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Droids Gone Wild

March 16, 2012 15 comments

This week I’m going to spend some time talking about my impressions trying out Star Wars: The Old Republic.  As the breakout MMO for BioWare, the game had a lot of hype to live up to given the company’s past performance with several blockbuster franchises such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age.  Overall, I found the leveling experience in the Old Republic to be worth the money I shelled out on the game – mostly due to BioWare’s ability to get a player involved in a great story.  But I do have some reservations about the game’s ability to draw in long term loyalty from fans.  I expect that being tied to the Star Wars franchise itself will keep the game alive for some time, but without streamlined multi-player features, I doubt that I’ll be playing the Old Republic over the long haul.  For those with attention issues, I’ve captured my key thoughts below.  Everyone else, feel free to hit the text wall at hyper speed.

SWTOR…

… plays like a single player game despite being massively multi-player.

… feels like you’re in a Star Wars movie, to include cross-planet road trips.

… offers some unique gameplay mechanics, despite replicating a lot of WoW’s game design.

… rewards players for their choices, but not necessarily the way you want.

… does a poor job of facilitating group content, a major problem for a multi-player game.

… looks to have a development team who appears to be willing to tackle the game’s weak spots.

Disclaimer: When I started writing this post, I tried not to compare the Old Republic to World of Warcraft because so many others have done it.  However, many of the similarities (like the way player skills are grouped) were so obvious that it was like BioWare wanted the familiarity.  I’m relatively forgiving of those decisions because who wouldn’t want to copy some of the success of a game with over 10 million subscribers?  Where possible, I’ve tried to highlight some of the game’s unique features, many of which do not get much press despite providing substantial portions of the gameplay.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

The Old Republic continues BioWare’s track record of emphasizing player-driven story interwoven with gameplay.  I find the Star Wars movies entertaining, but I’ve never a diehard fan of the franchise . In spite of my inexperience with the Star Wars universe, playing through the game felt like I was the star in my own prequel movie.  Even though I had initially planned to only play a single character, I ended up making and leveling a character in the Republic and the Empire just to see how the plot played out for both sides on various planets.  Most MMOs struggle in that every player is a hero, so no one actually feels that way. The Old Republic’s personal stories for each class and the overarching plot woven across all of the planets eliminates that problem by letting each player feel like a real hero.

The visuals in the game contributed heavily to the overall feeling that the story was actually one of the Star Wars movies.  Planets, space stations, and abilities alike are aesthetically rendered with details true to the experience at every turn.  However, after the initial cool-factor of slicing down enemies with a lightsaber wore off, some of the environmental detail did become a bit much.  For example, planets really did start to feel like planets in both detail and physical size around level 25.  Even with a speeder at my disposal boosting my travel speed, I often took what can only be described as road trips just to move between quest hubs.  Couple that with my compulsive need to leave no stone unturned, and I ended up wasting large amounts of time just traveling.  These are forgivable sins for a novice MMO team, but it was a numbing experience and definitely detracted from the overall experience.  In total, the graphics of the Old Republic struck a good balance balance between intentionally bright and trying-too-hard-to-be-real-life graphics.

The implementation of a personal crew also went a long way to making the game’s story come to life.  Honestly, if I had to pick one feature from the game to take into future games, it would be the crew system.  Crew members offset the impact of intentionally compartmentalizing player abilities by giving you the ability to have someone along who can complement your character abilities even when soloing.  It dramatically smoothed out some of the edges in the single player experience. Even better, BioWare allows your crew members to craft items, gather resources, and even perform their own missions.  This resulted in a similar crafting system available in other games but took the emphasis off of having a player perform repetitive player tasks in favor of simply making scheduling decisions for their crew.  I am a huge fan of any system that lets players multi-task and perform some functions away from the keyboard.  I hope that the BioWare developers eventually allow players to queue their crew up for multiple back-to-back missions similar to how players could queue skills to learn offline in Eve Online.  Coupling your crew to a personal ship even offered BioWare a way to tackle the personal housing in an MMO by giving players their own real estate that does not impact the games static world space.  The technique may only work in science fiction games, but this implementation works by giving players a place to call home while still being drawn to major hubs to interact with other players and for other in-game services not available on the ships.

