake because "good" had a picture of a black person under it. It's very, ahem, sobering. At least they didn't measure my implicit associations with dwarves.

But bigotry takes those implicit associations and makes them explicit and entrenched. The kind of PR stunt that Psychochild refers to is a form of bigotry, or maybe it's the commercial equivalent of trolling.

Not being a bigot involves a process of awareness. Be aware of your biases, and evaluate the evidence against those biases, as well as the evidence for them. Allow for the possibility that you might be wrong.

I tend to evaluate art in a statistical way. One single act, cutscene, or character choice doesn't conclusively show racism, or more importantly, bigotry.

Let's take Tolkien, for instance. The racial context of LOTR includes the Southron men, allies of Sauron, being darker-skinned. Was that racist or simply geographical? It is quite likely that Tolkien had some racist associations, after all, I do, and he lived in a time of much greater segregation.

But I categorically reject the notion that Tolkien was bigoted. Many of the subplots and themes of LOTR deal specifically with overcoming prejudice. That's the meaning of Legolas' and Gimli's friendship. And of Frodo's determination to show mercy to Gollum, as set against Sam's better judgement. In the end Frodo failed, but do we think he was wrong to try. And Faramir has a speech wherein he says that the Southron men are just men caught up in something larger than themselves, who would likely rather be at home tending their fields or sitting by the fire. We see this lack of bigotry in Faramir as virtue, and we suspect we would never hear such a speech from Boromir.

On another recent post, Psychochild wrote:

If you make a black NPC then draw a attention to it, this can more appalling as not having any black characters at all. It's also complicated by the fact that many NPCs in MMOs aren't really fully-realized characters, but rather vending machines for quests or items or they are walking bags of xp and loot. The color of their skin really doesn't make a difference in terms of gameplay. But, if you ignore skin color and everyone's white, that can get you slapped with the "racist" label.

I can understand the reluctance of some game devs/writers to get into the racial issues, especially in MMO's. The point about many NPC's not being fully realized is well-taken. There's an important rule in writing: Write what you know. Most gamedevs, though not all, are white, and probably haven't been around blacks all that much. (Watching music videos and movies doesn't count, y'all) They are fearful of giving offense and want to avoid controversy, and want to not be racist, or to be called racist. Or they want to use racial controversy to gin up sales.

I urge developers that want to push the medium to, well, to get out more. Go to a black church, or a barbershop. Read some black bloggers, or some black novelists. Ta-Nehisi Coates loves comic books, WoW, and D&D, and he likes to have discussions about race, that might be a good start. The most important thing I think I've learned from reading him is that there is no single "black" point of view. No more than there is a "white" point of view.

Recently, I was nearly done checking out at a Borders bookstore when I realized, "hey, this guy at the register is black!" Before I started "getting out more", I would have been proud of the fact that I didn't notice. However, the consequence is that the black middle class becomes invisible, and our notion of what "black" is and what it means is skewed by the "squeaky wheels".

It doesn't have to be black, either. It could be Asian-, or Mexican-Americans. Or something else. Learn it, bring it to your work. MMO's have a natural advantage in that they are generally able to be a lot more responsive to their customer base. Which could result in them being a bit more experimental, and to engage in honest dialogue with their customers.

One of the great appeals of MMOs is the opportunity to "be someone else". I've written before about research that demonstrates that having a taller avatar influences your behavior. Which implies to me that MMO's and games in general could be a wonderful vehicle to experience a different point of view.

And have fun.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Social MMO's and PUGs

Tipa writes:

Most TSO missions I’m in — pickup groups every one, as Kasul and I are Nostalgia’s only active members doing TSO content and we’re far too few to form a group — end in failure, so it’s just a gigantic waste of time, usually taking more than an hour to finally abandon the mission with a pile of debt and repair bills.

At first I wondered what was up with that, and I still don't quite get it. But then I remembered the critical fact. The first few times we tried TSO instances, we wiped repeatedly, sometimes on the first named we met.

That's because many many nameds in TSO instances are what I'd call "trick" mobs. Back in my tabletop days we called them click-clicks, after a cartoon that appeared in the Dragon magazine that showed a glowing point of light monster called a "click-click" that was immune to everything you could throw at it, but if you yelled the word "October" at it, it died.

