Jul 18

Emergent Play in MMOs - It’s About the Balance

This is a non-sequitur that came up in a recent conversation, and it’s something that many experienced MMO developers and players are well aware of.  

In online spaces, emergent play is as important as social play.

Emergent gameplay behaviors (”unforeseen interactions outside of the original intent, which frequently provide an unexpected result”) can exist between players and the system, between the players and the AIs, between AIs and AIs, and so on.

They can exist between anything that interacts with anything else.

A game system that fosters emergent behaviors is more likely to give users the ability to entertain themselves in your 3d world/2d interactive environment/web based spreadsheet game for many more minutes/hours/weeks/months than you’ll be able to create content to keep them engaged in a way that’s mutually beneficial.

Emergent play lets people experiment “harmlessly” with pushing the boundaries in a way that the same behaviors in social play would be unacceptable or detrimental.  (e.g. NPCs don’t walk away from a product or brand with a negative impression when they’re “experimented upon” by curious players.)

Degenerate gameplay is generally undesirable.  I use that in a literal (not moral) sense: “A strategy/path of action/combination of resources or interactions that is both unforseen and so beneficial that it becomes the sole way to play.  Not partaking in that specific, narrow path of activity either outright precludes “success” in an environment, or drastically reduces the amount of fun a person can derive from an experience.”

Degenerate gameplay is a small subset of emergent gameplay.

Given this relationship, attempts to systemically pre-empt degenerate gameplay frequently have the unfortunate side effect of outright preventing beneficial emergent behaviors.  In a multi-player online environment, this can be a significant contributor to a failure to thrive.

It’s important to address the worst of the worst ahead of time — That’s one place where knowing where to strike a balance comes in — but with targeted solutions, despite the fact that targeted solutions frequently require more effort over time, both in maintaining an awareness and and being able to address the correct problem.  However, that cost is variable, and never guaranteed to occur.

The other place balance comes into play is having a good sense of which potential problems are safe enough to address if and only if they become real problems.  Fixing some problems before they actually exist often comes with an immediate cost that’s best left unpaid until (and if) you need to.

In short - Creating an environment that maximizes its potential to succeed as a whole is far more important than creating one in which all potential for degenerate play is pre-emptively stamped out.

Jul 10

Going Out On Top

There are a lot of things about startup life that I’ve loved being around again.

Plastic tables from office depot in a spare bedroom for half of a year.  A house strewn in network cables across two floors.  Moving across a state to work with new friends.  Building a new home for all of us from scratch and spare parts.  Integrating even more new friends into a team, watching them develop into far more than the sum of their parts.

Observing brilliant people develop products amazingly well. Seeing (and occasionally helping) people deliver beyond what they thought was their best.  Being able to identify a problem in the morning and have it dealt with by the afternoon.  Figuring out creative ways to push forward that don’t break the bank.  Finding yet more people, from across the globe, to help us do what we need to do.  Conceiving of ways to balance the old and the new to create something truly special.

Meeting a new community of enthusiastic and friendly players.  Witnessing them interact with a new kind of truly engaging, social entertainment for the first time.

Best of all, being there to observe the first “lightbulb” moments as they exclaim: “This is FUN!

Seems like a natural time to grab on and hold tight forever.

As counterintuitive as it might sound, once you get it running, sometimes the best thing you can do is step down and make way for a vision for where it goes next.

I don’t make decisions like this lightly.  When a company’s doing well, I stay in one place for years.  When it doesn’t work out, I’ve been the last one to turn out the lights.  This is an entirely new kind of decision for me.  It’s of course painful and difficult, but it’s the right one.

Never in my career have I seen such a small group of people accomplish so much, so quickly in this space.  Products, pipelines, systems, processes, relationships — you name it.  I remain entirely in awe in many different ways.  I’m extremely proud to have played my role in building it up from nothing, and value the new friendships that have been made in the process more than I can say.

