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Watching Games (Part 2)

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Some people like playing videogames. They play them because they can get into the story, get into the character, and/or get into the challenge of the gameplay.

Some people like watching videogames. Personally, I feel that this group is acknowledged less than those playing. The people playing the game are most likely the ones who paid for it, but still they watch, though they watch for various reasons. Some watch for the cinematic aspect of it. They like the story, the art, and/or the attitude of the game. Some watch because they’re waiting to play next. Some watch because the game is fun for the person playing. The videogame becomes, essentially, a spectator sport. The interesting part, there, is that this is prevalent in people who do not like watching sports. I don’t have the statistics to say they do it more or less often than those who do watch sports, but I do find that observation particularly interesting.

As I was playing through Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, I immediately got an audience. The story was good, the animation was good, and the overall execution was believable. They managed to sprinkle in surreality in a fairly realistic setting, and my audience friends (and myself) were engrossed in the story the whole time. So, when I got into Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, that same audience returned. However, there was something different this time. One of the audience members couldn’t make it up as often, so we continued on without her, knowing we could come back as necessary. I ended up getting to a point where, while playing, I became wholly engrossed in the game’s – for lack of a better term – horror sequences where I knew there was something in a cave with me, and didn’t know what. Then, perhaps because of lighting, perhaps because of where my focus was on the screen, perhaps because I was drunk with fear and enjoyed the tension that the game had built up until that point…

All I managed to notice is that one of the foreground shadows in a place that I had just passed suddenly had angry looking eyes and sharp teeth. Engrossed as I was, I freaked out. No one else happened to be watching at that point, and so no one had the same reaction as I did to the event. I played through it again later, and my audience didn’t have the same reaction I did. It made me wonder: was it because I had, to some extent, spoiled them about it? Was it different for them because they weren’t the ones playing it? I figure it was a mix of both, but it just goes to show that, sometimes, it’s difficult to cater to player and audience of said player at the same time.

There have been other games that, at certain points in those games, changed the User Interface to reflect and/or augment the mood of the scene. Metal Gear Solid 2 used various strange messages and screen overlays – some of which stopped the gameplay completely – in order to disorient the player. With the screen going to black or to a fake “VIDEO 1″ screen, a trick not exclusive to MGS2, the player may not have been the only one to get tricked by the game.

So, all that being said, should the games industry do anything different for those people who are the audience? The audience may not always be passive, and sometimes add to the tension depending on how they react to the situations given. But is the industry doing so already? Goodness knows games like Amnesia: Dark Descent knows how to toy with players and viewers. With the medium of an MMO, I’m not sure Emerald Kingdom is a good stage for people doing much watching, but it’s something that might be fun to keep at the back of our minds for future games.

Sandalphon-headcon

Watching Games (Part 1)

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Hello everyone, Sandalphon here. Today, I’m going to be talking about a topic I’ve been mulling in my head for a while: being a video game watcher.

For clarification, I’m referring to anyone who willingly watches another person playing a game, and enjoys it from a spectator standpoint. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a video game watcher. I didn’t get my own game system until I was ten, so I spent a lot of time at friends’ houses who had a plethora of games to choose from.

At age 4 or 5, I would go to my friend Kelly’s house for playdates. She had an NES, and we were enamored with Super Mario Brothers. More than anything, I wanted to see the “end” of the game. Mario barely had a story, but that didn’t matter to me. My mind turned a simple save-the-princess storyline into one of the most dramatic struggles ever witnessed by mankind.

I realized I was never going to see the ending if I kept trying to play it myself. I didn’t visit Kelly’s place enough to ever get good at Mario. But Kelly played it all the time. She was good. I decided to pass off my “turns” at playing the NES to Kelly. (Kelly’s mom was very particular about making sure Kelly was sharing with me. It took a bit of talking to convince her that no, I didn’t want to play, and Kelly WASN’T bullying me). I just wanted to see the ending and share in the kickass awesomeness of winning a video game. Sadly, I never got to see Kelly beat the game.

I went on to make other friends who were game-rich. I met Ellen in kindergarten, and her large family had every video game system I’d ever heard of. Over the next fifteen years, I spent a considerable amount of time at her house watching (and, indeed, playing) games. It was at her home that I first encountered RPGs. Here were games that had stories that were longer than a single paragraph! Like many teens and preteens, the Final Fantasy series was one of my favorites to watch because of the complex storylines and gorgeous graphics.
I specifically remember Ellen’s sister Samantha playing through FFX. Ellen and I were looking up screencaps from the game because that’s what nerdy 12-year-olds did with the power of the internet. We saw a vital plot point in a screencap. We then pestered Sam to play the game into the wee hours of the morning until we got to the point in the story we saw online. This was how it went for many years, with me content to merely watch Ellen or Sam play and absorb whatever story there was. This continued even after I got my first game systems, as there were always games I didn’t have, but wanted to see.

