Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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Who’s the biggest geek?

February 28, 2008

I excitedly posted about the soon to be released World of Warcraft Minis on my guild forum a few weeks back, to which I got only one response. So I was pleased that Rock, Paper, Shotgun dedicated an entire post to the subject. What was most apparent was the seething ambivalence that surrounds spin-off merchandise. Many of the responses in the comments section displayed a distinct for not buying tie-in merchandise and a n admission of shame if they claimed ever to have boughti it. Even, the author of the piece, Kieron Gillen sheepishly admitted he was snobbish towards fiction based on computer game IPs.To save you reading through the comments here are a few that stood out:

“The only bit of supplemental games related cruft I’ve ever bought outside of my callow teens is the new Warhammer 40,000 Dark Heresy rpg game book thing. No intention of ever playing it, just liked loved the background fiction it presented in its words, pictures and layout. It’s really quite classy, and, as a result of being so impressed, I’ll probably wind up accumulating all the other background books as they dribble out over the course of the rest of the year. Curiously, and this references the peculiar snobbery about the whole business, I’d never buy any of the novels or other frightful tat, though.

“I used to read D&D fiction before I came to the realization that it was mostly quite dreadful.

“I once made the mistake of Wiki-ing Dawn of War. Having never played anything in the 40k universe outside of the rather thin on the ground (story wise) Space Crusade when I was about 10, I spent the next few hours clicking around and soaking it all in. That I was actually supposed to be revising at the time was of no concern. Cracking stuff, in a very cliched, popcorn way”

“And the miniatures? Maybe. I’ll see how I feel when they do come out. It’d be nice to have a one of Thrall (<3), but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal.

As I admitted in my post about Warcraft fiction, I’ve felt exactly the same kind of condescension towards game based novels, but I’m still curious as to why that’s the case. My first thought is that sci-fi, fantasy and gaming are all subjects that are looked down upon by mainstream society. Yes gaming is gradually pulling itself up, but there is still a fair majority of genrally middle aged and up types who don’t get it and the popular media still portrays it as the passtime of choice of the lonely antisocial teenage male. Fantasy is accepted if it’s for and about kids, but the second it’s aimed at adults it’s seen as the choice of lonely antisocial twenty or thirty something males. So given the lack of credibility with which these genres are taken it’s as though the fans make up for it by creating a strict hierarchy of the credible and the uncredible. It very much reminds me of the ‘Geek Hierarchy’ diagram that was floating round the web a few years back. I’ve helpfully added a new box to it…

The quote above that most caught my eye was the last one “…but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal”. This statement in a world where the album artwork from Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ album is expected to sell for £2.5million. Is it that for a generation of gamers anything that isn’t programmed with AI and immersively interactive isn’t considered worth paying for, or is it an extreme form of conservatism in the vein of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’? To filter Benjamin’s argument down to its basic point, he suggests that because the traditional artwork was unique in space and time it was unarguably ‘authentic’ and that the act of reproducing it so any old person could have a replica hanging from their wall and that this ineffect reduces the ‘aura’, in other words the authenticity, of the original. The strange thing is that computer games are commodities, digitally reproducible commodities at that, they are far from being unique pieces of artwork. But to be fair authenticity is a relative term, after all a unique pice of art is still a manufactured work. Authenticity in popular culture refers to the most original medium, in the same way that film adaptations of novels are usually seen to be inferior to the novels they’re based on. Books and models based on games are seen to be inferior to the games they’re based on. Perhaps the reason why is that these kinds of IP extensions are seen by the fans as milking the franchise, by dispassionate third parties in order to make money and therefore because they’re commercially driven as opposed to passionately created  they threaten to dilute the original work. And perhaps the other fear is that once you start buying the spin-offs you won’t be able to stop, but that’s another story.

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Games vs Books and Films

February 10, 2008

I’ve either got to write shorter posts, or learn to write faster, as by the time I get round to posting nowadays my subject matter tends to be weeks old. In this case it’s an article Gamasutra wrote about from way back January 10th. Thankfully Gamasutra and Cameron Sorden at Random Battle have also recently posted on the whole story/narrative subject, so it feels a bit more relevant to talk about my take on this one.

 
So way back in January, Tom Carroll compared the stories of Halo 3 and Lord of the Rings, a bit unfair you might think, but an interesting approach all the same. Unsurprisingly, Lord of the Rings won the contest, because in Tom’s opinion Halo 3 failed to satisfactorily tie up its storyline. Having not yet played Halo 3 (I have so many games I need to play/complete at the moment it just isn’t an option), I have to take his word for it. But is that really the definition of a good story: that it has a satisfactory resolution?

