Crafting: Guiding Players Without Their Knowledge Using Indirect Control

Hyrule - The Legend of ZeldaOpen worlds. Sandbox realms. A freedom of exploration. There are several games that suggest as such. From the crime laden streets of Liberty City the vast expanses of Skyrim, players have been enthralled by the ability to enter game worlds where they can do virtually anything their heart’s desire. However, even in the most open-ended titles, there is a more subtle mechanic at work that guides the actions of players. Sometimes it steers them directly where they need to go, while other times it merely suggests and coerces them to a point of interest. This is a design concept called “indirect control.”

By definition, indirect control is the ability to control one thing through some other sequence of events. A basic and general example of this would be like suggesting that someone do something rather than flat out telling them to do it. This same theory can be applied to the world of video games, but here, one of the best parts of it is that indirect control can be utilized in many fashions. Each is intended to subtly direct the player to key areas or points of interest, with some of the most common to be aware of being silhouettes, sparkles, and urgency.

Let’s use a specific example: After initially entering Hyrule Field in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, players encounter an owl that directs them to their next destination. This is the direct control, but this area of the world is vast and explorable, so how do players find a place to go? Indirect control comes into play here in the form of the silhouette and in Hyrule Field, there are only two points of interest at this point in the game: Lon Lon Ranch and Hyrule Castle Town. What makes this so significant is that most of the game world is actually unexplorable due to gates, guards, and river currents (there is just an illusion of freedom), but such is not encountered by most new players because of the way both the ranch and castle stand out.

Like moths to the flame, players are attracted to what looks different out of sheer curiosity, and thus these locals’ placement was no accident. Part of this tendency is out of gaming experience, which notes something important is almost always at such an area, but even this is learned by the way the silhouette stands out. Along this same thread, things like massive beacons of light or shiny objects work in the same exact fashion.

Silent Hill 2 - Pyramid HeadThese, of course, aren’t technically silhouettes, but they do have the same idea behind them. Developers don’t have to tell the player that they’re important, they just either know from experience or realize that something is out of place. In terms of the shiny object concept, it was made heavily popular during the early years of Resident Evil, and along with teaching the importance of checking out such things, it also taught gamers that touching the “shiny object” often led to danger (such as a zombie trying to eat your face). In fact, Silent Hill 2 does a wondrous job of what could be called indirect-indirect control using this methodology. Early in the game, it has the audacity to place a shiny object near a location where the monstrous Pyramid Head once stood. Using player experience against them, picking it up suggests a Pyramid Head attack; causing players to hesitate and become anxious. Lo and behold, nothing happens when the object is picked up, meaning that Konami indirectly affected the player’s emotional state by indirectly telling them to pick-up the object with its shimmer.

This example is actually a great one to drive home more points too, as players are led to the item by a ghostly image of a girl that runs that way. Technically, players don’t have to follow the character, but they are inclined to do so all the same because it is unusual. At the same time though, the whole scenario reeks of urgency when players slowly pick up that item.

The thought of danger is actually a fantastic way to guide a player too down a certain path. In the most literal sense, players can be moved  a particular direction based on the movements of a powerful perusing enemy or perhaps shunned from game areas due to higher level creatures that can instantly kill them. What is great about indirect control though is that it can not only affect physical direction but game pacing too. Take Modern Warfare 3 for example: There are several sequences where things are exploding, soldiers are shouting, and bullets whiz by one’s head. These situations often also suggest that players have a time limit to reach a goal, but a good portion of the time, there actually isn’t one. Still, these stylistic inclusions suggest that players will fail if they don’t hurry, indirectly making them move more quickly.

That’s really what indirect control comes down to: Suggestion. And it can be a very powerful thing whether players realize it or not. In the best scenarios, it might feel like free choices are being made in exploring a world, but that’s not always the case. No matter where players go or what they do, there is almost always a carrot to guide them there. Whether or not that carrot is trying to kill them or not… well, that just depends on the type of game it is.

