26 January 2010

RO bosses

Appearances and atmospheres

The Mummies series follow the same principle seen with Doom II monsters. A Mummy can first be encountered on the second and third floors of Pyramid dungeon. Then, on the fourth floor of Pyramid dungeon, Ancient Mummies appear, along with Osiris, a MVP. The higher the pyramid floor, the more difficult the Mummies, until Osiris at the fourth floor of the Pyramid. In my opinion, putting in parallel a spatial feeling of "going up the floors" and increasing the monster difficulty makes the player excited about "what's next floor?" and "will I be strong enough to kill them?".

As I described before, the atmosphere really matters to introduce the boss. In a video from Doddler fighting one of the last boss, Nidhoggur Shadow, a particular importance is given to the NPC broadcast in the area. Naght Siegel, the MVP standing at the top of Endless Tower required to empty all the floors of the tower during 2 hours and a half.

The game evolves

RO Vanilla

Golden Thief Bug is one of the first bosses of RO. It has always been in the game since its first launch in August 2002, along with Baphomet or Eddga. But after 7 years for kRO and 6 years for iRO, the players have started to kill these MVP very fast: less than 15 seconds for Eddga, 40 seconds for Baphomet and Golden Thief Bug in 50s.

And even without being totally "overpowered", some players find ways to exploit/use the system to kill MVP, such as this wizard using the warp as a protection to kill GTB, or this wizard killing Turtle General in 5 minutes with Ice Wall. I am obviously not talking about high-rate-server no-cast Creators inflicting ridiculously big damage to any monster (but "Hakuna Matata" in Portuguese is really cool!).

Episode 10 and after

However, Gravity game designers have realized their 200,000-HP 3k-attack MVP were not a challenge for high-level players anymore, and they progressively increased the difficulty of the MVP they released such as Lord Knight Seyren (1.6M HP, 10k attack) in the Episode 10.2 of March 2006, Gloom Under Night (2.3M HP, 7k attack) in the Episode 11.1 of May 2007, or Satan Morocc (20M+15M HP, 32k attack) in the Episode 12 of December 2008. At the same time, Gravity game designers also increased previous MVP such as Orc Lord which was granted the Earthquake skill, inflicting ridiculous damage. As Doddler writes:

Basically, earthquake is an extremely powerful attack that strikes all players on screen. Its based on the monsters physical attack power, though it is calculated as a magical attack. The key feature of earthquake is that the damage it deals is split across all players on screen. The more people who are within range of the boss monster when it casts the skill, the less damage the player takes.

But groups in RO are limited to 12 players, and as Doddler wrote when commenting (look for the "Orc Lord on Valkyrie" post) a video he recorded while fighting Orc Lord,

Like many earthquake MVPs, Orc Lord basically doesn't do anything that can be seen as a challenge other than earthquake. Unfortunately, earthquake is really a bad thing to deal with when you have no cranials, immunes, and limited access to assumptio. As you can see, our strategy generally involved simply falling over when it did end up using earthquake. More than that, the plan was to burn it down in a way that it would never use earthquake while in power up. We were successful in that, though just barely. Another 2 seconds and we would have been toast.

However, RO game designers also tried to innovate and create group strategies to beat MVP. MVP are no longer solo-able but require highly-organized players to group together. This new MVP design provided a challenging non-PvP activity for guilds. As Doddler writes,

The MVP's that I think gravity has done a 'good' job in making fun requiring interesting strategies to beat are:

Beelzebub - For reasons mentioned above [even though it is hard to coordinate the group, his attacks can be countered and his hellflys should be tanked as well, see Doddler's post for a full description]

Fallen Bishop - Same as beelzebub really but scaled down to be easier. Pneuma blocks hells judgement, sanctuary blocks evil land, magnetic earth stops dark/holy grand cross. Tank holds the whole crowd with evil armor... Holy cross will hurt but its managable (crusaders have 50% resist to holy so they're the best tanks). You can counter critical wounds with sacrifice if you need to but its not required here. If you can kill the banshees with an AoE (like focus arrow strike), its even easier. Could probably be done in a killer/priest/bard/scholar/tank combo.

Ktullanux - Textbook boss control. Split mob/boss on different tanks, counter stormgust knockback by using the terrain, block physical hits with safety wall. Ever use magic rod to counter his waterball? Its pretty cool.

Gloom Under Night - Very powerful physically but his abnormally slow attack speed and reaction time highlight defensive skills.

Atroce - Throws around some hefty attack power at high speeds. Pulse strike keeps you watching where you're standing but can be blocked, and you have to watch out for his magnum break counter to being attacked by multiple melee attackers. His two hand quick is scary, but it can be dispelled.

Kiel-D-01 - High powered melee attack, a powerful fire attack and a deadly dark blessing make Kiel tough, but his mob can be reduced drastically, and constant safety wall will keep the tank safe from his relatively slow attacks. Don't forget green potions.

