Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
In today's reading, "Interaction & Narrative," Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern distinguish between STORY: "experiences that have a tightly organized plot arc, progression towards a climax, beginning, middle, and end, etc" and NARRATIVE: " the abstract properties or qualities of stories, and more loosely structured, 'experimental,' story-like experiences" (643 in The Game Design Reader). Are these helpful definitions and distinctions, and if so, why? Where do interaction and narrative intersect? See my previous blog post for how some of the television industry's smartest most innovative minds reacted when someone suggested that interaction would be more compelling some day than story.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Game Analysis - Heavy Rain (Playstation 3)
I was a little reluctant to select this as my second analysis on the count that it's hard to discuss subjects like narrative, immersion, interactivity, social networking, etc in what is essentially a rhythm game with the simple objective of "do stuff according to a beat". But I guess that when contrasted with the prior analysis of WoW, the dichotomy is just all that more pronounced.
Of course, as a music student and future professional musician/producer/composer/whatever along with being a hobbyist video editor/compositor/art junkie, the production value of the media presented in the DJMAX franchise is also an awesome entertainment experience, and a really welcome breath of fresh air compared to the loads and loads of garbage MTV is feeding kids these days.
The above idea, that you can be whatever you want just by believing, is personified by the first PSP game's intro movie (which also doubles as a playable 'theme song' for that particular game in the series) which depicts a schoolgirl's aspirations to be a pop star. This is built upon in the second game, where the lyrics to its theme song/intro very obviously carries that train of thought further.
For this project, I will be taking a look at OMGPOP's "Draw My Thing" and "Sims 3" from EA Games.
To begin, omgpop.com is a website that hosts multi-player games in a social online environment. It has a built in user profile system similar to Facebook. You can check what games your friends are playing, see your recent list of opponents, send challenges to other players, and see what games are most popular and who is playing them.
The site has it's own currency, which you can earn by logging in daily, winning games, betting against your opponents, watching ads, or answering survey questions. Of course, with this collectible currency comes one of the most addicting features of the website: customizable content. For every game there exists customizable characters, items, power boosts, etc... Focusing on "Draw my Thing", players can customize their writing utensil, clock timer, and even by vowels to get a jump start on their opponents as they scramble to guess what each other is drawing within 60 seconds. Sounds familiar? With a very sleek interface and a booming social network, omgpop has made online Pictionary and other simple games seems new again.
Omgpop's interface is as simple as can be and just the way we like it. Instead of listing games down the page with small icons like Kongregate.com, Armorgames.com, Newgrounds.com, and many other still do, Omgpop's aesthetic seems to borrow from the glossy sliding frames of the iPhone and similar Apple interfaces. As a testament to how alluring the interface is, several times since trying to write this analysis, I've been watching the billboard that scrolls through their games and have gotten sucked into playing them multiple times. It's hard to leave this site once you enter.
Moving on to Sims 3.
My girlfriend got me hooked on the Sims 2 earlier this year. It was so easy to spend hours building elaborate mansions or decorating a house with quirky materials. The ability to create in the Sims only grew as EA very cleverly allowed user generated content to play a big role in the game. "Why not let them do our job for us, and they can make whatever they want and be happy!" Same basic principle to Second Life, of course its easier to create in SL than it is in the Sims.
Sims 3 was very hyped and highly anticipated. I was hoping it was going to be leaps and bounds ahead of Sims 2, but in some ways, it was even worse. EA may have been depending on user generated content a little too much this time around, and skimped on some critical building tools. The overall building engine and graphics are very similar to how they were before and the only new "big feature" was that you could now place objects on a 45 degree angle... Yippee!
In the trailers, the cameras were all positioned closer to the characters and lower to the ground which gave it a much newer look. I was disappointed to find that the camera still really only functions in bird eye view, and trying to zoom in just results in the camera jumping around everywhere.
On a positive note, I was able to get more involved in self-design in the Sims 3. The characters have more flexable facial features and there's some decent user generated content to download.
