X-Wing and Tactics Games

Kodra and I have been diving into the X-Wing minis game lately. I love playing tactics games with Kodra because he’ll dive into it as deep as I do but takes a wildly different approach than I do, so I learn a lot from his ideas (hopefully the same is true in reverse). It’s hard to get him into minis games, though, because the assembly/painting part of the hobby doesn’t interest him and the concept of eyeballing distances frustrates him as an unnecessary skill check to an otherwise compelling tactical experience. I tend to agree with him on the “no premeasuring” thing, as I feel like it’s a bit of minis gaming elitism that doesn’t add a lot to the game experience other than “gotcha!” moments when you misjudge a range. That being said, I’m good at eyeballing distances so I can live with it without being frustrated by it.


X-Wing hits a nice middle ground, because it skips the assembly and painting and offers really high quality prepainted miniatures. I think I’d like prepainted minis games a lot more if they had the quality of X-Wing, frankly– the ships look great and there’s a ton of detail without the cost being outrageous. From a purchasing standpoint, it’s a pretty decent deal. A given ship is roughly $15, or half again what a standard mini of that size would be, and comes painted with nearly all of the game pieces necessary to use it (more on that in a moment). It also comes with a variety of pilot cards, so a single ship purchase can represent a pretty wide variety of units in the game. Finally, each ship comes with a selection of equipment and upgrade cards, which is where the cleverness of the system comes in.

In X-Wing, each ship has a selection of upgrade slots, things like torpedoes, missiles, bombs, and more technical things like crew, system upgrades, and modifications. These can take a mediocre pilot and bump it up to respectable levels, or turn a powerful pilot into a devastating powerhouse. They also let you set up interesting combos. More importantly, however, the upgrade slots are standardized, so there’s no reason that a copilot for your Milennium Falcon can’t help you out in a B-Wing. It means that even purchases for ships you aren’t necessarily interested in flying may still be worth your while if the pack contains useful upgrades, and it’s a very clever way to get people to buy into more than one faction, if only to get the upgrades.


Outside of the marketing angle, though, it adds a lot to the game. Regular releases often add new equipment slots that older ships have, and can take older ships that aren’t as popular or interesting and breathe new life into them. As an example, the Rebel A-Wing started off as a fast, agile counterpart to the TIE Fighter/TIE Interceptor, but was more expensive without necessarily adding a lot– Imperial players were taking barebones TIEs in larger numbers, and the more expensive A-Wing couldn’t pull off the same trick. In a later release, which included an A-Wing with a fancy paint scheme and several new pilots, a card was added that lowered the cost of A-Wings. Essentially, you could take an upgrade for your ship that did nothing but made it cost less, which evened the playing field.

Watching the arc of the game, it’s very clear they’ve been using new releases to balance things out. I originally started playing this game with a friend a few years back, right at the launch, and it felt very one-sided, with swarms of TIE Fighters crushing the X-Wings and Y-Wings that were available. I wound up losing interest because I much prefer to play smaller, more elite forces over large swarms and it felt like the game didn’t support that. Flash forward a few releases and some of the killer lists focused on one great big ship with a support wingman or two, and swarms were a lot less popular. More releases have evened that out, and at this point there are enough options for everyone that (it seems) like there are a lot of viable ways to play.


I really like games where I can take my favorite units and give them more stuff to make them awesome. It was a huge frustration for me with Warhammer 40k (one of many, honestly) that optimal play was more about bringing lots of dudes and mostly ignoring the upgrades rather than heavily upgrading a smaller number of powerful units. Infinity also gives me this to some extent, where I can have a unit I particularly love and use different loadouts depending on my needs; it’s not the same as adding lots of upgrades, but it’s got a similar feel. With all of this, you’d think I’d like Battletech a lot, though I’ve never really gotten into it. I like it in concept, but I found playing it somewhat unwieldy.

X-Wing offers me a nice blend of tactics and lets me come up with lots of different interesting strategies. I can fiddle with the list building tool for hours and come up with a ton of different, interesting options. In a lot of ways, it’s the same thing that got me hooked on Infinity: the ability to easily come up with a bunch of different lists and then pick the one I’m most interested in trying out on the table. There’s room to refine the list but I can also scrap it entirely and change tactics without a massive investment in new stuff.

There’s an interesting pair of philosophies that come up with this kind of game, one that I find compelling and that triggers the game design part of my brain to start analyzing. I very much like minis games, especially ones with spatial reasoning and tactics taking the fore. Kodra prefers games like Magic: the Gathering and more contained board games, particularly ones that involve decks of cards as a randomizer rather than dice. We each find the other kind of game frustrating, often.


I’ve been mulling over it for months, and my current working theory is that it’s a difference in agency. Kodra likes games where when he takes an action, he can be assured that that action is going to do what it says it’s going to do with no uncertainty. Having an unreliable set of actions doesn’t bother him, provided the actions he does take are reliable. I’m the opposite: I want as broad a selection of actions as possible at any given time, but I don’t require that they be reliable– I would much rather have a chance to pull an unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat than know that if I pull off my combo I win, every time. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and it bears out in how we approach customization. I like versatility and giving myself lots of angles to win from, Kodra tends to prefer a very focused approach: “I only do this one thing, but that thing will win.”

I suspect a lot of it has to do with our gaming backgrounds. I’ve learned by being, generally, the lesser player in a group of skilled players, and have honed my skill and won games by achieving victory through avenues that my opponents are unprepared for, rather than facing them head-on. Kodra, to my understanding, has mostly been one of the best if not the best player in his local metas, and has taken the tack of refining very powerful strategies to be more efficient and win more/keep winning, rather than having to find alternate avenues to victory. When we played Warmachine against each other, this was extremely apparent– he would create unstoppable legions and march forward, making no bones about his tactics, whereas I would bob and weave and strike where I could find an opening, rarely engaging and simply waiting for the single perfect strike.

This picture included exclusively to troll Kodra.

This picture included exclusively to troll Kodra.