Memory of Thanatos - Weaker than most people give him credit for. His main strength is in his mob, which can be mostly removed without problem. Exile really means you need two people that can take his hits, but otherwise its a simple exercise in monster control. If you can dispel his two hand quicken, its easier to just tank him on a magnetic earth than to use safety walls, as the magic is more destructive than his melee.

This might seem a blunt copy/pasting of Doddler's post, but I could not formulate it better and with more details.

Complaints

As Doddler explains in a RO's MVP System and it's Flaws post in April 2008, weaker MVP's can be killed in a very small group, some are even easy enough to take solo, with the high tier bosses taking a sizable party with many player roles and coordination, and the higher tier MVPs are harder to deal with, usually requiring anywhere from 5-10 people to properly fight. This system of weak, medium and strong MVP seems to provide an appropriate challenge to lower-, medium- and higher-skilled players. However, bosses are free for all, that is to say bosses are what would be referred to as world bosses in other MMORPG's, bosses that appear within the game world where any other players in the game world can attack, influence and interfere with bosses as you fight them. Except for Endless Tower and Orc Recollection, there is no instance.

As a result, some players often stay "camping" on a map, they wait for the monster's re-appearance to kill it first and get the drops. While Heimdallr, a community manager on iRO's forums, wrote he was sure that instancing will become more common in RO as time continues, MVPs are still wandering freely outside instances and are still being camped. A very common strategy consists of sending the same Monk character, capable of inflicting much of damage in one shot, in suicide missions. A player writes Champ solo Atroce really, /memo, fist, inn regen, buff, warp back rince and repeat. I actually mention this problem in my paper about RO private servers. As one of the main activities for high-level players is hunting MVP (along with WoE), camping Champions are spoilsports. A potential solution could be to let many MVPs use the Full Heal skill: this skill can only be used in an idle state (ie not in combat) and regenerates the all the HP of a monster. This happens naturally for all monsters in other MMOGs such as WoW.

Doddler also complained about MVPs. He listed 4 major points to fix:

  • A too big contrast between frequently dropped mudflated useless items, and valuable rare (less than 1% drop chance) drops
  • Players should play by the boss set of rules, not the opposite (RO game designers tried to address this with the post Episode 10 MVPs, see previous section)
  • Ankle Snare, a Hunter skill used to trap monsters, works on MVP
  • Earthquake, especially when MVP are in Power Up mode (attack and def multiplied by 3, cf Episode 10.3 monsters), deals ridiculously big damage to players

Even though I have played RO, I am not a RO expert as much as Doddler. However, I think that Earthquake requires really good gears and can be tanked by a party. Bosses in WoW sometimes require weeks to understand, see for instance Yogg-Saron's world first by Ensidia. Not all monsters can use Earthquake, and maybe those who can use Earthquake require the group to follow specific strategies yet undiscovered? Nevertheless, I perfectly understand how frustrating it can be to keep facing failure when trying to kill a boss because not everyone in the group has godly equipments such as Asprika (reduces 30% of elemental attacks, ie 30% of the damage received from Earthquake!). But these god equipments require items (only collectible in very coveted guild castles) to unlock painful long quests to accomplish, such as The Seals or Fallacious Okolnir.

22 January 2010

[Cinema] The Matrix quotes


Most of these quotes could be discussed and put in parallel of our current virtual worlds. But some of these quotes might only become relevant in a few decades. Besides, they may provide fuel for philosophical thoughts as well as inspiration for MMOG game design.

Quotes


Cypher: I know this steak does not exist. I know that when I put it into my mouth the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After 9 years? I realize ignorance is bliss. I want to be rich, you know, like an actor.
Smith: Whatever you want Mr. Regan.


Morpheus: To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.


Cypher: I choose the Matrix
Trinity: The Matrix is not real
Cypher: I disagree, the Matrix can be more real than this world.


Morpheus: When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit.


Morpheus: What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this (a AA battery).


Neo: Who are you?
Trinity: My name is Trinity.
Neo: Trinity? The Trinity? That cracked the IRS D-base?
Trinity: That was a long time ago.
Neo: Jesus!
Trinity: What?
Neo: I just thought ... hmm you were a guy.
Trinity: Most guys do.


Neo: Right now we are inside a computer?
Morpheus: Is it so hard to believe? Your clothes are different [...] your hair has changed. Your appearance now is what we call "residual self image". It is the mental projection of your digital self.
Neo: This isn't real?
Morpheus: What is real? How do you define real? If you are talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.


Neo: I know kung-fu.
Morpheus: Show me.
Morpheus: This is a sparring program, similar to the program reality of the Matrix. It has the same basic rules like gravity. What you must learn is that these rules are no different than rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent, others can be broken. Understand? Then hit me if you can.
[fight with Neo ...]
Morpheus: Good. Adaptation. Improvisation. But your weakness is not your technique.
[other fight]
Morpheus: How did I beat you?
Neo: You are too fast.
Morpheus: Do you believe my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place? You think that's air you are breathing now?