Having more control in character creation has always helped me get more attached to the character and more involved in the game. Unfortunately, the Sims 3 still doesn't keep my attention as well as it should for a highly anticipated release in this age of gaming.
After I was playing for a while, I noticed something about the game play was bothering me. I didn't know what it was, but I almost was feeling sad when I was playing. I eventually realized that the entire game felt incredibly lonely, a giant world with lots of characters that just did everyday things like me, and they weren't even real people. I'm starting to think that this format is not working as well as it used to for the Sims, especially when there are better games out there that have an online social capability. I was less interested in clicking on a person and saying "tell joke" when I could go online in Second Life and do it myself. I think if EA is going to survive another Sims game, it has to be like Sims online.
From my perspective, it seems that social interaction is becoming more and more important in gaming. Don't get me wrong, I love a good RPG with some good character writing for NPCs, but if the story isn't well written and immersive, the game can seem a little lonely next to some games with bustling online communities.
Modern Warfare 2 and Bioshock 2 are both first person shooters and they are both recently released sequels to extremely popular games. But this may be all they have in common. Contrary to popular belief, first person shooters are not all the same.
Modern Warfare 2
Modern Warfare 2, set in the modern day, takes us to various places all over the world. As in it's predecessor, there is not a single point of view of the story (although always first person perspective.) The player is continually changing character from mission to mission which makes the story a little harder to follow. And once again, as in the previous version, your character dies. As the game progresses and the points of view converge, it seems almost like they are changing characters just for the sake of it, which becomes distracting.
The action packed missions are pretty straight forward: shoot, kill run, etc. There is a lot of automated interaction with the other AI characters when tasks are completed. But there is no user initiated interaction necessary to play this game. The various settings are realistic enough, Rio, Afghanistan, snowy Russia, to name a few, as well as the infamous airport.
While playing this game I accepted the virtual world it provided me, enjoyed the realistic warfare, didn't mind mercilessly killing everyone in sight. Until I got to the airport. The place is packed with everyday people waiting to take a flight somewhere, and you are supposed to mow them all down. They don't have guns, they can't fight back, they plead for their lives, they panic. It was way too real. People in airports are going on vacation, going to see family, going home. Nothing came out of this, it was gratuitous and unnecessary, I felt dirty, it totally took me out of the game and kind of pissed me off. I am all for pushing the boundaries and testing the limits, but this is not what I shelled out 60 bucks for.
On the other hand, the online multiplayer is where it's at. Playing with friends is what this game is all about, and worth every penny of the money I spent. The voice chat is great, but Activision blocked XBOX party chat for some reason, which can get really old when a bunch of annoying kids are in your match.
Bioshock 2 is set in an alternative version of the 1960's in a fictional underwater dystopian city called Rapture. Unlike it's predecessor, this time around you are a Big Daddy, which was the enemy in the original but is the good guy in this installment. The story unfolds through a combination of PA broadcasts and diaries you find and have the option to read or not. As the game progresses the story becomes clearer and clearer.
The environment is well made and stylized to be creepy but not overly realistic. The poor lighting and creepy music keep the player captivated, always peering into the shadows to see what is lurking. The baddies come out of nowhere suddenly (and have made me jump a few times), which is key to maintaining player interest.
There are lots of things to interact with in this game. Items to pick up are littered all over the place including weapons, powers, health, food, and even booze. Dispensers of the same objects can be found frequently, and you have the option to buy items or attempt to hack the machine which brings up a little game. Distractions like this within a game help break up the monotony, but I love that the player can bypass them with cash.
The Little Sisters are creepy little possessed girls with powers, and you have the option to save them (make them normal again), or harvest the (kill them and take their power). At first I felt bad for them and opted to save them, but I realized I got more when I killed them so that became the routine.
Bioshock 2 has an online multiplayer feature, but I have not tried it. I don't really know anyone who plays Bioshock online, we usually play Modern Warfare.
