Thursday, January 28, 2010

The lie of wanting "hard"

Tobold instigated a recent discussion about what we would want to change to make WoW harder, a discussion which spread to several other blogs. I'm not really interested in that discussion, because the change between Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 made me realize I do not actually want my game to be hard. Why then after many many years of gaming was something so basic such a recent realization to me? And why do so many others claim they want things "harder" despite the overwhelming popularity of WoW, an inherently easy game, above many harder choices?

Obviously we have to start with what it means for a game to be "hard." Since I know of no game mechanic which would make the game harder, but at the same time actually make the player more skilled, we have to assume that anything which makes the game "harder" makes the player more likely to fail. Why would we want that? People do not want to fail, they want to succeed.

So why would we want a game to be hard, or at least think we do? A big part of this lies in psychology. When asked about positive traits such as intelligence, nearly all people believe they are above average. Obviously half are wrong, but the important thing is that humans tend to think they are better than most other humans. When players say they want a game to be "harder," they are imagining OTHER players will be the ones to fail while assuming that they are more skilled and will still succeed.

The heart of many games (especially MMORPGs) lies in delivering a sense of achievement to your players. The sense of achievement gained from a given accomplishment is based largely on the player's perception of how "difficult" the achievement is.

Take, for example, one of the greatest accomplishments that any player achieved in the history of WoW: a level 70 Druid is the first to solo Onyxia. Hours and hours of planning and re-planning, wipe after wipe, and even a little assistance from his buddy on the wandering add. After all that, to bring a 40 man raid boss down by himself. I can only imagine, based on my own much less impressive solo feats, how proud of himself he must have felt.

Now imagine the exact same scenario, only let's say Onyxia (balanced exactly the same) is considered a solo encounter that the majority of players beat easily. Our Druid friend steps in and the same consistent failures at something he believes most others can do lead to a huge amount of frustration. While he is facing exactly the same challenge himself, the perception now is that this is "easy" and he is therefore unskilled for being unable to do it right away which changes his experience drastically. Same game, same encounter, same ACTUAL level of challenge. But this time he will likely quit rather than stick it out and finally pass it.

So I think it boils down to this: we want a game that we perceive to be hard, not one that actually makes us consistently fail.

I now believe this to be the most important key to the popularity of WoW. WoW is a game which any idiot can succeed at, but at the same time that idiot will FEEL as if they are succeeding not because the game is easy, but because they personally are skilled. For instance, gathering up quests and going on quest runs to complete all the tasks along a given path or in a general area makes players feel like good planners, like you are more efficient at completing them than others (even though in reality the other players are all doing the same thing). Or doing instances as you level, which Gevlon is now in the midst of demonstrating can be done by only one or two players significantly lower level than the level of the instance.

The point is, WoW makes you feel like a skilled gamer. I'm sure there are many gamers who are loyal to WoW while being unable to understand why they are good at WoW but bad at so many other games.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Aion vs Darkfall (A Casual Player's Guide): Part 1


Hello everyone, I'm Terathis, one of the other Nerds howling at this blog's Moon. I've never written on a blog before, so bear with me as I learn the ropes. I'd like to start with a brief review of two recent MMORPG's. If you don't know what that means, you're probably on the wrong blog.

Over the holidays, I purchased copies of both Aion and Darkfall. I've played a few other MMO's in the past, most notably City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, and Warhammer Online. I certainly won't claim to be an expert in the genre, but I've been playing these games and thinking about them for the last five years. However, I'm most definitely on the casual end of the time-in-game spectrum due to having a family with three young children. It's that perspective on these games that I would like to share with you.

What is Casual?

First and foremost, let me explain what I mean by "casual." It's a word that gets thrown around a lot, but rarely defined. The most common usage is in reference to play time. My guess is that most MMO players think that anyone who plays less than they do is "casual" and anyone who plays more than they do is "hardcore." My own play time usually occurs in chunks of about 1-2 hours late at night after the kids have gone to bed. I play 3 or 4 nights a week, so my total weekly play time usually ends up being less than 10 hours. Considering that there are players who exceed that in a single day, I'd say that puts me securely in Casual Land.

I reject the notion that casual has to mean "low skill." While I don't have the reaction time and situational awareness of a pro, that doesn't mean I'm a clueless noob. On the contrary, I really enjoy the tactical challenges of MMO combat (such as it is), and relish the opportunity to improve my game. Whether I'm soloing or playing in a group, I'm always trying to think of ways to up my damage or healing by a few points.

Why Darkfall and Aion?

Having never played a sandbox style of MMO, Darkfall intrigued me with its promise of a huge open world and skill-based, rather than level-based advancement system. I've generally preferred PVE to PVP in the past, but I was interested to see how the PVP in Darkfall differed from that in WOW or WAR. Player cities was another feature that I had never experienced before that I thought held a lot of potential.

