October 2004 | Main Page | December 2004


[Ed: Posted on behalf of Anders Tychsen.  See also http://www.rpgdot.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=176736]

During a recent analysis of the relatively new Diablo-clone Sacred, it struck me that I felt absolutely no suspension of disbelief while playing. It did not bother me too much that I had to slaughter hundreds of creatures that wandered around aimlessly, seemingly without any purpose except to kill my “overfeatured”, bikini-clad avatar. What ruined the experience was the fact that hordes of goblins would jump me whenever I got within sight, but stay away from e.g. an unprotected farm. They would even follow an avatar into the farm, without ever considering the farmer a viable target. Later on in the game, a 10 ton dragon attacked using wings that was seemingly attached with duct tape, ignoring the demands on the body structure it takes for an organism of that size to have wings, or even use them in a 1G environment.

Such discrepancies in games are not uncommon, and are somewhat alleviated by the willing suspension of disbelief of the players when they enter a game world. The suspension of disbelief is however ruined when something occurs, within the physical parameters of the virtual world, that is obviously not realistic. While a “Plane of Fire” as physical environment is perfectly acceptable to most, having a creature spawning out of thin air every 30 minutes in an MMO, for the sole reason of providing XP for the grinder, is not (e.g. Ultima Online). It is not even realistic within the fiction of the game world, and ruins the suspension of disbelief. If such problems could be avoided in a realistic, believable (within the game fiction) and consistent manner, games would be more immersive and the believability greater - my all-too-obvious and age-old point here bei! ! ! ng that some features we can accept within the parameters of the illusion, others break the illusion.

Added realism does not mean eliminating any fantastic elements, but adding depth and dimension. For example, a fantasy world might feature magic, and such a pseudo-argument can be used to explain why a 10 ton dragon can fly. However, it does not justify why the dragon has to spawn every 30 minutes at a given place. Thinking about the ecological setting of the world, we might be able to come up with a better system for the appearance of the dragon, which is plausible. Also, if biophysically a bit better modeled, the dragon might even feel more realistic.

Not all creatures of all games should be like real world organisms. Not everything in a virtual world should be explained using the laws of science. However, various features of the real world can inspire, and be directly utilized, to enhance virtual worlds by adding realism. This is an old, worn-out discussion, but I will try to give it a new twist by proposing that by applying natural sciences theory and techniques, a range of problems in games could be solved. Not only can the natural sciences be used to solve specific issues, but they also offer a way of completely changing the way that the virtual worlds themselves, and its related mobiles, act.

I see at least two venues for this type of thinking: 1) Physical world modeling (including ecology) and: 2) Biology, biophysics and behavior (ecological relationships) of creatures. I will here focus on the latter subject:

It is quite obvious that MMOs do not emphasize ecological realism - just think about predator-prey relationships. It is common to walk around in a game world meeting nothing but ferocious, meat-eating monsters (intelligent or otherwise). It is also common for mobs in a game to feature only one of two types of behavioral patterns: Either they are killing machines, intent on the destruction of the players, or they are harmless critters, whom the players have virtually no way of interacting with.

Unless explained within the fiction of the world, this is not very realistic and hurts the suspension of disbelief. Even a cow will be angered or frightened if stabbed or shot by a player, and its frantic mooing may bring down the wrath of the nearby 1,500 pound bull. In short, the ecological setting is unnatural, and the behavior of the organisms is one-dimensional.

With a bit of programming effort, ecological principles could be used to generate a more viable ecology for a given virtual world. In the short term, ecological and biological principles could be applied to specific problems, such as modifying the kill-monster-for-xp-system with the introduction of realistic predator-prey abundances. This also needs to new types of challenges, e.g. environmental management.

To give a primitive example of ecological thinking, take spawning and camping: A dragon with substantial treasure spawns every 30 minutes, leading players to camp around the spawn point. The players know that the spawning is a control measure, with no in-game explanation for its appearance given. This breaks the illusion. 

The problem is that with the XP and leveling system being the way it is, it is necessary for the players to have a certain amount of mobs to handle in each time frame. How could we make sure that there was a dragon there every 30 minutes of game time, or a similar challenge, while maintaining a plausible explanation? The answer could be migration. The dragons have a nursery in a mountain nearby, an inaccessible mountain where adult dragons flock, spawn and rear their young. Every once in a while, the young leave the nests, and seek out their own paths in the world. This means that every X time – which could be randomized a bit – dragons would migrate to the surrounding area, giving the players the challenge they need. This means that there may not be a dragon spawning every 30 minutes, but 10 migrate into the territory every 3 hours. The XP-effect is the sam! ! ! e, and players knowing the migration routes can still camp out. But now there is no spawning, there is a reason why the dragons are there, which forms the basis for more varied quests. There is no need for instanced worlds, either. By adding some fuzzy logic, the areas where the young dragons settle could be varied (as in nature), as could the intervals – e.g. as a figure of the time of year – and thus camping becomes not viable. Players would have to walk around a bit to find a dragon, work out any migration routes, or maybe rumours would spread when it was known where a flock of the young dragons had settled. This takes a bit more programming than the spawning solution, but might it be worth the effort?

