The real world isn’t ready for a true ARG MMORPG

Over the past month, I’ve been an outside observer (with connections) of the whole Pokémon Go phenomenon. I’ve talked to players, I’ve explained it to the ignorant, I’ve read a lot of pieces on it, and I’ve tried to shield my kids from knowing about it because they are completely Pokémon crazy right now and I do not have the time to be dragged all over creation to find Squirtlechumon with my phone. I love them unconditionally, but expressions of that love should have sane, defined limits.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking of how Niantic (among others) has used the real world as its MMO setting, overlaying the game on top of reality to make an… I don’t know… augmented reality? I should trademark that. And there are obviously advantages to doing that: The real world is quite literally everywhere, it gets people outside and exploring, it turns the mundane into the magical, and I have plenty of opportunities to mess with kids who aren’t watching while biking and looking at their phones at the same time. This game I call “Pokémon Go Fish!”

But if we can be frank for a minute, there are also some pretty severe drawbacks to co-opting the real world to be a backdrop for your fancy digital game. Let’s start with the element of physical danger, which is the dangling bait of every Pokémon Go clickbait story. Sure, Niantic puts that little warning on the screen and sure, most players are totally fine, but tragedy is bound to happen when you encourage people to go wandering about in unfamiliar territory without often looking around them.

Then we have to mention the rising chorus of voices of various institutions and locations that would much rather not have gamers running about their property. It’s hard to know where to draw the line on this; as long as a person isn’t trespassing it isn’t a crime, but some places you don’t want people playing games or making noise. Locally, there’s a Michigan couple suing Niantic for putting tons of Pokémon in a park right by their home, often prompting players to run over their lawn and make noise at all hours of the night. That would bug me too.

From a game design standpoint, if this sort of technology is to be used in future, perhaps more fully fleshed-out MMOs (and I would certainly be interested in seeing that happen), probably the biggest issue is that the landscape and buildings haven’t been made by the developers (obviously) but are just being used by them. You’re dealing with a wild and woolly world that’s been designed by forces outside of the development studio, and so the solution is to make the best with what’s already there.

So instead of shaping the world to fit the game, it becomes the other way around, and that can result in an awkward and (oddly enough) unnatural game. In the digital space, the sky is the limit for what devs want to dream up and design. In ARGs, you have to make the best of the foundation that’s already been laid. It’s not ideal.

Plus, if designers are making a game for the entire globe, then they have to deal with population density, the sheer size of the world, dangerous locations, and whatnot. There’s just no way that you can hand-craft all of that, so the solution is to either crowdsource it or make procedural generation software so that a computer can take a stab at placing everything.

Maybe a more traditional MMORPG could work in an ARG setting if players were given the keys to create their own kingdoms and dungeons, although I can envision a new set of dangerous possibilities arising from that and the lawsuits that would follow. Is this dungeon I’m about to explore the basement of a real serial killer who’s found the laziest way ever to collect his victims? Are companies manipulating the game to draw in customers and increase foot traffic?

It’s not a future I envisioned, but it seems to be one barreling our way right now. And I don’t think that solutions for making these games work on a wide scale and in greater depth than throwing balls at imaginary critters will require.

The Long Dark: 24 hours of terrible survival

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I finally had time the other night to dig into one of my Steam summer sale purchases: The Long Dark. Out of the widening field of survival-type games, this one’s kept my attention over the years for its more natural setting and its kind of attractive art design. No zombies, no cannibals (that I know of), just a lot of snow, ice, hints of the apocalypse, and hungry wolves.

Loading up, I elected to play a standard sandbox game of Mystery Lake. Without any instruction or futher ado, the game dumped me right into the middle of the Canadian north, with snow, pine trees, and rocks to all sides. I had a backpack full of gear, but it was quickly apparent that the environment was the true monster here. Without food, I’d die. Without water, I’d die. Without heat, I’d become a Sypsicle. And without sleep, I’d start to fall apart. It’s the basics of survival in a very inhospitable place, and that’s kind of appealing.

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Without any signs or hints where to go, I struck out in a random direction and was eventually rewarded with the sight of my first cabin. It was a shell of a structure with only a wood stove inside. I failed at making a fire in it to warm up — and lost my only tinder (a firemaking essential) in the process.

Happily, I spied a much better cabin not too far away and stumbled gratefully up to it.

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It was a great find: A cabin that had most all of the essentials (save water), a ton of items to loot, a bed in which to sleep, and a stove. I raised all my levels as best I could and prepared for some small forays into the surrounding areas.

