TSW: THAT Guy – A Soliloquy on Preferring to Solo

Self, I gotta question for you.

Go ahead, shoot.

Why is it that you’ve just spent the better part of an hour slicing and dicing these Goliaths into itty bitty pieces by your lonesome? Aren’t you sick and tired of repeating the same thing over and over?

Not really, no. Do ya see how easily I’m taking them down now that I spent half an hour reworking my build into something more efficiently survival-dps based? See how sexy it is to finish them off with my flashing chopping blade? I’m Slayer-ing them good.

I forgot to screenshot cos I was having too good a time, but I’ll let this Surf Hulk thing stand in for the Goliaths.

And the green crap that has been dropping is pretty spiffy, from a providing crafting raw materials perspective.

Who knows, maybe a blue will drop, you see that blue chaos focus (that I can’t use) that dropped and shocked me?

Maybe it’s a really rare chance, a jackpot chance that’s not likely to happen, or just bugged because of extra players in the vicinity, but I won’t know until I slice and dice a hunnerd of them or so, right?

Why don’t you just go to that Polaris dungeon I keep hearing about? You got that “Dead in the Water” quest sitting in your mission log like so much deadweight. I hear tell you can get blues in dungeons.

Well, self, I got lots of issues with grouping right now. And I’ve been thinking as I meditatively chop these hulks down to size, I’m thinking they all ultimately boil down to  “THAT guy” problems.

Huh?

First off, self, it’s not like I didn’t try. Look, I’ll show you, I got into a group, I got on board that damn plane, and I hit the instance. I lucked into one of the DPS slots, so I won’t touch on the holy trinity perception problem until later.

I think there was some kind of cutscene. About a ship, maybe. I don’t rightly know, I kinda blank out on any group-related storytelling because I’m too worried about the actual grouping mechanics and details and not dying horribly.

There was a guy there, he said he was gonna tank. There was another gal (who could be a guy) who was gonna heal. And two other DPS people. And me. So far, so good.

Then one of the DPS guys said he needed a sec, he was gonna respec and rebuild some stuff. Ok, no problems, it’s a new game, the first dungeon, a lot of us are all coming into this cold, let’s give him a minute for him to get set and ready.

The tank and I hadn’t done this before and said so. No worries, said the last DPS, I done this dozens of times, it’s nothing. Don’t worry, said the healer, I’m a dang good healer. We wait. And we wait some more. Then the healer accidentally aggros a patrol (oops, my bad, she says later. No problem, to err is human, after all) and the four of us jump it and hey, it’s really not so bad, this trash mob, quite easily killed and wowee, the xp is good.

We wander over to the first boss, and since it’s a boss, the tank says, we better wait for the last guy. We wait longer. And more.

Finally, there’s life down the group chat bar and he’s done. Where are you all, he says. Couple minutes later, he finally finds us. Woot, now we’re a team. Now we’re set to rock this joint and we charge the first boss. And straight away, the last DPS pulls aggro from the tank and he ends up the impromptu tank. Gee, the tank says, maybe you could have told me you were rebuilding to tank, and I coulda put some DPS into my build. There’s seriously no way I can pull this aggro back, I’m trying and it’s not working with the tools I got right now. The guy says nothing, just keeps pulling aggro.

Good thing the healer was right and she really was a damn good healer cos that DPS guy stayed upright, if at half health. I feel obliged to help out a smidgen with Anima Shot, which I tossed in by taking out my hate generating blade AoE because I didn’t want to be THAT DPSer guy who yanks aggro from the tank. Everybody stays alive, probably cos first dungeons are first dungeons for a reason and relatively forgiving.

We go through some bosses. There are a few mechanics to take note of. Don’t step in this or that. Burn adds down fast. That kinda thing. Self, lemme tell you something honestly.

What’s that, self?

I really hate that kinda group learning mechanics thing. Or at least, it’s been wearing down on me bad.

I did lots of group dungeons in Rift, because it was easy to get a Looking for Dungeon team with their tool, and at least I could queue as support, which is something that fits my psyche and after investing a couple hours reading guides and forums, respecing, following a template build and parsing, all of which were quite tedious, at least I was sure that I was contributing a satisfactory amount of damage and healing and I wouldn’t be shouted at for dragging the team down.

But the problem was that there were so many mechanics to learn and remember and perform to exacting standards, otherwise you wipe the whole team kind of deal, that I always had a dungeon guide/walkthrough sitting open in my other screen so that I was aware of the theory, even if complete learning had to be practiced by repeatedly doing. That kinda spoils the discovery aspect of the thing, you know? The joy of exploring and finding out that I like so much. But I don’t want to be THAT clueless guy running ahead into every damn trap the designers set up either. Because I’d look fucking stupid in front of a lot of other people.

It’s not like I’m so good at the game that I can perform well 90%, 100% of the time either. I’m probably a 50%-75% average to above average player, optimistically speaking. But you know what’s the biggest difference when I solo and when I group, self?

Hmm?

If I fail when I solo, it just affects me. I fall over and die. I respawn and gotta run back. Shit, I wasted my time, but it’s my own time to waste. I’m not screwing over other people.

Then there’s the locus of control. If I’m alone, it falls to me to examine what my problem is, to fix my spec, to experiment and try until it’s good and I’m killing the mobs and not vice versa. It feels good when I take myself from fail to success, cos I did it, my invested time to strategize a build and my skill hitting appropriate buttons at appropriate timings.

