Monthly Archives: June 2011

Have I Got MMOnews For You

Host: This week, researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a new method that can accurately predict the behavior of players in online role-playing games. The research team developed the data-driven predictive method by analyzing the behavior of 14,000 players in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft.

Melmoth: The method predicts that most MMO player behaviour will involve frothing with unbridled enthusiasm for a year or more before the game’s release, then playing for two weeks before unsubscribing. With the second week being optional.

Zoso: With a mere six months of algorithm development and three years of supercomputing processing power, the team determined that if a player kills nine rats there’s an 83.2379% chance that their next action will be to kill a rat.

Host: “We are able to predict what a player in a game will do based on his or her previous behavior, with up to 80 percent accuracy,” says Brent Harrison

Melmoth: “Our method shows that if a player is a player-killing smack-talking bigoted, terminal spacebar abuser, they will go on to lead a very successful Twighlight-based role-playing guild enacting heartbreaking eternally doomed love stories. Well, 20% of the time, at least.”

Host: The researchers are confident this work can help game designers. “This research can help researchers get it right, because if you have a good idea of what players like, you can make informed decisions about the kind of storylines and mechanics those players would like in the future.”

Melmoth: Having made use of this method, Blizzard reports that the next expansion for World of Warcraft will involve a big red button in the middle of the screen, which when pressed has the computer shout “OH MY GOD, YOU WIN, YOU’RE THE BEST!” in a sexy voice, and then showers the player’s character in epic armour and sparkly mounts.

Host: It’s not just games that stand to benefit. “This work could obviously be used for World of Warcraft or other MMORPGs,” says Roberts, “but it also applies to any setting where users are making a series of decisions. That could be other gaming formats, or even online retailing.”

Zoso: As a result of the study Amazon are trialling a shopping basket that forces you to buy ten pencils that you don’t need before you’re allowed to join four other customers in trying to buy the book you really want (so long as none of the others beats your “need” roll for it).

Host: The study could help players. “For example,” Roberts says, “you could develop a program to steer players to relevant content. Because it is a data-driven modeling approach, it could be done on a grand scale with minimum input from game designers.”

Melmoth: When asked whether their system simply put giant neon signs into the game at five yard intervals which read “KILL RATS THIS WAY”, the professor looked sheepish and refused to comment.

Host: The study is based on the order in which players earned achievements, and apparently an achievement dealing with a character’s prowess in unarmed combat is highly correlated to the achievement badge associated with world travel – even though there is no clear link between the two badges to the outside observer.

Zoso: Building on this work, a study of stamp collectors has revealed a high correlation between owning stamps with pictures of flowers on them and owning stamps with pictures of people on them – even though there is no clear link between flowers and people to the outside observer.

Host: According to the abstract, Our underlying assumption is that we can accurately predict what a player will do in a given situation if we examine enough data from former players that were in similar situations.

Melmoth: Let’s see what the KiaSA AI makes of it…

**** Reading previous player data ****
*** Data read ****
*** 14000 players killed rats for experience ****
*** 80% chance player will kill a rat for experience ***
*** 5% chance player will kill a wolf for experience ***
*** 5% chance player will kill a boar for experience ***
*** 5% chance player will kill a bear for experience ***
*** 3% chance player will kill a goat for experience ***
*** 1% chance player will realise the futility of attempting to win a skinner box based treadmill 
system designed to keep them playing for the longest amount of time possible whilst using minimal 
resources of the publishing company, quit, fund and recruit an elite team of soldiers of fortune 
to hunt down the publisher and all its subsidiary companies and rid the world of the these games 
once and for all, thus returning millions of man-hours into the world development resource pool, 
thus enabling the betterment of mankind and harbouring the Fourth Age where the human race colonises 
the stars. ***
*** 1% chance player will make a ham sandwich ***

Host: Goodnight!

Studio lights dim, theme tune plays.

