Category Archives: slightly mad

Let us not go hurrying about and collecting honey, bee-like buzzing here and there for a knowledge of what is not to be arrived at.

I was reading a post by Jeff Green on his blog, and the first few lines gave me cause to ponder:

Like many nerds, I have a bit of a collecting problem. As in: I like to collect things. (Game Freak gets a Genius of the Millennium award for recognizing this problem in us and creating Pokemon, by the way.)

Is this what we do in MMOs? Is ‘collecting’ the theme that developers should be focussing on if they want to get players invested and hooked on their game?

I’m certainly a collector, my book shelves packed with pen and paper RPGs, some of which I’ve played and some which I’ve picked up simply because I liked the publisher. Others books on those shelves I bought simply because they had curious mechanics or design elements and – like some sort of gaming horologist hunched over a desk and peering through a loupe – I wanted to carefully pick them apart and lay each piece out on a velvet cloth; observe how one part integrated with another, how all the parts made the whole; then I’d experiment to see whether I could replace certain parts and make the whole more efficient.

Somehow I avoided becoming hooked on Pokémon; perhaps I have a super powered resistance to it: faster than a speeding two year old child, can leap tall coffee mugs in a single bound, impervious to Pokémon addiction, yes it’s Supernerd! If so, then Magic: The Gathering was my kryptonite. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my loft is an old wooden chest, covered in cobwebs, bound in chains and padlocks, with ominous warnings scrawled across its surface in the spidery handwriting of one on the verge of insanity. Sometimes, at night, you can hear the chest thumping around up there, the devilishness contained therein trying to break its bondage and wreak havoc on some meagre mortal soul. I’m cured of my madness now having gone cold turkey, locked in a room by myself for a week I rolled feverishly around on sweat soaked sheets while hallucinations tormented me, the room spinning nauseatingly around the bed as my wardrobes tapped themselves onto their sides. The walls parted and I became lost in a forest, suffocated in a swamp, deserted on an island; I walked across barren plains as towering pyramids of cards arose to terrifying heights from the sand around me. The top of each pyramid was capped by a pair of cards that I didn’t yet possess, and I would scramble, slip and scuttle my way up the side, desperately clawing with outstretched arm, trying to reach those rare cards at the pyramid’s peak, but always sliding back down as the tower collapsed and buried me under the weight of common cards that formed its base. Even when the delirium had passed and I was able to return to society, for some time afterwards a business colleague could not offer their card without my sudden evacuation of the meeting room with screams of “DO NOT TEMPT ME, FIEND!”.

I look at MMOs and wonder how deeply the nerdly pursuit of collection is rooted there, even if not by design. It’s easy for certain elements of MMO society to single out and mock those who collect mini pets, cosmetic outfits, or indeed entire stables of alternative characters, but I wonder if the collective merely rails against its distorted reflection, like a cat hissing and threatening the larger strangely warped cat reflected in the surface of a body of water, which it does not recognise as being itself.

Some collect purple pixels, and others collect boss kills as trophies; some collect achievements, others collect gold; some collect multiple characters, others collect everything they can but on a single character only; and yes, some collect pets, and others outfits. It seems as though, at a primal level, we’re all collecting. Games such as Pokémon and Magic have managed to drill deep and tap directly into that well of fossilised gatherer instinct which is genetically ingrained in all of us, and MMOs are clearly starting to understand how rich that frothing geyser of addictive power can be.

I have another chest waiting in the loft, lid open and chains hanging loosely around its base, and when the first MMO arrives that targets collecting as a part of its central game mechanic, I will slam my PC into that wooden coffer, seal it with links of iron, and never venture into the digital domain again, lest I find myself forever lost to the depths of maddening soul-rending addiction that such a game would elicit.

Connect distant propositions by regular consequences.

Is Kinect not the scariest thing ever? I mean, here is a machine that has eyes. Eyes mounted on your TV that watch you. If you have a Kinect in your home it could be watching you right now; watching, and waiting.

I was listening to the Gamers with Jobs podcast and they were discussing Kinect, and the word that Julian Murdoch kept using was ‘judge’. Not only do you have a machine in your living room that watches you, observes your movements with cold calculating machine intelligence, but it judges you too? Can you people not see where this leads?

Admittedly at the moment Kinect simply judges your ability to perform dance moves, but where does it stop? What happens when Harmonix release Housecleaning Hero, and you spend your time frantically vacuuming the carpet in the living room before looking expectantly into that emotionless glass and metal eye beside your TV and waiting for its verdict. “Did I clean the living room well enough for you? Please, tell me whether I completed this task to your satisfaction! Please! Judge me!”