I have nothing but the utmost respect for the people who’ve consistently overdelivered and continue to go beyond giving their all, day in and day out, revolutionizing what online games are and how they’re made.

There’s a huge success story ready to burst out there, and I look forward to seeing it happen.  Give ‘em hell, ohai!

What’s next?

This is a great time for online entertainment.  Every day there are more people online looking to have fun with their friends and make new ones in the process.

There’s an ever-widening spectrum of exciting things waiting to be built.   Some of them are games in the classic sense, others are purely social devices, and a massive range of opportunities lie between them.

At the end of the day, they all have the same goal in mind - Bringing people together.

Time to figure out which one sounds like the most fun to build next. :)

Apr 23

 Initially, Tami aka Cuppycake didn’t quite start the fire with this:

We all know that professional video game designers who blog are a freaking dime a dozen on the internet. Often times, game design bloggers are the most prevalent in the industry among fans. They often have a lot of respect in social circles and game development conferences and are the ones you think of when you think of “famous designers”. It seems like a decent amount of people who design games for a living want to blog and share that knowledge with others.

My question is: Do they know what they’re talking about? Are they even good designers?

Which she later clarified to actually mean this:

What I wanted to say was - design bloggers….you’re all full of shit, and relevant people in the industry making kick ass content aren’t reading a word of what you say (and if they are, they’re laughing).

I wanted to add a couple more thoughts to my own reply on Lum’s blog, but the edit timer’s up, so I’ll do it here.

And before blogging existed, from the point of view of the people who needed to do hardcore implementation, instead of the target being “bloggers” it was “people who had enough free time to go to conventions and give speeches about what good work looks like, instead of actually doing good work.”

There is a certain symbiosis that occurs, though - All the greatest implementation in the world isn’t going to be useful without a good vision, and the best vision in the world is useless when it doesn’t have a viable implementation.

There’s good and bad in people of both types. You just need far more good implementers than you need good visionaries to succeed.

On top of that, it’s far more difficult to tell a high quality bloviator (someone who has good, *implementable* ideas) from a low quality one (someone who has amazing ideas that are completely impractical) than it is to make the same comparison with those doing the implementation.

The quality of a given *implementation* is evident to all but the most casual observer, and compounding the problem, the implementers frequently end up taking the blame for the low quality bloviators.

Since the only part that’s visible is the implementation, the implementation is what all but the most experienced observers will be able to discern as being the problem.

Rarely do you hear about a product: “That game was bad; Those poor guys making it were given (an incomprehensible vision | an unsolvable problem | unrealistic timelines).”

What you hear about are the end-user and reviewer-visible symptoms.   “That game was bad, (it crashed a lot | it didn’t feel like it was finished | it was totally unpolished),” which are more frequently problems of vision, scope, and implementability than they are of actual implementation skill.

This is why the people who do the implementation tend to be bitter about the (now) bloggers and, in past generation, the conventioneers.

Getting back to the original question -

Does being an interesting design blogger mean that you know anything about practical game design?   


Being a design blogger, like any other means of recreational communication, (since no one that I am aware of is being paid to blog about game design - Whether design is the day job they also happen to have or not, it’s recreation, period.) means that they can can communicate on aspects of game design in a sufficiently entertaining manner, which is a very poor proxy for determining whether or not a given person is a good designer.

The converse is likewise not true.

Being a good blogger does not make one a bad practical designer.

The one designer I’ve worked closely with out of the currently active blogger set, this guy, who does happen to be a rockstar with narrative, structure, consistency, and about 10 other nouns I could name.

Are the other active designer-bloggers any good?  No idea.  I’m sure some are fantastic.  I’m sure others aren’t.

The only thing that being a blogger gives you is visibility, and people are more likely to have an affinity for, and attribute positive aspects to, names they are familiar with, whether said names are deserving of positive aspects or not.  (Note: This includes me.)

That’s it. Period.

Utility to a product and activity on the blogs are two totally separate entities.

The only thing you can be 100% positive of is that during the time when a person is writing a blog entry, they are not actively implementing anything on a project.