And, to some extent, that’s still how things are now. I’ve really enjoyed watching Caelum play through the Uncharted games, and there have been others I’m happy to watch rather than play myself.
Why do I enjoy using a product for something other than its intended purpose? One reason is that I’ve always enjoyed a good story (or, at least, what a 10 year old who has OD’d on Tic-Tacs and basement mold spores thinks is a good story), no matter what form it’s in. Books, movies, TV, mythology, local history. If it’s interesting, I’ll get invested. I have no memory of this, but my mom tells me that when I was around 4 years old, there was a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood episode I got all indignant over. I don’t know what happened, but announced “I don’t like that ending. I’m gonna make a new ending!” I started drawing my own storybook and asked my mom to write in the words for the story. What I’m getting at is that I get worked up over stories. It’s always made sense to me that it’s fun to watch games being played because there’s something worth watching.

Another thing I’m noticing is that, to some extent, I get more worked up in the possibility of failure in games versus movies. In an action movie, you know that the good guy will land that jump, have perfect aim, save the girl and beat the bad guy. When I’m watching someone play a game, I know that those same things will happen, but I don’t know how many attempts it will take. I can get invested in watching another player trying to complete a challenge.

So what do you think? Do any of our blog readers like to watch games just as well as play them? Let me know on our VShift forums, or share some stories of game-watching. Caelum will be posting a follow up to this with his own thoughts on the idea of watching games, so be on the look out for the continuation.

 

(Part II of this post will appear on Friday!)

azrael_headcon

F2P, P2P, MT, Cash Shops and other business model vagaries.

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These days, there is a great deal of muddled confusion over business models in games. A lot of these terms have been diluted or mixed and matched over so much as to become meaningless. I see people rail against Free to Play, Pay to Play, Micro Transactions, Cash shops, Pay to Win, etc. The problem with these rants, is you start to blur lines to make your point about why whatever it is your ranting about is bad. In this case, I am seeing a lot of people complain about business models, and really…just adding more mud to the discussion.

Lost in all of this is something very important: value for the player is key, economic balance in the game itself is essential. The other thing lost in these debates has been what these things do mean, or can mean in games. A lot of people use these terms interchangeably. This leads to confusion and misunderstanding.

Lets take a look at some of these. Starting with the basic two models:

  • Free to play (F2P): what it says on the tin. The game and more than likely the basic features of the game are free to play, and monetization is centered around providing incentives to pay for extra functionality or items to enhance the game playing experience. (Candy Crush, is an example mobile game of this type. Puzzle Pirates, Spiral Knights, and Ragnarok are MMO examples of this type)
  • Pay to Play (P2P): what it says on the tin. The game, and all it’s features must be paid up front, or through a recurring subscription payment. (World of Warcraft is the best known example of this type)

These are the basic two models. Everything after this is something that can be, or is usually tacked onto the above two basic business models (after the game has shipped)…there are two top tier “add ons” for the two basic business models. They are:

  • Cash Shop (CS): You purchase items from a shop using real money. (For example, Team Fortress 2 has a Cash shop. Maple Story has a cash shop)
  • Micro Transaction (MT): You buy either items or currency using real money. (Puzzle Pirates’ Doubloons, as an example. Spiral Knights has Energy/Crowns)

Where the confusion and griping comes in to play, is when the business models in the first list are mixed or combined with the add ons from the second list. I’ve seen people claim they don’t understand how people in Free to Play games spend so much. I’ve seen people claim they don’t understand how anyone could pay for a subscription. These arguments are really invalid, when you get down to it because purchase value means different things to different people. If you ask 10 different people what they think about F2P or P2P, you will get 10 different answers. One common thread I have noticed however….is that when F2P is tagged as “bad” or “negative”, it’s typically due to cash shops, or feature crippling the things someone needs to play the basic game effeciently. Worse still, I see people confuse Micro Transactions with Cash Shops as the norm. But one of the things we discovered when designing Emerald Kingdom is that real F2P + MT is the way to go. At least for us.