Morpheus: You have to let it all go Neo. Fear, doubt, disbelief. Free your mind.


Morpheus: The Matrix is a system Neo. And this system is our ennemy. But when you are inside, what do you see? These people are part of that system and that makes them our ennemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.
Morpheus: Were you listening to me, Neo, or looking at the woman in the red dress?


Morpheus: Sentient programs. They can move in and out of any software still hardwired to their system. [...] Inside the Matrix, they are everyone and they are no one. They are the gatekeepers. [...] Their strength and speed are still based in a world built on rules.

18 January 2010

Bosses and game mechanics

In a previous post I explained bosses often have a special appearance or atmosphere surrounding them in order to make the player understand the encounter moment is particular. The game mechanics part of a boss is as unique and special as its appearance: there is an extra-ordinary strategy to follow in order to win the fight, but the player keeps his/her ordinary abilities : run, jump, throw/shoot, smash, etc.

Taxonomy

According to en.allexperts.com, a boss can be:

AdjectiveDescriptionExample
strong more life, more damage, usually has a weakness revealed from time to timeMushihime-sama: this boss
stylish medium-sized but faster than the player, more skilled, nearly perfect, often the antagonist seen as a better protagonistFinal Fantasy VII: Sephiroth
giant big, single weak point or simply a bigger version of a normal monsterFinal Fantasy X: Sin
stealthy hidden or invisible, need to be revealedMGS: The Fear
final the antagonist, the bad guy behind the plot, has at least several phases/battlesMystic Quest: Dark King
mini boss weaker than "normal" boss, special strategy which has to be learnt but can become commonDoom II: Hell Knight
non-antagonist not a fight but rather a competition/challenge to winSuper Mario 64: racing versus Koopa the Quick
stalker repeatedly seen in different stages of the game, getting stronger at each new encounter, troublemakers, the hero and him/her may become friends after the last encounterPokémon Red/Blue: Giovanni or the Rival
hidden fought just before or just after the supposedly-final boss, needs a task to be done before, might sometimes be totally unbalanced so that the player keeps trying to finish the gameGolden Sun: Deadbeard
team multiple normal or a bit better than normal monsters acting together, combosTales of Symphonia: Defense System, Zelda Ocarina of Time: Twinrova
puzzle invulnerable unless a puzzle is solved; the puzzle grants the player a super weapon, lowers the boss' defense or traps the bossGod of War: Minotaur
tricky can not be defeated with the current abilities, but a special item can be used to kill the boss instantly Warcraft III: the Mannoroth blood fountain where Grom Hellscream drinks to kill Cenarius
timed player-independent, wait for the boss to die or kill him before a certain timeFinal Fantasy VII: Emerald Weapon
multistage change depending on how heavily damagedWario Land II: Captain Syrup
unbeatable invincible or way too powerful, it is written in the storyline that the player has to loose, the boss becomes defeatable later in the storyBaldur's Gate II: first encounter with Jon Irenicus
easy after a hard lvl, surprise!Incredible Hulk: The Leader

In practice

Bosses combine multiple of the aspects mentioned above (you can use the checkboxes to determine in which categories your favorite boss fit). In MGS for instance, Snake, the hero, can fake death to kill The Fear. The Fear is supposedly a stealth boss, but this secret way to kill him makes him a trick boss. Similarly, Ugh Zan III, the very last bost in Serious Sam, combines strength, a puzzle, a giant shape, multistage and it is the final boss (killing it ends the story). I find the Croteam studio has done a very good work on Ugh Zan III, whether about the plot leading to the boss encounter, the 3D design or the puzzle the player has to solve to kill it. This is worth a video :-)

A boss is an opportunity for the game designer to be creative and try new things. The innovation can sometimes be really appreciated by the plaers, and become new standards for boss startegies. For instance, in MGS, if the player does not wish to struggle through this battle [against The End], the player [...] can simply turn off the console and wait for seven days (or set the system clock a week ahead). This will result in a secret cutscene in which The End has died of old age (according to wikipedia about The End). Another boss in MGS, Psycho Mantis, breaks the fourth wall, according to destructoid:

Psycho Mantis begins showing off and bragging about his telekinetic powers.
First off, Psycho Mantis proceeds to read the actual memory card you have in your system. If you have played any other popular Konami game at the time (particularly Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) Psycho Mantis will remind you how much you like “Castlevania,” eventually even commenting on how much you have saved during the game.
After displaying this impressive (and pretty darn innovative) feat, he asks you, the actual player (!), to place your controller on the floor so he can show you how powerful he really is. Upon your abiding to the creepy video game boss’s wish, Psycho Mantis grabs his head and, using the built in rumble of the DualShock, has the controller shake uncontrollably, even, if you happen to have to set it on a high table, making it fly in the air and tumble to the ground below.
If that weren’t already enough, once the battle begins you realize that there is no way to beat Mantis. Since he can read minds, he manages to dodge every single attack you throw at him.
Through trial and error (and most likely a guide), you eventually figure out that, in order to beat him, you must unhook your controller from port #1 and attach it to port #2. Once this is accomplished, Psycho Mantis will actually comment how he can’t read your mind anymore.

