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04/13/2004

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Robert 'Groby' Blum

Spot on - the skill discrepancy in online games is too big. How that mandates an RPG is beyond me, though. There are plenty of other online things that might (or might not) make online a hit.

Something that struck me as a particularly good idea is Microsofts online title library for their Karaoke game. You're partying with friends, and pretty much every popular Karaoke-suitable title is available for downloads. It won't bring online into homes, but for those who already have XBox live (Oh, and friends, of course :), it's a very nice thing.


Then there's the RPG idea everybody is obsessing about. All I have to say is: Why? RPGs as we know them are ill-suited to make online more popular. The levelling treadmill is annoying to anybody but hardcore players. The relatively high impact game time has on your characters means you *have* to play anytime your buddies play, or you need to find new in-game friends.

Clearly counter-intuitive to the community building goal.

The next step online needs is not community building itself. It's not even better tools for it - there are plenty to do that job already. (Orkut, Friendster, Ryze, Tribes, and several dozen others). What online needs is an opening-up of those services. What if you could import your friends from straight into your game console? What if your feedback from your console, and your new friends you met in games made it back to ?

(And for that matter - what if you could maintain your friends list once, as opposed to in several dozen places?)

Or, in a nutshell - once developers learn that the important part in the equation are our friends, not our games, we will see a wider appeal.

Robert 'Groby' Blum

Spot on - the skill discrepancy in online games is too big. How that mandates an RPG is beyond me, though. There are plenty of other online things that might (or might not) make online a hit.

Something that struck me as a particularly good idea is Microsofts online title library for their Karaoke game. You're partying with friends, and pretty much every popular Karaoke-suitable title is available for downloads. It won't bring online into homes, but for those who already have XBox live (Oh, and friends, of course :), it's a very nice thing.


Then there's the RPG idea everybody is obsessing about. All I have to say is: Why? RPGs as we know them are ill-suited to make online more popular. The levelling treadmill is annoying to anybody but hardcore players. The relatively high impact game time has on your characters means you *have* to play anytime your buddies play, or you need to find new in-game friends.

Clearly counter-intuitive to the community building goal.

The next step online needs is not community building itself. It's not even better tools for it - there are plenty to do that job already. (Orkut, Friendster, Ryze, Tribes, and several dozen others). What online needs is an opening-up of those services. What if you could import your friends from straight into your game console? What if your feedback from your console, and your new friends you met in games made it back to ?

(And for that matter - what if you could maintain your friends list once, as opposed to in several dozen places?)

Or, in a nutshell - once developers learn that the important part in the equation are our friends, not our games, we will see a wider appeal.

Robert 'Groby' Blum

Oops - sorry for double posting. GGA timed out before acknowledging the first post. My bad - I should've known better...

san

"GGA timed out before acknowledging the first post."

Unfortunately GGA seems bent on doing that all the time now.

Robert, I agree in large part with your comments. To clarify, I meant the overwhelming portion of impetus for Microsoft to succeed with an online RPG is to gain Asian Xbox Live subscribers, a market where the genre is deeply entrenched. Indeed, you are right that other sorts of games have great networked gaming potential if the community is sound. In fact, the existing online games have a good shot at bringing gamers together if communities crop up to support player diversity, both in skill and outlook. For the record, though, I do think a well executed, widely available and cheap RPG has the opportunity to reset much of the Xbox Live community.

I don't think we'll see game services like Xbox Live work to integrate with community-building efforts, for example, Friendster and Orkut. For the foreseeable future, I think the communities will have to be built within the context of the gaming service. Microsoft is trying to integrate Live with their MSN services. That's a great concept, if only MSN was any good at building communities. As it is, or will be when released, it's just another way to communicate with people met by random via Xbox Live; there aren't any real selection criteria.

Although I'm an Orkut member, I'm not actively using it to locate people with similar interests. Perhaps Justin or others can testify to the efficacy of Friendster, Orkut and their ilk in meeting like-minded, or at least accessible, individuals. If it's not working, then it's not going to drive networked gaming. If it is working, I still believe the community engineers will have to bring the Orkut or the Friendster, the paradigm, to use a bygone blip word, to the service; the service won't come to the communities. Grossly incompetent planning, sure, but the concept of ownership often supersedes good sense in long-term assessments.

