Begone, quests! Take 2: Ironman edition

(AKA: Putting my gaming money where my mouth is.)

(EDIT – server change. I’ll make this alt on Landroval where I have *cough* one char slot left. I’m also kicking around the idea of just taking an existing char and not questing for a week, but I’m not sure that would be legit. None of the chars are higher than 16 or so.)

Quite a few people are talking about quests at the moment, including the usual suspects (Spinks, Stargrace) and on a variety of slants. They’re all good posts and they — as good posts should — made me think.

More specifically, the hare-brained idea for this Monday morning was: “I wonder if I could play a game for a week without doing a single quest?”

Sounds easy, right? I suspect it won’t be.

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Stream of consciousness for a cyberpunk MMO

NOTE – this is a long and mostly personal-reference post. You can read the first bit and skip the notes, or just not read it at all. YHBW.

Damn you, Psychochild*, damn you! I was all set to wake up, have my coffee quietly, zip through my email as fast as humanly possible (still took an hour), and get some quality gaming time that I haven’t been able to snatch in the last few days by dint of having too much work (yay!) and being too tired afterwards (boo!).

This happened to me yesterday, too. But I’m the forgiving sort and I’m also a cyberpunk fan so I am going to drive all five of you (Hi Joe, hi Billy Bob, hi Fuchsia, hi Dickie, hi Scaryboo!) to go check it out. I haz cattle prod and I’m not afraid to use it.

If you need more direction, you spineless internet zombies, here it is. Exhibit A: A Cyberpunk MMO would be a terrible idea! And Exhibit B: A Cyberpunk MMO would rule!

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Persistence: ourstory

We wee MMO players appear to be growing up. Back in the day it was enough just to kill a mountain of [insert your favourite monster here -- olthoi for me], return home laden with mega-phat lewt, rebuff and go do the whole thing again. Nobody really cared that the only dynamic and persistent thing about MMOs was the respawn schedule.

I’m older now, and somewhat wiser, and I want different things. Persistence, for one — real persistence, not the buzzword, game-box blurb version that really just means “the world doesn’t vanish when you log out.”

Or maybe it’s not just persistence we want, but persistent impact. As Wolfshead eloquently put it in a comment over at We Fly Spitfires:

The other component to all of this is the sense of “persistence”. The idea that the world persists, lives and grows even when you are not logged on. This allows players to create their own history and help shape the history of the world they play in. Without a robust sense of persistence in MMOs accomplishments are almost worthless and definitely cheapened.

Sadly many MMOs have a very small persistence quotient. WoW’s is about 6 minutes which is the average respawn time of an NPC. But that’s another issue for another day.

dali-persistence-of-time

The WFS post is actually about external acknowledgement of one’s achievements — lots of achievements in single-player games, lots of impact on the world, but nobody else gets to see you do it; but it’s not entirely surprising that the discussion should eventually veer to persistence, since one of the things many of us are seeking these days isn’t just persistence, it’s persistence of impact.

It bothers me increasingly that nothing I can do ever impacts an MMO for longer than it takes a given NPC to respawn. Sure, I can get a nifty title or piece of gear or whatever that proves what I did and lets me show off to my peers, but a) 58,756 other people also have said title or item, and b) Gorgonzola the Terrifyingly Stinky came right back 5 minutes after I killed him.

Okay, I don’t actually give a shit about killing Gorgonzola the Terrifyingly Stinky and even less about getting his phat lewt and/or title, but the point remains: other stuff moves me, like making something truly rare and even possibly unique, or having a diplomatically vital conversation that changes the course of a war, or whatever. We have different shinies-preferences, but we ALL love shinies or we probably wouldn’t be playing MMOs.

One of the things about persistent impact, as Wolfshead so accurately said, is that it creates history – and if you’ve only been playing MMOs for a year or two, you may never have had that sense at all (remembering a keep siege or raid for 3 weeks isn’t quite what I’m talking about). Back in the day, when games were small and server communities were probably about the size that some single guilds are now, server events actually were history — big stuff happened for the first time and everybody got to hear about it, knew the names of the few who had boldly gone, sent them tells of congratulation (as opposed to the smack talk people probably get now). Everyone knew and in some sense everyone participated in that event, even if they weren’t there in person — it’s like knowing where you were when Kennedy was assassinated or the Moon landings took place. Ironically, I had more of a sense of a world being shared and shaped back in Asheron’s Call than I do in the much more polished games I play today. Games are more polished now, but that also means they’re even more impervious to the players.

