Friday, September 3, 2010

Signing Off, For Now

I began this blog about a year and a half ago because I was thinking about doing some research in video games. I wanted to explore some of the foundation ideas such as 1) what is play?, 2) what is a game?, and 3) how can a deeper understanding of these things improve video gaming experience. I wasn't just interested in making video games more fun to play. I was actually more interested in applying what we know about video games to making work and education more fun and satisfying. However, I have not gotten as much traction with these ideas as I would have liked. So I am putting this blog aside for now. As an academic you follow many blind paths and encounter many dead ends. At the same time, you have to follow your curiosity and nothing that I have ever learned has ever gone to waste. You never know when something you learned in one area will be exactly the thing you need to know to make progress in another area. So, I have no regrets. It was fun. It was interesting. And eventually it will all be useful.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Come On Now, Why All the Bitching?

World of Warcraft is a truly outstanding game. Not only is it the most popular MMORPG ever, it has become a cultural artifact and the object of academic study in books such as The Warcraft Civilization and Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader. So, why am I whining about the annoyances? Well, there are two main reasons: aesthetic and economic.

The aesthetic reason is that these flaws, small as they may be, tarnish an otherwise amazing creative effort. Consider your favorite classic movie, one you like to watch over and over. Now, think of how it would be with a major flaw in it such as an obvious continuity error or a character slipping briefly out of character. Over time these flaws would become major distractions and you would view the movie as a flawed classic. It might even be used in film classes as an example of what to avoid.

World of Warcraft has the potential to transcend being a video game and truly become a cultural artifact. It is possible that people play this classic game long after new technology moves us to new kinds of games. It would be like King Kong coming out on Blu-Ray However, this is not going to happen with these flaws. So, fixing these annoyances it important for the legacy of the game.

There are also economic reasons. Blizzard boasts 11.5 million users which is pretty impressive. But, why can't that number grow by a factor of ten or even a hundred? They have pretty well tapped out the gamer market but there people who do not see themselves as gamers who represent a huge potential market. People who play Wii, Free Cell, or Farmville are known as casual gamers and the size of this market dwarfs the size of the gamer market. But, they are reluctant to try WoW because of the steep learning curve. With decent books, documentation and customer service it may be possible to tap this potential market and break even more records for numbers of users.

Going back to the aesthetic argument for a moment, there is also an economic reason behind that as well. While the preceding economic argument expands the potential market to new users, the aesthetic argument expands the potential market over time.

So, I am not just being petty and whining about these annoyances. I think this is a phenomenal game and believe it can be even more phenomenal.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's So Annoying? Bored 80s

This is really a problem of meta design and it is unfair to place the entire blame on Blizzard for it. In the previous examples, a designer or design team just made some dumb mistakes and those mistakes for some reason were not caught in design reviews. At least I hope that is the case. It would be disturbing to find out that Blizzard actually saw those things as good design.

World of Warcraft is a "Game World" as has come up before in this blog. And meta design deals with the design of the game world more than the design of the game. There are many games within World of Warcraft. And those games exist simultaneously within the game world.The problem of meta design is - how do you set up the world so that people playing different games can co-exist with each other without diminishing each others game experience.

Most of the time this works out pretty well. So we should give credit where credit is due. However, certain kinds of game play leads to aberrant players who reject the lusory goals in favor setting their own goals. In some cases this is ok. A person may enjoy making things for friends or guild members in lieu of leveling. However, when one sets their goal as grieving others, it creates problems.

What happens with bored 80s it that people have advanced to the top level without having really earned it. They may have friends they use as a body guard. They may have friends who run them through dungeons. The may have bound on account gear, armor, weapons, or spells that make them more than a match for challenges appropriate to their level. The point is that they ramped up to 80 without having really earned it and don't want to put for the effort required to advance as an 80. 

So, what do they do? They do the World of Warcraft equivalent of picking on little kids. They hang out in areas where they are likely to encounter people leveling at ten or twenty levels below them. These are easy kills and are not very satisfying. But the alternative is legitimate leveling which is way to hard. So, they redefine the game goals to grief as many lower level toons as they can.

On one hand I feel sorry for these players. They are seeking a satisfaction from the game that they will likely never achieve. On the other hand, the are ANNOYING!!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What's So Annoying? The Documentation!!

This may be a generation gap, but I don't think so. The documentation for World of Warcraft is abysmal. There are three sources of information about WoW: books, websites, and other players. Each leaves a great deal to be desired.

You would think there would a wide range of volumes available for World of Warcraft. With over 11 million players there is a ready made market. Further, it would be in Blizzard's interests to make WoW more accessible as that would mean an even larger customer bases. But sadly it is not so. The main offerings in print are Strategy guides by Brady Games. These are dense volumes that are more like a specifications manual than they are documentation. I have most, if not all of them, and rarely refer to them at all. They are simply unusable. I'm sure there are people who find them useful. But they come under the umbrella of driven singularities which I will get to in a moment. There are also numerous online guides that you can download, some free, some you pay for. The problem with that is that there is no way to know if they are any good or if the information is accurate.