 

World of Warcraft “FarmVille” & Why It Works

The Tillers - Halfhill MarketMany of the central concepts behind social games (i.e. those on Facebook or mobile devices) have proven to be exceedingly popular with an enormous variety of potential players. Of these games, one of the best known is the Zynga title of FarmVille whose original incarnation still hosts around 11.8 million monthly active users and whose sequel, FarmVille 2, sees about 42.4 million. Those numbers in mind, it’s of little surprise that the player-owned farms of Mists of Pandaria have been so well received. With the core allure revolving around visual aesthetics and constant player rewards, this farming mechanic already works well for World of Warcraft as is. That said, its potential path is quite interesting as well.

For anyone that hasn’t played FarmVille, or attempted farming in Mists of Pandaria, the premise is quite simple. Players are granted a small spat of land from which they can grow crops. After planting and caring for them (watering, plowing, weeding, etc.) they’ll become harvestable after a long period of time (several hours to a day), allowing the player to either sell or use them in some other beneficial manner. As this is repeated day-after-day, players slowly earn the means to improve their farm. In the case of FarmVille, this consists of purchasing more land, better crops, and decorative elements as the user levels up. Additionally, as they become more advanced, the quality and aesthetic appeal of items grows drastically, creating a carrot-on-a-stick reward system that keeps them playing for the long haul. In WoW, this recipe is slightly different, but the concept is still the same.

With WoW, farm advancement is primarily centered on reputation. As gamers work their farm and do farm-related daily quests, they gain reputation with The Tillers faction and its individual members. As this rep grows, they gain more plots of land, furnishings, tools (sprinklers, plows, etc.), and even a dog. Despite these different nuances though, the Tiller farm still contains the most critical aspects of FarmVille’s fun-factor. It hosts both a functional and visual reward that is correlated with player progress. These aide in one of the most important aspects of MMOG design: A concept dubbed “Bragging Rights.”

In online games, players will spend hours trying to earn something that other players do not have. This ties into to one of the foundations of fun game design: Competition. We, as humans, love to compare ourselves to others and be recognized as the best at something. In WoW, this is measured in two primary ways: The first consists of basic numbers such as doing the most damage in an instance or scoring more killing blows than everyone else in a PvP Battleground. The second is that visual element again, which consists of owning something so astounding looking that other players become jealous and/or bask in the awe of it. Such might be a legendary weapon, a rare mount, or a creative transmogrification.

World of Warcraft FarmSo where does the farming come into play? Well, on its most surface level, players can plant crops for food that enhance their class capabilities or crafting materials that allow them to create items for direct use or sale. With just these functionalities, this game-within-a-game enhances a reward system that has already kept many a gamer playing these past eight years. Simply put, farming in WoW makes boosting those noted competitive numbers far more convenient, allowing players to spend more time doing what they like to do rather than what is perceived as something they have to do (i.e. no more herb or ingredient hunting).

But does the farming hold merit on its own? The FarmVille numbers say yes, and such circles back that whole visual reward note one more time. There is enjoyment to be found in simply having one’s character look better, proven by the fact that players now often replay old game content for several  hours just to find items to transmogrify. With the player farm, this desire for better aesthetics now translates into another form of in-game ownership beyond a mere avatar. Basically, players get to see their own miniature world come to life.

Unfortunately, the current rendition of the player-farm is still very basic and doesn’t directly utilize the bragging rights allure. Since it is phased, it is only ever visible to the player who owns it, and users have yet to have any say in customizing its look. Nevertheless, Blizzard has noted, on its community forums, that greater creative control is a possibility in the future, and it is something that players have requested in the past (player housing has been something talked about by the player community since vanilla). It’s likely a feature at the bottom of the list, but considering that Blizzard did add the transmogrification mechanic for customizing avatar clothing, it is plausible that the player farm will follow a similar path.

