Thoughts on World of Warcraft

I bought the collector’s edition of World of Warcraft. I bought it specifically to get the “Making Of” DVD (this is the same reason I bought the collector’s edition of Age of Mythology).

I was kind of disappointed because there’s only one section of the DVD about the design of the game, and about twenty on the various artistic aspects of the game. Still, two things came through in the design section that are critical to the success of the game:

1. Every character can solo. Yes, there’s big, cool, fun stuff that can only be done in groups. But if you can’t group (or just don’t want to), you can still advance your character yourself. When I played the stress test, I thought I’d just lucked out and picked the one race/class combo (Human Paladin) who could solo. Nope. Everybody can solo if they so choose.

2. There’s more to life than levelling. The problem with most MMORPGs is that levelling is about the only real reward in the game. And the more you play the game, the longer and longer it takes to level. Which means your rewards come farther and farther apart – and since by this time you’re already powerful, they tend to mean less and less. Thus, the game gets less rewarding the more you play it. The WOW designers identified this problem and solved it by creating several parallel systems which all iterate at different rates, so the odds are good that no matter where you are and what you are doing, you are about to be rewarded in some way. You’re either going to level, or gain a skill point, or finish a quest, or find that recipe you’ve been looking for, or collect enough money for that cool suit of armor you’ve been eyeing, or something else.

And in identifying and fixing these problems, they have gained me as a player. I normally hate MMORPGs, but my time playing WOW during the first stress test was wonderful, and it was what convinced me to pick this as my first serious MMORPG.

Texture Map

What’s the most powerful texture-mapping technology in the world?

The most powerful texture-mapping technology is the player’s imagination. If you can spark their imagination and get them to buy in, then it won’t matter how limited the rendering technology of your characters is. The player will treat them as if they were real.

The cardinal example is Aeris from Final Fantasy VII. Aeris was represented onscreen by a simple model (I’d be surprised if it were over 300 polys) and was textured in a simple manner.

And yet, when she died, fans wept.

Square took the next logical step in Final Fantasy VIII. In that game, whenever a new character is introduced, we are treated to a beautiful full-motion video of that character (typically doing something supercool). We, the players, then “map” that first impression of the character onto the limited models Square used in the actual gameplay.

By the same token, Bioware gets professional voice actors to record some dialog for each of the main characters in its RPGs. When the player meets a new character, the first few exchanges with them will have speech, so that the player now knows what the character sounds like and can hear the character in their heads even when speech isn’t provided. It’s a very effective technique.

Of course, if you don’t have one of the best computer animation groups in the industry and you can’t afford quality voice actors, you might be able to achieve the same effect with just a great plot and well-written characters.

Initial Thoughts On Half-Life 2

I’m about one and a half hours into it, and so far here are my thoughts.

First, the game is gorgeous, and creates a sense of place I’ve rarely seen in a game before. City 17 feels about as real to me as a computer-generated environment can. Marvellous little touches like birds flocking around the Citadel just do wonders for bringing an environment to life.

Second, the whole “Gordon doesn’t talk” thing doesn’t work nearly as well in this game as it did in the first. Keeping Gordon mute in the first game was a great way for the designers to allow players to “fill up” the character of Gordon Freeman – Gordon never did anything to break that connection between the two. But in the first game, there weren’t many people to talk to, and the ones you did meet either died quickly or were just as confused as you were, so questioning them wasn’t really necessary.

But in Half-Life 2, within ten minutes you’re going to meet a whole bunch of people who have been in City 17 and the Resistance much longer than you have…but you cannot ask them any questions. You can’t say, “How long have I been away?” or “Where exactly are we?” or “What is happening in the rest of the world?” or “Doesn’t ANYONE have a gun I can use?” You’re forced to take what the game gives you, when if you were REALLY there you’d be able to find out stuff for yourself. So I think Valve misstepped there.

Still, I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

Eat the Dead

About two years ago, at the 2002 GDC, Jason Rubin stood up and bluntly stated that graphics were quickly approaching the level of diminishing returns, and could no longer be counted on to sell games on their own. He expressed nervousness at the time, because his company (the excellent Naughty Dog) had always relied on tried-and-true gameplay styles and had never innovated, instead simply choosing to make their games prettier than everyone else’s. Now, he said, it would become necessary to innovate, and that scared him.

Now, if you’ve read my post below, you know that I don’t think he’s exactly right. I don’t think it’s necessary for Naughty Dog to innovate that much, as long as they execute their core gameplay competently, and Naughty Dog has always done so. In fact, I dinged Jak II several points in my review because it handled it’s “innovation” – driving around the city in the zoomer – so poorly.

But I think Rubin’s panic is a sign of the times; game developers are going to begin casting about for something, anything, to distinguish their stuff from the pack. And there’s always nostalgia to be exploited.

And so gaming will eat its dead. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, though we’re off to a poor start with The Bard’s Tale, and the remake of Sid Meier’s Pirates! isn’t looking too much better. This particular strategy will only work if developers truly understand what made the original games stand out, and this requires actually playing them, which I doubt if the dev team for The Bard’s Tale actually did.

If they had, they’d have discovered that a lot of what made The Bard’s Tale special back in The Day ™ wouldn’t go over well with gamers now. The Bard’s Tale was basically a huge homage/ripoff of the Wizardry! series of games, which began on the Apple II computer. (It even let you import Wizardry! characters – or characters from Ultima III, both games from rival companies!) The Wizardry! series began in 1981, making it as old as the Ultima series (though not quite as revered). The Wizardry! games were known for two things: huge first-person 3D dungeons and very crunchy D&D-style mechanics. The Bard’s Tale took both of these and ran with them.

The mechanics of The Bard’s Tale define old-school CRPGs – monsters were nothing but pictures and sets of stats. All monsters existed solely to make the player’s life miserable. Most of the city was uninhabited, what few NPCs existed had very little dialog, and there was little in the way of plot except for the intro and endgame. Nothing was made permanent until the player saved, which could only be done at one place in the entire game. Items required identification, and many were cursed. Players were forced to memorize or look up four-letter codes to cast spells, and a spelling error caused a spell failure, sometimes with disastrous results. Players could easily run into an impossible-to-beat monster party just as the game began. There was no real sense of progression to the game; no sense that the game was inviting you in and pulling you forward, and there was no sense of coherency to the world. The game was what it was: a humongous dungeon (though it was textured as if it were outside) with passages leading to other humongous dungeons, all of which contained frightfully powerful groups of monsters, tons of strange items, traps galore and impossibly hard puzzles. Now, that sounds like fun to me, but it could sound very dull and arbitrary to younger gamers (and hey, they could even be right).

So if you’re going to take a classic game and update it, either don’t pick one that won’t appeal to modern gamers, or accept that you’re targeting a niche market and retain the classic mechanics that us older gamers remember fondly. A license is more than just a name.

So, having said all this, do I have any suggestions for games that would update well and should be remade? You bet. And I’ll be detailing them in later entries.

Dunno whether to laugh or cry…

I was at Fry’s last night and saw a double-pack of Fallout and Fallout 2 on sale for $4.99. Planescape: Torment was also available for $4.99.

I’m torn between being appalled that such fantastic games have suffered such an ignominous fate and being hopeful that the low price point will cause people who otherwise might have overlooked them to try them out. A friend of mine suggested that I buy a case of them and just hand them out to whoever walks into my cube at work. “Here, have three of the best RPGs ever made.”