Posts Tagged ‘video games’

So this is my day job since leaving CCP

The Elder Scrolls Online.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-bum.

But I can’t trace time

I can now officially announce that I’ve joined ZeniMax Online Studios in Baltimore, as a content designer on their unannounced MMO. ZOS is a corporate sibling to Bethesda, makers of The Elder Scrolls, and id Software, creators of Doom and Quake.

To that end, I’ve now relocated to Baltimore, and just moved in to what seems like a very nice new apartment. I’m excited to get started!

Interview at RPGamer

I recently did an interview with RPGamer about Bleeding Edge and some other general topics. I talk a bit about personal stuff, a bit about work routine, and a bit about CCP design philosophy.

The War Effort

“Run and hide, because the monsters are coming — the human race.”

– Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who

3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars

"...and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him..."

I don’t remember why, exactly, I ordered 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars. I may have read and liked the original, free version. I may have wanted to look at a “post-AGON” game design.

What I do recall is that I loved everything about it.

The game was honest and unapologetic about the “kill-happy machismo” of the power-armored-soldiers genre, as well as the frankly upsetting implications of playing death squads in the grim, dark future. Attack rolls didn’t deal abstract “damage,” they resulted in concrete kills. And the Flashback system seemed guaranteed to deliver the kinds of broken protagonists I so much enjoy.

Problem was, I couldn’t run it. The setting conceit I appreciated so much for its honesty, that the players were tasked with killing every living thing in the universe, was something I just couldn’t handle. I couldn’t play the NPCs who gave the orders to exterminate planets.

Either fortunately or disturbingly, though, I’m more than able to play a character who follows those orders.1 So one of my coworkers took up GMing, and I took on the role of Trooper Shiv, who would turn out to be almost as much a victim of the Terran military as the people he killed.

Our squad’s first deployment was to a planet crawling with acid spitting bugs. You know the type.  Hard to sympathize with. In the first few minutes of scouting, the PCs were ambushed and Trooper Shiv took a face full of acid. Checking off wound boxes on my character sheet, I saw that he was “crippled.” I decided that meant that he was now blind. By the end of the mission, he also had the last surviving brain-bug riding around in his head.

3:16 is a lot of things. One of them is a PvP game. Players end up competing for kills and promotions. Within one mission (which took four or five lunch hours), the most craven character had become an officer. Within two missions, it became obvious that if the Lieutenant’s right-hand man didn’t get him killed, the Lieutenant was going to get the squad killed.

The Lieutenant liked to put Shiv on point.

The campaign went on a good long while, for a lunchtime game — most of a year. Here’s what I learned.

The tactics/management game is tiny and brilliant. Like most combat systems, it probably couldn’t save an otherwise dull campaign, but it’s fun and you can actually play it over lunch.

Flashbacks are fun, especially since you unlock more of them as you advance. Your characters become progressively more capable of destruction while, in parallel, becoming more developed people. For my group, this was both unpleasant and hilarious. Early on, it was my favorite feature of the game.

Flashbacks are also frustrating. Using a Flashback requires you to invent both an anecdote and a character trait… and that character trait needs to be sufficient to either pull you out of danger or end a full-scale battle. I ended up abusing the system a bit, and having most of Shiv’s Flashbacks be “deleted scenes” from previous missions.

The GM has to play things fairly straight. A few Futurama-esque gizmos are alright, but the more humor becomes built into the setting, the less morbid and funny the troopers’ lives become.

Ultimately, 3:16 requires you to both find something kind of amusing about shooting everything that lives, but also be queasy with the idea that this is a good thing. It’s a game about doing the awful things that 40k assumes as a matter of course, and doing them as a job.

The moral lesson is obvious… unnecessary, even. But it’s a good one to work through once in a while. I work in video games, where success is measured in imaginary murders. Once in a while, it’s good to play a game that’s not asking me to be entirely okay with that.