All that having been said, it doesn’t seem likely that this will see a full realization during Mists of Pandaria. However, past expansions have dabbled with “experimental” new mechanics that have seen further flushed out evolutions in successive expansions. Some examples include bombing quests from The Burning Crusade, massive world PvP zones in Wrath of the Lich King, and the raid finder in Cataclysm. What this will mean for player-owned locals in the future is unknown, but the prospect of having a personal space, lined with trophies, banners, and items from past Warcraft achievements is something one can only hope for. Add in the possibility of inviting friends to visit and show all that off… now those would be some real bragging rights.

 

Some of the Best Character Crossovers in Video Games

We all have our favorite characters in gaming. Be it Dante from Devil May Cry or Link from the Legend of Zelda, it’s always a perk to see guest appearances from them in new games. Such is why there has been such tremendous success with crossover franchises such as Marvel vs. Capcom and Super Smash Bros. However, today we’re trying to be a bit more specific and find the crossovers that were least expected. In some cases, they were just amusing surprises, while others were epically designed boss battles of legendary proportions. Whatever the case may be, these are crossover appearances that shouldn’t be forgotten. Of course, if there are any other good ones you’d like to share, be all means, let us know!

#5. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 – Phoenix Wright

When it comes to handheld games, the Phoenix Wright series is one of the most original concepts out there. However, this quirky court drama game isn’t exactly the host of characters that would translate well to a fighting arena. Apparently Capcom disagrees, which is why this unexpected hero found himself fighting his way into the hearts of Marvel vs. Capcom fans.

For anyone that hasn’t played the series since Phoenix’s inception, it’s a pretty ridiculous scene. Whilst other combatants are throwing around energy blasts, martial arts kicks, and lord knows what else, Phoenix sticks to bombarding them with paperwork, a riled up assistant, objections, and an all-powerful guilty verdict! Yes, yes, he’s a lawyer, not a fighter, but due to Capcom vs. Marvel’s already whimsical nature, it works.

 

#4. Mortal Kombat 9 – Kratos

The Mortal Kombat series is known for its unbridled brutality and blood-splattered fatalities. One of gaming’s longest running fighting franchises, it’s become difficult to make it stand out iteration after iteration. However, the developers of NetherRealm Studios came up with a good idea: Introduce Kratos from God of War.

It fits well too. Kratos has already toppled the gods of Mount Olympus in some of the most brutal manners imaginable, which should make him feel right at home in the Mortal Kombat tournament. What makes the appearance even better though is that his inclusion incorporates many of the aspects of what makes Kratos, Kratos; namely his gamete of memorable weapons. From massive herculean gauntlets to the stony gaze of Medusa’s head, it all makes a balanced appearance.

 

#3. World of Warcraft – Harrison Jones

Those that have played World of Warcraft since the introduction of Zul’Aman, will remember the beginnings of one of Blizzard’s best character crossovers: Harrison Jones. A play on Indiana Jones/Harrison Ford, he started with an untimely “demise” at the gates of Zul’Aman the first time around, but his popularity led to him “escorting” players in Wrath of the Lich King and becoming one of the central focal points of Cataclysm’s leveling zone of Uldum.

What makes his incorporation so awesome though is that Blizzard does a great job of paying homage to all of the Indiana Jones films. In some cases, they are amusing parodies, such as hiding in a box to escape a “nuclear” explosion, while in others they are an entire reimagining of the films’ most iconic scenes. Examples include fights with a burly soldier near a propeller prop (Raiders of the Lost Ark) or escaping “German” fighter pilots as a tail gunner (The Last Crusade).

 

#2. Soul Calibur IV – Darth Vader & Yoda

Some might wonder why Kratos wasn’t higher on the list, but that’s because as popular as Kratos is, he pales in comparison to the following of Star Wars’ most well-known Jedi, Darth Vader and Yoda. Introduced in Soul Calibur IV, they effectively one-up the special appearances of previous combatants such as Link and Spawn. Moreover, few will forget the first trailer that revealed them and Vader’s iconic, mechanical breathing that said all that needed to be said. That should tell you just how iconic he is!