Original

Chad Concelmo, the destructoid game critique for the encounter with Psycho Mantis, wonders why more game designers have not experimented with this innovative and ridiculously original gameplay technique. I think the reason is playing with the fourth wall might become dangerous as the player is not immersed in the game anymore. A boss should not be taken only as a punctual challenge to the player, it is also, as I explained a situation of narratic climax. The encounters with The End, The Fear or other Psycho Mantis in MGS are memorable (this word appears 8 times in Conselmo's article) because each of them is unique. These humans with super powers and weird physical particularities (The End was born in the early 1860s and can summon the spirits of the "holy forest" he waits in to revive his stamina through directed sunlight according to wikipedia, The Fear has a 20-cm long tongue, Psycho Mantis' has mental powers and a mask covering his horrible face) are beaten by Snake, a normal-looking soldier with exceptional capacities, not weird powers. Psycho Mantis predicting the player's moves seemed previously unfair, but the fight becomes more achievable when the player learns how to kill him. And when the boss is finally killed by the player, the first reaction is "I did it!". Thus, breaking the fourth wall seems to work fine if the aim is to make the player solve himself the puzzle boss he/she is fighting. It is like boxing in Wii sports: the fight occurs also outside of the game, and that immerses the player even more.

Breaking the fourth wall "the other side" could consist of a mise en abyme. In a PS3 game for instance, it could be funny to play the same or another console game. Beating the boss at this console game inside the PS3 game could be the only way to defeat him/her/it. You could think about playing GTA 2 versus Jimmy Pegorino in GTA IV. In all Pokémon games, the protagonist's bedroom contains a console (Nes, SNES, Game Cube, Wii) but I do not think the protagonist can use them to play actual games.

Don'ts

Repetitive bosses always following the same strategies in a game are boring. Creativity matters.

Players can cheat often in boss battles. For instance, in Mystic Quest, casting Heal on the Dark King deals ridiculous damage (more than 20K while the boss has 40K HP) on the boss, ending the fight in 2 or 3 turns. In Mega Man 1, when fighting against the Yellow Devil the player can exploit the Pause Button/Thunder Beam glitch. This glitch seems to be known from many players. use Pause with a special gun to shoot each time the game starts again. In repeating Pause/Start, the player can shoot without being shot. To my mind, this is a bad design (or a bug) that should have been addressed when conceiving the weapon behaviors.

You have to burn the rope is a concept-game in which the player only faces a boss. The strategy to kill it is obvious and reminded to the player. I think easy bosses should not appear too often, otherwise players get bored of the lack of challenge. Anyway, I wonder which percentage of players go directly to burn the rope, and which percentage try to kill it by other means (eg throwing axes or jumping above).

13 January 2010

Boss and Climax

In theatre, plays are composed of 1 to 5 act(s). An act can also be used for major sections of other entertainment, such as film, television, variety shows, music hall, and cabaret.. Similarly, traditional platform game levels can be compared to scenes and fighting a boss the end of an act. In Super Mario 64 for instance, when Mario gathers enough stars, he can meet Bowser. Interestingly, "playing" the comedy follows the same rythm and breaks as "playing" a game. To achieve climax at the end of an act in the game, the death of a boss may be eventually followed by a cinematic scene. Actually, the following cinematic scene also helps the game designer launch the player on a new part of the story or recall the final objective and how to achieve it: "You have collected a new artifact, congratulations! Remember that to reach the bad guy, you need 3 more. You can find one here [blinking red dot on the map]".

According to Clive Thomson in a wired.com article, a boss battle is the most mythopoeic part of gaming. Bosses stay in players' minds, and players often compare bosses, share their "favorite boss list" (as this gamespot thread shows) or exchange startegies. Players really like to talk about their game. As a consequence, players really like the boss system: a poll from The Escapist (N=129) shows that to the question "boss battles: yay or nay", 90% of the players answered yes and 10% no. I have previously detailed how boss monsters in a given level of Doom II or Dildo Tank become normal monsters in the following levels as the player has learned how to beat them. As an example of how much bosses can impact players, the Cyberdemon and Spiderdemon, the most impressive and powerful monsters that could be considered as bosses in Doom II, make noise when they move. From a game design perspective, the aim of the noise in Doom II might be to scare but also to warn the player. I think the noise contributes a lot to the "post-traumatic" state of mind the player is left after having played Doom II. As a player promoting the game to his friends writes, Before too long, you may realize that you're actually becoming quite paranoid, or even frightened because this game is very intense. At this point you should probably take a break, because I don't want to get sued if you have a heart attack.. Similarly in Plants versus Zombies the player receives a letter from the evil Dr. Zomboss. While all the letters previously received from the zombies were stained with misspellings, the perfectly-spelled one from Edgar Zomboss (see screenshot below) shines with a very formal register. The player undeniably wonders what is going to change as a zombie that can spell words correctly enters the game.