Nothing quite that blatant, but each of the TSO instances has at least one puzzle or trick or challenge to it. Once you've figured out what that trick is, and get everyone in the group on the same page, it becomes easier to progress. I propose to not spoil any of them here.

It's possible to look things up, but the writeups aren't always clearly written, or have every twist of the encounter recorded. We wiped on a queen bug in one of the Befallen instances quite a few times after reading the description.

But once I understood that there were puzzles to be solved, I was like a cockroach in seeking refuge in The Shadow Odyssey. I figured one puzzle out while lying face down in the dungeon just watching what was going on around me. It had started out as a feign death, but turned into a real one, which was a big shock. But it was also a big clue to what was going on with this encounter in Befallen's Necrotic Asylum.

To me, a few paltry deaths are totally worth the satisfaction of solving a puzzle.

I haven't been in a group that was a pure PUG for a while. I've been in groups that were part friends and filled out a couple slots with pickups. I've been called in as a replacement in a PUG to help with the last named, that had a guildie in it already.

Most of the people in these groups understand how the fights work. It might well be that they don't know all the ins and outs, or the whys, but they know what works.

And they share it. One of my pet peeves are groups that don't communicate well. And I've had some, to be sure. They assume you know what to do, or give cryptic explanations. Voice chat fixes this for the most part.

One of my favorite instance runs in the past several months consisted of going into a TSO instance completely cold with guildies and trying to figure it out. We died a fair bit, we made a lot of progress, too. We got most of the way through before some of us hit our timeouts. I can't think of a more fun experience. And the thing is, doing it with friends made it social.

EQ had a slow pace to it, dictated by dps rates versus mob hit points, and by power regen rates. This meant that there was time for the text chat between and even during fights. Healers and mages would sit during fights, and have nothing to do BUT chat. Those days are gone forever, I think. But socializing isn't dead, not on my server.

We chat in voice with guildies, and on guild chat. The server chats in the 70-79 channel and looks for group also in the level 1-9 channel, since everyone sees that, even if they are on an alt. People chat when they are shopping the broker, gathering, doing solo quests, and decorating their houses.

They don't chat much while tradeskilling, it takes too much attention. Nor do they chat much while in a group and actively working through a dungeon. Unless the group is really overpowered for the dungeon.

One of the most important innovations of EQ2 (WoW did it too) was to have health and power regenerate at different speeds depending on whether you were in combat or out of it. This change greatly reduced the time a group would have to spend between fights, and with better gear and buffs, most groups don't need to rest at all between fights. Furthermore, dungeons are often designed to reward fast clearing, with fast respawn, roamers and ring events with scheduled adds.

So most players these days have been trained to a fast-paced dungeoning style. I confess that I rather like it. Counter to this is the importance of keeping everyone in the group up to speed with what's happening. I think this is where many groups have a problem.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lessons of EQ2: Part 2

In part 1, I looked at David Sirlin's 2006 article "World of Warcraft Teaches the Wrong Things".

In particular, I wrote about the idea, as embodied in game design, that time spent means more than skill.

In this post, I'll look at Sirlin's second "wrong lesson"--the idea that group play is more important than solo play. First, let's let David have his say:

You can forget self-reliance, because you won't get far in World of Warcraft without a big guild. By design, playing alone (even if you are the best player in the world) will get you worse loot than if you always play in 5-man dungeons. If you always play in 5-man dungeons, you'll always get worse loot than if you play in 40-man raids. The player base has been hit over the head for so long with this notion of 40-man raids, that players are taking that as given. I see so many people who have been fooled into thinking this is justified, that it actually scares me. They think that you shouldn't be allowed to get good loot unless you do something with 39 other people, because that's harder. Coordinating 40 people is hard, but so is winning a Street Fighter tournament, which you have to do by yourself.

And then

As an introvert, I'm pretty outraged that this game is marginalizing my entire personality type. The developers repeatedly confirm that 40-man raids deserve the most powerful items. Many of the players are brainwashed by this poor assumption, often saying "It's an MMO, of course you have to group with 40 other people do accomplish anything." Ironically, World of Warcraft was originally founded on exactly the opposite idea. The game started off by saying that EverQuest had that philosophy, and that Warcraft will not. So much for that.

