The Persuasive Power of a Soundtrack

| Thursday, October 31, 2013
A YouTube Channel
Loaded with music from Wrath
Resubbed a month

Haiku for all you
New Blogger Initiate
Almost end of month

Ice Cream Online

| Monday, October 28, 2013
Have you ever seen what happens when you offer a child a wide selection of ice creams and toppings? You can guess: they take them all. The result has every best flavor ever with all the best toppings and is utterly revolting. Even the kid can barely stand it once it melts. At first it is great having all these different flavors, until they blend together into cold sugary cream with a disorienting array of natural and artificial flavors.

Thus it is with the game. We want this and that and that and the end result is disgusting. What if such and such game added player housing? And organized raids in this other one? Ooh, horizontal progression! Stick each in and it will work, at first, until it melts into a disgusting mix of goo. There will still be some bits of separate flavors and people will eat those and say that they taste just fine. But most of it is now goo.

By itself just about any idea is fine in a game. Permanent death. No death. Sorta death. With player and guild housing.

Yet I like the idea of this mixing. It's so tempting. It could work! Just a little bit of mixing, adding some chocolate to the vanilla and making sure the strawberry stays on the other side so it doesn't mix with the chocolate. And some caramel over the top. Delicious, and it might even stay that way until I've eaten it all.

Maybe this can be considered a reply to Syl's, as usual, well-written post: NBI: Armchair Game Designer. Or how that other MMO keeps ruining my Gameplay Experience.

Mommy, where do heroes come from?

| Friday, October 25, 2013
Doone has the notion that we should publish our less-than-perfect posts, as a way to show new bloggers that we were all once semi-literate unshaven chimps. Apparently that is inspiring. So fine, here you go, here's a post that I was trying to make work, but just never quite clicked for me. It deserves to sit in purgatory among the hundred and a half others of its kind, but it has been shown a rare mercy. Some would be deleted, others beaten into shape, but this one just gets to go out and flaunt its less-than-perfectness. Shameful.

Until we get so far back that we're discussing the notion of time not existing, it's always the case that something had something before it and it came from somewhere due to something happening. In a general sense.

Or in particular, the characters we play came from somewhere. Between being born and the game starting there was something that happened that got them to be here, in a position that we care about what they do. Some games try to tell this back story, but usually they think they can do this by having you play it, at which point it is no longer the past and so we have to speculate a little further back.

A common trick is to just cheat a little bit. Make a generic character, indistinguishable from the nameless NPCs that you'll inevitably ignore or slaughter by the thousands. We're not going to ask for much detail because it is probably boring. There are no adventures to learn of, no prophecies that have been answered by your birth; you're just another bit of filler in the background. Conveniently, this is most people in real life, as outside of royal bloodlines none of us have any wonderful predestination.

Then make something happen to them which is them being neither ignored nor slaughtered. Maybe they're the sole survivor of some disaster. Or they're the random target of some human-shaped disaster. For this second one it's always popular to have a royal or some other beneficiary of inheritance pick on a nobody. The nobody can be you or it can be a family member or friend, thereby blessing you with the angry motivation needed to rise above your peers.

Now that that's over with, I suggest this: bury your shame. Bury it deep. Write it, write a lot of it, and then bury it away. Think of those awful posts as filters. Did you know that you can clean up water by filtering it through a swamp? Yep, turns out those disgusting slime creatures will pick up all manner of contaminants and heavy metals. That's why you shouldn't get rid of all the ugly swamps. But don't spend too much time in them either; let the dirty hippies deal with the mosquitoes. Let the draft folder be a way to filter out your half-assed ideas, stupid ideas, and inevitable wrongness, so that all anyone sees is pure, clean swamp water. I'm not good at analogies.

Don't hide the information that makes your game playable

| Thursday, October 24, 2013
I've previously complained about spell switching in Skyrim. As far as I could tell, and as far as the game told me, it required pausing. Cast, favorites (pause), select (still paused), close menu (action!), cast different spell.
Thankfully, switching spells pauses, so I can switch between the two, but pausing constantly, particularly in the middle of a fight, is lame.  Beside any sense of power, there is the fun, and constantly interrupting the fight is not fun.
Turns out I was wrong, and I'm surprised that I managed to be. In Oblivion there is a hotkey system, which I knew about. In the spell book, hold down 1-8 and click on a spell and it will be bound to that key. Sadly, you cannot actually cast with those keys, but you can at least quickly switch spells without needing to open the spell book constantly. Where was the tutorial popup? I'm certain I saw one about the favorites menu, but somehow, not about the best part about it.