Another interesting thing I realised is that sandbox games seem to have an easier time creating their own type of persistent-impact history. Take EVE, for instance, where large-scale wars have raged across entire solar systems and everyone knows the names of those involved — and where changes in control over such areas can have a direct impact on how you play the game and even who plays the game. Sure, the central, safe parts of the game don’t change a whole lot, but that’s just the kiddy-pool part of the sandbox (and one I never dared leave in my two brief EVE stints, I should add). EVE has the added advantage of being played on only one server, which means that whatever happens affects everyone and happens on your server — not some other random server out of 200 possible servers out of eleventy-million possible players.

So scale might be an issue. When you have eleventy-million players all wanting to change the universe, it’s probably hard to design something to accommodate them all. Also, I’m sure it’ll be extremely hard to design and develop the kind of persistent-impact play the more mature MMO players now want (and I don’t mean age-wise, necessarily, though I do think there’s a correlation).

Nonetheless, if this persistent-impact thing doesn’t start creeping into multiplayer games soon, and by that I mean more than just the ability to decorate your own house or wear the “Gorgonzola-killa!” title, I suspect the more mature (read also: jaded) players will start to get restive. Hell, “start to”? We already are. We yearn for a deeper meaning to these games we play, which may be an unfortunate and unfairly heavy burden to lay on a mere game, but it’s still something many of us want. Besides, playing is an intrinsic human activity and the childish connotation now attached to playing games is pretty limiting anyway. There’s no reason a game can’t be deep and meaninfgul — games are, among other things, learning tools, and the best games are deep and meaningful (as well as, you know, fun). In any case, what with the brave new world of the internet, massively multiplayer games are blazing a whole new trail that includes vast social and community aspects, which means they may eventually have to deliver more than just short-persistence fun. Fun’s not a bad thing, it’s just not the only thing we play MMOs for.

The hard part will be figuring out how to let people have a persistent impact on games without derailing or even destroying the world — and, of course, how to let eleventy-million players all have a little impact on a world. One of the things that’s going to have to happen, as far as I can see, is that the choke-hold of quest-driven play is going to have to loosen somewhat, so that players aren’t on rails anymore; which means more EVE-type sandbox design and less WoW-type amusement park design. Even if all you can impact is how other people play the game, if other people are the game (as they are in most sandbox games) then by impacting them you’re impacting the world in a larger sense, for good or ill. (Which is another issue, of course: impact can be “bad” impact… but it’s still impact, and it still creates a shared history, which is ultimately more meaningful than if no impact were had at all. We don’t just remember the good stuff that happens to us in life, and shared crises create bonds too.)

It may also mean that “fair” gameplay has to go. In most games, everyone starts from the same spot and player intelligence and skill matter less than the ability to hit the right buttons in the right sequence, which any half-awake chimp can manage without breaking much of a sweat. This bothers me somewhat, because I know I’m crap at twitch-based anything, I’m crap at running around people trying to kill them, and I’m probably not very good at combatty stuff in general — so I would suck. On the other hand, I’m really good at finding stuff, getting stuff, making stuff and selling stuff, and I’m a kick-ass negotiator when I want to be so diplomacy wouldn’t be out either; which, in a brave new-new player-based, persistent world might be enough to let me carve out my own niche and, more importantly, find my own fun.

It’s not like I don’t do that already: in most games I play I ignore the adventuring part to whatever extent I can, or indulge it only as a hobby, which means I’m often trying to buck the system (with more or less success depending on the game). I’m sure there are many fighty-type players who get as irritated as I do when they have to do stupid crafty- or harvesty-type things they detest just because the game is trying to mix and match what players do in some attempt to artificially vary gameplay. While most of us don’t fit into a single playstyle box 100% of the time, we do have a style and we do have stuff we prefer doing; less “fairness” might mean more freedom to indulge our preferred style. Like I said, the thought of possible “unfairness” makes me twitch, because I like fair, but I’m not sure the lowest-common-denominator style games have to use these days to be accessible is necessarily fair or good for the industry as a whole.

I’m not saying we should scrap all MMOs as they are today. I am saying that lots and lots of people are discussing the persistence thing, and lots of us want a deeper experience from our games — and lots of us remember a deeper experience. The thing is, small servers aren’t coming back and that first-time, MMO-virgin experience is more and more remote, so it’s time to move forward.

Here’s hoping.

CoX Mission Architect update

In typical Ysh knee-jerk fashion, after /ragequitting a few times in frustration at how difficult the MA enemies seem to be, I’ve discovered that this only holds true for custom-created enemies. Groups/mobs drawn from the existing pool are about the same as they are outside the MA system.

There are already some excellent story arcs out there, and here’s where I once again prove my craposity — I forget to write down their titles. Here’s what I can remember, and it should be enough to search on until I get my act together and get the full details down.

