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?

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Runescape: Further Breadventures

It’s time for another round of Runescape: Further Adventures in Breadmaking!

When we last left off, our gallant heroine had been distracted by all sorts of nefarious shenanigans and was prevented from fulfilling the manifest destiny of those soggy lumps of flour dough sitting in her inventory.

Onward, to find a functioning oven range!

Checking the map revealed a possible target in the neighboring desert town of Al Khalid. I wanted to go there anyway, there was a Slayer quest in my backlog to go kill 46 (nope, not a typo!) scorpions north of Al Khalid.

I got out of Lumbridge past the toll gate of NPC guards who extorted 10 gold for opening the gate (one-way only) but heck, inflation is rife in Runescape, I was already sitting on 33k gold, and I’m positive that is still considered a noobie amount. Like City of Heroes, veteran players probably find sums significant only in the millions and billions. Silly NPCs, have your 10 gold and open that gate!

It wasn’t until I got to the room when I began to get the sinking sensation that I had been making a dumb newbie mistake all along. The same oven range graphic was there – that I’d seen in Lumbridge Castle, Draynor Village, Taverley and so on. No matter how hard I moved the mouse cursor over the graphic, there was no context-sensitive popup to indicate that the range was an interactable object.

Half by accident, I right-clicked near it, and an “Examine Range” option popped up.

Whaaat? The thing was actually there?

Are you telling me…

I opened my inventory, clicked on the bread dough, selected “use bread dough,” then moved the cursor over the oven range graphic.

… that I probably could have cooked the bread in any of the OTHER oven ranges I walked past?

Oh fer crying out loud!

… Later, you’re going to walk back by that Lumbridge Castle cook and double-check his range. I bet it works.

Yeah, yeah, since I’m already HERE, let’s just use this one first.

Ah, for the sweet smell of achievement success, a task complete and baking bread!

We won’t tell them about the one loaf you burned…

Shh!

Now kindly retrace your footsteps and go check on the oven range you were convinced didn’t work before. You could also just use a magic teleport back to Lumbridge Castle to save time, but I don’t think you can handle the concept just yet…

He’s just being sarcastic. Truth is, I actually hiked up north of Al Khalid to go check on the scorpions I was supposed to kill, saw with a gulp that there were about lvl 15 in combat level, tried to engage one in deadly battle anyway, watched as my health bar plummeted while the scorpion’s heavily armored carapace remained unfazed, and decided to run away screaming like a little girl, making a new resolution to skill up in combat a little more before trying them again.

After that, I was pretty relieved to just pay the toll

Which you technically didn’t have to, if you just stopped when you were safe and teleported…

and take a slow walk back to Lumbridge Castle to recover. Shut up, it’s only 10 gold, it’s nothing, and it was immersive to interact with the NPCs and walk there and back again.

Sure enough, that “invisible” cooking range was confirmed to work just fine.

You idiot…

Yup, I am an idiot.

(In retrospect, I could also have simply teleported back to the town of Taverley, where there is a cooking range barely a few feet away from the lodestone point. But it never occurred to me at the time.

You idiot x 2…

Ah well, you know what they say about hindsight being 20/20.)

Runescape: Quest For Bread

Recently, Runescape lit up my radar in a big way.

I always had the vague intention of giving it a try but never found the time till now. It was probably for the best, as I am given to understand they recently did a graphical update in the last two years (I was never really impressed with Runescape pics previously, but now they have a very decent cartoony polygonal cuteness to them) and just in February 2012, redid their new player experience.

Well, it worked. After a bloodstirring soundtrack while the client updated (absolutely classic, reminded me of Guild Wars 2 and Skyrim gets you into the mood for adventure), my new character was given a 14-day free “members” trial, then thrown into a town under siege by rock-like trolls, and some conversation and story later, introduced to the basics of combat, and step by step walked through the process of how to level most of the skills in a helpful twin town setting of Bunthorpe and Taverley. One nice touch, the storekeepers had freebie samples which were more than sufficient for a new player to learn the ropes, but not enough to go crazy grinding with.

Take note, this is how to sell a game. Give the player a taste of the good stuff, explain clearly what is for members and what is not, show ’em all the nice skills members have, get them used to having them, let them have a good time, and then show them EVEN MORE loyalty rewards you could stand to accrue if you continued with a membership, and then OFFER them a ludicrous 75% off your first month subscription then and there.

Whoever Runescape has for a marketing director, he is an evil genius. The barrier for entry was so low it eroded away any resistance I could put up. So I put down the equivalent of a buck ninety five in USD and am now subscribed for a month to Runescape.

One of the most common critiques I hear about this game is that it is an awful grind to “skill up.” I can see the potential for it to become such if getting to the end of the progress bar was all a person cared about, because it involves considerable repetitive clicking action.

But then again, through a browse of the Runescape wiki, I see the game as more of a long-term sandbox. Yes, I said sandbox. There seem to be a million and one different minigames and activities that you could be doing in Runescape. Choose what you want to do, develop laterally as you do that activity, and swap activities when you’re bored, seem to be way to play Runescape, similar to how one might attempt Guild Wars or A Tale in the Desert. Certain crafting activities are meant to take time and involve repetitive action, because in that way, lazy people can pay crafters to do it, and voila, you have an economy.