Lets’ take a game about whoch ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ have come up a lot and one that I’m far more familiar with, Bioshock. Now, my personal feeling was that the end of the game wasn’t hugely satisfying for me as a player. The reason I’ve italicized the last point, is as Cameron points out on his blog, that the player’s perspective is different to that of a viewer. In a typical film or book, the main character is controlled by someone other than you, the reader. You may empathise with them, maybe you can’t stand them, but what they do is out of your control. The other feature common to films and books is that you see the story from the point of view of other characters, you get to see what they’re thinking or plotting, whether it is beneficial or otherwise for the main character. Bear this in mind, because I think this has a big impact on my opinions of Bioshock. Like most people who played Bioshock I chose to harvest the little sisters and although I knew it was technically the ‘wrong’ choice to make in terms of the moral choices you face in the game as a player I was still quite surprised at the end that showing me/Jack attacking and killing the little sisters. It’s not that I was hugely surprised by the ending itself, but rather by the lack of pointers I was given along the way.

Cameron makes some really good points in his piece about the nature of story in games/MMOs, particularly that stories in games are often experienced over a matter of days, unlike films that are usually experienced in a couple of hours, so players tend to forget or lose interest in the storyline. Even in films however, viewers are constantly reminded about the drive of the storyline. A few months back I read Kristin Thompson’s Storytelling and the New Hollywood, a brilliant and influential book the basic premise of which is that the classic three act structure.

Attributed to Hollywood is in fact in error, and Hollywood films are better thought of as four act structures. Apart from this, Kristin analyses in great depth the craft of a number of Hollywood films from the 70s, 80s and 90s, in particular how they guide the viewer both subtly and unsubtly so that the story and character actions within the story make sense. I’ll use Groundhog Day (read this for a bit of geek humour on this subject) as an example here, because it has one very clear main protagonist, Bill Murray’s character Phil, and because of the Groundhog Day ‘curse’ his character essentially has a ‘reload’ function, sort of like a computer game. Despite the elaborate time repetition feature of the film, the underlying principle of the story is that Phil has to learn to be decent to women, if he is to have a happy and fulfilling life. Via the responses of other characters the film ensures that the audience are always able to follow which of Phil’s actions are wrong and which are right. For example there are number of scenes where Phil in his attempts to seduce Rita gets to various stages of success only to make the wrong move or say the wrong thing, to which Rita responds by storming off or slapping him – very simple but effective actions that signal failure.

 

 My point is, why couldn’t the NPCs in Bioshock given me the same unsubtle hints about the direction that my behavior was taking me? To some degree the AI in Oblivion gets this right, NPCs react differently to your character if he or she has a weapon unsheathed or if he or she has a disease. Given the more closed nature of Bioshock, adding these kind of NPC responses should have been a lot easier. In a recent Gamasutra article Bioware CEO Ray Muzyka claims that “”In BioShock, the narrative is expressed in an observant way that you might miss it… but it’s a watercooler talk thing, you can discuss it.” But this is in the opinion of the mass market, not a good story. Every story contains subtleties, but as the outcome is dependent on the players in-game choices, the potential outcome of these choices should be more apparent.

I think it is these kinds of cues that can transform the quality of story in games. Pure sandboxes have limited if enthusiastic proponents (see Second Life) most people want to feel they’re part of something bigger and that they can have some affect on it – but they do need clues as to how they’re proceeding. And no, that’s not the way it works in real life, but games aren’t real life and they shouldn’t ever aspire to be so.

The greatest difficulty with the kind of moral story that Bioshock tells would be trying to put it in an MMO context. There is no pre-scripted end to an MMO, so it’s not easy to ‘judge’ a character’s/player’s actions, it’s expected that other players will do the judging rather than any pre-scripted response. I’ve read a few suggestions that tackle this issue in respect to WoW (although I can’t remember where). The idea that Alliance players could get reputation with Horde factions and vice versa was suggested, that would require opposing faction players to complete some very difficult tasks as emissaries for the enemy, I also assume that PvP would not be an option, maybe unless provoked. It would be interesting to implement this idea just to see how many players were willing to give it a go, or if loyalty to their faction outweighed the desire for some cool benefits and rewards.

