By the Numbers

I rarely pass along press releases or advertisements except to mock them, but Stardock gets a nod for this one:

Come see what’s been keeping our players busy ruling their galaxies, with over 41,538 games completed, 7,158,087 ships destroyed, and 1,706,224,660 credits awarded since Galactic Civilizations III‘s May 14 launch.

Granted, we mock MMO PR for statements like “accounts” or “characters created” instead of “subscriptions,” and Stardock is providing these numbers instead of trumpeting something like a #1 sales rank, although you can get anything to #1 if you define your sub-sub-sub-category carefully enough…

: Zubon

Experiences With Achievements

Because all of your experiences happen from your perspective, it is common to generalize and assume that others’ experiences are more or less like yours. Over time one learns that this is often not the case, from different life circumstances to different preferences to different brain configurations and chemistry. This last is the subject of one of the most interesting discussions on the internet, where some people have well known but uncommon mental experiences (synesthesia, photographic memory) and others explain their realizations that either they have experiences most people do not or (the topic of the original post) they lack experiences everyone else has, like a sense of smell. “Wait, people don’t just mean that metaphorically?”

At one point, the topics wanders to video game achievements. Commenter Doug S covers a lot of ground:

I don’t know exactly why I feel compelled to earn Achievements or Trophies when playing video games, or want to see my characters level up, or things like that, even if I don’t actually enjoy the process of doing it. Must be that “wanting” vs “liking” distinction.

Sometimes I wonder why I should bother getting every little thing in a game. This frequently leads me to wondering why I’m playing the game at all, or playing any game, or choosing to do anything at all rather than nothing. Then I suffer from depression symptoms. Having come to the conclusion that questioning these impulses reliably leads to depression symptoms, I’ve stopped doing it.

Others report similar senses of differences between compelling gameplay and enjoyable gameplay, which is somewhat of a recurring theme around here.

: Zubon

Idle Games

While in a gaming funk this year, I tried a variety of idle games. They can be mechanically interesting, and they scratch that MMO Achiever itch and help you overcome it by taking it to its logical extreme.

“RPG” has come to mean “character advancement” and that familiar treadmill of leveling up by playing a poor combat mini-game to do the same thing with higher numbers and a more garish color scheme. MMOs have done a great job of pushing this to narrative irrelevancy through static theme park worlds that you cannot change because all the other paying customers need to be able to ride the same ride, and you can also pay to ride that same ride repeatedly. Fight goblins, then fight blue goblins, then fight orcs, then fight blue orcs, then fight gob-orcs, then raid gob-orcs until the expansion gives you a gear reset so you can start over. Along the way, optimize any remaining fun out of the equation in your quest for the most efficient path from number to number.

ProgressQuest is the trope-maker, a perfectly fire-and-forget single-player MMORPG. Create your character, and the game takes care of the rest as it slays monsters, loots their bodies, completes quests, etc. True idle games do their job too well: you get the point very quickly, and because there is nothing to do, you wander off. You might leave one running for a while just to watch it go, but it is too shallow to impact you meaningfully. Later idle games added gameplay, mostly something vaguely like economic gameplay in the sense that you accummulate money, use it to buy upgrades, and then earn money more quickly (and repeat). That can also be engrossing while providing the illusion of accomplishment and a perfect Skinner box of “push the button to get imaginary money/cookies.”

At some point, it sours. The part of your brain that knows that you are doing something compelling but not fun wins. You perhaps have a sense of letdown or betrayal. And then you cannot help but recognize how much “click the button to kill the goblin to level up the button to kill the blue goblin…” looks like “click 1 to shoot a fireball to kill the goblin to level up to cast Fireball 2 to kill the blue goblin to finish the quest…”

: Zubon

Mamono Sweeper

Flash bagatelle of the day: Minesweeper with mines worth variable “points” and a dungeon-crawl theme. The instructions are kind of Engrish so:

  1. Start with Minesweeper rules.
  2. The blue monsters (level 1) are normal Minesweeper mines. Higher level monsters count as multiple mines on the same square.
  3. You level up by stepping on mines/monsters. Keep it to your level or lower to avoid damage.
  4. Level up to 2 and start stepping on bigger monsters. Repeat to 5.
  5. Hit level 5 and step on every square to win.