With other people, it’s not just a two dimension problem. Me fail or me succeed. The ideal is me succeed, they succeed. Then everyone’s happy and the dungeon is run at picture perfect speed with perfect execution, badabing badaboom. But then there’s me fail, they succeed. Which would make me feel really bad at being THAT guy.

Oh come on, you’re not that bad. Maybe you’re a 75/25 person, which is pretty good already.

Hell, self, even if the whole team was made up of 75% good people, we have an inherent problem. If two people succeed 75% of the time on their own, mathematically speaking, they got a 9/16 chance (or 56.25%) of both succeeding at the same time. If three people, then well, we’re looking at 3/4 x 3/4 x 3/4 or 27/64 = 42%. Five people, 23.7% chance that all will perform to perfection.

At other times, at least one guy is failing and the other people  have to compensate. Or the rare chance that everybody fails, at which point, they total party wipe. On the bright side, there’s no one to blame if everyone fails together. Otherwise, there’s always THAT guy who is screwing something up, somewhere, somewhen.

That’s just a bit aggravating to me. I don’t know why, but it is.  I know it doesn’t make logical sense, but emotionally, intuitively, that’s how I end up feeling on these things. Maybe I’m just reading a bit too much into it, but I do. I can’t help myself.

Anyhow, I was complaining about mechanics before I sidetreked into this. I did a lot of this in Rift. Realized I didn’t like it much. I did a lot of this in City of Heroes too, on Incarnate trials. Which was even worse because it was just way too many people to keep track of and overwhelmingly exhausting on one’s situational awareness. And those were just baby raids if that. I have no clue how people can stand it in games like WoW because it seems mathematically impossible that with 10, 15, 25 people, at least 3-5 people must be screwing shit up at any one point in time, the cat herding exercise is already blowing my mind in theory.

Well, maybe people put up with it because they want the shiny rewards at the end.

Self, I don’t really give two fucks about shiny rewards. Well, I do, just a little, but I got big issues with how they’re distributed, see.

Need/Greed systems always screw me over. Lemme tell you, self, I see a reward drop, I want it. Call me selfish, but that’s how I’m built. When I solo, I can get it all. Shit drops. I take it. It’s mine. It goes into my inventory. It’s clear cut and easy.

In a group, I gotta be mindful of the three or four other people with me. I gotta be polite. I gotta be courteous and build my rep, so I don’t look like an asshole that no one wants to group with ever again. I gotta share, and the way the crazy developers think is the fairest method of sharing, is for everybody to keep rolling individual dice rolls for individual items.

Self, I am crap at lotteries. The dice never go my fucking way. Every time I greed something, I never get it. Period. Probability already says I got a 80% chance of not getting it, if there’s five people all greeding it. That 20% chance? Doesn’t really happen for me. Some people are naturally a little luckier and I guess there’s the opposite to balance them off, and I’m it.

Well, that’s why they have the Need part of Need/Greed.

Right. The part that tests your speed reading skills when you have to mouseover the item real quick-like to see if maybe the stats are an improvement over what you’re wearing and make a snap decision as to whether you can legitimately Need it without folks shouting at you for being a ninja looting whore. I read fast, but I don’t like the stress and the pressure, thank you. And there’s usually someone else what Needs it too, and remember my sucktastic luck at dice rolling?

I end up more irritated than not if I run a dungeon expecting to get any loot out of it. I’ll be content enough just sightseeing. Makes me calmer and more Zen that way.

Okay, okay, I get it. So just go sightsee. What’s the problem? It’s a bloody MMO, innit? Mul-ti-play-er, they’ll keep stressing to you, cos yer being thick.

Self, I’m also lazy and I don’t like responsibility. I play a bloody MMO to have fun, for escapism and immersion purposes. And holy trinity group MMOs can go hang themselves.

I don’t heal. Don’t like it. Am shit at it. Playing whack a mole with green healthbars is not my idea of fun. Getting blamed or shamed for letting someone die cos their defences or hp sucks ass is ridiculously dumb and just makes my misanthropy levels rise further. All in all, not healthy and not my idea of a good time. So nix full healer-ing. That’s right out.

I confess, I half-like tanking. But tanking is a lot of work. You end up needing to find gear that is the equivalent of welding giant metal plates on yourself – great for withstanding hits and useless at doing anything else. And taking a lot of skills that are basically about you yelling your momma insults at the poor dumb mob. And you gotta know the dungeon cos folks expect the tank to lead them properly and not off a cliff or something equally stupid. Which is not great for first time experiences and winds up being a second job for an alt or some such.

So that leaves DPSing and hybrids thereof. Which nearly everyone and their momma is. Which means competition for spaces and slots and loot is fierce and you’re basically expendable and interchangeable. All of which also winds up reducing my enjoyment of the whole ‘grouping’ prospect.

The sad thing is, I don’t think The Secret World cleaves that tightly to holy trinity. I’m sure if City of Heroes can manage it, and if even Aion managed to get away with some flexibility, a heal/tank and 4 DPS/heal hybrids would do absolutely fine, among other blends and variations. But people are creatures of comfortable routine and habit and if holy trinity role specialization works, that’s what they’re going to stick with cos that’s what they know. And I don’t have four friends that constantly play at the same time who can tailor their builds to something so experimentally esoteric.

