Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Moonlight Enchantments!

I was on holiday in Hawaii last February, sitting in the back of a car that was driving me to a scuba dive when it suddenly occurred to me that it would be pretty cool if you could occasionally stumble across an enchanted mushroom ring in a forest somewhere in the game that would give you access to some strange new zone that wasn't normally accessible. (Yes, my mind turns to thoughts of work at the most unexpected moments.)

Mushroom rings, or fairy rings, are a pretty familar recurring theme in folklore and are generally considered a sign of something magical; often the gateway to the land of the elves, or the site of fairies or witches dancing, or similar. In EQII I thought we could do something along similarlines: they could lead you to magical little instances where nature spirits might live, who might perhaps ask for your help in some small tasks.

When I was back in the office I asked for permission to take a bit of time and turn this idea into a little live event, and since I was able to fit a little bit of time into my schedule, it was approved. That idea turned into "Moonlight Enchantments", a monthly mini live event that is planned to be activated on the 20th through the 21st of every month (San Diego time), 48 hours in total.

This weekend past was the first time the event occurred, and for Saturday and Sunday small mushroom rings with a shimmering portal in the middle appeared in 5 different forested areas around Norrath. Each mushroom ring led to a different instance; depending on the zone, you were able to aid dryads, naiads, pixies, brownies, satyrs, and earth elementals in a variety of small errands. Each instance also contained its own merchant, selling a selection of unique house items, illusions, and expendables in exchange for the tokens that the quest awarded.

I logged on with my play account on the weekend to do the little quests myself, and to see what people were saying, and I was very happy to hear that the comments were almost entirely very positive. It's always very hard to predict how a large number of people will like a particular event, and it's almost impossible to do anything that will please everybody, so I was really happy with the way this one seemed to be received. I was especially pleased when I saw this (click the picture to enlarge):

For those not familiar with it, the blue flag just beside the mushroom ring is a guild rally banner. This is an item that can be placed in the world by a guild, to allow its members to swiftly travel to that banner, saving on assembly time for raids. A guild can only place one rally banner in the world at a time, which means that rather than summon their members to a raid, this guild had chosen to summon their members to a mushroom ring. This wasn't the only guild rally banner I saw outside a mushroom ring this weekend, either, and I took that as a high compliment and an extremely good sign that folks were enjoying the event.

This event had many goals, and seems to be meeting them well so far:
  • Adding seasonal or nonpermanent events helps give our world a more dynamic and living feel, which I feel is a good goal in itself.
  • Many of the rewards are plants and nature-themed house items that our players who enjoy home decoration have been wanting, but which really didn't make a lot of sense to give to carpenters to make, so this was also a way of adding desired home decoration content.
  • Giving people a regular monthly event to look forward to also encourages folks to keep logging in each month, another good goal.
  • Giving lower level folks a glimpse of some of the fantastic looking newer zones that there are to see - many of the event instances are sections taken from high level or raid zones such as Guk and Emerald Halls
  • Adding a bit of mystery and a bit of fun to the world also helps keep folks interested and having fun, and of course, adding fun to the game is an ongoing goal itself!
  • And as a personal goal, this was the first live event that I'd thought up and implemented on my own, so it was a great learning experience for me.
A few related links for more information and screenshots of how players have been using the new rewards from these instances:
Now it remains to be seen how well these monthly events continue to keep the interest of players as the months pass. Here's hoping that it remains something that gives the residents of Norrath a lot of enjoyment for the forseeable future!

Monday, June 22, 2009

What do players want?

A (very selective) sampling of last week's player /feedbacks.

Text: Hi

When EQII first started we were able to change the colors of our undies. I'd like to see this option return. Thank you.

Text: i'd like to see some blood in this game, after playing for so long the cutting noises of a blade or a thump of a club does not immerse me anymore.

Text: So food persists through death, but a dietys blessing does not? We should all be worshiping a fucking muffin!