Shadow of the Colossus (SotC), a very poetic game from 2005 praised for his atmosphere and original design, contains only bosses. As it can be read in the wikipedia entry for SotC, the game is unusual within the action-adventure genre in that there are no towns or dungeons to explore, no characters with which to interact, and no enemies to defeat other than the colossi.. Beating each colossus requires its own strategy, but I will write about that later...
I strongly recommend the SotC OST.

I can hardly imagine a game with no boss. Games rely on a story, and the plot usually contains a conflict between the hero and his/her/its opponent(s). Just before the situation is brought back to normal (ie resolution), the player has to take part in a rising action to finally face the climax which consists of fighting the disruptive element(s). As the events happening to the hero are unusual, the player feels like he/she has to help the hero/heroine. This involvement can be seen at the back of kids' cereals box: the maze-games usually say "Help this guy find the exit" or "How is this girl going to find the solution?". For computer games, some NPC asking for the hero's help such as Toad in Super Mario 64 also make the player feel he/she is needed. Anyway, in the end, when the hero's task is done and everything comes back to normal (ie Falling action), the player can let the hero/heroine in his/her world and stop playing. But how can the plot of the game end if the player has no final disruptive cause to address? Killing the "bad guy that controls everything evil" seems an obvious solution, but multiple-endings games like Arcanum allow the player to choose his/her own solution. As a gamefaqs.com author writes, you can even skip the last boss fight, if your have maxed Intelligence and Persuasion. You can engage in a philosophical debate with the boss, and convince him that his plan is morally wrong. While the game provides the plot, the player should be the only one to decide how to solve it.

12 January 2010

What is a boss?

(Geek) historical and cultural fact: the first game in which a boss appeared was dnd in 1974. In this dungeon-crawl RPG, a golden dragon was keeping the last treasure of a dungeon.

In single-player games, a boss is used to ensure a player has taken the time to level-up (raise their abilities through fighting anonymous easier foes) before progressing to a new section of the game. A boss is also a closure of Gameplay Progress according to Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen in Patterns in Game Design, p229.

A boss is usually bigger than the hero. As an example I found a kind of evolution in the difficulty of Doom II monsters:

  • the Imp (brown) throws fire balls but can be killed in one shot (60 HP)
  • the Hell Knight (light brown, horns) needs a bit more work (500 HP)
  • the Baron of Hell is really resilient (1000 HP)
  • and finally the Cyberdemon has an audible step when he moves (4000 HP)

In the early levels, the player may consider a Hell Knight as a difficult monster, maybe an end-of-level boss. But in the last levels, Hell Knights are very common. The player has become used to it and has possibly found a strategy to kill them (a particularly relevant one can be monster infighting). Only the Cyberdemon could be considered as a real big boss: it appears once or twice in the whole game (I remember having encountered it at least once with the ultra violence difficulty level). Anyway, the encounter with this boss (particularly in the 8th level) should teach the player that he/she should use monster infighting to be able to kill difficult monsters. The same principle is followed in Dildo Tank: the end-of-level boss is a common monster in the next levels, but the player knows which strategy to follow to beat them, and even sometimes many of them at a time. Bosses teach the player some play skills.

By the way, from an art design perspective, the monster sprites are set once and for all. As the player progresses in the game, there is no need to add new sprites: the previous end-of-level boss's sprite still fits "normal" monsters. This makes the art designer focus on fewer but higher quality monster appearances.

On another hand, a boss is an element of the scenario/storyline. In Wario Land III, killing a boss sometimes gives a music box, but ending a level gives a new power like swimming or brawling. In Mystic Quest, battlefields (see screenshot nearby) can help the player earn more experience before trying to enter a dungeon and kill the boss at the very bottom of the dungeon. This is rather a grinding/bashing solution which is not really pleasant as it does not really teach the player anything, but simply increases the level of the character.

08 January 2010

[Cinema] A few common aspects in the Matrix, eXistenZ and Avalon movies



These 3 closely-related sci-fi movies deal with the virtual reality theme:

  • The Matrix (all of the 3 movies) from the Wachowski brothers, 1999. A “steampunk” rusty-metal reality and black-and-green virtual world where machines use humans to generate electricity. Slave humans are permanently connected to the Matrix to keep their mind busy.
  • eXistenZ from Cronenberg, 1999. A game designer introduces and tests his new game with a dozen of people. The game content changes with the participants’ state of mind. A very interesting idea is a series of virtual reality game inside a virtual reality game inside a virtual reality game. In the end, some of the players do not know what is real and what is virtual.
  • Avalon from Oshii, 2001. In a dark, gloomy and uninteresting world, an FPS-like game called Avalon gathers many players. One gifted player makes her way into the levels to reach the legendary “class Real” level.

