Category Archives: Sandbox

Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

The epic quest of kill ten rats has humble beginnings. Once upon a time the explorers of virtual worlds received hardly a hint of where to go or what to do but such are not the times we live in. Those who embarked on this journey before Blizzard’s time will remember that era of glorious uncertainty but early WoW players too, know how considerably the questing experience has changed over the course of a decade. The “kill ten rats” of yore and the “kill ten rats” of today have precious little in common.

Kill ten rats: a history of epic questing

Year #1
Player X overhears NPC talking of a special breed of rats with silver pelts that may exist “somewhere”. Player finds said rats by accident one day. Player kills rats, loots five pelts in 30 minutes. Player feels special. Wahey.

Year #2
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts and deliver them. Player finds said rats one day, thanks to friendly advice in zone chat. Player kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #3
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Player finds said rats after some searching, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #4
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. Player finds said rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #5
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! Player can’t miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #6
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! Player can’t possibly miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #7
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC.

Year #8
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

Year #9+
After reading the achievement tab, player X finds NPC with an exclamation mark, also indicated on the mini-map. NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and epic pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

..Such explorers we are. Paradoxically, the shorter, the safer, the more navigated and convenient our questing has become over the years, the more MMOs have felt the need to reward us for it. That makes no sense whatsoever but it’s not a coincidence either. More on that later.

Why I hate Achievements

A fair warning: I don’t like achievements. I get why some players like, nay love achievements but I really don’t. More importantly, I don’t think they have any business in this genre.

The unconditionally worst thing that has ever happened to MMOs are achievements. Hate is a strong word and applies for my case of die-hard explorerdom although it need not be yours. Nothing feels more counter-intuitive, more obtrusive or immersion-breaking to me than the flashy achievement fonts and in-your-face achievement tabs that greet me in most of today’s MMOs – yes, even at the bloody login screen of once-great Guild Wars 2. Sic transit gloria mundi virtualis. When did all this happen?

While that’s achievements on the surface, repercussions reach much further. Several times on this blog have I raised the question of why virtual worlds need to save time, why players need to be told what to do and where to go by which path when developers have spent years creating vast open worlds of beauty. What’s it all for – just a pretty, expensive paint around a game telling me what’s an achievement?

Who would wish to complete a world? Completionism, pre-defined paths and goals, extrinsic motivators – none of these go with my personal sense of exploration. Every time unwanted and un-asked for achievements pop up in an MMO, my chosen modus operandi is disturbed or hindered. Every time that happens, that delicate illusion of virtual world is shattered. Worse, there’s no opt-in (why?).

The greatest RPG I’ve ever played was a game I didn’t complete. Where things happened at random, sometimes or never again. Where going south was as good as going north and an endless sense of mystery added depth and immensity to the world.

Even if you can’t design endless worlds, you can create size through mystery. Exploration feeds off mystery – and mystery is neither excellent nor should it be fully solvable.

Mystery resists.  Mystery refuses.  It will not yield.  Not to me.

Mystery resists closure.  It resists completion and clean getaways.  It, instead, insists.  I’m not done with you yet.  Get back over here.

Mystery is not merely the unknown.  It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know.  It is unknowability itself.  It is futile and essential.

Why do we diminish our own experience?  Are we afraid of not connecting, of confirming our solitude? [T. Thompson]

No really, go read the whole thing.

When the journey is no longer the reward…we need more rewards?

Whether you agree with my passionate sentiments or not, what most design critics can agree on is the relationship between journey/effort and goal/reward in games; the required balance in order to make either feel significant. Long and hard journeys with never a memento to show for feel unfulfilled, just as easy and plentiful loot won’t be remembered by anybody. More than that though, whenever players think back on their greatest achievements in MMOs, they don’t usually name purple swords and special titles but rather the road that led there, the obstacles that had to be overcome in the company of comrades. Naturally, loot matters too and we’ll keep those special items forever – yet loot like an epilogue, is only the last part of that story.

The journey is the reward. Knowing that we did it, that we’ve accomplished something. The shiny purple sword is a representation of that experienced, gratifying victory. It means nothing if we got it for a bargain on the flea market. (Okay maybe if there was an achievement for that….)

So, if the journey becomes ever shorter, ever more straight-forward and without mystery, what will a game attempt in order to compensate for lack of win? Will it pile on the rewards, the titles, the achievements – desperate to convince us we achieved something anyway?

I don’t need to be told I achieved something in shrill and flashing colors. I should be able to feel it and to judge it was a worthy cause. That’s when you may reward me with items, sometimes, so I may carry them with me to tell the world about my adventures.