Mike

That same disparity can work against players who are skilled, however. While I'm nowhere near a champion, I've played games of WarCraft III in which the player logs out mid-game because they're not doing so well.

Thus, losing players become frustrated because of a skill gap and winning players become frustrated because oftentimes the loser's frustration manifests itself as a drop.

Now, I'm not saying that either party has more reaosn to be upset than the other, but I can see how this two-sided frustration convinces people to prefer LAN parties or at least just games with their friends online rather than risk a random matchup with a person who knows how to use Brodeur and the Devils like they came out of the book of Revelations or a matchup with a player who calls you a cheater and quits on you as soon as the score is 1-0.

san

Good point, Mike. As a rule I never log out no matter how soundly I'm being trounced; if the murderer on the other side is enjoying the game and not quitting because I'm not the best player, I stay. Still better motivation to build gaming communities based on skill and general attitude toward games. Ideally a very good player and a weak player could coexist in the same community but skill ratings, self-avowed or calculated, at particular games would keep them from player each other at games where their skills are sharply divided.

Non-hockey types may want to stop reading here. I qualified my never-quit rule last night with an exception. I won't stick around to be beaten 50-2 with players who exploit the flaws in the game design to rack up ridiculous scores. I don't mind if someone uses the flaws to beat me, so long as once their securely ahead they mix it up a bit. One guy pulled his goalie and left him out; I thought that was a reasonable solution. It gave him a man advantange on offense but if I got away with the puck, I scored.

Specifically, the flaw to which I'm referring is in ESPN Hockey on the Xbox, although it probably exists in editions for other platforms. The flaw is pretty typical of hockey games and a similar one used to exist in EA's NHL Hockey and still may. An offensive player, preferably a forward for speed, takes the puck and barrels down toward the crease. In front of the net, he pops left, shoots right. If the goalie is set to automatic or semi-automatic, AI controlled, once the player learns that move, it's a goal 8 of 10 times -- often 10 of 10 times. You can set the goalie to manual control but then you're frequently wide-open to one-timers unless you are the fastest virtual goalie on the planet.

Whether you like hockey games or not, this illustrates a significant problem in networked games. Players are satisfied to win by exploiting weaknesses in the game's design, handing out defeats that have nothing to do with fun or entertainment for both playes. Surely it's a fair strategy for cutthroat competitions, but it's not enjoyable; likely not all that much more fun for the winner over the loser. Thus, an excellent motivator to join a recreational gaming community exists.

Clubberjack

I remember figuring out the wall jump on Wario Stadium in Mario Kart 64. It basically allowed someone to skip half a lap each time around. There was some skill in accomplishing that jump, so at first it was reasonably fair to attempt, as the risk of falling behind was great. However, once I mastered the move, I could beat anyone by about 2 laps, assuming they weren't using the same technique.

The interesting thing is that with offline multiplayer games, your friends are right there to make you feel guilty. Not only that, but the fun of MK64 was the face-to-face competition. Winning every time was not fun because it eliminated any competition and so I stopped doing the wall jump. Perhaps in online, competitive, skill-based games, the anonymity allows people to escape that communal pressure to compete fairly.

Also interesting is the fact that when I play MK64 single player, I have no problem using all the exploits I know to beat a computer opponent (or my own ghost). In some ways, playing online multiplayer might feel more like playing alone than together, at least in skill-based competitions. In that same vein, games that encourage interpersonal cooperation (RPGs for example) might feel less like single player because communication is such a huge part. This might explain Sanford's gut choice of RPGs as the "killer-app".

san

"This might explain Sanford's gut choice of RPGs as the 'killer-app'."

Right on. Yes. RPGs are not the only way to build community, but right now I think they lean toward the best shot. RPGs are either very teamwork focused against other human opponents, or, more often, teamwork against AI opponents or imagined foes like pen-and-paper D&D. It seldom helps to be aggressive toward your fellows as your fellows aren't the antagonists -- besides some annoying chatter.

It's not an easy thing to get a large number of publishers and service providers to work together on networked gaming; however I think the rewards would soon outpace the trepidation at opening the proprietary systems.

