Saturday, November 21, 2009


Getting there isn't always half the fun. Sometimes it's a pain in the arse; a necessary evil, if you will. In this article, we analyze and discuss the "endgame" aspect to MMOs.


You know I'll do it eventually, so let's just get the definition ( out of the way first.

end·game also end game
1. Games The final stage of a chess game after most of the pieces have been removed from the board.
2. The final stage of an extended process or course of events: the diplomatic endgame that led to the treaty.

We'll focus on definition #2, which seems applicable to our endeavor. It begins with "(t)he final stage" which might seem rather dead-ended and absolute, but it speaks nothing of the nature of the aforementioned stage.

Further, it goes on to speak about "an extended process or course of events". Certainly this describes the leveling process as toons are taken from the creation screen to the final level. It's an extended process, or so the accounting department of the MMO hopes.

And there lies the careful balance between the project managers (or developers if you are inclined to not differentiate), the bean counters, and the subscribers.

We, the willing subscribers, are consumers in every essence of the word. As a customer base, we congest, digest, and crap everything that comes our way so that the least amount of effort is required for the maximum amount of reward in the smallest amount of time.

This runs completely against what the accounting department would like. The longer it takes for the subscribers to complete their goals, the more money said subscribers will have paid to their account.

Caught between this mess are the "developers". (And henceforth, we'll just call them that, despite the fact that producers, artists, designers, testers and even the community team are all significant parts that contribute to the product despite not being developers in the pure sense of the word.) At any rate, the developers are tasked with providing content for the consumers while ensuring the content isn't consumed so fast as to minimize subscription dollars.

How does this relate to "endgame"? Well, I'm getting to that, aren't I?

There are two well-established approaches to providing content to consumers.

The first approach is a series of chained quests can be arranged in such a way, with precisely measured rewards and experience, to allow toons to traverse the ladder towards the final level available. It is a fairly exact science that is self-analyzing in such a way that it's evident where new quests are required or when certain rewards need tweaking in either direction.

The second approach can often be sprinkled in with the first. This involves a repetitive action that rewards experience with little or no storyline or direction. Simply visit location x and kill creature y until level z. Move to the next "x" when you are ready.

Armed with these two tools in the kit, developers are able to control the rate at which the subscribers consume and level.

But if beta testing has proven anything it's that the hardcore "consumers" don't beta test, or if they do, they keep the power-leveling secrets to themselves until it's "go live" time for the game. After launch, the game is really put through rigorous leveling tests. Development is in reaction mode, patching together the leveling framework as subscribers rip through the content. Such tweaking and patching will likely continue for the first few years of an MMO.

And so, subscribers begin to reach the final achievable level. If there's nothing left to do, it's safe to assume that many subscribers shutdown their account and start downloading the next MMO. The Head Bean Counter starts knocking on the Head Developers cubicle wall clutching printouts of the latest subscription numbers. Usually there's a colorful line chart that starts in the upper left corner of the page and plummets to the lower right.

That's where "endgame" comes in to save the day.

Now hopefully the endgame content has been established before the game has launched, but we begin to discuss it here to better parallel how a toon will advance to reach this stage.

What does this stage hold? New areas to explore? Probably not. New monsters to defeat? Maybe one final boss monster, but why would there be more in this final stage? New equipment? Yeah, but for what purpose? PvP? It's not everyone's cup of joe. Help newbs or lowbies? That isn't exclusive to the final level.

If the MMO has been successful, the company will slap together an Expansion to grab the one-off purchases. Development sticks five or ten new levels on top, replicates existing creature code then cranks up the numbers, rolls in a few more rewards and the consumers set about consuming again because quite frankly there's not a one of them that approves of no longer being as uber as possible. (We really ARE our own worst enemies in this little triangle of business, aren't we?)

Expansions just are smoke and mirrors, a way for developers to give instant gratification to both the subscribers and the accounting folks. And our favorite power-levelers are going to be finished the expansion before you're even through downloading it.

