Sunday, February 25, 2007

MMOGs: The Need for Culture and The Greed for Experience

MMOGs have gained incredible popularity in the past couple years and currently are not losing momentum. Despite this upshot in use, the same issues still riddle designers and gamers alike. Many people desire a more realistic and immersive experience, and others are only concerned with getting to the highest level as fast as possible by any means necessary. Again I turned to the Blogosphere this week to see how other bloggers felt. I commented on two blog entries discussing the issues MMO players and developers are faced with, which can also be seen here in the ensuing paragraphs. Jen Dornan’s entry, “Us Being Human”, discusses the lack of realistic human culture within MMOGs and received my first post at her blog Terra Nova. The second post I chose to comment on was from Psychochild’s Blog by Brian Green whose entry, “Cheat While Exploring, Not Achieving”, covers the use of automated bots and the use of guides, such as Thotbott which is pictured to the right, and their effect on MMO gameplay and development.

"Us Being Human"
Jen, MMOGs definitely need to make strides in the direction of a more integrated cultural and social experience. Like what others have said in response, many of these educational and cultural aspects exist in structures outside the “game” itself and can be observed within guild interactions. These subcultures are not built upon the structure of the game, and though they arise and are prevalent, it is not something the game provides to the player; the players form it themselves and bring it to the game.

Some people have indicated that the integration of cultural functionality could render the game “un-fun” as it would be too akin to real life, or it is simply unnecessary because people already encountered all seven phenomenon resulting in culture within MMOG’s.

Frankly, that is absurd. MMO’s strive to strike a balance between emulating reality and fostering fantasy and escapism. Games will not throw this balance off by introducing more complex structures for encouraging substantial culture to form. Rather it will allow for new levels of exploration for both of the competing forces to be reached. Secondly, if people are already experiencing all of these social structures through other avenues such as guilds, then why not make them inherent to the gameplay and therefore more easily accessible to all players?

"Cheat While Exploring, Not While Acheiving"
Personally I don’t believe that there is a distinction between botting/ RTMing and using guides quantifiably; it is a matter of quantity. I mean that guide using and botting are both of the same nature just of differing degrees. Players use bots and guides for the same reason, to achieve their goals in game with minimal time and effort. Botting is only looked down upon due to the more blatant laziness and lack of user intervention. However, using thottbot to “automate quests” as you concisely put it, it is only more accepted because it is a less barefaced offense.

Is this an issue of bad design? Partially. Someone above mentioned dynamic content and quest variation. These are phenomenal ideas and would definitely lessen the number of people pushed to guides due to boredom. However this overlooks the issue of player’s experience greed. The major reason people use guides or bots, is not because they are bored with the quests, but because they get more enjoyment out of being high level as that gains them more social prowess. MMO’s are about the social aspect; questing is a means to an end for those seeking social glory. This is the root of the problem and it is only compounded by the boredom felt by genuine quest-lovers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Independent Developers Doom: The future of Game Development

With the arrival of the next generation consoles, and with the recent release of Windows Vista, developers for console and PC games alike are called to reciprocate the platform changes with revolutionary new games. The PS3 the X-Box 360 and the Wii provide an unprecedented level of performance, discussed previously, and Windows Vista boasts, “great features like the games explorer, Direct X10 and parental controls”; all this seems like a developers wonderland and simply begs for them to forge some software to take advantage of these exciting advancements. However, the call for new games seems to have only been made to larger contracted developing firms. This move may cultivate a monopolistic style of game development and push the smaller independent “casual” game developers slowly out of business.

Since its’ launch on December 8th of last year, the Wii has been wildly popular and painstakingly difficult to obtain. This trend of low supply and high demand is only a consumer isolated phenomena but also applies to the aspiring independent developers of Wii games. Nintendo projected that by January they would have Development Kits for smaller development firms or at least begin reviewing the applications. This has proven to be untrue. According to Ian Bogost, an academic game researcher and designer, Nintendo, “doesn't have enough kits to cover the demand for all those crappy licensed games, let alone more original work.” Seemingly, Nintendo is ignoring this outcry despite the lack of quality development from its licensed, contracted game makers. However, a lucky few independent developers have indeed received the coveted Wii Development Kits but does this negate the legitimacy of the disgruntled attitude of developers who have not? No. Nintendo projected that by this time they would be reviewing all applications from all parties desiring a kit. This process would allow for a standardized method toward acquiring one, which is what was promised; allowing a few exceptions does not meet the expectations raised by their previous statement. Nevertheless it does show that Nintendo may not be bent on pushing out the little guys.

