Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Wrathgate

As a game designer, one should always be on the look out for really good ways of doing things. Always playing new games to get new ideas and learning new tricks. Each exceptional game you play is merely a lesson in how to (or sometimes how not to) do something.

It also shows the mark of a good company when they are able to take a tried and true formula and improve on it. Blizzard did this with a sequence of quests in the most recent expansion of World of Warcraft, Wrath of the Lich King. Now there is still the standard fetch and fed-ex quests, but then there are quests that are clearly the main course of this expansion. One series of quests leads the player through the Dragonblight and hits several minor lore points before culminating in the event of the expansion.

Not only do they reward the player for their persistence with a glorious cutscene but it is followed up with a quest where the player attacks Undercity alongside King Varian and Jania, if you are Alliance, and with Thrall and Sylvannas if you are Horde.

Wrath of the Lich King, as an expansion, very much seemed to have the design philosophy “Make it feel like you are changing the world.” Phasing, a technology that allows the developer to change an area for each specific player was widely used in the expansion. As a player completes quests in a zone the NPCs, locations, even enemies change and shift to reflect the actions of the player. Quests chains tend to be much longer, far more lore steeped than before.

In the Battle for Undercity, it uses phased zones of the three major cities: Orgrimmar, Undercity, and Stormwind, to keep the player from being distracted by standard gameplay. It also pushes the player to complete the event immediately, as they can’t choose which phase to enter. Once completed, the player receives an achievement, Veteran of the Wrathgate. Then from that point on, the area surrounding the culmination of the quest in the Dragonblight is forever changed. Fire burns, bodies are strewn about, weapons lay alongside the fallen. It looks like a battle has been fought, of truly epic proportions, and your character participated.

It should say something that I always make the effort to complete the Wrathgate series on every character I level in Northrend. The lore, the cutscene, the sheer beauty and poetry of the quest line and event is a treat I am unable to pass up. And I have done it 5 times. Each time I revel in the quests and get very excited as I approach the end. I watch the entire cutscene and feel the tears prick my eyes.

Blizzard has managed to take a standard formula, make it exceptional, and make it endlessly re-playable. It leaves my appetite for Cataclysm whetted, with the hope they not only continue to do this kind of thing, but expand and improve it.

(Note: This is also very true of the Death Knight starting area. I honestly wish that people could get a trial version of the game and just play a Death Knight until they were out of the starting area. Yes, many of the jokes and references would be missed by new players, but it is still one of the most well designed and interesting parts of the game. The starting area does many of the same things that the Wrathgate does, minus the cutscene. Unfortunately one must have a level 55 character and Wrath to be able to even start a Death Knight. My fingers are crossed hoping that the starting areas in Cata are at least similarly well done, if not exactly like the DK starting area.)

Making Money vs. Making Followers

This Monday Zynga is closing down one of it’s games, Street Racer. As far as I am concerned Zynga is not a game company, but rather a business. And this event only shows how much this is true. Unfortunately, it comes at a grave price, in the “betrayal” of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of fans who are now doubly suspicious of online transactions.

To clarify, Zynga is shutting down Street Racer, a game much like their others, where players can spend real money to buy premium items. The announcement was made less than a week from the shut down date. In fact, it was probable that people, having been paid this week, purchased large amounts of the in game currency, only to find out that Monday, their purchase is worthless. Only in retrospect did Zynga back pedal and allow users to transfer their in-game currency to another Zynga game with a small bonus for their trouble. Well, at least you have likely stemmed the lawsuits, bravo. The problem is, these people didn’t want to play Farmville or Frontierville, they wanted to play Street Racers. (It is fairly clear these are wildly different properties, even if the gameplay amounts to the same thing.)

UPDATE: This isn’t the first time either.

Why was this a betrayal? Every time a developer creates a game and sends it out into the world, whether it is free or not, they are creating an unwritten agreement with the player. There are many points of this agreement, like that the game can be played or completed without cheating or hacking, but the most valid point in this case is: “If you spend your time and money, the game will reward you.”  This agreement is actually the basis for all Zynga gameplay. You spend time, every day, and you spend money, and we will allow you to look awesome in front of all your Facebook friends. You will be able to make people you never see jealous, and will be bombarded with messages asking about all your cool stuff. It’s a valid and completely profitable idea.

Look how well it worked for Blizzard. The major difference between these purchases (point of interest – I have purchased not one but THREE Celestial Steeds. Two for myself and one as a gift.) is the company doing the selling. Zynga is completely focused on the bottom line. Even if a game has a million users, Zynga will likely shut it down if it is the most under-performing game in comparison to the other titans currently on the roster. Blizzard takes a different view, though they haven’t had to, one assumes they will follow the path set forth by companies more focused on the agreement than the bottom line. Other MMOs have merged servers, gone F2P, and even put out notices, months in advance of the servers shutting down. In the case of Tabula Rasa, not only did they give a great deal of warning, allow for transfer of playtime to ANY NCSoft title, but also created a wildly huge and fitting in game event to “end the world.” In fact other MMOs have continued to limp on for YEARS despite declining player bases because even with those small sums, it is still profitable to keep the servers running. Not a huge profit, but a small one.