I'm sympathetic with David, at least a little bit. It seems WoW has pulled something of a bait and switch. It is possible to level a character all the way to the cap without ever grouping even once. It's not necessary, and you can do all kinds of interesting things. But as more players have reached the cap, and the game has matured, Blizzard, like every MMO company out there, has put in stuff to keep people interested, stuff like raiding, instances, etc. Which diminishes the impact of solo play.

It's tough to have something taken away from you. I sympathize.

I see two main questions as regards Everquest 2. First, is this true in EQ2? Second, is that, in fact, the wrong lesson?

Everquest 2 by and large offers greater rewards to raiders than to groupers, and greater rewards to groups than to solo players. There are a few exceptions, though.

The Band, Bangle, Bracelet, Earring, Signet, or Talisman of Thuuga is the reward for a quest line that is mostly solo. If you wanted the highest level challenge, you could maybe solo the whole thing, if you had the right class and the right set of god abilities. And it's going to take a lot of raiding before that item stops being part of your setup.

The Tynnonium Shackle is another solo-featured quest line. It's even hard to cheat it by doing it with a group instead of solo, though there are some parts, in the City of Mist, that seem to require a group. Someone I know may be able to solo in CoM (I'm looking at you Karaya!) but I certainly can't. But the challenge matches must be solo, you can't start them when you are grouped.

There are lots of other important stuff that can be done solo. All of the Lore and Legend stuff can be, though in a few cases, you might have to wait until certain heroic mobs go gray. Having a good Master Strike is important to many classes, though not necessarily to all.

But overall, it's clear that soloing in EQ2 is something you do when you can't get or can't afford to start a group right now. You don't have time, or you don't have the mood. There's still plenty to do that will advance your character, and is fun to do. You are having fun, right?

Unlike WoW, EQ2 has become more solo-friendly over time, rather than less. Sort of. The first version of the game did not distinguish between heroic and non-heroic mobs. So you could maybe solo whites in tier 1, blues in tier 2 and greens thereafter. The game went through a massive reorganization, and the heroic/non-heroic split was made. This was tough on lots of players: "Hey, yesterday I could take the lizardmen here in Feerott easy, and today they kick my ass! That's so unfair, I QUIT!" That's part of the game's evolution.

Eventually, we figured out that "Heroic" meant something important, and switched our UI so as to highlight it. SOE changed overland zones to have more solo-friendly mobs eventually, and kept the heroic stuff for dungeons, mostly. This concept has been broadened somewhat, and most players now understand the distinction, it's vital to survival.

But in any case, the game has been group-focused from the get-go. So there's less of a sense of "my pet toy has been broken".

But group play has been the focus of RPG's since long before there was an Ultima Online. Gygax designed D&D with character classes, the effect of which was to encourage cooperation and promote different roles within a party--a group. If you were rolling up a party to go dungeoning, you made sure you had a fighter, a cleric, a wizard and a thief or some variant if at all possible. Many a player tried to do everything, and ended up doing none of them well (D&D bard, I'm looking at you). This is a fundamental game design premise.

Other premises are possible: Diablo is an RPG that has classes more for replay value than to promote cooperation. Cooperative online play is possible with Diablo, but not the game design focus. But in the D&D/EQ lineage, cooperative team play is at the design center. If you want a game that rewards solo play equally, play a different game.

Teamwork is what attracts me to MMO's and to RPG's in general. I will have a critically important job to do at certain times, and at other times, I will be in the background. That's ok, that's what team play is about. Teams of competent people can do more than one, and two people cooperating can do more than two people doing their own thing. I don't find that an inappropriate life lesson at all.

And David knows this:

And yet, I also learned that no man is an island. ... The only way to become good is to play against others who are good. It takes a village to make a champion. You can't turn your back on the whole world because you NEED the community to improve. You must learn and train with them. It's pretty hard to do that without making some friends along the way, too.

You know, I like doing things that are unorthodox. Solo a heroic mob. Fight without a healer, or without a tank. Kill heroic content with just two people. Kill an Epicx2 with just 3 people. Sneak through a dungeon, just for the sheer joy of it. I like two-person groups. Lots of this stuff doesn't provide any external sign that you've done it--you don't get a title that says "Ace Two-person Grouper" or "I snuck to the bottom of Sebilis and all I got was this lousy Title" but that's ok with me. When you're 3000 years old, you don't have much to prove. Especially when the sexiness of your fabulous red hair is self-evident.