But, what winds up happening in a lot (not in all games, but many) is that the shipped game economy is so tenuous that when the idea of F2P or F2P + MT is weighed, it’s quickly realized that there is no way to add it to the existing economy without making things worse. It’s often just tacked on badly to games it was never designed for; and tail patching is actually the worst kind of patching, when you get down to it. A good example of this was Trickster Online: it suffered from a horribly hyper inflated economy. As such, when the cash shop was introduced, so was a separate economic unit. You could use the “micro transaction” currency in the cash shop, but not in the game proper. Anything bought in the cash shop was not transferable, or could not be traded and so had no direct impact on the economy. Some of these items did “dust” or wear out, or were purchased based on a timer. Which kept the cash shop economy flowing. It was a separate economy from the main game economy, and in some ways, made it worse for the vendor. (fraud, account hacking, etc). The people who could buy stuff in the cash shop had no need to contribute to the *main* economy, as they had paid for the stuff they needed to do better, and well…you get the idea.

However, in the regular game economy of Trickster…the game lacked a good and solid system of economic fountains and sinks. Hence the hyper inflation. Hence the reason you could not add a new economic wheel to it. It would have probably made things worse. But, because of this poor design….it created little value for the common player. Hyper inflation is a disease, especially in the cutesy MMO’s found in the far east. But it’s these kinds of implementations that often give F2P or MT a bad name. Then of course, there is the outright greed of some implementations of F2P. Not just in MMO’s either.

Our plan for Emerald Kingdom is simple. The plan was by no means simple to put together either. Because people like “stuff”. Fair enough. But unless you have a method for something that enters the system to find it’s way out of the system…you are going to have problems. To put it bluntly: virtual things have to dust. If there is a fountain (a way of acquiring something, be it gold, weapons, etc) there has to be a way for the stuff that came from the fountain to leave. This is called a sink. (A way of removing something from the system, be it a shop, or paying for a repair, or breaking down a weapon into scrap). Sinks are vital in any economy too, in the above example for Trickster, the cash shop economy had no real sinks. The sinks were voluntary. You could trash your own purchased items. But, really…why would you do that?

If you don’t plan out your economy carefully, chances are you’re going to wind up with seriously lopsided economy. When that happens, creating value for the player becomes exponentially difficult. The player loses when the economy is based on nothing more than feeding the developer money through a one way (up) vertical economy. If screwing the customers is your business model, then you really don’t have a business model. It will work for a time, but there is no such thing as an “unlimited economic ceiling” for a game developer…or anyone. Anyone who thinks there is can look at Wall Street, World of Warcraft, etc. Economies work best when they are balanced, and not stacked against one side or the other. The creation of value requires effort, and forethought. It is by no means a simple thing to do, and creating value is often a subjective thing.

In closing, remember: it’s not the model that’s the villain. It’s the implementation. By themselves, Micro Transactions, Free To Play, Pay to Play, Cash Shops…are all solid, and proven business models. But implementing it according to a philosophy of trying to force a player to spend, or worse…tricking them into spending (through slick trigger wording, or psychological trickery) is reprehensible. The models are valid, it’s some of the people who implement them that are the problem.

Like most things, the context of a particular model is important to keep in mind when having a dialog about this topic.

e8cccf51826fdb600a7b2be68b540900

Enfys and Game Design?

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Enfys-garden

Enfys exploring Emerald Kingdom!

Hi! I’m Enfys, Double Cluepon Studios’ rainbow-adoring mad-wiki-scientist and Archangel extraordinaire! I joined the company in early 2013 as a member of the future overnight game staff, as well as the Kingdompedia Manager for the upcoming game, Emerald Kingdom! I was awesomely excited – and the excitement definitely hasn’t worn off!

Although I really like playing games, I had never worked for a game development company before, and I knew nothing about making games. However, Double Cluepon is a very open company and people from all departments are encouraged to get involved with the game design process. Azrael says that there’s no diploma or certificate that makes you a good game designer, and that knowing what is and isn’t fun in a game is what’s important. I know about fun! We all get to contribute ideas and build upon each others ideas, and I am learning lots of new things!

As well as being able to be a part of designing the game, one of the other awesome things about being part of such an open company is that I get to peek at everything. (We can also play around and make scenes in the StoryTeller Engine – I made a garden, a sandbox, and an office with a podium!) I feel awesomely lucky to be able to witness all aspects of Emerald Kingdom being brought to life – from rough ideas to finished product – and everything in-between!