Freedom is an internal achievement

I’ve always had a strong (though not exclusive) achiever streak in computer games (by both Jon Radoff and Richard Bartle‘s classifications). Course many early games were all about racking up the points in a bid to ascend to the glory of the High Score Table (and the resulting dilemma of whether to enter your actual initials to proclaim your great skill to the world, or a hilarious three-letter profanity. BUM, tee hee!) and you didn’t have much of a choice over being a completionist. You had to shoot all the titular Space Invaders, gobble all the pills in Pac-Man and knock out every brick to get Thro’ The Wall to progress to the next level (of more Invaders, pills or bricks).

Wolfenstein 3D is one of the first examples that springs to mind of a game that gave an end-of-level report of percentage of enemies killed, treasure collected and secret doors discovered, and I’d really try and get 100% for each. The search for secret doors would start with likely looking nooks, tapestries or bits of walls with different textures, but if that didn’t work then there was always the inelegant but generally effective brute force approach of gliding sideways around an entire level, following the left wall and mashing the “open door” button every couple of steps (this was before I had access to the internet, so no GameFAQs). Secret doors often revealed bonus weapons, ammunition and health, which was a fairly strong incentive to seek them out, but it was matched by the satisfaction of getting those percentages ticking up… Kill Ratio: 100%, Secret Ratio: 100%, Treasure Ratio: 100%. Another avenue of achievement was speed, the end-of-level screen would show your time and the par for the level, but that never bothered me so much, especially as it was usually mutually exclusive with a careful search for secret doors.

Skipping on ten years or so, by the time of Grand Theft Auto 3 “100%” was on its way to being cemented as a verb (“You hundred percented that game? No way!”), and GTA3 presented a vast array of statistics and activities to the player. I never got obsessed enough to try and complete absolutely everything in any of the series, but I did collect all the hidden packages in each one, the weapon and item rewards probably being more of a factor than the achievement itself. I guess the hidden packages, tucked away all over the city as the name suggests, are quite a good way of telling the Explorer from the Achiever; the former stumbles across them while wandering around off the beaten track, the latter downloads a list and a map and crosses them off one by one. After finding a few in the general course of the game, it was off to GameFAQs for me.

With achievements in games often boiling down to making a number go up, RPGs have always offered abundant opportunities, especially MMORPGs; levels, stats, skills, crafting progress, reputation, virtual currency, photocopiers per square metre, I do have a weakness for making bars get bigger. Not to the exclusion of all else such that I might as well be in Progress Quest, “Making Numbers Go Up should only be consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet of game components”, but it’s a strong part of the appeal. That, and hats. A while back Syp wrote about how MMOs have ruined single-player games for him, a position I have some empathy with, though I’ve far from forsworn single player games. The persistence of a virtual world and population of other users can somehow imbue numbers in a MMOG with more significance than their equivalents in a single player offline game. I can’t exactly explain why, maybe a psychologist could produce a hefty paper on it, but I don’t think I’d bother going out of my way to kill 500 of a certain type of Darkspawn in Dragon Age even if there was an achievement for it, whereas I did countless laps of Perez Park in City of Heroes wiping out hordes of low level mobs just to get a badge to show I could Kill Skuls.

Persistence, or the perception of it, is a double-edged sword though. City of Heroes and Age of Conan reactivated accounts for a couple of weeks recently, and mooching back around Atlas Park and Tortage respectively was fun in a nostalgic way, but knowing the reactivations were limited and that I was unlikely to be resubscribing to either game made the experience somewhat transitory, a hotel room you’re crashing in for one night rather than a home you’re settling into, and it hardly seemed worth pursuing anything vaguely long term. The foundations of achievement-based appeal can be shaky, and once you call their bluff then the rest of the dominoes fall like a marble in KerPlunk. Checkmate.

The want of logic annoys.

