Not Crowfalling in love just yet.

I wrote this post within a few days after Crowfall’s Kickstarter and have been going back-and-forth on it since. I had originally planned to delete it altogether, but Eri convinced me that I should probably post it anyway, so here it is.


I won’t be backing Crowfall, the latest Kickstarter project to be sweeping the MMO blogosphere. I don’t have a problem with Kickstarter. Here is my history so far:

BackerHistory

 

Yes, I have been burned/let down by some of these, but ultimately I accept that as the risk I run. As a business, Kickstarter could do a better job with accountability, but crowdfunding hasn’t fully matured yet. If Kickstarter fails to evolve toward better protections, I am sure some other middleman will join the fray.

I also don’t have any problem with more hardcore games or a PvP-centric MMORPG. I didn’t back it, but I am excited to see if Camelot Unchained turns out. I lean toward PvE, but I am no carebear: I will go where the fun is in any game, even if that means its Felucca.

I do have a few reservations. While I agree their campaign has gotten off to a near perfect start, I share Talarian’s concerns about financing it. I understand that they should be able to get a core game finished with the aid of their Kickstarter funding, but is that enough? Video games have become so volatile and I am forced to pay attention to development schedules and patch notes now more than ever, and that includes all games, not just the online-only ones.

I am not sure I want to jump into yet another Early Access game where I get bored on the core game and doom myself never to come back for the later addictions. I have enough of those already, not to mention my backlog of games left to play or revisit.

I also hesitate to back anything when I know so little about the combat, especially a MMORPG where it can be make-or-break. If it is closer to Guild Wars 2 or any other actiony game, then I am far less interested. If the roles aren’t distinct and if it doesn’t offer some semblance of Holy Trinity + Support, then I am far less interested.

Despite the lack of combat information, Crowfall’s pitch gets almost everything else right; I am not surprised by how successful it has been thus far. It’s innovative and different, for one, but the art style is pleasing as well. I love that the worlds lack permanence and are procedurally generated to boot – if they can produce some decent dungeons ala the mines of Minecraft then they should be fun to explore. Finally, it is Buy-to-Play and not Free-to-Play, so there’s less incentive for the developer to nickle-and-dime players on additional content.

I will be rooting for Crowfall because it’s exactly the sort of imaginative MMORPG I have been looking for. I don’t mind the focus on survival or resource gathering. If the game is good and the people come to play it, then Guild versus Guild can be some of the best PvP around. It certainly doesn’t have the baked in issues of Faction-based combat (hello, shrinking your server population intentionally).

But I know I am one of those jaded, lost souls looking for a new MMO to look forward to. I know that little remains on the horizon, especially after EverQuest Next’s apparent explosion. I am content waiting on other Kickstarters to come home to roost before I commit any serious funding to something else, and that means stifling all the emotional reasons drawing me toward Crowfall in favor of all the reasoned ones telling me to just wait.

Procedural Serendipity: Redux

Syp’s recent post about procedural generation in games over at Bio Break has created a stir.

At least for me, I do not find any aspect of procedural generation exciting or engaging. – Syp

I reacted kindly because he’s not entirely wrong, but … I do think he is completely wrong. Some of my favorite games use the technique and it is only to their advantage. According to The Flash, there exists other timelines in which Minecraft had a preset, handcrafted world for players to play … and no one did because the game was not the juggernaut that it is in our timeline.

I say it has created a stir because I’ve read some very interesting posts either in response directly or linked because of it:

My blogging sister, Eri, had this to say in her wonderful post, ‘The Procedural Phenomenon”:

Just looking at games like minecraft and terraria you have huge differentiation in the lay of the land but a realistic scope to the areas generated. Continue reading …

I couldn’t agree more. The problem with building areas like deserts, swamps, and forests by hand is that you either force someone to do a lot of copy/paste’ing or you make a zone only consisting of interesting parts. Newsflash: deserts are 99% boring and 1% The Great Pyramids. You may argue that’s not fun in a video game, but if you want something worthy of exploration, don’t you want it to at least somewhat reflect what the actual environment feels like?