The rate of consumption will always outstrip development. Liken it to a movie. A summer blockbuster may take years to complete, but you'll only need two hours to watch it, even counting your time sitting through the credits to see that brief Samuel L. Jackson extra clip that you heard so much about. (And then someone had to explain it to you, unless you're a comic book geek.)

Development will lose the battle since the difference between movie goers and MMO subscribers is (well among a lot of things) that MMO subscribers continue to pay even after they've completed the content.

Accounting will lose the battle without the help of a good marketing team. Whiz! Bang! Golly! Look at what's coming up next in your favorite MMO! Oh, and if you go on a multi-month subscription plan, you'll get this hat for your toon. Plus guaranteed access to this other MMO beta we're developing!

Because quite frankly, we don't care if your particular MMO is working as you like, we just want you to play ANY of our MMOs because it's your MONEY we're after. We know you're fickle, and we know you'll jump ship from your MMO... so here... come jump to another one of OUR games!

It's not really "endgame", but rather "nextgame". A subscriber may be playing only Star Wars Galaxies, but they will often see links, banners, graphics and promotions for other Sony Online Entertainment games. Many game companies have made it a practice to create launchers in order to access the game servers. Don't be fooled into thinking this is some sort of convenient application for subscribers; this is a marketing tool to make you interested in other games that the company offers.

Because who wants to see grayed-out buttons that could lead to other games? We're gamers, dammit. And grayed out things means that there's more to consume! Rah!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Nose to the Grindstone

The term "grind" is a familiar one for those who have played MMOs with any frequency. It usually not thought of as a good thing, yet there are those players who feel it is a necessary part of any successful MMO. But just what does it mean and is it really necessary?


Yet again, we turn to the dictionary ( to try to figure out what we're analyzing.

So let's see here... skimming the definition... crush, pulverize. No. Gnash? As in "grind the teeth". Not quite. Hmm.. "To bear down on harshly; crush". Maybe my spirit and/or bank account.

Wait, I see it. We have to skip down to the 5th definition to get to the good stuff.

6. To produce mechanically or without inspiration: The factory grinds out a uniform product.
7. To instill or teach by persistent repetition: ground the truth into their heads.

Ah, that sounds like how I spend $15 a month.

I note a few positive words such as "produce" and "teach". But then I see more neutral or even downright negative concepts such as "mechanically", "without inspiration"; maybe "repetition".

Follow the link again ( to see more specifics, if you will. But let's just assume that the term isn't being used for the slang definition there, or else I've been missing a large part of the games. (Look it up, kids. Err... maybe not.)

And so, let's now turn our attention back to MMOs in particular; tucking this definition in our collective back pocket to be referenced if need be.

When one begins a new MMO and takes their newly created toon into the game world, typically a tutorial instance or area is presented. The act of learning here is quite overwhelming, challenging, and exciting. Or at least it should be.

Once the tutorial is completed, the "real" game begins. Still, it feels like an extension of the tutorial except there is more spam, more obnoxiousness, and usually more then a few guys playing girl toons running around in their skivvies with grind macros running. (See what I did there?)

Continuing along, with one finger hovering over the trusty Journal and another ready to summon the map, the levels come rapid-fire. The toon grows in capabilities; the inventory fills, the little money tracker - wherever it may be, and whatever the currency - is spinning upwards.

Behind it all, it's nothing more then "Go here. Kill x thing. Rinse. Repeat." But the player is learning via this persistent repetition, right? So it's already a grind, by definition.

But then there might be inspiration to reach that next level, to get that next amazing weapon, to unlock that new area. If this is done with inspiration, then it's NOT a grind, by definition.

So which is it?

Well, it all depends upon when the leveling process runs out, coupled with the patience level of the player (and perhaps their capacity to learn).

In most MMOs, the pattern of leveling soon presents itself. The progression is linear, the content is gated, and the complexity of tasks never deviates. But at the same time, the requirements to attain the next level, skill, and gear increases while the potential for new information to be learned diminishes or disappears.