No system is perfect, however, and the story system did have one major wart worth mentioning.  BioWare chose to implement an alignment system tied to player choices.  Periodically through the course of the plot, player decisions are labeled light or dark.  Often these decisions are clear cut, such as letting someone go or killing them, but quite frequently the choices presented to characters are significantly more ambiguous.  In previous BioWare games, a character could do what felt right, but in the Old Republic, your light and dark decisions are tied to points which act as a form of currency for some really nice rewards, the best of which can only be purchased if you go to one extreme or the other.  This resulted in several situations when my dark-side character had to kill someone to get the dark points I need, even when I wanted to leave a character alive to provide material for future plot.  It’s unclear how much of an impact the occasional swap from light to dark would have on a character, but as a player I definitely experienced the pressure to stick with one, ultimately denying some of the choice around which the game is centered.  The good news is that BioWare has acknowledged some of the limitations in their initial design and plans to add more rewards for players walking a more neutral path.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, BioWare’s emphasis on personal story in the Old Republic completely turned me off to the game’s multi-player features.  For a game that was built and billed as a massively multi-player game, this struck me as a fairly substantial problem looking toward the game’s future.  Whenever I tried questing or some of the game scripted content for groups which BioWare has termed “flashpoints,” I became impatient and frustrated that I was not in control of the action anymore.  Waiting on my partners to choose dialogue options becomes tedious and my light-side character now carries the title “the Backstabber” because my ally in one of the game’s flashpoints decided to vent some engineers into space to deactivate a security system rather than take an alternate airlock (as I alluded earlier, my rule in these games is never kill someone unless you have to, if for no other reason than that they may offer interesting plot twists later).  I ended up leaving many group quests incomplete because the equipment and story rewards in no way justified the time scraping together a group or dealing with problems when group members got out of sync on objectives (this happened often enough for me to get very frustrated several times).  As you go up in level, the group options become more numerous as players can choose to participate in warzones, conflict flashpoints (four man adventures) and operations (larger group encounters), but the lack of an effective way to find partners for these features is also going to become an issue as the player base ages and people level characters more sporadically.

BioWare has yet to implement patch 1.2, but the preview appears address some of the features the game seems to sorely lack such as more max level content.  One of the most unique features to be added will be the first stage of the game’s legacy system which encourages players to make new characters and level all over again.  Leveling up over and over is definitely more compelling in this game than others, and legacy will make it even better, but it will still lose its appeal.  So, I still have my reservations as to whether the company will be able to produce content fast enough to keep people occupied. Interestingly however, for the past few months, BioWare had a job vacancy for a social systems designer.  The position description included designing unique dynamic content for max level players.  The fact that the position is gone now gives me hope that we’ll see more complex design at the end-game in the future.

HireIt

March 8, 2012 1 comment

Thanks to my friend Sarah for bringing this article to my attention.  The article discusses how games are being used to effectively crowdsource and solve scientific problems.  In light of my previous post about the educational and social value of games over other forms of entertainment, I think it’s worth highlighting here.

Slate’s article continues the story of FoldIt, an experiment by the University of Washington that offered a game to the general populace which challenged players to build proteins into specific enzymes.  “Within hours, thousands of people were both competing against (and collaborating with) one another.  After three weeks, they had succeeded where the microbiologists and the computers had failed,” by identifying an elusive enzyme used by viruses like HIV.   Rather than simply discuss the medical puzzle at the heart of the game, the article highlights a personnel puzzle by showing that often the best people to solve a sophisticated problem did not have and, in fact, did not need background in the field.  This challenges conventional wisdom that a certain amount of experience, training, or education is needed to excel in a particular position.  That’s not to say these measures are unimportant, but as the FoldIt case displays, a PHD or experience with a certain problem set did not correlate to the cognitive skills necessary to solve certain issues despite that these items are more easily highlighted on a resume:

Some gamers have a preternatural ability to recognize patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning most of us lack. Others—often “grandmothers without a high school education,” says Popovic—exercise a particular social skill. “They’re good at getting people unstuck. They get them to approach the problem differently.