– “You wouldn’t steal a car” (Lars from MMOment of Zen)
— “Rescuing the Boss” (Jennifer from GirlIRL)
— “Demonic Love Story” — intended for villains really, but a great story and a truly awesome-looking demon mission-giver
— “Heroic Rescue 1″ (I think — it’s by @Robzilla, which will help narrow it down, or you can search by author name)
— “The Sole Success of Project Saturn” by @Perplex 

There are several more I’ve played but can’t recall — and one thing that’s missing from the system right now (unless I’m being blind, which is entirely probable*) is a way of looking back through completed missions. If this can be done through the mission “souvenir clues” then I’ll have to remember to use the arc’s name as the clue name also.

I’m working on some more missions myself, but I suffer from the usual “OMG everyone else’s work is so much better than mine, I might as well go drown myself with those kittens” syndrome. Pfft.

In other news, I actually hit 20 for the first time ever in City of Heroes — I never made it that high during my first stint, and I swear levelling was slower, but maybe I was just more of a noob — and so, clothes ho that I am, the first thing I did was to get that second costume slot opened up. Todestraum, my sad goth/vampire wannabe (well, she is one — does that make her a wannabe? or does it make ME the wannabe?), now has the full black/red “Hey look, I’m a vampire!” getup one needs for any serious gathering of the denizens of the night. Gotta project the right image and all. Corny though it is, it’s a look I love, probably because it’s not one I could ever in a million years carry off in real life.

I'm too sexy for my coat

I'm too sexy for my coat

2009-04-06 20:55:25

Dr Vahzilok is history... for now

Rikti invasion mosh in King's Row

Rikti invasion mosh in King's Row

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* I’m the person who had no idea where to find architect ticket counts on my char until Jen helpfully snapped my attention to the obvious “Architect Tickets” stack in my salvage window. Ahem.

CoX Mission Architect – the countdown commences

Sente over at A Ding World has the real skinny, I’m just passing it along.

We shall be Mission Architecting on Live from April 8th. D -4 and counting! Don’t expect to be playing on Wednesday, if a hundred major patches from a dozen other games are any indication.

I’ve tried the architect on CoX Test, as those of you who pay attention will already know, but I haven’t been back to it in the last week or so for several reasons. One, I have too many other things to do. Two, as release dates approach (and we knew it had to be getting close), doing things on test servers starts to seem more pointless (other than testing, obviously). And three, I was so awed by other people’s creations that my peasly little cat-themed arc started seeming rather paltry in comparison. But I wasn’t sulking! I was … resting. Pining for the Fjords. Mostly, I was just too busy with other stuff — it’s been one of those months where you spend a lot of time WANTING to play and much less time being able to indulge that desire.

That’s it. I’m off to work and wish I could play.

CoX Mission Architect – My First Mission

NOTE: Issue 14 (the one with the Mission Architect system) is still only on CoX’s Test Server(s). It’s slated to go live sometime in the next few weeks.

I finally created my first story in the new Mission Architect; I was aiming for what I thought would be something relatively simple, humorous rather than really dangerous, and thus hopefully easy to write.

Lesson #1: I should have stuck with premade bad guys. It would have been a lot easier. On the other hand, I now know how to make my own custom groups and characters, and it’s not that difficult. It does, however, chew up a chunk of “save” space.

Lesson #2: The mission architect isn’t that difficult to use. Hurrah! Sure, it has a learning curve, but every option has a clickable ? that gives you more information and examples.

Lesson #3: No matter how well drafted you think your mission/arc idea was, it wasn’t detailed enough. This, however, will get easier for subsequent creations, since I now have a much better idea of how missions/arcs are put together.

I didn’t time myself to see how long this arc took to create, but it was spread out over several sessions starting sometime last week, as time allowed. If I had to guesstimate, I’d say 6-8 hours including the time to read the tutorial, enter the info, create custom chars and groups, test the various missions (4 in total), edit what needed to be edited, and test some more.  Greater familiarity with the creation tool will cut this time down considerably, as will better preparation beforehand.

Various criticisms have already been levelled at the Mission Architect system, including the fact that it doesn’t let you custom-place opponents and the like — but then again, that’s quite consistent with CoX missions in general. I’m just glad they’re actually putting this kind of tool in the hands of the players; I’ve already played 3 player-created missions (and abandoned several more as just too difficult for my gimped scrapper self), and there’s a distinct added flavour to playing something another player made.