Modern Warfare 2 is more realistic, straightforward and action packed, but the line between real and fun was crossed which left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The story was also confusing at times and the constant changing of character disconnected you from the experience. The online multiplayer is awesome and leaves all other similar titles far behind, sorry Halo. Bioshock 2 is not as fast paced, but the environment is much more captivating and the story more coherent. The user interaction with objects and machines was also appreciated, as it gave the game another dimension. The fact that I felt no remorse killing little girls to gain power, but was upset at having to kill defenseless civilians in an airport may seem odd. But I wonder if I would have happily mowed down the civilians if there was something to gain or any sort of point to it.
-Constant change of character in MW2 leaves player feeling disconnected
-MW2 airport mission too realistic and gratuitous
-MW2 online multiplayer is awesome
-Bioshock provides a great virtual environment via graphics and sound
-Interaction in Bioshock adds another dimension
-Don't know anyone who plays Bioshock online
(If there aren't any glaring objections, I'd like to take this assignment in multiple parts, as 1) I do have quite a bit to say that may not be obvious at first glance due to the way I play games, and 2) I really, really, loathe when I type up a cartload of stuff and have the page 404 - I've developed a paranoia of that over the years)
I think that it is impossible nowadays to speak of digital narrative and social/virtual interactions without reference to MMO games, and World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) in many aspects represents the epitome of the genre, standing head and shoulders above all the competition, past and present (many of which ironically coined themselves 'wow killers' only to get curbstomped by reality) in both subscription numbers and content.
The cool thing that Blizzard has done with the game is that it has something for everyone, whether it be competitive gaming (many will laugh at this one, me included at times), casual gaming, role-play, simple objective completion, making virtual profit off the infamous Auction House/trade channels, or simply just enjoying a good tale. And all this is tied together by the fact that the game is a huge social circle - people of all the aforementioned walks interact with each other on the same (four-hundred-odd) realms.
WoW's general backbone experience is: levelling, and the game at maximum level (currently 80) which many will argue is where the game really begins.
From the exploration of the homeworld of the Orcs (original storyline is Orcs invading the Human world) and what drove them on the warpath, to the elemental mysteries of the land Warcraft takes place in, to kingdoms new, fallen and long gone, to villains past, present and future, to the ethereal 'emerald dream', Metzen's universe is currently large enough to fill up a dozen seasons of TV series, with enough heroes, villains and noteworthy characters in between to fill up several virtual museums.
The player is presented bits and pieces of the story through quests, various readable knicknacks in cities/libraries/dungeons, recently in-game cinematics, and of course, the timeless process of hands-on whoop-the-bad-guys'-asses action in dungeons (and larger, harder dungeons, called 'raids' - more on that later). The amount of story that is crammed into the world that has little to do with the main plot is amazing, and a testament to the quest designers' creativity. From the tale of Mor'Ladim (which is a pretty long quest chain ending with the moving defeat and redemption of said character), all the way to tributes of real-life occurences such as Sully Balloo's letter the levelling experience is chock full of narrative that the average player won't find when just rushing to the end.
The latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, adds cinematics into the mix. Players are breadcrumbed into eventually facing off with Arthas, a villain from the Warcraft 3 era. In fact, the entire expansion is about Arthas, including cinematics that highlight key points in the story, including his eventual defeat. (spoilers!)
However, an interesting dilemma comes up: When you allow players (<-- note the plural) in a massively multiplayer online game to be the heroes in the story, how do you cater to the fact that there are literally millions of players doing the same thing and reconcile that fact with the need to have a cohesive story? My personal take on it after seeing things unfold is that there basically exists two different versions of the Warcraft story: Metzen's story, which is canon, and does not contradict itself throughout its' entireity, and World of Warcraft's personalized retelling, which is specific to each player that plays the game and while follows the same broad strokes, is not necessarily canon.
For example, let's take Onyxia, a major villain in the original World of Warcraft release. There was a long questline that led up to the eventual face-off and defeat of Onyxia (and back then, guilds who managed to kill her were BAD-ASS) However, recently rewritten lore in the form of the story arc of King Varian Wrynn (published comics) reveals that in fact, it was he and a small band of his friends who ended the threat. Naxxramas, the final raid zone of the original game, was in fact stormed not by players, but by other characters within another set of media.