But do you see Microsoft opening their online records to be mined by community-building companies? Microsoft is heavily invested in standards ownership. I'm not one to go broke predicting the demise of Microsoft. Ownership has served them well at the onset of the connected global society and I think it will see them through for some time to come; but ultimately, focusing on your best ability and letting other talented groups borrow off you to strengthen their niches is likely to earn greater rewards, both in revenue and philosophical satisfaction. Microsoft -- EA, too, for that matter -- likes to do it all. And no one is especially well-suited to do it all now. In the future the gulf between desire to be the single enterprise in any one field and the reality of achieving that goal will widen.

Skwirl

I've never been one to encourage companies gobbling each other up, but what if microsoft just bought friendster? Bam, you have a built in community. Make a check box for people with X-Box live, you'd be able to read the profiles of people you're in a game with.

Mike

Oddly enough, as a side note, I find sports games rarely talked about in the gaming elite circles. However, with Sega's NFL2K series on the Dreamcast and even the Xband way back in the 16-bit days were really big pioneers for console on-line gaming in America.

Just a side-thought.

san

"what if microsoft just bought friendster?"

Nothing wrong with that. Ideally, several smaller companies would work together in concert with the larger service providers and share information. Barring that -- for the time being, I think that *is* barred -- as long as no one gets killed, I don't mind a little corporate domination to get the ball rolling. Microsoft has been around for a long time now and we still have choices in computing platforms. Perhaps not as many choices but likely more viable choices. There's no guarantee other platforms didn't sink under their own weight and would have done so in roughly the same time frame without a Microsoft. Again, ideally, I prefer diversity and choice in my unadulterated capitalism -- otherwise what's the point paying for medical insurance? But almost all of the western world is revenue driven in some large or larger part. If a valuable outcome results from large corporations with deep pockets taking the early risk in exchange for dominance until the market opens up, so be it.

"...sports games rarely talked about in the gaming elite circles."

True. Although sports games may appeal to a broad range of players -- mostly male it seems -- they are not the focus of avid gamers' attention. Sega and Xband likely realized that sports games were played a lot and reasonably well suited to head-to-head networked competition and they went in for what they expected to be a prime market. Online gaming with PlayStation 2, despite SOCOM and recent entry Rainbow Six, has been anchored by EA's sports line -- perhaps with Final Fantasy on the table and more online games coming to PS2, that will change.

To some degree the core tenets of online gaming will have to change. The label first, maybe. We toss off the term "online gaming" because most of us have followed gaming and online gaming for so long it's simply what we recognize. But a large portion of the potential market doesn't particularly associate with "online" anymore. Nobody seems to really differentiate between being online and not anymore. Are you online? changed to Do you have e-mail? and now is simply Give me your e-mail -- with great shock if our interlocutors don't have an address. Indeed, a tacit admission of this terminology change maybe have been AOL Time Warner moving away from using "online" for its network service provider arm, preferring that group be recognized mainly by its acronym.

I propose "networked gaming" or "connected gaming". "Online gaming" is so last week.

Snowmit

I dunno about RPGs as the solution to the gap between players who have 100 hours a week to devote to online gaming and me. RPGs tend to focus on a kind of linear skill advancement that brutally punishes you for not logging as many hours as the next guy. Obviously, this kind of thing can be solved with mechanics like those found in Crystal Chronicles, but even there people have complained that an imbalanced party leads to badness for the weak players.

The best solution I've seen for online matching to date has been the combination of Never Winter Nights and Neverwinter Connectons, a comunity run matching service.

The system deals with the problem of player compatability by having scheduled games that you sign in and join. You check the description and you contact the other players and if everyone gets along, you sign up and there you go.

It deals with the problem of Character compatability by letting you bring your own character of whatever appropriate level to the table. Don't have a charater that's high enough in levels? Roll one up.

If you're a purist and only want to play games that you've 'earned' by playing long hard hours of levelling, go for it. Are you a casual player who can meet once a week for a few hours? Go for it. Are you some dork who only wants to play level 1,000,000 ubermensch? There's room for you too, probably.

The key to any system of matching and community is flexibility. Let the networked players play the way they want to play.

Doccus

Differences in skill have been around since the beginning of online games. Most of them have been dealt with via an intelligent application of ranking / tournament ladders.

If they don't do this, it's basically own or be owned. Without some variety of rankings it's *very* hard to properly choose an opponent who matches your skill level.

I disagree with your statement that people who are most passionate about games are least likely to enjoy the online experience. I find it quite the opposite, but I'm a MMORPG freak, so take that with a grain of salt. I've only complete one single-player game in my entire gaming life ... games without multi-player interaction just don't hold my attention for too long.

