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Archive for July, 2010

I’ve been playing Magic: the Gathering recently (currently sticking to the m11 block), which has a lot of interesting design examples.  I’m learning an awful lot about the relative strength of skill combinations and the worth of timing.  In a game, the standard goal is a health race: theirs to 0 before yours.  The same applies in magic.  The goal is to maximize resource usage in a consistent manner, while minimizing the impact of other elements on your strategy.

For example, the Rule of 9 states you choose out 9 basic cards to run your deck on, stack four of each (so 36 cards), then add 24 lands to support them.  The first goal is to decide on the win condition and the cards which get you there.  For instance, in much of the Standard block of M:tG, the Baneslayer Angel constitutes the win condition.  If you get one on the board, you’ve established your win condition.  There’s very little the opponent will be able to do in this situation.

Once you’ve figured out what your winning board state will be, you then choose cards to support that, to make it as consistent as possible, and to disrupt your opponent’s ability to reach their own win condition.  Mana Leak, Cancel are disruptive, letting you attempt to lock out an opponent who is tapped out, while Preordain, Jace, and Jace’s Ingenuity all help you insure you get to your own win condition as rapidly as possible.

The same holds for something like D&D.  A D&D 4E class generally incorporates a win condition in a fight, or a win condition for their group.  You could consider a standard group of Defender, Leader, Striker, and Controller in this manner.  The Controller’s and Defender’s point is disruption primarily, and winning secondarily.  The Leader (and Defender to a lesser degree) is support, helping to insure that your own win condition isn’t disrupted, which ultimately is the Striker.  A lined up Striker is the Baneslayer Angel of a D&D group.

Applying these principles to RPG video games explicitly arrives at some interesting places.  I’ll leave those to the reader to examine (or to a later post).

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And no, I don’t mean Compact Discs, I mean Certificates of Deposit, such as your local bank issues you.  Basically, they take your money and lend it back out, then charge interest on it.  The hope for a bank is that their net cash flows are positive.  Reserves and capital holdings (mostly capital holdings) are of interest only to buffer against disruptions in cash flows or temporary mismatches.  Banks operate on attempting to sell cash flows with different risk properties, taking on risks that they are able to better manage than their customers.

A certificate of deposit involves a purchaser handing the depository an amount of money and receiving a certificate as proof of deposit.  The money is generally considered safe, in that the amount of the deposit is always receivable, though the interest payments may be terminated, depending on the agreement contained in the certificate.  The CD generally offers a fixed interest rate, compounded over a certain period, at which point it matures.  The customer may then roll it over at a new rate.

A bond is an exchange of cash for a certificate indicating the issuer will repay the value stated, plus interest.  Functionally, this is the same as a CD.  The major differences are in the terms of the agreement, where the principal value of a bond is generally not as safe as a deposit.  There are also tax differences, etc.

However, the basic function is very much the same: you sell cash to someone else, in exchange for a realized cash flow.  Banks attempt to use this capital to fund additional incoming cash flows, while corporates take the cash for capital investments to eventually realize cash flows from sales.

Now, consider that the government operates like a business, from an economic perspective.  However, the type of business and nature of its cash flows are important.  Ostensibly, the government issues debt and collects taxes to fund capital investment (social works, police, military, etc.).  However, we may consider the tax burden to be a debt obligation on citizens, so in effect the government operates as a bank, selling certain positive cash flows to people (bonds) to fund the expansion of the broader loan portfolio it has (the tax burden).  When considered as a financial institute, we actually expect the government to maintain a net negative balance in liabilities versus reserves, but we expect cash flows to be positive.  Capital holdings and reserves constitute a constraint on the level of liabilities which can be issued, given a certain risk profile of the sorts of liabilities.

Given this, the debt load (as say, debt to GDP) isn’t as important as the nature of the capital holdings it can sell to maintain its positive cash flows.  Government profit should be non-existent, as there is no owners beyond the citizenry.  We therefore expect the government to maintain a continual negative cash flow, as profits get reinvested in the citizenry.

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But seeing as I do not, I’ll offer up brief summaries!  I’m finally reading Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company (I know…I’m literally decades late to the party).  I played Castle Crashers.  I restarted Oblivion because the game was made for a compuer and I play on an 360, which has quite possibly the single worst spell management system ever.  To make matters worse, Oblivion has an RPG system that feels like it was built to encourage doing stupid shit, like jumping everywhere to raise acrobatics or sneaking behind hapless townsfolk everywhere to raise sneak.  I get the idea, but the execution is bad.  If I’m gonna get acrobatics because I jump…just let me choose to, you know, raise acrobatics.  Seriously, it’s ok to abstract that whole concept from the actual gameplay.