In City of Heroes there are a number of annoying mobs; one of the more memorable for me was the Tsoo sorcerer, a lieutenant class caster mob who would heal his cohorts and teleport himself halfway across the map to avoid being attacked, popping in to heal before buggering off again, like Florence Nightingale on a bungee cord. Sometimes there’d be two in a group, which would lead to annoying WWE style tag team healing, for which there was never a conveniently located folding chair or table available to break them up. There were a number of ways of dealing with them, however. If you were a crowd control class then you could lock down the sorcerer until the end of the fight. If you were a damage class then you could focus-fire the sorcerer at the start of the fight. If you were a tank class then you could swear a lot and go and find a group. The Tsoo sorcerer was very annoying, but there were numerous ways to counter them if you were careful and clever.

In Lord of the Rings Online there are numerous annoying mobs or, more accurately, numerous annoying abilities that several mobs share. The one that intensely annoys me is the stun, which lasts a variable number of seconds depending on the mob type and which, as far as I can tell, serves absolutely no purpose other than to annoy the pants off the player. The daily combat report, invariably presented by an attention-seeking bimbo in an outfit two sizes too small for her figure, would read:

Today will be mostly annoying, with a heavy outbreak of trolls and wargs coming in from the east. There will be a strong chance of pointless stuns and knock backs, leading to an area of low pleasure with gusty swearing and angrily scattered coffee cups later in the day.

In most cases there’s no way to prevent the stun, it doesn’t have an induction, and therefore at some point in the combat you simply stop what you’re doing for a number of seconds while the mob gnaws on you a bit.

The problem is that, unlike the Tsoo sorcerer, the stun in LotRO has no real bearing on the outcome of the combat; unless you’re very unlucky and very low on health when you’re stunned, the usual outcome is that you are forced to stop for a quick sip of coffee while you wait for the game to return control of your character to you, and then you carry on as normal. The Tsoo sorcerer is terribly annoying, but they’re also a menace, which thus requires players to think, plan, and often react on the spur of the moment to the ebb and flow of battle that the sorcerer effects.

The Tsoo sorcerer’s abilities require the player to concentrate harder on playing the game, thus drawing them further in to that world. The effect of the stun in LotRO is to throw the player forcefully out of the world, albeit momentarily, but it nevertheless gives them the ‘waking up from the Matrix’ moment where they are shown the reality of their situation, and are able to observe the machine that generates the world they were inhabiting moments ago. In addition it serves to remind them of the artificial nature of the system, and how easily it can be balanced in favour of the computer.

How did I beat you?
You… you’re too fast.
Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with fairness in this place? Do you think that’s fun you’re having now?

Mobs which are annoying are not intrinsically a Bad Thing, indeed, some of the mobs which are most engaging, and rewarding to defeat, are those mobs which cause the player to focus ever more intently on the game and its world. Loss of character control, however, is always a difficult mechanic to balance: to be successful a suitable level of peril should be employed such that the player is busy planning how they will survive when control returns to them, but not so much that the player feels the NPCs have an I WIN button which they can arbitrarily employ. If this is too difficult to balance in your game, then consider not having loss of character control at all, because having the game-play equivalent of ‘waiting for an elevator to arrive’ is never going to be compelling.

Brian Blessed are the meek

Expanding thoughts on the practicality of the Wii U controller for MMOGs in the post comments, the presence of a microphone suggested the possibility of allowing voice commands, though as Melmoth pointed out shouting “bugger this!” in frustration at a boss fight might not quite have the intended result.

Mechanisms such as Rage for Warriors in World of Warcraft and Fury for Brutes in City of Heroes build up a bar as you attack or are attacked to power further abilities, but a bar on screen is a rather abstract representation of furious rage. How about if they were powered by the *actual* anger of the player, with your attacks doing more damage the louder you shouted, and taunts depending on the frequency and strength of swearing employed? Accelerometers offer further opportunities for capturing the force with which the controller is hurled aside at the peak of annoyance.

This would give the perfect difficulty scaling system. Rather than, as at present, repeated failures resulting in a downward spiral of anger, recrimination, impotent ranting on voice chat and less focus on the game precisely when most needed, the fury of the player will instead power up their character to unprecedented levels until they’re capable of one-shotting any boss.

Course it would need recalibrating for individual players, otherwise some people would be massively overpowered all the time…

There is no armour against fate, Death lays his icy hand on kings.