As for community matchmaking ... sounds like a good idea. I already travel from game to game with a guild of 50-100 folks (depending on which guild members are playing which game).

Bottom line, though, is that "twitch" games are a different beast. You will always lose a twitch game (FPS, sports title) to a 12 year old who plays 22 hours per day. Every time :) I saw an article on dynamic game difficult earlier this year (might even have been here, think I linked to it from my blog as well). How about dyname game handicapping? Won't work for the folks who love to "crush" their opponents, but would work for anyone wanting a challenging game.

D

Robert 'Groby' Blum

The dynamic skill level thing came up on Scott Miller's blog, IIRC. I don't think dynamic handicapping is a good idea - you're diminishing the effort the player put into getting good. He knows what he usually could expect from the game and will be disappointed if he doesn't get it.

On the other hand, if you gave the other player a "helping hand", that would (IMHO) work much better.

But in general, this (I think) is the way salvation lies - we need an entity in the game that works as a "dramaturgist" - creating tension, keeping the game interesting for everybody. Where's AI when you need it? ;)

Clubberjack

The whole "helping hand to the player that is behind" thing can be very effective. Witness my earlier example, MarioKart 64. The helping hand is even designed in as a gameplay mechanic, not just behind the scenes AI. The people in 3rd and 4th place are much more likely to get the lightning bolt or spikey shell both of which allow a "come from behind" effect. Since competition is the whole fun of MK64, this mechanic works perfectly to keep MK fun and interesting for players of varied skill levels.

Groby, I like the idea of an AI dramaturg. It could essentially be a computer controlled GameMaster, constantly adjusting the game to manipulate players' interest points. I'd love to see this done.

SpittingTrashcan

I understand City of Heroes, the new superhero-based MMOG, has a rather nifty "sidekick system" whereby characters of lower level can team up as "sidekicks" to high-level characters. They get a temporary boost during the team-up so that they can fight foes appropriate to the high-level character, while gaining experience from the fights appropriate to their own lower level. Thus, people of disparate levels can play together without it becoming a mechanic for power-leveling. It seemed like a good idea to me.

san

"[The sidekick system] seemed like a good idea to me."

I think it's an excellent idea. Now if some of this ingenuity migrates to consoles...

Brent

san,

I think you need to keep in mind something that is simply too obvious to have considered: hockey on a computer is not real hockey. The fact that it looks like hockey does little to dispel the incredible differences. You have to remember to play the computer game, not to try to play hockey, and not to expect serious computer hockey players to play hockey. By which I mean, you cannot expect them not to exploit the *inevitable* weaknesses in the game. Games where you control multiple in-game "characters" or "entities" will always suffer for this.

But it is present in team-based multi-player shooters, too. In Quake 1/2/3, you had bunny hopping, for example. People who can do it right can move so fast you simply cannot catch them and it's nearly impossible for inexperienced players even to lead them with their weapons. There used to be awful arguments in Quake 3 about exploiting various characteristics of maps to do "impossible" things. Some people even frowned on rocket jumping. And what about camping!? There are always "cheats" that only require skill versus installing a hack. Some players may see some of these techniques as poor sportsmanship. I won't disagree. But people play to win as much as anything. If they can't use their knowledge/skill, what's the point?

The only way to eliminate the unfairness of pitting disproportionately skilled players against one another is the obvious one, mentioned above, of rating skill levels. If Quake 3 had had a built-in skill-rating system, that game would have been fantastic. It would be so simple to rate players on their wins/losses, but you could certainly add other metrics. It would make games so much more fun if your successes and achievements were recorded, too. Servers could specify skill ranges, or they could employ automatic handicaps. It would be so easy it is absurd.

This all comes down to play balance, an often bandied-about term, but seemingly always ignores the most important variable in all multiplayer games ... the players.

Snowmit

Have you folks heard about World of Warcraft's new rest system? It seems to address some of the power-levelling issues that have plagued other MMORPGs.

san

"You have to remember to play the computer game, not to try to play hockey, and not to expect serious computer hockey players to play hockey."

