Why Play Games? (part 1)

Many of you know that I work as a youth pastor at a small church, and as part of my job, I am always interested in games.  Not just MMOs and video games, but games involving people running around and doing things.  I’ve probably learned a lot about game design and theory from leading countless games over the past decade-plus (in addition to making up several games from scratch as well).  This past Sunday, in fact, I hosted a community-wide Nerf Gun War in our church that had to be structured with some semblance of rules (three hits and you had to go score a point for the other team on the markerboard, couldn’t shoot someone from closer than three feet away, etc.).  I’m always thinking about how to set up games to work well so that they’re not just fun, but inviting and involving for everyone.

One of my “go to” resources is a book called “Best-Ever Games for Youth Ministry” by Les Christie.  I’ve met Christie a couple times, and he is a hyperactive older gentleman who has a wonderful passion for working with teenagers.  This book is mostly a series of quick, easy and (importantly) safe games, but he has an interesting preface section in which he defended why we should play games (some youth groups believe games to be counter-productive or a waste of time).  In two pages, he lists his main argument as to why games are important, and I thought it might be interesting to pull this list out and see how it may — or may not — apply to the MMO space, especially since there are those who do attack us for playing games when we should be doing more “mature” things like… I don’t know… buying stocks and going to Tupperware parties.

So I’m going to do a short four-part series, with each part tackling two of his arguments.  Starting… now!

1. Games are universal 

People are different with radically varying interests, personalities, and comfort levels, but most everyone in the world loves playing games of some kind.  Kids begin their life by playing games, and we’ve continued that well into adulthood with our fancy-schmancy video games.

One of the things I love about MMOs is that this “universal language” of gameplay has brought me in contact with people of all ages from every walk of life.  It’s simply not weird any more for a 60-year-old grandmother to be doing a raid with a 12-year-old teen, because they’ve accepted that notion of universality.

2. Games are ideal come-and-see, entry-level activities

One of the later points that Christie makes is that he sees it as a negative thing for teens to be so involved in single-player games and that it’s far better for us to play together than apart.  I remember a talk by some of the Warhammer Online devs prior to the game’s launch where they were talking about how multiplayer gameplay is “natural” to us because we grew up playing with others, and it’s only now that video games have the capacity to bring what was a previous solo-dominated field back to where it should be.

Whether you like or dislike the path MMOs have taken as of late, it’s hard to argue that they’ve gotten more difficult to get into.  On the contrary, what was once an extremely niche, hardcore activity now is available to the most casual player (depending on the game), as the games have increased in accessibility and user friendliness.  You can just “come and see” MMOs without feeling obliged to spend money these days, or invest more than an hour or two of time, or what have you.

I’ll end today’s post with a quick personal story.  In high school I was extremely introverted and had few real friends (or means of making new ones), so I’d spend hours alone either gaming, reading, or writing.  Looking back, I wonder if these MMOs had existed back then, would they have provided me with an easy way to plug into a wider community of like-minded people and make friends?  Who knows, but it’s a thought.

Where’s the dialogue option for “Friend Zone”?

I am most displeased with Vector this morning.

Most.

Displeased.

So let me back up a tad.  As with any MMO that you’re going through for the first time, my initial SWTOR run is fraught with trial, error, and crash courses in stabbing people in the back with what appears to be five feet of sharpened rebar.  (Does anyone else find it amusing that the “vibroknives” show up as these GIANT stabby things that Pyramid Head from Silent Hill would use?)  So while I think I’ve been doing fairly well — I just hit Light V last night — a week ago I realized that I’d been neglecting my companions’ affection ratings quite seriously.  I just kind of assumed the game would have them level up rapidly as with any other BioWare title, but I guess I should’ve realized that this is an MMO, and MMOs mean “Everything takes longer.”

So while dialogue options that pleased my companions was gradually, gradually bumping up their affection, overall the picture was quite dismal.  At level 40, my highest companion affection was in the 4K range (out of 10,000) with everyone else being considerably lower than that.  And that’s a shame, because I honestly like my companions and their stories, but they just weren’t coming frequently enough with the pace I was setting, especially since you really have to juggle all five and get them equal dialogue time.

That meant I needed to play Father Christmas and go gift shopping.  I decided to radically rework my crew skills setup by dropping Cybertech (which was a money drain anyway), selling off salvage components, work up Slicing to 400 (for the third time — don’t ask), and picking up Underworld Trading with a focus on getting companion gifts.  With three of my four companions off doing Slicing missions to generate some shred of profit, I didn’t feel bad having a fourth constantly out getting gifts for him or herself.  Which is slightly twisted, but I’m ignoring that.