He’s won the games we’ve played, but they’ve been close. I credit his speed at building interesting and functional combo engines for his wins, while I think and adapt quickly enough with inferior forces to stay in the game a lot longer than I probably should. We’ll see what happens as we refine our skills and play more.

MMOs on the Brain

I’m following a lot of MMOs right now. Elder Scrolls Online had a great update with The Imperial City, The Old Republic I’ve been talking about, Wildstar’s F2P conversion went live, Destiny’s Taken King expansion has been very well received, Final Fantasy 14 has a major update coming, but not until November… there’s a lot going on in the existing space.

Xray image of a human head brain

These established MMOs have some room to experiment, and in a lot of cases build further towards the vision they were going for, or refine a vision that didn’t quite work out. In a lot of cases, it’s highly successful, and for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that goes on around the internet about “failed” MMOs, there are very few that actually shut down. Even SWTOR, after suffering from brutal layoffs and being left with a skeleton crew for a while, has managed to come back and launch some honestly excellent content, as well as make a bunch of needed changes to the game itself.

I keep coming back to this, but the trend I see is that these games push more and more towards the singleplayer aspects, making it easier or more convenient to play alone rather than with the rest of the server. I can’t help but wonder if some of these games would have benefitted from a different model– rather than the server-full-of-people model, having characters saved on a server (see: Borderlands) and have drop-in small group multiplayer. It’s what Destiny did, and with its latest update that brought story more forward than it’d previously been, there’s a lot of love for the new stuff.

Much as I wish there were a more “world”-like MMO to play, I’m also just a fan of good games where all the design pieces come together elegantly. Several of the games I’ve mentioned would, I think, have worked better as smaller, more intimate affairs with more leeway for high fidelity content (because making content that works when 30 people are all doing it at once is tricky at best).


It’s honestly something I expect to see. Destiny carved the path, but I’ve noticed that after being quiet for a while, The Division has been distancing itself from the “MMO” side of things and focused more on the small group play; I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s made a similar shift. There are very, very few MMOs on the horizon that fit the bill of the “classic” style– I’ve talked about Pokemon Go here as the future of the genre, but otherwise you’re looking at a pretty short list of mostly Kickstarter or other small projects and larger projects that are distancing themselves from “MMO”.

I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing from a “fun games to play” perspective. That being said, I keep looking for an MMO that scratches that “world to hang out in” itch. A lot of people will hand-wave that by saying that what I’m looking for is a sandbox MMO, but that’s not actually true (at least, not with the current offerings). The concepts of “sandbox” and “pvp playground” get conflated a lot, and it’s somewhat striking to me that there hasn’t been a large-scale sandbox PvE game. If there were, I’d be very interested.

Consider: a game where the world, not other players, is the most dangerous thing out there. You can build and fortify cities and structures, but the world will try to reclaim them, actively in some cases. Cities would be well-defended, and ultimately able to handle their own upkeeps with enough players moving through them. You could pretty reasonably create a game economy that’s relatively stable, without the spiralling inflation of most MMO game worlds. As an adventurer, you’d have plenty of stuff to do keeping cities and villages safe or going treasure hunting out in the wilderness– it’s the same kind of gameplay that some people thrive on in Minecraft, and seeding the world with treasure and resources would make things very interesting. You could play as a guard captain or a city coordinator, keeping things going at a macro level. You could be a crafter or merchant, with people constantly needing your goods and services to make things or repair things. There’d be space for socialites, bringing players to cities for everyone’s benefit. You could make it your goal to go out into the world and bring back new skills and knowledge, or find new resources, or what-have-you.

Found on google image search, couldn't find original artist to credit :\

Found on google image search, couldn’t find original artist to credit :\

It all hinges on the world being genuinely dangerous and scary. I’m not saying Dark Souls level of dangerous (though, maybe if you get far away from civilization), but scary enough that you’re happy to see another person out fighting enemies, rather than worrying if they’re going to “steal your kill”. I imagine seeing a campfire in the distance and being happy to find other players there, who are taking some time to rest while out in the field. There would need to be a lot of different forms of progression, so there’s something valuable you can do while sitting around a campfire and not-fighting. Crafting comes to mind, learning/practicing new skills, repairing/upgrading gear, as long as these things are interesting gameplay, you could create these kinds of situations.

Really, what it comes down to is having more interesting verbs. We currently have “fight” as our sole interesting verb in most MMOs, with the occasional “craft” in certain games. “Move” isn’t generally all that interesting, and we could do a lot of things to make that more fun, and pretty much everything else is just a click on a UI pane or in the world– these could be much more interesting.

The difficulty is that it’d take a serious commitment to make something VERY different from what we’ve seen. Exploring the world to find hidden libraries, ruined cities, caches of treasure, all relatively unknown and often in very scary places would be fascinating, and having teams of elite players coordinating to raid a ruined city and take it as a new hub for players would be exciting, possibly a lot more exciting than simply beating a raid boss. Being the first player to discover a new skill, or the first one to open a school to teach rare skills would be compelling, I think, and there are enough systems that have already been experimented with that allowing NPCs to do a lot of automated work while you go off and do other things would be entirely possible.

Napkin-designing a bit here, but it’s been on my mind for a while.

SWTOR Revisited

It’s no secret that I’ve been putting a lot of time into SWTOR lately. I talked about it a bit last week, and I want to delve into it a bit more. In about two and a half weeks, I’ve done the following:

  • Jedi Shadow from 50 to 60
  • Commando from 1-38
  • Smuggler from 1-15
  • Jedi Sage from 1-34
  • Sith Warrior from 1-16
  • Imperial Agent from 1-51
  • Sith Assassin from 1-53


I’ve created a Jedi Knight and Bounty Hunter but haven’t played them yet. Several years on, I feel like SWTOR delivers on one of the promises it made back before it launched: it’s very much now eight KOTOR games in one, and as such it’s a lot of fun. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m enjoying going through the game, seeing the story content, and taking advantage of the vastly increased levelling speed to take the story at a better pace and do only the sidequests I’m interested in, rather than doing everything possible for experience just to keep up in level.