Jeromai’s post, “Postcards from Procedurally Generated World”, only further echoes my feelings on the matter:

Part of the fun in a procedurally generated game is that you yourself may not encounter the exact same thing twice. That your next playthrough can be different. That it can be unpredictable, forcing you to react in a different way. Continue reading …

Look, I love a good story, but scripted narrative isn’t gaming’s strongest suit and I am tired of people expecting it to be. Games work best when they can take the visual strength of cinema and melt it down into a pot made entirely of literary merit. Story, narrative, and designed characters are necessary to engage the player. Yet, it is the chance meeting of random numbers, random rules, and our unique position as being one of the few to witness this singular interaction that make video games unique experiences from one game to the next.

A good movie is typically the product of a small team’s efforts. A good book brings only a single person’s vision. Games, however, empower the player to find meaning and thus story in places it was not previously prescribed or designed. Procedural generation empowers that quality further, evolving games into infinitely explorable machines of delight.

Harbinger Zero also had an excellent post about procedural generation, this time in relation to a feature of Star Trek Online in which I was utterly unaware. Essentially, the game offers a randomized infinite content engine that sometimes results in an unexplored, procedurally generated, and thusly never-before-scene planet to explore. Not only do I agree with Harbinger Zero that such a feature is totally in line with the spirit of the Star Trek universe, it sounds like a great way to give players even more to do without tying up too many resources.

I have but one question for you Syp: have you abandoned the idea of playing No Man’s Sky altogether? If anyone is unaware, the developer’s describe it as “a game about exploration and survival in an infinite procedurally generated galaxy.”

In conclusion, I give you a post I wrote on the matter late last year, when I attempted to develop a term for the emotional feeling of a truly engaging procedurally generated world. Please enjoy!


Originally posted on September 23, 2014.

A few weeks ago, I was perusing an article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun that introduced me to Nested. As far as games go, Nested isn’t much of one. There aren’t graphics or gameplay. The entire point is to explore procedurally generated worlds filled with procedurally generated places where procedurally generated people live.

Procedural generation has become something of a buzz word, especially if you follow indie games or Kickstarter projects. Lacking the time and money to craft 100% handmade adventures, lots of smaller scale studios are turning to procedural generation to create randomized content for their games. I am no expert, from a player’s perspective, the technology has gotten pretty good, and – even better – games are being constructed with that sort of thing in mind. Something like Minecraft or Terraria would likely be lesser experiences without procedural generation.

There’s also a strange beauty to the whole affair. I don’t think ‘procedural serendipity’ captures the feeling perfectly, but it is close enough for me. Serendipity is the pleasant discovery of something you weren’t looking for, which fits the feelings I get when I climb a random mountain in Minecraft and find an unexpected vista on the other side. I will never discount hand-crafted art, but the knowledge that a game’s world is uniquely your’s to explore adds a sense of mystery and wanderlust that only the greatest of artists can inspire.

Given its lack of game credentials, I didn’t spend much time exploring Nested. Yet, I loved the results from the little I did, as yet again, there was a procedural serendipity to what I found nestled away in each new layer of text describing where I was heading.

Nest

As I zoomed into a random solar system, finding a random inhabited planet, I found myself naturally gravitating toward this world’s presumed equivalent to Gamestop though with a twist: it’s called Gamegrrrlz. Cheesy by our standards, but the name immediately has me wandering if this is an opposite world where male games are so stigmatized that their gender isn’t even represented by a large chain of game stores or if someone has found a way to capitalize on a large, disenfranchised female market.

From there, I was introduced to all the workers in this particular shop and given access to their innermost thoughts. Teresa mentioned the benefits of being invisible, which she seemed for a plea for help, and then her enjoyment of a beer at work – assuming this isn’t some 1950s-type job where drinking at work is a plus – further solidified my concerns for her. Both Steven and Kimberly are having marriage trouble, though one is hopeful and the other is not. It’s not a stretch to imagine that, as coworkers, they may be able to bond over these failures and perhaps start up an awkward rebound relationship with one another.

Even more fascinating to me, Steven and Tina share the memory about the ‘day [they] the war was over’. I think that’s the moment where Nested really had me. Reading that, my brain was tricked into believing that these tiny strings of randomly generated text were part of a larger world with a real history. These weren’t just random names attached to random thoughts – they were people affected by a large-scale tragedy. When it comes to war in video games, that’s usually our raison d’etre for carving new holes through old villains, but here in just one sentence it felt closer to a virtual analogue to a real world occurrence than I have ever felt before.