Anyway, self, there’s one more reason I’ve been holding back on joining another Polaris dungeon in The Secret World.

And what’s that?

You know that earlier story about the one and only group I joined? I ain’t told you the bitter end yet.

We got to the penultimate boss, which was all about burning adds at intervals and avoiding periodic aoe knockback or some such.

I shoulda stayed here assault rifling. But no, I had to go blade crazy on it cos everyone was melee’ing too.

Then I accidentally was a split second too late in avoiding the marking on the floor and I got knocked back. I got knocked back SO goddamn hard it crashed my client. It went beyond mere crashing. It literally hung my entire computer with the audio on a stalled loop.

I presume it’s really because I’m on a Win XP 32-bit system and memory issues were finally too much with the extra adds spawning that I got knocked into, but it was really sucky timing. I had to reboot the computer, and The Secret World loads like an oil tanker steers.

It took ten whole minutes to get back into the game, with my blood pressure shooting through the roof from the frustration and stress. Obviously, I loaded in face first, on the floor, out of the dungeon, and apparently back in my home dimension, out of group.

The team leader didn’t respond to my tells and I can’t blame them, really. Either they were madly fighting the last boss at the time, and/or they probably recruited another interchangeable DPS to make up the shortfall. I myself wouldn’t want to be hanging around waiting for the ten minutes it took for me to load in anyway.

See, so I ended up being THAT other guy too. (Through no fault of my own, but seriously, most THAT guys don’t do it on purpose, unless they’re griefers, right?)

Sheesh, you just can’t win, can you? You loser.

And that’s why I’m minding my own business over here by myself, harming no one but me and a bunch of electronic monsters. It’s a lot less annoying for everyone.

(Until the next time I decide I can put up with all the potential aggravation again, at any rate.)

CoH: Just Can’t Find the Joy

Issue 23 hit today. I was intending to go check it out. Maybe get a Magisterium Trial in since it was the newest big thing. Get exploring First Ward (which I never got around to) and then segue my way into Night Ward.

Well, I did check it out, for all of two hours.

I spent an hour in Dark Astoria, getting more and more upset inside, as I got reminded again and again why I hate raids. About 15 of us sat around spamming the broadcast channel going “LF Magi Trial.” No one wanted to lead. Can you blame them? I didn’t either. No one knows the trial, unless they did it in beta. Everyone expects the trial to be hard and be extremely unpleasant without proper leadership. And proper leadership is hard to come by if no one knows the trial. It’s the old raiding catch-22.

And of course, those who know the trial and are willing to lead are also well aware that it’s hard, and therefore they are going to pick and choose the people who will give them the greatest chance of success. People they know, ATs they’re missing (like support), and they sure won’t pick any Tom, Dick or Harry standing out in the streets announcing forlornly “lf magi” unless they just needed them to make up the numbers. So we have an exercise in playground unhappiness as people get picked and others get left standing on the sidelines.

Eventually, I got pissed off enough to ask myself, am I having fun here? And the answer was a big fat NO.

(Plus some additional cussing at devs who thought this sort of thing would be fun. Aren’t we into the new generation of MMOs who know to design for better player behavior by now?  And cussing at myself because I -knew- this would happen and I still got tempted to attempt it anyway.)

So I got onto my sub-level 20 hero and meandered into First Ward.

(While I’ve been in the area before, and think the zone looks gorgeous in terms of graphics, my first impression of it left a bitter taste in my mouth because it so happened that I wandered in on a Praetorian loyalist villain – the type that the level designers forgot when writing First Ward. It turns out that the mission writers assumed everyone would be pleased to help the Resistance because it’s the right thing to do. I did one and a half arcs and got very disconcerted over my character’s motivations. That character was supposed to be a Power Loyalist villain, out to get power for himself, and following Cole’s regime to do it till the point where he got overly tempted by power and made one moral choice to destroy the Olympian instead of reporting it to Cole.

I was already a bit upset that that choice appeared to flip me entirely to Resistance. I rationalized it off as saying, well, maybe Cole’s regime found out and declared me Public Enemy Number 1 or something along those lines. So the next sensible choice would be to go to Primal Earth and the Rogue Isles and keep seeking power for oneself. But somehow, in First Ward, all the contacts were treating me like a caring, helpful errand-running puppy and that simply wouldn’t do. I decided to do what my character would, get uncomfortable and abandon First Ward to its own devices and go find profit over in the Isles.)

I took some time to explore and take screenshots. Which was fun.

But then some guy decided to recruit a team to defeat the Seed of Hamidon. And I have never fought the Seed of Hamidon before, so it seemed like an opportunity I shouldn’t miss.

So I went. Then I got salt in the wound as my lowbie face was rubbed in the fact that these things are better fought at lvl 50, exemplared, in IOs, as all manner of the devs’ newest favorite type of attack – targeted player or mob or ground-based impending damage aoe, READ THE LETTERS ON THE SCREEN AND RUN AWAY (OR HUG EACH OTHER CLOSE) NOW started exploding, oozing and in general splooging all over the screen per seed we attempted to attack.

And the whole phase thing got fairly tedious as we kept running around killing seed after seed in the hope of keeping the seed numbers low while working on the Seed of Hamidon.

