Category Archives: General


Browser Versions

At IMGDC 2.0, Gordon Walton said (paraphrase) that Star Wars: The Old Republic should be the last MMO (or perhaps online game) made with a standalone client. His logic was that everyone has a web browser, and the web browser does not require a multi-GB download. As a developer, every barrier between your customer and the game costs you customers. (Back to that post from Gordon Walton: you, the self-identified “gamer,” will work hard for a bit of fun, but most paying customers will not.) As a player, I have lost interest in the time it takes to download, install, and learn how to play. As an observer, I would attribute some of the rise of flash and mobile games to the convenience of automated downloads, streamlined installation, and the business brilliance that is the modern app store.

Maybe it takes more than six years for that idea to spread, but there are definitely reasons why you might want a standalone client: the need for gigabytes of content, security controls, and (most importantly to me today) a uniform development platform. “Web browser” is not one thing. One of the drawbacks of developing for the PC (not consoles) is that PCs differ widely in terms of hardware and software, and web browsers create more levels of differences. Are you using Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, or something else? Maybe still using Netscape Navigator? Which version are you using, both major and minor? There are dozens of different ways users could have that one thing configured, and your game needs to work in all of them, with every other hardware and software configuration that goes along with the browser. I can see why you might want to say, “Our client, our world, under our control.”

I spend some days playing tech support for an online system. Some users genuinely have a problem with our system. Others could not remember which password was for our system, remembered the password but had typos, forgot the password for their Windows logon, had trouble with an internet connection, had trouble with Internet Explorer, had trouble using a function that worked slightly differently in Internet Explorer and Chrome, or needed the finer points of using a mouse explained. And those are the questions I remember off-hand from one day. When you are supporting a product on the PC, you are supporting the entire PC. At a previous job, our FAQs included how to update browser settings and how to troubleshoot problems with printer settings. Their printer problems were not our fault, but they were our problem if we wanted customers to make full use of our site.

When you run a hotel, you also get to explain to people how to find your hotel. If they cannot get to your service, they cannot use your service. The construction down the road may not be your fault, but it is still a barrier between you and your customers.

: Zubon

Loss Versus Failure to Gain

Game developers manipulate player desires by presenting the same options differently. Player reactions are empiricably testable with cash shop setups.

I frequently cite the example of having a “hunger” debuff versus a “well-fed” buff. These can be designed to be numerically identical, where the character has higher base stats that are debuffed by hunger or lower base stats that are buffed by food. You balance content around the higher number in either case. Players will complain about a hunger debuff but feel like they have been given something extra with a food buff. Even if the numbers are identical, humans are unhappy if you tell them you are taking something away from them, whereas they barely notice if they fail to gain something.

Many cash shops have some sort of lottery option. You can give the developers $X for a chance at items or whatever. What you see at least as often these days, because we would predict that it works better, is giving you a lottery ticket or prize you can pay $X to unlock. In the former case, you can play the lottery by giving me $X; in the latter, this lottery ticket is now yours, but you cannot redeem it unless you give me $X. Same lottery, same prize, same $X. If you doubt which implementation yields more sales, look at where the developers are betting. Team Fortress 2? Locked crates with keys in the cash shop. Guild Wars 2? Black Lion chests with keys in the cash shop.

Developers can make this more concrete by adding time pressure: the box/ticket expires in a week or after the event. Some players might still see a locked chest or lottery ticket as a failure to gain, but if it is going to disappear in a few days, they have definitely lost something, even if only an opportunity. The perception of scarcity also plays in here; you always have access to thousands of TF2 crates and GW2 chests for a few cents, so it is harder to instill the idea that you are losing any opportunities, while other games might make those drops less common (but still give the player frequent opportunities to buy things). Hence TF2′s time-limited crates, and doesn’t GW2 have occasional seasonal Black Lion chest items?

: Zubon

Out of the Rabbit Hole and into Summer

Mrs. Ravious and I just go back from our 10th Anniversary trip, which was basically our first childless trip since our honeymoon. It was long overdue, and we drank much fortified grape juice in southern France. I am back now for the remainder of the summer.


