Endgame

The “endgame”, as it is known, is what you play in a persistent world once you have reached max level, completed the game’s story, or whatever other accomplishment denotes the end of the game’s content. This is a rant about Destiny.

In Destiny, there are twenty levels of content, broadly speaking. You level up at a fairly reasonable pace, unlocking more difficult (read: higher-level) missions, new planets, etc. Reaching level 20 more or less coincides with the end of the game’s story missions, which are an issue unto themselves which I won’t go into here. Afterwards, you can work your way to level 30 by way of gear upgrades. This is, broadly, the same as the standard MMO model– reach max level, progression is tied to your gear rather than your experience bar.

Destiny’s content is not terribly varied; the environments are varied, but the missions themselves tend to be very standard “go here, shoot this” fare, and the enemies differ only slightly from one another. This is not inherently a problem; the variance in the enemies is enough to keep the different types distinct and interesting to fight, the levels are relatively quick, so they don’t feel like slogs, and while the missions could be a bit more inspired, the gunplay is fun. Playing various missions to upgrade your gear is, theoretically, quite a lot of fun.

In Destiny, it’s misery. Gear can be upgraded via one of two methods: random drops (which are entirely random, every mob has an apparently equal chance of dropping gear, regardless of level) and reputation/currency grinding, wherein you accumulate alternative currencies and spend them on gear, once you are of the requisite reputation level. The grind portion is hours of play, estimates suggest 20 or so hours of play per faction to hit rank 2, if you’re dedicatedly focused on that rep. Each faction has different items, and there are 3-4 factions… you can do the math. Random drops take the form of “engrams”, which are basically randomly dropped objects that can be turned into random items of varying quality. A random drop for a random drop is a system worthy of mockery.

These items that you may or may not get have a stat on them called “Light”, which does nothing other than increase your effective level. These items can be upgraded to occasionally grant more Light, and a new piece of equipment is, of course, not fully levelled. Upgrading nicer gear also requires exp to make the upgrade available as well as resources to actually acquire the upgrade, both of which require (you guessed it) grinding, often a lot.

Destiny’s endgame can be summed up thus: Grind for drops/rep in order to grind for gear exp in order to grind for materials to upgrade your gear. There are no shortcuts, and there are no guaranteed drops anywhere in this process. Do the same content repeatedly, at increasingly harder difficulties (with modifiers, most of which translate into “you die more easily”), and grind, grind, grind.

This is, fundamentally, not that much different from other games. After all, Diablo and Borderlands work on this model, many MMOs work on this model, any number of F2P games work on an even more egregious form of this model (where you pay real money to open up your random boxes). What makes Destiny different?

As with many things, it comes down to pacing. The primary difference between the older, roundly hated Diablo 3 and the more recent, post-expansion, rather enjoyable version is the frequency and quality of drops. In their game where progression was bounded by loot drops, increasing the frequency of quality drops made the game more fun, because progression was more tangible. They also took a page from MMOs, and made a handful of bosses reliably and consistently drop the highest quality items; this is a function of many MMO dungeons and raids– while you might not get exactly the item you need, SOMETHING of value will drop (even if it’s not for you). When drops are considered worthless, they tend to be mocked (see: Vendorstrike, from Vanilla WoW).

Final Fantasy XIV is the other game I’ve been playing lately, and their approach to endgame is starkly different. FFXIV has an astoundingly huge, highly elaborate set of interlocking systems, all of which you can work on at any given time. Some of these, if focused on exclusively, are highly grindy, but at any given moment there are a massive variety of options. If you are grinding at something, it’s not for lack of something else to do (unless you’ve already done everything, which is daunting for even the most highly dedicated players). The worst parts of FFXIV’s endgame are the parts where the grinding is unavoidable; if you don’t like repetitive tasks, you will be incredibly bored.

One of the things I’m looking for in my entertainment is engagement. I don’t watch TV almost at all, because I don’t find it engaging. There are countless things I can do with my time that keep my mind working and my senses alert. Grinding is a great way to turn off my brain, but turning off my brain is the last thing I want to do in my leisure time. FFXIV keeps me engaged, and when it doesn’t or when I’m not feeling it, I don’t play it. Destiny was fairly engaging throughout the levelling process, when I was gaining new abilities regularly and seeing new story missions, but on the whole it’s presented me a more or less unchanging grind with increasing diminishing returns, only now I’ve run out of new things to see. The moment to moment gameplay is fun, but I’m not feeling a point. By comparison, its primary competition (FFXIV) has much less compelling moment-to-moment gameplay, but I feel like there’s a point and that, by and large, the game respects my time.

I think that the concept of “endgame” is incredibly problematic, and it’s clear that a lot of games don’t really know how to handle it.

I think the solution is abolishing “levelling”, but that’s a complex topic, likely for tomorrow.

“Traditional” Healing: Part 2

I spent last week blasting the “traditional” healing style, talking about a variety of things it does wrong and not a lot of time talking about how to make it better. Today I’d like to talk about that latter part.