 

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MMO figures and Raph Koster (again)

December 28, 2007

Christmas at last, which means that I actually have time to sit down and write a post. First thing I want to talk about is this post by Raph Koster and this response by Tobold. I’ve written stuff about MMO figures in the past and although I tend to agree with Tobold on this one, I admit that Raph is making a valid point about the gaming industry in general, I just think that he has a particular goal in mind and that this goal has theu nfortunate distinction of winding gamers up. So what is Raph on about?

Take Raph’s new project, Metaplace, it’s clearly an attempt to break out of the ‘walled garden’ MMO concept of which even the ‘casual’, browser based MMOs he mentions so frequently are guilty, it also eschews multi-gigabyte client downloads and claims that users ca build whatever virtual world they like. Now, why would he come up with an idea like this? Well, the answer is clearly, accesibility. Raph wants to make an MMO (or at least provide the software for an MMO) that will appeal to as many people as possible, and from reading through his GDC Prime presentation this appears to be his goal for the game industry as a whole. I don’t think this is a bad thing and I particularly liked the way he highlighted how badly successful women can be treated in the largely male dominated world of gamers, yeah that’ll teach you to be attractive Jade Raymond…

I have done several presentations about gaming, MMOs, virtual worlds etc. to large multinationals over the last year and while they can just about get their heads round Second Life, the second you show them a picture of an orc or a dragon or whatever you generally lose them. Sure, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass can top the movie charts but playing a game where you pretend to be a character from one of these IPs is a whole different kettle of fish (unless you’re a kid, then it’s ok). So I understand that when Raph states that Habbo Hotel has a userbase that rivals WoW, he’s trying to normalise a genre or a medium that to most people is still quite weird. I understand that this sounds weird to gamers, can people really be so behind the times that they are oblivious to the steady growth and popularity of gaming over the last decade. The answer sadly is ‘yes’. I think it’s actually worse in the UK than it is in the States, where at least WoW crops up regularly in popular culture. This attitude towards gaming goes some way to explaining why Second Life has persisted in the media for so long despite its relatively low number of active users – it presents a very human face versus the WoWs, EQs, LotROs etc. By claiming that gaming/MMOs are now about branding (when have they ever not been?), celebrity and lifestyle maketing Raph is using langugae that is familiar, if not entirely unambiguous, to a mainstream marketing audience. Add to this Raph’s insistence that you can make great ROI on browser-based casual games vs the triple As of gaming-dom then Raph’s entire stance becomes apparent. I’m also unsurprised that many of the MMOs Raph namechecks are aimed at or have predominantly pre-adult user bases – as I’ve already mentioned it’s far more acceptable for kids to play computer games than adults, in fact I know some adults who won’t even admit to gaming in their workplaces for fear of ostracisation.

I certainly feel that games publishers/developers limit their audiences and can be more experimental with revenue channels, but I can also see why Raph’s spin on things can get gamer’s backs up, despite our growing numbers we’re still considered an odd lot – the lonely, male, loser stereotype predominates – and then along came WoW which proved all the naysayers wrong, has inserted itself into popular culture (moreso in the US than Europe I’m afriad) and is inherently social, and even then it’s being dismissed as second place to some crappy browser game with shit graphics and an audience of faddish 8 year olds who’ll happily gravitate to the next big thing in three months time.

And I think this last point is something Raph should remember. Facebook might be huge now, but so was Myspace three years ago and Friendster two years before that. Already I hear people I know saying that they’re bored of Facebook, that there are too many useless applications cluttering up profile pages. Relatively new MMOs like Club Penguin, Barbiegirls and so on have yet to prove themselves over the long term and although Habbo has made it past the seven year mark I have rarely encountered concurrency greater than a few thousand suggesting it might have an infrequent if large user base. At the moment the way in which ‘eyeballs’ are measured is very crude, but as more money is invested in these mediums they will become more sophisticated and then these kinds of figures will struggle to stand up, while the figures for a game like WoW will look very impressive indeed. It’s interesting that the new Nielsen Ratings of time spent already prove that Second Life users spend far more time in Second Life than Facebook users spend on their pages, the same can only be truer for WoW.

I’d like to write a big long paragraph on transmedia, given what Raph presented at the GDC Prime. WoW is one of the most interesting  transmedia MMO brands out there, what with a TCG, novels, a new comic, toys, boardgames and a film on the horizon. It’s certainly up there with Halo in my opinion and given its openness to popular culture I can only imagine it becoming more transmedia-like as time goes by. As much as Raph is keen to push the games industry in a more progressive direction he should probably focus on the fact that in the AAA world of MMOs WoW remains the exception not the rule.