Windborne is currently the game of the house. The kids play on it almost every single day. I hop on every once in awhile too. I’ve needed lighter faire, but I still muddle around on my Desert island once in awhile. An update is slated to come in the next few weeks, I hope, and I’m sure the game will rise back to the top for me too.

Guild Wars 2

Speaking of updates soon to come, Guild Wars 2! July 1st is going to be the next update, which starts off Season 2 of the Living World. The big change to come is the Story Journal, where players are able to return to story content to their hearts’ delight. To unlock it, players just have to sign on during the episode’s period. Otherwise a small gem fee is paid to unlock it. Seems pretty good to me.

I am really interested to see how ArenaNet balances the now more persistent, repeatable content with the open world content that will still change.

One Finger Death Punch

This game was the only one I’ve picked up on the Steam Summer sale so far. I’ve just been content inundated otherwise despite having a decent Wishlist. I love this game. It’s basically a rhythm game with some serious twists. It’s so frenetic and exacting. I just feel this is a fantastic intense coffee-break style game.

War of Omens

I’ve also fallen for this online CCG. It’s like a cross between Dominion and Blizzard’s Hearthstone game. In the beginning it’s very PvE-friendly, and unlike Hearthstone, War of Omens pretty much lets you just play against the computer if that’s all you want to do. It is a bit grindy at later stages, but the game itself is quite fun, and the developer updates it every other week or so.

Anyway, just wanted to give a quick update. Zubon’s been doing a fine job as usual, and I figured I’d just put up a small flag waving “I’m Not Dead Yet!”  Cheers.


Persistence and Mutability

We want our games to present both persistence and mutability in certain degrees and certain forms, but that varies from person to person and time to time. When those factors are not in balance, we can be left thinking, “What’s the point?”

We want the effects of actions to stick around, but not for too long. You want the game to keep track of your score, but it should reset between games. You could completely empty a world where enemies never respawned; you could scarcely progress through one where they all respawned instantly; you could certainly find yourself “done” with either in short order.

In an MMO, character advancement is more persistent, while your effects upon the world are very mutable. Monsters respawn within the minute. The dungeon resets as soon as your group leaves. Your levels and equipment stay with you, and you tend to exploit mutability to farm monsters and dungeons and thereby increase your levels and equipment.

Outside our MMO world, game persistence is largely bound by the unit of a “game.” Little carries over between games beyond a win/loss record. You would not play a “new” game of Monopoly if the previous winner still had all the money and properties s/he ended with. Sports would be very different if winners were determined by cumulative score over an entire season. You reset the world for every game of Civilization, and you reset the story to start over a single-player game. “New game plus” adds more of that between-game character advancement.

Finding the right balance can be hard outside of established norms. Adding a bit of the right kind of persistence is hard, as is mitigating it with mutability. You want your actions to have an impact on the world, but you do not want to be forever bound by others’ actions. You want to be able to reasonably counter other players’ actions, but you do not want them to trivially counter yours, and I think you’ll find that your perceptions of “reasonable” and “trivial” can depend on whether they are your actions.

Sometimes, I feel like fighting that boss again or running that dungeon again. Other times, I really want save the kingdom and have it stay saved after I log off. Luckily, we are not bound to play the same game all the time forever, so we can seek the mix that suits us each best at the moment, but the movement between games is itself a form of mutability.

: Zubon

Windborne Interview with Michael Austin

I snagged some of Michael Austin’s time in the middle of a crazy, crazy week to discuss Windborne. He is the Chief Technology Officer of Hidden Path Entertainment as well as the lead designer / project owner for Windborne. On the Hidden Path forums he is known as Echo. Hidden Path’s site heralds Austin as one of the few experts in the world on Xbox 360 CPU architecture, and his resume includes Call of Duty 2, CS:GO, racing games, and many others. Hidden Path is pretty well known in the PC indie gaming world for their amazing tower defense game Defense Grid, which Austin also lead in design. None of these are social sandbox games.


Origin of Windborne

Austin said that originally he was messing around with voxel engines, and he found a cool way to do smooth voxels with hard edges. Hidden Path was already looking for another game they could self-finance instead of more work-for-hire jobs. Everybody became really excited about the potential of this simple idea of moving around the voxels in Austin’s prototype engine. That is how Windborne began.

