Your Next: Playing Cards

Often this column is only very loosely formed around EverQuest Next and/or Landmark, and I sometimes feel a little guilty about that. I’m prone to getting wrapped up in ideas and discussions of broader trends, when I’m sure that many of you would rather have a chat about those cool games we’re all excited about.

So this week, I’m not going to get derailed by what’s going on in the industry at large, even if it’s thinly wrapped in the context of EQN and Landmark. I don’t think this is the place for it, and other people have already done a much better job of it than I ever could.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, look for the word ‘gamer’ in the mainstream press. In fact, it’s probably best not to, it’s just embarrassing.

Instead, we’re going to talk about some great things that are happening in the development of EQN and Landmark right now! I know you don’t come here for news either, so hang tight and brace for opinions.

There’s been an update to combat in Landmark, and with it some of the basic ideas that form the foundation of what will follow; not just in Landmark, but in EQN also. It’s great to see more of the systems being fleshed out, and I’m personally very happy with the way this one is going. Slowing the pace of combat and adding more opportunity for tactical decision making is a positive step, and the systems used to do it are encouraging.

Creating depth without becoming bogged down in complexity is always a great challenge in game design, especially with horizontal character advancement, and it looks like SOE has some great sources of inspiration in place to facilitate it. Specifically, we can already see the influence of Magic the Gathering on character building:

  • Collecting more options can be very helpful, but isn’t required to engage with the content

  • Enormous variety is possible, but you don’t have to understand or even be aware of everything to be strong

  • Conversely, by understanding how the different elements can be used together a player can become more powerful through understanding, not just by the numbers on their gear

  • While it’s possible to make a very strong build, the large possibility space means that nothing is the best solution to every problem

Your Next: The Shoulders of Giants

SOE is getting less and less shy about calling EverQuest Next a new kind of game, and personally, I’m glad. Challenging the tropes of MMOs has been the overarching goal of EQN since the team were sent back to the drawing board in 2011. They were smart enough to see the pattern of huge releases with disappointing retention. I don’t think any of us want that for the next product in the lineage of EverQuest.

Your Next: That's No Moon

When logging into a new MMO for the first time, among the complaints about server issues and general vitriol, I would be willing to wager five whole American Dollars that the global chat channels would feature some kind of argument about World of Warcraft. Even if the argument is about exactly how bad it is, or how much abuse its players deserve, even the redundant ‘WoW-Killer’ discussion (yes, some people still think that’s a thing), I guarantee it’ll come up.

Why shouldn’t it? The MMO landscape has been shaped and sculpted by the existence of one game for so long, it’s been distorted to the point where some feel it’s the only shape that’s even possible. It’s shaped not just the games that have been made, but the very context in which we consider them, even before we really know anything about them.

Your Next: Gambling Problem

Many of us are suffering in silence; we pace about dilapidated rooms and shy away from the sunlight. We are the MMO addicts, we just want to chase the dragon. So we bounce around the official sites, news sites, reddit and fan sites - poring over every last shred of news for that hit we all need, here on the hype train.

I can tell you, for example, that Storybricks' Engineer Brian Schwab’s postmortem on the AI of Hearthstone is available for free on the GDC Vault. It’s a fascinating look at his approach to creating a ‘tag’ based AI system that’s designed to be intuitively manipulated. Sound familiar?

Of course it does, we can’t help ourselves.

Imagine my excitement when, in a brief exchange on twitter, the Director of Development himself Dave Georgeson made a point about MMO design in response to an article by the devilishly handsome Veluux over at EQHammer, that I believed to have been abandoned. Stay tuned to find out what it was!

This week, just like all the other weeks, I’ve been scouring the internet to find any fresh morsel, wondering what is it about the MMOs we love that cause us to feel that pull? What is the reason so many of us never quite get over our first MMO experience? Is it because of the sense of wonder it provided, before we knew how all the pieces fit together, before we started making spreadsheets and earnestly debating with strangers on forums about what kind of death penalty is objectively superior? I hope so, because that way we can get it back.

There is another point worth considering, the cynical among us could point to the hype train and the often borderline exploitative ‘retention strategies’ that draw comparisons to the Skinner Box. I have a tendency to point these aspects out when I feel the need to lash out at things beyond my control, but I also consider myself an optimist, and that’s why I firmly believe there’s more to it.