Websites are the primary form of documentation. This is the generation gap that I was referring to earlier. I am used to books. Younger people are used to websites. The question is - is this just a question of different modes or it is a difference of quality. I would say that it is a difference of quality. The WoW main sight is pretty good at giving you the most superficial of overviews, but getting to any depth is nearly impossible. There are sites like Thottbot that are pretty good for quest information. And there are numerous other sites that various people swear by. Nonetheless, there are several problems with all these sites. The first is that there is no systematic overview of the information available. So, figuring out even where to look is an uphill battle. Second, the information is hit or miss. If you are lucky, you may find what you are looking for. Chances are you won't. Third, these sights are organized as wikis making them nearly impossible to use. All this does not mean that people never find what they are looking for at these sites. They do. And this is again the driven singularity problem.

The third source of information is other people. People ask questions in guild chat. Sometimes other people will try to answer. People ask questions in the open chat channels such as the trade channel. Sometimes other people will try to answer. But, using other people as a source of information is even more hit or miss than going to websites. First, if you ask a question in any of the channels, you are lucky if you get any answer at all. If you get an answer, you don't know if it is accurate or not. And the person providing the answer probably does not know if it is accurate. So, any information you get from other people is suspect at best.

Does anybody ever find what they need when they have a question? Yes, they do. And that brings us to the driven singularities.You can say "there is no way to find where a quest is" and somebody might say "sure, just go to Thottbot". You can say "there is no way to figure out if +8 spirit is better than +8 stamina" and somebody might say, "sure just go to".  Just because specific individuals have had the persistence to find specific things does not mean the documentation is adequate. There are, what I am calling, driving singularities. Individual people who persisted enough to find some obscure piece of information.

There are several problems with driven singularities. First, it takes way to much time to find something if you happen to be a driven singularity. Second, if that driven person doesn't happen to be within earshot when you ask a question, you just won't get an answer. Third, that person might not know what they are talking about. People often over claim their expertise. And finally, this approach only works in a very, very, very small percentage of the cases where people are looking for information.

WoW brags over 11 million users and that is, indeed, an accomplishment. However, with decent documentation, that number might be ten times, a hundred times, or maybe even a thousand times the current level.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What's So Annoying? Managing Inventory

There are many good things about the way inventory is handled in WoW. So, out of fairness, I should point a few of them out. As you advance, you get increasingly larger bags in which to store your inventory. These bags are increasingly more expensive allowing you to make rational trade off decisions about the cost of a bag versus the convenience it affords. Tailors can make bags and sell them at the Auction House providing a source of revenue for that profession. Guilds can buy Guild Vaults provide more storage and incentive to join the guild. Individuals can buy bank slots to hold bags that are not carried around, thus providing more storage and another rational trade-off decision.

This is all good design and well thought out. So, what is my beef? I have two gripes with the inventory management. The first, is junk inventory and the second is recipes that requre materials you didn't think you would ever need again.

Junk inventory is loot that you pick up from any of the variety of means there are for collecting things. You may loot a corpse, get something as a reward for a quest, or acquire items through one of the professions such as herbalism. Actually, mining and skinning aren't too bad for junk but herbalism is. What happens is that you pick up something and have no idea if it is good for anything. So, you put it in your inventory where it takes up space. Later you find that it is either used in a worthless recipe or is not used at all. To their credit, Blizzard added sell prices to loot items so you can make rational decisions about what to keep if your bags are getting filled. But, there are a whole host of items, especially in herbalism, where you can fill up your inventory with worthless junk and not know it is worthless. Every decision should be a rational trade off decision. And putting junk items in the collectibles is just arbitrary and poor design. Some might argue that it adds an element off randomness. I would argue that this is just the defensive claim of a mediocre designer.

As you progress in your profession, you go through different levels of materials. Say, you are a miner and blacksmith. You begin with copper, then to tin, then to iron and so forth. Now, once you are at the iron level you are inclined to get rid of your copper and tin to make room for the items that are appropriate for your level. Then, when you are past iron, say at mithril, you encounter a recipe that requires copper. And you get irritated for having sold all your copper. This is just arbitrary and annoying. Since inventory is limited, you can't keep everything. And you cannot make rational trade off decisions about what to keep if you are going to encounter arbitrary requests for materials you have gotten rid of. Again, one might argue that this introduces an element of randomness. However, I would counter again with my remark about mediocre design.

The problem here is that the whole conceptual design of professions and inventory management are quite well done. But, these little annoying oddities become the focus over time. You forget how cleverly done it all is, while festering over the fact that you threw something away that you needed. Not only do these decisions not add to the game experience, they seriously detract from it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What's So Annoying? Ralai Quests

Ralai Quests (or 'Running Around Like an Idiot' Quests) are really annoying. These come in two distinct varieties. But before I get into that, I should say that I am a systematic and methodical person. I like to do things in an orderly way and I like to see progress in what I am doing. I think most people are like this although, perhaps, not as extreme as I am. I realize that there is an element of disorder inherent in WoW because different players will choose to pursue quests in a different order for a variety of reasons. So, some element of randomness and disorder is inherent in a dynamic game such as this. I have no qualms with that. It is when unnecessary chaos is added for no particular purpose that I find it annoying.