And it was further aggravated by unfigurable-outtable targetting of the Seed hitbox for my melee character. I could target the Seed fine, but was forever out of range. If I hit F to follow and hug the Seed wherever I could attack it – which seemed to be sort of from its flank and underside – about 2 seconds later, I ate a 800 hp Seed of Hamidon attack which also deactivated fly. It was survivable, but it left my lowbie character out of the fight, on the ground, with 1/4 hp left and no self-healing skills in the build yet to recover quickly. Aggravating, in other words.

I don’t supposed it was helped by me being on a Titan Weapons character, which is notable for exceedingly slow ass wind-up animations. So extra long rooting also got in the way of being able to quickly react.

Eventually the Seed died. Through very little effort of my own.

So I saw the content, but didn’t feel very good about it.

As that wound down, I considered my original plan of working through the First Ward story arcs, and didn’t feel too thrilled either. I just felt exhausted and unhappy. So I decided to let it keep for another day and logged off.

30 more minutes of hanging out on my pathetic one and only Incarnate, who was only made to actually see the content, rather than grind for umpteen slots… with no success of getting into a league, and I got fed up enough to log him off too.

I dunno. Maybe it’s just me overreacting. But I can’t believe all the things that I felt were a pain and thus tried to avoid seriously playing any raid-focused game… have ended up in City of Heroes.

Just ignore it, go the advice of some people. You don’t have to do it at all. Just continue to play the game your way.

But I can’t.

I finished the game my way quite a long time ago. Got some lvl 50s, saw all the old content and storylines, and the only thing that’s new is the new stuff.

It’s not a sandbox. There’s a storyline to this themepark, and now all the storylines are going right through the big group raids and the umpteen task forces that I’ve lost track of. The design of a good number of the new mobs and zones are built on the assumption that your toon is well-built, kitted out in IOs, maybe soft-capped defense, and possibly sporting Incarnate levels of power.

Why tell me to keep playing old content, when all the new stuff that is advertised is centred around being able to understand and play through these storylines and mechanics?

And then I try to do them, and somehow I don’t really find them fun, and I don’t know where I fit in this game anymore. Not too much of the community seems to understand either, so it and me seem to have diverged paths some time back.

I dunno. It just makes me sad whenever I think about it.

It just doesn’t feel like the City of Heroes I used to know a long time ago.

Why You Game – Think About It

Today, I’m going to advocate the unthinkable, I’m going to suggest that more people should emulate griefers.

WHAT?

In one important aspect at least: to have examined your own motives for play, and be clear about your own objectives.

We get angry with griefers because they spoil our fun. They’re not playing the way they’re supposed to. They’re not “following the rules” of the game, and their objective is often diametrically opposed to most other peoples’ goals in the game. They’re out to make people angry, frustrated, ragequit, or get some manner of reaction in some way, because they find it fun to mess with people like that.

But one of the things they subconciously (or purposefully, if they’re the type to think through and articulate their reasons) do  is become very clear about what they want to get out of “playing” the game (their way,) and defined their own victory conditions (number of people getting angry or ragequitting or comment threads or attention paid to them or whatever.)

Of course I morally disapprove of griefers for two main reasons – I don’t think their chosen behavior is healthy for themselves, and certainly not for other people either. It doesn’t seem like a long term strategy for getting along, just a short term “one-upping” that has to be constantly repeated for kicks, and turn into a bad habit or addiction. For me, it’s a real world philosophy seeping in – I think it’s dysfunctional and small minded for people to be happy when they are making other people unhappy. I meet some people in the real world like this – they need to put others down in order to make themselves feel better, they demand attention and get loud and strident when ignored – and it just leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

Essentially, they’re playing a very zero sum game. I win, you lose. In their minds, they can only get ahead of others if you’ve lost. If they lose and you win, then they just get more furious and pissed off and try even harder to shift the balance to the other side of the slider.

Thing is, the world isn’t so two-dimensional. There’s another side of the matrix. Too much of the above kind of fighting and it all becomes “I lose you lose.” In which case, no one wins, no one had fun or a good time, and the net misery level of the world went up (which is all very well if that’s specifically your goal, but I’m not that nihilistic, even if it’s 2012 and the Mayans tell us we’re doomed.)

The old prisoner’s dilemma thing – which we will touch on more in ATITD related posts – and the trust factor.

There’s also “I win you win,” the last corner of the matrix,  and “I get by, you get by” which is sort of the middle path, an emergent property from the win/lose matrix.

Griefers are an extreme case. If we dial back several notches from chaos (from not respecting other players or the game’s rules) and into lawfulness, we land in the territory of competition.

Now competition is a necessary and healthy counterpart to cooperation. Without that drive to be the tiniest bit better, to improve one’s self, we’d probably be back in the Stone Ages or likely dead as a species. The force of evolution works by only keeping those that are a bit better than the rest, so it’s no wonder it’s ingrained in us to not be the last guy that gets eaten by the sabre tooth cat.

Looking at the amounts of Achieving going on in MMOs, of  in-groups of raiders or PvPers, matches and tournaments and leaderboards, suffice to say that competition is well and alive in MMOs, reflects much of our real world competitive psyche, and is a source of fun for many people.

But I’d like to ask everyone to pause here and reflect for themselves if this really is the case for them specifically.

Why am I so obsessed with this? It has to do with my prior history in games.