And whither there? I cannot say. For now, let’s leave it a mystery!

EQNext’s Sandbox: A look at Landmark and the Adventurer Class (Gamescom)

This year’s Gamescom has come and gone and with it, more juicy info on Everquest Next was let off by David Georgeson during SOE’s presentation. What caught my eye in particular, were some very new and interesting tidbits concerning EQN Landmark and a so far unrevealed class concept, called the Adventurer Class. Okay Sony, this is how you get my attention.

(For those who still aren’t quite sure what EQNext Landmark is: Landmark is essentially the Minecraft mode for new Norrath. Players will not only get creative/constructive but social tools to realize and share their own idea of a virtual fantasy world. Landmark is to be released this winter 2013 and is free-to-play.)

Massively have an article up on that specific part in SOE’s GC presentation, which starts around 14minutes into the embedded video on the bottom there. Here’s a summary of the most exciting takeaways, even if not all of it is completely novel:

  • Players can create their own, completely customized MMO world having the entire design repertoire of EQN at their disposal. Whether they create a more high/low fantasy, sci-fi or pirate themed setting, is up to them. You can basically go wild with the tools you are given.
  • Players will start off playing the Adventurer class in Landmark. This is a new class which introduces players to overall character mechanics in EQN. Not just that, by playing Landmark the Adventurer class will then be unlocked for players to play in EQN. Which means, multi-classing becomes available from level 1 for those with an Adventurer toon. In addition, players can transfer their Landmark character to EQN, if they so desire. (Unfortunately Georgeson doesn’t give further details on “what type” of class the Adventurer will be within EQN.)
  • “Landmark” is the name for the random starting locations in the world. They’re represented by giant monuments and meant to serve as hubs for players to find each other – and as the game progresses, to create and set up open-air player markets. There will also be teleport stones called Wizard Spirals.
  • Players can plant flags in unclaimed territory inside Landmark, claiming a spot to shape further and utilize for themselves (early American settlers will know that one).

 

claim

All miiiine!

There is more and it’s definitely worth watching the entire video, if you’re interested in this sort of gameplay and EQNext’s sandbox. Ever since John Smedley made that bold claim, players have been on the lookout for proof and indication that EQNext is indeed not going to be just another themepark/buffet/whatever. And so far, we’ve no reason to believe it isn’t going to be; a lot of what have been actual EQN reveals this August 2013 point at an MMO using Guild Wars 2’s notebook and adding more scribbles.

Not that this is bad by any means – I love what GW2 has done for the genre, and I like to see EQN improve on that (especially where events and NPCs/questing are concerned). I’ve also sorta given up on my wishes for a sandbox MMO that actually does what the definition inspires for me – by now, it’s as wishy-washy a term as any other. That’s why SOE’s two-lane approach might actually be the better thing and it seems clear that anyone yearning for that more sandboxy, radical open-world gameplay might be looking at Landmark as their game/world of choice. While SOE keep adding reasons for Landmark players to also want to play (and pay for goods in) EQN, I wonder if they’ve not created some strong competition for their new MMO from within. That’s assuming Landmark will indeed prove to be a fully fledged, independent MMORP world – without the standard “G”.

We’ve yet to hear how SOE plan to earn their money with EQN but unless they intend to monetize both titles equally, they will want the main force of their player base to play EQN eventually, rather than just Landmark. So what does that truly mean for the quality, independence and allowed scope of the latter? I guess we have to wait and see.

Back to Minecraft (and my first video documentary!)

After the longest break since my first, very intense Minecraft spree over a year ago, it was decided last week, somewhat collectively out of the blue, that a revisit to Mojang’s prodigy was due. Truth be told, my absence from the game has had much to do with the unrestrained pace of my first encounter; I was completely and utterly hooked to MC for some weeks, spending nights in front of the PC exploring its depths (and creating my big ass castle dream). As a result, I burned out too quickly on what was still a limited game at the time, struggling with pre-release issues. Thus the last block of cobble stone set in my castle wall marked the ending of that first chapter.

But oh, have the times moved forward in Minecraft! With the arrival of the (approved) Spoutcraft client, Bukkit server mods, myriads of fan-written plugins and customization features, right down to some amazing and downloadable adventure maps, Minecraft has burst into what can only be described as (even more) baffling heights of community effort and player creativity. All the while, Mojang have kept improving and adding to the game, offering even more possibilities and freedoms to shape your unlimited, virtual space.