Because gamers have been bred and conditioned to stop at nothing until a task is completed to the end, the drive toward the "end game" is a significant reason to continue forward. (And we'll discuss this "end game" in a future article).

A good MMO will have mini-games to distract players. Most often this involves the crafting of goods to sell to fellow players, but we may also find fishing, exploration, or playing music. The problem there is that even the mini-games can become repetitive quickly since they tend to be very simple to learn and usually have no end game to work towards.

So let's summarize here. The repetition of a task is a teaching mechanic. This works in children, dogs, and gamers. (And isn't it telling that we're lumped into that list?).

Let's focus on that for a moment; let's consider children. (And couldn't we all just do that no matter what we're talking about?)

We can say that children grind out their ABCs until they learn them. There's a catchy tune that aids in this, and to this day we all would be hard-pressed not to hear the melody if we run through the alphabet in our head. That was an effective grind to say the least!

Children then move on to learn about capital letters, printing and eventually cursive writing. Along the way, they learn a few rules about spelling and their vocabulary continues to grow. Soon, they're writing papers or blogs about the term "grinding" and they're not thinking twice about the basic tenets of grammar learned years ago.

They may even move on - hardly children by now - to learn additional languages, whether foreign or even for programming. Those with special needs could also be outfitted to understand sign language or Braille. And the most talented become authors and give the gift of their imagination to the world via the written word. (Are we looking at end game, here?)

In all facets of the previous example, there is a repetition to acquire permanent information. Even the author, at his or her own end game, will continue to write and refine, just as 8 year old Susie is practicing her printing while twisting her tongue between her teeth to get the lines to be just so.

The author has no need for printing his or her ABCs, right? Just as Susie is in no danger of writing a best selling novel over her summer vacation. But the author needed those fundamental skills that Susie is learning.

"Go. Kill. Repeat." Sprinkle in a random "Loot Reward" with the unspoken word of "Without this, you'll suck at end game". This is the video game equivalent of practicing ABCs for a lifetime. How many iterations does it take before Susie gets it?

Or put another way, just how many clicks DOES it take to get to the end game?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Immersing Ourselves

Further to the article that attempted to define a consensus on Star Wars content, this particular study broadens the scope, but targets a more specific concept. You are cordially invited to join me in my analysis of the concept of immersion as it pertains to MMOs.

The Free Dictionary ( defines immersion as

  • (a) The act or an instance of immersing,
  • (b) The condition of being immersed.

So that didn't help.

The Free Dictionary then goes on with a few thesaurus entries such as "sinking", "dip", disappearance" or even "baptism".

Good grief, isn't there anyone that knows what immersion means?

Merriam-Webster ( manages to come a little closer by adding

  • "c. instruction based on extensive exposure to surroundings or conditions that are native or pertinent to the object of study; especially : foreign language instruction in which only the language being taught is used <learned French through immersion>"

Looks like we're on our own.

So let's create our own definition for the word. It's used so frequently with MMOs that we should at least know what we mean when we say it. Certainly we don't mean "engrossed" or "engaged", do we? And while it may lead to such an end, it's not synonymous with "entertained" either.

Let's step away from video games for a moment and consider television, specifically soap operas. And before we continue, you must realize that those words may have never been used together before.

If the latest blockbuster movies are akin to a Playstation 3, then the daily soaps are like a Commodore 64 (look it up, kids). The acting is suspect, the effects are nil, the storylines are predictable and the cinematography is academic. Yet, these shows attract millions in total every week. (Perhaps not, but the idea of doing a search for the viewership totals of soap operas doesn't exactly tickle my fancy. But your mom watches them, and her mom before that. Isn't that good enough for you?)

Certainly these soap opera characters aren't real. Yet the viewers watch religiously with great anticipation and with the capability to discuss in great length the many intricacies of the show with any who display even a passing interest.