When I first began playing online games in the form of a MUD, I fell hook line and sinker into the stated premise of the game. Get more levels and hit max level. The faster you can do this, the more “pro” and hardcore you are. The more characters you have at max level, the more respected you are, you must apparently know so much about the game and have so many tools you can use to overcome game challenges. Join newbie guilds to get to know people, and you might get invited to a more elite guild type known as an “Order” if you are a promising young padawan. At max level, and with groups of people, you can go on “runs” to defeat big bosses (essentially raids in simplified form) for better gear, which would help you to kill bigger mobs until you get to the (current) ultimate big bads of Seth and Merlin.

In addition, the MUD had ‘quests’ which were human-created, they were essentially competitions run by volunteer player staff known as “immortals.” These often comprised of answering trivia knowledge questions about the MUD and its areas and mobs and lore, or running around the world killing special quest mobs or picking up special items – whose locations you would put together from given clues and also tested MUD knowledge. Again, I fell into this by chance. It so happens that I type quite a bit faster than most people, and maybe pay a bit more attention to the words on a screen that formed MUD ‘rooms.”

As a newbie, I started winning these competitions, and started gaining a reputation to the point that some people would see my name appear and go, “Dang, there goes my chances of winning.” As I got into more runs and joined an elite Order, my gear got better and better, making quest mob kills easier. I learned from my idols and heroes at the time, veterans of the game who were better than I, and strove to emulate them. I started leading runs for newer players, then leading quests, and even leading a guild (while maintaining my connection to the elite Order so that we could feed in the promising players into the Order.)

Our Order in turn took off from the ground up to become pretty much the ultimate (or penultimate, there was one more secret Order that never let on what they were up to, and contained a lot of old immortal player alts – they kept themselves to themselves, and stayed out of the MUD grapevine, possibly because they didn’t want accusations of cheating with their immortal characters) guild. We had our own ‘server first’ by being the only guild that could get to and kill Merlin for quite a long period of time.

I basically bought into the fame and the image that others had and expected of me. I had responsibilities, and expectations to live up to. And winning has its dark side.

This article in particular – How to Lose at Golden Demon – spawned my post today because it resonated so much with me.

After you win, and have a series of wins under your belt, comes the fear. The fear of one day losing. Of not being good anymore. No one wins forever. One day, some new and younger person turns up to upstage you. Your limelight is gone. Your self-image, which you constructed from the surface impressions of other people, shatters or at least takes a heavy beating.

Every loss makes you more focused to win once again. And danger of dangers, you end up focusing on the goal and the end results, rather than the means or the present activity. Therein lies “grind.” Therein lies the threat of not respecting anything or anyone other than the altar of first prize. I turned pretty ugly in those days when a guy showed up who managed to upstage me a few times. Though I tried to control it, I have been guilty of lashing out once or twice at fellow guildmates whom I thought “slowed me down” at the time and let the other guys win. Temper and obsession do not a pretty picture make.

My ruthlessness even shocked a fellow guildmate when we were having a friendly in-guild PvP tournament, and when there were three of us left, I concocted an alliance with the other person to defeat him first because we knew he had the best gear of us all. He never quite got over the revelation of how calculating I was and focused on “playing to win.”

Competition can change you. Take a look at these Neptune’s Pride epic diaries from Rock, Paper Shotgun and Electron Dance. It’s interesting to see how different people react to competition. One or two simply shut down and become avoidant (Me, I don’t think that’s a fair way to go about it, because I would respect the rules of a game if I decide to play it, but hey, it worked for them.) Some just do their best but balance their real world and game time. And a few gamers (and I empathize with them because I have those tendencies) get really deadly obsessive and they can even frighten themselves in retrospect.

There are positive aspects to competition, don’t get me wrong. It makes for high drama, and good memories and a grand story to be told at the end. There is an adrenaline rush that can never be replaced. It makes you push yourself further than you would go on your own, left to your own devices. It offers a good challenge, the opportunity to test one skills, etc.

But it’s also easy to glorify competition in our society. Which then leads to getting carried away by competition – it’s the nature of the beast. There’s a very male monkey hierarchy thing going on.

And in the end, it behooves us to take a step back and examine ourselves to see if that’s really the way we want to keep going.

We don’t have to go to extremes either way. I’m not saying that oh, all competition is bad, and we should become communists and hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” together. That way doesn’t work either, not all of us are cut out for hippy commune living.

But we aren’t -just- monkeys all the time. Life works on a balance of competition and cooperation. Human society succeeds with a fair share of altruism, connected groups may get ahead better. (In later posts about ATITD, we’ll touch more on this, ATITD reflects life in microcosm really well.)

Brian Campbell from the Escapist Magazine suggests we might be able to let up once in a while and be a little altruistic even in our competitions (as long as it’s not a professional tournament where folks have to be serious and such.)

Even Sirlin quantifies that playing to win doesn’t have to be ALL THE TIME, ALL-OR-NOTHING. There’s also putzing around for nonproductive fun or experimentation with strategies that can be a balance point to being competitive.

And he also acknowledges that for many people, playing to win isn’t everything in life. He writes his stuff for those who have decided and articulated the goal they are striving for, to improve themselves and win tournaments, which to me is fantastic – all power to them, and it gave me insight into a way of thinking that is personally quite alien for me.

