Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Rock Star Armadillo

It's been awhile, hasn't it? Work, illness and other stuff that's no fun at all, has been keeping me away. Hopefully we've turned the corner now.

So, because I'm feeling awful, I read comics to pass the time. One of my favourites is Penny Arcade, which deals with gaming issues in a more pictorial format than my artistic talents can manage. Anyway, in one of their commentaries, they touched upon an interesting topic that is something I've been thinking about quite a bit. Essentially, how one game, or more generally one example from any medium, can be interpreted in countless ways by different people - and enjoyed in many ways that perhaps the creator didn't plan for. To clip a bit from the article:

A good example of this playing out is in the guitars for Guitar Hero and Rock Band. When the Rock Band guitar is working, I vastly prefer it: its size and shape are much closer to electric guitars I have played, and the strum bar is thick at the outer edge to be gripped like a pick. Its operation is largely silent, without the characteristic click of a microswitch, designed (I am sure) explicitly to be quiet. Some people love that click, though - it means precision - and for the player who craves that fifth star, there is no higher virtue. Stars in single player are, for me, irrelevant. I'm sure this makes me a scoundrel. I only care about stars in co-operative multiplayer, where I see them as an index of our indomitable band spirit. I want a measurement of our unity. I'm playing the same game for an entirely different purpose. I wouldn't notice if it did click. When the song begins, I enter a trance. That's a pretty serious distinction - people who play games in order to excel at them, and those who play games as a conduit to fantasy - and its only one axis of the diagram.

I'm sure that no matter what game you play, you have noticed the same thing amongst your fellow players - that some play to dominate, to show their superiority over others, some play with the game designer's intentions in mind, to play "like it was meant to be played", some play for social reasons, to feel like they're a part of something, some play simply according to what they feel like doing on a particular day.

From the designer's perspective, this is fairly challenging - these are diverse groups, and very general ones. In fact, some of them are highly contradictory, most notably how can you please people who want to be sociable and get along with everyone, and still make things entertaining for those who demand a way to prove themselves better than any other? Unlike a game like Guitar Hero, the text-based environment is much more social rather than a simple mechanical structure, which slants the situation somewhat, but makes it no easier.

In essence, this is one of the problems that we struggle with, that mostly every game creator has or will struggle with. We all want to have as many as possible enjoy our creation, whether we create for money or for the pleasure of bringing something into existence. What do we do when players' goals are so contradictory that their existence pressures other players to not play? It is a very difficult balancing act, and the only solution that I have found is to produce so many new features, create so much enjoyment that nobody has to share. Even then, we have to rely on the goodwill of players to recognise their impact on others and on the game itself, and occasionally do what is good for the game, rather than focusing solely on selfish goals.

That, and sometimes I really wish I could play a guitar.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Does Not Play Well With Others

For many years, long before the great Karinthadillo emerged from the chaos of the shattered worlds and established hegemony over all that is right, just and bite-sized, I always thought I knew what roleplaying was about in this kind of MUD context. Roleplaying meant abandoning the out-of-character, focusing on your character and your character's aims and motivations, and playing from that viewpoint. Essentially trying to be your character, and doing what he or she would do.

Quite a while back though, I came across a situation where somebody got really quite upset with this and felt it was rude. They believed that roleplay was like a play script, to be shared amongst the actors ahead of time, and that it was antisocial to suddenly spring a negative scene on somebody. That, for example, if I had a character who was planning to overthrow the king, it would be impolite not to tell the king's player this plan before suddenly surprising both the character and the player with the attempt.

Personally, I don't buy that. While it might be proper for other genres and situations of roleplay, I believe that in our kind of MUD setting, the best way to avoid OOC influences is simply to avoid introducing them in the first place. That telling other players of future IC plans would simply encourage them to use this knowledge to thwart or otherwise influence them. That, in this example, if the king's player was informed, he would surely find one way or another to remove his character from that threatened position. Or, to pick a more benign example, roleplay would simply become the reading of a script, which while interesting for onlookers, would become static and boring for those actually taking part.

I feel that roleplay is best spontaneous and off-the-cuff, drawing on the players' skills at improvising, accepting that things are unlikely to go exactly according to their plan, and taking this in stride rather than demanding a do-over until they are satisfied. I believe that by having everyone come to a mutual understanding beforehand over what will happen in the end, removes the thrill and variability that make it worthwhile.

What do you think, though? Is it being antisocial to refuse to share these plans? Is it simply cynicism underlying this, that I don't trust the other players to keep this knowledge out of their in-character actions? Does any of it even matter?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Die Another Day

Another recent conversation on my new favourite discussion forum got me thinking: are games, specifically MUDs, specifically Karinth, too easy these days?