Already brandishing science fiction’s most memorable weapon, the lightsaber, the two fit well into the Soul Calibur combat system with Vader’s heavy hitting and Yoda’s quick acrobatics. The only real down side, is our little green friend’s stature can make him a bit difficult to hit from a game balancing perspective. Regardless, both shine with the style of Soul Calibur’s aesthetic and are equally enjoyable to play.

 

#1. Kingdom Hearts – Sephiroth

One of the greatest of all crossover games in general is the unlikely action RPG of Kingdom Hearts. Mixing characters of nearly all the Disney films and several Final Fantasy titles, it’s a mix that most didn’t expect to work as well as it did. Nevertheless, of all the Final Fantasy characters introduced, the most epic of them all is the one-winged angel himself: Sephiroth. One of the single most epic boss encounters of all time, overcoming this optional battle was the pinnacle of accomplishment in the game.

Kingdom Hearts does a tremendous job of stylizing and displaying the power of Sephiroth, making him not only gratifying to fight, but even entertaining to lose to. It’s a good thing too, as it’s going to happen a lot; even a maximum level. What’s fantastic though is that failure is never all that frustrating as it is typically due to a careless mistake, and it is possible to instantly retry the fight. Upon victory though, little is more gratifying.

 

 

Game Development Q&A – Common Production Questions for the New Developer

Be it from a student, a peer, or merely Socratic, we’ve heard any number of questions pertaining to game design and production. Ranging from hiring queries to deciding on aesthetic styles, there are likely a hundred questions buzzing around in the collective heads of new game-makers. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to answer them all in one go, but we have comprised a list of fairly common ones that might at least be a bit helpful. Of course, if you have questions beyond these, by all means, ask.

The Simpsons - Tapped Out“I want a successful app, but I don’t want to copy others.”

There are a lot of copycat games on the market (especially on mobile platforms), but they’re there because usually what they’re copying has been successful. Granted you don’t want to make a carbon copy of a successful app, but there’s nothing wrong with using the basic formula. Look at the decades of console game development, the central ideas of shooters and role-playing games have been done hundreds of times with little variation. However, those that stand out are presented from a fresh perspective.

Being “original” doesn’t mean that everything has to be unique. It means showing people something they’ve seen before in a new way. Take the simulation game genre where players build up farms or cities. At their core, they’re all the same play process, but the themes vary as well as many of their nuances, thus creating a new experience. It’s not always what you present, but how you present it. For example, the image at right is from The Simpsons: Tapped Out. For all intents and purposes, it is CityVille (which is a highly streamlined SimCity), but its humor, presentation, various nuances, and art style make it quite different.

“I can’t come up with any good ideas!”

Yes you can! Coming up with the next great app idea isn’t about sitting around waiting for lightning to strike. It’s about using the right tools to generate the concept in the first place. A personal favorite is a technique called “mind-mapping” in which you start with a single, core word (representing some general theme), and associate other words or ideas with it. What you do is write down everything you can think of when looking at the core word, then draw a line connecting them, to the core word, to make an association. Next, look at these “first order” associations and write down everything that comes to mind when you look them to create “second order associations.” Draw new lines, and repeat this for third, fourth, etc. association sets. After you’ve generated a massive web of ideas, look for relatable ideas and try and derive a new concept out of them!

“Is it better to be a paid or free app?”

Obviously this question focuses primarily on mobile and digital markets. Regardless, it depends entirely on the type of app you’re making. The best question to ask is how long or how often you expect the consumer to use your app. If they’re only going to use it once, for 15 minutes, you may want to go the paid route, because that’s likely all the revenue you’re going to see.

The free model relies on either advertisements and/or the use of in-app purchases. This is typically a volume game, so unless the users are coming back frequently and exposed to these, not much money is going to be made. Even so, it’s advisable to keep your eyes on user usage activity as you can always change the price later on. A common move is to make a paid app free for a short time to increase downloads and rankings, or to promote a new, related, paid app.