There are numerous quests such as The Missing Diplomat or the Legend of Stalvan that force you to run from place to place talking with different NPCs or collecting various items. These are some of the bigger ones but there are dozens of little ones where X tells you to talk to Y, Y tells you to talk to Z. And Z tells you to talk to X again. Further, X,Y and Z are all in the same area. What is the point in that? Quests should be designed to teach you something about the game or give you a reward of some kind that enhances your play experience. Most of the time, especially on the larger Ralai Quests, the effort is way out of proportion to the effort required. One might try to argue that Ralai Quests force players to see more of the game than they would otherwise and this is a valid claim. However, if the goal to to get players to see more of the game this has be be about the most lame way to do it.

The second kind of Ralai Quest is a dungeon with windy passages all of which look the same or very similar. The Den in Stonetalon is a good example of this. This quest is an unqualified disaster. There is no systematic way to explore the dungeon and even if you have done it many times, as I have, you cannot apply what you learned from previous runs to the current run. I don't expect a series of signs pointing to the quest object. But I do expect that I can reasonably figure out where I need to go. After all, there should be a logic to the game and as you acquire more experience, you should be better at figuring things out.

Even if you can't figure it out you should be able to systematically go through the dungeon. Having different passages and different levels that are indistinguishable is either laziness or perversity on the part of the designers. If they made them look the same because it was too much effort to make them look different then it is just laziness. If they enjoy frustrating their account holders to the point where they drop the quest in frustration and bail out with the hearthstone then it is just perversity.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What's So Annoying? The Graveyards

The death model in World of Warcraft works pretty well. Your character gets killed. You get sent to a graveyard. You have to run back to where you got killed. And you have to rebuff yourself. It interrupts the rhythm of your play and causes you to loose certain buffs. And that make getting killed something to avoid. That is the good part.

Here are the annoying parts. As far as I can tell, every time you go to a graveyard, your character is placed so that you are pointing in the wrong direction. Every damn time! This is such a small thing but I find it incredibly annoying. It would actually be less annoying if it were random and you had to figure out which way you were pointing. There is an important element in game design in this comment. Features of the game should all contribute to the game. That is, there has to be a rationale other than just unnecessarily making something more difficult. Challenging is fine. Random elements are fine. But annoying is not fine.

Second, some of the graveyards are way too far away from the point where you got killed. I know that Blizzard has noticed this because they have added some graveyards a little closer so your character doesn't have to run so far. One example is a new graveyard near Brewnell Village in Dun Morogh. When you are a higher level and have a mount, being killed and having to run without the mount is frustrating. You want the death model to be a deterrent to being killed, but not a punitive annoyance.

Third, there is some times difficult terrain to navigate to get from the graveyard to your corpse. This happens in mountainous areas and sometimes in dungeons. The problem here is that when dead you do not have the same resources available to you as when you are alive. The terrain is difficult to see because it is grayed. It may be totally unfamiliar if you just entered a new area. You can''t just bail out with the hearth stone. And you don't have use of your mount. Further, once you leave the death angel and get lost you are really in trouble. You can't find your corpse and you can't find the death angel. You are screwed!! Personally, I don't feel that running around like an idiot ever enhances my game experience.

On the positive side, I find the graveyards in battle grounds to be much more effective. It is like a time out for getting killed without the unpleasant experience of having to run around like an idiot over unfamiliar terrain trying to find your corpse.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pretty Won't Make Up For Annoying

I usually write this blog on Wednesdays. I have a Tuesday blog written about Second Life by my Second Life avatar Doctor Cosmos. But, after four years, I am giving up on Second Life. While I still think there is enormous potential for virtual world technology, I think the window of opportunity has closed for Linden Labs. Anyway back to the topic of this post.

Let's say that you are in a relationship with the most strikingly attractive woman you have ever know (please make any necessary adjustments for your circumstances or preferences). But, sadly, this luscious creature  argues with everything you say no matter how trivial. Will this relationship last? No! Why? Because pretty won't make up for annoying. In fact, there is not enough pretty in the world to make up for annoying. Over time the impact of the prettiness fades and the impact of the annoying grows until you simple cannot stand it any more.

I say this not to be a sexist or chauvinist because it applies equally as well to any other pairing combination. I say it because it is analogous to the World of Warcraft experience. There is no doubt that this is an amazing game. It never ceases to amaze me at the care that went into the design, technology, graphics, concept, all of it. After more than two years, I still notice little things that impress me. And I still love to play.

However, there are also some really annoying things about the game and over time the clever aspects diminish and the annoyances grow. It doesn't surprise me that after a while people play less or move on. I am not sure if the things that annoy me annoy everyone. Maybe its just me. And I don't know if these annoyances are unavoidable given the theory of game design or if they are just bad design.

Nonetheless, next time I will spell out four annoyances that will some day have me run screaming into the night. After that, my relationship with WoW will never be the same.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Stranger - A Solo Player

In some ways the solo player sounds like an oxymoron. World of Warcraft is, after all, a Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game. Doesn't multi-player mean, well, multi-player? How does the solo player fit into all this?