Before I get into that, I want to talk about a concept called “player fantasy”, which is extremely important for the discussion here. Player Fantasy is largely what it sounds like– the fantasy that players have about themselves. When Halo drops you into a battlefield as Master Chief, it is fulfilling the player fantasy of the unstoppable futuristic military hero. When Beyond Good and Evil drops you into the shoes of Jade, it is fulfilling the fantasy of the spy, the reporter, the explorer, the powerful woman, the capable investigator, etc. Games that are predicated on playing a character (so, generally not puzzle games) tend to draw broader audiences based on how many player fantasies they address and fulfill. MMOs specifically tend to cater to a very broad range of player fantasies– this is why one of the things that people will praise/criticize about MMOs right off the bat is the number of classes they have/lack. One of the best new additions to the new D&D is the very wide breadth of player fantasies covered in the basic player’s handbook, accomplishable without complicated multiclassing.

So, back to healers. My critique focused on the healer glass ceiling– their value to the party drops off sharply at the point where they’re no longer restoring lost health, and at that point the gap between a barely passable (but still passable) healer and an exemplary one is functionally nonexistent. In the current paradigm, healers are only capable of showcasing exemplary skill when another party member fails at their job and something in the group goes wrong; they are effectively invisible otherwise.

I consider any situation that makes a player effectively invisible to their party members a bad situation. It means that they are largely incapable of praise except in the event of someone else’s failure, and responsible for blame if things do go wrong. This is blatantly apparent in the behavior of players towards their healers, especially in random matchmade groups.

I suggest that the traditional healers gain the ability to showcase their skills in a standard group, when things are going well. At this point, I bring in player fantasy. The immediate answer is “well, healers can just DPS if they don’t need to be healing”, but the problem with this is that a devoted healer’s DPS is going to be terrible, for balance reasons, and that DPS is counter to the “support the party” player fantasy of the traditional healer. A great many players playing healers find damaging enemies directly at odds with their feelings about their group role, which is a big reason why healers like Rift’s Chloromancer tend to be rare and not played as often, and why if they come out mathematically ahead in a patch cycle, they come under harsh criticism.

Instead, any skill increase should directly focus on the supporting aspects of the traditional healer. I’ll use the FFXIV White Mage as an example. Here is a peek at the White Mage’s abilities:

Cure – basic single-target heal, has a small chance to make Cure 2 free

Cure 2 – more powerful but less efficient single-target heal, has a chance to halve the cost of Cure 3

Cure 3 – powerful heal (but not as powerful as Cure 2) that heals in a small aoe around the target, also very expensive

Regen – instant cast, powerful heal-over-time

Stoneskin – powerful “bubble” shield with a long cast time

Shroud of Saints – threat reduction and mana regeneration

Benediction – instant cast, full heal on a long cooldown

Presence of Mind – short-duration buff that vastly increases casting speed

Medica – point-blank AoE heal

Medica 2 – point-blank AoE heal that also has a heal-over-time component, more overall healing than Medica 1, slightly less up-front

What I see here are a whole bunch of fairly redundant abilities with, at best, cornercase use cases based solely on raw number crunching. If everyone in the group is at full health, few if any of these spells are useful and the White Mage turns to their relatively meager DPS additions, or just stands around and waits to be needed.

I’d want to alter these to something more active. Three direct heals with the same speed and varying sizes is excessive, even with the small adds they provide. Medica is made nearly obsolete by Medica 2 except in extreme group damage situations where the inefficiency of wasting the heal-over-time is a concern. Cure is the bread-and-butter spell, cast the vast majority of the time unless a low-chance proc occurs.

By comparison, Bendiction, Stoneskin, Regen, and Shroud of Saints are interesting spells. One is a powerful “oh shit” button, another is a proactive damage preventative, another is highly efficient and very useful for both additional healing and fire-and-forget heals over a period of time, and the last is a powerful utility button whose dual-purpose fits nicely into a healer’s needs.

What is entirely lacking in these abilities is any sort of function other than “low health/not low health” that is noticeable for anyone other than the healer. Tanks notice their incoming damage, DPS notices their outgoing damage, mostly neither notices the healer’s work unless something goes wrong and they die (blame point for healer). There is no point where they can go “oh man awesome!” due to a healer’s actions (praise point for healers). The only possible praise point for a healer is when someone does not die who, by all rights, should have, at which point praising the healer for keeping them alive is equivalent to them admitting that they failed. In the eyes of the party, there is no healer success without blame, which is a huge problem.

I propose tying healer support functions to the outputs that the other party members notice. An ability like WoW’s Bloodlust (massive groupwide damage output buff) should be the sole purview of healers. Short-duration performance spikes should be directly attributable to the healer, but ideally easy to use.