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From ‘Awe’ to ‘Order’: Changing Percptions in MMOs

November 25, 2007

Like many MMO players my first (AAA) MMO was World of Warcraft, and I remember distinctly just how excited I was as I finished creating my character, hovered my cursor over the ‘enter world’ button and, with some trepidation left, clicked. After a deep breath, I think I said something outloud to my girlfriend along the lines of ‘Ok, I’m going in’. The music kicked in with its now overly familiar drumroll the loading screen appeared and the empty bar began to fill up and I was finally dropped into the vivid orange environs of The Valley of Trials. It’s difficult to describe in words how thrilling my pre-70 days in Azeroth were, I was playing pretty casually and didn’t join a guild until I’d explored by myself for a while. Even a six hour slog through the Wailing Caverns with the ‘PUG from hell’ didn’t damage the feeling that I was exploring a ‘whole new world’. One of WoWs greatest achievements in my opinion was the way in which virtually every ‘zone’ felt so different and unique, it hardly mattered that the climates of neighbouring zones were often inappropriate, instead it just increased the anticipation you felt about going to the next zone. Even relatively quite areas like Dustwallow Marsh and Desolace oozed atmosphere and danger. It wasn’t just the zones that made Azeroth so awe inspiring: the first time I visited Orgrimmar I literally just had to stop and stare, it was like seeing something out of the coolest dream I’d never had, walls that must have been hundreds of feet high, festooned with spikes and dragon bones from which hung huge red banners. And then I saw ThunderBluff…

Having hit level 70 some time ago I see the world through very different eyes. I’ve seen pretty much every zone (having rolled Alliance characters just so I could look around their starting areas, have been into most instances outside of raiding content and completed the majority of quests relevant to my class. Azeroth, or rather Outland, as that’s where I spend most of my time, isn’t so much a land of adventure any more but an optimisation project. Completing daily quests isn’t a matter of how or if, but how quickly and efficiently I can do them. From there the next task is to loacte the best location to farm, based on proximity to where I completed my dailies, auction house prices and number of other players operating in the same area.

It brings to mind an interview I read recently on Ugo Trade with Cory Doctorow, in which he discusses the internet as a ‘reverse surveillance’ society: “Surveillance is all about when people in authority know a lot about you. Instrumentation is when you know a lot about the world”. And coincidentally he uses Joi Ito’s World of Warcraft screenshot to demonstrate what he means.

joichiitowowpost.jpg

 

In this image the actual 3-dimensional world is almost entirely obscured by abstracted information (you can see the full-size image here). This image reminds me of the metaphor for cognition Maturana and Varela use in their book The Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Understanding. They argue that perception isn’t constructed through internal representation of the outside world like a camera obscura, but is governed by an autonomous nervous system that is constantly attempting to maintain a balance that maintains life. They use the metaphor of a person who knows the world only from the inside of a submarine (i.e. no windows) who knows the world only through the dials and measures within the submarine, such as fuel gauges, depth monitors and the like and responds to the world through these abstract mediums. Raiding being one of the most intensive online activities there is, this example is of course very extreme, but conceptually it’s no different from ‘feeds’. Feeds don’t just filter web content, they rationalise it – they can be ordered into categories, they can show images and text or just titles and so on. You can argue that social networking sites do something similar with one’s friends, Youtube does something similar with video and so on.

The interesting thing about what Cory suggests is of course its ‘Bottom-Up’ nature. Traditionally the rhetoric of rationalisation – science, industrialisation, capitalism etc – have been ‘Top-Down’ concepts enforced on society from above and his point is that this is exactly what attracts people to virtual worlds. At the same time this rationalisation of virtual space also removes the ‘romance’ of the experience, the escapism and immersiveness, although there is no doubt that the rationalisation process can be equally as immersive as anyone who has participated in a raid encounter will tell you. However many gamers find rationalisation frustrating, sometimes players want to feel theyhave just saved the world from a demonic invasion, rather than just successfully completing a series of pre-determined tasks. Which is something I’ll be covering in my next post…

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Great ‘ad’: Halo 3

September 19, 2007

halo 3 ad

 

While I think the Halo series is slightly overhyped, this ad/piece of marketing, call it what you, like is genuinely amazing. Maybe it’s my inner Games Workshop geek coming through, but it’s hard to beat a good diorama, especially one that’s interactive. Being made of polystyrene, miliput and so on it also has a grittier edge to it than polished computer graphics, something that helps capture the nastiness of warfare, undoubtedly this feeling is aided by the haunting piano music that accompanies the ‘video’.