More advanced uses for the natural sciences could be ecological modeling, population statistics and prediction of player behavior, simulation of weather effects on biological organisms, seasonal variations/migrations, biophysically guided modeling of creatures and even evolution of organisms:  Imagine an area where creatures evolved rapidly according to adaptive theory: Use fireballs and they evolve to compensate, until random mutation removes the adaptation strain, alters it, or the players eliminate every mob with the mutation strain. The end result is constantly challenging opponents.

To sum up, the question is whether biological/geological/etc. thinking has a place in games and if so, whether the subject is of interest in lieu of the cost-benefit thinking in the industry. I believe that the gains of working on integrating elements of the natural sciences in games could be huge, but I lack the experience to determine whether this is correct – which forms the basis for posting these musings. What do you think?

Anders Tychsen

Comments (27)

Simulating a City

Brad King (EEG News) asks "Sim Simulations: Can Games Teach?"  He cites a great post by Jamais Cascio ("The Map is not the Terrain; the Sim is not the City") that worries from an urban planner's perspective:

All models of reality make assumptions about reality. The better sorts of models try to make those assumptions explicit and, best of all, changeable. More worrisome are the models which hide the assumptions within swanky graphics and animations.

Also cited is this pre-release press release (Andrew Burnes, IGN) for Sim 2 University:

Players will enjoy all-new college based wants and fears that are tied to their Sims' social life and academic goals which will lead to new rewards and powers that will help them achieve their goals and aspirations in college and beyond...

Pranks, parties and college social interactions add to the excitement while your Sims explore campus locations such as college lounges, pool halls, gyms and coffee houses. As in real life, if your Sims start running low on funds, they can earn Simoleans by picking up a part time job, like tutoring, or engaging in riskier affairs like printing money as a member of the "secret society."

Considering game worlds as simulations of real-world systems and processes, is this something to which MMOG players and social systems can uniquely and advantageously contribute.  In contrast to, say, NPC-driven games?  Or perhaps MMOGs preoccupied with their own set of dynamics and interests: AI is craftable and controllable whereas players are numerous and distracted.

Put it another way, by the time one crafted a virtual world with the intent of simulating a city, it may be likely that they would end up creating another city, of a different sort, in a virtual space. 

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The Golden 1M: Please Welcome the Next Candidate, World of Warcraft

The benchmark for US virtual worlds comes from Asia, where worlds with more than a million subscribers are common. Two years ago, anyone working in this area would have picked three or more forthcoming titles as candidates for the first to reach this level. Some of those candidates have failed even to cover their development costs; others are probably profitable; but none has reached the Golden 1M. The MMORPG glut, now more than a year old, certainly played a role. Another factor is the failure of US demand to ramp up as quickly as it has in Korea, Japan, and especially China. True, the space as a whole continues to expand, judging from the most recent numbers. But we still await the first American superstar.

The next candidate launched today. World of Warcraft held an open beta two weeks ago and attracted 500,000 testers before  shutting down the sign-up system. [Edit: They have launched with 42 servers.][Edit: 71 servers as of 7pm EST 11/24.][Edit: 88 as of 8pm EST 11/25]. Exit polls suggest that more than 30 percent of the US population plans to skip work or school today [Edit: I'm kidding!]. Azeroth, are you The One?

[Update: Samantha LeCraft points us to first-day data: 250,000 box sales, 200,000 accounts, 100,000 simultaneous users.]

I'd also point out some interesting strategic design moves bundled into WoW:

1. Forget graphical detail, focus on graphical quality and performance. Much of WoW looks like a fairy tale - beautiful rather than realistic. Fantasy takes fewer polygons. The screen image flows incredibly smoothly.

2. Work hard on the first 30 minutes: This is the golden time for any game. In WoW, there's no moment of "wha---??" You have things to do, immediately.

3. Interface matters. I've never used a more intuitive HCI system in a MMOG. It's just so easy.

4. Embrace the casual user. Casual players have little time but represent a huge population. In WoW, any character class can log in, get things done, and log out, without having to interact with anyone. Perhaps that seems to be a violation of the multiplayer game standard, which is to force interactions by making it impossible to do anything without friends. I rather think there's more to be gained by accepting some player independence than lost by downplaying direct interdependence. There's indirect interdependence, for example - markets. I, for one, am much more inclined to make some friends in WoW than some other place, because it seems the world will not frustrate my desire to act on my own. It doesn't hurt that experience points are gained at a higher rate when you've taken a break from the game for awhile. Many worlds should copy that policy - it not only rewards casual players, but it's also good for the human spirit.

5. Story is entertainment. WoW is doing more for Quests than is the norm in the industry. The quest system is flawless, mechanically. We will see if the stories are engaging. My own experience since alpha has been that you often don't even realize you are leveling up, because your mind is focused on the storyline you're completing. Finish the quest, kill a few mobs, bingo - there's your level. Sheer grinding to get ahead is not as necessary.