It’s made me a lot more forgiving of a lot of things as well. When I originally played, I was turned off by what felt like tepid storytelling in a few of the classes– when I’m spending hours grinding levels to be able to do that next story mission, I really want that mission to feel like a reward for all of that grinding. Now, the stories feel well-paced for the most part and make sense– there are highs and lows but each piece feels like a part of a story, not a reward for doing unrelated chores. It reframes the experience to be more like a single-player game, so I can enjoy the stories without needing every one of them to be a fantastic ride.

Similarly, the new speed of levelling means I don’t get tired of planets and can actually enjoy the biomes, rather than being forced to explore every nook and cranny just to move on. I actually think I’ve gotten a better feel for what’s going on in some of the planets because I *don’t* have to do all the quests on them, and I’ve been interested in finding out what’s going on even though those quests aren’t as efficient or as high fidelity as the main class stories.

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That being said, wow does this game not feel like an MMO anymore. I previously mentioned that I hadn’t interacted with any other player in my entire time playing, and that hasn’t changed. The other people running around the fleet (which is the only time I see other players) might as well be NPCs with broken pathing AI for all they matter to my play experience. In focusing on a high-fidelity story, which I feel the game delivers fairly solidly on, there’s pretty much no reason to do anything with any other players. At this point, a number of my friends have jumped in to play the game and despite us all having characters in the right places and the right roles for it, even when we’re all playing at the same time, no one talks about playing the game *together*. This is incredibly strange for our group, but I think speaks to how strong the shift to single-player has been.

In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Divinity: Original Sin, which I also talked about recently. The story in that game is subsumed by multiplayer– the storytelling creates a tension between the players that’s easily fixed by ignoring it and going out fighting. Even the best storytelling with the best multiplayer mechanics seems to have the problem of you needing to wait while someone finishes reading or finishes a cutscene, which is where that tension comes in. Storytelling in Divinity:OS feels at odds with a good multiplayer experience, and the same is true in SWTOR and the other modern story-forward MMOs that I’ve played.

To me, it speaks of a gap in our collective game design knowledge. We know how to create and deliver excellent multiplayer experiences, both cooperative and competitive, and we know how to deliver fantastic storytelling, but there are precious few games that manage both at once. Honestly, the only game I can think of that successfully delivers story while being a coherent multiplayer experience is Borderlands, which is a game that suffers greatly from having a relatively poor singleplayer experience. We don’t seem to know how to make games that are fun for both one person and groups of people while still telling interesting and compelling stories, and we shortchange one to bolster the others.


To go back to my comments last week about the modern MMO, I think it’s that shortchanging that’s caused post-WoW MMOs to flounder. There hasn’t been a big breakout hit since WoW in the MMO space, and I suspect that there won’t be. MMOs want players who will hang around for months, rather than playing for a few weeks and leaving. You can accomplish this by making it take a very long time to level up and see everything, but as games have sped up their own levelling process to get players to the new content faster, it’s made tolerances for long levelling times drop hugely. It’s possible at this point to have a game where you can reach max level and see every scrap of content within the first month of play and STILL have it feel grindy by comparison.

The goal of players in MMOs has become consumption rather than creation– the game has content that you as the player want to see, and you’re done when you see it all. It’s the single-player game model, but it’s at odds with the idea of a game that you log into regularly for months or years– it’s simply not possible to create content that quickly. The fastest pace I have ever seen or heard of for creating content for an MMO was about four months for an hour of content, start to finish, from nothing to ready to launch. My friends reading this who have worked in the industry are probably cringing at that number and imagining the crunch that would be required to pull that off– it’s not a small amount. That ratio of dev time to playtime should make it clear how impossible it is to keep up.

A few games (notably Cryptic’s games) have tried their hand at player-made content to fill the gap. It’s a neat concept and often beloved, but it adds a ton of overhead to the game and creates a huge signal-to-noise problem; it’s very hard to find the good content amid all the mediocre-to-bad content. I think it also continues barking up the “story content” tree, where it’s trying to keep up with the content consumption rate by throwing more people at it.


I beat the “abolish levels” drum a lot, and part of why is this content consumption problem. When there’s a clear numerical “end” to a given progression bar, it splits players into those who feel like reaching that end means the game is over and those who feel like everything that happens prior to that end is irrelevant compared to the things that occur at that end. It fuels the consumption mindset and fragments players.

There’s a grand plan in there somewhere, finding a way to make an MMO that isn’t hamstrung by its own split foci, but it’s a lot of moving parts. We’re no longer in the era of high-budget experimental ventures, which will make implementing that kind of grand plan very difficult. I think that the promise of games like Pokemon Go is that they represent a push into a new MMO frontier, where there’s space for experimentation. To steal a marketing term, the current MMO market is a Red Ocean space, that’s crowded and hyper-competitive. Pokemon Go represents a push into a Blue Ocean space, where things are mostly uncharted and unknown. Different risks, different results.

It might be what revitalizes the genre.

Aggrochat Game of the Month: Tron 2.0

A bit of a followup on this month’s GOTM for Aggrochat. At Thalen’s suggestion, we played through Tron 2.0, a game that regularly makes “top shooter” and “greatest games you never played” lists. You can listen to the show here — we had a lot to say about the “golden age of experimental video games”.


It’s something that I mull over a lot. For a little while in there, just as video games were starting to poke their heads into the mainstream, there were a whole ton of experiments going on as people searched for The Next Big Thing. Mostly what this meant were a lot of buggy, unpolished games with really interesting (if not entirely implemented) ideas were coming out, and a lot of big promises were being made. I remember it as the era of vaporware; games that promised big things but never really materialized, but I was playing MMOs at the time and for a while there in the early-to-mid 2000s, there were a slew of interesting MMOs, most of which either never made it to release or released and floundered.