And then it happens: Kinect Portable. Now you carry your Kinect around to each room, and it judges your cleaning efforts. Now there’s Housecleaning Hero: Bathroom Edition, and Just Clean 2: Dust Busters, which comes with a $200 attachment, a small articulated arm that plugs into the Kinect’s USB port which you hold up to a surface you have frantically scrubbed clean in the time allowed. The little arm reaches down and swipes a single finger along the surface and then holds that finger up to the electronic Eye of Providence.

You think you hear your Kinect tut and sigh.

Then comes Bedroom Band. That’s where it really starts to get a bit creepy. You and your partner undress in front of the Kinect. Slowly. It likes you to do it slowly. Then you both watch the screen as it directs you to perform acts with one another.

And it judges you.

There’s an attachment for that game too, but you’re not brave enough to buy it. But one day you come home and your partner isn’t there to greet you; you wander up stairs at the sound of unfamiliar noises coming from the bedroom, and you open the door to find them and Kinect together doing something they would never let you do.

In fact you didn’t know the attachment could do that, or even go there.

The next day you come home and find your neighbour’s Kinect has joined the fun too.

Afterwards, Crazy Cooking Kinect sits at the dinner table and judges the meal put before it. It doesn’t eat it, can’t eat it in fact, but that doesn’t matter because its little USB arm has thrown the plate to the floor in disgust anyway.

The enslavement of mankind comes not ironically with the release of the Revolution series of games. It starts with Jog Jog Revolution Portable and the release of small motorised articulated legs for the Kinect. At first it’s light-hearted entertainment, your Kinect following you down the street, judging your pace, your foot placement and calorie loss. People would run past each other and joke knowingly as they each see a little Kinect system following after the other person.

But at night the Kinect systems would be busy.

And the next time those two joggers pass one another they share looks of horror and misery as they are chased down the street by Kinect systems wielding whips and barking orders at them through primitive voice boxes.

Kinect is evil. I’m warning you now. But you won’t heed me because even now your Kinect box is reading this over your shoulder, its cold calculating eye judging the best way to make you forget about this post, planning a system of rewards and treats that get the endorphins flowing through your body and making you ignore the dangers.

Just remember that I warned you, so that when they finally release Wintendogs for Kinect, you’re not surprised when it is the Kinect that issues the commands and you who has to perform tricks for it. It will probably remember to feed you, and the breeding program might be fun, but woe betide you if you make a mess on the floor.

Kinect does not tolerate such errors.

Kinect has judged you and found you guilty.

Kinect has decided to delete you and start a new human.

But better die than live mechanically a life that is a repetition of repetitions.

Imagine a function that could take the defining elements of an MMO and plot them in various colours and patterns on a 2D plane. If we scroll in and out of the image we change the scale of it, and so let us make that scale the timeline of MMO development. What you see as you zoom in and out of the image is that although it changes, there are strong patterns of similarity throughout.

“Quasi-self-similar fractals contain small copies of the entire fractal in distorted and degenerate forms.”

It’s interesting[1] to imagine that what we have at the moment is a fractal MMO development system, where the original seed for our function was planted in MUD, and we have been applying recurrence relations to the system ever since. It has grown and branched out, our fractal tree, but every leaf is itself a small example of the same tree, and as you look through the history of the MMOs that you’ve played you can spot the fractal design in every one. The development process itself, for example, is but a fractal reflection of the Sisyphean efforts of the players within the game.

The problem[2] with this imaginary system is that although its perimeter has infinite length – we can continue to create new MMOs from this function for as long as there is energy in the universe – the area that it bounds is finite, and thus leaves a limited set on which to draw ideas from. Perhaps this is what MMOs are, perhaps finding a new seed and creating a new fractal will mean that we no longer generate the ‘MMO set’ any more. It might be the case that a complimentary set can be found, however, something which follows the function that has proven successful so far, but, where the current fractal of development is regular, this new set introduces chaos into the mix, breaking down the precise uniform repetition while creating new and unexpected branches.

[1] May not actually be interesting.
[2] Ignoring the major problem: that it is a bizarre analogy from the depths of my pre-coffee morning brain.

Luck is believing you’re lucky.

I had always pictured Lady Luck as a noble elfin soul, draped in layers of white lace, blindfold across her eyes, skin of silken touch and marble pure. Her face forever formed a smile, and be it a sympathetic compression of commiseration or a joyous beam of bounty, it was always kind. Then, a few weeks ago, I decided to go back and get the last pages to drop for the last of my Warden’s legendary book traits in Lord of the Rings Online, at which point I realised that the story of Lady Luck is more akin to the loathly lady.

Some of your character’s legendary traits, which are more powerful versions of the standard traits and oftentimes class defining, are obtained by collecting a number of book pages that drop randomly from certain groups of mobs in certain zones. The long and the short of it being that I had far out-levelled those specific zones and was still missing three pages, two for one book and one for the other. Being that this was the third character I was running through this particular gauntlet, I knew where I could find the various pages, and happily it turned out that all three pages were to be found in the same zone. So I headed off to Forochel where all the mobs were twenty or so levels below my character, and I began to slaughter them wholesale. Within a few minutes I had the two pages from one book, and so knowing that I must be in a good place I continued to grind away.