I finally realized this, based on examining my experiences. When I bought into the goals of the masses on the MUD, I became another person. It was someone with all the trappings of success and had reached the top, but secretly, inside, I was not happy. I was proud, fearful, and most of all, lonely. There’s awfully rarefied air at the top. You push away connections or they push away from you. They put you on a pedestal to be admired and become distant. Your in-group becomes very small, as you stomp on others to get up there, and everyone else is out-group to be despised or feared or hated or looked upon as a threat. And in turn, they don’t like you much either.

For some, while I’ve been saying is probably unthinkable. “Why -wouldn’t- you be happy when you win? -I- love winning!”

Possibly it’s like winning the lottery, you won’t know until you’ve been there. Turns out we’re poor estimaters of our own future happiness as hedonistic adaptation kicks in.

Or maybe you really are different from me, and your brain is structured in a way that really enjoys those kicks of winning and you love the spotlight of fame and it would never make you lonely or miserable or sad. In which case, all power to you, if you’ve examined that for yourself. There are games out there that really suit you.

But please, do take time to examine your motives and goals to see if they are your own, or someone else’s or what society (in-game or real world) thinks you should be doing.

It’s too easy to get caught up in what the game says you’re supposed to achieve, or what other people expect of you, and end up striving to match those expectations. Ultimately even if you achieved them, they may end up feeling quite hollow if they don’t match with your internal compass.

For myself, I feel happier when I’m helping others, teaching them, expressing understanding and loving-kindness and patience. I feel happier when I’m improving my own skills and learning at my own pace, rather than feeling obliged to keep up or match some standard of achievement. I feel happier when I’m playing for the sake of play, to experiment, to wander, to wonder, to discover and marvel.

Striving against obstacles (people or computer controlled or inanimate) to achieve a victory state is core to many games. But I treat this Achievement or rather the act of achieving (we too often focus on the end result these days, and that leads to “grind”)  as just a subset of my play. Now and then, I indulge it, because that’s also a part of myself that I must acknowledge. I enjoy the dings and the progress bar increments and even team-based PvP match “wins” from time to time. The sense of fiero as a reward is fun, but I remain aware of it and am careful to avoid jumping down the pit of the dark side. Been there, done that, really didn’t like it.

Music in MMOs – Potential for More

Finished Heavy Rain yesterday. While watching the bonus content on Making Of Heavy Rain: Music, something David Cage mentioned struck me. He described the important role music played in a game like Heavy Rain, then added, “Actually, we believe that music is probably 50%, if not more, of the impact of the images.”

And I got to thinking about the impact of music in MMOs, and its uses and functions.

Fair warning: I am no musician. I can’t discuss anything technical, but I wanted to think a little deeper beyond simply listing all the awesome and brilliant music in MMOs. Others have done that years ago even.

Suffice to say, the general consensus is that Jeremy Soule turns anything aural he touches to gold (Guild Wars, Elder Scrolls, etc.), Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online are often highlighted as memorable, and then the other MMOs seem to follow at random depending on preference, nostalgia or people just reminding each other that these tunes are pretty good if you paid some attention to them.

Music is a funny beast. Sure, it’s subjective, different people react differently to various pieces, but there’s also a fair amount of agreement in how humans as a whole react emotionally to music – else there wouldn’t be any purpose to making all those movie soundtracks. Movies use music to support the moving pictures, to stir emotion, to create iconic themes and aid the telling of the story.

Presumably, MMOs, given enough budget, strive to do the same thing with music.

Zones and Iconic Theme Music

One of the things I most commonly observe in MMOs is the use of iconic musical themes, tied to various zones. As the scenery and terrain features change from zone to zone, so does the music. It sets the mood of the zone, hints at the culture of any inhabitants, and creates a brand identity for the zone. Players seem to respond fairly well to this, and often can remember with nostalgia memories of specific zones upon hearing the music again.

Sometimes it’s not an entire zone, but just a small sub-area or local space with a special musical theme. Two notable spots in the MMOs I’ve played come to mind – the interior of Tom Bombadil’s house in the Old Forest in LOTRO, and the transition to St. Martial’s main street that is dotted with casinos in City of Heroes. One of my favorite places in a singleplayer game is Erana’s Peace in Quest For Glory (piano version) – a quiet grove of peace dedicated to a dead lady whom you never actually see in the first game, but is given so much character simply by the music that haunts her haven.

I don’t think it’s used as well as it could be in MMOs, as such music could actually serve to encourage a player to remain a while in a certain locale. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in Erana’s Peace not playing the actual game. And I’ve often just stopped in Tom Bombadil’s house just to listen to the music, but I don’t have anything else to do there but stare at the small cylindrical space and watch Bombadil skip around.

Maybe good music in taverns and inns where you’d conceivably want players to congregate might actually help, as well as add to the immersion of the world. Skyrim is a decent example of what I’m thinking of, though one would have to be very careful about repetition of a single piece.

Avoiding Repetition

Repetition seems to be the mind-killer, as far as music in games go. There are games, Final Fantasy being the most notable example, who have a special tune or two for battle music. You know, it works well at first. Combat starts, the battle theme plays, your blood stirs, and the whole thing feels good… until the umpteenth time some random encounter pops up and you hastily mute the music before you’re conditioned to throw something at your speakers when these specific notes start playing.

I’m not precisely sure if there are any good solutions for avoiding repetition. Variety naturally helps. I’m not sure how many variations one can justify on an MMO budget though, which brings to mind the next idea of supplemental music through microtransactions. Cash shops are already selling vanity costumes, animations and decorations for players to customize their experience of a game. I don’t know if music would sell in general.