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The Doppelgänger Question

The German word Doppelgänger is by first meaning the"ghostly counterpart of a living person."    They too may also be omens and images in the corner of your eye.  Our avatars in virtual worlds may at times seem our doppelgangers.  For myself, those  moments lie closest to the end on those rarest of nights: have you too ever found yourself playing too long, holding up your edge of an MMORPG party (team) spiraling deeper into the Heart of Darkness?   Leading to those inevitable tiny regrets before dawn.

In this age when our ghosts have become spoons  and online identities become the subject of copyright scrutiny   cradled within examinations of their appearances, perhaps there are fewer chances for our ghostly counterparts,  and perhaps we are poorer for it...

...I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article (Something Borrowed)  regarding Dorothy Lewis, her memoir "Guilty by Reason of Insanity," a  play called “Frozen,” and the British playwright Bryony Lavery.  It is a thoughtful article that touches deeply at the ambiguities of plagarism, of identity, and how those two are challenged by a larger context, a moment, located in a world.  Malcom eloquently described the conundrum in this way:

Creative property, Lessig reminds us, has many lives—the newspaper arrives at our door, it becomes part of the archive of human knowledge, then it wraps fish. And, by the time ideas pass into their third and fourth lives, we lose track of where they came from, and we lose control of where they are going. The final dishonesty of the plagiarism fundamentalists is to encourage us to pretend that these chains of influence and evolution do not exist, and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life. I suppose that I could get upset about what happened to my words. I could also simply acknowledge that I had a good, long ride with that line—and let it go...

I was struck by Lewis' initial feelings of "...robbed and violated in some peculiar way. It was as if someone had stolen... my essence."  I was further  impacted by her pain when the character likeness of her in "Frozen" had an affair with her collaborator:

“That’s slander,” Lewis told me. “I’m recognizable in that. Enough people have called me and said, ‘Dorothy, it’s about you,’ and if everything up to that point is true, then the affair becomes true in the mind. So that is another reason that I feel violated. If you are going to take the life of somebody, and make them absolutely identifiable, you don’t create an affair, and you certainly don’t have that as a climax of the play.”

A question has to do with those ghosts who are your ghosts not by appearance or language but by behavior and action.  If I copy my neighor's gait, slouch and raking, if I mimic you - perhaps you to your slimmest  manners, and I recreate your neighborhood, your office in a virtual world somewhere, and there I place that creature: it looks like a duck, but it moves like you.

Soul-stealing, or the passing of a torch, a ghostly ride of another sort, for you to let go?

Comments (4)

Letter Griefing

Letters "Someone keeps stealing my letters..." is fascinating to watch.   It's somewhat like an open wiki, but with a constrainted set of symbols.  You've got persistence, scarcity, a lack of any clear goal, a lot of anonymity, and the possibility for user creativity.  Like art, but socially negotiated on the fly.  Sound familiar? 

As you watch the letters, you can clearly see things that seem like griefing and acting out (lots of profanity, lots of letter-stealing) as well as emergent organized behaviors (conga lines, letter-sorting, patterns).  Does anybody have URLs listing other shared sandbox spaces?  Any pointers to research papers directly relevant to this kind of stuff? 

Thanks to Jay Bibby for pointing to this. The link follows, but since it's limited to 75 players at a time, you might wait awhile before checking it out.  <link>

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EQ2 offers guilds a suite of tools

Woot! Despite the nay-saying to my presentation last year at MUD-Dev conference [6.3MB.ppt] *cough cough Raph cough* where I argued that MMOG designers would do well to provide web-based content-development tools to the people who actually create the majority of their content for free (i.e., the guild leader 'hubs' of the social networks on each shard), it seems Sony Online has finally moved on it.

In conjunction with EverQuest 2, they now offer a new online service called Station Players that includes, for an additional $2.99 a month (in addition to the normal subscription fee), website tools for guilds which include functions such as new articles, screenshots, and forums. Oh, and look! A guild 'Wall of Fame" as well! Finally... a game company that recognizes that the 'service' they provide can potentially go beyond what's there between login and logoff. For many of us, our games goes well beyond it, so it's nice to have the 'service' go beyond it as well.

Now, I realize that this can be construed, in one light, as a way to make more profit. And so it is. But if that profit comes for providing a much-needed service, then I say so be it. Instead of complaining that '98% of all player generated content is crap,' it would do us well to actually honor what the purchasers want. All this is to say: Support actual gamers' practices. They ain't so dum. Trust me.

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Ragnarok Musings

Seeing that Ragnarok Online claims to have 17 million subscribers, I thought it might be appropriate to draw out some interesting game mechanics in RO as a way to generate some discussion on cultural differences in MMO design. Even if RO's reported subscriber base were one order magnitude off, they would still have more subscribers than any current Western MMO.

Here are 3 things about RO that have intrigued me:

1) Transformation - Many of our cultural myths draw from the Transformation archtype (Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, Pinocchio, etc.), and I didn't realize that it was largely absent in Western MMOs until I played RO. In RO, your character goes through 2 profession advancements in their career that completely change your appearance, boosts your attributes by 30-50%, and opens up new skill trees (e.g. novice -> archer -> bard). In Western MMOs, advancement is slow, gradual and continuous. The transformations in RO are incredibly seductive, and it also foregrounds the  insistence of Western MMOs on gradual progress.