Anyway, it’s paying off handsomely.  Not only have I been boosting my companions’ affection through the roof (after doing some research as to which companions like which objects), but every time I reach some invisible milestone I get treated to a bit more of their story AND some very yummy XP.  I think there’s a lot of rewards in this game for people who stick it out with a character to the higher levels, and this is one of them.

Back to Vector.  Now, some people are put off by him, as he’s (slight spoilers for the rest of this article if you haven’t played the Agent class) a “Joiner” — a person who deliberately allowed these intelligent bugs to connect his mind to the hive.  Bug-man.  I’m cool with that and his fully black eyes.  I even like his quiet sense of humor.  But I know that he’s the romanceable companion for the female Agent, so I’ve had to dance carefully around him because I’m not really interested in triggering that.  No [Flirt] options for me, no sirree!  But at the same time, I want to keep him on my good side during these companion dialogue quests, because you can rack up a nice chunk of additional affection for each one.  So last night I was being polite to him, telling him he was my friend and all that, but I most definitely wasn’t flirting or choosing any dialogue option that said “Please, Vector, shove your tongue down my throat.”

Which, of course, happened anyway because someone at BioWare has a weird bug fetish that I don’t want to think about, and I was yelling at the screen for him to GET OFF ME RIGHT NOW but my character was getting into it and I eventually had to curl up in a ball on the floor until the cutscene was over and my wife asked me why I was sobbing quietly and I had no good answer because who is going to sympathize with you when you tell them that a bug-man sexually harassed your avatar?

I… need a minute.  Thanks.

Planet Hopping

There is/used to be a trend in most (fantasy) MMOs wherein the earlier zones were the nice, lovely places in which you wouldn’t mind buying a vacation homes, but as you progressed you’d find yourself in increasingly hostile — and ugly — territory.  Privately, I called it the “lava field syndrome,” because many of these endgame zones were forbidding landscapes dotted by volcanoes and Apple Stores.  I never liked this trend because it was like the game was punishing you for leveling up by forcing you to go to these eye-bleaching environments just because you were successful.

I don’t think this is as true today, as I’ve seen plenty of more modern MMOs save gorgeous zones for higher levels.  I’m glad this has happened, because it doesn’t make leveling as painful for people like me who are heavily impacted by the “feel” of environments.  As I make my way up through the 40s in SWTOR, I’m equally grateful that BioWare has mixed up the beautiful, forbidding, and interesting in terms of zone design so that it’s not a straight progression from pretty to ugly (a reverse duckling?).  In fact, my character started out on one of the more gross places.  Looking back so far, I’d rate the beauty of each planet as such:

  • Hutta: Fugly
  • Dromund Kaas: Strangely pretty
  • Balmorra: Ugly-ish and irritating
  • Nar Shadda: Garish, but in a fun, different way (going to a much more urbanized planet)
  • Tatooine: Pretty, loved the wide-open spaces
  • Alderaan: Gorgeous
  • Taris: Disheveled and ugly, cluttered
  • Quesh: Felt like coming back to Hutta (fortunately it was a quick revisit)
  • Hoth: Attractive if lacking in diversity
  • Belsavis: Really pretty, nice juxtaposition of glaciers and tropical hotspots

Beyond subjective interpretations of planetary attractiveness, I’m just enjoying the concept of planets in SWTOR versus zones in most other MMOs.  I know, it’s mostly semantics, but it still feels different when you know that the other places aren’t crammed up against your current location, but a hyperjump or two away.  Star Wars lends itself well to the MMO zone design template, in which most zones adhere to a wide-reaching feature (the ice zone, the water zone, the hilly zone, the autumn zone, etc.).  After all, pretty much every planet we saw in the movies was dominated by a singular terrain type.

It’s hard to compare the size of SWTOR’s combined landmass with other MMOs, but from my perspective, it all seems really, really big.  There’s a lot of places for one to strike off and explore, if that fits your fancy, and the game always keeps you on the move.

Speaking of which, another pet peeve I’ve had in MMOs is that once you level past a zone, you’re done with it.  That always felt contrived and artificial, and I never liked it — why wouldn’t your character come back for other missions?  Happily, SWTOR has given me several reasons to return to previous planets, usually through the class storyline or via bonus missions (which, if you aren’t doing them, come highly recommended for XP, rewards and additional story).  I think bonus missions are set up in a way that get you off the planet earlier than the level curve would’ve demanded.  It breaks up the scenery, and for anyone who’s spent weeks or months in the same stinking zone, wishing desperately for escape, it’s a boon.

It’s also pretty cool to know that over on the Republic side are not only a couple unique planets that I’m not going to see this time around, but a few different versions of planets (like a lowbie Taris).  Of course, I hope that in the future there are more planetary paths to the level cap — or even multiple paths on the same planet — but for now I’m enjoying the tourist aspect of planet-hopping.