Skyrim uses a similar system, but it appears that you need to add spells to your favorites list first. Then you can open that menu and click a number while mousing over to assign a number to it. Hitting the key then picks that spell. Spells are loaded left to right. The actual spell switching behavior is slightly more complex, not difficult or confusing, though attempting to explain it makes it appear so.

Without this information, casters are garbage. Fully effective, but not even remotely fun to play. With it, they're as seamless to play as any other class and now I'm having a great deal of fun. Of course I'm running into the problem that I wish I had more hot keys, but I've never not had that problem, in any game, except GW2, but that used nested hotkeys which is cheating, and I sometimes find them annoying (due to things like the abilities I use for kiting being spread across skill sets).

Maybe you're wondering now, why am I just now noticing this? Didn't Azuriel tell me this in the comment about a year and a half ago? Yes. Yet somehow it slipped in one eye and out the other. Maybe I just needed practice time, which came in the form of Oblivion because I was feeling nostalgic. Despite my remarkable ability to completely miss the helpful content of a comment that I'd even replied to, I believe that my point still stands: Don't hide the information that makes your game playable!

Free Money works well

| Monday, October 21, 2013
Earlier when I'd claimed that free money doesn't work so well. There is one factor that I'd overlooked: how much people care.

I could farm money spiders and dungeons endlessly for more and more gold. Therefore the gold sinks are ineffective; they only remove a finite amount of gold from a potentially infinite supply.

Would I farm money spiders endlessly? If I cared enough, yes. Maybe I really like having a fancy house or shiny armor. Or many houses. So I'll farm more.

However, another player, and I'm guessing most players, won't care as much about the virtual goodies. A basic house and transportation is 99% as useful as a half-dozen decorated homes and several dozen rare mounts. I think we can also assume that a player who is less interested in the extra stuff will be less interested in the game in general. The net result is that they'll buy less and farm less. The gold sinks and farming grow proportionally with their interest in the game.

We can therefore imagine that there is a balance between gold sinks and sources. If we can figure out how they grow relative to each other, then we can design them to grow proportionally. A player who is barely interested will farm little and spend little. A player who is extremely interested will farm a lot and spend a lot. For all reasonable amounts of time spent playing it is possible to achieve a balance between income and spending.

Of course there will always be some players who play a great deal more. They'll burn through gold sinks and amass mountains of gold. They'll break the system. They'll also be a minority. Perhaps a vocal one, given their level of investment, but they will inevitably break any system designed for reasonable amounts of play time, and therefore can be ignored, in a single-player game.

In my earlier post I suggested that a multi-player environment, and the resulting economy, would reduce the gold problem. Certainly the economy has some beneficial effect. However it also means that the typical players for whom the system works are exposed to the super-players who have broken it. While individual amounts of gold will usually match interest, in aggregate it can be ruined by players who have much more interest, and time, and therefore can flood the economy with gold. This ruins the balance and distorts the behavior of less interested players as well.

In summary, fixed gold sinks in a single-player game will work well for the vast majority of players. In a multi-player setting, those few players for whom it does not work will tend to break the system. Therefore multi-player games need something beside fixed sinks, perhaps even something stronger than transaction sinks.

Indirect Punishment

| Thursday, October 17, 2013
Between the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood it was obvious that he was on a dark path. Even if he did seem to be trying to save the world from the Mythic Dawn, who could say what sort of world he was saving, or why? Maybe he was only saving it so he could steal it himself, coin by coin.

His killing eventually took its toll. Shopkeepers were dead, their stores ransacked. Homes were plundered and their residents murdered. The streets grew quiet, devoid of souls.

If you asked him why, he'd laugh. "They annoyed me," he might answer. Whether for greed, revenge, or just amusement, he'd kill at will. The bounty wasn't even enough: he was rich and the armor sales offset most, if not all, of the cost. Somewhere was a very busy fence.

Yet, in time, he grew sad. He saw no one but his fence, everyone else was dead, and everything he had was stolen anyway.

It was not karma. There was no karma system. Infamy just made the guards rude. The game never said that he failed a quest. It never said he did anything wrong at all. By its rules he was doing just fine.