“What sort of art style should I use?”

OkamiThis is something that depends heavily to the platform one is building on. Point in case, mobile devices aren’t full-fledged consoles or PCs, so as a good practice, it’s probably wiser to avoid things like fully 3D, polygonal models and the like. Most of the time, they just don’t look very good, since they have to be so low poly, and it just won’t do your app justice. When dealing with mobile, it’s a far better choice to deal more in 2D, illustrated or cartoony visuals. These are a lot less intensive on the processing power and you can focus more on gameplay (i.e. how many objects are on the screen, special effects, or more complex code).

If you’re not dealing with a mobile limitations then 3D is a plausibility since computing resources are greater. However, you want to really flood the office with concept art of as wide a variety as possible. Just because you have the capability doesn’t mean you art needs to be hyper realistic. Remember our commentary on style? Realistic looks are not necessarily needed. If you open yourself to looking at your ideas in new lights, you might be surprised as to what looks amazing. For example, the original rendition of Okami was realistic but later changed to cel-shading. Regardless of style though, always keep everything clean and crisp. Users will judge your game on how it looks and in competitive spaces like mobile, you might get 10 seconds to prove your game is worth trying.

“How do I ensure my game is finished on time?”

We’d hate to say it, but there’s no magical bullet that’s going to guarantee that everything you want to accomplish is going to be finished. The best thing you can do is identify the central game play goal of your game and strip all development down to just what enhances that core mechanic. Make that phenomenal and the rest will begin to fall into place. Every decision you make should enhance that idea in some way, and by approaching the development in this fashion, it will be easier to cut features not critical to the core-competency; allowing you to finish more quickly. Chances are, you will have to do this, but the beauty of the digital space is you have the capability to quickly release updates with more downloadable content (be it free or paid).

“My app’s been rejected by Apple!”

Don’t panic, this is actually pretty common with the App Store. The guidelines for getting a new app approved are strict and it happens to dozens of developers weekly. Apple rejects apps for all sorts of reasons including poor code, UI that doesn’t adhere to Apple guidelines, objectionable material, and sometimes just the app graphics themselves. Whatever the reason, you’ll receive a notification from Apple stating the issues they have, and you can always resubmit after fixing them. You should be able to do all of this through the iTunes Connect panel.

“Where can I find a good developer?”

There are a lot of fantastic places to go and find new developers, artists, writers, or anything really without having to worry recruiter-heavy sites like CareerBuilder.com. Two recommendations are sites like Elance and oDesk. Elance is a favorite, but of these are incredible sites that let you create jobs for freelancers to view and post bids. It’s a lot faster than a job board too as these bids come from all over the globe.

Also, you can not only see bids, but bidder’s past jobs, ratings from other clients, how much they’ve made through jobs (if they choose to show it), as well as a profile of their skills, portfolio work, and usually a resume. Elance even allows you to pay the developer directly through the site. It does take a cut though, so your final negotiated price will be a bit higher. You don’t have to pay through Elance though, it’s just an option.

“What’s a fair price for a developer?”

The good thing about sites like Elance is you get the bids from the developers, but don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Much of what’s “fair” is dependent on how complex your requirements are. Top developers  can charge anywhere from $100 to $200 an hour. Likely, this is out of your budget if you’re just starting out. Luckily, you can usually get a decent one for around $50 to $100 an hour.

At this point, it’s just a matter of determining how long your app will take to make. Something simple might take four 40 hour weeks for just code, but you have to also remember time for artwork, testing and polishing, as well as the time it’ll take your new developer to become acclimated with the project. It’s expensive, but it’s better to get someone to do it right the first time. A $20 an hour developer may prove to be more expensive in the long run.

 

Obliterate Mankind with the Frighteningly Realistic Mobile Game, Plague Inc.