The Stranger is a solo player, pursuing quests individually and leveling up strictly from individual efforts. This can be a slow way to level and it can be made event slower if the player waits until the character has acquired double experience credit. Double experience credit give your character twice the experience normally acquired from killing a mob. If you do not use double experience your character will not level quickly enough and the quests will become too difficult. However, you can level without quests by farming for goods that you can use in your profession. For example, if you are a skinner, you can kill mobs that yield leather. You get points for killing the mob and you get the leather which you can use to make a variety of useful things. The things you make in your profession can help your character and extra items can be sold in the auction house. This money can then be used to buy addition things your character might need such as amour or weapons.

The Stranger with many faces is a solo player with several characters of different classes and with different professions. There are several benefits of playing this way. First, while your wait for a character to acquire double experience credit, you can play other characters. If you have a full set of characters you will have a constant supply of double experience credit. In addition, the different character can have different professions. The leather worker can supply the other characters with armor enhancers. The tailor can supply bags. The blacksmith can supply weapon sharpeners and so on. The drawback of playing multiple characters is that you have to get reacquainted with the capabilities of each one, each time you play it. It can also get confusing trying to remember the names, classes and professions of each. WoW can be overwhelming for the new player. Having a full cast of characters can make it even more confusing.

It is possible to reach the top levels as a solo player. And, if you wish to go on raids you can announce your interest in the general chat and may be picked up by a raiding team for just that raid. And you can always group with other characters for specific task.

The benefit of solo play is that you can advance at your own speed, play when you want to play, avoid guild chat drivel, avoid obligations, and most of all avoid drama and annoying people. If you are not a particularly social person, this may be the approach for you. If, on the other hand, you are social and like to get help from other people, maybe you could consider being a guildie. And that will be the topic of then post.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

One Game World, Many Games

Bainbridge, whom I refereed to earlier, called World of Warcraft a Game World rather than a game. This distinction is becoming increasing more obvious. In this post, I would like to distinguish among several of the potential games that one might play.

Game 1: The Stranger - In this game, you create a single character and pursue solo requests until you reach the desired level.

Game 2: The Stranger with Many Faces - In this game, you create multiple characters to explore different capabilities and give each one different professions.

Game 3: The Bastion of the Battleground - In this game, the player advances by repeatedly going to battle grounds rather than pursuing quests.

Game 4: The Guildie - This person joins a guild as soon as they can find an appropriate one and focuses primarily on their role in the guild.

Game 5: The Twink - This character is usually an alt and thanks to gifts from a higher level character is way over specified for their level.

Game 6: The Griefer - This character focuses on harrassing newbies.

 Game 7: The Tag Along - In this game, a character is 'escorted' through dungeons and difficult quests by another player of advanced level and capabilities.

Game 8: The Grinder - The sole purpose of this character is to hang out in an area where resources can be farmed and acquire resources. 

Game 9: The Vendor - The sole purpose of this character is to hang out at the auction house looking for deals and trying to get the best price for items they have to sell.

This list is neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. However, it does provide an idea of the variety of games one might play in this 'Game World'. Over the next few posts I will elaborate on these roles explaining their game goals and providing some tips on how to play these different games.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

If it's Tuesday, This Must Be Azeroth

There was a TV show, many years ago, about Americans traveling to Europe on multi country package tours. The show was called "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium." The point of the show, as one can almost infer from the title, was that racing through European countries is not the way to appreciate the experience of Europe. The point of a European tour is not, of course, to be able to say "I was in this country and that country and so on". The point of the tour is to experience each country.

The title of this post plays off of this observation because we see this same sort of behavior in World of Warcraft - people want to level up as fast as they possibly can. In some accounts, I have heard claims that you can level up to 80 in less than two weeks. The question I would ask is - why would anybody want to do that? If you recorded a football game, would you fast forward through the whole game just so you can say that you saw it? Of course not! The point of watching the game is, well, watching the game. And the point of World of Warcraft is playing the game not just racing through it so you can say that you played it.

There is one exception that I can think of. Let's say you have a high level character with a lot of gold on a server that does not provide the challenges that you are looking for. So, you do a character transfer to a more desirable server. On the new server you may want additional characters for any number of reasons but don't want to spend a year leveling them up to the point where they can raid and do heroics. In that case, you may be interested in fast forwarding.

To go back to the travel analogy, this would be like spending months in Belgium and then popping in for a day to do some shopping. You have already had the Belgium experience and popping in for a day doesn't detract from that.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

World of Warcraft Progess

I have been playing World of Warcraft for just over two years. If you subtract the time when I had no idea what I was doing, it is just under two years. In that time, I have created and deleted many, many characters, and tried most races, classes and professions. I tried a few guilds and became somewhat more adept at the Auction House than at the Battlegrounds. I thought it might be a good idea to document where I am at the moment and some of what I have learned.

I currently have around 20+ characters on three servers. My alliance server is Maiev and my horde server is Vashj. I have a few characters on Dalvengyr in the event that I need to do some demos or training. Not counting the spare parts on Dalvengyr, I have five hunters, three warlocks, two mages, two death knights, a rogue, a warrior, a paladin, a shaman and a priest. There are two level 70, six between 60 and 70, six between 50 and 60, and the rest below. The lowest one is 23.