You want your teammates to be competent at their job, of course. And there are those who are not. That's just life.

If you're feeling jealous of what other people can do or what kind of gear they can get, I'm not one to say suck it up and ignore those feelings, though I used to be. I have learned to pay close attention to such feelings, as they are a sign that I should probably be doing something different. About a year ago, I bit the bullet, and respecced for DPS, got a parser, and started learning how to DPS with Toldain. Thus all the posts on it last year. This was after holding out for quite a long time that that wasn't my role, it's not what I do.

In fact, DPS still isn't the unique contribution of the Enchanter archetype, but a ssolid contribution can be made. I've got it up to a pretty respectable level, and I can also shine at my hallmark abilities: mezzing and power generation.

With a game-design hat on, I say there are some fairly simple things that could be done to please people like David. For one, add tournaments. The winner of this weeks tournament is the winner is the winner. There's a marketing problem here with existing games, the non-pvp players will be unhappy with renewed focus on pvp, but the implementation doesn't seem all that difficult to me. EQ2 has had a few games where a group plays with every toon for themselves, and a winner is declared and broadcast. LOTRO has something like this too.

However, I firmly believe that, as a player, the most important question to ask is, "am I having fun?" If the answer is "no", then something needs to change, and it needs to be something I have control over, which is usually NOT the game design.


Friday, February 13, 2009

MMO's Teach the Wrong Thing?

His post is nearly two years old, so maybe it's old helmet to a lot of you, though it just came up on another mostly-non-gaming blog I read. David Sirlin writes on Gamasutra about the fact that games, all games, teach real life lessons well beyond their window dressing. And that WoW, and by extension most MMO's, teach the wrong lessons.
To paraphrase David, the bad lessons are:

  • Time spent means more than skill.

  • Groups are more important that solo.

  • Guilds are all-important and exclusive.

  • It's not enough to follow the implementation of the game, you must adhere to "Terms of Service"

So, does time spent mean more than skill, and is that a bad thing or a good thing?

Grind to 80, raid 4 times a week, as a new part time job, get your mythical. That means you're a great player, right? Do enough TSO missions that you have a full set of high-tier armor and jewelry. That also means you're a good player, right? Farm (sparklies/rares/masters) endlessly to get enough cash for the adornments you need to trick yourself out.

I don't think this is wrong, but I don't think we'll ever be shot of it. At the core, what's behind this is the idea of meaningful work. Malcolm Gladwell's latest, "Outliers" addresses the concept in explaining high performance. He cites two main criteria to define "meaningful work":
  1. The work must be complex enough to not be boring
  2. The work must show an apparent benefit: working must show that things are different somehow in a way that you like, in a way that is readily apparent to you.

Most of the stuff in MMO's qualify under that definition. Even when you are working on something very long term, you get intermediate rewards. For example, I have earned the title "Exalted" from the Concordium by grinding many many writs for the Concordium. Most of them were in Lavastorm in my low 40's. Each time I finished a writ, I got a little more status and faction. Every once in a while, I passed a new faction level, and could get new titles and house stuff. And in the end I got the title "Exalted Toldain Darkwater", which I turned on so everyone could see it.

Was that skill or just time spent? Probably some of both. Commercial MMO's that use the subscription model have a financial interest in getting their players to keep playing, so they add in these time-consuming chores. Now a title has absolutely no effect on how well your character can carry out game functions, or how valuable you are to a group or a raid.

On the other hand, endless grinds for critically important gear creates a big problem in my mind. I'm not talking about a two hour instance. The endless grind for Void Shards gives me this feeling though. As does the long faction grind necessary for the tradeskill epic, and for the best tradeskill stuff in TSO. Perhaps the problem is that it gets too repetitive, and thus, boring.

In contrast is all the stuff one needed to do to get the Hammer that ported you to Jarsath Wastes. You needed to max out 3 factions, however, you could do this by doing quests, each one which had you doing something a little different, in a slightly different place. The final quest had some fun storytelling and animation to it as well. On the whole, a medium long task, but interesting and a unique reward.