Here’s an alternate presentation of those abilities that I’d like better:

Cure, when cast on a target with one of your HOTs, has an increased potency, provides a temporary buff that boosts Cure 2. Can consume its own buff to provide a short-duration damage buff to the target, if the target is overhealed
Cure 2 remains largely the same, will consume the above buff to refresh the duration of Regen,  provides a temporary buff that boosts Cure 3
Cure 3, also remains largely the same, consumes the Cure 2 buff to reduce mana cost and makes your next Stoneskin free and instant
Stoneskin, largely unchanged, restores mana over time when it expires
Medica, as it is now, gains a trait to add the HoT (previously provided by Medica 2) at later levels
Medica 2, now instant cast with a higher cost, consumes Medica’s HoT for potency boost proportional to the remaining duration of the HoT, if targets are overhealed they get a damage boost

Most of the abilities are fundamentally unchanged, but there’s an escalation that both benefits the White Mage and their party, providing resource efficiency for the White Mage and noticeable offensive buffs for the rest of the party (provided they’ve kept themselves healthy enough to receive them).

This is a quick, flash-in-the-pan design, but the overall philosophy is to provide more opportunities for healers to add more noticeable benefits to their party without either significantly raising the basic skill level necessary to succeed at a base level or breaking the player fantasy of the devoted healer. A passable healer should not need to use all of the functionality just to achieve basic competence, much like DPS classes may not be juggling every cooldown and perfectly executing every combo and maintaining every debuff to be competent at a basic level, but a truly exemplary healer, like a truly exemplary DPS, can shine.

“Traditional” Healing: A Critique

Time for me to step on some toes. The traditional healer design in MMOs is a bad design. A bunch of people just got upset and don’t know why (because they don’t read my blog) at this statement, because it’s their favorite class, the one they’re the most comfortable with, everyone loves them on it, etc etc.

Let me clarify the statement. By “traditonal healer”, I’m talking about a healing class that is primarily reactive, filling up health bars as they deplete and attempting to do so without running out of [resource], which is its own bar that depletes. By “bad design”, I mean several things– it’s a dead end, it messages badly, it doesn’t reward players well, and it limits players of high skill.

Consider a few (very common) scenarios:

1.) A traditional healer at an appropriate gear level is in a group with one or more undergeared characters, one of which is the tank.

2.) A traditional healer is undergeared, in a group that is otherwise appropriately geared.

3.) A traditional healer is overgeared, in a group that is otherwise appropriately geared.

4.) A traditional healer is overgeared, in a group that is undergeared.

5.) A traditional healer is undergeared or appropriately geared, in a group that is otherwise overgeared.

In scenario 1, the healer is likely going to struggle. Reactive healing will create some issues, as the tank’s HP is going to swing wildly from full to critically low at a much faster rate than expected. A healer might be able to struggle through this, but will be under a lot more stress than the rest of the group (they’ll be carrying the party). If anyone does anything wrong and takes avoidable damage, the healer will likely be unable to catch up. Consider how similar this looks to scenario 4– the overgeared healer in scenario 4 is also carrying the group, and is probably powerful enough to make up for the shortcomings and mistakes of the rest of the party. There is no real way to know which situation this is until you actually try it (though occasionally it’ll be blindingly obvious). Note that the same is true in scenario 2, though the lack of incoming healing will likely be more obvious. Essentially, the healer’s situation here is binary: either the party lives or it does not, and only in scenario 2, where the healer’s knowledge of his or her own limits would allow them to make sense of the situation, is the healer the active decider of success or failure.

Now look at scenarios 3 and 5. Odds are very good that in both of these, the healer may be bored or otherwise undertasked, either because their excess power is going to waste (scenario 3) or because the group needs them less (scenario 4). Again, the healer’s agency is diminished because once the party has reached a certain threshold (either not needing the healer’s full power or diminishing the need for the healer due to their own excess power), the healer is less and less useful. A group that is powerful enough obviates the need for a healer entirely, though rarely can a healer be so powerful as to obviate the need for a group.

All of this is to point out that the traditional reactive healer lacks agency. If your only output is ensuring that health bars are full, then when health bars are full you are unnecessary until they deplete, and if they don’t deplete at a rate requiring your intervention, your spot in the group is better served by, say, more DPS. Similarly, the healer’s threshold for skill is limited by the health pools of their party members– fine-tuning your heals to be hyper-efficient is only relevant if you run the risk of running out of resources.

Compare this to the standard “tank” or “dps” paradigms– as these roles get better gear and more skill, their agency also increases, and as their power increases the effect their power has on the overall experience increases, often without bound. As a player gets more and more skilled and ekes out more and more performance, they can often materially alter the experience, generally by noticably increasing speed.

More modern healers do this as well, usually through the use of DPS abilities that also assist the healer in solo play, though I would argue that this is a substitution, rather than a natural extension of the healer’s support-oriented role. Tanks often have this issue as well, though they too can trade tanking functionality for damage, and this is generally a more natural extension of their role (as tanks are interacting directly with the enemy, whereas healers generally aren’t).

Offensive buffs, in my view, should be primarily the purview of the healers, a natural extension of their support role that also allows for a higher skill cap. Smart use of offensive buffs allows the healer to support the party on more than one axis, extending the class past simply “keeping everyone alive” and into “helping everyone perform at their best”. This also helps to solve the messaging problem, where a healer of barely passable skill can be differentiated from a healer of exemplary skill.