2) Repeated Cycles - Instead of having a linear level treadmill, RO does something very clever. You have a base level and a job level which advance independently. When you change jobs (from Mage to Wizard for example), your job level goes back to 1 and suddenly you can make job levels very quickly again (allows acquiring new skill points). This works wonders from a behavioral conditioning perspective. Also, there is an underlying sense that change and progress is both cyclical and linear.

3) Appearances - There is only one "race" in RO which for all intensive purposes could be called the "anime" race. The interesting thing is that your profession is what entirely sets your appearance, and thus, "what you do" is what determines "who you are". In Western MMOs, there is a much stronger emphasis on "how you look" is what determines "who you are". By comparing character creation engines between Asian and Western MMOs, one really gets the sense that appearances matter a lot more to Western MMOs. For example, in FFXI, there are only 2 set faces and 2 set hair-styles per race/gender combination. In SWG, Eve, or CoH, the possibilities are pretty much endless.

Do these differences reflect cultural differences? Or are they merely different design choices? Are there any other interesting mechanic differences in other Asian MMOs?

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Virtually Virtual Worlds

I've recently been playing a couple of games which aren't quite MMOs, but nearly are. First, the wonderfully silly Kingdom Of Loathing. Initially just the perfect tonic after a hard day's bearded discussion of brain-farts, it creates an impressive sense of community despite lacking a multiplayer core game. A multiplayer core game is one thing that Guild Wars does have and it will be interesting to see whether its reliance on instancing will cause it to suffer in the long term as Richard Predicts. Despite my reservations about instancing, I soon relapsed in to my old monster bashing Diablo addiction. I'm sure it will be a success and it's possible that Guild Weed will act as a gateway drug, bringing more people to MMOs and working well as an alternative on NCSoft's channel. I just hope that it is an alternative, rather than the path that all future MMOs will take. Having come this far it would be a shame to just return to Diablo.

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Nation-Time and Newspaper Criticism

Grand Text Auto discusses a really fascinating report by Carnegie-Mellon computer scientist Randy Pausch on the internal corporate culture of Electronic Arts.

There's a lot to talk about in the report, and I may return to it here for a later entry. But my attention was drawn by a fairly peripheral point in the document--that many within EA resent the general attention within the business community and in the wider culture to companies like Pixar or even Microsoft whose size, market capitalization and/or economic performance are actually smaller than EA. This seems to me to touch on something far bigger than EA or its economic success.

Games researchers in general are keenly aware of the degree to which the economic importance of games still does not fully translate into a perceived cultural or even business centrality in the US or the global economy overall. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I want to focus on one: the lack of a usefully  critical, thoughtful mode of games criticism published in newspapers and major magazines in the US.

Even newspapers that do not stoop to have a comics section could scarcely imagine going without a film critic. Even the fact that universally negative reviews from newspaper and magazine critics can rarely dissuade audiences from going to certain films does not keep the studios and many observers of the film industry from avidly reading and tracking mainstream middlebrow film criticism.

Mainstream film critics range from sycophantic bubbleheads who have never seen a film they did not like--not to mention the quasi-fictional critics-for-hire whose pithy recommendations pop up in the advertisements for Grade-Z reject films like "Gigli"--to critics who are notorious for the length, aggressiveness and critical sharpness of their reviews.

That range notwithstanding, the important thing here is that even small-town newspapers and light-content magazines often feel the need to deliver film criticism to their readership. Benedict Anderson's famous work on the history of nationalism, Imagined Communities, is especially well-known for its account of how the perceived simultaneity of the act of reading newspapers in a number of nation-states helped to create the sense of one people united in their understanding of events and culture. In the United States in particular, the reception of film became an important component of that simultaneity--not just the watching of film itself, but the understanding that the nation was watching films, and its citizens experiencing key movies together through the medium of newspaper or mass media criticism. We were reminded of what we had seen, and what we might think of what we had seen, and took that with us to the water-coolers and parties where the subject of our nights in the cinema could be further discussed and digested.

That's one part of why Pixar is a bigger deal than EA, and The Incredibles  more important as a moment in national (indeed, global) experience of mass culture than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Yes, of course it is also that the viewership for blockbuster films cuts across many demographics, while the audience for GTA, though huge, is concentrated among males under 35. Still, I would argue that the lack of a popularly circulated genre of substantive middlebrow criticism directed at games and published in newspapers and major popular magazines is both a sign and a cause of the relatively diminished status of games within the central narratives of national and global culture. There are exceptions: the "Game Theory" column in the New York Times and Steven Poole's writing for The Guardian come easily to mind. But for the most part, when newspapers or magazines like Entertainment Weekly write about games, they write about them in short blurbish articles which appear to have been sent straight from the publicity department of game publishers, in breathlessly superficial, hype-infested prose. Games, for most journalistic outlets in the US, don't seem to justify or require anything more than that.