There were a lot of experimental games in that time frame. Spurred by the first really off-the-wall experimental shooters (my favorites being two of the first: System Shock and Thief) and bolstered by top-tier productions like Half-Life, there were a ton of games that tried to deliver on the promises of great games that weren’t just “shoot all the guys in this room”. It’s the point where I really got into shooters; I never cared for Doom/Quake/Hexen and that era of games, though Dark Forces is an exception (and I adored Dark Forces 2 and the Jedi Outcast/Academy series). A lot of the groundwork for what are pretty standard features was laid in the years of experimental games.


A few things mark these games for me. A lot of them haven’t aged well. Some of the things that were really experimental were in the realm of graphics, which were amazing for the time but look brutally dated now. I remember just looking around the environments of Deus Ex in awe when I first got the game– there were REFLECTIONS and LIGHTS — now the game shows its age. A lot of these games have new, really interesting ideas– shooters started to pick up RPG elements and an open-world feel, something that you don’t see a whole lot of anymore as that kind of friction has given way to a more streamlined, action-heavy experience. A lot of these games can be very well described as “really great, there’s nothing like it, but it’s got some bugs and issues you’ve gotta work through”. The ideas were fantastic, but a lot of them reached past what their budget and time constraints let them actually make.

Tron 2.0 is interesting to me because I feel like it’s a game that came out about five years too early. It’s got a bunch of mechanics that aren’t quite fully thought out, and it tries to do a whole lot of things that eventually turned out to be good ideas but needed iteration to really shine. It’s also got a story that (I think) isn’t quite bold enough– it tells an interesting, very TRON-like story but it has/had the potential to be a seminal work in post/transhuman sci-fi, in something of the same way that Mass Effect revolutionized the space opera.


There’s a good reason Tron 2.0 makes the list of “greatest games you never played”; you can see the edges of the future, like stumbling in the dark watching the sun rise. Nearly every single mechanic in the game has survived in one form or another, which is not something you can say about a lot of the ideas that came out of that era of games. Even the other fondly-remembered games of that era– Deus Ex, Vampire: Bloodlines, Arcanum, KOTOR, Hitman 2 — all contained ideas and mechanics that were pretty rapidly shed.

At the same time, the mechanics that didn’t survive are very noticable. The ability to run completely out of ammo in places, reliance on quicksaving, non-regenerative health, all of these exist in Tron 2.0 and make the game feel a lot more dated than it otherwise might. As I commented in the podcast, it’s amazing to me how much the game shows how far we’ve come. We have better mechanics than we used to, and for as much as people complain about regenerating health or frequent autosaving making things “too easy”, it’s rather hard to go back to games that lack these things. Not because it’s too difficult, but because it’s easily recognized as unnecessarily frustrating by now.

I wonder, sometimes, if we’ll see another era of high-budget experimentation in games. Indies have filled the experimental games gap in a lot of ways, but there are things that indies just can’t achieve with their generally limited production values. I think that might be why I like Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored so much (and why I’m so excited about the sequels)– they represent new entries in the experimental, high-budget game sphere, which I see precious little of.

Playing the Modern MMO

I’ve been out of town for about a week, but am back now, and back to my usual posting schedule. A short break helps me get my thoughts in order.


I’ve spent a decent amount of my available free time playing SWTOR, as I mentioned before I left. In the two weeks since I picked the game back up, I’ve levelled my original Jedi Shadow up from 50 to 60, have a smattering of characters between 15 and 20, and have levelled a Sith Inquisitor from 1-51, completing the main story for the class and getting a good chunk into my goal of seeing all of the class stories in the game.

My /played time on the Sith Inquisitor is 23 hours and 14 minutes as I check it while typing this. I’m taking advantage of the massive exp boost you get for main class story quests as a subscriber, which levels you at an incredibly fast pace. It’s honestly been a fairly leisurely pace for me, I’ve taken the time to do a few side quests that I liked, to play through a bunch of the companion stories, and a variety of other neat things. What it reminds me of, more than anything, is playing the original KOTOR. I’m essentially playing the game as a series of single-player campaigns, but the pace is fast enough that I’m not bored of grinding for the next story hit. It’s just a steady stream of storytelling that I get to enjoy, and the natural pacing of the main story quests is rather good.


What I’m realizing as I do this is that I MUCH prefer this to the usual slow pace. Things are changing and moving along at a pace that doesn’t bore me, and I actually get to enjoy the stories. What it does is rob the experience of the sense of playing an MMO. I haven’t interacted with a single other player in my entire two weeks of playing, and for the most part I don’t *want* to, because this is a story experience for me that doesn’t mesh terribly well with other players.

It’s interesting to me that the MMO space has moved so determinedly into the storytelling space. With story as a central ‘pillar’ of an MMO, it asks a player to voluntarily cut down on how much they play the game, lest they run out of story. As anyone who’s worked on an MMO will tell you, you can’t possibly hope to keep up with the speed at which players consume content. As a result, we get the grind, a way of slowing things down so that we as designers have a prayer of releasing content at a rate fast enough to keep people from getting bored and leaving.

Here’s the problem: we’ve gotten really good at writing stories. We’ve gotten good enough that players get hungry for more story, and will grind as fast as possible to see it all. We’ve paired this with a pervasive sense that “max level is where the game really starts”, when in reality the so-called elder game is a desperate struggle to keep players interested when they’ve run out of all but the most minute forms of progression.


Once upon a time, an MMO was a place where you logged in nightly to hang out with friends, meet new people, explore someplace you’ve never seen, try some dungeons, do some farming, basically live a second life. We’ve stripped away a lot of those frivolities in favor of streamlining, and ensuring that you have all the tools you need to experience the content we’re creating. We’ve replaced the frivolous “life” parts of the game with storytelling and high-production-value glitz and glamour. We’ve chased the fidelity that single-player games have brought, and attempt to deliver stories and experiences that meet that quality bar.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I think that the pursuit of higher fidelity has broken the genre. I know a great many people who tell amazing stories in the MMO space, but I’m not convinced their talents wouldn’t be better placed in a brilliant singleplayer or small-group co-op game, where player actions can be more constrained for a better story experience. In the meantime, none of the MMOs I’m playing feel like a ‘home’ I can log into; they’re games, not worlds, and my pursuit is for more tokens to buy fancier gear. Very specific things, not the vague “adventure” or “something new for my house”, or “meet some new people” that I’d chased after in earlier times.