Basically I have come to terms with the fact that the game I am playing isn't 100% canon, but instead a slightly different retelling via artistic license, in the interest of an enjoyable experience. That in itself is an interesting exercise in non-linearity, when you come to think of it. :V
But enough talk about the narrative, 90% of the people who play WoW don't even care about it - let's move on to what makes people value their characters and what in essence puts the "game" into MMORPG for WoW!
Dungeons and Raids - the Social Requirement
As I mentioned early on, it is very easy to hit the level cap in WoW. The main driving force behind the game is how people 'upgrade' their characters at this maximum level. The game at this point revolves around multiple tiers of 'progression' in terms of your character's gear. The basic premise is that gear from 'tier 5' should allow the average player enough character power to defeat and slowly acquire gear from 'tier 6', and so on and so forth. Every once in a while, Blizzard releases an expansion that raises the level cap and resets progression for everyone by giving e.g. quest items of comparable power to the last tier of the previous expansion.
However, there's a twist to this. First of all, the majority of good 'loot' comes from grouped content, in the form of raids. Raids basically require 25 (or 10 for a watered-down version) people acting in tandem to defeat bosses. The beauty of this is the fact that bosses drop 2-3 pieces of gear, and are generally on a 1-week reset timer. They also have the potential to be soul-crushingly difficult, requiring for example perfect execution over 10 minutes by everyone, or the attempt 'fails'. These two added together lead to the basis of guild interactions within the game.
Basically within the population, groups form up that regularly raid together. Within these groups, trust and camaderie (and often violent, explosive bouts of e-drama) are built, as you eventually learn who is capable of performing during raids, and who's the proverbial deadweight. The simplest premise of this is trusting that the 24 other people (and a few more actually) will log on at specific times so that the raid can actually happen. Social ties are built as guilds share loot and eventually the sense of accomplishment of killing the final boss of a raid dungeon.
Another thing to note is the vast gap of skill level present in the game. The 10 classes available in the game are, despite what a vocal section of the playerbase say, pretty well balanced vs each other in terms of requiring a few in the raid, and the difference between a player who knows what he's doing and one who's clueless is very, very, very, VERY quantifiable. Blizzard generally releases bosses tuned to require at least a certain amount of gear, and knowing how to play can substitute for a lot of that requirement, resulting in earlier kills by guilds who are good enough to pull it off. Hence, the 'competitive' side of the game - boss kill bragging rights, world placings, regional placings, etc.
So Falk, this is all nice and good, (and probably a hilariously Captain Obvious-esque read to people who -do- play WoW) but what about YOUR subjective experience?
Before moving to Boston, I had the privilege of raiding with Tsunami, a guild based in Australia. We were perhaps what you could call a 'world class' guild, competing for world top-20 first kills of new bosses that Blizzard released.
The dynamic of the guild was pretty interesting. Our number one priority was maximizing the amount of return from the investment of our 4 nights a week we devoted to raiding. This meant that if someone wasn't performing properly, they'd probably be out of the raid roster pretty fast. It was almost a professional sports team in terms of expectations. Most of the trials who 'didn't make the cut' understood that the guild wasn't a social guild - you didn't get raid spots or loot just because you were the friend of someone who had already contributed a lot - you had to pull your OWN weight.
You learn that what you want and what the guild needs are often at odds. That piece of loot which may be an upgrade to what you have, may very well serve the guild better in the hands of another that allows the guild to kill other bosses faster (resulting in more loot long term - dice-rolling random nature of loot generation aside)
You learn a lot about accountability, about how to make sure someone can cover your responsibilities should you not be able to be present.
I personally learnt that when playing games at this level, sometimes it becomes less of a game and more of a job, but hey, if it's enjoyable overall, it's enjoyable, right?
Despite the status of the guild not being a 'social guild', social ties were easily formed within the guild. It's only natural when you ride together, suffer together and celebrate together that you learn to trust. It was at the point that we'd be able to mostly trust each other with account logins should someone be required to attend to something on a particular night (Hey, being a WoW nerd is only a ticket to skimping -so much- of real-life activities!) A bunch of the guild met up at the end of last year to hang out, from all parts of Australia.