In the year since our campaign wound up, I’ve often found myself thinking about 3:16. Should we play again? Should I be running this time? Having played the game more or less as written, I’m now a lot more comfortable making changes to the setting. Giving Earth a sympathetic reason to go to war, for instance, or putting troopers into literal hell in the fashion of the Doom series. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to gloss over or forget what it was like playing not just the monsters, but the bad guys.

Carnage Amongst the Stars still carries some of the unease that I feel every time I see an FPS that involves mowing down the Other.

I’m glad that it does.

  1. I know what I did there.

Know Your Monsters: Dickwolf

Captain America

I'm with Captain America

Last Thursday, I had a pounding headache. At the same time, I read some comments from Tom Abernathy that I thought were particularly good:

I’m tired of those of us who care in the game industry complaining that there aren’t enough female protagonists while those of them who make the money decisions keep responding, “Gee, we’d love to, but the market data is clear. They just won’t buy it.”

A friend posted it on Facebook. I wanted to reply. I kept trying to reply. But through the headache and how generally jaded I was, I couldn’t think of something constructive to say, and certainly nothing that wouldn’t provoke an Attack of Opportunity. AoOs are from 3.5, and they basically amount to those of us who have the best opportunities taking cheap shots at each other while we debate what’s best for those who don’t.

So I decided I’d just go ahead and post a response to every stupid argument that prevents us from discussing the real issues with sexism in gaming. Issues like inappropriate cheesecake, hackneyed male and female stereotypes, the characterization of sexual relationships as questlike or transactional, and all of that. I called it Dismissive, and then I went back to writing for an intellectual property most people associate with a vampire in a schoolgirl outfit. We all have our shame.

I didn’t Know My Monster. I wasn’t aware that, three days earlier, the Dickwolf controversy had again raised its ugly head. I didn’t know about that until this morning, when I checked my hits, and I’ve kind of been perplexed all day. So if you were viewing my post in that context, well, I wasn’t.

But in that context, I stand by it. Because this is exactly the kind of situation we find ourselves in when we refuse to accept that our community — the community, in this case, of game developers and commentators — massively screws up sometimes.

Which side am I on? The one that’s against trolling sexual assault survivors.

Dismissive

Yes, I also believe that the government should give people cookies. Even in the public schools. Gluten-free cookies, even.

Games are sexist. Roleplaying games are sexist. Video games are sexist. Massively multiplayer online games are sexist. Not all of them, not always, but way too many and way too often.

Before we can talk about this, we need to establish something. You’re not a bad person. I mean that. You, personally. You’re not a bad person, and the fact that I’m angry about this does not mean that I think that you are. This is not one of those times when you need to defend yourself.

That’s the problem, though: every time we start to talk about how to make games less sexist, we end up with an argument about whether we should be having the discussion, or whether the issue’s even relevant.

So, in the interests of being able to constructively discuss gender problems and gaming in the future, I’m going to address some of those arguments here in the past. My friend the straw man will provide some arguments in bold, and I’ll respond by setting fire to him.

“Women don’t play games.”

Women do play games. They play games in different types and numbers than men. This doesn’t mean that female gamers aren’t out here. They are… and the sadly hilarious thing is, they’ve been here the whole time. Sit outside the treehouse with a “No Girls Allowed” sign and all you’re doing is ignoring that there are ladies inside painting Tyrranids.

“But they’re a minority.”

That’s what happens when you start splitting a set into subsets. Some are generally bigger than others. That doesn’t mean some subsets don’t exist. There are fewer 3s in a deck of cards than other cards. That doesn’t mean I should be designing my game without 3s in it.

“People can’t agree on what’s sexist, so there’s no point in trying not to be sexist.”

You know what else people can’t agree on? Computing platforms. Somehow, they manage to throw Comdex and make new, more awesome computers every year anyway. Android 3.0 is still going to be really cool even though a lot of people won’t like it as well as iOS 5. We can make things better even if we can’t agree on perfect.

“Feminism is over.”

So’s Nextwave. ‘SPLODE!

“We should be focused on gameplay and story, not gender.”

We’re capable of thinking of more than one thing at once.

“Or, rather, we should be focused on a quality product, rather than one aimed at pleasing a particular demographic.”