I am not going to turn this into a rant about video games poorly covering the seriousness of hurt, loss, anger, and horror, but it is amazing to see how much of an impact a randomized string of words can have. Though Nested is hardly an experience I’d repeat, it is exactly the sort of thing that makes me hopeful for future virtual worlds being generated by game designers that do a better job of delivering personal experiences despite the lack of a writer directing every move on the precious few actors that are affordable to render.

Only on Psyche Plays, “To Parse or Not to Parse”

Psyche Plays, “To Parse or Not to Parse”

Anyone who has ever played an MMO semi-seriously will have heard of parsing in some shape or form. Some games and communities encourage it, such as World of Warcraft where nearly everyone will use an add-on to monitor the damage per second (DPS) of their party during a particular fight; some will frown upon or even potentially threaten to ban for the use of them, for example Final Fantasy XIV where their use is strongly discouraged.

Continue to “To Parse or Not to Parse” …


On a recent post over at Psyche Plays, Kirsty asked a question that has long been on my mind: What sort of impact does parsing have on MMORPGs?

Here’s part of what I had to say:

There’s definitely a fine line. On one hand, you get instances where a person can take advantage of theorycrafting and parsing to take their personal gameplay to the next level. For min-maxers (myself included), that’s a huge plus – there’s a sincere drive to be the best you can at your role and that runs equal with playing the game at all.

And I finished with this:

To me, almost anything is fine in moderation, including parsing, but there’s too much of the casual elitism in gaming as is. I don’t need every League of Legends match to devolve into an argument over what I or some other play should’ve built instead. I don’t need random dungeons with strangers to end up being a pissing contest over rotations. Until these behaviors are the exception to the rule, I don’t think gamers are mature enough to parse and explore the deeper mathematical rules of games.

Kirsty echoed many of my sentiments in her own response, but I wanted to further highlight the conversation.

It’s so difficult to balance things between accessibility and elitism. I have tried to judge developers less harshly for falling to one side too much, but great games are often ruined by a lack of depth or too much. When it comes to games aimed chiefly at playing well with others, I need just enough of a hook that I don’t bore, but not so much of a hook that I am forced into situations where playing with others of different skill levels leads only to frustration.

I don’t think parsing or theorycraft causes elitism, but it is definitely the torch-and-pitchfork equivalent for more hardcore players looking to prescribe their viewpoints on to others. I absolutely loved it at the height of my raiding career in World of Warcraft, but I don’t bother looking at that sort of stuff in other MMOs I have played. I am content with discovering efficiencies for myself and being only sort of okay at the game.

Another one gets the Electronic Axe: Goodbye Maxis

EAGOHOME

Once again, EA says, “So long and thanks for all the dosh.” See you later, Maxis. Though probably not because EA’s vault is tighter than Disney unless they can make a shitty F2P non-sequel out of something.


Don’t forget to read my other post from today. I’d hate to see this stupid doodle get top billing!

‘MMO’ is redundant.

This post has been a long time coming, but it feels even more relevant in these last few weeks than ever before. With so few MMOs to look forward to, I think it is important that we each understand what it is we are hoping to look forward to. This isn’t a direct response to any one post in particular, though I know it is a subject that many of us have tackled time and time again. I had originally planned something larger and more epic in scope, but it seemed less necessary than this single part.


MMO means Massively Multiplayer Online. It describes a type of video game in which players play together with a large number of other players over the Internet. By itself, ‘MMO’ tells you almost nothing about a particular game, other than the fact that it requires the Internet and it is intended to be played (to some degree) with others. No matter what kind of MMO a game may be, its still the game’s genre which determines what players are doing.

While doing some cursory research for this post, I noticed the wikipedia article on ‘MMO’ specifically points out many examples of various MMOs, all with distinct genres. For example, a MMOFPS (First Person Shooter) like PlanetSide 2, MMORPG (Roleplaying Game) like World of Warcraft, or MMOR (Racing) like TrackMania: Nations Forever.

Wait, how massive is ‘massively’, anyway?