Plague Inc.Everyone always talks about the big console game releases, and while many are fantastic, they are often a rehashing of something we’ve all seen and done before. Where true originality tends to spawn now is in the smaller, indy spaces such as mobile, Xbox Live Arcade, and Steam, and it is from the mobile category that we stumbled across a wonderfully creepy title, released last year, called Plague Inc. Available for both the iOS and Android platforms, this game from Ndemic Creations is a frighteningly realistic simulation game in which players have one goal… evolve a devastating plague capable of wiping humanity off the face of the earth.

Plague Inc. starts like any other pending apocalyptic event – under the radar. Players take control of simple, unassuming bacteria with no significant characteristics and are presented with a map of the world. The beginning of the end starts with a single infection as users select the location of “patient zero.” At the start, the disease has no properties, but as it spreads, players acquire points called “DNA” that are then used to upgrade the infectiousness, severity, and lethality of their pathogen.

Each stat plays a pivotal role in how the world reacts to the illness. Infectiousness is about what it sounds like, allowing the disease to spread more quickly through evolutions such as vermin or insect infection, or being water or air based. Lethality is augmented by evolutions towards symptoms that can be as innocent as a cough or as deadly as total organ failure. Severity, on the other hand, is affected indirectly by both infectiousness and lethality and causes people to fear the disease more (more on this in a bit).

Just with these basics, strategy becomes important. This is compounded by the fact that each evolution works like a skill tree. For example, mutating a cough symptom will grant access to sneezing, which will then grant access to pneumonia or pulmonary fibrosis. However, as players evolve their pathogen, the DNA costs of new attributes go up and with a finite amount of upgrade points (there are only so many people in the world), choices need be considered carefully.

Plague Inc - Pathogen UpgradesOf course, there is more to Plague Inc. than just this. Each country comes with different statistics to consider when evolving the plague. Germany, for example, is a rich, urban country, so infecting rats and upgrading the disease’s resistance to drugs are helpful in spreading the pathogen. However, parts of Africa are hot, dry, and spread out, thus infecting insects is and building bacterial resistance to heat might be needed. These are only surface considerations though. Players also have to consider spreading the disease to other countries (especially islands) based on land neighbors, airports, or shipping lanes.

Countries react to the severity of the plague as well. Once discovered, governments will begin developing a cure, so the idea becomes infecting, then killing everyone on earth before it finishes. Moreover, the scarier the plague, the more spending the world will dedicate to it, and the harder it will try to prevent a pandemic spread. Countries will close land borders, ports, use mass graves, exterminate livestock, and more depending on the evolutions the user has chosen. As such, it’s important to adapt to each new curveball. Additionally, as awareness and fear grows, the cure will finish faster, slowing only as the plague symptoms become more complex (via either random mutations or player-selected evolutions) or as people die. Both are viable strategies, but be careful not to kill off everyone faster than the infection can spread.

Plague Inc. is a highly addictive game, but it does come with a bit of a downside. While there is an initial learning curve, the game has a dramatic dominant strategy (basically a strategy that is so good, no other one is worth trying). In a nutshell, all players need do is remove any and all symptoms until the entire world is infected, then spend all their DNA points to upgrade deadly ailments. Voila, it’s game over. Thankfully, when players finish the game, new forms of pathogens unlock that help mitigate this. For example, there is a nano-virus game mode – with its own unique evolutions – in which the plague is discovered right at the start; effectively killing this dominant strategy. In total, there are 11 game modes with another on the way: The Zombie Plague!

Overall, Plague Inc. is a highly recommendable game. It’s not without its faults, but even with the noted dominant strategy, it’s quite entertaining to mastermind the end of the world and the various game modes do keep things a bit fresher with each replay. With the zombie plague on the way as well, there’s plenty to look forward to, and with any luck, Ndemic Creations will even give us the chance to combat the plague as well as cause it (frankly, competitive multiplayer would be incredible). We may have survived the Mayan “apocalypse,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t orchestrate one of your own!

 

 

Crafting: Style is King!

