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Text:AAA
Monday, Apr 26, 2010
Firefight is a great team game because working with other players feels voluntary instead of forced.

The best thing about Halo 3: ODST is Firefight. While a lot of gamers wrote it off as a derivative of Gears of War 2’s Horde mode, it deserves credit for being a much more refined design. Team game design can be seen as a kind of miniature economy or scaled down MMO. The basic rules governing an MMO economy like exclusive resources and mutual goals are distilled and simplified into combinations that can be grasped on the fly. Instead of a Healer and Tank exchanging buffs and timing elaborate strategies, the exchange is much less complicated. A sniper covering you while you close in with a short range weapons is a resource being swapped. You keep the sniper from being overwhelmed, the sniper watches your back in exchange. The individual abilities of a class are now the weapons equipped. Firefight captures the essence of this exchange without forcing the player to participate in it if they choose not to. 


Firefight would make a really good XBLA download. It consists of eight levels taken from the ODST campaign re-designed into closed arenas. Two levels can also be played at night to mix things up. Enemy troops drop in at various points or doorways at timed intervals. Five waves of enemies per round, three rounds per set, and 200,000 points total to make par on a set. Waves consist of about three groups of five aliens, give or take, and can be anything from Grunts, Heavies, Brutes, or those God awful bug things. Levels are all varied in playstyle. ‘Crater’ is a big arena with two platforms looking down on it. Getting control of a gun turret on your side is the key to keeping the level under control and not getting overwhelmed. For those more interested in vehicles there is ‘Platoon’, which features a Warthog and has Brute troops drop in on Chopper bikes regularly. Other levels feature complex hallways and tunnels that you have to dart around while enemies close in. To keep things interesting you play as an Orbital Defense Shock Trooper, which means no regenerating health. You have a finite supply of ammo and health kits that restock at the end of each round.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Apr 20, 2010
"There is no culture, there is no game, without the labor of the players."

One of the most interesting shifts in MMO design compared to single player gaming is moving from an emotion centered design to something oriented around social spaces. Rather than focusing on making a game fair and fun for one person, you have to orient it around thousands. T.L. Taylor’s book Play Between Worlds is a careful study on the effects of design in Everquest over an extended period of time. Detailing her observations as a Gnome Necromancer, the book relies on academic research and interviews to paint a broad picture of how the design of the game interacts with the culture.


Taylor starts by pointing out that academics initially treated the relationship of real life and virtual worlds as a hard divide. There was your digital life, and then there was your real one. The approach emphasized the novelty of becoming an entirely new person independent of your old self. That proves to mostly not be true in the sense that the two spill into one another. Taylor writes, “What seems more to be the case is that people have a much messier relationship with their off- and online personas and social context . . . we have phenomena that are unique to both spheres and also occupy spaces of overlap” (18-19). Everquest and most other MMOs are a merger between the social aspects of forum culture and video game elements. Over time people get to know other players and develop relationships that go beyond mere in game rewards. She comments, “People create identities for themselves, have a variety of social networks, take on roles and obligations, build histories and communities. People live and through that living, play” (28).


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Apr 13, 2010
A breakdown of the economic elements of Fable 2 that make it a more complex RPG. Mild spoilers are included.

Fable 2 breaks tradition in the RPG genre by de-emphasizing combat to create a very robust play area for the player. The closest parallel that I can think of would be the Quest for Glory games, which layered a simplified RPG and character system onto the Sierra Online adventure game formula. Like the QfG games, Fable 2 is essentially driven by its story elements. The combat is an example of a simple but deep system that allows you to play just want to bash things with a store bought mace but adds enough that is interesting if you feel like coordinating weapons and magic. The story itself is a bit uneven because of the way that all of the sidequests are presented in an off beat or comical way while the main story has lots of tragedy and tear gushing moments, but then again, I just described the problem with every Western RPG of this generation. What makes Fable 2 interesting is how it grafts a simplified economy game into the usual combat and quests to blend together a full-scale hero simulation.