Most people are motivated strongly by peer approval and want to be seen as competent or skilled. And to the more immature and/or insecure, that means they have to have the best gear, even if it means losing sleep and having no life outside of EQ2.

Leveling seems to carry some of this time-sink function as well, though I didn't always see it that way. But I'm not normal, when I log on, I ask myself "What can I do today that would be fun?" instead of "What can I do today that will level me up, or get me better gear". But as it stands, the "Ding" from leveling and the "grats" from your guildies makes it a big, non-random reward for playing.

For all of these things, some skill is required. There is a learning curve, and being better will make things go faster. But as in life, smarts only takes you so far, and there's a point where being smarter doesn't help -- you still have to put on your hair net and get to work on the assembly line.

MMO's employ positive (and negative!) reinforcement, maybe it should have been random reinforcement? The problem with non-random reinforcement, where you get a reward every time you do the desired behavior is this: If the rewards stop, so does the behavior.

Random reinforcement, where a behavior is rewarded sometimes, on an unpredictable schedule, reinforces behavior that "has legs". The reinforced behavior will die very slowly after all rewards have been removed. In order to use this principles, MMO's would have to be rethought from the ground up. For one thing, I think you'd have to get rid of leveling and quests. Ok, but where would the fun be?

Well, I can see from the length of this post that this is a rich topic, which I will have to return to. I started out thinking "Right on!" when I read David's assertion that "Time spent is more important than skill". Unfortunately, I'm not sure that that isn't an accurate lesson about life, if not a satisfying one.

Eighty percent of success is showing up -Woody Allen

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dept. of It's in the Air or Something

Synchronicity abounds. Or maybe he reads this blog. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about a scene in Resident Evil 5:

First, he quotes an article in Eurogamer:

One of the first things you see in the game, seconds after taking control of Chris Redfield, is a gang of African men brutally beating something in a sack. Animal or human, it's never revealed, but these are not infected Majini. There are no red bloodshot eyes. These are ordinary Africans, who stop and stare at you menacingly as you approach. Since the Majini are not undead corpses, and are capable of driving vehicles, handling weapons and even using guns, it makes the line between the infected monsters and African civilians uncomfortably vague. Where Africans are concerned, the game seems to be suggesting, bloodthirsty savagery just comes with the territory.

Then, he takes on the attitude, "It's just a game".

But if we're going to allow video games to enter into the world of adults, if we don't want to looked upon as boys in the bodies of men, then we have to be serious. Either this shit is real, or it ain't. You can't ask people to at once respect the creativity of gaming, and then tell them they can't critique it.

I think this is exactly what Psychochild was talking about when he asked game developers to respect themselves and their audience as artists.


Legitimacy in MMO's

Brian Green, also known as Psychochild, has an article up at Gamasutra called "Legitimacy for Game Developers". Brian identifies three kinds of legitimacy

Financial Legitimacy means making money and being a viable medium for business. Older media often do not have to worry about this type of legitimacy; for example, people rarely publish poetry with the hope of making a large profit -- it is often done as an act of prestige. Many new media, such as computer games, prove themselves in this area first and that helps gain other forms of legitimacy.

Artistic Legitimacy is how the people working in the medium see it. For example, how do you see your job as a game developer? Do you think you are making art? Do you think you're making mere entertainment?

Do you do games until you can break into a "real" creative medium like movies? Do just collect a paycheck? Do you work in games because of the creative opportunities? The answer to those questions influence how legitimate games are as a medium.

Cultural Legitimacy indicates how much society respects the medium. Is the medium worthwhile to spend time on, like reading books, or is it considered a waste of time? In many western societies, we respect the concept of "freedom of speech", where we allow people the right to express themselves freely.

Many attacks on creative media have been halted because of the protections afforded by this freedom. Book burnings are often seen as something abhorrent, an attack on the legitimate medium of writing. Yet, some people don't see the same problem with limiting the sale of video games to the point of harm to the medium. This is usually influenced by the other two forms of legitimacy.

I'm not really a big fan of capital-A "Art". It's kind of too self-absorbed. Rembrandt cranked out most of his paintings for rich Dutch merchants who used them as decorations at their lavish parties, more like flower arrangements than precious treasures.