It's kinda cool thinking about it - latency from Australia/Asia to our WoW servers (based in LA) was nothing to joke at. We'd wrestle with connectivity issues that most American guilds never dreamed of. We raided 4 nights a week on a progression cycle where guilds at our level of progression usually go for 5 or even 6 nights a week, and we still manage to do pretty well in relation. One of the last major progression cycles I participated in (before preparing for Berklee consumed my time) resulted in Tsunami claiming Oceanic First for Algalon, one of the 'trophy' bosses of the time. (That video is me playing, btw. It may look simple, but it's not! But going too far into game mechanics will make this aberration of a post even longer than it already is)
The OCD Factor
I'll be honest. I have a near-autistic completionist tendency for certain things in life. Doing things in WoW was a big sate to that thirst over the course of a few years. There's a saying 'if it can be done, someone will do it' and that was my motto for WoW. From reputations (Most of which give no benefit whatsoever) to my ridiculous urge to complete every single quest available to me in the game, I chipped away at it all.
In Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard implemented an Achievement system - little things that ranged from getting a haircut, to reading certain books in the game, to collecting a set number of pets, to doing ridiculous red-herrings during boss encounters, which was all recorded. This sent me head over heels, because now I had EVEN MORE THINGS to complete!
It made me stay up for ~56 hours straight (only with a 2 hour nap near the end) to level from 70 to 80 as the game launched, letting me claim the Realm First 80 Server First 80 feat of strength (of which, obviously, one person per realm ever gets). For the record, WotLK launched on Thursday, and I -did- attend college on Friday.
It sent me back over all the territory I'd explored previously, leading to discoveries of things I never knew were in the game. It made me reevaluate certain things and come up with creative solutions for feats that usually would require more than one person to complete.
It made me wake up at odd hours of the night to scour the continents for rare mobs that would spawn once every ~6hours to a week to tag and kill them - And what a sigh of relief when I finally crossed that last one off the insane scavanger hunt, 2 weeks after I'd found everything else. I hate my luck.
It finally gave me a title (fittingly enough, "the Insane") for having a bunch of exalted/maxed-out reputations that I'd worked on years ago. Finally, due recognition for my autism! For posterity's sake, one particular faction required an extremely unconventional method of collecting and turning in "Darkmoon Decks", of which most people collected maybe one in their entire life to turn in for a trinket. Over the course of 8 months I filtered the servers' economy with a fine tooth comb, scouring the Auction House almost daily for the things I needed. Over the course of 8 months I built 108 of those damned decks, and all for... an exalted reputation no one even cared about.
That was only one of the factions. Another required pickpocketed lockboxes - about 2700 of them, and you could only pickpocket (with a 1/10 chance per mob) with a Rogue which I levelled to 70 just for that purpose. His name is aptly "Boxcollecta". There are other factions involved of course, but let's not even start talking about those.
Sometimes I look back and I wonder if the hair loss was worth it. ;p In a sense, it was - that particular feeling of accomplishment I got when I finally stood in front of that Darkmoon vendor, turning in all the decks in a way that was never intended by the games' designers, finally reaching a goal which after 2 months in looked like an impossible task. I guess I taught myself a lot about patience and perserverence in the process.
After coming to Berklee, I guess I'm nowhere near as hardcore as I once was. I'm still in Tsunami, but the raid times are a little prohibitive (3am Eastern... hmm) so I'm unsure what I'll do with the character. I'm definitely not selling though - I'll never understand people who can take that plunge and part with their characters, even if they'll never play them again. I guess I have a somewhat sentimental attachment.
If you've read up to this point, I'd like to congratulate you on being able to survive reading about my highly subjective experiences and analysis of the social stigmas surrounding World of Warcraft. I hope you aren't at this point as bald as I am and I'll see you in part 2 where I analyze yet another game and take 8237482374 pages too many to do it.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
When I first approached creating an avatar for Second Life, my initial instincts - developed through several years of online experience - was to create a likeness of myself. In all of my previous online incarnations, I was always myself (on sites like Facebook), or simply used a pseudonym, but still expressed my own opinions, and shared experiences from my real life. Therefore, I built a digital “me” and began exploring.