Sometimes, people create things without caring what other people think. Most times are not that time. The audience isn’t any more dead than the author.

X1: The Panel of Dread

I wish I could say I dread moments like these.

If you haven’t seen it, basically:

  • We’re at a convention. Player asks a designer why an NPC’s position in a novel isn’t reflected in-game.
  • Designer responds that he thought the character was dead.
  • Player provides supplementary information. NPC is not dead.
  • Designer says they’ll fix it.
  • Crowd applauds wildly.
  • Internet cites video as evidence that either the player is an undesirable or the designers don’t know their own game.

I’ve been in the… what do you even call it… professional mythology business… for five years now. I worked on EVE Online, the world’s second-biggest MMO. I’ve been in charge of what I think is the world’s most complex vampire property.

And… yeah, I’ve probably given a wrong answer at a convention at some point. It’s not that big a deal, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, continuity gets mussed. Dozens of writers, a half-dozen designers, small mistakes get made. We don’t like that, but it happens. I’m told Star Wars has employees devoted entirely to continuity, and they still have mistakes and inconsistencies. We mess things up, and we have to fix them later. Or we change them, because we’ve got a compelling reason.1 I object to bad retcons, but not to retcons generally.2

Second, your game designer has to keep everything in their head and notes at once. Whereas a player asking a question is capable of considerably more focus on a specific question. I don’t have all of Vampire memorized: I look things up when I don’t remember them. At a con, I don’t have that luxury. It’s quite possible that someone will ask me a question about, say, the Akhud, at Gen Con, and I won’t get it right.

Mistakes frustrate me sometimes. I remember one, in particular, in a Requiem book. No one’s caught it so far, but it bugs the hell out of me. If it comes up in a future book? I might well contradict myself. I’m certainly not going to shoot the setting in the foot to keep it consistent with something I did wrong in the first place. Any more than I let rules that I wrote poorly dictate the path of new rules I’m doing right.

Should players be mocked for being so into things? For having that focus? Not generally. This guy was polite, reasonable, and apparently had spotted an actual error. Nothing wrong with that. Hell, I’m pretty sure I could ask Green Lantern writer Geoff Johns a really tough question if I cornered him in a public restroom.

So, no, I generally don’t dread getting asked a question I fumble. When you work on big settings, it’s just the kind of thing that happens. You move on, fix mistakes, explain ambiguities, or, sometimes, leave well enough alone.

It’s a day in the life. Have a no-prize.

  1. Or something looks inconsistent, but it’s supposed to — it’s a clue for later.
  2. An example: some EVE characters got name simplifications at one point because their names were too difficult for most people to pronounce.

Canon, Setting, and Transmedia

Canon, it’s been observed, is what people argue is true about stories that aren’t. Continuity, similarly, is what’s supposedly consistent in worlds that aren’t.

Metaplot is what you call either one when you want to start a fight.

I’m faintly offended by the idea of canon in roleplaying games. RPGs are by their nature varying and modular. Trying to lock them down to a consistent set of facts is disrespectful to players and painful for everybody.

I’ve been told that a consistent body of facts is essential to establishing a property across multiple media. That if you don’t keep on top of it, and you don’t start early, you lose what’s identifiable about your setting.

That’s only true, I think, if you’re telling a single story across multiple media. And when you’re selling a setting, rather than one story, I’ve thought for some time that it makes sense to reinvent that setting for each medium.

For example, if I’m writing a Green Lantern novel, I have opportunities and limitations that just aren’t present in the Green Lantern comic. I can develop the world in ways that just don’t make sense in comics — complicated aliens, the psychology of power ring use, and so on. And those ideas would often be clumsy and overly detailed if they were ported back to the comics.

Still, as we move towards transmedia-native properties, I’m changing my mind again. Transmedia narrative involves more inherent cross-promotion than “simple” adaptation. Where adaptation is about following a core story or core concept across media, transmedia’s in large part about following the details. It matters that a tweet reflects a detail on a physical asset.