OkamiWhen it comes to video games there are several things about their design that the everyday person is aware of. Visuals, difficulty, story, and, of course, how fun it is. But while “fun” is first and foremost determined by core play mechanics (combat, puzzles, exploration, etc.) there is something nearly as important: Style. Marshal McLuhan once said that content was king, well in the game world, style is king; for it is style that is the difference between good and great and what can make something bad… at least tolerable.

At its most basic level, style refers to the extra pizzazz or flair that a developer adds into their creations in order to make it stand out. It varies in its implementation though, ranging from sound effects to high quality visuals. Regardless of its type, however, it always plays into one universal role which is enhancing the player “experience.”

Typically speaking, stylistic elements are not necessary for game functionality. For example, in the Need for Speed franchise, one style choice is the feature of light trails. These are the blurs of light that trail behind the taillights of one’s vehicle. In no way are they required for the game’s racing mechanic. However, it is with this effect (along with others such as motion blurs) that the game makers are able to create the illusion that users are driving faster than they actually are. In truth, someone would have to drive well over 100mph to create the optical effect of light trails. With Need for Speed, that threshold is far lower.

What makes this simplistic example so useful though is that it actually has a compound effect. On one hand, it adds to the experience of the player, enhancing their driving gratification, while on the other it acts as a catalyst for pacing.

In terms of the latter, the Modern Warfare series is one of the most well-known games to draw examples from. Think way back to the first iteration – to the very first level on the ship. Up until the migs attacked the vessel, the play is fairly standard (take cover and shoot stuff). However, once the ship started sinking, players began seeing effects that altered vision, the camera would shake, water rushed through hull breaches, and the entire level tilted and sank. Coupled with the shouts of NPC comrades, it indirectly forced players to feel anxiety and adrenaline; making them move faster throughout the level. In no way was this necessary for play, but it was necessary for the experience.

God of War SirensThroughout its games, Modern Warfare frequently does such to alter pacing, but that doesn’t fit the “gratification” definition quite as well. For this, we look to the style of games like God of War. In any other game prior, killing a monster was just that, “killing a monster.” Nevertheless, the difference between a good and great game is how that monster is killed. Many games contain simple death animations, but few have the viscerally rewarding gratification of God of War. A particular moment of memorability stems from the sirens in the desert. It wasn’t necessary to literally fold their spine backwards when killing them, but players will never forget the chills and reaction it most certainly garnered.

Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, humor, exploration, and experimentation can be results of stylistic choices as well. Here, the best example comes from the PlayStation 2 title, Okami. Whilst travelling the saturated, cel-shaded land of Nippon, players could perform godly abilities through the use of a mystical paintbrush. Such could bring things to life, be used as attacks, or repair the land itself, but it also had humorous side effects. Should users go to an NPC, they could use the brush to coat them with ink, leaving them black with nearby characters questioning what had happened. If one’s in the forest, they can create gusts of wind that cause animals to vainly grip onto whatever’s nearby. All the while, these NPCs are just trying to figure out what is causing all this chaos. It’s completely unnecessary to the core game play, but it makes the overall game better.

That’s really the important point to take home about style. Because it is not “necessary,” it’s often overlooked by game makers and why many games feel nothing more than average. That said, it’s overlooked by gamers too; at least directly. While each of the above noted examples might seem obvious in hindsight, chances are you didn’t recognize any of these, for what they were, at the time they were experienced. You knew what the whole of the experience was but not the parts that constructed it, thus it becomes difficult to sing specific praises. Conversely, had those parts not been included, the lesser experience would have been voiced. Again, it would likely not be based on specifics, but on the sum of the parts.

That is what makes style implementation so easy to overlook. If it’s done right, gamers will usually never be the wiser. If it is done wrong, gamers will know it (and criticize) yet usually won’t quite be able to identify what is specifically wrong. All that considered, style implementation may be thankless in that it will never truly be recognized by the masses, but it is differentiator between what is good and what is great.