If you’re Jeremy Soule, it definitely can, of course. I’ll confess to buying all of his DirectSong music tracks for all of the Guild Wars chapters. Never regretted it, because it turns roaming Guild Wars into an astounding auditory experience, and reduces that horrible spectre of repetitive music. Many times I’d hear something amazing, and have to stop and check the interface to see if the DirectSong icon is on, indicating that it’s playing the extra music – it often is.

Then there’s Left 4 Dead’s music Director, that actually customizes a personal soundtrack for each player and strives to avoid repetition. The game is also notable for musical cues that indicate special Infected or a zombie horde onrush. Translating that to MMOs, musical cues for dynamic events? No doubt a music Director is a lot easier to do for 4 players as opposed to 2000+ players a server, but who knows, we can dream. Technology and progress marches on.

Emotional Arcs in Cutscenes

Music is often used in cutscenes to suggest the emotional arc the characters are (and thusly, what the viewers should be) going through. This is the 50%+ of Heavy Rain for sure, the whole cinematic experience, soundtrack and all. I believe it’s done to varying degrees of success depending on the specific MMO game. I haven’t played SWTOR, but from what I see of the cutscenes on Youtube, it does seem like they did pay attention to that for the purposes of storytelling.

It makes me wonder if more innovation is possible on this front. Do MMO developer tools allow quest/storyline writers to customize the music, as well as the animation in the cutscenes? I wouldn’t know. Then there’s user-created content and creation tools for players to tell each other stories or create adventures for each other – should options for music be included in such designs?

Music Systems

MMOs are not just movies though. Striving for the perfect big budget orchestral themes to accompany high resolution cutscenes shouldn’t be the only approach to music in MMOs.

How else could we bring the ‘game’ or ‘interactivity’ component of an MMO in conjunction with music? What other innovative features might be possible, now and in the future?

Lord of the Rings Online must be mentioned here for its Player Music System – which is far and ahead the most innovative thing to date attempted for music in MMOs, imo. Self-expression and uniqueness (which players seem to love in MMOs, given the demand for customizable looks) in the form of playing musical notes that others can hear. Give players the tools and they will surprise you with their creativity. From the pleasure of additional ambient music while casually strolling past another player, to the incredible annual event of Weatherstock, the emergent content adds to both immersion in a virtual world and a sense of community.

Granted, it has its flaws. Not a few people feel left out or unable to appreciate the system because it rather hinges on a real life skill of musicianship. It can also promptly jar you out of immersion and into real life  if someone is playing something thematically inappropriate for the setting. User-created content is like that. The potential for beautiful pearls, but also a lot of neutral sand to sift through, plus the disgusting tires and the random half-full condom, if we stretch the beach metaphor.

Another interesting music system can be found in Runescape. You get to unlock music tracks and collect them all. Sound achievement familiar? Well, why not? Isn’t that one of the core features of the MMO genre? Why not make music a minigame?

Some games, like Runescape and Eve Online, feature an in-game music player for their own soundtracks, which is probably a neat option for player customization. I’m not sure how many people make use of the feature though. How much further can we take this idea?

Jukeboxes in MMOs? In other words, player-controlled, possibly cost a fee, used in order to send music to a local area. Has been done, but mostly in more obscure Asian titles like Granado Espada, according to my Google-fu. No one seems to have much to say about the subject. The browser MMO Glitch has music boxes, which send short-lived spurts of tunes out, which are more fun-like toy objects for the individual, rather than having any kind of social use. SWTOR is the new kid on the block with them, apparently. I can’t say much more than that because I have no personal experience with those MMOs (besides Glitch.)  I wonder if they are seeing any significant use?

City of Heroes has a notable history of having out-of-game radio stations, hosted by DJs, who hang around in-game to play music for those who care to look up the radio and participate in the social events and contests they also organize. Would it help to have in-game support for such things, and foster a greater sense of community that way? Or does the radio concept only work because of the modern superhero setting?

I don’t think we’ve yet hit any kind of limit on what roles and functions music can play in MMOs. I think the potential has barely been explored.

We just need to think further and deeper on this.

Music in MMOs: What does the future have in store for us?

Heavy Rain: Scenes of Emotional Resonance

I’m currently in the middle of my second playthrough of Heavy Rain.

This game was the driving force behind my decision to get a PS3, ever since the day they announced it was going to be a PS3 exclusive only.

(Annoyingly, Sony tends to stick to its guns about exclusivity. The console comes in handy for playing other PS3 exclusive games, though I’m primarily a PC game player.)

Spoilers follow, so look away if you don’t want to be spoiled at all.

Why the insane fanaticism? Mainly because the game’s developer David Cage is aiming his company Quantic Dream at a path very few other game companies bother to walk. His games aim to explore more mature adult themes (no, not THAT kind of adult) and evoke some sort of emotional reaction.

I have to plug his latest tech video Kara here, because of its sheer awesome. The Casting is the older tech demo for Heavy Rain, but still worth a watch if you haven’t seen it – more than a little uncanny valley on the model these days, but the emotion is still there.

Granted, he aims for ‘mature’ and he tends to miss, especially in terms of how sensible the plot of his games turn out, but nitpicking aside, at least he’s trying.