Obviously I disagree with that assessment, and writers like Poole and J.C. Herz have shown how unjustified it is. But it's an interesting cart-and-horse problem. Do you get a compelling and widespread form of mainstream games criticism only when the demographic of a national population that plays games becomes less isolated, or could the commitment of journalistic resources to developing a games criticism that matches the breadth, relative depth or resource base of film criticism help to write games more visibly into national narratives of popular culture, in line with their economic significance?

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The Forest for the Spoons

I wrote a brief article for Gamespot News about the oft-repeated "There is no spoon" comment from State of Play 2. I'll likely expand and further flesh out the arguments in future work -- I suspect that we'll all be debating this until the next SoP -- but since I thought that this was one of the most basic disagreements to come out of State of Play 2 that it was worth picking up.

The line from The Matrix, "There is no spoon," was first used during the conference by Yale's Yochai Benkler, but the phrase came up again and again. In various ways, its adherents argued that 3D digital worlds are text with 3D interfaces grafted on. They're Wikipedias with prettier graphics. Often, the "no spoon" argument was invoked as a precursor to discussions about property, regulation, or connections between the real and the digital worlds. It is a tempting shorthand, made all the more powerful by its association with The Matrix. It is also clearly wrong. There is a spoon, just not one that you can eat with. Digital worlds are very real places.

Also, the final version of "Escaping the Gilded Cage", which I wrote for NYLS after the first SoP is now up on SSRN. I've updated "A Piece of Place" and added "Aviators, Moguls, Fashionistas and Barons" which was originally written for Gamasutra.

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Anda's game

As I posted on prompt criticality, Cory Doctorow has written "Anda's Game", a short story on Salon about MMOs, IP rights, play, and the power of the people. It is a science fiction story, although it seemed to match what Constance Steinkuehler talked about at State of Play 2, where armed mobs in Lineage 2 bring vigilante justice down on the farmers. It's also a good, quick read and IMHO gets a lot right. It's CC licensed, a first for Salon, although you have to click through Salon's annoying "read this advert to read our content" but if that 10 seconds keeps Salon alive, so be it.

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Slashdot recently cited a National Public Radio story (Marketplace, November 10):

...Mitchell Wade (Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever) (talks) about the video game industry and how first person shooter games will change workplace dynamics for the next generation of employees...

GameGirl's summary (November 10) described these assertions about workers who have played games:

1. Willingness to take measured risks - gamers learn this innately long before they get to business school.

2. Different way of interacting with others. For example, less respect for hierarchy and seniority. In game world, anyone can be beaten by a 12-year-old. Gamers tend to respect ability, not seniority.

3. Seriousness about expertise, and being rewarded for that expertise. No matter how many times you fail in a game, if you REALLY want it, you CAN beat it...

GameGirl's post was based on the NPR presentation, which in turn was inspired by Wade and John Beck's book Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever.   Laurie Taylor's more critical review of this book is available here...

I recently exchanged email with friends about some of these themes; a number of stories emerged how we at various times encountered online talented young players who ran guilds/clans with great ability.  A friend described his 10 year old son as having organized a First Person Shooter (FPS) game clan.  He attributes this experience has helping his son lead and organize RL sports teams.

Are there real world take-aways for MMOG players that uniquely belong to them?    In other words is there a significantly different experience transfer granted to MMOG players over, say, clan players of FPS games?  Might it involve treadmills - we are a patient lot.  Perhaps it involves greater fluency  in both the "real" and the "virtual"?    The defining feature of MMOGs is the first "M"  - massive social systems contextualized by large worlds. Yet, as some of you commented earlier ("Socially (Charged) Software"), perhaps it is really not all that different from socialization in chat rooms (or even at the Elk's club). 

GameGirl also noted from the NPR discussion, that

...these characteristics were found in their research pool regardless of whether the subjects play games currently; the important thing for the data seems to be that they had played games...

This leads to a thought about casuality in our space.  Is a proclivity to inhabit the geek ghetto a predisposition, or trully a persisted altering experience?

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Jan Ken Pon

For those out there looking for seasonal stocking fillers for the budding game designer, but who does not know anyone with feet big enough to accommodate Salen and Zimmerman’s magnificent Rules of Play – try The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide.  

Sure it looks silly but as the work points out, albeit lightheartedly, decision-making games of this form are ancient and cross cultural, so taking this trivially simple game seriously looks a like a good catalyst to understanding all kinds of things about human decision making and game play - it also looks fun.

Comments (1)

POW! WHAM! Marvel sues NCSoft

Marvel comics has sued NCSoft over copyright violations in City of Heroes.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The company singles out a game feature for creating "a gigantic, green, 'science-based tanker'-type hero that moves and behaves nearly identically" to the "Hulk."

It's beginning...


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Second class subject

Suppose I went to a conference on Artificial Intelligence and introduced my talk with the following words: "I'm not interested in AI, I know very little about it, and what I do know is beyond my comprehension. I'm only interested in computer games." What kind of a reaction could I expect?

