Author Archives: Nabil

Got It In One

I’ve always enjoyed Jerry’s writing over at Penny Arcade, so I suppose it should come as no surprise that I think he damn near nailed the game industry metaphor when he said this:

The stakes are high, and getting higher, and publishers who were once merely gun-shy are now officially paranoid, rolling around in a padded cell until the drugs take effect. Part of the reason GDC made me uncomfortable is that I could feel its culture pressing on me from all sides, and I knew it wasn’t mine. But the other part was that I got a sense of how brutal that life is, how unstable it can be, how maddening, and I just wanted to come home and match gems or some shit. I didn’t want to see it anymore. I don’t want to think about a cow’s quiet eyes every time I grip a hamburger.


What MUDs Still Have to Offer to the Virtual World Discussion

There has been a lot of discussion within academic circles regarding the use of virtual worlds for the purpose of researching various forms of human and communal interaction and formation. Due to the exorbitant current cost of entry in creating an MMORPG (and the fact that they already have a population for the purposes of sampling), it seems like a great deal of the research is occurring within already established games. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, though there will come a time when the greater degree of control over variables that comes with creating your own environments will likely become necessary. (As a case in point, while they can select which games they choose to sample, researchers tend not to have control over how the game is marketed, nor which demographics it chooses to target.)

There also seems to be a fair bit of focus on contemporary games, like Second Life, and World of Warcraft. While this certainly has merit, especially in that these games reach a certain critical mass, allowing for a greater demographic sampling for research: you are more likely to get not just core gamers, but also casuals with other interests that play as a fad (because “everyone” plays). This can only help the overall direction of research into social dynamics and interaction, and examining the social organism as a whole. However, what I’ve found is very little attention to a return to prior research, prior virtual worlds and experiments.

I think this is incredibly unfortunate. I think there is still a lot of play left in earlier models, such as MUDs (Multi-User Domains/Dungeons, the text-based precursor to the modern MMORPG). Many MUDs at this point have been established for well over a decade, which I think would offer a wealth of opportunities for seeing how a community matures and shifts as it ages. Let’s take AvatarMUD for example, since I have nearly a decade of experience with it. Over the past decade, I’ve seen the population rise to a peak population count of 190 individual players on at a given time, with a median of roughly 120 across the day, to a slow decline as players moved on, where the median is closer to 60, with a daily peak player count of around 90. Even in this, it has survived better than many MUDs.

As the player community has shrunk, so has the sense of community, which could be partially attributed to several design implementations that allowed for greater fragmentation of the player base (in addition to outside factors, such as a shift away from MUDs in general, and the increased availability of broadband allowing for more visually robust games to be played). What is particularly notable is that as the nature of the game evolved, we started adjusting and adapting more and more for “min-max” players, and hardcore players. This came at the cost of the more casual, social player. While I don’t think it is a perfect ratio, I strongly suspect there is at least a passing corollary between the reduction in population, with the prior percentage of casual and social players. What has remained are largely committed players, who have invested hundreds or even thousands of hours into their characters, and generally have considerably more than one alt. They’ve “mastered” the play mechanics of the game, and generally continue to play because of their investment in the game, and the friends they’ve made within the game, rather than continuing to find new challenges.

Due to making these adjustments in order to “keep ahead” of the “hardcore” players, the barrier of entry for new and more socially-oriented players becomes untenable unless they already have friends within the game. This is not unreasonable, since MUDs are largely populated through word of mouth: they are often labors of love, and not even allowed to charge or generate revenue, which means they tend not to have the budget to advertise. It does, however, mean that the truly new player is largely left to fend for themselves, and can become extremely frustrated until they start establishing a rapport and support group among other players. If they aren’t willing or able to devote the time and energy towards that end, that often marks the end of their time on the MUD.

This isn’t meant to be a doom or gloom forecast of things to come with AvatarMUD, and the staff remains receptive to a number of ideas on how to aid the casual player in becoming established, without sacrificing the game mechanics and design path they’re interested in pursuing. It remains to be seen how effective these ideas will prove to be, but that returns me to the point of this essay: MUDs present an opportunity to observe communities further along in the cycle, and their continued use as a sandbox for virtual worlds should not be underestimated.

A Step In the Right Direction

Before I get into my own tirade, there’s some recommended reading for you. Don’t worry, I’ll wait:
Braid won’t be at Slamdance after all.
flOw won’t be at Slamdance after all.
Braid Ditches Slamdance in Protest
Slamdance Pulled SCMRPG On Moral Grounds (Referenced from a Rocky Mountain News article.)
Slamdance: SCMRPG removal was personal, not business
Super Columbine Massacre: Artwork or Menace?