Text: I think the harvester cloak would make a great beach towel to sell on the station store.

Text: something i think that would make the game more fun would be to add new rare weapons that were sentient and coult talk as well as grow over time if you did things for them and ofchorse taunt people when you beat them in pvp / dules

Text: *chuckles* Thank you so kindly for adding a baloon below Tupta, for us that seem to be clumsy and trip..

Text: OMG we have got to get one of those seamonsters as a water mount....the seamonsters are the dragon turtle things chained to the sheet in the Fens of Nathasar. It would be awesome if we could have a quest reward to ride one and travel the oceans of Norrath on. Please? lol

Text: how about some different mounts besides a horse warg or carpet, how about a flaming pig, or odins horse, 8 legged horse, that'd be cool, but it wouldnt be cool if i had to frickin raid for it, cuase i dont and wont raid, ever.

Text: the Undead Knight VI (Expert) could really use some armor or at least something more then the underwear hes in hehe


Text: You suck

Text: A house item of a boat like a little vienna type boat, or a row boat for the basements of the guild halls would be awesome.

Text: Shapechange into sokokar spell! (Spell for a class that doesnt have an illusion yet) like ranger. [or any other illusion for sokokar]

Text: Would love to see a polar bear transportation system in Everfrost!

Text: In the next expansion you should bring back the Beastlord class. This game really needs a new class to play and i think they would be perfect

Text: Suggestion!!!!....with the jokes about "paper armor", i think it would be AWESOME to have like newspaper (and/or the funnies) armor graphic available!!!

I think players would really love it and have fun with it!

Hope it's a fun and helpful suggestion, have a good one :)

Text: Please implement sunken (in the floor) baths for Housing. Example can be found in Stormhold -102.36, -24.70, -67.89

Text: My Air pet is nekkid!!!

Text: I'm glad to see that SOE is really showing all aspects of greatness .......Just random Thankyou to everyone :)

Text: Sheeps as plushies for the Guild Halls!!!

Text: A mount I'd like to see in the future is a skeletal horse pulling the player in a chariot of bone.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Emergent gameplay

If you don't read a lot of articles and theories about game design you may not have heard the term "emergent gameplay" before. It's pretty much what it sounds like from the name - new ways of playing a game that emerge, rather than being immediately present. Often these new ways are unexpected by the people who made the game ... kind of like buying a toy for a child, only to discover the child spends the day playing with the wrapping, instead of the toy that YOU thought was the fun part.

www.jeuxvideo.com (cited in English in this Wikipedia article) defines it as follows:

Emergent gameplay is the creative use of a video game in ways unexpected by the game designer's original intent. It commonly appears as complex behaviors that emerge from the interaction of simple game mechanisms.

A simpler way of expressing it might be the old proverb:

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

Although game designers try to anticipate what players will do with their content, the more complex a game is, the more new combinations of the game elements players can come up with, often with surprising results.

In an MMO, which is complex from the start, AND is heavily based on interaction between players, emergent gameplay frequently makes its appearance, often to the startlement (and occasionally complete bemusement) of the game designers.

A couple of examples of emergent gameplay from EverQuest II:

1. "Lawn Darts"

Game element: the griffon transport system that allows players to swiftly ride on an airborne griffon across some of the world's larger zones, rather than travelling on foot. Players can ride to fixed destinations, or jump off mid-flight if they wish to stop at a location they fly over.

Designer intention: to shorten travel time between key points in the zone.

Emergent gameplay: "lawn darts". As far as I know this game was created for The Festival of Unity, a player-run roleplay event on one of the EQII servers. One player stands on the ground at some point under one of the normal griffon flight paths. Competitors catch the griffon that flies past him. The players jump off the griffon and attempt to land as close as possible to the target player; the closest player wins.

2. Book building

Game element: player-created books. With Game Update 52, EQII introduced player-created books. These are books whose text contents can be written by players themselves, and placed in the player's house or given to others.