I just got back from a conference (CGAIDE 2004 *) where a speaker actually said this, only the other way round. He was an AI expert who didn't play, understand or like computer games, but hey, we might be able to find some use for the AI stuff he works on so here it is.

It wasn't just him. Several speakers were keen to explain their ideas of how AI can be used to make a game adapt so that its difficulty level changes dynamically depending on how well a player is playing it - this even though they hadn't actually bothered to find out from developers (let alone players) if this was a good idea or not. One speaker told us about crime scene investigation software, with an, "Oh, and you can use this for computer games probably" tacked on at the end. It happened time and time again.

What is it about studying computer games (or any kind of game) that gives researchers from other disciplines the right to look down on us, patronise us and ignore our work?


* Disclaimer: several papers were both about computer games and very good. Because of them, I won't be asking for my money back...

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Accelerating Change 2004

I put a longer post up on my SL blog but Accelerating Change 2004 was such a good show that it deserved a post here as well. There were an amazing number of interesting discussions that related to digital worlds, including a panel I moderated with IGE's Steve Salyer, GOM's Jamie Hale, Meridian 59's Brian "Psychochild" Green, and Puzzle Pirates' Daniel James. Very fun but I'll leave it to Ren to write about it since he took copious notes. I also gave a keynote on digital worlds that focused on the inevitable flow of production and community into them.

It was also interesting to meet members of a community who shared so many goals and ideas with those of us who work on digital worlds. Although there was some overlap between AC and State of Play 2, it was clear that these are communities that have much to teach each other. That is always an exciting discovery.

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Player Interactions in SWG

MalorNicolas Ducheneaut and Bob Moore run the PlayOn project at PARC.  The PlayOn project investigates the social dimensions of MMORPGs, fccusing on SWG and EQOA in particular.  Papers available here.  They'll be showing up at Other Players next month and this week, they're presenting a paper at the ACM's CSCW in Chicago entitled The Social Side of Gaming: A Study of Interaction Patterns in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game

From the abstract:

In this paper, we analyze player-to-player interactions in two locations in the game Star Wars Galaxies. We outline different patterns of interactivity, and discuss how they are affected by the structure of the game. We conclude with a series of recommendations for the design and support of social activities within multiplayer games.

They offer some interesting data on frequency of social interactions and specific emotes in the cantina and starport areas (and neat graphs too). They praise the SWG designers for structuring the space to promote social interactions, but they make some critiques as well.  One of their major critiques is that the spatial planning is too inflexible:

In other words, spaces like the cantina cannot be easily partitioned by their users based on the kinds of social activities they would like to engage into. Alternate definitions of the place collide and conflict: “AFK macro-ers” and live entertainers have a different understanding of what the appropriate behavior is, but they have to share the same floor. Ultimately, the most vociferous users tend to dominate the space: in the case of both the cantina and the starport, players running a macro are the most visible. But a different organization of space could have let them both cohabit more peacefully.

They also discuss how macroing and game dynamics tend to create instrumental interactions, which are social in theory, but not sociable.  This distinction kind of reminded me a bit of a similar discussion of hologrinding pracitices in Constance and Kurt Squire's paper, Generating Cyberculture/s, which also looks at SWG and explores play styles.

TY to Nicolas Nova for tipping me off to this on his blog -- Mr. Nova is a Ph.D. student in Switzerland who is exploring issues of social and cognitive functions of space and spatiality in the context of collaboration supported by mobile technology (see here).

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State of Play 2: Law Teaching on the Screen Workshop


Just when you thought we’d finished blogging SoP2! Before memories of the conference fade, I wanted to post a few thoughts about the final session, a workshop titled "Law Teaching on the Screen" held at the New York Law School on October 31, 2004.  In this session, Paul Maharg, a professor of law at the Glasgow Graduate School of Law in Scotland, presented an overview of a virtual learning environment called “Ardcalloch,” in which law students and tutors take on roles of lawyers and clients to solve simulated legal cases over a period of 9 weeks.

Ardcalloch, which launched in 1999, is used by 256 students divided into 64 fictional law firms. Each firm has its own public web page along with access to a town map, message board, calendar, a diary and a transaction list.  7 tutors monitor administrative areas and feed information to the firms based on various fictional case scenarios (they are essentially functioning as GMs).  The cases are closely modeled on real-world cases but the variables of each case are slightly altered.  For example, students might be presented with a work-related injury case based on a real case, but details like the type of injury, the location, and the number of witnesses may be changed and similar cases with slightly different variables may be presented to different firms.  Currently the Ardcalloch project is text-based, with scenarios performed through written interaction using web, email, message boards, calendar, and diary functionality, and bolstered by occasional in-person feedback from tutors.  The program teaches problem-solving skills and encourages collaborative learning without fear of real-world reprisal in the form of negligence and malpractice accusations.