Although not necessarily the unique level of customisation that I love my characters to have, here are couple of screenshots of my Warden to show just a smidgen of the lovely cosmetic armour options available in Lord of the Rings Online. I say it’s not terribly unique because the black armour is a very popular level 50ish crafted set often used for the cosmetic look, and the red armour is one of the new purely cosmetic sets granted by ordering the Isengard expansion, so expect to see everyone, his wife and her lover, in that set of armour in the future. That’s not to say you can’t craft a unique look in LotRO, you could mix and match the two sets presented here to your heart’s content in order to create a new and more distinctive look, not to mention the fact that a simple cloak here, a different hood or helmet there, and you can take even the most standard of armour sets and make them your own.

What I like most, however, is that my character’s breasts don’t enter a room twenty seconds ahead of her; that you can’t tell what colour her underwear is; that despite still maintaining the archetypal svelte fantasy female form, I find it hard to picture her prostrate on a beach towel in the sunny Bahamas, or on a bed in an adult movie; and that despite all of this, the ever-pleasant womanly form is still subtly evident.

That’s what I like. Each to their own, of course, but I’m so glad there are games such as Lord of the Rings Online around that allow me play a character with some form of dignity.

And seeing as this seems to be a bit of a cosmetic screenshot post, here are the adventuring outfits for my Burglar, Guardian and Champion.

If you enjoy playing with outfits in LotRO, be sure to check out the Cosmetic LotRO blog for lots of splendidly creative options, where each post comes complete with an item list to help you hunt down the most dapper of jackets and fanciest of pants.

And finally, from the screenshot archive, the Hideous Horse Eye of DOOM.

It’s coming for YOU.

Thought for the day

Could Nintendo’s Wii U controller work with MMOGs? Buttons and analogue sticks for moving and attacks a la DCUO or Champions played with a PS3/360 controller, a touchscreen for more menu/icon driven areas like inventory, talent trees and grouping that can be a little clunky with a conventional controller, and microphone for voice chat (plus camera if you wanted to go further and pop up a video window, though unless it supported sticking a bunch of markers to your face to map your movements onto your character’s in-game model that wouldn’t be terribly immersive).

You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless.

My Warden’s adventures through Tolkienland have been prematurely halted, like an angry dog chasing a cat through the back yard, only to be yanked to a yelping standstill by its collar chained to a post next to its kennel. My Warden has been busy chasing members of the Grey Company around the countryside of Middle Earth with the frenzied haste of a hyperactive Border Collie trying to round up sheep on a bouncy castle. Flinging herself with tongue-lolling grinning enthusiasm from one corner of Middle Earth to the other, and then back again, as she seeks out the rangers who have sworn to protect the heirs of Isildur. It turns out that one of those rangers, Golodir, has got himself into some trouble (spending too much time drinking in the company of the dwarves of Moria, no doubt) and Corunir wants some help to rescue him from somewhere in the depths of Nûrz Ghâshu. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the entrance, I found the Nûrz Ghâshu theme park to be closed with chains wrapped around the gates, the painted words ‘Coming Soon’ dribbling down a sign which dangled at a lop-sided angle from where it had been hastily hung. After all my running around, antics and adventures, trials and tribulations, I had finally been halted by an ‘out of order’ notice. Had I not been warned in the comments by foolsage, and again by splendidly informative sites such as A Casual Stroll to Mordor, I would have been Clark Griswold standing dazed and confused in the deserted parking lot of Wally World. As it was, I just shrugged my shoulders and decided to work on something else in the meantime, while awaiting Turbine’s fix for the issue with Nûrz Ghâshu World; apparently you’d get stuck on one of the rides and be unable to get off, and even now they are still helping heroes of Middle Earth off the whirligig, who then stagger around green-faced and groaning, before bending over with their hands on their knees, and hurling their leftover food buffs into waiting plastic buckets. There’s no real schedule for when Turbine will fix the skirmish, which is utterly outrageous, I mean it’s not as though they’ve been ever so slightly busy over the past few weeks or anything.