 

The Social Side of MMOGs

World of Warcraft -Kil'jaeden Sunwell RaidBe it Sony, Origin, Blizzard, or BioWare it becomes exceedingly easy to blame developers when something in an MMOG is not quite what the player desires. Though these complaints are vast (and often made just for the sake of making them), one recent one that seems to be milling about is how certain MMOGs, like World of Warcraft, have “killed” the social elements of their games with the implementation of new features. However, after observing other MMOs over the last year, like Star Wars: The Old Republic, that assumption may not be entirely accurate.

This commentary is typically in reference to things like WoW’s Dungeon or Raid Finder which places a random set of five people into an Instance for the former and 25 for the latter. More often than not, players run through the dungeon as quickly as possible and nary say a word to one another unless it is some form of “elitist” insult when someone makes a mistake. Meanwhile, The Old Republic didn’t release with such a comparable feature, and dungeons (Flashpoints) had to be constructed “manually” through general chat. This difference of process is what leads many users to the conclusion that it is the game itself that makes social interaction what it is.

The fact of the matter is that it is not the game mechanics themselves, but rather the general newness of the game. Due to the anonymity of the Internet, players of online games often become subject to a, for lack of a better term, “darker” side of their personality. Some simply become quiet and reserved, while others become flat out rude. The latter can often be referred to as an elitist attitude where they don’t wish to interact with players “beneath them” until they make a mistake; at which point they preach evangelical trash suggesting how good they are and how bad everyone else is.

Because of this, many of the less experienced players become the noted quiet types in fear of being ridiculed or being dubbed a “newb.” It is this exchange that kills social play more than anything a game developer can do, and it is directly correlated to the newness of an MMOG.

If one were to run Warcraft and any new MMO side-by-side a dramatic difference will be seen in all facets of the game chat. Disregarding the more frequent looking for group (LFG) messages of the Old Republic example, people are actually nicer in the newer game. The reason for that is simply because at this point in time, everyone is still, collectively, “newbs.” There is much of the game world that the vast majority of users have yet to see and no one is afraid to speak or ask questions in fear of ridicule. Meanwhile, in Warcraft, should someone ask what to do in an Instance, the reaction is often greeted with sighs and face palms; with the other users wondering what rock this “newb” just crawled out from. Such is even worse in competitive PvP combat too, but this is just the elitism being enhanced by the hatred of losing. Interestingly enough, and despite age differences, both Warcraft and Star Wars have equally angry chat in PvP.

All these observations aside, there are some things that developers can do to promote social play. This goes beyond the ability to form parties, chat, or create guilds. It refers to things like rewards where even the shyest online gamer will likely come out of their virtual shell a bit to try and earn. This doesn’t refer to intangible ones such as winning a Battleground, but actual item rewards. One great example comes from BioWare who implements such with a currency called “Social Points” which can only be earned by interacting with other players during dialogue sequences in Old Republic. Gathering up such points can garner extras like fun vanity items and titles. It’s nothing that would imbalance the game, but is a mere incentive.

Other than tools to incentivize social play, the biggest promoter is simply new content. Pay attention the next time new PvE or PvP content is released in your MMOG of choice (even World of Warcraft). Chances are you’ll see a startling burst of new social interactions and actually some “nice” chat for a change, as people ask questions and help each other out. When content is new, everyone is on equal footing. That said, in the case of WoW, this change is often short lived due to the rapid nature in which content is consumed and more “elite” (this term is used loosely) begin to “know what they’re doing.” This is merely because after eight years of existence means that new content often consists of reusing old content game mechanics in new and interesting ways.

Overall, the whole point being made is that while game developers can nudge players into a social direction, little that they do (or do not do) will have a dramatic effect on social ramifications. Most of that depends on the users themselves and the relative newness of a game or new content. The older an MMOG becomes, the greater the population of elitist attitudes there are, thus the less social the game becomes (at least outside of small groups of friends and guilds). So next time there is new content in your MMO of choice, watch closely, and you’ll likely notice a similar spike in relevant, social chatter for a short while.