The drive to be lost in a fantasy world is strong in many of us, I grew up reading the Discworld series of novels by Terry Pratchett, and I have read every one without ever worrying what loot would drop at the end.

But... games! We exclaim, trying not to sound pretentious, games are different, an interactive experience requires feedback. Without progression players would just quit, they’d have no reason to keep playing.

Forgive me, my awesome readers (all two of you), when I say that in my opinion a novel is a far more interactive experience than almost any video game. Just look at the graphics, think of all the work we do to make up for that.

Alright, I’m half joking about the graphics thing, but when it comes to being drawn into an experience, the experience of being immersed in a different time and place, holding out for that particular purple helmet to drop is nothing compared to feeling such acute empathy for a character brought to life by our minds and a sequence inked shapes on paper.

I believe story is important. Of course, we all know that context is the basis for our motivations. I don’t think it’s possible to argue with such a broad idea, but it does seem sometimes like those responsible for making online games might have gotten confused about the best way to create that context.

Sorry to keep going on about Destiny but, well, there it is, it is there. If there’s one thing you can say about Destiny, it’s that it exists. A titan standing astride the console market, blotting out the sun to cast a pallid, dreary malaise over everything beneath its mighty sales figures. Bravo, capitalism in action.

The reason I bring it up is because the main criticism of the game is based around how tepid the story is, how it seems to flinch from making any kind of point about anything, and only using language that looks like it had to make it through several committees and focus testing cycles before being approved.

With such a hefty reported budget to match the resources and reach of a studio like Bungie, we can only assume it wasn’t considered important. Or worse—that it would be somehow distracting or off-putting to players.

Diving Deep: Journey Into The Sims 4

The Sims 4 released on the PC last week, nearly one year after it was first revealed. The lead-up to its release was a flurry of mixed emotions from longtime fans of the series; between concern over missing features (compared to Sims 1-3), the shift from an open world to single lot environment, the small introductory neighborhood size and more.

While I've certainly invested a lot of time into many other series such as EverQuest, Elder Scrolls and Civilization, the Sims franchise takes the cake for having devoted hundreds (or more *cough*) of my life to. I've been playing The Sims longer than any of my children have been alive (the eldest of which will be able to get his driver's permit next year). Let's just say my excitement for the announcement of The Sims 4 included many exclaimation points, and after my first 49 hours of playing it, I'm quite happy with the game, despite its spotty issues and omitted features.

This review is going to be extremely lengthy and touch on every aspect I've experienced thus far.

Your Next: Growing Pains

This week, I have mostly been quietly raging to myself, as an acute case of the man-flu sapped the energy required to do more.

It’s a funny time to be interested in games. By ‘games’, I don’t just mean the final product that we become the end-user, of course. The whole structure and mechanism around games is suffering from some chronic growing pains, and while wonderful new ideas and possibilities are opening up, teen tantrums seem to be coming along with it.

This time it’s even made its way into the mainstream press, and I see the look people give me when I tell them what I do in my spare time. Then we talk about Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn and I’m forced to smile and politely agree that ‘games don’t really matter, they’re just for kids anyway!’

Understandably, it’s a time of great change; we’ve all been guilty of identifying a little too personally with a commercial product. I can say that with some confidence, knowing this is an MMO crowd.

So we struggle to express our emotions; we make earnest, yet sophomoric, declarations (I’ll be case in point, here) that we know would solve everything if people would just listen. While we may be unsure what it is we want, exactly, we can smell which end of the bull what you’re giving us came out of.

So I’m angry this week; I’m feeling sick, for once I’ve been embarrassed to say I love MMOs and videogames in public and now I check to see what’s been happening and I see WildStar, ArcheAge and Destiny all spoon feeding us crap like we wouldn’t notice.

So forgive me if I take a break this week from talking about how bright our future is while I deal with this.

WildStar has seen the inevitable dip in its user-base and is exploring options for mega-server technology. I’m sorry, but are we expected to believe that Carbine Studios did not expect their numbers to drop after the first few months? I’m sure they’re not stupid, and I don’t think it’s humanly possible to be that arrogant, so they didn’t tell us about their plans. Seems like a pretty smart move, and one that will benefit players, so why not be up front about it?

On the other hand, they’re also claiming they didn’t realize how many players would want to play solo, and that the game is ‘too hardcore’ for many, so they’ll be introducing changes and new features to accomodate.