Why am I thinking about transmedia storytelling, anyway? Well, because it’s the way my jobs have been going for several years. When we started the story initiative for EVE, we wanted people to follow information from the chronicles to the news feeds to in-client artifacts. Rather than telling versions of the core story of EVE1 in each medium, we wanted to build one narrative across four or five media.

There were high points and low points to that process. The launch event for The Empyrean Age expansion and novel was extremely effective, despite a few hiccups. We later brought the same techniques together to do an immersive event around Fanfest 2008, using news articles in real time to lead up to a trailer showing a battle between the Amarr and the Gallente. That story had visible effects in-game2, and was reflected in online short stories around the same time. It also quietly resolved a plot thread that we’d left dangling for years.

We were telling a relatively small and simple story, but it worked. People at Fanfest were checking for updates during the show. RP arguments broke out on the forums.

Part of why it worked is that the EVE setting is transmedia native. From the very beginning, EVE stories have been told through pictures of the week, short stories, live events, news feeds, and a host of other channels. In the last few years, we’ve added novels. Since the EVE setting evolved in multiple media, it has strengths rooted in each one.

That’s a happy place to be. Although coordinating multiple channels is a huge effort, it’s paid off. Our consistent body of facts3 has been the backbone for a lot of the cool stories we’ve told.

How should settings be customized to individual media? Does live content have a lasting impact on your perception of a setting? Why do you like complex continuities, and why do you hate them?

  1. Pirates vs. Truckers vs. Day Traders
  2. A starship graveyard. Everyone loves Wolf 359.
  3.  Admittedly, it hasn’t always been consistent.

Power. Danger. Mystery. Romance.

World of Darkness

For the last few years, alongside developing Vampire: The Requiem, I’ve been working as a content designer on White Wolf’s next generation online game, World of Darkness.

Last night, World of Darkness was announced to White Wolf’s fans at The Grand Masquerade. I’m extremely proud.

This actually isn’t much of a change for me; I’ve already been doing this job for years. I’ll be keepin’ on with it, along with developing Vampire: The Requiem as a tabletop RPG. But now y’all know. And hopefully you’ve got a glimpse of how cool it will be.

Thank you all for taking me this far. The sun’s setting, friends, and we’re going to have a hell of a time together after dark.

Encyclopedia Brown and the Company Picnic

Sally Kimball is a martial defender.

Every year, CCP has a corporate retreat.

It’s about the only “corporate” thing we ever do, and it’s mainly to get people on different projects better acquainted. So for four hours a year, we pretend we’re a regular ol’ company and do some team building. After that, it’s games and booze again.

Except… some of us never stop gaming.

Our facilitator (think of her as the GM) decided to start with an exercise (game) called Spy.  She explained the rules like this:

  • You will be divided into two groups.
  • Each of you will receive a slip of paper. It will say “You are a spy” or “You are not a spy.” The total number of spies in the game is unknown.
  • Your group will receive a word problem to complete.
  • A spy must attempt to sabotage the solving of the problem.
  • If you suspect a player of being a spy, you may accuse them. If a majority vote of the group concludes that the player is a spy, they are sent outside.
  • At the end of the game, each falsely accused spy will cost the team 100 points.

That might be an okay game… except that it was given to a group of roleplaying game designers. Both groups finished very quickly. Neither group accused any spies.

The facilitator was floored. According to her, she’s run this game hundreds of times, and there’s always at least one player exiled. She asked us why we didn’t accuse any spies. We kind of blinked for a minute, and then I said that the game mechanics were transparent. Her turn to blink.

You’ve probably figured it out already, but here’s how Encyclopedia Brown did it:

As soon as we were separated into groups, we determined the following:

  • Since there are no other scoring numbers in the game, 100 points is an arbitrary value. It could easily be one point. It’s just supposed to sound big, like damage in a Final Fantasy game.
  • The narrative of a team-building exercise is that we should work together and trust each other. Therefore, there are actually no spies.
  • Even if there are spies, the only mechanic in the game for changing your team’s score is to lose points by making a false accusation. Not accusing anyone guarantees your team’s score stays at zero, the highest possible number.
  • There’s no rule for competition between the two groups, or rewards for successfully solving the problem. Therefore, we’re only competing with ourselves at the game of not accusing anyone.