That, my friends, is a form of"immersion" at its finest: A complete suspension of disbelief in such a way that the viewer is willing to elevate the fantasy realm into such a conceptual state that it can be considered a reality without crossing over into a dangerous mental territory where reality and fantasy can no longer be distinguished.

In other words, the viewers know its fake, but pretend otherwise. (Or better yet, they choose to forget that it's fake for the duration of the show or discussions that might follow.)

Professional wrestling has been basing its success upon this very premise for years. Essentially soaps and pro-wrestling are one and the same. Tabletop RPGs build upon this also, and it may be no small surprise that nearly every person I've ever known to enjoy tabletop RPGs has also found  enjoyment with professional wrestling in some capacity. (Which leads me to think that if soap operas has more fight scenes, it could pull in an entirely new demographic.)

Come to think of it, magic tricks are built upon this suspension of disbelief. Even their name "trick" tells us it's not real. Yet we watch, enjoy and become (sometimes truly) amazed when the lovely assistant appears behind the other curtain and is somehow completely dry.

It's relatively easy for television or movies to convince a viewer to be willing to accept the false nature of the product. Movies dim the lights and fill you with comfort food. At home, viewers do much of the same on their own as they seek the theater experience. The music is loud and it's considered impolite to talk in a theater, kick the seat, or stand and block the view. Likely because each would break the concentration needed to remember to forget that it's all fake. ("Hey! Down in front!")

Movies and television also have the advantage in that there is very little active participation required of the viewers. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

Video games require direct interaction from the player. It uses the same senses and receptors as television, but is virtually powered by the user. By placing the user in control, they are immediately aware that it is fake allowing them to apply "meta-thinking"; applying knowledge about the framework of the product rather then within said product.

MMOs have a "leg up" on solo/single player video games in that the virtual worlds they create are persistent. When the user shuts down their computer for the night, the game world continues on without them.

Beyond that, the very fact that the user can choose to login or logoff means that they are very much aware that it's not real. The term "it's hard to put down a good book" seems applicable.

The MMO is then tasked with enrapturing the player after they login in order to stave off the moment that they logoff. If that can be achieved, then we have reached a state of immersion. Haven't we?

Perhaps not, even from within the most perfectly crafted MMO.

Quite possibly, the less input required of the user, the more that immersion is achieved. That runs counter to a good and fully featured game that affords many controls, emotes, locations, and things to do with each. Gamers often love complexity. But I think they (we) profess too much.

Are simpler games easier to become immersed with? How many hours did you play your Gameboy Tetris? Pac-Man? Rubik's Cube? (Look it up, kids). Checkers is quite simple. Crossword Puzzles lack complexity. Sudoku is ridiculously simple at its core. To be sure, I'm not claiming any of these are easy to beat, but they do lack complexity without sacrificing challenge.

What of the classic games that have more involved rules and possibilities; Monopoly, for instance. The many derivations can never fully replace the original. Is the game immersive? It requires a good deal of concentration, decision-making skills, adaptability based on the random die rolls and card flips, as well as interaction with other players. Yet you don't actually feel like you own a hotel on Park Place, do you?

Or more importantly, do you feel like a real estate tycoon?

Why couldn't you? Goods, services, property... all of it exchanges hands daily without the sellers ever laying eyes upon the item that is transacted. That encapsulates the stock market almost completely. (Look it up, kids).

Immersion seems to be a state of mind, unique and personal to each individual and given permission to exist for as long as it's willed.

You want total immersion? You've got it. It's you. Yes... that's right... you. You are totally immersed in your life. You control everything there is about it. When you sleep (logoff), life goes on. When you wake up (login), you receive updates about what's happened, and you plan accordingly.

Anything else can only give you a facsimile of life. Whether it's pretending to own a real estate monopoly, forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning while you watch the end of your soap, or shooting stormtroopers because you're one of the good guys, you're making a decision to do it at the cost of everything else.