For those of you who have access and the inclination, the Story is called Catnapped! and it’s Arc #18799 — you can search strings, which should make it easier to find if you’ve a yen to try it out. Me, I’m going to try out Sente’s Missing Geneticist story! Well.. as soon as the Test server comes back up. Ain’t that just typical?

kitty_whiskers

A large step for CoX, an even bigger one for MMOs

coxmissionarchitectjpgI wasn’t going to comment on NCSoft’s new Mission Architect system, planned to go live sometime in March, largely because plenty of others have already done so, but then it occurred to me that more exposure for a good idea can’t hurt. Even if you don’t play CoX (and I don’t, right now), it’s worth a look at how NCSoft designed this, especially if you’re one of the people who believe, as I do, that (some degree of) user-generated content has got to be in the future of MMOs. It’s probably not the only answer down that road, but I suspect it’s a prominent part of it.

Look at crafting/trading: whether it’s in fantasy-WoW or scifi-EVE, there’s no real, dynamic trade if there’s no way for consumers to request supply from producers. Sure, you can post stuff on auction houses, but that’s largely a case of post and pray. More to the point, if you make FoozleNoses and Bob needs 100 FoozleNoses but NONE have sold on the AH in the last 3 weeks, you’re unlikely to be making and selling any since there appears to be no demand, and Bob starts to believe FoozleNoses just don’t exist. 

Enter purchase orders. I’m pretty sure EVE had them, but my memory is at best coy and at worst downright mendacious, so forgive me if I’m wrong. EVE *should* have them if it doesn’t. Hell, every game should have them. Sadly, it’s much, much easier to design an Auction House interface that it is to work out a proper purchase order system to go with it… even though the latter isn’t exactly rocket science. Some games have them, or had them — I’m pretty sure Horizons (remember that?) had one back in the day.

Sure, you could do what businesses in real life do and have done for millennia: find someone who makes what you want and go to them to place your order. They may be next door, down the street, in the next county or in the next country, but what doing business is all about.

Except I’m not DOING business in an MMO, I’m PLAYING at doing business. There is a real, huge difference. It’s not that we’re not taking it seriously, but play /= work. When kids play make-believe, they do it quite seriously, with proper attention to what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean they’re working at it. And when I run a business in an MMO (or try to, most games make it damn near impossible to play as anything other than a glorified medieval Gordon Gecko), I take it seriously but I do not want to have it become work. I’ve been there, and it’s called SWG, and is closely followed by the slouching Burnout Beast.

Trying to make contact in game with someone who sold something I need on the AH and thus may or may not actually produce what I need on a regular basis, and then getting them to supply me — have Devs actually TRIED doing that, ever? It was hard enough in SWG, which is a game predicated around player trading and crafting (or was) and which has a relatively robust email system. And seriously… I have to try to contact someone who may or may not log on, may or may not speak English (or whatever I speak), may or may not respond, and then may or may not actually adhere to our agreement, with no obligation or accountability on their part at any point in this process? (Or on mine, for that matter.) So maybe, in a few weeks, if I get lucky, I’ll have the FoozleNoses I need? No thanks. Neither am I going to sit in TradeHub001 making endless requests on a chat channel — sure, that might have been how it was done in EQ back in the day and how it’s done in WoW now, but that doesn’t make it a GOOD way, it makes it a “we couldn’t be arsed to cater to crafters so you’re just going to have to spam a channel” Dev-way.

I’m not saying I want everything now and I want everything easily. I’m certainly not saying I want to be able to do everything myself, because a trading game (or sub-game) by definition needs people to interact with or it’s a lot less entertaining. But, if I’m going to “seriously play” at being a trader, then I need a vaguely reliable, timely way of contracting suppliers. THAT isn’t rocket science either. Purrrchaaaase Orrrders. It’s not that hard to say, and it’s not that hard to design.

And that’s just for trading — heck, you could restrict it to materials-trading or whatever you want if you didn’t want to kill your Auction House, though I seriously doubt that would happen anyway. Some people like to order, some people like to browse. No reason you can’t please both.

I’ve pondered “player-generated content” before and, sad to say, my imagination usually lets me down. That’s because our MMOs have become variants on “Kill Ten Rats” and the only real ideas I could come up with were… you guessed it. But then I remembered SWG’s new(ish) Storytelling mini-system — you can buy props, stage settings, effects doohickeys (smoke machines), NPCs, monsters, whatever — and you can place them, load them up with lines and/or treasure, and voila: user-generated content. It can be a show, it can be a treasure hunt, it can be an epic fight. Or it can be all three — bird, plane, pterodactyl!

So here’s what I think: if we players are given the tools, I suspect we’ll come up with some pretty non-killtenrats stuff. Maybe not all of us, maybe not even most of us — but most Neverwinter Nights players never made a dungeon and there were still enough talented guys who *did* that you could be playing them till 2012 and never have to make one of your own. We don’t ALL have to be content-creators — but being empowered to become one is going to be a huge step forward. I’ll be fascinated to see how the Mission Architect system works in practice, when it’s launched. If I’ve the funds, I may even have to resub to CoX just to try it. Who else plays, and where?