Why is all this such a big deal? To be honest, most people who buy digital items in games don’t really understand the concept of ownership of the digital item. Companies like Zynga don’t go out of their way to explain it either. (To be fair, Blizzard does, but only deep within their ToS.) In online games, like WoW and Farmville, you don’t actually own anything. All those level 80s? Not actually yours. All those rooms filled with stuff in that Yoville mansion? None of that is yours either. It is owned by the company producing the game. Legally, they can do whatever they want with it. And you agreed to it in the ToS. In fact, Zynga is in no way required or obligated to refund or even offer credit for all those items that will be deleted on Monday. Just like if Blizzard shut down it’s servers tomorrow, they would not be required to refund me any money for my mounts and pets purchased off their store. Or the staggering amounts of time I spent in the game as shown by my /played. The problem is, since most people don’t understand that, they have spend possibly hundreds of dollars on things they didn’t realize were so ephemeral. I inherently don’t trust most digital purchases and thus stick to things I do trust, like WoW, iTunes, Steam and GoG. I know these companies will not leave me high and dry one day having wasted my money. These players so rudely shoved from their game though, they may not realize it. They are likely never to spend another penny on something they can’t actually own.

The difference comes down to if your company philosophy is to make money or make games. To be fair, one of the first things I was told when getting into this industry is that we are, at the end of the day, a commercial product. We have to make money to fund our salary and future development. But at what point does this go too far? At what point do you start treating the player like a bunch of idiot wealthy marks, only intended to be fleeced out of their hard earned money? This is why most game studios have the developers majorly people who want to make good, critically acclaimed, awesome games, and only a few sharks at the top. The sharks are there to take the product and make it profitable. (I honestly feel every company needs at least one or two sharks to succeed.) These two sides for a sort of checks and balances, so when the sharks get too sharky the developers say “But we can’t do that, it will alienate our players.” But companies like Zynga are out to make money. And if that means screwing over some players, oh well. They are legally protected and they have a hundred million others spending money into their coffers, so why should they care about a few million bruised players?

If Blizzard ever decides to shut down WoW, I will be inconsolable. But I trust Blizzard to give me time to grieve. Give me time for one last Kara run. One last Baron run. One last drunken revelry and duel fest in Goldshire. One day to move all my toons to their final logout points, and say goodbye. I will have had a good two years with my lovely Celestial Steed (and my various pets, I bought them all). I also trust that if that ever happens, I will know about it weeks if not months in advance. I am fairly positive that even if Blizzard does shut down WoW, they still want me to play whatever their next MMO is. They want me to be a return customer. So they go out of their way to not break the agreement. Zynga is all about the bottom line, and as such, they feel they will always have customers, always be able to draw new ones, and never have to worry about those they have betrayed. For a few years at least, they will be right. But what happens when the masses of betrayed become angry and vocal? What happens when they start convincing those new players not to play your game? Then begins the slow decline into nothingness. Blizzard has proven over years of making games they don’t just want to make good games, they want to make excellent games and excellent followers. Zynga just wants to make money.

Lego Harry Potter Review

I played Lego Star Wars. I played Lego Star Wars 2. I played Lego Indiana Jones. I played Lego Batman. So is it any wonder I purchased Lego Harry Potter?

The Lego games have always been quirky, enjoyable, and fun. You generally play a contingent of characters, running through a world destroying things that explode in a glorious spray of studs. Video Games, being inherently focused on fantasy fulfillment, commonly have a player fighting endless hordes of enemies, blowing things up, and collecting massive quantities of “valuable” things. But for some reason when the Lego games did this, I thought it was very odd. Most parents buy their kids Legos because they are an “educational” toy that inspires creativity and non-violent play. They aren’t even like standard blocks, where it was always fun to destroy the thing built afterward, as Legos simply don’t fall apart that way.

But I played the games because the gameplay was solid, the cutscenes nothing short of INSPIRED, and the collecting wildly enjoyable.

Harry Potter changes the formula. In the books there aren’t that many battle scenes. This is no action movie. This is kids in class, exploring an insane castle, and playing around with magic and magic items. So the designers cut the “exciting” part of the game in favor of keeping true to source material and in doing so moved closer to the thing parents love most about Legos. Lego HP really focuses on the exploration and problem solving. The puzzles are wide and varied. The “levels” aren’t even that, they are more like segments of time, for the most part you can run around playing through the castle and villages as much as you wish. I put exciting in quotes because most designers consider combat the exciting part of a game. Lego HP proves it is not combat but rather conflict, and the conflict can be against puzzles as opposed to violence against monsters.