Worth noting: healers that primarily heal via damaging enemies (see: Rift’s Chloromancer) have much higher skill caps, though this design isn’t as refined as the more traditional healer (and furthermore doesn’t suit a great many players who are looking for a pure support role).

I’ve spent a bunch of time bashing the traditional healer design here, I’ll try to balance it out with some designs that solve the problems I see. If you’re a big fan of the traditional healer, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts!

It’s Okay To Not Like Things

(edit: Apologies, this was written yesterday, but I forgot to hit “publish”. Whoops!)

Starting today with a video:

Reading about Destiny, and the (silly named) Gamergate, I notice a lot of people conflating opinion and objective reality. This is probably not a surprise to anyone; the monologues look something like this:

“I don’t like X, therefore it’s stupid.”

I blame our increasingly simplified, increasingly black-and-white outlook on this. We don’t have space in our 140-character tweets for nuance– a statement must be direct, simple, and straightforward. There’s no room to qualify statements, and in an atmosphere of sound bytes and hyperbole, a nuanced discussion is lost.

I feel like Gamergate (man, I dislike that name, I don’t even enjoy typing it) really exacerbates the problem. With so much hyperbole on both sides, it became increasingly difficult to be heard as a moderate, reasonable person participating in the discussion, and the debate is, at that point, very easily hijacked by extremists who argue with one another.

I think it’s really important, especially in light of recent events, to consider perspectives. Someone absolutely loves every game you hate, and hates every game you love. A close friend of mine hates The Fifth Element, and loved Guardians of the Galaxy. To me, those two movies are cut from the same cloth, with relatively minor variances throughout (obviously better FX in the latter), but it’s really important to me to understand that him disliking a movie I love is not some kind of existential crisis for me, nor is my perspective on those two movies the All-Encompassing Truth (and, indeed, it would be insufferably arrogant of me to think so).

Which brings me back to Destiny. It’s a great game, one that I’m having a ton of fun with. It’s not the perfect game, because it has flaws, but these flaws don’t destroy the experience one bit. It is, objectively, a well-made, high quality game, even if you don’t like it.

It’s cool if you don’t like Destiny, or FFXIV, or Gone Home, or Transistor, or whatever other game people are talking about, but it doesn’t do you, anyone else, or the discussion itself any favors to be dismissive about things that are categorically false. Saying “Destiny has bad graphics” as a cover for “I don’t like their art style” or “I’m salty about the game not being released on PC” muddies the water from an actual discussion and sabotages any attempt at discourse into a series of unidirectional one-liners.

Not liking things is important. I’ve played/watched/done a lot of things I didn’t really enjoy, and being able to recognize both that they’re good and that I don’t like them and that that isn’t a paradox is useful. We no longer live in an era where media (especially games) are released so infrequently that you can’t afford not to like a game because that might be the only one you get to play that year. Now we have Steam backlogs that would take years to work through, and massive console libraries that could never be completed. A friend of mine refused to buy a PS3 until he finished his PS2 backlog, and wound up nearly skipping that generation entirely as the PS4 rolled around, and he’s still not done with his PS2 backlog.

There is enough entertainment around that we can all have the things we like, and we don’t have to feel challenged by disliking something that other people enjoy.

It’s okay to not like things. Just… don’t be a dick about it.

Evolution of MMOs

I’m a huge fan of MMOs. There’s no genre that compares to the breadth and depth of experience, and the sheer scale of the game space. Rather than a game that I play, consume, and discard, MMOs can feel like home, a place I return to regularly to hang out, socialize, advance, play, and do all sorts of things. I don’t hold with the critique of the term that “MMO” is inherently nonsense, and the term should be “MMOG” or “MMORPG”; the genre is inherently open-ended, and I think the term MMO is appropriately open-ended to match.

It’s no secret that MMOs have struggled in the last few years. Since the release of WoW, the bar for quality, polish, and scale has been nigh-impossible to meet or exceed, and more importantly the continual additions and advancements in WoW have only raised that bar.

MMOs are a colossal development undertaking, so that continually increasing bar makes it extremely difficult to compete– certainly none of the MMOs released since WoW have enjoyed the same level of success. It’s important to note that “hasn’t reached the same level of success” is not the the same as failure– most of the MMOs that get dubbed “failures” in the comments of gaming sites are in fact chugging along just fine, releasing new content.

In the meantime, it’s becoming clear that chasing the WoW model isn’t a way in which MMOs can possibly hope to dethrone WoW. I largely think this is due to the gaming environment changing. In 2004, when WoW launched, the concept of a game you can easily log in and play online with your friends was a marvel, still shiny, new, and often flawed out the gate (but glorious even through the flaws). Ten years later, easy online play with friends is stock-standard for nearly every game released; the only real difference is the number of players.