The plan seems to be to lie to and alienate the players who decided to stick around for the long haul. What a shame. I was really hoping WildStar would pull it out of the bag and be a success story - it’s incredibly well made and the team seem passionate about what they have - but if they carry on like this, I expect they’ll end up yet another casualty of the MMO grinder.

Your Next: Like That, But Different

It's been pointed out time and again that Landmark enjoys one of the best online communities ever, and I must say I agree. Yes, there are those who have an unfortunate proclivity towards being entitled jerks, but really their crime is caring too much. Comparing these mild irritants to some online communities is like comparing a playful scratch from a kitten to stepping on a LEGO.

I'm happy and proud to be part of this community, and I hope that my words and actions contribute to supporting and maintaining this attitude.

Now, let's all kick the stuffing out of each other—I want to fight every last one of you.

Yes, PvP is here; it's the new thing the cool kids are talking about. While I appreciate and respect the reservations of some when it comes to this kind of activity, I would heartily recommend at least trying out the weapons with a trusted friend.

These mechanics and systems are, after all, what we can expect from combat all the way through to EverQuest Next. Your feedback at this early stage carries just as much weight as the psychotics among us who enjoy a little competition, so don't be shy, you have nothing to lose. Really—there's no death penalty yet, go nuts. (Before you start, yes, I am aware there almost certainly won't be a default death penalty in this kind of content. Let's just all share the hilarious joke and move on.)

Monkey Tales: An Educational Experience

Monkey Tales is a series of educational games by Larian Studios, originally released in 2011 and repackaged together in a Steam release last week. Designed for ages 7 through 11, these games use an algorithm to establish your child's learning curve and ramp difficulty up or down to ensure a well-tailored learning experience.

I happen to have two children in this age range, and Larian Studios was kind enough to offer a review code for the game. My kids, in 2nd and 5th grade, gave the game a whirl and offered their insight on the experience.

A Haunting Weekend in Wayward Manor

Over the weekend, I spent some time liberating Wayward Manor of its fleshy inhabitants. The casual puzzle game, based on a tale and narrated by author Neil Gaiman, was released on July 15, 2014 to mixed reviews. While I enjoyed my time within developer The Odd Gentlemen's manor, completing a game within three hours can leave much to be desired.

Your Next: Selfish Gamers

Being part of SOE's development of Landmark and EverQuest Next has so far been a strange and unique process, at times it feels like watching a Rube Goldberg machine assemble itself. We don't understand how everything fits together because we don't know yet, it's never been done. Frankly, I doubt that SOE knows how it all fits together; opportunities emerge as they build the tools to make the platform to build the tools. Opening the crate with the crowbar that's inside it.

SOE Live offers a convenient point of punctuation—it’s a great time to look back and take stock of how far we've come in such a short time while looking ahead at the ever clearer path in front of us.

Over a year ago during SOE Live 2013, I became hopelessly enamoured with the idea these games represented. Whether it's a case of cognitive bias or not, I must say being part of this experience has so far exceeded my expectations and I am consistently floored by the innovation of this unprecedented project.

Of course there's a long way to go, but right now I'm glad it's happening at all. Those of you who follow the news of the industry at large will be aware of the awful events of the last couple of weeks. We all know an unfortunate side effect of the anonymity the internet provides is giving a mouthpiece to people who don't think some other people's experiences are valid. So called 'gamer culture' has provided a breeding ground for these hateful fantasists, the themes and marketing strategies of the AAA game industry tend to play into their delusions.

So we must endure the death throes of this weak and petty bunch, all the while maintaining our superiority, because we are selfish enough to want others to be included.

Did I say selfish? Surely they are the selfish ones? Don't worry, it's just a trick – read on for the delightfully hyperbolic rhetoric!

When discussing accessibility in MMOs, I often refer to my selfishness. Because I am selfish, I want other people to enjoy playing the games I do; I want them to be knowledgeable and competent and feel empowered in the way that I do because improving their game experience improves my own.

It's the same with the game industry as a whole. I want all types of people to feel included, respected and valued because I am an awful, selfish man who wants games to be the best and most interesting they can be.

This is why I tend to champion instances of user generated content, social cohesion and player agency in games. I think it makes them more challenging, interesting and ultimately exciting. It might not always make them better, they might not be any more fun and judging by suggestions on forum posts we can expect more misses than hits.