Human resource representatives are able to quickly and efficiently match people to jobs based upon data-points from game-play.  The game acts as a vehicle to capture and measure soft skills that are usually difficult to quantify and prioritize them over hard skills that usually show up on a resume, but may not actually reflect a person’s aptitude for the kind of work needed.

This paradigm could revolutionize the way other career areas are staffed, particularly in an knowledge- and information-based economy where many fields place a high emphasis on cognitive ability.  For instance, the title “analyst” (near and dear to my heart) does not tell much about a person’s ability to actually analyze an issue or problem.   Supplemental details in an analyst’s resume cannot show how the person thinks, rather they tell a story about the kinds of things the person has previously thought about.   An interview might provide a better glimpse into an applicant’s particular aptitudes, but probably not in a single conversation where often the skills being showcased are the applicant’s negotiation skills.  Those skills may be useful if you’re looking for a political analyst or hostage negotiator, but they are probably useless if you need someone to find a pattern in shipping documents when investigating an illicit network.   Events designed to allow applicants to show their work, either through specific scenario questions or in an applied exercise are more revealing.   Artists keep portfolios to show their work, but it can often be difficult for someone in knowledge- or information-based job to do the same – especially if they cannot carry their work from one field to another due to proprietary or classification conflicts.  On the other hand, a game emphasizing specific cognitive processes needed for certain tasks could go a long way to identifying the right people to fit the job.

We may be a ways off from that future, but I doubt it’s completely beyond our reach.  In the meantime, if I ever start a company, I’m pretty sure the interview process will include a trial by pixelated fire.

Finding the Edge of Skyrim’s Open World

March 4, 2012 1 comment

As I reread this for the typos I’m prone to make, I feel the need to start off with a disclaimer about the tone of this post.   I may  come off as be fairly critical of Skyrim, but only because it was worth playing.  As my girlfriend put it, I had a month-long affair with the game.   Don’t worry though; we’re still together – the girlfriend and I that is.   Using the metrics of playtime and fun factor, Skyrim is definitely amazing and worth purchase if you haven’t played it; I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the game’s design across multiple characters.   The main issue issue I ran into, though, was that I couldn’t help but wish that the game’s open world was capable of more intelligence response to my decisions in game.

The Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim was the most recent installment, is one of the best examples of an open-world role playing game concept.   While many other games emphasize a main story line, sometimes ushering a player through critical decision points in order to maintain story integrity, Bethesda Games places minimum constraints on players’ actions while they experience the game.   You can, for instance, spend hours chasing optional objectives and side quests and hardly ever advance the main storyline.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, think Grand Theft Auto with swords and Vikings instead of guns and criminals.  On second thought, those two things aren’t all that different, but that might make the comparison even more apt, because some people experience Skyrim by running around and killing and stealing everything they possibly can.  To each his own.

Open worlds are compelling because they offer, in theory, a richer gaming experience than completely scripted games.  Rather than just experiencing an interactive movie, you’re literally shaping the events around you, as you see fit, and when you see fit.   In practice, open worlds often don’t live up to expectations due to the complexity that actually coding cascading decisions can have on a game world.  The result is that players can make hundreds of decisions, but these decisions usually have only first order shallow consequences at best.  The freedom to do anything ends up coming with the price over being able to do everything.   And if you can do everything, what exactly becomes the point of doing anything?  This was my experience with the previous Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion.  I got so caught up in the side quests that I forgot about the main storyline.   While I became the leader of some of the game world’s most powerful factions, the power I’d acquired in the process trivialized the main storyline’s difficulty and sense of importance by the time I got around to it.   Adding insult to injury, despite making dozens of decisions that resulted in my being what can only be described as the most important person in the game, none of it mattered.   Dialogue options were the same as if I’d been a vagabond in rags.  In short, the totality of my decisions still resulted in very little real change to an open, but mostly static, world.