With his freedom to change the world, he had changed it for the worse. He had been punished for his crimes, not with a defeat screen, but with his own destroyed world.

His successor learned from his mistakes. He killed only those who were threats, or quests, rather than just annoyances. With one exception, because the Brotherhood isn't for angels. He stole, but did not wipe out entire stores. He kept up appearances. He bought houses and furnished them. To all outside observers he was a paragon of virtue. His world sparkled in a thoroughly non-vampiric manner, for those were dead too. He carried a potion to cure disease. The gods still weren't happy with him, too many murder quests and theft quests, but the gods are little more than an angry whisper at the chapel.

It's like his parents taught him: why slaughter the cow when you can steal the milk for free? The world agreed.

Time passes and yet it does not

| Monday, October 14, 2013
Time in games as a strange thing. While Einstein would agree with the notion that there isn't a universal, objective time, he would find that it is utterly impossible to do any clock coordination. Game time is dictated by plot, convenience, and drama.

Due to these tendencies, time flows in two general ways: Slow Flow and Explode.

Slow Flow is a mysterious phenomenon. During it, there is a quantitative passage of time. This can even be mapped to the outside world, passing at a constant, though different rate, so that one can create formulas which describe how many minutes pass in one world relative to another.

However, there is not a qualitative passage of time. Large-scale events simply do not occur. People can move, talk, and fight. These small actions will not add up to a whole, no matter how many. A million drops of water will not form a river.

This Slow Flow is a convenient phenomenon for the player. It gives them time to explore and learn, developing their skills as a player and as a character.

In contrast, Explode takes place at a pace sufficiently similar to the outside world as to be indistinguishable. Furthermore, during this passage of time, events can occur. Small actions can combine. Actions which would have no impact during Slow Flow are able to add up to dramatic changes in the world during Explode.

Surprisingly, these are complementary states. Because the Slow Flow can effectively suspend the passage of time, a player within it can therefore arrive at precisely the right time for Explode. Whether they wander for a few minutes or several years, they will always arrive at precisely the right time for major events to occur.

Another useful aspect of time is that these two states are physically separated. One cannot be in both at once, but the barriers between them are often predictable. This allows a player to choose when to move between states, though they may not always know where the transitions are. The result is that while the rules within Explode may be the same, the starting conditions can be altered from outside. A player in Slow Flow can store up items and gain new abilities, dramatically changing the potential outcomes within Explode.

This raises some interesting possibilities about our own universe. Physicists aren't quite sure about what happened early on, or if early on is even a relevant concept, since it seems that time itself didn't exist before. How can something happen if there is not even time? Perhaps what we need is a new perspective. While most Explode happens in a short span, sometimes lasting mere seconds, rarely more than an hour, our universe seems to have been around for much longer. Despite this difference in span, our universe fits the traits of a Explode: no apparent beginning, synchronized passage of time, meaningful outcomes. Clearly the so-called Big Bang was not a bang or even a rapid inflation. Instead, it was someone zoning into our universe from an indeterminate amount of time in Slow Flow.

If we could find that entrance and send someone outside, they'd be able to gather all needed materials and knowledge, with unlimited time at their disposal. However, there is the risk that upon, from our perspective, instantly returning, he will have lost all sense of perspective and just wander our universe stealing brooms.

After everything else, appearance is everything

| Friday, October 11, 2013
One of my greatest instance runs ever was back during Burning Crusade. I was headed to Shadow Labyrinth, tanking on my paladin. I don't recall the class of the healer, but I do remember the DPS: three warlocks. It was an extraordinarily pretty run. The warlocks would shoot out some seeds of corruption and my AoE tanking would trigger them, and then they'd trigger the next round, and the end result was that every pull was an explosion of shiny graphics.

I don't know how effective SoC was compared to other attacks. Maybe destruction with rain of fire or a cleaving, whirlwinding warrior would have done the job better. But would they have looked cooler? Would they have sounded cooler? No! When all the game mechanics have been nullified by gear and practice only one thing remains: looking awesome while you do it.

This is why transmog in WoW was so awesome. This is why my greatest dangerous temptation in GW2 is the many amazing-looking guns on the trading post. Better gear is nice to have, but cooler gear is a necessity. In fact, I blame this for my first time quitting GW2. I'd gotten a new back slot that replaced my purely cosmetic starting item. It was better, but it didn't look cool. I was nothing without my backpack filled with comically dangerously unstable jars of potions and explosives. When I tried GW2 again my first priority was to go to my bank and switch the items. Game saved.