My prefered class, as you can probably tell from from the above counts is the hunter. Second is the warlock. Both the hunter and warlock are ranged classes which means they stand back and shoot rather than run into the thick of things hacking (which is called melee). Both have pets as well. I suspect that there is some sort of psychological statement in one's preferred class. I prefer strategy to raw power. So rather than run in hacking, I prefer to stand back and pick the mobs off one by one. I have a warrior who specializes in melee and is now 60+. But I find leveling that character to be tedious in the extreme.

Over the next few posts I will provide some of my observations about the game, game strategies and the people who play the game. I have really learned quite a lot and if I don't write some of it down I will begin forgetting it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Internal Structure of a Game

I want to take a cut at the internal structure of a game to provide some vocabulary for discussing aspects of a game and to provide some distinctions between a game of some of the related phenomena.

First, a game must have a deciding factor. The deciding factor determines who, if anyone, has won the game. For example, in Chess, the deciding factor is having a King in Check. In football, it is the team with the most points. In golf, it is the person with the least points. There may or may not be constraints on the deciding factor. In football, for example, there is a time limit whereas in many games there is not.

Second, if the deciding factor is numeric, the game must have goals which are both complete units of activity and ways to accumulate points. So, scoring in football, getting a ball in a hole in golf, or exposing your winning hand in poker would be examples of goals.

On the way to achieving a goal there may be objectives the satisfaction of which helps you to achieve the goal but for which you do not get points. You may get credit for objectives in game statistics. But, the satisfaction of the objective does not contribute to the deciding factor.
Depending on the complexity of the game there may be subobjectives which are smaller problems that must be solved in order to achieve an objective.

There may be contratints on how goals or objectives are achieved.

And, to borrow a term from Suits, there is a 'lusory attitude'. The point of playing the game is the inherent satisfaction one achieves through playing a game. That is, the point of the game is the game itself. So, if one is playing professional poker to earn their livelihood, it would no longer be a game under this defintion. There is an element of practicing for real life that makes a game a game. As soon as it is no longer practice but actually is real life, it is no longer game.

Those are my thoughts for now. I may change some of this as I figure out more about it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Status Granting Social Environment

Games, due to their very nature, are fun to play. This was discussed earlier at some length. However, the inherent satisfaction that one derives from playing a game does not account fully for the energy and fervor with which some games are pursued. Different games are more or less popular in different time periods. Other games are more or less popular in different locations. One of the reasons (but not the only one) for this variation is that a game is embedded in a social environment which grants status to players. This status further amplifies the significance of the game goal and this, in turn, amplifies the game experience.

The social environment of a game includes the value placed on excelling at the game; competition between players and other motivators not immediately part of the game itself. For example, there is chess, there are chess tournaments, and there are world class matches. Winning a single game is one thing. Beating a Grand Master in a World Class Championship is quite another. Similarly, winning a football game in the field behind your house is one thing. Winning a professional game or even the Super Bowl is quite another. In both of these examples, the same game is being played. But the significance of the play is much larger in the later cases.

The Status Granting Social Environment for games is, presumably, not unlike other status granting social environments. That is, things other than games have status granting social environments. There are endless examples. In some social niches, there is status associated with money and power even though the acquisition of money and power could not be considered a game other than metaphorically. The community of wine lovers grants status for people with good taste in wine or people who find great vintages. The community of coin collectors grants status to those who find unusually rare coins. And so on.

The point here is the the Status Granting Social Environment of a Game must be separated from the game itself. The Superbowl, from the perspective of the game of football, is just another game. However, from the perspective of the Status Granting Social Environment, it is a huge deal.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some Distinctions

Before this all starts getting too far out of hand, I think I'd better start making some distinctions. An objective within a game and the game itself are not the same thing. A game and a game world are not the same thing. A virtual game world is different from a non virtual game world. A virtual (game) world can be entirely fantasy or have connections of some kind with the real world. And products, such as football jerseys that exist and have value because of the game, are not part of the game but are clearly dependent on it.

Let's take the first of these distinctions. I will use foot ball in these examples because more people are familiar with football than are familiar with, say, World of Warcraft. In football, there are any number of objectives within the game itself. An objective, in football, may be to advance the ball ten yards to get a first down or to prevent the other team from doing so. Another objective may be to score a touchdown. Clearly, the first of those is a a sub-objective to the second one. One could see the touchdown as a sub-objective to winning the game; winning the game as a sub-objective to making the play-offs; and making the play-offs as a sub-objective to winning the Superbowl. So analysis of objectives can get quite complicated. However, my unit of analysis is the game and I can't see (at least at the moment) how developing a structure for objectives within or beyond the game itself advances my understanding of games. It may advance my understanding of football, but not of games.

In football, we have a clear unit of analysis that we call 'the game'. At the risk of being simplistic, it is four fifteen minute play intervals at the end of which there is a score indicating a winner or a tie. I understand all that business about overtime, elapsed time and so on. But, as I said, we are not analyzing football here and I think most people understand what a 'game' of football entails.

In World of Warcraft this is not nearly as clear. Exactly what is 'the game' in WoW? This could get complicated; but I will keep chipping away at it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Is It a Game?