One of the things that attracts me most to Runescape is the quest content. It is oldschool. As in, slightly more Everquest or MUD inspired than the WoW sort. You talk to the NPC, you have a conversation that doesn’t comprise of two summary sentences, there is some humorous banter back and forth, and horror of horrors, you may even need to check a map to plan your path because there’s no automatic waypoint arrow. 🙂 That said, the new tutorial DID have waypoint arrows, and was very helpful in explaining to a Runescape newbie that other quests may not be so simple.

And did I mention the humorous banter? It reminds me of Quest For Glory and its ilk. I found a Thieves’ Guild in the older tutorial town of Lumbridge, and had many flashbacks to the old Sierra game while I helped the Guildmaster “procure” a treasure chalice. Afterward, I was laughing with great amusement as my character ribbed the Guildmaster, “Are you sure you have a buyer for the chalice?” “Sure, why wouldn’t I have?” “Well, the chalice wasn’t where you said it would be, and wasn’t with who you said had it, so maybe you don’t have a buyer either.” So far, many of the conversations with the NPCs go like that, fairly lighthearted, not taking themselves very seriously and occasionally gently poking at the fourth wall. It’s good fun.

Also impressive are the crafting options in Runescape. They are pretty deep. A piece of bronze armor involves mining copper and tin, finding a forge to smelt it into bars, finding an anvil to hammer it into shape. So far, not too dissimilar from regular MMOs. But then while mining copper and tin, lapis lazuli ore pops out, and you can craft and cut it into a polished gem. And then you need to chop down trees, which may yield a knot of wood, which then gets worked into a brooch setting, which you can pop the polished gem into. And speaking of those trees you cut down, the logs can be lit on fire, which you can then cook with, or turned into wooden materials to craft with further, including arrow shafts… which then need to be fitted with bronze arrowheads (see mining and smithing) and feathers (enter hunting for swifts by laying traps and chicken slaughtering). And those dead chickens? Well you can cook them. And those bones that all mobs drop? Buryable for piety skill increases.

Two main differences I can detect from most normal MMOs. One, you can do it all. Yes, no artificial “choose two professions, now make more alts to get the other crafting professions.” It’s just going to take you a really long time to grind up to very good in all of the skills if you really choose to do it all, I guess.

And two, I really like the “Use X on Y” ability command. This is an adventure game thing. The sense of immersion goes way up if you can opt to creatively combine or use verbs on various items.

Here’s me attempting to make bread:

Step 1 – Open gate to wheat field. Pick wheat. Each stalk is an interactable object.

Step 2 – Proceed to flour mill. One of the nice things about having less taxing graphics is that we can have buildings that cutaway to reveal interiors without needing to zone to a new instance.

Step 3 – In the ground floor of the mill, there is the receptacle the flour will eventually end up, a convenient empty pot for picking up the flour with, and an optional miller NPC you can talk to and exchange pleasantries as well as ask how to grind flour. Yes, you can find things out from NPCs, not just a third-party wiki!

Step 4 – Climb the ladder and head two stories up. Use wheat on hopper. (Did I mention I love that “Use X on Y” command?) Operate hopper lever controls. *grind grind*

Climb back down ladder.

Step 5 – Take empty pot. Use empty pot on flour bin. Hooray, you have obtained FLOUR!

Here’s another nice thing about Runescape and their introductory experience. There’s a ding practically every step. There are seemingly a thousand and one simple tasks, that you can either follow and do via the task list, or even just wander the world talking to people and doing random stuff, and voila, a Task Complete pops up to surprise you and give you that warm fuzzy feeling of virtual achievement.

Every tiny increase in skill is made a big deal of by treating it as separate levels and giving it the whole level fireworks shebang. This is such a contrast to say, something like Wurm Online, where you are told in no uncertain terms that your skill is something like 6.7% and you’re going to fail repeatedly at making misshapen lumpy objects while you increment it to 7% and then 8%. You’re left feeling inadequate, and wondering if it’s worth the time, especially since each attempt takes up several boring tens of seconds watching an identical progress bar move.

In Runescape, let’s face it. Going from level 1 to level 99 is mathematically still the same thing as trying to get from 1% skill to 99% skill. But the semantics is different, and the way it’s dealt with is different. Most actions you attempt will succeed. If you fail, you either automatically keep attempting it, or you can repeat the action. Each successful action gives you a visible XP popup, indicating your gradual progress. And when you cross from midway through level 6 to level 7, wow, does the game celebrate your teeny tiny achievement. Hurrah, you are one level higher! It does make a difference.

Ok, back to bread. After flour, one goes looking for a source of water like a well to wet the flour and turn it into bread dough. I got lost, couldn’t find a well, eventually stumbled into a spooky little town called Draynor Village which was all shadowy and looked way too high level for me, found a water pump, successfully got bread dough, couldn’t find a working oven range to bake said bread dough into bread, wussed out and teleported back to the newb village of Lumbridge, where I couldn’t find a working oven range either because the cook at the castle had me traipsing off on another half-completed quest, and got totally distracted with the Thieves’ Guild questline instead.

I ended up wandering through a swamp where I decided to kill not ten, but a few, evil-looking giant rats for the fun of it, picked some nettles from outside a hermit’s cottage (swiping his leather gloves in order not to get stung by the nettles), and lighting fires outside the poor man’s hut in order to distract him, pickpocket the key he was carrying, in order to get at the treasure the Thieves’ Guild wanted.

There will be other days for breadmaking. Adventure calls!

You know, if only more people would try stuff outside their comfort zone (and click to walk with no WASD movement is probably Runescape’s biggest hurdle to regular MMO players), they’d find that sandboxes are already out there.