Similarly the release of Windows Vista has spawned many obstacles for the developing community. Vista is intended to completely replace Windows XP on all desktop PCs making it the new standard for developers. Apparently this news is not inspiring for independent, casual game developers. The operating system has integrated a Games Explorer designed to provide “game players, the safest, easiest, and most fun experiences of any platform,” due to its new fangled features. DirectX 10, the most current version of Microsoft’s graphics Application Programming Interface (API), an upgraded set of security features including parental controls and an entire explorer with specialized functionality just for games, are the focus of the gaming component for Vista. There are many on the development side who feel differently about Vista's approach to games.

Apparently the features can inhibit the gaming experience in many more ways than enhance it. Alex St. John, CEO at Wildtangent, whose website is displayed on the right, brings attention to the, “heavy handed implementation of parental controls” and how it, “ presents several problems for PC game developers,” including his own company. Vista locks down the game installation process in such a way that could greatly discourage people from downloading game content, forcing them to deal with multiple dialogue boxes and a prompt for username and password. These games target casual gamers who need quick and easy access and any hindrance to the flow of this process could deter them from playing. One major criterion for the Game Explorer’s assessment of a games appropriateness is the ESRB rating. For many online game developers “most free family and casual games are 'unrated' because the ESRB rating service, designed for multimillion dollar boxed titles, is too expensive,” making their games instantly unsuitable by default within the new game explorer and creating more red tape for the end user. These new features can be detrimental to the convenience aspect that these games so heavily rely upon. Developers of online games can only wait and hope that either users are not easily frustrated, or that Microsoft makes some form of adjustment.

Independent or not, developers need to acclimate to these new platforms for games; however there seems to be an inherent discrepancy favoring the larger and contracted game makers. Hopefully as the games roll out, independent game makers are granted the resources they need to catch up and work on par with their currently advantaged competitors. If not, game development might lose an invaluable source of ideas and innovation.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Can They be trusted?: A Call to Game Developers

For Massively Muliplayer Online game developers, their product cannot be self-contained; the game alone does not suffice to please today’s online gamer. The developing company is expected to cultivate a report between themselves and their customers. This report builds into a community, one based on trust. Of late there have been examples of both abuse of this trust and dependence on this trust within the development business incurring respective negative and positive results. Turning to the Blogoshpere to explore these events, the extent of their impact can be more clearly related. Steven Davis’ blog PlayNoEvil, dedicated to issues of game security, in a recent post discusses the issues of in game cheating by developers. From a similar vein, Mark Hefflinger in his entry on DMW Daily focuses on the legitimization of Real Money Transactions and the implications of this move. In hopes to begin a dialogue on these topics, comments on these posts are shown below and were posted at PlayNoEvil and DMW Daily.

Trust within the online gaming industry is undoubtedly a necessity for the longevity of developing companies. The main concern for game developers is to create a positive experience for the consumer. What does this mean for developers who desire to play their own games?

Developers have an unfair advantage that cannot be ignored, and as such it is inappropriate to allow them regular user status. This does not mean they should be barred from experiencing the world they helped create. However, limitations need to be set. There are a hundred thousand plus customers for Eve Online, in this case, who should be the CCP or any developers’ primary concern. As a game developer, one needs to have an appreciation for games and should very well enjoy playing them. Nevertheless, professionalism and dedication to the integrity of their company and product need to the priority. After all, there are other games out there…

Black Market sales of virtual property have co-existed with MMO games since their inception and until recently the developer has always strongly combated the sale of their virtual properties. Sony Station Exchange’s acceptance and facilitation of the customers’ capitalist ventures has earned a great deal of customer patronage, revenue and has greatly cut their support costs. What does this mean for other MMO developers? Will they begin to adopt this policy and instead of punishing virtual salesmen, simply play the middle man? They should. The players of Everquest II using Station Exchange have shown that they can be trusted to use a legitimate system if it is offered. Currently the illegal sales of virtual property from games such as World of Warcraft, Ultima Online and City of Heroes are estimated to be as high as a billion dollars. This is a chunk of capital industry developers cannot afford to neglect, and it seems Sony has presented a viable means to regulate this currently illegal trade with great success.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Online Gaming: A Life Away from Life