The interface to connect to the game slightly differ from one movie to another. Humans can connect to the Matrix if they sit on a dental chair and are plugged hard-metal sharp-ended wires at the top of their spinal column. In eXistenZ, the player connects to the game station called pod through an umbilical cord plugged in the lowest part of their back (spinal column again). These two movies depict a very intrusive and violent way to connect to the game. Indeed, the first time Neo logs in the Matrix, his convulsed face makes the spectator feel the pain of the connection. However, in Avalon players just stay peacefully on a dental chair and only wear a helmet that covers their entire face. Logging off the game can be done in putting off the helmet. To my mind, external user interfaces for virtual games should stay “outside” of the body for people to accept the game. I choose to play the game, and I am free to push the “log off” button at any time. Similarly, computers have more and more complex pieces of software to manage the energy they consume, make them sleep, shut down when this task is done, etc. but it is unimaginable that our computers do not have any physical power-on/off button. Same idea for virtual reality games.

Players can be trapped IG. Traps are illustrated by the same example in Avalon and the Matrix: bricked up windows. Players do not know they are imprisoned until they try to draw the curtains and discover a wall instead of a glassed window.

As for the IG characters, the Matrix contain NPC (agents and “programs”) and actual humans who can change into agents at any time because they are plugged into the Matrix from the machine world. The “program” characters such as the Oracle or the Merovingian lead me to compare the Matrix to a Massively Multi-player Online Game (MMOG) where players have to accomplish quests: the Oracle said that freeing the Key-maker will let Neo enter the secret back-door to end the war between humans and machines. In Avalon, the “Ghost” is the NPC to kill to access the secret levels. Some mercenaries are used by a GM to help Ash, the heroine, destroy a huge war machine but all the other characters are actual players. Avalon reminds me more of a First-Person Shooter (FPS) game as we never see huge groups of people connected at the same time in the same level of the game (a dozen players in the “Ruins C66” level and half a dozen players in the “Flak Tower 22”). In eXistenZ, all the 10 connected players have a role and the story evolves around these roles. NPC are seen very rarely and players never talk to them. eXistenZ is actually just a virtual role-play game, but the GM usually in charge of organizing the story in table role-play games has been replaced by a computer.

In the three movies, pets have minor background roles which most of the time make the spectator raise an eyebrow. In Avalon for instance, in one reality, the heroine feeds a dog she has. When she goes in another reality, a portrait of the exact same dog hangs on her wall, but she can not find the dog. Another time, she prepares food for her dog, but suddenly realizes she has no dog. It took me some time to figure out that maybe the “realities” she thinks she lives in are actually other levels of the game where some parameters change from time to time. In the Matrix, Neo has a déjà-vu when he sees the same black cat doing the same actions twice in a row. The other members of the team explain that a déjà-vu happens when the Matrix is being modified dynamically. Indeed, they shortly realize that they have been trapped inside a building as the windows have been bricked-up. A dog was seen inside the eXistenZ game, and this dog happens to be the dog of the winner of the game. I think the message conveyed by the 3 movies is that pets follow us in all the worlds we can be. They are life partners and therefore stay permanently in our minds, whatever the reality we are in.

The death of players is implemented differently in the 3 virtual worlds. In eXistenZ, the player is simply kicked-out of the game while in the Matrix, dying IG means dying In Real Life (IRL). Unlike Avalon, in both the Matrix and eXistenZ, we never see bodies disappearing after their owner has been killed. In Avalon, a player asks the heroine to kill him and see if his body vanishes to check if the “Class Real” level they are currently in is actually the real world: “if you kill me and my body does not vanish, then this world is the real one”. Following this discussion, Ash shoots the other player and the corpse disappears as usually happens in game levels, leaving her astonished.

In the 3 movies, exploits, cheats and bugs keep reminding the spectator that the action occurs in a computer game and underline the fact that all of these incredible events remain virtual, they are not real. At the end of the eXistenZ movie, the game designer reaction about the winning couple is “there was such a non-fair-play and anti-game atmosphere inside the game”. In the Matrix, Neo’s unique superman powers “break” the Matrix rules (ie stopping bullets with a gesture of his hand) while normal humans can only try to “bend” these rules (ie try to dodge bullets). Breaking rules is nothing more in the Matrix than an exploit. The cat deja-vu happening when the Matrix is dynamically changed to trap the group is an obvious bug. Killing the Ghost NPC in Avalon brings a ridiculously huge number of points to the player, letting her connect to the higher levels. I feel like that this huge number of points is an exploit in the game design of the level. Moreover, a Game Master intervenes to make the heroine reach the Ghost: this intervention can be seen as cheating. Finally, a character in a fish shop of eXistenZ repeats the same words until the players say the appropriate words that launch the discussion with the NPC. Such a not flexible dialog feature in NPC made me think of the underlying code:
while(input != “blabla I expect you to say”)
{
print(“what do you want?”);
}
print(“here is your quest”);

07 January 2010

[Literature] Strangers and Friends: Collaborative Play in WoW

Bonnie Nardi and Justin Harris, 2006. Qualitative work (semi-structured interviews and field observations). play is characterized by a multiplicity of collaborations. Indeed, the classes asymmetrical strengths and weaknesses encourage collaboration during battle as well as in brief encounters.