Intention: To support and empower the players who like to tell stories, record their knowledge, and leave their mark on the world, emergent gameplay in itself.

Emergent gameplay: players are now proposing using the books to build forts inside their houses.

None of which has any particularly deep or meaningful point, but just goes to show that no matter how much game designers think they can anticipate what players want and how an addition to the game will be used, there are always unpredictable surprises. And how a game design team handles emergent gameplay -- whether they try to stop it, ignore it, or try to support it -- tells a lot about the character of the game and the philosophy of the design behind it.

Whichever the game, and however the designers choose to react to the emergent gameplay that the players come up with, I like to think that it has the potential to make the game more fun for both the designers and the players!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Game Update 52: Monument and Might

Whew. Game update 52 went live today with lots of fun content for pretty much every play style. As usual for a Tuesday I logged into Test server this evening to chat with the folks there and test out a new quest tool to be given to the volunteer Guides. I do like chatting with the folks on Test server and for the most part they are very good about not flooding me with TOO many questions that have nothing to do with anything I would know about. Folks from the live servers who hang out in the Test chat channels are not quite so restrained though, particularly on a Game Update day.

In the course of just over an hour this evening I was asked:
  • where do Lava Crystals (a house item that I have in my room on Test) come from?
  • when does the monthly live event that was on Test earlier get activated on Live?
  • where is the new carpenter recipe in the Estate of Unrest?
  • did the Tinkerfest live event go live?
  • why aren't there a good version of the chocolate chip cookies of seething malice?
  • how long will the monthly live event last normally?
  • will it be on the same day on every server?
  • when can Test server have the monthly live event again?
  • where to go next for the new adventuring faction quests?
  • why can't the live event zone be up all the time?
  • can we get some of the new provisioner books spawned on Test server to test with?
  • since we upgraded the tradeskilled charm items, can we also make it so players can swap charms during combat?
  • are the lore books that were mentioned in the Zam.com preview live yet?
  • why can't the Moors of Ykesha faction recipe books be flagged 'heirloom' like the ones in Kunark?
  • why can't the quest journal hold more quests?
  • can we get Frostfell gelatinous cubes for Christmas, with little Frostfell hats?
  • can we get gelatinous cube mounts?
  • did you read the suggestion about changing the mahogany rattle recipe to use a common wood? Why wasn't it done?
  • have you heard there's a problem with the Estate of Unrest zone on live servers?
  • how does the new adventuring faction work?
  • why do some quest items not get removed at the end of the quest, and thus clutter up your bags and make you afraid to destroy them in case they're needed again?
  • where is the new carpenter book in the Estate of Unrest?
  • can the drop rate on Reflective Smoldering Shards be increased?
  • can we get the new user created books to show up on a normal broker search instead of advanced options?
  • can we get a music system and some method of sitting in chairs?
  • can we get carpets with stone and/or wood textures for decorating use?
  • can we get armor dyes?
  • can we get more room divider textures?
  • will I be at the upcoming Fan Faire?
  • when is the monthly live event going live?
  • can we get a beach towel that looks like the Cloak of the Harvester?
  • why was the necromancer misty illusion spell changed?
  • why weren't there any new recipes for weaponsmiths or jewelers this update?
  • why are racial illusions randomizing now?
(And yes, there are some duplicates as some questions were asked multiple times.) Some of these are things I had the answers to, but some of them I didn't have the foggiest idea, which always makes it challenging to find a good answer, particularly when not in the office.

Tuesdays are always long days, since I get in to work around 8, leave around 5-6, then spend between 1-3 hours of my own time on Test server. But whew! Today was more tiring than usual, and I logged out of Test early. I understand people's excitement and it's good to see they are excited, but sometimes it does get rather exhausting being hit with a tidal wave of questions just for saying "good evening"! I was going to log in my regular play characters after leaving Test server, but I found that after a long day at work and then all the questions that I really didn't feel up to playing much. Time to take a breather and read a book or something else for a while, I think! =)

For the record, EQ2 Traders' preview of the Game Update 52 crafting content, and a post about why some classes got stuff and others didn't.