So let us ask, why is Prayer of Mending the best spell ever, as Liore asserts? In fact, it is not. Seed of Corruption was, though PoM was pretty great. I wasn't a good healer, so I can't comment much on its effectiveness. But I can comment on it sounding cool. Hearing that ping ping ping and seeing it dart around like a crazed healing Tinkerbell was a delightful thing. It was the music to go with the flashing radiance of a raid's worth of spell effects. It said that things were working, at least to some extent. Someone, somewhere, had more health every time I heard that sound. It also meant they were taking damage, but I was rarely concerned with such things as people getting hurt. I was busy getting hurt even more, so having that reassuring ding sound meant that someone else was concerned and I loved them and their bells for that.

Downed vs. Dead, consider them in context

| Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The topic of GW2's universal rezzing came up. Of course someone has to claim that this convenient mechanic is, in fact, the death of challenge and the harbinger of the trivialization of all things. I disagree.

First off, being able to rez people out in the world is a bonus. The defeated player can feel as if someone cared enough to help. And they can refrain from being angry because they were a few steps from the next waypoint and all the ones nearby are contested. The helping player can feel like they helped someone, which is a pretty nice feeling. This mechanic is essentially a kitten-dispenser. Or puppies if you're allergic to cats. Or a Portuguese Water Puppy if you're allergic to dogs and live in the White House.

Second, this mechanic should be considered in the full context. The first bit of context is that I'm not considering the difference with underwater fighting because I hate underwater combat so much that I don't care about the balance. It can go burn in sodium.

A downed player can recover on their own, but the circumstances tend to be rather specific. An enemy must be very near death or they must not take any damage while they bandage themselves. The first is essentially a market-killer for the keyboard manufacturers, who have long relied on the destruction caused by mobs at 1% health. The second is unlikely when soloing and hardly a guarantee in groups.

Other players can help, but at a snail's pace and at the cost of being unable to move, dodge, attack, heal, or buff. Effectively a second player or more are temporarily made useless to bring back the currently useless player. Compare this to in-combat resurrection spells, such as in WoW where players can simply pop back up with something between no effort from other players and a single spell cast. Those do have lengthy cooldowns, but again, they are much quicker and less risky than GW2 recovery.

Then there is the big question: is it easier to be downed in GW2 or dead in another game? GW2 doesn't have a lot of get out of jail free cards such as invincibility bubbles or preventative damage absorbs. If you don't dodge, you take the damage. Dodging has a very short cooldown, but usually, so do the horribly damaging things you need to avoid. Dodging isn't a bonus; it's a requirement, so to consider it as such would be as absurd and claiming that healing in another game makes players invincible and immortal. In my experience it is a lot easier to get knocked into a downed state in GW2 than it is to die in WoW.

Taking into account the wider context, the downed state should be considered, not as equivalent to death in other games, but rather as an intermediate state with no clear parallels. Furthermore, because of the potential recovery, even the fallen state cannot be considered equivalent to death.

Instead of comparing individual mechanics and pretending that such comparisons are meaningful, the logical thing to do is to compare the chance of the group being defeated. At this point, all things are equal. There is no recovery and the instant-rez mechanics are nullified by the enemy resetting. Do groups fail more often or at a higher percentage of groups or attempts in GW2 than in other games?

Using this context does not mean that recovery mechanics are to be ignored. They could still be too easy or tough, but directly comparing individual pieces of group success or failure will only yield nonsense.

NBI: Where do you come up with all of those wonderful, creative, brilliant, amazing ideas?

| Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Alright, Syp, I'll play along. Future bloggers, here you go. Here's where you can get all the ideas you could ever need, and the cost.

Try to fall asleep.

There is a horrible time during which your brain is freed of all distractions, but being addicted to them, generates distractions for itself, in the form of an endless stream of new ideas, which it will not allow you to not think about. As you fall closer to sleep it frees up more and more creative and brilliant ideas, so that the closer you are to sleep, the harder it tries to keep you awake.

In the middle of the night, after a few hours of failing to fall asleep, you write the post(s). Schedule it for the next morning so as to not appear crazy. Do not attempt to edit these posts, as they are already perfect and your sleep-deprived brain could not understand them anyway.

Essentially, it is this Dilbert strip from eleven years ago.
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