That’s a useful proxy for just about nothing, other than how they spent 20 minutes that day.

Hope that helps clear things up.

Apr 22

Tentonhammer did an article on Beta Testing’s Past, Present and Future last week and asked me for an opinion.  I mostly commented on the budgetary side of it, after being asked if I thought big betas were going away any time soon, with the questioner having noted the change of tenor of betas over the past few years — Away from gameplay/assumption testing, and how they’ve become more of pre-launch marketing events.

Clip from the article:

 For the AAA, eight- and nine- figure budget extravaganzas, big betas aren’t going away any time soon.  What companies get out of them has shifted over time, but they remain an important part of getting a game out the door.

As product cost and complexity have increased, the emphasis of beta has indeed shifted toward toward marketing and load testing both your gameplay and operational systems.  However, those are still critical activities in the high-budget, launch-big-or-die model.   (That model has many weaknesses, but that’s an entire topic in itself.)

The reason this happened is simple - It’s about the money.  Let’s say you’re a AAA game with 3-4 years of time and money invested, enough money to support a large team having worked on it for that long.  Games like this frequently need to go for years before enough pieces come together before you can start making decisions about what’s fun and what isn’t.

By the time beta begins, you’ve made decision after decision that have compounded on each other.  Your assumptions’ assumptions’ have assumptions about what your game is.  The whole product, systems, content, operations, marketing, PR, community ramp, you name it — is built upon them.  Changing core assumptions about the product itself is unlikely to be possible without significant delays, costing progressively more money per month.  (Remember, the months toward the end of the dev cycle are the most expensive ones by far.)

The game is, for the most part, what it is.  You’re capable of making shifts, but the more complex the game, the more minor the shifts you can make with any confidence.  If assumptions that you made years ago turn out to be wrong, you’re left to scramble, or in most cases, do your best to ameliorate the now-certain fallout.

If you haven’t verified your gameplay at the point of having a beta, you’ve already left your fate to chance.  (This is, of course, all presuming that your game has passed the technical bar in terms of stability, which is all too often not the case.  And, again, is another flaw with the launch-big-or-die model.)

As budgets go up and schedules get longer, the model is growing more and more analogous to movies.  If anything, people can see what goes on with blockbuster movie releases and draw certain comparisons.

No big beta?  With a quality product at this stage in the industry’s evolution the negatives almost never outweigh the positives.

Unlike movies, seldom are there a half dozen launches competing for attention in the same month, much less the same week, where movies might have some competitive advantage to keeping secrets this late in the game.  MMOs differ from movies in that they’re a long term time investment.  The pattern of hype generation is different.

The way MMOs are most similar to movies, exploding costs aside, is that if you don’t see an advance reviewer screening for a movie:  Something Has Gone Terribly Wrong.  Bad news is being kept out of the market in hopes of keeping day-one sales high.

The same can be said for lack of betas, repeatedly late betas, or overly-restrictive betas for MMOs.

The company knows that early sales are now where the bulk of the money is going to come from, instead of huge usage numbers over time, and it’s doing what it needs to — preserving those precious day one revenues, since it could well need that money to survive.

The biggest underlying assumption that’s changed over time, largely thanks to World of Warcraft is that the dominant thinking used to be that “Getting too many people in before launch is going to hurt sales and subscriptions.”

After all - People made characters, levelled them up, got some loot, had their fun…just to get wiped at the end of beta. “The more people we do that to, the less who’ll want to buy the game, then come back to start all over at launch” — right?

WoW proved this to be a fallacy.  For a good game, it turns out that there’s not just a higher tolerance for starting over than anyone imagined, but many people are actively interested in repeating their progress once a beta is over.  Counterintuitive at first, but it does make a lot of sense.  To a significant part of the core MMO audience…

Starting over feels like cheating.

One of the best things you can do in a game is to give people opportunities to feel like they’re cheating, or at least getting away with something, in a way that doesn’t make them feel guilty for doing it.  Feeling like you’re pulling one over on the system is a good motivator.