Freaking Out

It was 11:15 last night when I logged into Star Trek Online to set up my duty officers before hitting the sack.  “What the heck,” I thought.  “Might as well do one mission.”

And so I did, and for the first part of it, it seemed pretty routine.  Space battle followed by ground combat (and, presumably, followed by more space battle).  But when I beamed onto the Cardassian ship, I could tell it was anything but routine.  The place was *trashed* and eerie for a lack of NPCs after the first couple waves of mobs.  When I went into the sick bay, I almost jumped out of my seat as the screen turned a frosty white while “ghosts” faded in and out, seeming to kill at random.  From then on, the mission was an investigatory one, trying to find out why all of these crew members had died and why these ghosts kept appearing and changing the room like that.

Completely unexpectedly, I was finding myself freaked out by an MMO of all things, and kind of charmed that this could actually happen.  The strange thing is that it wasn’t the only time it’s happened recently, either.

A couple weeks ago I was going through my class storyline in SWTOR when the screen started doing really insane, freaky things that had me backpedaling away from the computer.  Without spoiling anything, it was apparently supposed to be showing me that something was going wrong in my character’s head, but I really didn’t know how to take all of the weird images and sights — many of which were lightning-quick, so that I couldn’t get a read on it.  The end result is that for a moment, I found myself experiencing a shade of fear.  In an MMO.

MMOs aren’t supposed to be scary, because they almost never are.  For one thing, for every one person who likes scary stuff, you’re going to have a whole bunch that will be repulsed by it, so it probably isn’t a wise business practice for a game company trying to appeal to the masses.  For another, you as a character are the Swiss Army knife of killing machines, boasting dozens of ways to slaughter those you oppose.  So if something attacks you, you aren’t going “AIEEE!  A monster!  Oh mercy me!”, you’re going “How many hit points does it have and what’s its loot table look like?”  We’ve killed so many giant spiders in games that it’s just impossible to take their presence as anything other than a crawling cliche.

So the best avenue for genuine scares that MMO studios have is to create convincing environments that play more on the “freakout” factor.  It might be a one-trick pony that loses all scare factor the second time around, or a completely random event (like a mob jumping out of a shadow while you weren’t watching).  But anything freaky’s always been my weak spot for horror films, more than jump-scares or unstoppable killers or elaborate torture sequences.  If my brain processes it as just plain *wrong*, it’s going to play on my imagination for days to come.  Maybe that’s worth it once in a while in MMOs, especially if it evokes actual emotion that isn’t typically felt in the course of playing these games.

These two brief experiences makes me wonder about The Secret World’s horror angle.  It certainly looks like it has the recipe for some good freaky setups, with zombies and ghosts and c’thulu-like creatures and Indian burial grounds and whatnot, but the proof will be in the experience.  Will it be hard to ever be scared when you’re not truly alone (thanks, chat window!) and have enough firepower to level a small mountain at your disposal?

I’m hoping that TSW does contain a genuine horror edge to it.  Ragnar Tornquist’s two Longest Journey games had a few moments that weren’t exactly scary, but certainly evoked fear and dread within me.  Some of the mob art I’ve seen is unsettling enough to know that I probably won’t want to play TSW with the lights off at night.  I’ve heard the mobs mostly come at night.

Mostly.

Six Things I’m Loving About My Return To Star Trek Online

I’ve been meaning to talk about my recent return to Star Trek Online, but one thing or another kept pushing this article back.  I wasn’t initially going to fire back up STO following its F2P switch — too much other stuff going on — but one evening’s worth of curiosity got the better of me, and I’m glad I did.  Here are six things I’m loving about it so far:

1. The free-to-play model suits me perfectly

One of the reasons I never stuck with STO for longer than a month here or there is that it’s the type of game that I only want to play sporadically.  A couple times a week, maybe.  And a “couple times a week” is not a valid reason in my book for a monthly subscription, so that had to go.

But F2P?  That’s a winning ticket right there.  There’s no subscription pressure to play, and every time I’m looking for something different (ship combat still rocks), it’ll be there for me.

2. Its free-to-play setup is surprisingly generous

Here’s what shocked me about this return.  I really thought that Cryptic’s F2P version of STO would be painful at best to experience.  I haven’t been that glowing about how the company neutered Champions Online’s best feature — the freeform creation and growth of superheroes — when it was designing the version for free players.  So I anticipated something as bad or worse for STO.

In actuality, it’s about one of the most generous free models I’ve seen in an MMO.  Take a look at the features matrix and try to pinpoint where the game is “punishing” you for not being a subscriber.  Slightly smaller inventory and currency cap?  Ouch.  I’m going to be sore for days.