Aion came onto my radar thanks to my brother in law who is an avid MMO gamer as well. While staying with him over the Christmas holiday, I had an opportunity to watch him play and recognized a lot of tropes from WOW. Aion was far more familiar to me than Darkfall, and I had to admit that it was graphically superior to any MMO I'd seen before it. After discussing the classes and gameplay with my brother in law, I decided to give Aion a go as well.

Installation and Character Creation

Both games were fairly easy to install. Darkfall required a fairly substantial torrent download whereas Aion came on DVD. Since I had a previous account with NCSoft for City of Villains, I was able to just add Aion to my list of games and go from there. Account setup went fine with Aventurine as well. Since the price of both games is the same, that part of the comparison is a wash. I have to say that the price of both games is probably too high. I know that 50 dollars has become the default price point for new PC games, but PVP-focused MMO's in particular are so reliant upon keeping server populations high that it seems to me that they would be better served by a lower initial price point. Syncaine of Hardcore Casual would probably refer to the box price as a "tourist tax." But I think that ignores one of the best (or worse) characteristics of MMO games. They are ADDICTIVE. Crack dealers don't charge 50 dollars for the first hit and neither should MMO developers. Just get people in the crack house in the first place.

Character creation is one of my favorite parts of an RPG and I'll admit to spending hours upon hours tweaking and adjusting a character's hair style or tattoo pattern in previous games. As you might expect, Aion gets the nod here due to its graphical prowess. Darkfall does offer a greater variety of races to choose from (six versus two), but I'm a sucker for the Asian look that Aion has in spades. You can create a genuinely beautiful character in Aion. Darkfall is not a complete slouch in this category. I didn't expect it to have nearly as many options as it has. While the races of Darkfall are all fantasy stalwarts with the exception of the Mahirim (Wolf People), there are a sufficient number of options to ensure that you don't look like every other member of your race.

To be continued in Part 2...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What does it mean to be stupid?

Gevlon has an interesting post about being a mercenary in WoW. Even more interesting to me is that in it, he claims a very specific breakdown of capable players to morons. Not surprisingly, he declares most people to be morons.

This is nothing new, lots of people accuse the majority of the rest of the population of being idiots. People even arbitrarily declare made up statistics (like I'm assuming Gevlon did), such as "90% of people are stupid." While a part of me agrees with this sentiment, the scientific, rational part of me wants to know "what does it mean to be stupid?"

There is a joke about a dog playing checkers. An onlooker says, "I can't believe how smart that dog is!" To which the owner replies, "he's not smart, I've beaten him 8 times in a row." The joke is based on the relativism of what it means to be "smart." For dogs, the standards are different. Most dogs cannot play checkers, so being able to play the game at all would constitute a dog being "smart." No one would think a dog who could not play checkers was "stupid."

This gives us a way to view what is "smart" and what is "stupid," simply by using the majority as "typical." If 90% of humans in incapable of understanding a certain thought process, that does not make them stupid. That makes it something which humans typically cannot do, and the 10% who can are smart for humans.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Is Achievement more important than fun?

Since Matt already beat me out for the ceremonial "FIRST!!!!!" post (he posted "test," but we all know what he was thinking on the inside), I suppose I'll have to discuss something of substance.

Achievement in games is often treated as only some signifier of the fun you had. Unlocking achievements in a racing game just means you raced a lot. Unlocking achievements in a FPS just means you "pwned" a lot of "noobz." The achievement itself means nothing, when you sit down and play it carries no weight, your performance and enjoyment of the next play session is no different with or without the achievement.

The exception to this is the RPG. Your achievements are not just part of the game, they define the game through experience points, levels and quests. The "kill 10 rats" quest is not some side feature of a game about killing rats, killing rats is almost a side activity in a game about completing quests and gaining levels.

While a lot of discussion is put into making the process of killing rats fun, very little discussion is put into creating the creating the best sense of achievement. This is in spite of the general acknowledgment that in RPGs (and more specifically MMORPGs) players will do whatever lets them reach their goals fastest, even if it is significantly less fun than something else they could do.

In short, when given the choice between achievement and fun, players usually choose achievement.

The interesting thing is that the response from developers is still to focus on the fun. It isn't an attempt to make the best achievements, it is an attempt to use achievements to force you to have their fun. Developers try to make it so that the most fun thing to do IS the fastest way to reach the goal. When players find an unintended faster way to reach a goal, that new way is labeled an "exploit" and treated as a huge problem because it circumvents the intended "fun" way.

To me, this is the most overlooked aspect to an RPG, especially an MMORPG. I feel that delivering a good sense of accomplishment to a player through proper challenges and appropriate rewards is more important to the "addictiveness" of an RPG than the fun itself. It would seem that the online gaming community agrees, at least when voting with their dollars. The original Everquest had a reputation amongst its own player base as being "not fun," yet they continued to play, and that game was king among online games for several years. On the other hand, City of Heroes was by far the most fun online game I have played, yet it did not ever enjoy the success of even several other games aside from WoW.

First Post