William Sims Bainbridge, who I mentioned in the last post, says that World of Warcraft is not game. In his words, "World of Warcraft is far more than a game" [pg. 9] Based on a discussion preceeding that remark, one might speculate that he sees it as a virtual world. I would certainly agree with that observation but would also point out that while the term 'game' is limiting, the term 'virtual world' is limiting as well. Second Life, for example, is a virtual world, but it would be a stretch to call it a game. Bainbridge says that WoW is a virtual world that contains games and I would agree with that observation. However, we need a term specifically for virual worlds that contain games to distinguish them from virtual worlds that do not contain games. The term 'game world' comes to mind but is entirely unsatisfying.

This may seem nit picky and it probably is. However, for the purposes of research, it is necessary to define things correctly. There are things that are true of games that are not true of game worlds. There are things that are true of game worlds that are not true of games. There are things that are true of virtual worlds (e.g. Second Life) that are not true of game worlds (e.g. World of Warcraft).

World of Warcraft has features that are not part of other game worlds. For example, there is body of literature (well paperback books) that provide an elaborate backstory and narrative for World of Warcraft. And WoW contains endless symbols, archetypes, and hidden meanings that make it a target of critical study unlike most other examples of the game world genre.

To get back to basics here for a second, when we are doing research on games, video games, game worlds, or whatever, we need precised defined terms that refer to similar objects with similar attributes. Thus far the explosion of possibilities in video games seems to be frustrating all efforts. However, we shall just have to try to stay on top of it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

World of Warcraft as a Social Science Lab

I have just started reading a delightful new book about World of Warcraft entitled The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World by William Sims Bainbridge. Since I am only about 20 pages into it, it is too early to say much other than what I have read so far is terrific. However, I wanted to point to a comment made by the author.

"WoW is a very conducive environment for quantitative research because it encourages individuals to write "mod" or "add-on" programs, and scientists can use some existing software as research tools or write their own. These range all the way from very simple sequences of character behaviors constructed using macros built into the WoW user interface, to long programs written in the Lua language. For example, one widely used program called Auctioneer analyzes prices on the WoW virtual item auction system [the Auction House], and CensusPlus tallies all the players currently online by several characteristics. With census data on more than 200,000 WoW characters, a team centered at the Palo Alto Research Center analyzed the factors associated with the upward status mobility of individuals and the dynamics of social groups" [pg 12]

I found this interesting because I have been looking at video games as an object of study in this blog and hadn't really considered them as a laboratory for study. One of my goals in keeping this blog was to get to the essence of video games for the purposes of research. As more and more comes out, I seem to be getting further and further away from that initial goal.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How Many Games Are We Talking About?

Since not everyone is familiar with World of Warcraft, I am going to use a more familiar game - football - to make some important distinctions about games. As with most words, we use the word "game" to cover a lot of very different activities. When we talk about the "game" of football we often refer to a very wide variety of different activities that are all refereed to as part of the game. These activities might include tracking player statistics, whether or not to use instant replay, player salary negotiations, drinking beer and eating pizza, painting yourself in team colors and dancing in front of the camera, tailgate parties, and so on. Most people would say these and many other things are all part of the game of football. And from the perspective of a football fan, this is fine. However, from the perspective of a researcher it is a disaster.

If the concept of football as a game includes all of the above things and more, it would be very difficult if not outright impossible to make any general statements that would be true for all instances. It would be difficult, as well, to find any regular relationships between football and other concepts. In order to do that I need well defined concepts and the way I achieve that is to make distinctions between the various kinds of activities.

First we have the definitional game. This is the game as described by the rulebook.

Second, we have the experiential game. This is what it feels like to play the game or observe the game being played. This should probably be broken down further since what it feels like to play and what it feels like to watch are very different. Yet this break down may require some thought.

Third we have the social game. This is the social experience of being in a stadium or in a room full of friends watching a game being played. This will require further breakdown as well since the social experience of fans is very different from the social experience of team mates.

Fourth we have the economic game. This is the game as a business or economic enterprise.

Finally, we have the game as phenomenon. Why is football bigger than hockey? Why do people wear football shirts? How does football influence younger people?

This is far from the last word on game categories. In fact they need a lot of work. However, it does show, hopefully, that in order to study a thing, we must break it down into categories of like things and study those like things. Next time I will return to World of Warcraft and look at it in terms of these categories.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

World of Warcraft and the Lusory Attitude

Bernard Suit defines a lusory attitude as a player's willingness to accept the rules of a game as a means of pursuing the goals of the game in order to maximize one's enjoyment. Consider a simple example. Let's say that a running back in football has broken away from the line and is running down the field in pursuit of a touch down. Let's say, further, that one tackler stands between him and the goal. He may change direction to avoid he player. He may fake a change of direction. He may plow right into the tackle and attempt to overpower him. These are all acceptable options within the game of football. It would not do, however, to have a sniper in the stands pick off the tackle with a well placed shot from a high powered rifle. For, under these conditions, even if the runner managed to cross the goal line it would not be considered a touchdown. Any number of other silly examples could also illustrate this point. In checkers, one could glue their checkers to the board to prevent their opponent from taking them. In golf one could carry their ball to the hole and drop it in. However, games have rules that we must follow in order to achieve the goals of the game and if we do not follow those rules we are not playing that game. Further, if we are not playing that game we are not enjoying the experience of playing that game.