I’ll say this about The Long Dark, it’s got a great design. I didn’t need much explanation to figure out the controls, start crafting, place items, or interact with the world. The HUD is incredibly minimalistic, disappearing entirely unless something happens or you hit the tab key to get stats.

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I took a step outside in the night, but quickly retreated when I saw that there was a full-fledged blizzard. It also doesn’t help that the night is pretty dang dark.

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Some of the vistas reminded me a lot of Firewatch’s visuals — just with a lot more snow. The next morning dawned and I was still alive. A miracle! But I couldn’t stay much longer; I had to continue to look for more supplies, not to mention some water. Is that the goal of the sandbox? To continually journey or to eventually set up a base camp?

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From what little I know of the backstory here, The Long Dark takes place after a massive geothermal storm has thrown civilization out of whack. It’s probably good I wasn’t thrown into the many parts of Canada where there is no remnant of humanity at all. There are plenty of cabins if you keep looking, some of which come with mysteriously frozen corpses.

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Mid-morning, I got my first glimpse of a wolf, mostly as it charged right at me and tried to take me down. I went into a panic, trying to figure out how you use weapons and fight, and I guess it was here that the game failed me, because I had no idea other than to furiously click. The wolf hurt me nicely and shredded some of my clothing. I think I got him back, because he ran away whimpering and trailing blood.

The attack and its aftermath felt very disorienting, and other than being miffed that I couldn’t fight well, I thought it did a great job communicating this experience.

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A logging road led to train tracks, and those train tracks led — to my surprise — to a dam. Against my better judgment (and my dwindling light sources), I went inside and looted a bit while getting completely turned around in its large halls.

There were also some wolves prowling around, although a funny moment happened when I saw one, expected an attack as it ran toward me, and then laughed as it sped right on by, whimpering in fear at my flare. KEEP RUNNING WOLF.

It was here that my life came to a quick and nasty end, as I slipped on a bit of ice and plummeted over the far side of the dam and down onto the frozen lake.

I think this might be an interesting game to pull out now and then to explore, although I would be more interested in a story mode with some sense of purpose.

How Blizzard convinced me to live the AFK life

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What I would like right now is a time machine to go back a week or so and explain to myself what was really important with invasions. Oh, I thought at the start that it was all about getting that free gear and some nethershards, and after a while I got bored of it all and drifted away.

Then, over the weekend, I only started to hear that invasions were absolutely fantastic for leveling alts, something that surprised me because I was only vaguely aware that lower levels could participate (I had only been doing them with 100s). So naturally by the time I got my Druid in gear to invasion-TO-THE-MAAAAX, Blizzard called in the fun police and nerfed invasion XP.

A remarkably tone-deaf CM snarked at players how this nerf was meant to (in my words) get those dirty AFKers but good and that invasions weren’t supposed to be about getting alts to level 100. Um… why not? Seriously, WHY NOT. Can’t they be fun and useful? Y’all got an expansion coming out in less than two weeks, why wouldn’t you want more players to get those 100s ready… unless you want to sell more of those store boosts (conspiracy!).

Anyway, after the community got good and rankled about this change, Blizzard did buff mob XP, which is a good move in general save that you lose most of the XP from that kill if someone else tags in. Slow clap for putting the hurt on encouraging teamwork there.

So here’s the slightly ironic thing: I was playing invasions all normal-like for the first week, and it took all of this hooplah and nerfing to convince me that the way forward was to AFK with absolutely no shame whatsoever.

Sportsmanlike it might not be, but if there’s an avenue for relatively easy and painless advancement, it’s hard to turn that down (especially for an alt). My Druid had been slowly, oh so slowly climbing up the levels via dungeon crawling, but that’s getting ridiculously slow now that I’m in the 70s and it’s only going to get worse from here. Word is Blizzard nerfed dungeon XP a while back, so if that’s true, thanks for that one.

Instead, I’m going to use the invasions to boost my character — perhaps not as quickly as before, but steady and faster than dungeoneering. The thing is, I can log in, park my Druid in an invasion zone, and then AFK out to get some work done, make dinner, roll among the daisies, etc. I don’t have to be at the computer to reap the XP and chests. Sure, I’d get more if I participated (and I still do, particularly in phase 3 when I’ve got gaming time), but this is working great to have running almost constantly in the background.

And it’s working. Day one of the new AFK regimen, I went from 73 to 76. Every two hours I’d move my Druid around to the three invasion zones, soak up the easy XP, and then log out until the next wave began. As a bonus, the chests are getting me a suit of armor that is leveling up with me, so when I hit 100, I shouldn’t be too badly off.