It’s smart of developers to give people “safe” ways to derive that feeling from playing the game.  Better they’re “cheating” by zooming through something they know than by becoming destructive cheaters - botters, hackers, and the like.

Given that, an outside observer can treat the size of the final beta as a referendum on the developer/publisher’s confidence in the game itself.  That’s what I meant in the clip above referring to movie analogies.

It’s not a 100% correlation - But in general, the bigger the beta, the more confidence.  The later and smaller the beta, the less confidence, and the higher internal pressure (usually driven by the cost) to get something, anything out the door, as a hail mary.

By now most of the core audience realizes…

The Miracle Patch doesn’t exist, and it never has.

Smart developers know that (enough of) their audience knows this, and are planning their beta’s progress accordingly.  If you’re operating in the launch-big-or-die model, and you put an un-fun or unstable beta out on promises of a future patch coming out to Make Everything Awesome, people will see right through it, and you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.

If developers are so smart, why do un-fun betas still happen?

This is a tangent I wasn’t planning on getting into.  Akil Hooper, who I worked with at SOE for a good many years, described one reason really well:

I think that one of the problems that MMOs have kind of inherent to the system is the length of development of tech. So many MMOs develop on new or untested/unproven tech that a lot of time and money is spent building a foundation that could very well be faulty.

By the time that beta comes around the meat and potatoes of the game hasn’t had enough time to marinate in the juices of fun, but the stock took so long to cool that you can’t throw it away. (Man, do I love metaphors)

Lots of non-MMO teams (maybe some MMO teams too for all I know) are working toward rapid iteration styles of development, instead of standard long pre-production and short final production cycles. This allows for them to taste the soup earlier and still have some time to change some of the basic flavors without ruining the broth too much.

Expressed another way, one of the biggest reasons for un-fun betas is that there’s traditionally been far too much effort required from many other people until “fun” is even able to be evaluated at its most basic level.

The classic problem is compounded by the fact that designers are forced to continue progressively building more and more (on paper) upon unproven hypotheses (also on paper), until they end up with a 1,000+ page document of “Here’s the game we’re going to make once the architecture is in place.”

The risk of potential wasted effort increases geometrically the longer it takes to get to iteration.

Looking at who’s doing what in making a game…

Artists - Get to do some useful concepting, color keys, planning, before their production and (hopefully) continuous iteration, unless they’re being asked to make far too many assets in too little time.  Most of their time spent is useful in the end.

Engineers - Also very likely that their earliest work will be useful, and will be the practical foundation for the product.  Ends up being what a lot of the iteration point depends on.

Designers - Get “the time at the end” to find out if anything they’ve been planning is useful, usable, or fun.  Frequently, “the end” is a fixed date on a calendar.  Not to understate, but: This is a problem.

Smart teams making games all over realize this and are doing everything they can to push the iteration start point as early as possible in a game’s development cycle.

We’ve still got some distance to go until we’re entirely out of the Bad Old Days, but as Akil points out, it is getting better.

Nov 04

Whoever you are, whatever you think…

…welcome to the history books, folks.

Nov 04

Help us, Wolf Blitzer! You’re our only hope!

Forget the election - Why isn’t this the big story?

Aug 18

Not all 16.725s are created equal

I’m not a rabid Olympics or gymnastics fan, but I’ve been watching them on and off this year.

An interesting example of poor mechanics design struck there tonight.

It wasn’t until later, when she checked the board again, that Liukin realized that she and He were tied. “I thought, am I that tired?” she said. “I know it’s been a long week, but there’s a 1 next to her name and a 2 next to mine. I said, Dad, we got the same score.”