You know they're not really expensive hotels, home wrecking doctors, or Imperial tyrants, but it's no fun remembering that, is it?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Heroic Attempt to Define Iconic Star Warsy-ness

Star Warsy. Heroic. Iconic. Oh my.

There are numerous terms thrown about to describe the aspects of a Star Wars video game; vague concepts that are meant to encapsulate the desired level of immersion. But just what is the specific criteria? What features can appeal to the broadest possible audience in terms of evoking the feeling of the Star Wars genre? Is it the power of the Force or the gritty criminal underworld? Perhaps it is the epic struggle between good and evil, or is it the personal struggles and turmoil ? It is starships or moisture vaporators? Blasters or axes? Giant monsters or tiny droids?

Simply put: yes.

Star Wars is many things to many people. Beyond the movies, there are novels, comic books, toys, console games, PC games, cartoons, live action T.V. specials, tabletop roleplaying games, and maybe a lunchbox or two. The canon is spread quite thin and is even categorized by the Lucas conglomerate; a tidbit that means little to fans, especially the casual ones.

So step one would be: Identify the source material from the plethora of that which is available. That's easy. It's academic that one should select the movies to be the bible for what is and is not appropriate content.

But it doesn't stop there since we all know there are six movies from which to draw from; each with their own "era". Star Wars Galaxies is evidently set in the time just after Episode IV. So why don't we all reach for our favorite incarnation of "A New Hope". You know: the one where Han shoots first?

Let's break it down. We'll extract the major points of the story to use towards creating a template that identifies the expected level of Star Wars immersion needed for any game based on this particular movie. Got it? Good. And May the Force Be With You. Also "Good luck". We're gonna need it."

And for some reason "You came here in THAT thing?" seems somehow appropriate to what we're trying to do.

Episode IV opens up with a tail-kicking. The Empire is bigger, stronger, more persistent, and dresses way better. But they're inefficient. The Rebels may have lost many troops, and had one of their leaders captured, but they managed to send off the intel they were delivering. This will be a recurring theme.

Let's start a list before we forget, shall we?

1. The Empire is a polished, methodical, yet flawed war machine.

Quickly, we come to learn that heroes aren't born, they're made. The "good guys" are either in hiding or are ignorant of the larger picture, deluding themselves by enjoying an easier lifestyle or career. Each needs a reason to become inspired to fight, be it money or revenge. Fortunately, the bad guys give them reasons.

2. Heroes aren't born, they're made, often by the very thing they are destined to fight.

We find that the galaxy isn't all about good versus evil. Seedy beings find their way, picking fights, avoiding death sentences, brokering information, posting or hunting bounties, or running smuggling operations. The Empire seems to not have an absolute reach nor influence. Is that noteworthy? Methinks yes.

3. The Galaxy has a seedy underworld of which seems beyond the scope of the Empire's reach.

Meanwhile, the Empire shows how totally badass it is. They fly around in crazy big ships and build giant space stations. ("That's no moon! That's our tax credits at work!") During interrogations, they blow up planets. Because that seems reasonable.

But they're old and stodgy, perhaps too set in their ways. Very few will entertain the idea that the Rebellion is growing stronger. They have an undying faith in the war machine they've crafted. This sentiment not only echoes their failure from the opening scene, but foreshadows their ultimate failure in the final frames.

This is important stuff! Are we writing this down? Well, in fact, we are...

4. The Rebellion is foolishly disregarded by the ever-posturing Imperials.

But here's the hook. There's more to the galaxy then just technology and physical weapons. While we know little of the Emperor at this point, (besides that he doesn't like Senates and prefers skeletal leaders with the ability to really roll those Rs), it's clear that Darth Vader is something else; something older and more mystical. He's part of something that the galaxy chooses to ignore, belittle, and/or forget: Force users.