I’ve long wondered whether console game development or MMO development would bridge the gap between one another first. I’ve been curious to see if console games would adopt more and more MMO features until they’re indistinguishable from MMOs, or if MMOs would adapt to include more console action features, to address the oft-repeated critique that MMOs are often mechanically and functionally very similar to one another (see: “hotbar combat”, “holy trinity”, and similar complaints).

Today, Destiny launched, the first MMO-styled game to launch simultaneously across multiple major consoles (though, interestingly, not PC) from a major publisher and studio. There have been previous forays into the MMO market on consoles– DC Universe Online and both Final Fantasy MMOs, but Destiny’s launch is on a much larger scale than any of those.

It’s telling, to me, that the console development side has bridged the gap first. I suspect that we won’t be seeing “traditional” MMOs for some time. The lustre of massively multiplayer environments has faded, and the real joy– running around with a small number of friends– has come to the fore, and consoles can provide a higher level of fidelity in that environment than MMOs have managed to accomplish. As technology and players’ expectations have advanced, the “traditional” MMO designs appeal to a smaller and smaller niche.

I think that the age of new “traditional” MMOs is largely over, or close. The market is very fragmented, with a number of quality games filling different niches under the umbrella of World of Warcraft, but a relative dearth of massive, game-changing innovation. With as much fragmentation as the market has, it’s very difficult to find a way to recoup the costs of developing an MMO– the smaller audience issue has previously been offset by recurring payments by the players, but this is becoming less and less popular.

I’m interested in seeing if the “traditional” MMO evolves beyond its current state. I think there are experiences that MMOs can offer that the console side of things has a lot more trouble with– specifically the large number of players in a single world. Unfortunately, traditional MMOs have had more and more trouble making that massive number of players appealing; in general seeing another player while playing represents an obstacle, or competition for resources, rather than a boon.

While traditional MMOs struggle with this, we get to see the advent of the AAA, top-tier console MMO, a trail blazed by previous games and now being used by new games like Destiny, The Division, and so on.

I look forward to seeing what these games bring to the table that will inevitably get mirrored by the other side. The games look fun, and look to have stripped out a lot of the trappings that have held back traditional MMO innovation, offering a fresh look at the genre (and hopefully a jumping-off point for even more interesting games).

Being “Smart”

People accuse me of being “smart”. The word choice there is intentional (although it’s almost always well-meaning):

“You’re too smart for that.”

“You did that? You must be smart.”

“I could never do that. I’m not as smart as you.”

“You’ll be fine, you’re a smart guy.”

Statements like this bother me. Two of them suggest that some action I’ve taken or opinion I’ve espoused is invalid because I’m “smart”. I am perpetually concerned about my continued growth and well-being; I shouldn’t, because I’m “a smart guy”. I have made some choice or failed at some task, and this is unacceptable because I’m “too smart for that”. The other two portray me as “other”, compared to the speaker. The speaker could not perform the task I have because they’re “not that smart”. The speaker doesn’t think a task is possible (or possible in a certain amount of time), therefore accomplishing it means I’m “smart”.

We are very, very bad at this sort of thing, as if being smart were some crucial, inborn trait; you either have it or you don’t. It bleeds into our fiction– how many fantasy worlds have “born mages”, where magic (as an analogue for intelligence) is “in the blood” of some people, but not others; that they’re somehow gifted with supernatural power. At the same time, we vehemently and dispassionately punish error; If you get a question wrong on your homework, or fail at a task, or struggle in any way, you have failed and you are Forever Marked, even making up for the error later merely reduces the damage you’ve already done to yourself.

Someone told me last night that they look up to me because I’m smart, and they want to be smart and successful as well. In a day filled with unfortunate events, this struck me as profoundly sad. I am not a role model. Other than playing the hand I’ve been dealt as competently as I can, I have done little of worth to warrant emulation. I talk a big game, but I don’t have the breadth of experience to truly say I’ve acted upon it. In the meantime, I look at my friends, ones who have actually struggled in their lives and had genuine hardships and still come out on top– they are the role models. I have known people who have kicked drug habits, started careers and families, and know both what failure is and how to overcome it. I have seen people transcend troubled, dangerous upbringings and carve for themselves a place in the world. I have seen people struggle to live a life that isn’t defined by a mental illness, a “normal” life, whatever that means. I have seen people give up everything for a cause or an ideal that they believe in, and make it real not through any gift, but through sheer hard work. These are the laudable people, the role models. They are the ones with something to learn from. I can only aspire to develop something worth teaching.

If you want to be smart, use your brain. This sounds flippant, but it’s true. Work at it constantly, do mental exercises like you might find in something like Lumosity, don’t settle for passive entertainment that doesn’t require thought. It’s like any form of exercise: the more you do it, the easier it gets. Read books, solve puzzles, learn new skills, find patterns in things, figure out how things you use every day work. The Internet is a fantastic resource for this, and the more you learn things, the faster you learn new things. Never settle for telling yourself you’re bad at something, because all that means is that you haven’t practiced at it, and you’ve probably gotten it wrong in the past. Relationship columns will frequently offer the advice “never settle” — this applies to things other than dating.