With great freedom comes great variety. While there are no default player classes in Minecraft, the game certainly brings out all sorts of playstyles and character types in its audience – from nutty engineers, to brave explorers, peaceful settlers and diligent carpenters. There are even MMO servers now with all the textbook MMO/RPG features you can think of, for both PVE and PVP, in a sword&sorcery, steampunk or zombie apocalypse themed world (where poisonous rain keeps falling…which you could’ve known if you actually read the tutorial).

I’ve visited a few public MMO servers and was duly impressed; after being run through a detailed starter/tutorial area, I was amazed to see item shops, teleport hubs, vendor and questgiver NPCs, PvP mini-games and more. Maybe a small detail but no less enjoyable for a soundtrack nut like myself: any designated area in Minecraft can now be attributed its own background music, hallelujah!

Public MMO servers

This is where it gets particularly interesting (and scary) because a “Minecraft MMO” can potentially offer the kind of tools and impact the current MMO market can still only dream of (known sandboxes included). It’s also where we see best how gameplay, fun and freedom trump everything else, top graphics first and foremost. The biggest woes of public MC servers right now are stability and bandwidth related, which is where big business MMO ventures will always have the upper hand.

Still, if a visit to Minecraft was highly recommended before, by now it is an absolute must! If you have any time to spare between your MMOs, RPGs and other games (and you know you do), have a look at MC! You will never install any game faster than this one.

My first omg-video documentary

Starting off on a fresh, customized server with friends, I quickly realized how behind I was on MC’s current flora and fauna, which inspired a small project called “the underwater greenhouse”. I am also still working on a much bigger scale hedge maze challenge but that’s for another time.

At completion, it struck me how I always wanted to give video commentaries with fraps another go (back when I was playing WoW my old PC was hopeless) which is how my first ever Minecraft (and for that matter first ever videogame documentary) came to be. In hindsight, I should probably have rehearsed this more…but I am a lazy person and easy to satisfy.

And yes, I am fully aware that everyone can hear my voice now. Oh noes!

Creating this video was actually so simple and fun that I am definitely doing more in the future. Maybe next time I’ll also manage to make less silly noises with my lips.

Quick Fraps how-to

Without exaggeration, making a video commentary like the one above is as easy as blogging. I was surprised how simple a tool fraps really is, with minimal setting up involved. My smartphone is more complicated than fraps! Together with a youtube account and two more, free tools, you are fully equipped to create your own gaming videologs which are lots of fun to do. And here’s how:

– Get a full version of fraps to be able to record more than 30secs videos
– Capture your ingame video (I use custom 15fps setting and record voice via headset)
Watch this guide on using Xvid and Vdub for file compression
– Upload your compressed video to your youtube channel

Works like a charm! And you can add extras like a title pane or annotations with youtube later. I love learning new things by myself, so it’s not unlikely I’ll look into Sony Vegas or similar video enhancement software soon. So I guess that’s one more way how Minecraft can boost your creativity!

Off the Chest: Unlearning Convenience, One-time Events and what would you do in a Sandbox?

otc

It’s one of those days where I have too many thoughts on different blogging topics which don’t warrant a blogpost of their own but still, in my mind, ask for more dedicated commentary. I tend to leave longer replies on my fellow bloggers articles for this reason and often that’s good enough; yet for a while now, I’ve been thinking about a format or style of post that allows rambling on various topics that have come up, vexed me and yet didn’t quite make it into a single post – usually because I feel somewhat late to the party or then I simply cannot bring myself to present you with anything less than a WoT. It’s true.

Be that as it may, I herewith introduce “off the chest” as my on-and-off, multiple-subject (and likely ranty..ier) commentary, where articles are shorter wrap-ups or openers to bigger subjects and where I get to be wonderfully incoherent. Summary posts can be quite enjoyable, so maybe these can deliver some information or entertainment to somebody sometime (or else they’ve just been of highly cathartic value for myself)! Without further ado, three topics I needed to get off my chest for a while now, in no particular order.

Unlearning Convenience

One of the fascinating things about the mixed MMO community in Guild Wars 2 is that you can tell who the ex-WoW players are after a while, judging by the degree of convenience they are used to or rather, the degree of discontent they voice in that particular area. After an era of WoW and not GW, I absolutely am a spoiled MMO brat: for example, I expect a lot of menu choices and customizability for things like name tags or combat info (ally healthbars anyone?), I want the market place search to be refined so it’s actually functional (armor class search?) and I expect a quick disconnect/relog from WvW not to throw me back into a queue of doom with no way to rejoin my team mates. Stuff like that, missing polish like that, is just horribly frustrating and it gets more frustrating the longer ANet take to fix it. These may be small(er) issues and not top prio in a launch week or even month – but come on, address this shit already!