I have noticed, in World of Warcraft, that the lusory attitude varies considerably from one player to the next. Different players are actually playing very different games. In the case of some players, they are not playing a game at all. And these varying lusory attitudes reflect, I believe, very different game experiences. So, I thought over the next few posts, I would explore this.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

But Is It Research

I came across an interesting article about World of Warcraft a few days ago. Blizzard CEO Mark Morhaime revealed, in an interview, that only about 30% of players in World of WarCraft actually go past the level 10 mark in the game. In fact, directly quoting him from the article:

"Our research shows that trial players who play World Of Warcraft past level 10 are much more likely to stick with the game for a long time. Currently, only about 30% of our trial players make it past this threshold. So anything we can do to improve the new player experience is a huge opportunity for us," he said.

Since this blog is about research and that claim is about research, I thought it might be worthy of comment. That is an interesting statistic and I don't doubt that it is true. But is it research? And what can you do with it?

First, on the question of "is it research", I would say no. It is not research. Earlier in this blog I referred to a concept introduced by Francis Bacon called Idols of the Marketplace. It is the common place usage of terms that have more precise definitions in the advancement of knowledge. Research is one of those terms. In common place usage, we might say, "I did a lot of research before I bought my car." In common place meaning that is perfectly acceptable. We understand it to mean that we gathered information before making a decision. However, in the world of research this term has a very different meaning. Research must advance knowledge. Typically, this means a well defined claim, based upon well defined concepts where the claim is either supported or refuted advancing our understanding of the concepts involved.

Since this is not research, it is unclear what should be done, if anything, about the derived number.

What Blizzard has done is some data analysis which yielded a parameter the meaning of which is entirely unclear. The quote suggests that the problem can be addressed by improving new player experience. But is that the case? Is there really a problem? Let's say the 70% who don't make it to level ten are regular players who download the trial version to amuse themselves while they are in a lab, or when their regular server is down, or for a class, or a demo. If that is the case, nothing needs to be done. What if the 70% include people who use trial version to get used to the game. So, they set up a trial account, use it for ten days, set up a new one and so on. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that each player does this three times before achieving a level 10 and converting to a regular account. If this is the case then the trial period should be extended. Finally, let's say that the 70% are people who play some other game and are trying WoW just so they can say they tried it. If this is the case then nothing should be done.

The point here is that we think the 30% parameter is meaningful information and it is not. We don't know what it means and we don't know what was measured. Hence, we really do not know what to do. If Blizzard were worried about retention, ease of use or some other factor then it would be possible to set up a research study to get to the bottom of it. But as it is, they don't have research. They only have a number, the meaning of which is entirely unclear.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Video Games as Social Interaction Technology

I came across an article about a Professor in Indiana using World of Warcraft as a means of communicating with his students.I found this interesting from two perspectives. First, thinking of a video game as a social interaction technology has potentially profound implications.

As we spend more an more time in virtual worlds and video games, people know where they can find us. Certainly, if someone carries a cell phone you always know where to find them as well. But there is a cultural difference. A cell phone call is an interruption where as an IM in a virtual world is not. When you call someone, you have no idea what you might be interrupting. However, if you find someone in a virtual world, they are most likely just hanging out. They may be building something, or writing a script, or slaying a monster, or talking to friends. But the culture of virtual worlds has evolved very differently from the culture of cell phones. And it seem to facilitate informal communications.

This is significant because an earlier technology, email, had a tendency to flatten out organizations. Whereas before you might have to make an appointment to see someone a level or two above you, with email you could just shoot them a note. Video games provide a common gaming experience that may flatten things out even more.

On the other hand, it further dilutes the meaning of "video game" and makes the possibility of studying video games in their entirety even more remote.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Conceptual Bleeding

I started this blog attempting to provide some philosophical grounding for video game research. I discussed concept analysis and how it applied to the concept of games. I explored the notion of play and how it is one of the few, if not the only, activity that we pursue for its own sake. I took that a step further and introduced the concept of flow and explained how video games are a quintessential flow activity. So far so good. But then my focus began to drift. This is not a lament, only an observation. You can't ignore all the other things that are going on. At the same time you cannot be too distracted by them. Video games can be seen as art. They can be used for education. The can provide channels for advertising. They can provide critical commentary. In fact, video games are useful for a whole lot of things.

I mention this because it is a good example of the kind of conceptual bleeding that plagues researchers. We begin by trying to develop a crisp essential concept of the phenomenon that we are trying to study. Over time that phenomenon begins to bleed into other areas. If we stick to our essential definition then, over time, we begin to appear irrelevant. If we expand the scope of our phenomenon to include new uses or applications the concept begins to appear somewhat fuzzy over time which ultimately threatens our rigor.

As I said, this is not a lament. Only an observation. It is a good example of a conceptual problem that many researchers encounter. So, what am I going to do about it? Well, probably nothing. I intend to keep looking at new uses of video games and I intend to keep trying to nail down the essential concepts. And I intend to keep reflecting on what I am doing. I am probably not going to write the book on video games nor am I going to have the last word. This is a blog and the best I can hope for is to make a few interesting observations along the way.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Video Games versus Porn

I came across an interesting article in my Google Alerts for World of Warcraft that says World of Warcraft is one of the five top reasons for a decline in the fortunes of the porn industry. Actually, the linked article links to another article but both are worth a look. The original article gives the "Top 5 reasons why it is harder than ever before to make a living selling porn" and reason number 4 is Online Gaming. Specifically it says "One of the strangest challenges porn faces is competition from online games like World of Warcraft". If you are sensitive to crude language, you may wish to just take my word for what the articles say. Nonetheless, the notion that online video games could threaten the porn industry economically while any number of other advocacy groups have failed to do so socially or legally is a thought provoking idea. Why is this the case?