On the other hand, games are a creative work that is meant to engage other people, and as such, it's art. I don't think Brian and I disagree on this point.

Ok, so art has this responsibility to dig up real emotion, to come from pain, to be authentic, to be personal. Robert Frost said, "no surprise for the author, no surprise for the reader." In other words, you can't fake it.

Yesterdays post on blacks on MMO's was a jumble. I apologize. I'm trying to figure out how an MMO can address some of the things about race that I'm currently thinking about.

One of the problems that MMO's have is in projecting character. You don't have much to work with: a few voiceovers, some text that lots of people just click through and don't read, and the character art work. The things that LOTRO has done with the "escort quest" help quite a bit, as the players accompany a character while she or he does stuff. More character and more story there. But it's tough. Player characters are meant to be the central figures in tabletop RPG's, and MMO's have a strong family lineage from them.

The most important stories to MMO RPG's are stories about your character. "I got my epic" is a favorite story, or "I got my Mythical" or sometimes "I made this really dumb mistake that got me wiped multiple times" can be told for, umm, comic relief.

That being the case, if a game dev tries to do the sorts of things to the players that writers routinely do to their characters, the players may nat take it well. "Hey, you, Brian Piccolo! You're going to get cancer and DIE!!!"

That's a good story, but only from the outside. That plot (Google "Brian's Song" for a blast from the past) wouldn't work in an MMO.

If you think about the film (or the book) "The Return of the King" structurally, it's all about death. Facing it, overcoming fear of it, and accepting it, and dying. How can one portray that in an MMO? You can't permanently kill players, and it's hard to portray characters that die, since in fifteen minutes, they will spring back to life so that the next group of heroes can experience their deaths.

I think it's possible to make an MMO with a story arc that involves the death of a favored NPC, but it would depend heavily on instancing and quest progression. As entertainment, it's a risk as well, since Americans at least don't seem all that fond of tragedy. We like our happy endings. But still, things like the success of Dr Horribles Singalong Blog, and for that matter, The Lord of the Rings make me think that maybe a little tragedy wouldn't be so terrible.

I haven't played WoW's latest expansion, but what tidbits I've heard make me think that Blizzard is trying to push the medium in this direction.

In EQ2, there's a quest line in TSO that took my character undercover among the boarfiends, where I didsovered a plot to kill the current Chief of the boarfiends. Since the new regime was likely to be a lot more hostile to us and our interests, we undertook to warn the Chief, but he ignored us, so we were given the task of assassinating the interloper. We fight him, but he runs away before we can kill him. We like to the robot who sent us on the mission, saying that he's been dealt with. We ended up adopting a baby pig which we were asked to destroy, since it's no longer useful.

I like this kind of bittersweet writing. It's done by someone who does take the art that they are doing seriously, as well as the imperative to entertain and engage.

Really, I think this quest line is a good direction.

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Weekend Missions

I did two full missions with guild groups this weekend. First we did Deep Forge, which I tanked with Fezzik, who is now tricked out in the first tier of void shard leather armor.

I was pretty pleased with how it went. Had very little trouble tanking all the trash in the place, as far as taking hits goes. I had Milia (a templar) and Kat (a Fury) for healing. The bosses were a bit hairy, especially right at the beginning, but I don't think I ever got into the red. Except for that time we wiped, of course.

But that was totally different. Really.

We were fighting Firelord Kaern. It was my first time fighting him, and in spite of the lengthy explanation my group gave to me about how the fight goes, they neglected to mention that I might be teleported to the middle of the lava that the "racetrack" you fight him on surrounds. So we kind of lost the thread when that happened. Got him the second time though. It's a cool fight, and I don't want to spoil it for those (probably few) of you that haven't done it yet.

Like most of the boss fights in TSO, he does something else that's tricky, but can be handled by keeping your eyes open and communicating well with each other. I don't know how you'd manage this fight without voice chat.

The other instance was Sunday morning in Najena's Hollow Tower. This is such a interestingly constructed zone. I played Toldain this time around. The weekend was our first after the change that made void shards into Heirloom items and thus sharable among your alts on the same account. That helps make up group composition a lot, since you can take who is needed rather than who needs shards.