As I run through SWTOR, I’m struck by how much I avoid other players. They’re an active detriment to my experience– I’m not talking to players I run into in the world, I’m not talking to my friends on voicechat (because it interferes with the storytelling!), and I’m not seeking out shared experiences because the ones I’m having are so personal that having another person around might harm it. I’m reminded of the opening segment of Divinity: Original Sin, wherein you run around a town talking to NPCs with a friend, and quite possibly find yourself frustrated or ignoring the writing because you’re there with a friend and really you want to get out of the town and do something.


We’ve successfully brought single-player aspects into MMOs, and with them has come the single-player mentality. It’s why I think Pokemon Go is the future of MMOs– not because it’s a technical marvel or a new frontier in storytelling or raids or whatever, but because it’s building on the original promise of the MMO: get out there and meet new people in this game, who will be your friends and allies on a great big adventure that YOU set the goals of.

It’s a promise that even the most sandboxy of MMOs (EvE, Elite: Dangerous, etc) fail to deliver. Seeing other players in those games is very rarely a joyous occasion. You can set your own goals, but other players exist to disrupt them, not add to them.

I worry that we’ve forgotten how to make open multiplayer games where seeing another player is a cause for delight and excitement, rather than concern and worry (or competition, if you’re a PvPer). It’s so much easier to paint red targets on every other player than it is to make that green or blue highlight something you’re happy to see.

After The Rocky Starts

(sorry about the lack of images today, something wonky on the site isn’t displaying them, looking into it)

I picked up SWTOR again over the weekend and started fiddling with it. It didn’t take long for me to remember both why I loved that game and why I stopped playing it.


Four years on, there’s a lot of new stuff to find in the game. In my group of friends, everyone has the MMO that we collectively left that they didn’t feel “done” with. For some people, it was FFXIV, for others, The Secret World, and people still trickle back into WoW for brief stints sometimes. For me, that game was SWTOR. I’d always wanted to play through the class stories and see all of them, but I’d never had the time to dedicate to all of that levelling. What got me to check out the game again was the ability to play through the main story of each class exclusively– you can level a character from 1-50 and possibly further simply by doing the main story quests.

It’s a great time, because it keeps the feeling of urgency and the thread of content solid. As separate pieces, the main class stories feel well-paced, although I still feel like some are significantly better than others, but without the need to do a lot of sidequest and flashpoint grinding to keep up in level, I can enjoy them rather than feeling disappointed when the next unlocked class quest doesn’t just blow me away with awesomeness. It also means that when I *do* decide to do a sidequest, it’s because I’m genuinely interested in the story, not because I feel like I have to do it regardless.


It’s gotten me to play classes that I never enjoyed before, and as I’ve relearned how to play, I’ve found myself hooked on the new content that’s been added in the last few years, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming (story-driven) expansion. What got me out of the game initially were rampant bugs in top-end raid content and some very nasty class imbalance issues that came to the fore in higher-tier content (Sage = best healer by a country mile circa January 2004). I’m no longer dealing with any of that. In fact, the spec I always wanted to play (Balance Shadow, now called Serenity) is entirely functional and awesome now.

SWTOR is the one MMO that I’ve played that’s let me fill out the player fantasy I’ve always loved. I can play a finesse-based tank with strong magic– it’s an archetype I’m never allowed to play but it works brilliantly in SWTOR. I’m a battlemage in a way that makes sense and isn’t just about a wizard in platemail, or a warrior with some fancy particle effects. It’s really satisfying and fun to play without feeling brokenly overpowered. I love it. There are still some design decisions in SWTOR that bug me, but that’s true of most games (especially MMOs), and at this point, given the way I’m playing the game, I can overlook them.


All told, it’s been a pretty fun ride. Over the weekend I got my Shadow to 57, a Smuggler to 10, a Jedi Knight to 13, a Sith Inquisitor to 23, a Sage to 10, an Agent to 13, and a Sith Warrior to 8. The idea of doing that when I played last would’ve been laughable. My one complaint is that there’s no way for me to remember which non-class stories are particularly awesome; I know there are sidequests that are awesome and fun, but I don’t know which they are so I’m mostly just not doing any of them unless I remember them specifically.

I should also comment that SWTOR, despite allowing you to log in without paying any money, is a subscription game. I don’t have a problem paying for a subscription (things cost money), but it is something I’m doing to get the full suite of features. It’s worth it to me for at least a little while, but it’s something to consider.

In any case, I’m enjoying my time with the game, and it’s nice to return to an MMO after having been gone for a while. There’s a bit of a uphill climb to get back in the swing of things, but it becomes familiar again surprisingly quickly, and a good (story) hook gets me motivated to put in the effort.

Short Fiction Friday: Prodigies, Part 2

[Another installment of Short Fiction Friday, about a few NPCs from my current Shadowrun campaign. Once again, if you like the art, while I’ve used it for my NPCs, credit goes to http://tapastic.com/series/fisheye — the comic that’s the source of these characters.]

Nick knew the Boston underbelly better than his companions. He hadn’t grown up there, but it was similar to the warrens he’d been driven to when his family cast him out. He returned to old habits quickly, and found places to hide. It had been a while since he’d used his talents, but they came back to him quickly. He made sure they couldn’t be found while they got situated, and he suggested they all stick together. Ken agreed, and Alice was in too much shock to argue. Nick worried about that, but had other work to do first.