A friend of mine from college recently posted a comment on this same topic, stating “I’ve been playing Skyrim lately, and while it’s a great game, I’m starting to pick up on how shallow it is, despite an initial impression of enormous complexity.”  I tried lots of ways to say this in my own words, but that’s basically my experience.  Skyrim was a leap forward from Oblivion in that it took me much longer to find that edge where my decisions no longer seemed to matter, but I still managed to find it even when I specifically tried to avoid it by pursuing a strategy of limiting myself to one major side-quest arc per character I made.   While it extended the life of the game for me by giving each play-through a slightly different focus, it also still exposed a lot of missed opportunities to add even more depth to the open world.

One of most obvious missed opportunities was the civil war storyline in which the game world’s eight cities, or holds, have to side with either the Imperials or the Stormcloaks.  Your choice to side with one or the other or neither has little to not impact on your ability to complete the main storyline.  As one of the few mutually exclusive side-quest choices the game offers, this was the perfect place to make some gameplay changes with no risk of altering a player’s ability to “finish” the game.   That’s actually how I expected it to play out, but after completing the story arc for both sides (which turned out to require nearly identical missions), I discovered my decisions and actions offered only a simple cosmetic swap of leadership in the conquered holds.  I didn’t get any new content to explore and none of the game’s characters really seemed to notice that the war even happened (except perhaps the dead ones).  By that point, this lack of impact shouldn’t have surprised me, because even during the war your allegiance had no impact on many people in the game.  As a Stormcloak, running across Imperial patrols was not a threat unless I inadvertantly shot an arrow at one.  I believe making those enemy patrols attack you or assist you based on your allegiance, varying the actual campaign quests for each side, and adding some bonus content only available to the side you won with would have been relatively simple additions to the game which would have vastly improved its replayability.   As it was, I’d found the edge and didn’t have much left to play.

If Bethesda adds more major decision points that offer a changing game world, I’ll definitely be excited for the next Elder Scrolls game.   Either way,  Skyrim was a quantum leap forward over previous Elder Scrolls games and I definitely look forward to the next one if for no other reason than to see the world they create (which for those who have not played a Bethesda game, includes among other things, dozens of little mini-books that you can read in game which have nothing to do with the game’s objectives and only serve to add depth to the setting).  I’ve got more to say about this game, but I’m going to save that for a later installment since it addresses very different gameplay issues and this has already gotten long-winded.  As always, I welcome your thoughts.

The Quest

February 21, 2012 8 comments

Today’s post is a bit significantly less about game development and the game community, and a bit significantly more about me.  If you’ve taken the time to read the About section, you may have seen that I aspire to be a game developer.   I’ve undertaken a personal quest to eventually break into the game industry and I’ve decided to chronicle that journey.  Periodically, I will make posts like today’s categorized under “The Quest,” which will highlight my progress and hopefully celebrate milestones on the journey, though they may be few and far between since I have a sneaking suspicion that that this is going to be slightly more difficult than killing 10 boars for a little bit of gold and experience.

My educational background is – shall we say – less than ideal for making a transition into the gaming industry.  I have yet to see a single job listing for someone with a bachelor’s in history (if anyone reading this finds one – let me know).   I’m not without hope, however.  While most job listings call for an educational background in computer science, graphic design, web design, networking, public affairs, or marketing, every now and again a very successful developer sneaks into the mix with a much more colorful background.  For instance, Greg Street, a lead systems designer for Blizzard Entertainment, has undergraduate degrees in biology and philosophy and a PhD in marine science.

While I don’t have a PhD, my master’s degree in intelligence studies at least has the potential to be as useful as marine science.  Being able to do analysis and understand complex problems definitely would be an asset to a game designer.  But these are soft skills that can only augment existing knowledge.  They don’t stand up well on their own. To that end, I’ve recently enrolled in a local information technology retraining program.  I’ve been focusing my time and attention on software development and programming languages.  While the course has me working on some programs with more business and commercial applications, I am also working on some simple games.