As I said, I can still participate and even run dungeons between invasions. But going AFK feels, in a small way, like I’m making some small statement about how Blizzard needs to always err on the side of fun instead of cracking down on people who aren’t playing the way that they want (that week).

Does anyone else find it funny…

…that Blizzard fled screaming from talent trees in World of Warcraft years ago, tossing them away in favor of the talent choices… and is now about to introduce artifact weapons, which are basically talent trees all over again?

I mean, you couldn’t get more talent tree like if you tried. Although I guess portraying the talent tree at an angle is a significant change.

My auxiliary brain

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I’ve not always been the most organized of people — for that you’d have to turn to my wife or mother, both of whom are constantly armed with calendars and schedules that chart their lives down into 15-minute segments. We often joked as kids that our mom’s Franklin organizer was her auxiliary brain.

Now the joke’s on me, I guess. With my jobs, family, and interests all growing, I’ve started to flounder in keeping track of everything I need to do. Just having to keep track of two school calendars last year resulted in a few instances of me forgetting something like the kids getting out early on a certain day. So lately I’ve surrendered to my own auxiliary brain: my smartphone.

I’ve been using two things to help me keep on top of everything that is outside of my normal daily routine. The first is the iPhone’s simple reminder feature. Anytime I need to jot off a quick reminder to do something within the next 24 hours, I’ll simply tell the phone to zip me off that reminder at a certain time (usually when I arrive at work or come home). People chuckle at church when they see me constantly talking to my phone to remind me of this or that, but hey, it works surprisingly well.

For more long-term planning, I’ve been using Evernote extensively. It’s a neat little program that allows you to access text files across multiple devices (the current free version is limited to two, so I use my phone and work computer). While my to-do list is usually hand-written, I use Evernote more for my upcoming schedule — meetings, important dates, and so on.

One way that I’ve started to expand its use is to set monthly reminders to do regular tasks that I sometimes forget, such as send out birthday cards to teens or bring my wife flowers at work (there’s a florist here that sells these cards that you can use to get a bouquet every month for a year, but if you forget a particular month then you’re out of luck). I’ve been setting reminders to check on the free Kindle first book of the month, notes when certain books and DVDs are coming out, and even reminders about upcoming MMO releases.

So I’m 40 and I need a part-time brain. My mom did too — mine’s just a little smaller and more cloud-based.

MMOs and the school of fish effect

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I imagine that most of us are not demigods or sentient mainframes capable of performing trillions of operations a second (I get up to about two, three tops). So for the most part our lives are segmented into what’s in our sphere of interest/involvement and… everything else. We can’t stay on top of all of the news, all of the pop culture, all of the everything in the world. Experiences, preferences, and interest lead us to pay attention to certain areas.

Even in those, we’re hopelessly outclassed in today’s entertainment-rich world. I can’t watch all of the TV shows and movies coming out that apparently I’m supposed to in order to make good conversation around the watercooler. And when I narrow it down to just MMOs, well, I’m still a small little grouper in a big, wide ocean of titles.

There are the MMOs we play, the MMOs we don’t play but follow, and then… everything else. And I’ve noticed that when we’re involved with a game, we can get really, really involved with it, staying up to date on news, patches, forum posts, trends, events, and so on. One person can only play so many games, and the more you try to add in there, the more your time and interest gets fractured and fragmented. So I think it’s a kind of defensive measure for our sanity to stop paying attention to other games that we would play if we had the time, but we don’t.

Except that we’re also influenced by others around us. Here’s where the school of fish analogy comes into play. We’re swimming along, all happy in our MMO of choice, but then we start seeing others dart away to a different title. Maybe our guild has up and left for new hunting grounds.. Maybe we see bloggers or forum posters or tweeters or commenters talk enthusiastically about another game. Whether real or perceived, we see the school of fish change direction and there’s a powerful impulse to change with it.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this happen even in the MMO blogosphere. Trends and fads of playing this game or that come and go. Sometimes it makes sense — there’s a big launch or patch or expansion — and sometimes it’s simply one person enthusiastically gushing about a title that starts a snowball reaction (uh… in the ocean, with the fish, let’s not abandon the analogy) and then everyone seems to be playing it.

I don’t see this as us being weak-willed and bowing to popular trends, but just receptive to the excitement of others and open to checking out (or revisiting) other titles. After all, how many times have you read a book or seen a movie based on someone else’s recommendation? MMOs can be like that with a ripple effect (with fish!).

So swim along, little fishies. Dart where you will and chances are I’ll be wagging my tail right behind you.