In any case, we cleared all the bosses of this zone in a personal first. Karaya had managed it before and guided us through it. We had the most difficult time not with the final ring event orchestrated by Najena herself, but with Magmadin on the level above. The fast respawn of the drakes on that level turned small lapses of concentration into big problems. Honestly, I like stuff like that, because you can see the difference when we revived, took a break, and came back, got up our full focus and nailed it. That's a very satisfying experience.

The final ring event pretty much ran as expected, with one odd glitch. We downed the Reformed Magolemus, anc cleared the rest of the ring event, and headed down the steps to Najena's lair to get the discovery AA. And the ring event started again!

Oops! We weren't prepared for that and we wiped. But we'd finished the mission and the daily double, so we declared victory and went home.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blacks in MMO's

Prime, in honor of Black History Month, gives a rundown of black characters in video games and highlights how he thinks the gaming industry can do better.

Now, as a black gamer, I don’t want to single myself out in saying that creative black characters should entirely cater to representing me in whatever fashion. Nor do I exclusively desire to experience the personage of the black-American. What’s even more imperative is the element of portrayal, seen through the eyes and respective thought processes of all gamers. This unfortunately, is most commonly based on worldwide mainstream media and/or simple unfamiliarity. It’s no secret that the game industry–in the Western hemisphere–is mostly populated by white males, be they designers, artists, programmers, public relations executives, etc. Fairly and honestly, those in creative positions will more than not, imagine and implement characters in their likeness. The same can be said in the Eastern world of development, though what they are more successful at in doing is designing the white male character, and they do it often.

Ok, one point. Being a software developer and sometime gamedev, I think I can safely assert that we are generally very careful to make characters that aren't like us, because the general public would find that pretty boring. We want characters that are stronger, faster, better looking, braver and sexier than us. (I'm speaking in general here, most gamedevs don't have my fabulous sexy red hair.)

But one is always on safer ground making characters based on familiar people. It's the old "write what you know" thing. Otherwise you end up making caricatures. (Image from Prime.)

But there are lots of black people in America on the street and in the movies. So maybe folks could look around a bit more. Consider Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies. Prime mentions Will Smith in I am Legend. Queen Latifah is one of my favorites for black women, in Chicago and Taxi, they both used stereotypes and went beyond them. Any part that Samuel L. Jackson plays is both authentically black and way off the "black rails".

Lets look at EQ2. Skin tone can be chosen for many of the races, so you can play a black human or dwarf. The only black that elves seem to come in is the blue-black of a Tier'dal. I can't specifically recall if you can be a black barbarian (it doesn't seem very nordic, does it?) or a black gnome. Hmm, the gnome thing should be fixed, because gnomishness is really a state of mind now, isn't it?

There aren't any black hobbits. There weren't any in Tolkien either. Genetically speaking, there's no real reason for there not to be, but you'd have to find hobbits that had lived in a very warm climate for a long period of time. Erudite, at least in EQ1, were ALL black. There was this whole city of them, devoted to intellectual and scholarly pursuits. Not bad. Though Erudite culture is kind of weakly portrayed in the game as it stands today. If you never go into their ghettovillage, you might not know they exist. As opposed to Frogloks. Gnomes apparently suck up all the geek cred, leaving little room for the Erudite, who seem paler than they were in EQ1.

When I stop to think about memorable NPC's in-game, I realized that beyond Lucan D'Lere and Antonia Bayle, the most memorable NPC's are dragons. The whole black/white thing works in a very different way with dragons. Most of the other memorable NPC's are the evil boss of some dungeon. Varsoon, for example, or Mayong Mistmoore, I remember them, but mostly I remember that they wanted to kill me. I'm afraid I can't remember what species they were beyond humanoid. Varsoon is a lich, was he human once? Probably.

The other kind of NPC is the quest giver. None of them spring to mind as being black, but that could just be my memory. I find it actually kind of odd how I can not notice certain that certain people are black. The other day I bought some books at Borders, and got most of the way through the transaction when I realized the man checking me out was, in fact, black. He was a "Bill Cosby" kind of black man, though not as funny. By that I mean he wasn't shaved or threatening. He was middle-aged, and wore glasses. Really, just an ordinary American. AND he was black. The not-noticing thing bothers middle-class blacks, it makes them feel invisible. So I'm making an effort to notice.

Have you noticed any black quest-givers in game?

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