For those who weren’t watching:

  • In the women’s uneven parallel bars, the US’ Nastia Liukin scores  16.725, moving into first place.
  • China’s He Kexin follows her, also scoring 16.725 (the same score), taking over 1st place, pushing the US down to #2.
  • The above ranking was produced courtesy of a software-generated tiebreaker, throwing out next-lowest judge scores behind the scenes until said tie is broke, in a way that is entirely hidden to everyone other than the judges.
  • This appears to make less sense to the people on TV than it does to me (namely, the athletes), so I’m at least in reasonably knowledgeable company.

Design tenets reinforced:

  • Any system can only ever be as good as its interface.  It can never be better, only worse.  (The interface for this one, plainly, is pretty terrible.)
  • Before you add extra complexity to solve the problem, make damn sure that it’s a problem that actually needs solving.  (Not that I know a thing about gymnastics, but what sane reason is there for not awarding them both the gold?)

Congratulations on the medal, Nastia.  Sorry it’s not the color you earned.

  • Edit: I got the order they went in backward, but I’m leaving it as is since the point’s the same either way.  Tip of the hat to Danuser and Shwayder, closet womens’ gymnastics fiends and co-presidents of the Nastia Liukin Fan Club, Northeast Division.
Jul 31

On the Internet, Not All Analogies Suck

Danuser put up a great post.  Worth reading, and also threatens to violate the law that all analogies made on the Internet inherently suck.

It’s Okay to Grow Up

Whether or not everyone agrees with it, I imagine that it will resonate with people on both sides of the issue:  Players who’ve outgrown a given MMO, and developers who feel pressure to evolve, evolve, evolve to keep the same audience engaged for “One More Cycle” (in perpetuity) at the expense of potential for acquiring new users.

Steve - Get out while you can.  I’m sure the Internet Police are on their way already.

Jul 25

Hacks: Breaking Into the Games Industry

Most of the emails that I get from people who’ve stumbled upon this site are related to getting into the games industry for the first time.   I am a huge fan of getting more people in who are extremely passionate about what they’re creating and take time to reply whenever I can.

I’ve been collecting up notes from conversations to try to turn them into another tl;dr treatise on the subject, but instead I’m going to just post them as fragments as they come up.

This has the added benefit of making them infinitely more likely to see the light of day where they might be able to help someone.

One for now:

1) Age.  This one comes up most frequently with people who have significant experience in other industries and are trying to break in to games.

“My age.  I’m not a 20 year old.  I’m old enough to be your (mother/father).  Does that mean I’ll never get a job as a first timer?”

Emphatically: No.  

The reality:  If you’re asking this question, somewhere deep down you already know this.  Hearing it from someone on the inside can help, so I’ll repeat it out loud:

If it does matter to someone, you don’t want to work there in the first place.

Most modern industries aren’t expecting a 20 or 30 year commitment.  If you can come in and do good work for 3, 4, 5 years, you’d be considered a solid find.

You don’t need 20 years left of career to be considered viable.  You need to be passionate, smart, and able to do solid work.

The hack:  Bigger companies, especially, are (justifiably) paranoid about even the appearance of age discrimination.  Chances are that everyone you’ll encounter during any interview process has gone to liability-insurance-mandated (and therefore employer-mandated) discrimination training.

They’re also more likely to be willing to take on people who may need more coaching, due solely to their size. On larger teams there are greater numbers of more experienced people who can mentor, instead of, say, at a scrappy 10 person startup where everyone needs to be moderate-to-expert in 2 or 3 distinct jobs.

They’re also sometimes more suitable from the employee point of view since they’re traditionally more stable and have more comprehensive benefits.

You’re not going to become a millionaire on stock options there, but if you’re trying to get started and get some valuable experience under your belt, that should be the furthest thing from your mind.

More later.

Feel free to let me know via comments or mail if there are things you’d like me to call out - I have enough fodder for another half dozen of these as time permits.

Jul 11

What’s the greater sin?

Woke up to a few IM windows with links to the latest Warhammer news.  They’re trimming the launch feature set by a few classes and a number of cities.



This isn’t good news, of course, but it also isn’t a terrible thing.

Customers are orders of magnitude more forgiving about absent than they are about suck.