That only left the matter of the math problem. This was supposed to be the hard bit, but it’s actually just a set of addition and subtraction operations obfuscated by a thin narrative. Sound familiar? Ethan solved it, checked his work and had it peer reviewed within two minutes.

I’ll admit, there were two places where we could have screwed up:

  • One of the players wanted to be exiled so that she could have a smoke.
  • I suggested that we refuse to provide the answer to the facilitator and instead sell it to a rival government.

How could this exercise have been improved?

Well, it’s relatively simple to design a game of paranoia and mob rule. As Eddy pointed out, you can just riff Werewolf (the Andrew Plotkin/Dimitry Davidoff one, not the Bill Bridges/Ethan Skemp one). The mechanics of that kind of game are pretty well known at this point.

That’s a party game, though, not a team building exercise. If you want to keep the central narrative of learning that there are no traitors, your best chance is to obfuscate the situation a little better.

I’m not a fan of this kind of game design1, but there are established design patterns, and they’ll fool people for the span of a 10 minute game.

So, some possible improvements:

  • Present a fictional scenario which encourages the players to think like someone other than an office worker trying to complete (not even necessarily win) a team game. Anything from the Cold War will work, pretty much.This at least suggests a level of distrust that a group of apathetic or analytically-minded participants otherwise lacks.
  • Include more mechanics for modifying the team’s score. You still weight them so that players hose themselves by accusing spies, but you introduce enough complication that the players won’t figure it out quickly, and you deny them access to a clear copy of the rules, therefore creating the possibility in their minds that they missed something.2In this case, it’s actually better to use smaller numbers (for example, one instead of 100) . Use of large numbers creates the impression of large differences between those numbers — that’s why it’s a common device in video games. If you want to fool people into making the wrong decisions, you first want to fool them into thinking the differences in risk between possible decisions are small, but that the differences in reward are large.
  • Use a central challenge which is easier to sabotage than arithmetic. Ideally create a challenge where the group is looking for the best decision rather than an objectively right answer.
  • Put multiple groups in competition. Use time as the primary means of determining the winner. If players think someone else might win by finishing faster, they’re less likely to take the time to analyze the rules.
  • Add some kind of reward for winning. Your target players are assumed to be a group of office workers who are used to doing a regular quantity of work for a regular delivery of reward. Fundamentally, they’re at this exercise as part of that work/reward cycle, so it’s the job of the designer to motivate them to care about the outcome.An immediate reward (candy, maybe) is better than a medium term reward (Target gift cards). If you’re going to fool your players, every element of the game has to have them thinking in immediate terms.

At the end, though, you’re still left with a game that only delivers its intended story (and moral) if the players lose. That’s not going to be a satisfying game. It’s true that it might create player unity against the GM/facilitator, but the GM is there representing the larger authority of the employer. So even if the design brings players together by making them resent the GM, they’re only transferring distrust and resentment onto their own organization.

A better overall approach is to follow the PvE design principles of computer and tabletop games, making the antagonists a part of the narrative (“oh noes, the Soviet Orcs!”) while providing benefits for the players to work together against a real but limited chance of failure.

The facilitator should appear to be a neutral party, introducing challenges that are presented as a part of the game and narrative. Rewards should be offered for success, in order to motivate genuine cooperation, but there should also be a consolation prize, because if you present a chance for failure, people will sometimes fail.

And that’s why team-building consultants should hire game designers.

  1. Design by obfuscation is pretty much always bad, because smart players will sort out your lies, and everyone else will just disengage. It’s also not a good idea to present a GM/facilitator as a friendly or neutral force, then turn around at the end of the game and reveal that they were actually trying to screw you up. That basically just pisses players off, and sets up team-building groups to distrust the facilitator in future games.
  2. This last bit is actually a legitimate tactic in some more adversarial modes of play; see Matthew Finch’s “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” for a good example. I don’t think those modes of play are satisfactory if the players aren’t deliberately assuming the risks, though.