The story takes a nostalgic look at games that are long gone, where saving was difficult if not impossible, players regularly had to re-play the same level of the game over and over, or just start again from the beginning. Where the game was difficult, frustrating and completing each little section was a real triumph.

So, are we missing out? Is there something to be said for more severe consequences to one's actions, actually making things more enjoyable? Would people have more fun in the long run if there was a real danger that one false move could spell disaster? Clearly, it would make any achievement all the more special. Though, on the other hand, many would likely get frustrated and go play something else, if they could never get anywhere.

Personally, I kind of like things the way they are. I feel there are enough games that cater only to the superhuman player who has the best reflexes and tools and knows all the ins and outs. I like that any dedicated player can become someone on Karinth, without needing to be really much of a gamer at all. I especially like that we don't have permadeath - though there are successful games that do. I prefer a more relaxed style where the player can explore things at their own pace, without the pressures of knowing that each move could be their last.

But what do you think? Is recovering from death too easy? Could there be something in the thought that a more difficult game would be more rewarding in the end? Do we need more tension and risk? Leave comments!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

All Things in Moderation

In a surprising development, Top Mud Sites has become my preferred MUD forum hang-out as of late. After many years of The Mud Connector being the premiere gathering of the genre's great and good (and me), signs are pointing to this challenger having a legitimate chance of reaching those heights.


For me, personally, the change has been a result of the recent and noticeable increase in moderation there. The folks at TMS have been more visible, more hardworking and to be honest seem to care more. Of course, this may be an illusion: TMC's staff probably care just as much, but have decided to sit back and let everything pass in its own time. As a result, the moderated forum has become noticeably less full of trolling, flames, arguments and all of the other ills that seem to plague so many forums.

The trade-off, of course, is that some people don't like this: there isn't freedom, there's a perceived unfairness and of course those who find themselves at the wrong end of the stick do their best to stir this up and make themselves out to be victimised - similar to most parts of life, really. I've never been one to have a lot of sympathy for those who knowingly do things to upset those in charge, and then claim that the situation is unfair. There may be a place for crusaders for free speech, but I'd rather they found someplace else where it wasn't so obviously self-serving.

Of course, TMC has stayed the same as it always has been, which is excellent - those who can tolerate the back-and-forth quarrels (or even revel in them) can enjoy that atmosphere, whereas others who would quite happily trade a little enlightenment for a lot more civility, have such a place as well. I have found, though, that rather than stifling creativity in a web of censorship, the moderated forum has allowed more to voice their opinions, to take part in worthwhile discussions and share information, without fear of attacks either to them or to the train of thought in the threads.

It is often forgotten that all should have freedoms in equal measure, rather than the loudest individuals having them all.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Quite Literally

So, here's an interesting question to tackle: don't you think it's really quite mean to look down on people who don't spell correctly on MUDs? I mean, spelling and grammar aren't as important as the message they convey.

Well, it's a fair point. After all, language is designed to get your point across in a manner that the other person (or, in this case, people) understand. Someone with the best command of the language still needs worthwhile things to say, otherwise they get annoying very, very quickly.

On the other hand, though, text-based games are just that - all text. Despite the fact that people have taken to chatting over the Internet in the same way that they would in real life - that is, casual, "fingers before mind" kind of stuff - we lack a lot of comprehension aids. We can't see facial expressions or gestures. We can't sense tones or voice effects. It takes a lot of effort to get a sense of "feeling" across.

This has two problems: firstly, roleplay is a lot about feeling. It is about evoking a scene in someone's imagination, and creating one in your own. The trick is that for things to make sense and play out seamlessly, this scene has to translate nearly perfectly. If two people are imagining totally different things, there isn't much hope for any kind of happy ending. In addition, there is a more general communication breakdown: if people can't understand what you're writing, they just can't communicate with you. They can't tell what you're saying, what you're asking for help about, what response you want to get from them. It isn't that they're trying to be rude or unhelpful, they just don't know what it is you are trying to get across. Part of this is, of course, that the sender has to realise that they are not the centre of the universe and people honestly don't care enough, nor should they, to spend ages trying to decipher the message. If they don't get it first time, it may as well never have been said.

Following on from that is the second problem: it just shows a lack of respect. MUD communities are a joint effort, like a novel being written by different authors, where each author has no editing power over what the others put in. Once it's said, it can't be undone by someone else. So if one person is spending two seconds on every sentence, the novel is going to look awful no matter how good the other authors are. And then what happens? Of course the other authors are going to think "well, why should I stay here and get dragged down by so-and-so who either doesn't know what they're doing and doesn't care?" - they go and find another book to contribute to. One bad apple can ruin the whole cartload for everyone.