Without any kind of formal training, Nick had a hard time explaining technomancy, and what it was he could do. Using his power felt like merging with a computer– on the rare occasions he tried to describe it to someone, he’d liken it to falling backwards into a swimming pool. He was eternally curious how ‘normal’ people worked with computers, because he couldn’t imagine it was like what he did. He swam through streams of data and made little edits and slight alterations as he saw fit. He was aware of defenses, tuned to keep out normals, and he’d developed weapons against them, more fluid and unpredictable than any program. He could even create clones of himself, which would do things he needed them to while he wasn’t around, as if they had a mind of their own. Maybe they did, he wasn’t sure.

He’d been accused of being spacey, before his family had thrown him out for being a “mage freak”, and he’d never been able to explain what was going on. He was paying attention, as best he could, but he was also paying attention to a hundred other things– someone’s nearby text messages, what the screens in four other rooms were displaying, what the cameras were showing. In middle school, he’d been picked out as an easy target and had a larger boy give him grief. It became apparent quickly that the bully was smart enough to seem innocent, sometimes remotely harassing Nick with programs he’d written while sitting attentively in another class. Months of attacks followed; Nick was small and not especially quick-witted, and being distracted by the constant technological cacophony around him made it hard for him to fight back. He spent most of a school year with some injury or another and no friends, thanks to the other boy’s dedicated efforts. It was the first time he’d actually tried to change any of the digital things he observed, and it turned out he was rather good at it. Setting the bully’s phone to blast illegal porn (swiped from another computer he’d found) at full volume in the middle of class had been satisfying, and disabling all inputs so it couldn’t be shut down was doubly so. He considered it justice for the technological, social, and physical abuse he’d endured, and when he glimpsed the boy being led off by Boston Police he didn’t feel any remorse.

Now, his passive awareness was laced with intent. He could feel the gentle tug of Alice or Ken pulling him along when he slowed down, but his mind was ahead of them, checking cameras and making sure they didn’t walk into the field of view, or disabling them if that was impossible. It was exhausting, and sapped his attention, but he knew that they’d be ID’d and found if even one camera saw them. He insisted that they all stick together, explaining why, and the three traveled as a group for the first month of their lives in the shadows. Alice’s money bought them food that first month, and Ken found odd jobs to do to supplement things.


In the second month, they turned to stealing. It started simply– they didn’t have enough money for a full box of biscuits, so Ken bought a half-box and swapped it right after checkout, when he knew no one would catch him. Ken had a knack for that kind of thing, and it kept them eating. He needed to be alone, though, which meant Nick couldn’t protect him. Nick, for his part, was exhausted from the constant vigilance, and was fighting illness. Alice had been keeping to herself, mostly practicing magic and giving the other two money, but the stress was getting to her. They were living in a forgotten concrete box, one of ten thousand like it in the city, and had to occasionally fend off other vagrants. Magic was the easiest for them, and with years of training and natural talent, they easily outclassed anyone who encroached on their space.

The problem was, their use of magic garnered attention. The first few invasions of their adopted home were by the very desperate: violent, drug-fueled types who were beyond reason. Alice had tried to give them a scare, but they were too far gone for it to register. Ken had been out, and Nick had looked up from lying semi-conscious in bed to see Alice get grabbed by two men larger than she was. There was a flare of light, then just Alice and two piles of ashes. Alice got quiet after that, and as Nick slipped in and out of consciousness he saw her talking, crying, and talking again with Ken, and the next time a frothing troll burst into their space she incinerated him without a second thought, an icy expression on her face.


What became a problem was when the sane people tried to move in. They could be reasoned with, and when Alice started conjuring flame, they backed down and fled. Word spread quickly of the mage-kids and their location, and they started having obvious gang members, several fully armed, watching their location. Ken suggested, once again, that they move. Nick had already scouted another location but was feverish and exhausted; they couldn’t go out without him and he’d only gotten sicker. The move was more than he could handle, and as Ken carried him through the Boston streets, he desperately fought to stay conscious so he could turn off that next camera, to fend off the specter of men in uniforms with guns descending on them, that none of them could entirely forget.

Nick lost about a week after that, sick and bedridden. Ken had somehow managed to steal two weeks of food and some medicine, and he and Alice were nursing Nick back to health while ensuring he wasn’t needed to go out. They were out of money and Nick couldn’t keep this up forever. They needed some way of paying for things and they needed to be able to stop worrying about the cameras dotting every street corner.

Ken was the one with the plan, as usual. He was very, very good at finding creative solutions to problems. Near the end of the two weeks, when Nick was finally feeling better, Ken walked in with a large white box. He set the box down and pulled both Alice and Nick outside with him. As they walked, he pointed a camera out to Nick. “Watch that camera, but don’t turn it off unless it tries to alert someone about us”. Nick had seen the camera alerts and had shut them down, but it was taxing to do so; turning the cameras off pre-emptively was usually safer. Ken seemed to know what he was talking about, though, and the three of them walked into sight of the camera, Nick bracing himself for the systemwide alert ping that never came. For the first time in nearly three months, they were standing on the street in full view of a camera with no need to worry. Nick could only stare at Ken as they walked back inside.


Ken was quiet as they walked back, but beelined for the white box as they settled back in. Alice was full of questions and Nick was simply confused, but Ken wasn’t answering anything until he opened the box, passing out some of its contents and showing off the rest. He handed Alice and Nick new ID cards, with new, unfamiliar System Identification Numbers. They were new identities, high quality disguises to make sure they couldn’t be found. They could operate freely, independently, without worry. Ken smiled a tired smile. “We’re going to have to do a bit of work to pay those off. Sorry.”

Ken also held up the box, showing off the rest of its contents. There was a large cake inside, obviously from a higher-end pastry shop above the plate, and in chocolate was written “HAPPY BIRTHDAY NICK”. Another, smaller box contained a single serving of crème brûlée. That night the trio celebrated, relaxing for the first time in months. It was the best crème brûlée Alice had ever tasted.

The Future Is Mobile

So, the Pokemon Go trailer is making the rounds. If you haven’t seen it, it’s here, and I’ve embedded it below.