How long is the average MMO player of today willing to ignore disfunctionalities or little bugs after a fresh MMO launch? How long is your personal tolerance span? Rather than Halloween content I would’ve welcomed some long overdue fixes, some of them as old as open beta! And I haven’t even yet mentioned the camera / first-person view, botting or culling problems. These are not “aspects of GW2 that are just different”, these are issues that need fixing ASAP in any MMO! /GnaRghL

One-time Events

Speaking of Halloween, GW2’s one-time only Halloween event of this Sunday past has sparked quite some debate and of course both negative and positive reactions. This is an incredibly interesting subject because it shows us just how ready today’s MMO audience really is for the often hyped “unique content” and “meaningful impact”. Or to quote a passage in my last post’s comment section:

I think we do not need to content ourselves with impact only ever existing in offline/single-player games. like you said, GW2 makes some good attempts – but they could be much better even. I think MMOs need to lose the idea that everything is always available and repeatable for everybody. much of the generic feeling comes from everything that players do happening over and over, respawning, resetting….why? why not make some events more unique? what if somebody misses them – so what? you could add small content patches for this on a fortnightly base, like I suggested a while ago in an article on expansions. give players a real sense of story progression, unique experiences and impact. let them change things permanently!” (Syl)

That’s the thing: you can’t have it both ways. You can experience triggered quests that are available all the time, or more random events to which you are sometimes too late or early. You can finish quests with zero to marginal impact on the world and people around you – or you can witness really memorable events. Once in a while. And you can most certainly miss those. There is a flipside to that coin of memorable and special MMO moments that gravitate towards simulation and open world a lot more than towards gamification.

I actually missed this Sunday’s Halloween event in GW2 as I was on holidays in France; and yes, I am a little sad about that. On a less personal note however, I am very happy ArenaNet made this decision. Maybe next time I’ll be around for it. Either way, now the community has something to talk about and tell each other! Missing the Mad King’s appearance in Lion’s Arch or having to re-watch it on youtube is a price I will gladly pay for MMO worlds to become less generic, feel less repetitive and predictable! But that’s me and my idea of games worth playing. And living in, really.

So, what would you do in a Sandbox?

It’s become a trend of late to invoke the mystical spirit of the sandbox wherever MMO players feel the blues and are simply unhappy with their choices in current games on the market. I get that dissatisfaction and I’m in fact more than up for future MMOs to revert to a more open world state of play, with less orchestrated content. Still, I wonder how many players have truly ever experienced a sandbox game, stuck with a sandbox game? And what is it exactly you wish for, from your next sandbox MMO. Do you know? I’m not so sure we all mean the same things when we talk about sandbox elements (worth having).

Pure sandbox games ask a lot of a player base, both in terms of time and commitment The feeling of freedom or impact doesn’t come for free. So, if by any chance you belong to let’s say a player demographic depending on a) linear progression, b) endgame, c) set achievements or d) in fact any kind of pre-conceived content….I have bad news for you: you won’t like a sandbox! You won’t thrive there. If you already felt that GW2 was “finished” after four weeks, if you lament endgame and progression and ask questions like “what to do next?” in an MMO, the sandbox is not for you. While we’re at it: there’s no “rushing through” or “winning” a sandbox. There’s a lot more in terms of self-defined progress, achievement and goals than in a themepark or playground or whathaveyou MMO. 

Can you deal with that? If so, I hope you’re also up for outdoor PvP and griefers. The big, shining beacons of sandboxy gameplay currently out there, such as EvE Online or Darkfall, are basically MMOs that revolve around the simple principle of “building clans and defending clan bases” and then “warring against other clans and clan bases” (terminology may vary). This is by the by, what the sappy memories of vocal UO and DAoC veterans are made of: strife. Territorial (or resource) warfare with all its little neat side-effects. That’s also why community building was so important in these games to begin with. Sure, you could do many other things too, but erm…..territorial warfare impacting on you! 

So, just in case any of the above gives you headaches but you still yearn for the sandbox…well, I keep my fingers crossed the next such MMO comes with big enough safe sectors! Or alternatively, still deviates enough from its predecessors to accommodate you. A real sandbox is about building your own little castle just as much as it is about destroying your neighbour’s. And it most certainly isn’t going to present you with linear progression and endgame. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,
Zip-A-Dee-A,
My oh my, what a wonderful day!