Congratulations to Turbine and Codemasters on a pretty painless transfer and resumption of service, which seemed to take less time than had been advertised – a miracle in the MMO space, outside of that hallowed alternative dimension which houses Trion’s Rift. I’m not sure whether Turbine’s gathering of all its pretties and preciousess was an amicable arrangement, but nothing untoward occurred, and my concern that Codemasters might rename every character to Traitorous Pooface and change the characters’ heads into pairs of crusty orc buttocks before they left the Codemasters servers, was thankfully unfounded. I also had slightly more realistic concerns that increased latency would occur and thence cause havoc with the careful timing of the Warden’s gambit-building attacks, but so far –on the anecdotal evidence of playing for a few evenings– everything appears to be pretty much as it was when under Codemaster’s rule.

And so, with progress halted on Volume 3 I switched the solo spotlight over to deeds and skirmishes. Having enjoyed the refreshment of the new (to me) skirmishes unlocked as part of Volume 2, I decided to take a look at the two relatively new (to everyone) skirmishes released as part of LotRO’s Update 3. I was pleasantly surprised at the level of challenge they provided, and although I didn’t suffer a loss in either, I came within a hundred hit points of defeat while fending off a particularly numerous company of angry Gauradan in Icy Crevasse, and I nearly failed the final boss fight in Attack at Dawn. Perhaps the feeling of being challenged will diminish as I run these skirmishes again, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was the sort of challenge that I enjoy in an MMO; the trouble is that I find it hard to identify what makes this sort of challenge enjoyable over the challenges presented by, for example, raid dungeons.

Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the challenge: it’s not terribly difficult to work out what needs to be done, and there isn’t a great deal to remember, but correctly executing the strategy required to defeat the fight still takes a certain level of concentration and competence, which makes the fight more involving than the usual ‘two drunk people standing opposite each other and taking turns to slap each other in the face until one of them passes out’ found in most soloable MMO content; these fights were tense, fraught with endangerment, and somewhat manic. Importantly, although the general strategy was known, execution of the fight required that strategy to be modified on the fly as the fight progressed in response to events.

The fights also feel less gimmicky than many of the staged fights in MMOs, and therefore perhaps it was the fact that it felt less of a game that I, as the player, was thus able to relate to the situation in the context of the characters. Certainly the final fight of Attack at Dawn, where you must stop goblin messengers trying to escape with the location of Esteldín, while also dealing with the boss, felt more compelling and less like the usual LotRO-skinned Sonic the Hedgehog boss fights that I’ve experienced in many of the dungeons. Hmmm, Sonic was always chasing after gold rings, had a name beginning with ‘s’, and spiky armour. Lift-up Sauron’s robe and I bet he’s wearing bright red sneakers with white stripes under there.

There’s also the fact that when solo I can change my tactics in an instant, something which is generally removed from group game-play by design. I think this, ultimately, is where raiding breaks down for me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing with others –the most enjoyable times I’ve had in MMOs have been as part of a group– but the challenge of raiding leaves no room for individual expression within a group, it seems to boil down to fixing everyone’s role to the Nth degree, and then having people perform those roles as perfectly as possible. In part this is down to the way players always want to optimise encounters. And yes, in part it’s down to the fact that we’re not a flock of birds and don’t have a genetic predisposition to rapidly change course as a group without smacking into one another. Mainly, however, it’s down to the fact that in most MMOs you defeat a boss before the fight: if your strategy is sound, then you have defeated the boss, as long as you follow that strategy. There is generally no “That’s not working, let’s try this” during a fight, it’s a case of “That didn’t work, let’s try this” after a fight, and for me there is a world of difference in the experience between those two forms of strategy. The former is for planners and managers, the second is for those who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. Neither is wrong, raiding in its current standard form is absolutely fine, but it doesn’t interest me as a form of entertainment.

WPE 2011: Swine Offline Entertainment Conference, Liveblogging.