The fun of collaborating with strangers

Buffs are the simplest way of engagement between players. Buffs happen in a cohesive group but also from a player to another he/she does not even know. In the latter case, authors explain that on a volontary basis, players commit small acts of kindness to maintain a mutually beneficial atmosphere. On the other hand, ganking consists of players waiting for killing other players weakened by fights with monsters. Not all interactions are beneficial for everyone.

The authors explain that with the freer atmosphere of online communities, players do IG things they would never do IRL, such as dancing naked in a fountain, following a conga-line or flirt.

Guilds, knots and friends - social structures in WoW

The authors argue that having different possible ways to collaborate in the game provides a versatile, robust environnement for play and learning. Indeed, playing in a guild requires much more involvement than taking part in a "pick-up" battleground party. To my mind, the underlying game design suggestion is: include as many and various ways for players to interact with one another as possible.

Learning

Moreover, the article mentions 2 key game activities: having fun and learning the game. It depends on what is meant by "fun", but I am not sure if these are the only interesting activities possible in the game. Anyway, Nardi explains that the social structures in WoW provide an environement for learning. The zone of proximal development (see figure nearby) introduced by Vygotsky consists of the knowledge or skills a child can learn at the moment, that is to say the difference between what the learner can perform alone and perform helped by a teacher (ie "collective performance"). Ang and Zaphiris in Social learning in MMOG: an activity theoretical perspective have argued that WoW players learn new skills or information if this knowledge belongs to their ZPD.

As taught in HCI classes, the interviewed players reported they learned mostly through trial and error: people eventually read the manual after they have tried (and failed). In collaborative activities, players acquire new information not only by themselves, but also by other players. Unless reading forums or databases, a Mage player can not know that a Paladin is particularly efficient against undead monsters until he/she has played with a Paladin. In the end, players can choose among various learning resources (asking other players, consulting websites or trying solo) the one(s) that best suit(s) them. IG, both the game design and the (relatively) friendly social environnement help players learn. But outside of the game, a new player may read websites or forums to increase his/her knowledge, while an expert player will find the appropriate add-on on curse.com. A "social" player may post his/her questions on forums while a solo player may read but not particularly post on forums and if he/she can not find the answer, he/she may try by himself/herself until he/she finds what he/she wants. Giving so many kinds of players the information they want the way they want may be one of the reasons why WoW has become so popular.

Friends

Weak-tie
According to Rapoport, if B and C are linked to A (cf figure nearby), there is a high probability that B and C are linked together. A weak tie is the link between B and C. A weak tie is the social network link between two acquaintances, whereas the link between two close friends or members of the same family is a strong tie. According to Granovetter, only a weak tie can connect two strong-tied social networks. I am taking an exampleFor instance, the Jones have seen on TV a commercial for a detergent. Their neighbors, the Smiths have no TV and therefore are supposedly not reachable by the detergent marketing. However, word-of-mouth marketing relies on this weak tie (neighborhood) between the Jones and the Smith, to make the no-TV family hear about the detergent.

Nardi et al. suggest that "friends" in WoW are not weak ties because in the game, friends do not help connecting strong social networks together and friendship remains a one-to-one relation. In WoW, the friends of a player appear in the friends list. The player can not organize conversations between a group of friends without being in the same party. So, except for guilds of friends, the usual interaction between friends is whispering, a typical one-to-one relation. Maybe players want to have this one-to-one exclusive chanel functionality with their actual friends, and use a more collective broadcast-like chanel for their guildmates who might not all be friends. In the end, I wonder if an "interconnected friends" functionality in the friends list in WoW could not make the one-to-one friend relations evolve into solid clusters of friends.

Guilds

This paper gives a very interesting (and inspirational) definition of guilds: named groups of players that socialize and play together. This definition seems to put in parallel play and socialize. However, I think the reason why people socialize in a guild is because they have chosen to play together. Were they no guild activities, there would not be any socialization. In other words, socialization in WoW is a consequence of the game design.

Illustrating their argument with the small tightknit European villages of the 19th century where everyone knew one another and everyone shared the same history and tradition, the authors explain that guilds look like Gemeinschaft communities. However, guilds are not as isolated as 19th century villages: their members can easily group with strangers and find new people to talk to. While playing in a guild sometimes require an overhead of collaborating, playing solo may look like a break from the guild: assembling 25 players for a raid means waiting for the latecomers and forbearing the clumsy players, but exploring new places and accomplishing new quests alone or with players met on the way has a taste of freedom. PvP is another way to play solo.