So what do I suggest? Firstly, I like the above analogy a lot. Think about a MUD as being a co-written novel, a very flexible one that has no defined beginning or end. A work in progress. For all you know, someone is logging the goings-on for posterity, to look at later for inspiration or simply for enjoyment. Whatever the case, remember that a novel is a very fragile thing, and one writer can easily ruin the whole piece. If you feel that your writing could be better, then this is an excellent place to learn - surrounded by others who love writing, and want to help all the writers improve, so that the whole work improves. Just remember that in this medium, effort is vitally important - and it is just as important to show others that you are holding your end up in that regard.

"Bad spelling can be lethal. For example, the greedy Seriph of Al-Ybi was once cursed by a badly-educated deity and for some days everything he touched turned to Glod, which happened to be the name of a small dwarf from a mountain community hundreds of miles away, who found himself magically dragged to the kingdom and relentlessly duplicated. Some two thousand Glods later the spell wore off. These days, the people of Al-Ybi are renowned for being unusually short and bad-tempered."
-Terry Pratchett, "Witches Abroad"

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What Does "Free" Mean?

This came up on TopMudSites recently and I felt it was worth a mention.

Essentially the argument was about what constituted fair use of the word "free" in the MUD world, for example:

- a MUD where a player can play as long as they like and never be forced to pay
- a MUD where a player can pay to get items that could also be gained without paying
- a MUD where a player gains no in-game benefit from paying
- a MUD that refuses to accept any form of payment altogether

Karinth, of course, resides happily in the third section of that. But in the wider community as a whole, where's the boundary? Is it misleading for a MUD to call themselves "free to play" when there are some parts of game content that can only be experienced by those who have paid for them?

According to lawyers, not really. Commercial laws allows for the use of free in those circumstances due to the content being free (as opposed to everything in the MUD). Similar to how retailers can offer a special of "buy one, get one free" - clearly, there's no real difference between that and simply selling two products together at half the normal price: the buyer ends up subsidising the "free" product with the one they paid full price for, and that string can't be cut. The free part only becomes available once the price is paid.

Of course, the MUD community doesn't like commerce at all, for the most part. MUDs are meant to be a hobbyist utopia where mean Mr. Moneybags doesn't go, leaving them pristine and untouched by greed for eternity, or so the story goes. This, I think, is where the problem lies: it's all well and good to set high standards for yourself, to take the moral high ground, to proclaim that you're defending the gaming rights of the poor student or whatever else - but at the end of the day, you have to realise that you're putting additional restrictions upon yourself that do not apply to anyone else (assuming license compliance and all that).

I'm not disparaging "totally free" games - I am very proud that Karinth is one - but we have realised that we are doing so at a cost, that we are competing with paid individuals and that we are deliberately limiting what we can do. Like it or not, the MUD community faces many challenges, and not all of them come from outside where the much talked-about World of Warcraft can be found. Things aren't the same as they were ten or twenty years ago, and "big" business is a part of the community now. We can compete with it, knowing that we have placed ourselves at a disadvantage in some ways, but we certainly can't ignore it and pretend that our community is full of fluffy happy bunnies that want to see each other succeed.

Even amongst MUDs now, there's really no such thing as a free lunch.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Karinthadillo's Law of Momentum

It's funny how things snowball, isn't it? One moment things are going along just fine, and the next, things are at a standstill and it looks like a huge mountain has suddenly sprung up out of nowhere. Of course, it works the other way too - if you can keep things ticking over, even the largest task seems do-able as small pieces get picked off, and all of a sudden the most of it is done. I've found that managing momentum is one of the most important, and probably most frustrating, parts of what I have to do. It isn't simply activity, it's regularity and - hopefully - productivity. It's more than simply being very hardworking for a while, but finding that rhythm that allows and encourages it to continue at a manageable, yet useful, pace - except from my perspective, rather than motivating myself to do this, I have to motivate others.

There's a hump, I've come to realise, that once you power through it, things seem to come together by themselves and the finish line comes into view very quickly. Of course, until you can see over this hump, it looks like things are never-ending and it becomes difficult to believe that it will ever change. Hence the decision, as described in my last post, to take things on in smaller chunks, to get that sense of achievement and regular completion of useful things.

I can see this from the player's side too, that they too want to see things completed regularly (which they cannot control, as well), in order to keep their spirits up and justify that investment of so much recreation time. So, the work has these pressures, too. And to put a twist on it - what if you deliberately want to lose momentum? I mean, there are negatives too. What if you don't want someone to continue playing, if you'd really rather they lost interest and wandered off? Of course, the benefits to all of the others tend to outweigh this most of the time, though it still remains a constant thought back there somewhere.

Sadly, this is not a topic that I can draw a neat conclusion on, and it will likely remain that way for a long, long time. Momentum is a seriously fragile thing, in any environment or scenario, really. The easiest chore will, without it, become a lesson in needless procrastination. Learning how to produce, encourage, manage and control it is something that is definitely an ongoing, challenging process. Or maybe I'm just not able to see over the hump yet?