I pushed Austin on Windborne being a completely new genre for Hidden Path. He said with Hidden Path’s history they are more interested in creating “fun, compelling experiences” than sticking to any one or two defined genres. The creative genre has been in Hidden Path’s dream pile for some time, and Minecraft proved that there was an incredible market for the genre. The path they wanted to take in their creative game was to have a very immersive world on top of the creative elements.

They wanted the creations and mechanics of Windborne to provide meaning. There should be a sense of wonder. That was Windborne’s elevator pitch. Continue reading

Risk Calculations

The meatspace risks of online gaming are minimal. It is so rare as to be newsworthy when an online gaming confrontation leads to physical violence. The few incidents I recall were all in east Asia, so I estimate my own risk even lower.

In Ingress, face-to-face encounters with the opposing team are common, although few I would describe as “confrontations.” (Is it a bad sign that it is already “few” in less than two months?) Interfacing through our phones, the character of interactions is somewhere between online gaming and what you might reasonably expect from face-to-face encounters, modified by differing norms in assorted virtual and meatspace communities, particularly as people travel and those interact.

Online, you get a very low number when you multiply the odds that someone would want to do you harm times the odds that they could find you times the odds they would find it worthwhile to travel, risk prosecution, risk harm to themselves, etc. Unless you are in the same gaming cafe, your aggressor faces greater safety risks in traveling than you would from even the most blatant trolling.

If you are actively playing Ingress, your location can be pinpointed within 100 meters, along with a timestamp and a predictable direction of travel based on recent activity. The players may not be marked on the map, but you don’t need to be a genius to follow a line or approximate the center of a circle. And if you are blowing up portals, there is a very good chance someone within reasonable driving distance set them up. And as I have mentioned, some people take the game very seriously, have quick reaction times, and and will bring friends and/or cars. While the vast majority of people are decent and/or scared of repercussions (I am not aware of any Ingress-related violence), your odds on “can find you” and “reasonably close” are vastly higher in an augmented reality game than online.

Recently, any time I have been out playing (attacking, linking, etc.) rather than just hacking as I go for a walk, someone has driven up. Yesterday, I took a low-level player out to gain some levels, and the counterattack SUV was on-scene before we had walked 100 meters. That put her personal risk calculation too high (versus the value of capturing imaginary portals), and she decided to do something else with her day. And given the unhappy reaction from the man who immediately knew that cheating was going on when the lower-level account conveniently disappeared as he arrived, I must say her calculations were probably better than mine.

: Zubon

Update edit: I was wrong, I am aware of one story of Ingress-related battery and a few of minor defacement of property, but I don’t know how well sourced those are. One player says an opposing team member smashed someone’s phone, which is apparently a story well known in the area but doubted by the accused’s teammates. And then folks who put bumper stickers for Team A on Team B’s cars. I recall seeing online discussion mentions of assorted minor criminal activity between Ingress players, but again, I do not know how well sourced those are versus “my friend said his friend said…”

Shifting Priorities

I have written previously about storyline paths differing between development and live teams in MMOs. I find myself looking at recent Guild Wars 2 updates and wondering whether there was a change in development teams or the same team deciding to shift directions. One could easily look at the first year of GW2 and say, “Wow, we made that way too zergy. Let’s dial that back.” But recent content has been not just dialed back but punishing of zergs, which means either they wanted a hard break with the past or someone different took over the reins of design.

On the one hand, some content encourages zergs, other content discourages it. Yes, not everything calls for the same strategy; that’s good design. On the other hand, almost everything did, for the better part of a year, call for the same strategy, so current players feel punished for doing what they’ve been taught to do, and it is not as if a huge wave of players loving non-zerg content will sweep into GW2 because a few updates were not pure zerg. You need to upset the apple cart atop your current playerbase for a long time and hope they stick around while you right it and turn it in a new direction. On the gripping hand, as I said of “punishing,” quite a bit of content did not encourage zergs so much as require on the order of 100 people to have a reasonable chance of success. The content being rebelled against still requires dozens of people but now requires you to herd those cats in multiple groups before the tools to manage that have come into existence. To say nothing of the switch from the original “show up and do what you want” approach of GW2, where content requiring synchronized dancing was hidden in a few instances.