Knots

According to the authors, knots are unique groups that form to complete a task of realtively short duration, like an airline crew or international research workshops. The concept of knots has been first described by Engeström et al.. Examples of knots in WoW are "pick-up" teams, trade partners, duelists or strangers dancing together.

To my mind, knots are the transitional phase between perfect strangers and in-game acquaintances and friends (see table below). A player who feels he/she truly belongs to a human-size community such as a guild (but not such as a 11-million-player game community) has a reason to stay in the game. I think game designers know very well how playing is not exactly what keeps players in a MMOG. As an example, between the solo-player and the guild master, who do you think is going to stay in the game longer? Hence a good MMOG game design should encourage players to participate in knot-like situations so that they later can get involved in guilds.

strangers -> knots -> acquaintances -> friends
solo players, auction house interactions parties, raids, duels, trades, global chanels of discussion guild membership, social events, private chanels of discussion guild creation/management, chitchat, oral chanels of discussion

A very interesting idea given by the authors is to tailor MMOG to fit elderly people's interests. Through knots of such an MMOG, elderly people could meet new players with whom they could share topics of mutual interest and participate in activities that provide mental stimulation. Hospitalized people could also benefit from MMOG knots. I recently read about the Compuserve story of Joan and Alex on Yann Leroux's blog: in the 1980's Joan has had a severe car accident leaving her disfigured and in a rolling chair. She decides to participate in the Compuserve forums and shortly becomes a model for her pugnacity. However, behind Joan was actually Alex, a prominent Jewish New York psychiatrist in his early fifties according to meatballwiki.org. This story makes me think that MMOG for specific "weak" populations (elderly fighting dementia or hospitalized children) can lead to many identity deception cases, and maybe cause particularly big trouble among these "weak" populations.

Playing WoW: escaping or increasing offline relations

The authors argue that sometimes players enjoy the virtual world because they want to escape the real one. A player acknowledges that playing WoW has made [him] less social in real life. Another explains that she uses the game as a break from real life: Her in-game friends were refreshingly casual and she sometimes likes to go and play alone.

On the other hand, the authors suggest that sometimes, playing WoW increases offline relations. They give examples of people of the same family playing together. One mother was thrilled to play with her son who lives in another state. For another mother, playing WoW with her children was just another shared activity. A third mother uses WoW to teach her children typing and mathematics. A brother explained that playing WoW with his much older brother made them share a common discussion topic.

The very last sentence of the paper suggests that WoW joins a long tradition of card and board games in which family and friends of different ages and genders may play together. Is WoW the new Monopoly? Ironically, according to an interview she gave to the Department of Informatics of UCI, Monopoly is the last game Nardi played before trying WoW.

06 January 2010

Sources of information

Getting meta

I try to read as much as I can in the MMOG area and bundle similar sources together in my posts. As Seth Godin wrote in Getting Meta, on the Internet, there is too much information compared to the number of places giving you links to the information you want. And there are even less places where you can find comments on links talking about what you want. Here is an example. You may want to know about community management in MMOG. Actually, wikipedia writes that community management is the functional control of systems by communities or their representatives. This definition is fine, but if you are a community manager, you may want to know more than just what community management is. You may obviously want to know what each interesting web site writes about community management, compare the ideas they give, etc.

On my blog, if you click on the "community management" tag in the tag cloud, you will go on this page which contains posts, each post containing ideas and links about a specific aspect of community management such as Charismatic Developers and the role they could have in community management or ideas of real-life events to develop a community thanks to its players. I do not pretend that everything of interest concerning community management (for example), is mentioned in my blog. If it was the case, I would not have to post anymore in that area. I am just trying to be exhaustive. I also do not pretend I am writing top-notch articles simply because I bundle relevant ideas together, but I try to be interesting. After all, I want to be read :-)

RSS feeds

Before I find a better (and smarter) way to display them, here are the feeds I currently try to follow. To get this result, I used a e4x script on the .ODML file exported by FeedDemon.

FeedDemon Subscriptions - version of Thu, 21 Jan 2010 23:25:05 GMT

Academia

Business and mgmt

Cartoons

Community Mgmt

Game Design

Game Dev Blogs

Game Dev Mags

Game Industry Mags

Gamer Blogs

Gamer Blogs II

Gamer Mags

Media and Society

Mgmt and Marketing Games

MMO devs

MMO Game Design

MMO Gamer Blogs

MMO Gamer Blogs II

MMO Gamer Mags

Play this game

RO players

Vrac

WoW players



PS: I will keep updating this post as things will evolve. Feel free to tell me about a blog you find interesting and I should read, about researchers in the MMO area I have not mentioned, or magazines I could have forgotten.