And I really do miss text dialog.  I know voice acting adds something, I get that.  But it also takes something away: my ability to, in some sense, create the world in which I am playing.  Knowing what devs intended people to sound like removes the mysterious shadows surrounding things and takes the story out of my head.  It puts it out there, in front of me, rather tha nallowing it, in some sense, to remain mythically symbolic.  Seriously, I don’t want to know what Cloud sounds like.  I really didn’t want Titus to sound like that.  And so on.

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Why?  I liked Dragon Age. I know, I haven’t beaten it yet.  It’s on the list, right after I finish Oblivion finally (which I’m doing right this moment).  So why?  Why must it be ruined?  For emotional engagement?

I know, this is just my opinion; however, I find Bioware’s epic Choose-Your-Own adventures to be about as narratively gripping as, well, Choose-Your-Own adventures.  The whole schtick of a book of that style is that it’s YOU out there, you, doing the things us nerds gathered around dimly lit tables with little figures and giant books full of arcana to attempt to relive: being a personality from our own imagination, living out a reality according to our own whim, guided only by the rules of the world (the DM).  Yeah, sure, there was an over-arching plotline.  Fallout had one, which involved your father.  Eventually, you kinda went along with that, because it was there to do.  You didn’t really have to get terribly involved at any point, and the game just gently guided you through events that happened.  You were pivotal because you happened to be there, and thus it was woven into your own story.

Mass Effect, on the other hand, gave me a JRPG style main quest, except it had some branching dialog choices.  The side quests aren’t unknown to JRPGs, by the way.  Square Enix is an absolute master of putting in a plethora of random stuff for players to do.  These range from things like little side character arcs, to Chocobo racing, Chocobo breeding, random dungeon exploring, or secret bosses.  Final Fantasy 6 had a pretty malleable ending for its time, with the end half working almost just like Mass Effect 2: gather up the characters you need, while learning more about them, in order to lead a team against the Big Bad.

Except Kefka was light years cooler than the Reapers (or the Collectors (Christ, who comes up with these names?!)).

It’s as if they’ve drifted away from this core, albeit niche, market in order to write mediocre scifi movies.

UPDATE: I totally forgot the link, which I’ll repost here, as well as linking in the test: http://kotaku.com/5582435/dragon-age-ii-pulls-a-commander-shepard (I’m dumb)

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I’m a systems designer, so I tend to focus on the numbers and such where those crop up in games.  Planning, ability combinations, play options, the underlying conceptual form of a game: these are what I tend to focus o nthe most.  These are the things that imbue the background structure of the game, the ruleset which allow the game to progress.

However, games also consist of ways of driving players to use these things; they consist of puzzles and challenges, which are creatively designed world states and end conditions, along, usually, with a narrative structure making them cohere within the world.  I don’t talk about these because they tend to be more visceral, last responsive to words.  They are the equivalent to the music of a game, not well bounded by the binaries of language.

Quests in WoW tend get little attention from me, beyond the recognition they’re there.  This isn’t because I dislike them; indeed, I enjoy them immensely, because WoW has given me this vast world to explore.  It’s that I don’t really feel that they can be discussed, particularly not their mechanics, without losing a bit of their artistry in the discussion.

That said, it’s worth talking about the quests in Cataclysm, both the revamped vanilla content and the new areas.  Each zone has always had something of its own story; a focus, of sorts, with quest chains forming short stories that provide exposition on that broader narrative.  Famed zones quests tended to really focus on the broad narrative, things like the Defias lines in Westfall or the Death Knight starting area.  What Blizzard has done is provide each zone with a story, one that is both self-contained and tied to expanding the perspective of the player, bringing to their attention ever-unfolding views of the drama unfolding across Azeroth.  Initially, players are given a very small look at what’s happening.  Some sort of crisis has occured, and you need to help.  Inexorably, you are pulled from the small starting area and linked into the broader story of your full starting zone (Elwynn was a bit bad about this, suffering from the old diverging quest area problem).  From there, you are ushered from zone to zone, story to story, integrated in its unfolding development.

These zones represent a new pinnacle in the art of WoW quest design.  I won’t say “Quest Design” generally, because these are very much WoW quests.  But these demonstrate that the people developing and designing quests have matured considerably, and the results of their laborious love are a joy to behold.