After workshop attendees were brought up to speed on the basics of Ardcalloch, Beth Noveck asked The Big Question: How could the Ardcalloch program be extended into an immersive 3D virtual environment?  After a somewhat awkward group pause, Cory Ondrejka stepped up to the plate and gave an admirably straightforward answer: 3D immersion may not be the next logical step for this particular project right now. After all, it would require a whole new set of expensive resources (including the purchase of new equipment) that may not provide a satisfactory return on investment.  In other words, Cory said, “don’t do it just for a sexy press release.”   

It was generally agreed that virtual world technologies are just not there yet in terms of providing avatars that allow the subtle and complex range of emotive expression necessary for this particular type of professional roleplay.  Ultimately, upgrading an educational/professional role playing environment to 3D might provide interesting opportunities for students to run through more realistic negotiation, courtroom, and client interaction scenarios. However, as impressive as today’s virtual worlds are, in this particular case learning through role play may be accomplished more effectively via live role playing scenarios.   

This doesn’t mean that the current Ardcalloch project, even in its text-based form, is not a remarkable educational tool.  It struck me as a particularly creative approach to legal education and the law professors in the room also seemed suitably impressed, certainly enough to convey interest in implementing this type of program at other schools. The biggest concerns expressed related to the scalability and transportability of the program (ie. implementation at other educational institutions) because of resource constraints, particularly teachers’ time.  Prof. Maharg seemed to feel pretty strongly that the ratio of 7 tutors to 256 students was necessary to ensure the project’s smooth operation.  This may present a problem at some institutions, depending on staffing situations. Also, it should be noted that Ardcalloch has the benefit of a Learning Technologies Unit department which handles development and technical support, a resource which is undoubtedly crucial to its success.   

Since I am not a law professor, I had the luxury of being less concerned with the practicalities of resource constraints.  I was more interested in the ways Ardcalloch students learn to put themselves in the role of “lawyer” and by taking part in this role play actively incorporate this role into their real-world identities.  This enables a psychological transition from “law student” to “professional lawyer” while highlighting the performative aspects of the legal profession in that students must not only learn requisite facts about laws, legal precedents, and proper procedures, but must also effectively learn how to perform a persona of professional lawyer in the spaces of the courtroom, the office, conference rooms, etc. In my thought paper for SoP2 I talked about virtual worlds as spaces in which young people participate in various job-related play  in a 21st century version of “what do you want to be when you grow up.”  The identity play in Ardcalloch strikes me as a more mature and controlled version of this type of play, taking this concept to the next level by focusing on a clear end-goal: turning law students into lawyers.  Furthermore, Ardcalloch proves that a 3D visual environment isn’t really necessary to accomplish this.  Still, I can’t help but wonder what a 3D virtual Ardcalloch would be like.  If only current virtual world technologies were up to the challenge.

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Autumn Persisted, or Instanced?

Autumn is the time of year when I spend a great deal of time raking leaves, it also offers another perspective on the "Persistent versus Instantiated Spaces" discussion.

I am the victim of a long rambling garden beneath a dense over-growth of oak and maple...  Furthermore,  my compost pile is wedged at the tippy-top of a little hill, in a deeper woods:  a treadmill of another sort.   Now it doesn't seem to be all that long ago when I thought more of my neighborhood did their own raking.   But this seems to have gone way of lawn service companies.  One could meet a great deal more  neighbors before.   Yet, admittedly, too much socializing can  distract from the autumn and a lot of good leaf raking...

Looking to GDC 2005, one attraction will be  "Persistent Versus Instantiated Spaces: The Great Online Game Debate"   - featuring  Starr Long (Producer, NCsoft), Raph Koster (Creative Director SOE), Jack Emmert (Creative Director Cryptic Studios), Jeff Strain (Producer Arena.net).   To my way of thinking, this issue is one of the great conundrums of our time, in this space.  And it all comes down to  (to quote from the session abstract):

Persistent spaces offer an open play space in which players can interact spontaneously with the entire player base of that game, but fail to provide the much needed guidance that help players understand how to succeed and grow within that game. Instantiated spaces offer a more directed/guided experience for players, but require much more work to create and can potentially isolate players from opportunities to discover new friends within the player base.

If indeed this is the true debate -  are we having it because players are somehow giddy (especially the casual ones) and are unwilling to invest the time, acrue the bankable experience and craft the necessary  social networks?   Or is this debate a proxy argument.   Is instancing  a short-cut, a hack, indulged  because the persistance vision of MMOGs  hasn't yet figured out the right sort of treadmills to provide directed missions and purpose and goals and heroic deeds while still belonging to a large sprawling persistent place? 

If an idealized persistent world is a place of  perfect harvest  - one that can transcend autumn peepers, casual leaf rakers and neighborhood socialites,  the question then is,  is instancing a solution on the way - or just a fix of the wrong sort.   It has been argued that our  MMOs barely persist enough of their collective experience to qualify as virtual worlds - diminish it further, less a world?   Can  it still be autumn if it is not shared?


Gathering Leaves

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?

Robert Frost

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Other Players update

In case you haven't seen it yet, just a reminder that the registration deadline for the Other Players conference here in Copenhagen next month is approaching. Here is an update just sent out by the organizers:

Please remember that if you wish to participate in the Other Players conference on multiplayer issues you need to register before November 15th.