Just as this mystical power can be used for personal gain (or for choking insubordinates), it can also be a power for benevolence (or affecting the weak-minded, naturally!). It seems that personal and moral decisions can affect the path taken toward using the Force; of which the ability to blow up planets is insignificant against. So in short, we've got these Force users on both sides of the fence.

5. The Force has many aspects which are achieved through moral decisions.

Speaking of which, yes, there is a clearly defined fence. The Empire blows up planets. They slaughter Jawas and moisture farmers. They shoot first, then shoot some more. Pehaps it's to make up for their rather textbook, unimaginative approach to everything not related to combat. ("The door is locked, let's assume what we're looking for will be easier to find elsewhere.")

Oh, and they capture Princesses and subject them to interrogation and possible termination. Make no mistake about it: the Empire are the bad guys. There's no shades of grey to be had with the Empire. The Imperials' ruthless approach to locating the stolen Death Star plans ironically compels the protagonists to work harder at using those plans to successful ends.

Seriously, go back and watch the scene where Luke finds the remains of his dead aunt and uncle. You will see the very moment where the Empire is doomed for failure when the innocent farmboy turns his grief into something else. Something that cannot be denied. Remember, heroes are not born, but are made; and revenge is a potent aspect to the crucible.

6. The Empire is evil. And they like to remind you. 'Nuff said.

So where were we? Oh yes. An aged hero comes out of hiding to pull together a bunch of reluctant heroes, though a couple are still in it for the money. They set out on a noble quest to help topple the evil Empire in order to achieve the absolution, revenge, or monetary gains that each are after.

I was remiss not to mention the droids up until this point. One part comedic relief, one part reminder that this isn't your universe. It's important to note that they're not just non-organics, but that they have clearly defined roles that they've been built for. It's obvious that there are other droids in this galaxy that have their own roles. Where we have iPhones, laptops and a GPS, folks in Star Wars have droids. This is a point that needs to be remembered.

In fact, the various alien races also act as a reminder that we're not in Kansas... err... here any more. The cantina scene is a classic in American sci-fi cinema; a statement which can be debated but really shouldn't be.

7. Droids and aliens should be prevalent.

And so with the plot now clearly presented and the players introduced, the storyline unfolds. As it turns out, it is faith and teamwork that prove to be better qualities then the methodical war machine of the Empire. Ad lib tactics confound the systematic tactics of the Empire, but moreso it is the unwillingness of the Empire to recognize and accept their weakness and make the necessary adjustments. ("Evacuate? What is this word?")

8. The Empire confidently follows protocol. The Rebellion desperately ad libs.

In the end the arrogance and incompetence of the Empire spells their doom, while the determination and sacrifice of the Rebellion seals their victory. The Empire takes it up the exhaust port not because of a targeting computer, but because of faith and friendship.

But the "big bad" gets away, spinning off into space, and the losses on the "good guy" side makes the victory bittersweet despite the grandiose celebration. And while the final frame shows jubilation, it's clear that it will be short-lived and that more effort will soon be required.

9. Victory is achieved through sacrifice.

The music builds to a crescendo, the credits roll, and movies are changed forever. We're left humming the main theme far longer then we realize.

Which brings me to the final point learned from Episode IV: Music and effects. Laser bolts, lightsabers, screaming TIE fighters, planet-shattering lasers, trundling droids, and blazing hyperspace jumps are just a small part of the feast of auditory and visual treats.

10. Star Wars looks and sounds awesome.

And so there we have it. Ten takeaway points from Episode IV that academically describe and define the Star Wars experience. I should hope this is an exhaustive list and that any additional points are merely extrapolations of those tidbits already raised. (Could one argue that lightsaber duels should be added to the list, and could it just be countered that such duels are merely embodiments of the struggle between the two sides of the Force as identified by point #5?)

Do - or maybe "can" - these points translate over into a video game? How does one program "moral decisions" in an MMO? Or implement evil? Sacrifice?

Well that's the real trick, isn't it? But if one is going to have a game based around Star Wars, then it's a requirement that these elements are integrated.

Or else why bother?