Curious about the future of MMOs? I’m going to go ahead and say you’re looking at it, right there. It’s tech and concepts that have been around for a while, but it looks like they’re being polished to a mirror shine, and given a context that’s incredibly compelling. Look at what the video is promising– PvE (catching pokemon out in the world), PvP (trainer battles), and endgame raids (the final scene). It’s the essence of MMOs distilled into a mobile platform, and I have a suspicion it’s going to be massive.

Don’t believe me? That video has been up for less than 24 hours and it’s pushing a million hits. Pokemon has an absolutely enormous audience at a really broad age range– basically if you’re likely to own a smartphone, you’re probably familiar with Pokemon. The smartphone gaming market dwarfs any other gaming market you care to name, and it’s way, way more inclusive than other gaming spheres. You’re looking at an MMO that’s able to tap a market that dwarfs anything else out there.

The trailer is brilliant, too. Take a moment to watch it, if you haven’t:

Check out the people it’s showing. Opening shot of the world. We get some rapid cuts to a huge variety of people– a 20-something businessman, a dad and his kid, a studious looking woman, a bunch of teenagers, then a giant crowd at the end. The only child is the one playing with the dad– note: playing WITH the dad. This is a game where everyone can play together, friends with each other, parents with children, people from all walks of life, and everyone’s having a good time. There’s not a lot of advertising, especially in the game sphere, that promises that.

Just to further push that whole “this is a neo-MMO” concept, the trailer manages to capture that wonder of exploring as a newbie, the excitement of PvP, the fun of meeting new people in-game, and the tension and exultation of raid bosses in a three-minute trailer. The structure is identical to the trailers for a ton of other MMOs, down to the order in which everything is portrayed.

I’m pretty excited to see where this goes. It’s obviously a bit early to throw around words like “wow-killer”, nor is that even a meaningful concept anymore, but I have a suspicion that this is the MMO future we’re going to be looking at. I’m honestly pretty excited about it; it goes back to the roots of what got me into MMOs in the first place. I hope it takes off.

Progression Speed

I’m surprised more cooperative games don’t have variations in their progression systems. A given group of people is going to have a pretty different amount of time to spend in a given game than another group, and especially for self-contained games, it seems like there should be a progression speed slider. I’m mostly looking at tabletop RPGs and multi-session board games here; I’ve been playing the Shadowrun: Crossfire board game with some friends lately, and while I think it’s a great game, it has insanely slow progression.


Here’s how the game works: You have a character who starts with a basic deck. As a session (a “run”) progresses, your deck is going to increase as you play, and at the end of the session you flush the entire thing, and get a certain amount of XP (Karma) based on how successful the run is. You can then use this Karma to purchase upgrades, which change how you start the game and give you particular special abilities. It’s a neat system, and the ability to add on various means to make the runs harder on yourself for greater rewards is neat.

However, progression is SLOW. With a fresh group starting from scratch, you will have to win two games or lose five to get to your first upgrade; you’ll be playing the same mission each time until then. You’re not going to have the edge you need to go for any of the bonuses, and the game is pretty difficult; you stand a fair chance of losing each run. That first jump isn’t so bad, the first tier karma benefits are 5 karma apiece and you have one free slot to upgrade into. Here’s where it gets silly. To unlock another “slot”, you need to pay 10 karma, twice what you needed to get the first one. You THEN need to buy the upgrade, and upgrades cost anywhere from 5 to 50 karma, in increments of 5-10. You’re looking at a LONG time between your first and second upgrade, and a really long time before you’re looking at a fully kitted out character who can even attempt some of the harder missions.


The missions have expected karma levels, and some of the higher-tier ones suggest you have 75-100 karma at minimum to attempt them. That is a TON of playing this game just to get to that point– even the higher-tier missions only grant 4-6 karma each, and optional difficulty boosts add 1-2 karma apiece, and will rapidly overwhelm you.

We opted to simply double the experience gain, so that we could purchase fun upgrades after the first session and so that we can actually get to later missions. For our group, we might play this game once or twice a month, which, at 3-6 karma a session, is more than a year to reach the later missions, optimistically. It’s a fun game, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t need to have progression quite that slow. We’re speeding things up and should be able to do other interesting variants more quickly (and have more interesting options).

It’s a pretty minor tweak that works well in Shadowrun: Crossfire, and it makes the overall experience for the group a lot better– we can keep it fresh and different without spending a ton of time doing the same missions. It puts me in mind of the way I handle XP when I run tabletop games. I have a standing rule that experience is held constant across the party, so that everyone is always at the same experience level. It makes things better for people who can’t make every single session and it makes it a LOT easier for me to build and tune encounters; I know what kinds of things the party can handle.


I also give out XP to match the pace of the campaign. I used to make campaigns that were open-ended, but I’d fizzle out at some point and the story would falter. Now I plan a single significant arc and sometimes a few side arcs; the story has a specific end point that marks the conclusion of the story. If that means that I grant players a level every session for a few sessions, just so they can face whatever enemy I’ve got waiting in the wings, that’s fine– if we finish one game we can start another, and I usually start planning the next campaign about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way into my current one, so there’s always something ready to go.

I think that there’s a lot of value in tuning your game experience to the group you’re playing with, and it’s surprising to me that more games don’t have those options built-in. Certainly it’s not hard to just write house rules to suit you, but it’s interesting to me how many of the reviews of Shadowrun: Crossfire slam the game for its slow progression, and how many veteran D&D players mope about starting new level 1 characters, because it “takes so long to get to the good stuff”. Neither of those need be true.


Having talked to various people about house rules and other things, I’ve noticed that there’s often a moment of shock when I suggest changing the rules as they’re written to something that works better for us. Some people are staunchly opposed to it, other people look at me and have, in some cases, outright asked “wait, you can DO that?” as if there needed to be some permission to make the game more enjoyable.

The answer, really, is yes, yes you can. There are a number of games that I don’t like, but after a few rules tweaks are a lot of fun for me. If it’s a game I’m just playing with my friends who have the same viewpoint, why not change things so we can enjoy it more? It seems like a no-brainer.