To register go to: http://itu.dk/op/register-new.htm

The conference takes place at the IT University of Copenhagen (Denmark) from the 6th to the 8th of December. We will be hosting the DIGRA general assembly in connection with the conference.

- Accepted papers
- Conference program

If you have any questions please write to
- Academic questions: Jonas Heide Smith (smith +at+ itu.dk)
- Administrative questions: Tasha Buch (tabu +at+ itu.dk)

We hope to see you in Copenhagen.

Best regards,

Jonas Heide Smith
The Other Players Organizers
Center for Computer Games Research

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A Pessimist Writes...

I've written a rant-style article on Gamasutra which posits a theory that virtual world design is doomed because of the power of the newbie. I'll present a formal, academic version at the Other Players conference next month, but in the meantime feel free to berate me.

Cory Ondrejka has already mentioned to me that I missed out another possible hope for the future, in that independence from the traditional publisher/developer model allows for greater innovation. Say what you like about Puzzle Pirates, A Tale in the Desert and Second Life, you can't call them derivative.


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MMO Language as a Power-up

While the text of chatter in MMOs has been analyzed by their weight in discourse or the social patterns they imply, less often we think about what it could mean were it directly integrated into the rule-set of the game world.

An extreme example of this would be a place where our words can have god-like impact: "part the sea", and the zone transforms... A griefer's paradise; a short-lived place of fire and brimstone. A lesser example would be where the text we type can manipulate an in-game system that in turn might impact some change... e.g. magical incantations:

Round about the cauldron go;   
In the poison’d entrails throw.   
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights hast thirty-one   
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,   
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.    
                   (MacBeth, Act IV, Scene I)

The ability of in-game language to work change in the game world has been limited to manipulating the social and/or cultural design. In some cases this has meant extending the textual medium with in-world verbs. For example, the language of MMOs have borrowed heavily from MUD traditions which extensively used "pose" (emote) elements. True expository - part linguistic and part exhibition:

Pose: What allows you to do something besides say things to other players. Pose commands are generally “:” or “;” and allow you to do things like “:wonders if you are accepting one-eyed dwarves?” or “;’s favorite alignment is Neutral-Hungry.’ Which would give you the respective poses of “Guest wonders if you are accepting one-eyed dwarves?” and “Guest’s favorite alignment is Neutral-Hungry.” (Kathy Pulver, from here).

Lynn Cherny wrote of these pose/emote commands as the "objects and commands that make ritual utterances easier to execute." It is through the creation of these objects that "culture becomes reified with the environment." A culturally-impactful MMO language takes on sharper edges when its vocabulary is underlined by status, as for example, occurs when pose/emote commands are doled out to high-levels:

...On Combat MUDs, (LP, Diku, Cold, etc) until you're an upper-level character you probably won't have access to a 'pose' command at all. In that case you'll be using "atmosphere commands," or words you type to produce a generic pose (smile, grin, frown, etc) with your name plugged in. For example, if someone on a Combat MUD types "laugh" the MUD will produce "Name laughs hysterically." (Now, Name is replaced by the person's character name, of course. And while he or she might not be laughing hysterically per se, on a Combat MUD they don't get to choose such subtleties.) (Claire Benedikt, from here)

Interestingly, it is left to the proletariat to devise the ingeniuous syntax of infixing as a counter-weight to elitist tendencies (below, emphasis added):

While the phrase "infix actions" is by far not the official name for this communication aide, it does describe them well. An English teacher would tell you an 'infix' is a word (more rarely an entire phrase) inserted in the middle of another word to modify it. A good example would be the exclamation "un-f*ckin'-believable!"

Infix actions are verbs or short verb phrases set apart by unusual punctuation (usually asterisks) used to modify the tone or mood of a sentence. They're sometimes found in the middle of a line, and are often tacked onto the end, sort of like a written-out smiley face. The best way to understand this is through some examples:

Claire says, "Hey! *waves wildly* Look over here!"
Elanor says, "Claire? Is that you? *blink*"

When asterisks are being used for emphasis (as described in the first part of this chapter), the person might switch the punctuation they use for their infix action to differentiate.

For example: Steam says, "Better yet, what am *I* doing here? >confused look<"

Infix actions are used almost as commonly as smileys by the online community. You'll find them in email, in newsgroup posts, and all over. On Combat MUDs they become especially important when the emote or pose commands are limited to upper-level players. (Claire Benedikt, from here)

Language is power in MMOs. It is certainly implicit to the social norms and networks in which we participate or create. Perhaps, too, one day we may choose to make its power more explicit, to festoon it from our syllables. If only we could reduce our words, somehow, to a game world resource implication, measured and weighted precisely... Eve-Online perhaps faintly hints of this by charging players 100 ISK (in-game currency) to send in-game mail (btw, not chat)...

What if, some day, we were measured by the kind of words we use, could this be leveraged by designers to make our words magical, again? If all our incantations were not so spilt lightly, but instead carefully crafted, considered, and measured, could this not lead to role playing?

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