“Smart” isn’t an identity, don’t let it define you. It’s not an exclusive club you’re not a part of, and it’s not some magic wand that prevents you from failing at things. We’re bad at valuing improvement, but don’t let that stop you from improving. All that means is that there isn’t someone standing over you with a red pen, ready to mark you off for not getting something right on the first try. Failing at something and trying again to get better is a far more laudable thing than simply getting it right on the first try. If you’re getting things right on the first try, you should be doing harder things.

Volatility

Today, I woke up to this.

The usual caveats about not reading the comments apply. For those unable to follow the link, it’s the press release about layoffs at Zenimax Online Studios, the most recent in the unceasing string of games industry terminations.

I have a lot of feelings about this. It’s where I worked most recently, and I was there for more than five years, which is an eternity in the games industry, and I’ve been there recently enough that a good many of the people hit by the layoffs were my close, personal friends. Most games industry bloggers don’t really talk about the layoffs in specific, because it’s expected– the games industry is “volatile”. It is the biggest, most important thing to internalize for anyone planning on entering the industry– steel yourself for the things you hold dear to get put through the wringer. Whether that’s your own creative output, your sense of your own skills, your hobbies and free time, your family, or your very job itself, be ready, because they will all happen.

To my friends who find themselves without a job, now or whenever, my condolences. It’s never, ever easy, and I hope you land on your feet quickly.

This volatility is hard. It’s the result of highly demanding projects that require large staffs to complete, constantly moving targets and shifting priorities, complex creative tasks, and some amount of guesswork and hope. There are no safe bets in the games industry; even the biggest, most well-beloved franchises can release games that flop, or, more likely, succeed but not enough to continue expansion.

The oft-cited average career length in the games industry is five and a half years, a figure which I see repeated frequently and, anecdotally, seems to hold true, but I can’t find hard statistics to back up. If it is an accurate number, it means that game devs have careers right in the same window as football players in the NFL (NFL Player’s Association says 3.3 years, the NFL proper says 6 years). For a non-physical (read: non-injury-prone), technical, creative industry that a person should be able to retain skills at for an entire career, that number is insane to me.

It’s because we love making video games, and we’re often willing to put up with the associated terribleness that goes with it. I know a lot of people who I’ve worked with who say things like “I don’t know what else I could do”, and indeed, that’s something I’ve struggled with myself. Eventually, though, something wins out. Family, mental health, a more relaxed and better-paying job in a more stable industry. It’s a brutal Catch-22– in order to succeed in the games industry, you have to be smart, adaptable, creative, technically-minded, and possessed of a broad skillset… exactly the combination of things that would make you very attractive outside the industry.

The industry is starting to feel this, I think. Crunch is still omnipresent, but I’ve heard fewer extreme horror stories lately than I had previously. Companies are emphasizing experience more and more, looking for those industry vets (the ones who left the industry for greener pastures after 5 or so years on average). That volatility, though, between the sudden long hours and the unexpected layoffs, burns people out. A big part of the reason I left my last job was because I wanted to take classes, get my Master’s degree, and I couldn’t do so with the volatility of my schedule (much less the possibility of getting laid off and possibly being forced to move across the country again). I’m now in an environment where a majority of the people are taking classes with special dispensation by their employers to work slightly fewer hours to cover class and assignment time, and that’s de rigueur.

Game companies, generally, aren’t interested in assisting their employees’ career growth unless it fills an immediate gap in the company’s needs– this is a result of that volatility, and at the same time is a contributing factor to it. What game devs have instead is the network. You keep in touch with your friends from your various jobs, and everyone understands and tries to help out when one company lays a bunch of people off or goes under. It’s a never-ending cycle of paying it forward, to push against the never-ending tide of volatility.

There has to be a better way, but the people whose interests are immediately served don’t have the stability to work it out, and the companies who would benefit long-term lack the flexibility to experiment. I like to hope that a solution will surface, but I don’t know what that would look like or how long it’ll take.

Being “Tired” of Hearing About Problems

If you’re into video games, the last few weeks have been… tumultuous, to say the least. There’s a lot of vitriol, a lot of hate, and a lot of both things disguised as armchair academics, to say nothing of the overall exhaustion people are expressing with any given issue, or even all of the issues combined.

The exhaustion is, I think, very telling. People are tired of a lot of things, and are more than happy at this point to loudly express it. Otherwise forward-thinking, open minded people sigh and avoid discussion, or attempt to change the subject entirely. There’s very little question that this is harmful for everyone involved, but I don’t think a lot of thought has gone into the reasons why.

Being tired of something, to me, suggests one of three things: change is not occurring, change is occurring but too slowly, or too much change is happening too quickly (assuming we’re talking about being tired of change itself). I don’t think you can make a cogent argument that things aren’t changing, though I think in many ways they’re changing for the better and for the worse in equal measure. The Internet gives a voice to the formerly voiceless, and those voiceless people can be underserved groups or overserved, entitled brats — both have a much louder voice than before.