The current short term goal is that in a few weeks/months you may see some of my early attempts at game development  hosted here on the site, and maybe eventually on your own mobile device.  We’re still a long way off from that, but there you go – quest accepted.

See spot game…

February 15, 2012 10 comments

When you first tell someone that you’re a gamer, one of the questions that usually seems to pop into people’s heads soon after is “why do you waste your time playing games?”  I don’t think I have to explain that to anyone who found this blog on their own… most of you probably get it.  However, in the event that someone stumbles in here and doesn’t understand, I thought it would be appropriate to start off with a few thoughts about not just why I enjoy games, but what I feel I’ve gotten from them over the years.

The short version is that games taught, teach, and continue to teach me to solve problems.  Too often, the act of playing a video game is lumped in with activities like watching T.V. and eating junk food.  While it’s true that plenty of gamers do also watch T.V. and eat junk food, I find the grouping a bit naive because even the most basic games designed only for entertainment can impart some  educational benefit on the player.   Unlike watching T.V. r even a movie where you are just the passive recipient of a stream of information, games require complex interaction that can teach lessons.   These lessons will rarely be the same between games, but if the player is observant enough and internalizes what he or she is doing, very often those experiences can help solve real problems outside of virtual space.   There are very few “healthy” pastimes that I can think of offer anywhere near that level of potential positive impact.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying you can learn anything you ever need to know from a healthy sampling of various video games.  There is no substitute for real experience.  In the absence of real situations to learn from, however, games provide a laboratory of scenarios that teach a host of problem solving tools.  Social games can teach group dynamics.  Puzzle games can teach problem solving.  Word games teach language.  Difficult games teach trial and error and perseverance.   Many games combine lots of these lessons to provide fairly complex lessons.   As a personal example, massively multi-player online role playing games taught me leadership.

Towards the end of college, I was charge of two organizations.  The first was the Air Force Reserve Officer training program at my school – a formal leadership training pipeline approved by the U.S. military.  I was responsible for designing and executing a training program over the course of a semester for 50+ cadets.   Once a week we met as a group to execute our training, usually performing some kind of prescripted exercise as a group; during the rest of the week, my peers and I worked on the upcoming weeks.  Shadowing my real world leadership training, I was also gaining virtual leadership experience as a raid leader in a guild of players for World of Warcraft, a massively multi-player online role-playing game.  Our guild had to bring together 40+ people from around the world multiple nights a week to a single location in the game and then coordinate their activities to defeat challenges presented in the game.   I had to get very comfortable not only solving the problem presented by the computer game opponents themselves, but also the problems created by having over forty personalities all competing for very scarce rewards following sometimes fruitless nights of “work.”    Toss in a bit of complexity in that we could only use chat tools and voice-software to communicate and it gets even harder.

After graduation, I commissioned into the Air Force and was put into a variety of leadership positions.  I also went onto  additional leadership schools.   I performed very highly, often ranked in the top 10% of my peers.   But throughout my time in the Air Force, when faced with new problems, more often than not, it wasn’t my AFROTC experiences that I leaned on.  Instead, I found that the experiences I had leading World of Warcraft raids offered me the answers for how to diffuse conflict, solve problems related to resources, manpower, and time, and generally keep organized in the face of a changing work environment.  It’s not fair to say that WoW was my only source of experience… but it certainly augmented and framed my experience in  ways I  found — and continue to find —  useful as a metaphor and template for real-world scenarios.

In an increasingly digital and networked age, many of the problems we face on a day to day basis start to move into virtual space and the lessons games teach become even closer to real life.  Where I had to use voice-software to communicate with friends in WoW, companies now have to organize virtual conference calls with partners all over the world.   Simulators are used to teach people real skills to do important jobs (which may make for an interesting future topic).   As long as games continue to become more complex, I see myself always playing them because I think they will always have something to teach me.   And if someday I have to choose between letting my kids play a game or watch T.V, you can bet there’s going to be a controller, keyboard, or mouse in their hands and not a remote.