Games have always been an escape from reality. They provide the user with a world outside of this one to exist in and escape to. In an article by Jefferey Davis, blogger and gamer, he discusses the function of this media in society over the years and he cites leisure and stress releif as their primary purpose. However, today in the online gaming realm, virtual life is transforming from an sanctuary from the tangible world to a second life. Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG) allow for all the facets of social existence to be manifested in a digital realm. In the game Second Life, the player can experience evrything from professional work, to dining and dating and more. All of this occurs virtually in cyber-space seeming to have no direct effect on the end user other than entertainment. However for many, this experience is not just an outlet for stress release and a playground for them to frolick in, but rather has a profound effect on them personally; people "play" professionally, they forge deep bonds of friendship, become addicted, or even hold business meetings. Online games have become a platform to exist within not just a fantasy land dedicated to escapism.

For some, their closest friends and primary source of kinship and support can be found in-game. Within online community the Massively Multiplayer Online Games have the most significant social impact. The characters reside within a virtual world filled with thousands of others all working simultaneously and often together to achieve goals. One such game is the World of Warcraft and it has an important social structure inherent to the game, the guild: a large group who all ban together to share the in-game experience as shown below. For many, their guild is not simply a group of unknown virtual companions but rather its members become the center of their social reality. For one World of Warcraft patron the guild was her crutch in a time of dire need, “ the real world turned its back on my family" but in-game there was, " a community where we all trust and love one another that came through and put together a miracle.” For this guildie, the “real world” rendered her helpless and the fantasy based world proved more substantial and meaningful. The ability to depend on them was real, however this connection was fostered through the virtual land World of Warcraft.

The reach of games impact stretches beyond the emotional support of guilds as it also has an increasingly strong grasp in the business realm. In the past month, according to Gamespot, the industry grossed 1.1 billion dollars, in month! It is undeniable that gaming has become a tremendous industry from a consumer perspective. However money can also be made playing games. Fatal1ty the world's top professional gamer, “trains 8-10 hours each day, sometimes longer, in preparation for upcoming tournaments,”. Fatal1ty has also made over 100,000 dollars in a year from his participation in tournaments, most of which are hosted by the Cyberathlete Professional League, whose logo is displayed to the right. The Cyberathlete Professional League is the, "world's most recognized brand in professional videogame tournaments and has been a major force in the transformation of videogame competitions to a professional sport". This is a serious business and has dedicated individuals, and organizations fighting for its acceptance as a viable career path. With a clear profit potential and amassing support, professionals represent an undeniable impact that games are beginning have beyond a recreational capacity.

The gaming realm even touches the lives of those who would never before have considered themselves gamers. In Second Life people can create a computerized copy of themselves and perform all the functions of analog existence in this virtual space, even purchase land, and yes, for real money. Companies such as IBM have begun using the, "world of Second Life as the next best thing to being there for corporate meetings" scheduling meetings online instead of in "reality." The employees’ second selves come together online and discuss the topics of real world business through a game! Even non-gaming professionals are now in touch with this world for their business needs. This infiltration of games into areas of business and socialization, especially for those before unused to the medium, reveals their potential as somethign far greater than simply a toy for adolescents; it is a tool that can be applied to any cross section of society whether it be for financial gain, for interpersonal relations, or for some good "old-fashioned" fun.

In today's increasingly modern and technologically dependant era games are indeed more and more prevalent and accepted, however it still is strongly focused on a niche culture. Most people remain untouched by this phenomena, and people would argue that the vast majority of gamers fit in the 18-34 male category. In response to this stereotype Nielsen Entertainment’s Interactive Group, performed a study, in 2005, as to truly determine the "gamer demographic" and they surprisingly found that, "Women and older adults are playing games in increasing numbers." These findings are encouraging are and are backed by a statistic that 41% of gamers are women. Though this study does prove that games affect a bigger sliver of society than previously suspected, it is still not a universally accepted medium. The potential for the medium to become a daily appliance for people of all ages is not only possible but probable. Gaming has transcended entertainment and escapism and planted itself firmly in the fabric of reality as a substantial source of social satisfaction, professional opportunity and business functionality.