I think, however, that there’s a break in the discussion, where people shouting at one another precludes communication, to the point where the same arguments are being made over and over and people are getting fatigued. The essential arguments — internet communities are toxic, sexism is real and present, racism is real and present, all have not changed enough for us to even remotely suggest that they’re “solved problems”.

However, what we lack is effective means of communication. Arguments get bogged down in semantics and debates over trivialities, and the discourse doesn’t move forward as a result. Much of this is the result of intentional muddying of the waters, attempting to prevent the discourse from even beginning for any number of reasons.

A lot of this, I think, stems from a cultural issue we have with being wrong. We fight being proven wrong at every turn, and when evidence presented portrays us as wrong unequivocally, we attack the evidence. This is ingrained in us at a young age– a student who is never challenged in grade school is “scored” far better than one who struggles but ultimately learns, and coming from the perspective of the former, I think the latter is by far the more laudable. This constantly continues throughout life, and the Internet only exacerbates the problem. Be wrong once, and any future rightness is called into question.

People are tired of the arguments because they clearly present one side as wrong, and we don’t have a good way of handling that, either from the perspective of the person who is wrong or from the perspective of the person looking at someone else who is wrong. Wrong = bad, and more open-minded sorts will frequently “forgive” someone for being wrong, or thinking the wrong thing, as if that weren’t something we all do constantly.

I’d like to see our discourse move away from attacking whoever is wrong and seeking to find blame, and start looking for solutions. We are far too quick to punish errors rather than laud the discovery of solutions, and it stunts our growth– as people, as a culture, as a nation, and as a species.

30 Posts in 30 Hours: The Manifesto

I haven’t officially participated in Blaugust, but it made for a nice framework for me to launch this site.

In the last 30 or so hours (some of the dates have been altered on my posts so that they’re in the proper order), I’ve put together a list of things that I think about and plan to write about, hopefully if anyone reads them they’ll have a better idea about who I am and how I think.

Putting them here, for an easily-referenced list:

1. Video Games
2. Game Design Theory and Practice
3. Tabletop RPGs
4. Warmachine/Hordes
5. Infinity: the Game
6. Gaming Psychology
7. Relationships
8. The Games Industry
9. Games Academia
10. Linguistics and Definitions
11. Etiquette
12. Technology
13. Food
14. Games I Recommend
15. Stories I Write
16. Books
17. Articles worth reading
18. Miniatures Painting and Modeling
19. Alcohol
20. My Dog
21. Games I’d Like To See
22. The Future of Games
23. Q&A
24. Business and Money
25. Culture
26. Politics
27. Aggrochat
28. Terrible, terrible jokes
29. Cleverness of any kind
30. Things That Are Broken

“Fun”, Defined (Part 2)

We left off yesterday trying to define “fun”. I spoke before about challenge and expression of mastery, two components of fun, and I want to mention them again briefly. The psychological approach says that the brain likes to learn and the ego likes to be recognized– this is the core of challenge and expression of mastery. To create fun, however, we cannot force someone to learn; it’s very difficult to have fun when coerced, and so rather than forcing players to learn, we merely provide challenges and payoffs for said challenges to encourage learning. Voluntary learning is fun. Expression of mastery is in a similar vein– we have moved past simply telling the player “great job!”, though many older games did exactly this. We instead provide high scores, online play, leaderboards, and other such external functions as a measurable demonstration of mastery. Achievements are an extension of this, and are part of the next part of the equation.

So.

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + ?

Yesterday, I talked about following the money, as it were. Tracing the paths followed by game devs allows us to see the things that are emphasized, where a lot of effort is put forth. These are not decisions made in a vacuum, nor are they made frivolously. Resources in game development are always tight and games vary so widely that a particular feature or concept that crosses games (like difficulty settings) are worth noting, because they hint at a crucial piece of the puzzle. This next part is what we see emphasized in advertising, with each new console generation, in sequels, in indie games, and even in mobile games and flash games.

I’m talking about Spectacle. The loud, bombastic, explosive deluge of a triple-A blockbuster or the serene, calming meditations of a variety of indie games or the simple, focused pleasure of a match-3 mobile game — even the flailing-in-the-living-room spectacle of games of the Wii, Kinect, PSMove, Dance Dance Revolution, etc. I would have once described this as “exploration of beauty”, which I think is still accurate but isn’t broad enough to cover the entire spectrum. Spectacle is a term pulled from a friend and former colleague of mine, who points out that pressing “the most fun button in video games”* is much akin to enjoying the gorgeous desert of Journey and finding fantastic vistas in Skyrim. Whether that spectacle is a particularly satisfying button, a perfectly tuned user interface, a breathtaking visual, a particularly evocative musical piece, or some combination of all of these isn’t important– whatever it is that makes you stop and stare, or say “wow”, or laugh with surprise and awe, that is spectacle. Spectacles inspire awe, and awe is fun.

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + Spectacle + ?