First, I should say that this may not be the case or it may be. We just don't know. It is a claim made in an online newspaper. It is the opinion of a person who is involved in the industry. It is not a well know industry analyst with a reputation for accuracy in his reporting. And it does not cite numbers from a credible source. I do not mean to diminish the credibility of the source in any way. Nor do I wish to diminish the veracity of the claim. I am merely saying that more evidence would be required before we simply accept this claim. Nonetheless, it is, at least, plausible. And if it is true it bears explaining.

From a research perspective, this raises many interesting questions. Do all kinds of video games threaten all kinds of porn? Or is it limited to specific genres? For example, it is hard to imagine that Free Cell has enough pull to keep prospective visitors off of adult sites. And it is hard to imagine that Wii tennis provides senior citizens with an alternative to prurient browsing. Are all kinds of porn affected equally? I am not familiar enough with porn to discuss the genres and probably would not admit it if I were. But, you can see, intellectually, how the impact may be uneven. Are certain demographics more likely to be affected by the lure of video games? This seems likely as the demographic of males under 25 seems to be an important market for both industries.

Once we figure out who and what are affected, the next question is - why? Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing games such as World of Warcraft can be seen as Flow experiences as discussed earlier in this blog. But, they are also social experiences, learning experiences, and, for some, economically or professionally beneficial. Which of these or what combination of these draws the audience away from alternatives?

These are not frivolous questions. If video games can lure players away from porn, they can lure them away from school, work, family, and social engagements just to name a few. It may also be able to lure them away from anti-social activities such as gangs, petty crime, violence or just hanging out. Yes, this gives us much to think about.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some Thoughts on Casual Play

I finished reading and reviewing the book on Casual Play that I mentioned last week. The author argues his point well that casual players outnumber hard core gamers and that this may represent a revolution of sorts in video game design. However, despite the increasing use of casual games, I don't think hard core games are going anywhere. That is to say that I think this segment of the industry will continue to thrive and continue to grow. At the same time I would also acknowledge that the casual segment may well thrive more and grow faster. I think a couple of analogies are in order to explain this.

The first analogy which I used in the review said that you cannot judge the audience for performing art simply by considering those who attend Broadway plays. There is also an audience for shows like Everybody Loves Raymond and while the later audience may not be as lofty as the former it dwarfs the former in terms of numbers and revenue generation. One end of the market is where the art is advanced. The other end of the market is where it is exploited. Both ends are important to a vital industry. So designers who serve the hard core audience will continue to advance the state of the art while casual game designers will continue to broaden the audience.

The second analog which I mentioned in the review but did not explore was the comparison between hard core gamers versus casual players on one hand and command line users versus those who prefer graphical user interfaces. There is still a use for command line interfaces and there is stil a hard core audience who prefers them. However, graphical user interfaces expands the audience and makes computers available to a large number of people who would never use them if they had to learn how to use the command line. I think this comparison is apt because, overwhelmingly, most potential video game players will not invest the time and intellectual energy required to play hard core games. They will, however, play games that are effortless to play and represent diversion and entertainment.

On one hand it is exciting to see the field of video games grow and expand and become more complex. However, from a research perspective, it becomes increasing more difficult to make any statements that are true for all video games. We may get back to Wittgenstein's family resemblances and see video games as collection of overlapping concepts that do not have any attributes in common across all categories.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Casual Play

I am reviewing yet another book on video games for ACM Computing Reviews. This one is entitled A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players by Jesper Juul. I am only a bit into it. So I cannot comment in depth. But it did make me think about some of the problems that are emerging in video game research. The premise of the book is that the demographic characteristics of the 'typical' video game player are changing. Instead of the hard core gamer in their teens or early twenties, the typical video game player is beginning to look a lot like a normal person. This is largely because there is an endless variety of games available for free download, for phones or just for idle players such as solitaire games. And there are whole new genres of games such as the physically active games for Wii.

This is an interesting point and I am eager to see where the author takes it. However, it poses an interesting problem for video game research. Clearly, the game playing experience of a hard core gamer playing a massively multiplayer online role playing game and the gaming experience of someone idling time away on a cell phone game are very different. Both of these are different, in turn, from the physical experience of one playing a tennis or bowling game on Wii. Since the variety of games produces a variety of gaming experiences, can anything be said which is true of all video games? Or, does the variety of social, gaming, cognitive and physical experiences preclude that?

And, if the variety precludes this, can the variety be organized into genre for which general statements can be made? And if it can, what should those genre be? Shoud we group based upon price, demographics, social expereince, gaming experience, media, game design features or other criteria.

It is truly wonderful that such a wide variety of gaming options are being developed and enjoyed. But if we are ever going to be able to say anything intelligent about video games we are going to have to get our thoughts organized.