09:49 [Melmoth] Hello folks, welcome to KiaSA’s not live Liveblogging coverage of Swine Offline Entertainment’s conference for the 2011 Work Pork Expo here in San Francisco. Or Bay Con, as we like to call it. Just a little pork joke there for our regular readers. We’re looking forward to this, after the dismal offerings by Porcrosoft and Apple Sauce, we’re really hoping to see something special here.

09:50: [Melmoth] First of all, an apology for their ham-fisted handling of the recent security debacle.

09:51: [Melmoth] Well they’ve kept us waiting for a while now, seeing as this was supposed to start at 09:30, but here we go. Let’s see what Swine’s CEO will trot out this year.

09:54: [Melmoth] Interesting look at the latest pig-based peripherals, including a new motion control device they’re dubbing the pork pointer, or ‘porker’ for short.

09:55: [Melmoth] Not entirely convinced that the porker will have broad appeal: give me the feel of a good old-fashioned stick for controlling my pigs any day.

09:55: [Melmoth] They keep going for this interactive control concept, but I reckon they’re trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

10:04: [Melmoth] The big news for Swine seems to be their latest addition to the portable pork range.

10:04: [Melmoth] Just seems to be the same bacon sandwich from previous years, only this time with some extra mayonnaise. CEO says it will have an extra layer of bread, making it a more three dimensional affair.

10:05: [Melmoth] Not sure it’ll be worth the extra expense. Dubious as to whether people will get it, or just ignore that third layer and just stick with the two they’re used to. Looks like they’re trying to hog the whole portable market.

10:15: [Melmoth] CEO just said that they hope to sew up the whole pork market in the next five to ten months, don’t think I’ve ever heard a rasher statement.

10:15: [Melmoth] Bit of a pot-belly laugh for the audience, that one.

10:17: [Melmoth] Announcement that they’ve come up with a new airborne porcine platform for inter-continental corporate types; audience finding that one hard to believe.

10:20: [Melmoth] New version of their most popular pig package, codename Reen, is due Q4 2011.

10:21: [Melmoth] It will include their controversial root kit to prevent attempted crackling of the system. Seems a truffle overzealous if you ask me.

10:21: [Melmoth] So the question now is: t’Reen, or not t’Reen?

10:25: [Melmoth] They’ve updated the pricing on their bacon/pork sausage bundle.

10:25: [Melmoth] Also renaming it from Pigs in Blankets to Sus Domesticus in Duvets, to appeal to the young professional market they’re aiming to capture.

10:30: [Melmoth] Lot of corporate marketing waffle at this point, most of it involving porky pies.

10:35: [Melmoth] Well that’s it folks. Have to say that Swine’s conference just flu past. Not much to squeal about really, a lot of chop without any real gravy, as usual.

Expo Coverage

It can’t have escaped your attention that there’s a massive Expo going on over in the US, and we’re just as swept up in all the exciting announcements as everyone else. Though we were sadly unable to blag free first-class flights for press coverage in person we’ll be scouring the ‘net for all the latest news to bring to you. We’re particularly looking forward to “Training Camp: Preparing Pigs for Optimal Performance”, “Slaughter evaluations of pigs immunized against PCV2 and Mhp vaccinations”, “Breeding the Super-Boar: ensuring wildlife remains a threat to even god-slaying level-capped adventurers” and of course we’ll be live-Tweeting “Got Manure? Want Energy? Explore Anaerobic Digestion!”

Remember: if it’s about pork production, you’ll find it at NPPC’s World Pork Expo.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reload

I did have a soft spot for APB and was keeping half an eye on the APB Reloaded relaunch, but it was only seeing this video in Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Sunday Papers that really inspired me to go and grab the open beta. There’s a transfer process for getting your old characters from the original launch (only the customisation, not the progress) that seemed to work fine, and the game seems pretty much as I remember, running, jumping, standing still, all that stuff.

Mind you, when I clicked on a window in the launcher promising a method to “earn free G1 credits”, I did have to wonder slightly at exactly what target audience they’re going for now…