The last piece to the equation is something that my aforementioned friend would call “delight”, which is linked to spectacle in the same way that expression of mastery is linked with challenge. I agree with the general concept, but in the same way I think “spectacle” describes a broader spectrum than “appreciation of beauty”, I think that a better term than “delight” would be “catharsis”. Video games offer, in many ways, an emotional release, and work to both inspire and satisfy emotions. If spectacle inspires emotion, cartharsis satisfies it. One builds up, the other pays off.

In the end, we have this:

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + Spectacle + Catharsis

I think this fairly well covers the spectrum of games that are fun, while realizing and accepting that different people will like different games (but all of those game can be fun!). It also gives us ways of analyzing why a game is or isn’t fun. Fun is obviously subjective, but this gives us a framework to understand how games are fun for different people in different ways. Certain games also focus more or less on these various things.

As an example, three extreme points on the gaming spectrum: Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Angry Birds. All three of these are highly popular games and their players will tell you they’re fun, but why? Let’s see if we can break them down:

Challenge: Call of Duty requires excellent hand-eye coordination and fast reflexes, as well as good spatial reasoning. World of Warcraft doesn’t challenge the same skills in the same way, but does have a broader scope– challenging a player’s long-term commitment, their ability to comprehend and evaluate complex data, group coordination, pattern recognition and execution, and for many, social skills. Angry Birds also offers challenge, focusing heavily on spatial reasoning and pattern recognition as well as iterative experimentation. All three of these challenge different skills (with some overlap), and it’s thus unsurprising that the playerbases for each game differ very widely (again, with some overlap).

Expression of Mastery: Call of Duty allows players to test their skills against one another directly, as well as offering leaderboards and achievements for difficult goals. Its single-player levels also follow arcs of difficulty, allowing players to become good at fighting a particular enemy type or using a particular weapon and then allowing them to show off their skills with that weapon against foes they’ve become good at defeating. World of Warcraft follows many of the same arcs, with rare, powerful items replacing leaderboards and a heavier focus on team dynamics rather than individual skill. It also allows players to easily return to portions of the game they’ve grown past, displaying their power against enemies that once seriously threatened them — indeed, this behavior has for a long time been a cultural touchstone in MMOs. Angry Birds follows similar logic, with easier levels following difficult ones and ample opportunity to use different bird types effectively, often using fewer birds than allotted to win.

Spectacle: For Call of Duty, this is clear. Explosions, massive set pieces, loud music and flashy effects are on display. The game pits you against a variety of threats and offers you the chance to come out on top, showing off a variety of virtual locales and cinematic sequences along the way. World of Warcraft awes with the size and scope of its world– not only is the world large, but the roles a player can play in it vary widely, as do the ways in which mastery can be expressed. A highly skilled PvP warrior has a starkly different experience than a raid-focused mage, who in turn is wholly unlike the socially-oriented guild leader who spends most of their time talking to other players and growing/galvanizing their network. Angry Birds offers varied levels and a colorful, distinct art style, but for that game the spectacle is less inherent to the game itself and more a function of its convenience– Angry Birds can be played anywhere, at any time, quickly and easily, filling time that its players might otherwise spend bored or unoccupied. This transforms otherwise unsatisfying moments (where someone is forced to wait) into exciting ones (I can play Angry Birds!), giving the game an awe all its own.

Catharsis: Call of Duty’s spectacle is clear, and to some extent so is its catharsis– defeating enemies and beating the game is satisfying, but the more notable catharsis is more subtle. Call of Duty provides moments of high action followed by moments of relative calmness (on the player’s part), as non-interactive cutscenes play out, which in turn drive the high action. Cutscenes are a reward for succeeding at the action, and serve to pay off and then further set up the next action sequence. More subtly, the game is responsive and intuitive, two oft-overlooked elements that are very important. When a player’s emotional response is to move, or shoot, the game accomodates them without fuss, building and releasing that tension in every moment of gameplay. Similarly, World of Warcraft distinguished itself from its competition early on by having a highly polished, highly responsive game that enabled players to perform the actions they feel they should need to. It also pays off move execution, major milestones, and other interactions with sharp, clear audio and visual cues — the well-known “ding!” permeates the entire genre. Angry Birds has similar moments in its responsive controls and overall polish, but the real catharsis it offers is in the satisfaction it provides in what would otherwise be a boring moment, which itself is strong enough to inspire players to play at other times as well.

All four of the pieces of the “fun” equation are important, but different games emphasize them differently. It’s important to consider that different thresholds and paths for each of them will appeal to different people, or frequently the same person at different times. As developers, we can be informed by the things we are emphasizing in a game and how they might affect our audience (and how our intended audience might inform the things we emphasize). As players, we can better understand ourselves and make better-informed decisions about the games we like to play, since time and money are both limited resources.

I hope this was interesting or useful to someone. Let me know if you disagree, or if you think I missed something!

 

*For him, this is the “call assassins” button in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. For others, it’s the last button in that devastating ultra combo. For me, it’s frequently the “oh shit” button in MMOs.