The basic principles of how Albion’s economy work goes like this: good economy = low cost and low rent, bad economy = high cost and high rent. The player is able to effect this in several ways. Buying goods from a store raises its value and the economy of the region, stealing from the shop or killing the owner lowers it. Just about every piece of property in the game can be purchased and the rates adjusted as the player sees fit. Houses and shops can be rented out to produce an annual income. Any extra terror or do-gooding that you add to the region also factors in. At the start of the game, you’re not going to have enough money to purchase anything except the cheaper stalls or gypsy wagons. You’re encouraged to just give it a try by buying one of these locations and then slowly noticing the benefits of rent being paid every 5 minutes. This is the basic foundation of the entire game and how you will be procuring goods until you hit the higher levels. You don’t harvest gold by killing monsters like you normally would in an RPG. Money can only be acquired by working a job, finding a chest, digging it up, selling crap, or through rent. So while at the beginning of the game you don’t really have to pay attention to anything except bashing stuff and grinding away as a Blacksmith, eventually you’re going to realize that it’s a lot more efficient to own property.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Apr 6, 2010
Perhaps synthetic worlds have begun to offer a new mythology.

As the MMO grey market profits pass into the billions and the populations of the games themselves now exceed several small nations, the question of whether or not we should take synthetic worlds seriously has ceased to be relevant. More important questions about how these places work, what kinds of culture arise there, and what they imply for the future are all being explored. One of the most important books on the topic of synthetic world economies is Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds. Based principally on his experiences with Everquest, the book outlines the basic set up that a synthetic world needs to induce trade and create an artificial economy.


The thing that you’ve got to grasp about a synthetic economy is that the money in the game “is just a convenience for recording choices and their effects. The economy is the choices, not the money by which I register choices and their effects” (174). So saying something like, “one gold piece equals 100 silver pieces and that’s the economic system” is missing the point. The economy is instead grounded on a series of structured institutions like market-making, monetary policy, transportation, and banking to just name a few. To have an economy, the game must have trade. To facilitate trade, you need specialization. One person can get resource X but not Y, another person is in the opposite position. To make sure that these two folks get to talking, you make sure that the design imposes a lot of needs on the player. These needs must be resolvable by consumables more than durables. A consumable would be a good that is used up after one use like a health potion. A durable is something like armor that you can use repeatedly but degrades over time. Any MMO should avoid permables or items that never degrade because there’s not much point in them existing. You always want people to need something to keep the economy going. (184) Eventually once a large enough group of people all think the same things are valuable, then they become valuable. There doesn’t have to be anything more to it. Money is valuable because we think it is, not because it does anything by itself. (102)


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 30, 2010
The elements of a good spectator sport all involve figuring out ways to get people to care about events they have no control over.

Jim Rossignol brought up an interesting point in his book This Gaming Life concerning a curious issue with most video games: the multiplayer ones aren’t very good spectator sports. There are a lot of reasons for this, including Rossignol’s claim that it’s because we just wish we were playing the game ourselves. There’s the inherent barrier to understanding what’s going on in the game. During a lecture at the Art History of Games Conference in Atlanta, Henry Lowood noted that one of the closest matches that he ever watched involved a flame shield trick so complex that even the Judges didn’t understand it until several replays. It’s also not just about appreciating the player’s skill. Consider this Halo 1 Tournament. Top player comes in at 50, next highest is 31. Not even Wil Wheaton can make the match entertaining. It’s just some kid dropping headshots with a pistol from across the map. A video of a tournament played with Halo 3 is a bit more engaging because of the teamplay, but it still seems to boil down to who can rock the battle rifle the best. They’re all very skilled, so watching it gets repetitive.


All of these issues exist in real spectator sports, and people resolve them in a couple of different ways. Take a spectator sport like baseball. What would make someone think it’s boring? Long lulls between activity, tight regulation of player choices, and potential lulls between anything exciting happening. A post over at the Brainy Gamer details one of the ways that diehard fans remain engaged: keeping score themselves. Michael Abbott writes, “We’re talking about two simultaneous experiences: playing a game and thinking about playing a game. Scorekeeping enables you to keep a close eye on both. Even though you are only watching the game being played, you are heavily invested moment by moment in real time. You are not detached. You care about the live event unfolding, even though you can’t control it” (“The Joy of Keeping Score”, Brainy Gamer, 27 June 2008), which is, in a nutshell, the problem that one is grappling with when trying to make a spectator sport entertaining. How do you get someone interested in an event that they have no control over?


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