However, once inside SL, I quickly realized I was thinking in restricted terms. Second Life is not our world. The interface is not simply a 3D environment for Facebook-style social networking, or general message board discussions. This also isn’t a straight game like World of Warcraft, where your character selection is limited to races, classes, and so forth. Second Life is intended to be an all purpose environment in its own, free from many of the limits of the internet tools that came before it. And since it isn’t our world, why should I be me in it? The real me can’t fly. The real me can’t create objects out of thin air. Why, then, should this avatar look like me?
My ultimate decision was to work intuitively, playing around with the controls until it “looked right.” I was free of pressure because I could change the way I looked at any time, so I wasn’t restricted to what I had created.
All in all, it was a rather unique experience, and it might hold some clues of what’s to come, when we reach the days of William Gibson’s Cyberspace or Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse.
My first trip to the sandbox was an interesting one. Spaceships, smoke machines, modern buildings, strange objects and colorful characters filled the stretching sands of the playground. As I worked my way through the sideshow of people yelling and trying to report each other, I finally found a small spot to begin. Like many gamers in SL have figured out, land is hard to come by, even when its temporary and free. So faced with this small square and some big ideas, there was no other way to go but up!
I began with stretching a rectangular prim as far as it would go, then copying it to make a row of large panels. When the pieces would overlap slightly, you could see a sort of flickering in the seems of the panels. At this point I was wishing there was a locking grid for building in SL, something to snap objects together with ease. Of course this existed, and it was only a youtube tutorial away. This is what I like and also what I don't like about second life: there's a huge database of how-to videos and written tutorials, but there needs to be because SL isn't initially very user friendly. Having an in-game building system that isn't easy to figure out on your own makes it hard for new players to get started in SL. From my experience, I'd always rather build the IKEA desk and chair without the instruction manual, its part of the fun and definitely part of the reward (unless you forget a screw.) So for me, building was mostly getting a little done, running into a snag and then hunting for the answers on Google.
Our recent SL building workshop also cleared up some questions of mine and opened up some creative doors. It was really interesting to see a momentum build up as classmates were trying to out-do each other with their creations. Lucky for us, we've all now have a sturdy foundation to build on now.
Monday, March 8, 2010
One way I discovered to get objects into SL uses AC3D. After your object is modeled, you can export it as a triangle and follow these directions here. Using the triangle importer, I was able to get my model into SL but it was in many pieces. This can be rectified by linking them all together which got frustrating because I always seemed to miss one or two pieces. There is also an artifact left from the triangle importer that has to be manually deleted one face at a time.
Another way I found to import objects was a script for Maya that would theoretically allow exporting for SL, but I was unable to get that to work. It may be that my version of Maya is outdated (it is 3 years old after all) or it could be that I was not executing it properly.
Problems aside, I really enjoyed creating objects. Building in a virtual world, whether Second Life, an animated movie, or a video game, is a fascinating experience. The possibilities are endless and, as Castronova suggests, this may truly be the next step in human evolution.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
This is an assignment due later this week. First we have the blog entry about play and building in Second Life, and then this one. I post this to ask if anyone out there has a comment on ways of talking about gaming experiences. I am trying to get at the subjective experience of playing the game, rather than looking for a review of the game (although we will also look at those, too).
Assignment 7: CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF YOUR SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE PLAYING 2 GAMES
This assignment asks you to reflect on and discuss your subjective experience of playing at least 2 games.
This assignment asks you to reflect on and discuss your subjective experience of playing at least 2 games.
As a way of giving you some structure, think through the aspects of virtual subjectivity I suggest in the “Kino-Eye” essay:
1) Point of view
3) Social relationships/interactions
4) Space and place
Also think about the INTERFACE, and how the game uses elements of text, cinema, and computer forms in it. (Manovich)
Finally, consider the kinds of immersion and interactivity that you experience in the game.