 

 

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Fighting Fantasy

June 5, 2007

Last week Tobold asked the burning question why all ‘the most successful MMORPGs all have a medieval fantasy setting’ ?

It’s a very good question, particularly as I’m very interested in the origins and development of the fantasy genre. My first thought is that fantasy is a very broad term, okay you get high and low fantasy, but they in themselves pretty broad terms and are largely based on the access to and effect of magic in a given fantasy world.

While fantasy MMORPGs such as WoW and LOTRO appear on the surface to be very similar, they are of course very different in the detail, and I don’t just mean aesthetically. Yes, both are set in worlds with ‘medieval’ levels of technology (the kinds of technology available clearly changed throughout the medieval period, but that’s another post), but WoW incorporates early gunpowder weapons and Steampunk elements, especially since The Burning Crusade. In LOTRO there is a clear division of good and evil races, elves, humans, hobbits and dwarfs are good and orcs, trolls etc are bad in WoW races seem capable of both attitudes. And when it comes to the aesthetic styles LOTRO and WoW, there are clearly huge differences. Now I know traditionally aesthetics have been seen as relatively unimportant, but as the fantasy genre becomes more visual, as opposed to being primarily textual, the aesthetic element will become more significant in defining the nature of a fantasy world.

While the ‘medieval setting’ is a stable of the fantasy MMORPGs each one has its own unique take on this theme.

Perhaps this is the reason fantasy settings are so popular, because they are so flexible. For example there are many fantasy settings that are simply earth in the distant past or a forgotten part of earth, like the Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories or like Jack Vance’s Lyonesse stories and Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories journey through hundreds of different dimensions and worlds some of which could constitute sci-fi in some respects.

Robert E Howard, one of the earliest fantasy writers, explained that the reason he came up with the Hyborian Age was in order to give him the freedom to write stories set in ‘the past’ without the need to maintain historical accuracy.

 “There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as re-writing history in the guise of fiction… i could never make a living writing such things though; the markets are too scanty, with requirements too narrow, and it takes me so long to complete one. I try to write as true to the facts as possible, at least, i try to commit as few errors as possible. I like to have my background and setting as accurate and realistic as I can, with my limited knowledge; if I twist facts too much, alter dates as some writers do, or present a character out of keeping with my impressions of the time and place, i lose my sense of reality, and my characters cease to be living and vital things…”

Part of the appeal of the fantasy genre seems to be the ease with which is the limitations of reality can be surmounted, something that, for example sci fi rarely does in the same way fantasy does.  Perhaps Star Wars is the most obvious exception here but to do this Lucas felt it necessary to locate the Star Wars galaxy in an ambiguous place in space and time (‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’). Fantasy settings allow players/writers/game developers to ignore the realities of everyday life and focus on adventure without any of the issues that would arise if a world setting resembled our own world too closely. We can probably thank Romantics across the modern age for the idealistic imagery we associate with the medieval period – chivalry, magic, heroism, adventure etc. – after all William Morris is considered the first ‘fantasy’ author proper by many.

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A Time of Change?

May 23, 2007

On all accounts 2007 will be an interesting year for the MMORPG world, Lord of the Rings Online was released just over a month ago and we have Age of Conan and Warhammer Online to look forward to as well.

One of my research interests is what makes guilds stay together and come apart,  and where people go when they leave, so from this perspective the most interesting thing will be the affect these  rivals to WoW on player communities. Will core guild members stick together in new MMORPGs, or will whole new guild memberships be born? How many people will actually become players of two MMORPGs, or possibly even more? Either way it will be fascinating to see just how strong ‘virtual’ communities can be.

Another example of behaviour change that might be occurring, noted by arch-MMORPG blogger, Tobold, is the possibility that LOTRO allows for more relaxed/less time intensive play compared to the frenetic levels many experience in WoW . Unsurprisingly there is a mixture of agreement and disagreement in the replies to his post, but enough people agree to suggest there is something happening here.

Whether LOTRO is offering an escape from the competitive, all consuming nature of WoW or whether it’s because there is as yet no end-level content to aspire to in LOTRO remains to be seen, but there’s the possibility, as a few commenters point out, that you’re never quite as rabid about your second MMORPG (WoW being the first for many, myself included).

This is a subject I’ll be keeping my eye on, as it may determine how future MMORPG titles decide on release content or how a particularly gameworld/franchise impacts player involvement, amongst other things!