The broader zone narrative is progressed in chunks of quests.  At any time, you’re likely engaged in only a few (2-3) simultaneous quests, all located in the same small area.  Each area is dedicated purely to the advancement of a single chunk of the narrative.  Each section imprints the player: we know what happens here, we are driven to care, if only for a bit, about each minor chunk of land and how it relates to the broader whole.  Granted, in some places they do this better than others, but overall, they’re quite successful.  Wrath did this quite well, initiating you in the zone with a small, well defined starting node, which gates you through a series of quests.  You repeat quests moving slightly farther or in a different direction from the quest base, and just as you feel like the runs are getting too tiresome, they add a new base camp, with new quest hubs, and you start working from there.

Cataclysm’s new quests work like this, but substantially more streamlined and focused.  Here’s an example: as Alliance in Redridge, you are sent to rescue a group of soldiers, who had been captured by nearby orcs.  You are also given some orc-killing quests, and the orcs are in the same area.  Fair enough; you trek off to that area.  The first soldier (the only one whose location you know to start) asks you to find a key to free him.  This involves sneaking past sleeping worgs and patrolling worg riders and back, while killing outlier guards.  When you free him, he joins up with you and works like a companion mage.  Additionally, he points you at his next captured compatriot.  You head off, slaughtering your way to the cage holding this last, grabbinga  key on the way and freeing him.  He now also joins your party (a DW Fury warrior) and directs you into a nearby cave to quickly free the last two, who’re slated for sacrifice.  Dashing into the cave with your new allies, you find the troll about to sacrifice the third.  Holy crap, it’s an Elite!  But wait…you’ve got a 3-man group, and take him down, saving the soldier, adding him to your posse, and learning the whereabouts of the final captive, who is guarded by an even tougher elite.  Luckily, you just picked up a paladin who is quite content to heal you.  Slaying this final warden, you free the last soldier and head back to Lakeshire.

You’ve accomplished multiple quests, finding and rescuing prisoners, battling down elites with a small party, listening to them banter back and forth amongst themselves, completing a lengthy, interesting side quest…all of which is part of a much, much larger zone-wide narrative.  Rescuing these guys was just one step along a much, much bigger story (which, by the way, is pure joy to complete).  Each zone works like this.  All of them have the narrative-driving quests, some more relevant to the ongoing world narrative, some more intimately tied to the zone narrative, and some just there to help expose you to the world.  By the end, though, you understand why the zone is the way it is, and you care.

You care.  Seriously.

I’m not the only one who cares.  One of the more interesting things Blizzard has done is to re-introduce the Horde-Alliance war.  I know they talked about it in Wrath, and they tried to.  ICC did a lot to work on the ongoing competition between the two.  But all of that absolutely pales in the face of the war which has erupted in the wake of the Cataclysm.  It is everywhere.  You will see the other faction doing horrible things…and they will see you do horrible things.  But you only ever see your side of it, you only ever see the atrocities committed against you, never the why.  And so, the alpha forums erupted at one point in a massive (for them) thread about who was more morally reprehensible: Horde or Alliance, with both citing a list of new atrocities.

None of these atrocities were player committed.  All of them were quest and story driven events; the bomb in Ashenvale, the events at Taurajo, the battles in Stonetalon were all simply stories about things.  Nevertheless, people honestly cared and were emotionally impacted.  That, I think, is impressive for a story-telling method as venerable as WoW’s is.

I’ve entered a lot of bugs, niggling little things, during my Alpha time.  I engaged in a great deal of discussion about Druid caster trees and provided, I think, the first primer on the new haste system.  All that was great and worthwhile.  But nothing was quite as worthwhile as replaying the game and feeling a fresh sense of wonder and a sense of, well, loss.  They drive that home.  New players coming in will never quite know or understand what has changed or be able to see the world like we will, those who’ve been with it since the beginning.

I started as a Night Elf Druid (because only night elves could be druids and I had to go Alliance to play with friends).  I powered through to Darkshore and ran the long, long quests up and down the length of that benighted place.  Hours were spent in Auberdine, traipsing amongst the inhabitants and running their errands among the ruins of ancient Night Elf cities.  When I returned as a new Night Elf mage, I flew out of a shattered Nordrassil into a new outpost, north of Auberdine, where Night Elf Sentinels raced to save the survivors of Auberdine, which has been shattered by the Cataclysm and the workings of the cults of Deathwing.  It was shocking.  Awesome, but mournful.

I’m looking forward to the release, when everyone else can share this.

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