I haven’t completed it yet, but I am fairly positive even at this point I feel this is my favorite Lego game. I recommend it to anyone who loves Harry Potter, Legos, and good games.

Rejection

So in all my positives, and believe me, I look at the world in the best positive light, there are negatives. Despite the best efforts ever and despite being the best person for a job there is the mistake belief of the people interviewing you that you aren’t quite what they need.

It SUCKS.

You want to scream. You want to shout, give me the chance! I will PROVE TO BE THE BEST DECISION YOU EVER MADE. And yet, you are left rejected, turned down from the perfect job that you could do exceptionally well.

This is especially bad after a “perfect” interview as far as you can see. From your point of view, it was nigh on PRISTINE. You are then left with a sense of doubt, self loss, and worry. Are you truly in the right field? Are you good at what you do? Are you worth the time and amount of money spent in school?

On the eve of such a rejection, for the weakest of excuses (yes, even weaker than “Your test was weak”), I have to say…

Yes. I am GOOD at what I do. I build levels with speed that makes Mario Andriette look like a sloth. I devise ways to do things that other designers and programmers literally say to my face CANNOT BE DONE, and then… I do these things. I look at a problem from all points of view and try to devise multiple solutions to this problem so as to give my lead a multitude of options to solve said problem. I try to apply my unique vision as a girl to game design to solve the question how do we make this awesome for all audiences? I never accept “it cannot be done” as a possible answer. I see the layers of the Matrix and the world that lies under underneath.

It is sad that I cannot convince leads and companies that I am worth the investment. But at the same time, I see these people have a bias. A belief that experience and certain “pedigrees” matter. These pedigrees mean more to them than anything else and they honestly believe that they need someone who fits it to make them happy. I understand this bias despite disagreeing with it.

In the words of one of my favorite writers: If you can quit, do it.

I cannot imagine myself doing anything different, and as such look forward to many indie games from me, as I refuse to let such setbacks stop me. At the end of the day, even this does not deter me. People can say what they wish. Companies can turn me away. But until I give up; the fat lady has not sung. Creating a game is painful and hard, and when you are done the community and Internet at large rips apart that baby you spent all your time, blood, sweat and tears on. It hurts and it sucks… but at the end it is not as bad as being turned down for a job. At least the game ripped apart on Kotaku got made, the company won’t even give you the chance.

But if I let that stop me, well clearly I wasn’t a very good designer to begin with. Roberta would be proud, I think.

RealID

Real ID is the absolute niftiest idea and the absolute worst idea all rolled into one. RealID connects your battle.net account to your real name, or at least the name you used to sign up for your WoW account in the past.

The Nifty:

The best part of RealID is that is connects you to friends across all Battle.net games. I can chat with my buddy who plays on another server and is the other faction. Once Starcraft 2 comes out, I can talk to him playing SC2 while I raid Grim Batol. It connects players like never before.

The Not-So-Nifty:

As cool as that may seem, it has a downside. First off, it connects the accounts, not the characters. So regardless of which character you are on, your RealID friends can see you. It seems odd to say I want to play a very social game with my friends, but I also want to be able to hide from them. There are just some days when you are frustrated, annoyed, or just plain want a change of pace, so you log on to a low level alt on another server and goof around enjoying your escape.

In my guild, most of us know each other in real life, and even have each other’s phone numbers. If someone is signed up for a raid and doesn’t log on by 15 til raid, they are likely to get a text or even a call from one of the other raid members to check on them. So RealID is a bit superfluous for us. But if I don’t feel like playing with people, I want to be able to just play.

The Abysmal:

So up to this point RealID was totally opt in. You could play the game and not participate in RealID with no change. If you didn’t like it, it was completely plausible for you to ignore it and ignore any requests. But now, it will be automatically forced on anyone who posts on the WoW Forums. That means if you post anything on the WoW Forums it will post with your real name, as opposed to your character’s name. In fact it may show your character as well as your real name. The thing is, if you want to use the forums, you cannot opt out.

I get the idea they are going with. Real names means no hiding behind level 1 alts. It will cut down a great deal on the cowardly trolls. But it will also cut down on the number of legitimate posters. Legit players who ask questions and respond to questions. I don’t want my real name plastered all over the WoW forums. So now there is no more posting on the WoW forums for me.

The Solution:

All of this could be avoided and added to a level of anonymity if Battle.net simply allowed a player to chose an Alias. Use you real name, use your common screen name, whatever. Tie it to your Bnet, charge to change it, and voila. No more hiding behind level 1 alts, but also the hidden layer many of us internet users prefer.