: Zubon

Bonus rule: click on a monster you’ve revealed to see what number is “under” it (what the number in that space would be were it not a monster).

Sceptre of Goth and MMO History

Richard Bartle had a recent post about the pre-history of MMOs.

I’ve read so many histories of MMOs that are just plain wrong, that I myself always try to get it right to the best of my knowledge and understanding. This is why when people introduce me as “the man who invented online games” or whatever, I always mention that I co-invented them with Roy Trubshaw. If I’m able (which isn’t always possible in live interviews), I’ll also correct the focus (it’s just virtual worlds) and point out that plenty of other people independently invented them too: Roy and I did MUD; Kelton Flinn and John Taylor did Island of Kesmai; Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar did Habitat; Bruce Maggs, Andrew Shapira and David Sides did Avatar; Rich Skrenta did Monster; Alan Kleitz and Bob Alberti did Sceptre of Goth.

He goes on to talk about the genealogy of games and the allocation of credit.

Worthy reading for folks who care about the world before the World of Wacraft.

: Zubon

Compelling But Not Entertaining

The flip side of intentional gaming is that many things are compelling but not entertaining. You feel driven to complete the level, get the achievement, do the thing. You do not actually like the game (anymore?), but it appeals to your brain chemistry in a way that keeps you going, keeps you coming back.

That was my experience with social media games. The gameplay is usually crap, although you can create your own interesting time management game out of juggling a half-dozen of them. During college, my wife did not really enjoy Civilization II but played many late nights of it because its “just… one… more… turn” gameplay is that compelling. You can get remarkably engrossed and engaged without stopping to think, “But do I really like this?”

I approach this from an Achiever point of view, because treadmills and achievements are often how games keeps people hooked, but it applies to all approaches. In my Explorer guise, I have frequently given games, books, and shows another few hours to “get good” even after recognizing I was not enjoying myself. There is always a steady stream of Killer content to keep you fighting for the top of the hill even after you stopped caring about that hill, and few things activate your brain’s instinctual programming like the illusion of mortal danger mixed with status competitions. Of course, since we come from a species of social primates, huge swaths of society are effectively traps for Socializers, engaging our socializing brain modules while providing no real content, emotional satisfaction, or other recompense.

Our brains evolved in a physical environment. In a digital environment, we are still executing all the adaptations that got us here, even if they no longer provide value or even make much sense.

: Zubon

Virtual Property

The original ending of Neon Genesis: Evangelion featured Shinji in a void of infinite potential. His first act was to restrict himself, because he needed ground to stand upon and a sense of “up” and “down” to orient himself.

Players enter a virtual world of infinite potential, and their first question is “how do I kill things?” The second is “how do I get stuff?” MMOs are in a feedback loop with those impulses, designing around an endless cycle of killing things to get stuff to help you kill things.

Second Life and MineCraft are more open-ended than Yet Another Fantasy Theme Park MMORPG, but people exhibit the same behavior. Given a realm of potentially infinite space, we immediately want homes, buildings, a farm. Virtual glory comes from your castle, when you could be free of all that. We have left terrestrial space but brought a hunger for the dirt with us.

Everything you own in-game is a database entry, with only the significance we assign to it. One of the most fundamental violations of the game would be to edit that database directly. It would be against the rules, immoral, a trivialization of all the work everyone has done to get their legitimate database entries.

Because virtue lies in accummulating database entries that translate into virtual property through the execution of virtual violence.

: Zubon

A Tale in the Desert VI and VII

Ravious and I met back in the First Telling of A Tale in the Desert. The Sixth is winding down now, and subscription fees have been waived until the end so it really is free to play. If you are interested, you have the chance to jump in now.

A Tale in the Desert has been sold to Pluribus, our old friend who has been with Egypt nearly from the beginning. This could be a good thing for the game: new management, new life, and a Pharaoh less likely to shake the ant farm just to see what happens (we love you, Teppy). You can sign up for the newsletter if you want notice of when VII starts.

: Zubon