People who denounce F2P as being this great evil that’s corrupting our beloved MMOs from the inside-out don’t often acknowledge that there are many ways to do F2P, and while some are aggressively bad and harmful to the game, others are finding a great balance between giving a free experience while tempting players to pony up dough.  I’m not fond of STO’s gambling-like mystery prize boxes you can buy, but most everything else in the store is either cosmetic, a different fun ship design with minor advantages, or various services.  Yet there’s nothing that has to be purchased to enjoy the game to its fullest, either.

3. The leveling is faster

Every time I return to STO, I feel compelled to start a brand-new character (I really don’t know why).  So I’ve been through the first 20 levels or so of content several times now, and have never really liked how painfully slow the leveling process was.  I guess between the time I last played and now Cryptic tweaked the leveling curve so that you not only level quicker (I was to Lt. Cmdr. within two play sessions) but you can level primarily through the episodes alone.

4. Ground combat is less… slow

I never really disliked ground combat the way some people did, but I’m certainly not complaining that it goes a lot faster these days.  They’ve added the option to even play it in a pseudo-over-the-shoulder shooter setup, but after trying it, I’m sticking with the standard format.

5. It sates my desire for vehicular combat

My plate is full of MMOs where I’m inhabiting the body of some humanoid running around endlessly, so having one game where my main avatar is a ship is a refreshing change of pace.  STO’s space combat is tactical, eye-pleasing, and fairly easy to understand.  It just has a wonderfully different feel to it all, and I dig that.

6. The duty officer system is a fun diversion

Also new since last I played is the Duty Officer (“doff”) system.  I had no idea what this was before coming back to the game, but it turns out that it’s a variant on the time-based progression gameplay that’s popular in titles like FarmVille, Tiny Tower, and even Star Wars: The Old Republic’s crew missions.

Basically, you start off with a bunch of crew members that you can either (a) assign to duty to give you buffs in different areas or (b) send off on missions that will hopefully net you goodies.  Missions take time and can be stacked up in ridiculous amounts — I think I had 17 missions going on my second day of fiddling with this system.  There’s a bit of strategy involved with the system, as crew members’ traits can impact your mission’s chance of failure or success.  Fail badly, and your guy can be injured (taking him off the roster for a while) or even killed.  So it’s in  your best interest to minimize the odds of failure as best you can.

For someone who can’t always dump a lot of time into a game, knowing that I can log in for five minutes, send out my crew on missions, and know that I’m accomplishing something during the day is a heady feeling.

Quote of the Day

“People pride themselves on being cynical because they think it makes them street-smart and sharp-eyed, able to see the truth behind everyone’s bulls**t. If it’s a matter of being skeptical, and always thinking and asking questions, that’s not a bad thing.

A real wise person of the world keeps looking for all the angles — curse or Frogurt, cloud or silver lining. They look for all sides of the story instead of assuming there are only two.”

~ Cracked

Play a quick game today — read the aforementioned article and see how many of those items apply to the MMO community.  It’s fun!

Guild Wars 2 roars, the dragon awakes

“Enough about this SWTOR stuff,” ArenaNet finally decided.  “Now it’s our turn.”

And so this morning went, as ANet president Mike O’Brien announced that not only will the beta process for Guild Wars 2 be ramping up over the next three months, but that the game will most definitely launch this year.  If you’re partially deaf right now, it’s because of the pent-up cheers and excitement from fans that has escaped into the atmosphere.

It’s about time, really.  We’ve been lamenting the slow pace of GW2’s development for a while now — GuildCast’s Shawn Schuster noted that ArenaNet originally said that the beta for the game would happen in 2008.  Which, if you have a calendar handy, is practically an eon ago in game development time.

Along with SWTOR’s launch (last December), The Secret World (March), and TERA (May), 2012’s already looking to be much busier than any recent year on record in regards to new major MMOs.  The industry looks alive and eager to grow, and this could just be the year that changes a lot of things.

I’m excited because I honestly didn’t think GW2 was going to land in 2012 at all.  I’m thrilled because my gaming dance card is filling up not only with current titles but future ones as well, and having more options is usually a good thing.

Of course, now the speculation becomes “when in 2012?”  Due to the beta schedule O’Brien posted, we can reasonably surmise it’s not going to be before the end of April.  A May/June/early summer launch would be a great time to capture all those bored teens and college kids looking for something else to do, and ArenaNet could get a nice boost of publicity if it timed it close to E3.  If we don’t see it by then, historical MMO releases tend to gravitate to September or December, although all bets are off when it comes to this company.

For many, it’s just good enough to know that it’s coming, and that by Christmas we’ll be swapping GW2 stories and laughing about the days we were anxiously awaiting this beast.