All of these games are online and multiplayer, but to be a MMO, they must also be considered ‘massively’. The term itself refers to having a large amount of concurrent or, arguably, consecutive players interacting in a shared space. Many MMORPGs allow for thousands of players to occupy a single server, but rarely can they all be in the same area without the gameplay being hindered by hardware limitations. At most, you may see several hundred players interacting at once (an open world boss or event), though in a more conflict driven MMORPGs, such as Eve Online, hundreds can turn into thousands during large-scale PvP encounters.

For other kinds of MMOs, these numbers differ radically. The MMOFPS PlanetSide 2 broke a record for most simultaneous players in a single FPS battle recently when it had a bit more than 1,100 players fighting it out, but that’s hardly a daily occurrence. The previously mentioned MMOR, TrackMania: Nations Forever, broke its own record in 2008 when it had 250 players racing on the same map against one another.

These games all exhibit elements of being massively, but the term is highly dependent on the genre, the intent of the developers, and hardware limitations. PlanetSide 2’s largest battle would be hard to match in most MMORPGs, but those games are more frequently designed around closed group content (raiding) with hubs being the only area in which a large amount of players often interact.

TrackMania hardly compares to the other examples. Yet, when you compare it to the 12 racer max of many modern, non-MMO racing games, its 250 players on a single map done seven years ago seems like a big leap even now.

I dunno, ask the hardware and software people.

Technology also plays a significant role in how massively a game can be. A MMOFPS like the original PlanetSide (released in 2003) would not have been possible on the same scale at the same time as the original EverQuest (released in 1999). PlanetSide 2 (released in 2012) benefited from a higher rate of broadband adoption, meaning a larger population of players could reasonably interact in twitch-based encounters without significant latency problems.

Evolutions in server technology have unlocked the player’s characters from their home server in many MMORPGs. Where once you were bound to a specific shard (to borrow Ultima Online’s term), more and more games are moving toward clusters of servers or single-server designs where players can interact across hidden server lines unimpeded. In doing so, these games have significantly increased the number of consecutive interactions with strangers possible, and created a more concurrent-feeling community.

Contrast that with the smaller, tighter knit communities of the past. During my tenure in Ultima Online, I played on a server that came into being as a special cross-promotion with AOL, and was exclusive to their customers. I cannot imagine the server ever held more than a few hundred people at peak hours. My memory may be hazy, but when they featured how many players were online on the EverQuest server selection screen, I recall seeing most at 1,500 or less.

For better or worse, changes in technology have knocked down many of the walls that once separated players. Even if it hasn’t led to significant changes in how many players can reasonably occupy a single space, it has made MMORPGs feel more massive and given players the opportunity to be truly lost in a crowd.

Doesn’t matter: everything is massive, multiplayer, and online now.

The definition of ‘massively’ is not consistent within a single kind of MMO, differs drastically from one MMO to the next, and is dependent upon both a game’s specific genre and the technology surrounding it. While I don’t think this concludes that the word is without meaning, its meaning is hardly strong enough to base an entire supposed genre around it.

Now that our world-at-large is almost always online through the Internet and social networks, the whole ‘MMO’ thing isn’t exactly unique. Watching a live broadcast of a television show while livetweeting is a form of play which involves many, many people online – that sounds like a MMO to me.

Nearly every AAA game has a multiplayer component these days, and the age of couch co-op is mostly behind us. If you want to play a game with friends, then you must do it online through servers or direct connections. While finding people with common interests in these games (offline or on, multiplayer or singleplayer) was once a more arduous task, the Internet has radically changed everything. Now these communities can quickly find one another and stay always connected via Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, forums, etc. These networks provide much of the same socialization that always came so easily to MMOs.

No matter which game, the value of all MMOs rest in the connections they can make between players and the game, the gamer and players, and players with other players. We live in a world where those connections are an emergent part of our everyday online lives, and persistent worlds are no longer necessary to make that happen. Social networks have swept the emotional core behind the idea of ‘massively’ right out from under us and we are all left wondering why we spend less and less time in-game, hanging out, or searching for new friends.

The term MMO is redundant. The entire world – not just our games – is massively, multiplayer, and online now. MMORPGs are less special and not nearly as engaging as they once were because of it.


Special thanks to Eri from the Healing the Masses for ‘talking me down from the ledge’ on a few earlier drafts of this one.