Also, the boss blitz is just bad.

You have certainly seen that changeover in design philosophy, usually coupled with a changeover in design teams. The original GW1 was very different from the final game after the expansions. City of Heroes under Statesman was very different from City of Heroes under Positron, and I am not sure who was helming the switch to Incarnate content around the time I stopped playing. “Trammel” and “NGE” are famous design shifts that veteran MMO players will still debate in some forums given half a chance. A Tale in the Desert saw quite a few design shifts under the same management, but Teppy was always an experimenter; I have no idea where the game is headed under its new management.

Ingress has had a shift in emphasis over time from a geocaching-like game that focused on walking to rewarding car-based play. If you can’t see why that transition could be rocky, remember that my job was analyzing traffic deaths when I started blogging.

: Zubon

Wow, we don’t even have a post category/tag for Ultima Online. Then again, we don’t bring it up enough for me to want to create it.

Edition Wars, Critical Mass

In D&D that is known as the edition wars. Psychologically that is the same well-known effect as people being angry about somebody playing a different MMORPG than they are. Pen & paper games as well as MMORPGs consume so many hours, that they become akin to a lifestyle choice. And somebody choosing a different lifestyle than you are is perceived as a threat, as it calls into question whether your choice was the right one.

While one might have trouble overestimating the inferiority complexes and senses of entitlement on display in many online discussions, another take is that choosing a different MMO or edition is a threat because it diverts resources away from your choice and increases the threat that your game will fall below the critical mass necessary to maintain support for it.

The fewer people that play your game, the harder it is to find people to play with. It also means less developer time and effort being spent on your game, because there are less resources to support them. In MMOs, that can lead to games going offline, at which point you cannot play anymore. Pen and paper games do not have that risk, but to the extent that there is value in having a supporting gaming community, you need them to support your game.

And the closer someone is to your game, the more problematic it is that they are not playing your game because they could be. They face the exact same problem that you do, in terms of needing attention on a particular game, but they are making that exact same problem worse by going with you 90% of the way and then diverting attention at the last moment (and of course the fools see you as the one causing the problem). Maybe this will be the expansion that radically expands the playerbase, as WoW did for MMOs, but most games are competing for the same pool of players. The scarcer resources are, the uglier the fights over them tend to be.

: Zubon

The Chosen Ones

While researching yesterday’s post, I discovered that an MMO trope is perfectly true in the Star Wars Expanded Universe: there is as endless supply of The One and Only Heroes. The NPCs in your MMO tell you that you are unique and special, that only you can save the day, and then they say it to the forty people lined up behind you to turn in the quest. Writers seem to feel much the same way about their protagonists, so unique and special things happen all the time even if another author in the same shared universe (or several) already used that unique and special slot. By now, there were hundreds if not thousands of Jedi and Sith running around during the time of the original Star Wars trilogy. If no one has yet written about a hidden Jedi academy or Sith cloning pool that moved that number up by some significant digits, it will happen sometime.

For example, Wookieepedia has a disambiguation page for Darth Vader’s apprentice. He apparently went through them on the order of one every two years, and you’d think he would have had at least one around for the original trilogy. Just yesterday, yet another Jedi who survived the death of all the Jedi joined the canon for a new series. And then we have the quote, “Palpatine established a number of organizations composed by Dark Jedi“; not just many of them, many organizations of them.

See also the many fantasy novels with the only good member of an evil race, because this author’s Drizzt clone is not a drow (although some of them are the only other good drow/whatever).

You and your group of friends are all The Chosen One? You’re in good company.

: Zubon

[PvZ2] Party Month

Plants vs. Zombies 2 is having a Pinata Party every day in May. This might help recreate some of the novel challenges the original had in its bonus modes and minigames. Also, the new boss (Far Future) is out.

Just a note for folks who might be interested but who have not played lately.

: Zubon