Your position is entirely accurate and well put. I'm reasonably competitive in some areas but not in video games. I'm not that good naturally and I don't want to play with the kind of aggression needed to overcome my shortcomings in games. But you're completely correct that it is a very subjective decision to blame someone who does exploit the game, because a game is exactly what they are playing. I can only counter that I don't like to play that way -- which doesn't mean that others should conform to how I play, but that I am likely better off playing single-player games until more robuts matching systems exist.

baren

I'm reminded of the articles at sirlin.net (see Playing to win about multiplayer competition in gaming. The author's assessment is that whatever it takes to win is valid, and those who complain about the use of a particular technique have not understood the nature of the game. Much like what Brent is saying.

Personally, though, I can't stand playing games with someone who is exploiting the rules, me, or both at once. Competitive play seems to bring that out in people, sadly. And while I recognize that there's nothing quite like the thrill of winning a hard fight, I find cooperative multiplayer games to be much more consistently fun, and therefore worth returning to.

Robert 'Groby' Blum

Actually, Brent brings up a good example of why skill rating is a hard problem, and "Playing to win" has the explanation for it.

We all play with implicit rules, on top of the game rules. For some Quake players, bunny hopping or camping is a skill. For others, it's an exploit. Yet both sides in this argument can be extremely skilled.

So a single, one-dimensional ranking breaks down. It makes it possible that a single non-camping player ends up in a camping match, or vice-versa. The enjoyment for them is significantly less.

That adds additional dimensions to a universal skill rating - your like/dislike for certain kinds of behaviors, in this case.

All that one-dimensional skill rating guarantees is that the outcome of the match is a bit more level - it does not say anything about the fun you had while playing it.

That's why I think games need some sort of an omnipotent "director" who can make sure that there is always drama and tension. For most of us, it's not only about the end result - we want entertainment along the way.

I always thought that would be easier to do in a sports or fighting game, but "Facade" seems to prove me wrong. (Incidentally - anybody know where one can get a look at the game?)

san

I had some thoughts on this subject last night while playing Crimson Skies -- the only game in which I can really hold my own with the constant players -- on Xbox Live; this realization sort of intersects with Groby's position.

I was playing in a top-ranked room. In these rooms, the host eliminates lower-ranked players manually through Live's kick- player feature. I've not particularly been a fan of this brute-force method of eliminating lower skilled players; but last night (or early this morning) I realized that what this is is nothing more than lowbrow player matching. It may not be an especially kind or accessible method of matching but it is reasonably accurate and efficient with a little effort on the host's part.

The problem with it is that while I almost certainly enjoy the play experience a bit more competing against seasoned players who are good enough to do well *and* have a sense of humor while playing, I don't enjoy the mean-spirited banter that some of the players engage in against the low-ranked players that happen upon the room.

poot

Granting the initial postulate that FPS and live-action games are simply more popular online diversions, the number one thing developers need to do to help online communities is this: make enemy AIs in single-player mode better.

Practice makes perfect. Anyone can hone their skills against a computer AI. This will give them some basic competence in the game, and depending on the game, it might make them a damn good player. Example: Soul Calibur II. The computer AI isn't perfect. It follows some predictable routines, and at the higher levels pulls off moves with a level of precision that simply does enter into a human-v-human equation. But for whatever reason, the gameplay was designed such that practicing against an AI builds a solid skill set that carries over relatively well to multiplayer fights.

We need to see AI opponents that model human behavior more closely. Playing against the AI is the online gaming equivalent of forum-lurking. Good AI, as opposed to AI that stays dumb and gets arbitrary bonuses, gives gamers who pay their dues at home a fighting chance when they get online. If multiplayer against human opponents is a radically different game, the transition costs and barriers to entry will turn off newcomers and foster an environment of disdain for anyone whose knowledge of game exploits isn't up to snuff; conversely, if people are almost as good as they'll ever get when they come to the table, they can cut the bullshit, find people they like to play with, and go to it. It doesn't solve all your problems, such as players who would opt to ban certain exploits, but it's a start.

Another, far less feasible solution (which is really saying something when my first suggestion was better AI) is that developers suck it the fuck up and gamma test their almost-final versions with a band of hardcore gamers intent on finding every cheat imaginable. Make it a contest with a cool prize (cash works very well, and relatively small amounts do wonders) so that winning is the most important thing in the world, then watch as the bastards find every bizzare exploit the developers never even thought of.

This would require risking massive leakage of near-final code and would delay releases considerably, so don't expect it to happen.

outsider

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