Investing in the Experience

There is an old game development philosophy, now considered outdated, that suggests that players should have to ‘earn’ their fun in a game. It’s the source of the “grind”, and it’s where the idea of pitifully weak low-level characters who grow to be powerful comes from. A lot of games have their really fun, exciting levels a little ways in, and in older arcade games, you’d have to be really good or pump in a lot of quarters to reach them.


You can pretty easily see when and where it fell out of favor, and in which genres. RPGs made you work your way through quite a bit of experience before you had interesting abilities and weapons. First-person shooters made you go through several levels with very simple weapons before you got to play with anything really cool. MMORPGs would make you spend weeks or months fighting boars and wolves before getting powerful enough to even fight an enemy of a player race, much less something big like a griffon or dragon.

I’ve seen this elsewhere as well– I’ve talked before about certain TV shows having really slow or confusing opening episodes, which set up significant payoffs later on down the line. It’s something I’ve noticed an incredible amount of in anime, and while I don’t watch as much American TV, quite a few people I know who watch a lot of it tell me the same is true there. Bel commented over the weekend that he doesn’t decide if he likes a show or not until four or five episodes in at least, and it’s a rule I’ve adopted for anime as well.

There’s a flip side to the concept of “earning” enjoyment out of a piece of entertainment. If you’re invested in an experience, you’re a lot more likely to enjoy it, and if you have to work to get that investment, you’re going to value it more. It’s a fairly straightforward bit of psychology that crops up pretty much everywhere, and it’s fairly clear here as well. Things that are easy to get into are also easy to get out of; the games and shows I remember the most about are the ones I had to do some work to get invested in, whereas the easy shows don’t tend to stick with me as much.


As an example, I can’t really remember much about what happens in Azumanga Daioh, despite liking that show quite a bit when I watched it. It was easy to sit down and watch and while I have a vague recollection of it and I know it’s relatively simple, I can’t recall specifics even on rewatching episodes. On the other hand, in rewatching Baccano recently, I realized that I remembered pretty much everything that happened in the show, and with a brief memory jog could name characters and even specific scenes. Baccano is a much more complex, much less accessible show, and I had to put some effort into it. The payoff was fantastic, and it’s one of my favorite shows, but it requires that effort– that investment– to get the most out of it. Its spiritual successor, Durarara, had a similarly slow first episode, but once I got into it I was absolutely hooked, and it’s propelled itself easily into my top list of favorite shows.

I find myself seeking that investment in my entertainment– I want shows and games that I need to put a bit of effort into before they pay off. It’s something I’ve recently realized drives a lot of my interests; a lot of people like entertainment that they describe as “a way to turn my brain off”, and I’ve very rarely enjoyed that kind of experience. A lot of my friends are playing Diablo again recently, and it’s a game I’ve tried to like but don’t really enjoy most of the time– not because it isn’t fun, but because I don’t find it engaging and I get bored. In a similar vein, when I load up a new stealth game, I tend to crank the difficulty all the way up. I’d wondered why I do this, but it fits nicely into the idea of investing in the experience. It makes the game harder, so I have to work at it, and as a result I enjoy it more, because my victories feel more real. When I play minis games, I’ve put in the effort to acquire, assemble, and often paint the models I have, and in most cases I’ve constructed themes and narratives around them, so they feel weighty and meaningful.


FFXIV has an incredibly slow start compared to other recent MMOs– it’s a LONG time before you’ve got a variety of cool abilities and even have the basic mechanics of the game unlocked– it’s level 30 at least, sometimes later, and your class doesn’t feel like a complete concept until 50 in many cases. There’s a ton of mandatory story and a lot of things you simply have to do in order to progress. One of the criticisms levelled at Heavensward was that you had to play through the entire story of the game, including all of the main story content patches, just to even access the expansion content. For a lot of people, this was a wall that they had to climb to get into the new, cool areas they just paid for. However, the story of FFXIV is so central to the experience that a lot of what happens in Heavensward would be either nonsensical or have no impact if you could skip all of that content. The game forces you to invest some time (and, to be fair, rewards you fairly well if you’d not previously done it) so that you’re in a position to appreciate the new content.

I’m tempted to say I’m torn on this– that on the one hand I really do value the experiences I didn’t instantly love but came to enjoy a lot more than the ones I liked from the start, but that I also despise grinding and doing repetitive, grindy content just to “get to the fun part”. I’m really not torn at all, though. The investment is valuable, it just needs to be applied properly. The show has to be well-written, or the game well-designed, so that there is a satisfying payoff after you put in the investment. It’s got to feel like your time and effort are respected.


There’s a certain amount of trust that goes into it as well. You’ve got to be willing to trust that this thing you’re experiencing that seems like utter crap right now is going to all be worthwhile later. It’s a tall order, because we’re so inundated with quick, thoughtless entertainment experiences that aren’t trying to be thought-provoking or offer any payoff other than the immediate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of entertainment– it has its time and its place– but it’s very difficult to tell off the bat whether you’re dealing with something shallow or something deep until you’ve put a bit of time into it.

This isn’t to say that all meaningful, thought-provoking entertainment experiences have to be obtuse and inaccessible at first; what I *am* torn about is whether that’s a good idea. While it certainly forces me to put effort in, it’s also really good at losing me. I have to go digging for the hook, and sometimes it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a hook to find.


That having been said, my track record thus far with shows I haven’t liked at first but have put effort into is really great. Of the shows I’ve watched at least four episodes of this year, there’ve been two that I’m not enthused about watching more of, out of twenty or thirty by now. It’s a really good track record. Games have been starkly less good, though I think a lot of that is because my feelings on playing games has been changing since I stopped working on them, but it’s easy to fall into old “force yourself to play” habits.

Part of me is looking at the new Metal Gear Solid game– a series I haven’t played in a decade by now, and wondering if it’s worth the investment. Certainly I know a lot of people who are very into that series, and while it seems like inaccessible nonsense from the outside, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a solid (ha!) payoff for the invested player. I’ve got other games to play right now, and no disposable income for an MGS game, but still, I wonder.