Everyone back? Good. As has been raised by several of the more cogent posters, it’s not directly a first amendment issue (which I’m sure regular readers have realized is something of a personal windmill I tilt at), since the Slamdance festival is technically a private organization, and has a right to decide what will or will not be shown at their festival. But there is definitely still some relevance to the battle against censorship and winning over the public mindshare that games are a valid form of creative expression, and deserve the same freedoms afforded to other media towards that end. There is no legal recourse, but that does not mean we should not raise our voices in displeasure at this sort of behavior. As a festival that ostensibly supports the idea of games as art, it is patently unacceptable behavior to remove a valid game from the competition due to a specious claim of moral concern. There is no legal recourse, since it is a private organization, and so the only method of protest that remains to us is to not participate in the festival, to encourage others to withdraw as well, and to express in no uncertain terms exactly why we are doing so. I applaud those developers that have already chosen to make that stand, and hope their other brethren soon follow suit. It is only through community and solidarity that we’ll truly drive home the point that this sort of censorial behavior is not acceptable.

“For Fun” Indeed

To say that games cannot do whatever other media can do, that they are “just for fun” and have no other purpose, is to betray a profound contempt for games. (Raph Koster in response to a comment that games are played for nothing more than fun)

Very succinctly stated and in my opinion spot on.  As is evidenced by the nature of the appeal in Minnesota, there are still quite a few ill-informed and misconceived notions about the medium that need to be addressed.  While there is a fair bit of understanding that video games are the “political tool du jour” in this election year, that doesn’t make their attempts to restrict the rights and freedoms of a fledgling medium any less dangerous.

I’ve discussed this in the past, but I’ll say it again: comics sadly let themselves be pigeonholed back when they first became popular, and have now had to spend decades fighting that image because they didn’t fight it then.  Regardless of whether you like graphic, violent video games, I hope that we can all agree that in order to defend our rights as a whole, we need to defend these now.

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. (H.L. Mencken)

Democratized Literacy

Raph Koster has an excellent post up right now discussing the notion of democratized literacy that is well worth the time to read. I’d have to say that I largely agree with him, and feel that he makes an important implicit point: the entire notion of literacy and literature is constantly evolving, and should not be assumed as a static and limited definition. The structure and limits of a definition can change and expand, as long as the idea remains.

There will be more substantial content “soon.” In the meantime, I hope readers are finding these links useful.

RPGs at Gestural Narrative

While I may go back and expand on this in the future, I wanted to mention this post about games, in particular role playing games, as a form of gestural narrative, which I found over at Roll the Bones. Rather than reinventing or reiterating the wheel, I would instead suggest you swing by the site and read it for yourself.

On an unrelated note, please be patient; we’ll be doing more with this site soon.

Improving the Middleware Licensing Model

[Before I get into the specifics of what I’m talking about, I’d like to preface all this by saying that I am not a business analyst, nor an economist. I don’t know the realities of how feasible this is, as I have not run any numbers to check that feasibility. More than anything, I am putting this out there as an idea, in the hopes that someone with the requisite expertise can actually run the numbers and (hopefully) put them into practice. — Nabil]

As I’m sure most of you are already aware, games are generally no longer made in someone’s basement on a shoestring budget. They are developed by teams ranging in size but rarely under a dozen at this point, and for budgets that are quickly rivalling the most expensive Hollywood blockbusters. While the size and scope of game development is now on par with that of movie development, we haven’t bothered to adopt many of the business models that are used within this sister entertainment industry, and not because they couldn’t be successful, but simply because those holding the purse strings are leery of trying something new on a $20 million game. This is only going to become worse as budgets continue to escalate into the $100 million and even $200 million game. Put simply, the financiers of the industry are becoming more risk-averse, and are going to become more conservative as time continues. If we’re going to find alternative models for game development, it needs to be done now if at all. Personally, one avenue I’d like to see pursued is a royalties-based licensing model.
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Design Metaphors and Philosophies

Much like every other medium, there are really no hard and fast rules to making a good game. “Add nice graphics,” or “Make sure the gameplay is fun” is hardly a schematic for making a good game, and could be roughly equated with back seat driving, telling someone to be sure to remember to use their turn signal when their turn signal is already on. That said, there have certainly been some attempts to give a basic grounding in what design principles work or don’t work in game design, by a great many individuals. There are a fair number of similarities between these authors (which is unsurprising, since they all read each other and come from similar backgrounds in the industry), but what I personally find more interesting is the differences between different authors, and what metaphors different designers have found most effective for them.

One of the earliest books I read this semester was A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. While not explicitly about game design per se so much as a discussion about the fundamental concepts of fun and play, Koster does also explore the method he finds most effective for game design. His metaphor is based around his theory that games are fun because the brain is constantly seeking patterns to process. With that in mind, he tries to find new patterns for the brain to process by thinking of a verb that would encapsulate an action or series of actions, and then designs the game mechanic around that verb (or if the game is expansive enough, verbs). From a ludological perspective, this is a very appealing method of design, since the game mechanic quite literally designs itself. This does not leave much room for a narrative-centric game, however.
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