Enfys-ST-backyard

Enfys’ backyard in StoryTeller!

However, sometimes it’s hard knowing so many cool secrets about things to come, but being unable to blab about it. (Seriously, the Story Teasers and Alpha Client just scratch the surface! There’s a whole world of stories, characters, places and creatures – not to mention the art, music, and game-y side of things!) Being good and angelic as I am, I can’t spoil the surprise – no matter how much you may try to beg or bribe me – but I also can’t wait until everyone can see the fantastic things that are planned for Emerald Kingdom!

Seeing the game and community grow is so exciting! I have loved hearing what our play-testers have had to say about the game so far! I love doing what I do, and it doesn’t seem like work when you’re surrounded by a team of awesomely talented and passionate people working together to create something fantastic – a game and world, not just for others to explore – but for us, too!

~Enfys =)

samael_headcon

By Creating A Living History, We Will Make History

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Emerald Kingdom is going to ship with an incredible promise: you are going to be a part of a continuous storyline. You are going to help overthrow kingdoms and save Sprites — or condemn them to death. This is an incredibly risky, dangerous promise, and there’s a reason that no MMO has started out from its inception with such a core message. The world will change; it’s a core part of our design. Why do other online games eschew this, and why are we addressing it so directly?

First, let me explain what our plan is. Our plan is that we are going to keep an active writing staff on-hand to design and write new quests and missions, which will replace older quests that we will retire. The new quests may or may not refer to older quests, and to the history of the world in general, which will include various potential outcomes to the actions the players can take. This means that a person coming in to the game two, three years in is going to have a vastly different experience than someone who has played through since the initial launch — not just in terms of bug fixes and equipment, but in the very story of the game they’re playing itself, and the way in which they’ve insinuated themselves into the game’s history.

Although other games DO have progressing storylines, there are no games that I am aware of with this scope or breadth or depth built in to their design. Everything we are working on that interacts with the story is being built to support a dynamic progressing story system. World of Warcraft releases continuations of its stories in fits and spurts, with expansions; it wiped out part of Azeroth in the Cataclysm expansion, but only did so as part of a major overhaul of the system as a whole. Up until that point, everything was the same in the old world. We do not want to do that; we want the old world to change as well as the new world, over time, naturally.

Why hasn’t anyone else tried to push this concept so far? There are a variety of reasons, but as the game designer, I want to talk about the number one reason, the obvious reason: risk. A player who comes in and sees a rich history built up does not necessarily see just history; the new player sees lost opportunities, experiences not obtained, in-groups that are exclusionary to them just because of their shared experiences that they cannot possibly understand. It is the number one great fear of all game designers to create a game that does not encourage new people to drop in at any time, to have a continuing rolling base of players to share in the joy of what they’ve designed.

There are solutions to this, which we intend to implement. First, we intend to allow all players to relive those histories — through cutscenes and memorials we want the retired quests and missions to live on as part of the world instead of as some footnote in a wiki hidden on the dark side of the internet. Second, we intend to ensure that time continues its inexorable march at such a pace that new players will be more focused on participating in creating history rather than feeling excluded from it. Third, we are designing such that the history being created is relegated to story and non-game-impacting elements. If you’ve ever played an older single-player RPG, you know very well the frustration of getting past a certain point and learning that you missed an item and cannot go back and get it any more. It is codified into our design that no element of any storyline quest or mission be exclusionary; no rewards will ever be rendered unobtainable by the continuation of the story. Although there will be specialties awarded to those players who participated, those specialties will be badges of honor, cosmetic rewards, or possibly special items whose gameplay mechanics are replicated in other, alternative items.

Regardless of the outcomes, we are committed to telling a story, a good story, with a diverse cast of interesting, intense characters in a world we love. We want to tell Emerald Kingdom’s story for a long time, and that means admitting that sometimes an individual’s story ends, and sometimes a new story begins when you least expect it. It’s been a great displeasure of mine to see the static nature of many MMOs worlds, to see how slow they are to change, how little the game seems to care for the history its players participated in. Emerald Kingdom will not be like that. Emerald Kingdom will care. In some forest, on some mountain, there will be a monument to the change you players incite, to the revolutions you begin. Emerald Kingdom will march on; NPCs might find love and get married, or they might fight and duel and die. A dungeon may be unearthed, or perhaps a ruins uncovered, leading one city to claim it for its own — leading to an all-out siege from a neighboring city who wants the ruins for themselves. The world will change and you will be a part of it. I promise this.

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