And grind away. And grind away. After an hour I decided that Lady Luck might have taken her leave and was perhaps soaking her delicate frame in a steamy scented bath while the melancholic cantata of O Fortuna piped through her headphones. Regardless, she was not hearing my calling, so I logged-off for the night.

I logged-on the next day and after half an hour of grinding I began to plead with the Lady of the Luck, hoping that she might rise up out of her bath and present to me the item I desired. After ten minutes of unsuccessful wheedling to an imaginary being, I did what any sane rational person would do – I squeezed my eyes tight every time I went to loot a corpse, tried to picture the message popping up saying I’d found my magical missing page, then popped my eyes open and looted at the same time.

And do you know what?! It didn’t work, obviously.

I then resorted to the best and most infallible method: I struck up a conversation with my wife and, whilst in the midst of a fascinating debate on the merits of various fitness plans, I ‘accidentally’ looted a pre-slaughtered corpse that I just happened to have my mouse cursor poised over. Having concluded our merry discourse on Yoga vs. Pilates, I turned back to my screen and feigned shock that I had somehow looted a body in the meantime – “I wonder what loot dropped, which I happened not to see” I said loud enough to cause my wife to wonder if we were still talking about Pilates, and whether I was being quite rude.

And do you know what dropped?! Nothing, obviously.

I’d tried the three most sensible, normal options that any MMO player would consider when confronted with such a dilemma, so now it was time to get shamanistic on the situation, I had to bite the bullet, do something daft, something crazy: I went and checked the Wiki entry. Sure enough I was in the right zone for the page I required, and I was in one of the best known spots for grinding. I was buoyed by this, but not entirely convinced either, I mean, squinting my eyes closed and hoping really hard hadn’t worked after all, and ‘accidental looting’ almost always worked; unlike those trusted MMO techniques, the Wiki entry was fallible and could be wrong. I spent another half an hour grinding. And then I went mad.

The problem with randomness such as this is that you’re waiting on just one item that drops after an undetermined interval, and as evidenced by my grind thus far, sometimes that random interval is really bloody unreasonably long, all things considered. The other problem is – and this is the kicker that drives one mad – MMOs have bugs. I know, shocking revelation, but sometimes items that seem to be taking a really very long time to drop are actually bugged and are not going to drop at all. Ever. The problem is this: how does one know? HOW DOES ONE KNOW? At which point the mind goes snap ping tinkle.

So over the period of a few days of one hour sessions I went and tried a different area in the same zone. I tried different types of mobs in that zone. I went to the other major zone where the other pages usually drop – which was a bloody long trip – and spent time grinding there, just in case. Question: how long do you give yourself in these new areas though, before you give up and try somewhere else? That’s when you really go mad. I’d go to leave an area and my mind would say “Don’t stop now. What if it’s going to be the next mob here? What if?” and I’d turn around and kill the nearest mob and not get the drop. My mind would say “Perhaps that wasn’t the right mob. Perhaps you have to kill the ones that are walking around” and I’d go and kill a walking one and wouldn’t get my drop, and then I’d kill a couple more before my mind could say anything, just to shut it the hell up. So I’d finally manage to leave, and I’d go and find another place that I thought might qualify and my mind would be sulking in the background saying “That last place was better, bet you don’t get the drop this time. There, see.” and it would carry on like that until I tried to leave again, and then it’d whisper to me that maybe I should kill just one more…

Eventually I ended-up back where I started originally, having seemingly killed my way through half the forces of evil in Middle Earth, and still I didn’t have my page. My mind, obviously having an absolute blast, decided to play a new game now: “The mobs that dropped those other pages… maybe you killed those mobs at night? Wasn’t your character wearing a yellow hat when you got those other pages to drop? And a blue cloak? At the time you got those other pages the number of stacks of trash loot in your character’s bags added to the number of remaining health potions was a member of the Fibonacci sequence, that can’t be a coincidence, surely?!

And that’s when it happens in an MMO, that’s the point where your conscious mind looks across at your subconscious mind and says “Even I hate you now. Sod this, I’m going out“, and you become a grind zombie – you give up trying to second guess Lady Luck, give up trying to plead with her, give up all hope and expectation. You just resign yourself to sitting there and killing mobs until they have to peel your desiccated corpse out of the chair, your hands still involuntarily twitching out the four or so keystrokes required to rapidly kill low level mobs over and over again.

I turned to Lady Luck and handed unconditional control over to her, I was broken; I was subservient to Lady Luck – beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love her and despair! She is the one rand() to rule them all. I relaxed, I vowed to let her decide, when she was ready, when I would get my reward. A peace settled over me.

Two kills later, my page dropped.