The precursor game to Heavy Rain was Indigo Prophecy or Fahrenheit, depending on which part of the world you come from. Steam had it on sale a while back, but for some reason, it’s mysteriously disappeared from the store and never returned. Thankfully, it’s still in my games list when I bought it at the time it’s available, or me and Steam Support would be having -words-.

Indigo Prophecy was generally roundly thrashed for the later half of its plotline, which devolves into wildly fantastical wishful thinking and Matrix-ripping off. It was panned in some quarters for not having much “gameplay” since it mostly consisted of button-pushing Quick Time Events (QTEs).

Despite the criticism, I would still recommend anyone to give it a try because its opening sequence and beginning scenes are some of the best emotionally riveting, atmospheric experiences to be found in any game. The soundtrack, the cinematic cuts, the split-screen dual perspectives that ratchet up the tension as the protagonist, ie. you, try to hide any evidence away and get out as quickly as you can, while subsequently playing another protagonist, also you, who revisits the same setting and tries to find any place where you screwed up previously in order to obtain clues.

Heavy Rain continues along in this vein, with slightly better plotting. Not completely good plotting, because I just paused the game in disgust to try and figure out how Madison Paige (the token girl protagonist) knew where Ethan Mars (the main protagonist) had run off for his third trial challenge. A wiki reference says it’s never explained. Gah. But enough nitpicking about the plot holes, plenty of other people have bitched about them already.

I’m bringing up Heavy Rain to point out its strengths. The individual scenes. (Don’t try too hard to figure out how all the scenes stick together, it’s like David Cage came up with a big list of scenarios and conflict situations he wanted to put into this game to make a point, and then tried to conjure up a story to fit it all in.) But the scenes themselves, wow.

Holly Lisle said it best. Scenes, individual story units, are about change. Something moves. Something happens. Something goes from point A to point B.

Heavy Rain’s better scenes are full of this emotional movement. The very first scene in the game is a prolonged mundane day-in-the-life-of-a-family-man that takes an ominous turn when the kid’s bird dies. (Little nitpick: Don’t ask why the bird just upped and died then though. It would have been stronger if the kid or Ethan had inadvertently killed the bird in some fashion.)

The next is the one that transitions Ethan from bright ordinary life to grey depression when a tragic accident shatters his idyll.

Other memorable scenes? Scott Shelby’s confrontation with a store robber. Norman Jayden’s encounter with Nathaniel – to shoot or not to shoot. Ethan Mar’s third trial – can he sacrifice a part of himself to save his son? (fairly high squick factor the first time I encountered it). Ethan Mar’s fourth trial – can he kill another human being to save his son?

The really good scenes like above have no “right” answers. It’s hard emotional choices made within short spans of time. They define the character’s personality as you play through them, and also subtly reflect back what you value (if you aren’t roleplaying and react instead from gut instinct.)

(Of course, some of the effect is lost when one realizes that the eventual final storyline may still be the same regardless of what you did, but the game does have enough ‘critical’ points of no return, where you’re never really sure if this QTE is the one that’ll send the story somewhere you didn’t really intend.)

So what does Heavy Rain have to do with MMOs?

On the surface of it, not much. Cutscene-like QTEs are always better off as single player games. I don’t want to watch someone else talk for me in a cutscene, I want the story to centre around me and my choices, thank you, other people would just get in the way and knock me right out of the suspension of disbelief.

On the other hand, we have a City of Heroes forum thread right here that discusses plot vs storytelling.

Heavy Rain, like some of City of Heroes’ Signature Story Arcs, occasionally suffer from a surfeit of too much ham-fisted plotting. Someone has a PLAN that requires such-and-such characters to be here and there at these places at these times. Now think up some ways to get them there, I don’t care how awkward you have to twist their personalities or their arms, kthxbai. The characters become little cardboard props to be moved around as required for the grand plan to function. They’re interchangeable.

Then there’s times where you get stories (though I’m not sure that’s the right word) – meaningful scenes that have a firm foundation because a Character anchors them. Capitalization intended.

O Wretched Man – one of the generally acclaimed story arcs in City of Heroes – is firmly anchored by Ghost Widow, Wretch, Pia Marino and their backstories. The arc would not exist without the characters, and their motivations, for doing what they do because they’re them. There is emotional resonance every time the arc shifts.

All of Ethan Mars’ scenes in Heavy Rain are rooted by his feelings for his son(s). Emotional resonance again.

These stories stick with me, even when I’m done playing the game. But I can barely remember the plots of most MMO quests. Mostly I just remember how irritating the grind was.

In contrast, I can remember Guild Wars: Nightfall’s storyline, thanks to the heroes and certain NPCs who give it some character (pun intended.) I can absolutely remember Vekk and his relationship with Gadd through GW:EN, and of course, there is no way to forget the eponymous Gwen.

So after all that meandering, what’s the common thread in making game stories memorable? For me, it appears to be character.

It’s probably asking too much to expect every quest to hit it out of the park like Wretched Man did, but it would help to have, not plots that are a lame excuse for me to kill ten wilderness critters, but stories, anchored by unique characters, motivated by some kind of need for changes to happen.

(There’s one more topic with which I can link Heavy Rain and MMOs together, and that’s choices and consequences. We’ll save that for another post. Maybe when I get over my plot hole allergic reaction and finish my second playthrough.)