Friday, June 12, 2009

What do players want?

Some (very selective) highlights from this week's player feedback reports.

Text: Combine a dirge and troubador and make a troubadirge! :D troubadirge=uber.

Text: The next expansion better be Odus or the gnome gets it! You hear me?!

Text: Coercer mythical looks stupid

Text: Hello Friends,

It has recently occured to me that it would be very easy and cost effiecient for Sony to produce a new Race of characters are you ready? "The Cyclops" You allready have the graphics and tattoos for them and the animation to boot. It occured to mewhile frappsing a video in poets palace. they could have sweet abilitys see stealth and vizz . 10 meter ranged bonus because of there impressive sight:) think about it its a good idea

Text: but come on guys, seriously.

Burynai Beastlords.

Text: we need a house item that looks like a bottle full of jelly beans. halflings, (and Jethal) would love it

Text: please make eq2 free.

Text: I just wanted to note that yet again the GM team kicks ass.

Last night I had a bout of raging stupidity in which I accidentally looted something I shouldn't have. I sent in a petition, and by the time I woke up this morning the Sanctescere had transfered the piece to its rightful owner.

It only makes the game more fun knowing that the GMs care about the player's so much. This is only one of in a handful of such experiences. Thank you!

Text: How about a command called /holdsalute ? It would be nice to have your character stand at attention holding a salute as guild members walk by. It would be cool for saluting a raid on the way out of the guild hall.

Text: Monkey's should drop a poo that the players can loot then throw like a snowball!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Creating happiness in MMOs

TED.com has been around for some years, but in 2006 they started making public the many interesting talks they have hosted. Today I watched a fascinating talk by Nancy Etcoff, a psychology researcher based at Harvard: On Happiness And Why We Want It.

Etcoff discussed her studies on the psychological basis of happiness, and pointed out a number of interesting points. Most interesting to me was the evidence that evolution has led us to bias the negative far more heavily than the positive: in other words, the impact of a bad thing happening to us is far greater than the impact of a good thing. Etcoff used the examples of how we are many orders of magnitude better at detecting the taste of something bitter than we are at detecting the taste of something sweet; and the "five to one" ratio identified by marriage counsellor John Gottman as the ratio of positive to negative interactions that indicates a healthy relationship that is likely to last. "People are more averse to losing than they are happy to gain," she says.

How does this reflect in game design? Specifically in MMO game design, since that's what I do? It seems to me that MMOs have already learned to cater to this behaviour to some extent. Players are given a constant flow of positive feedback in most modern MMOs, and the negative impact of death is increasingly minimized. A player levelling up in a modern MMO may do so by completing a series of small, simple quests, each of which provides positive feedback and probably a reward upon completion. Alternately, they may level up by killing a series of monsters, each of which drops a treasure chest or awards some kind of tangible reward in addition to experience, again reinforcing the "you win!" message. But is this conscious design, or just that the games have adapted to what seems to make the players happiest? I think for the most part it's been the latter - mainly trial and error, through observing how the players react to different things and changing the game (or planning the next game) accordingly.

(In a PvE -- player vs environment -- game, it's far more possible to control the variable to provide a player with positive reinforcements far outweighing the negative ones. In a PvP -- player vs player -- game, however, this is far less possible. In PvP environments, if one player wins it means another loses, so it's much harder to ensure all players have more positive experiences than negative ones. It would probably be a revealing study to compare player happiness levels within a game that has both PvP and PvE environments, and see to what degree those levels are influenced by game design decisions.)

Another interesting TED talk on the topic of happiness is Dan Gilbert's question, Are We Happy?

Gilbert's talk is well worth watching in full, but in it he discusses a series of experiments in which college students were divided into two groups. One group was offered a choice of two photos and told that they could change their mind and come back to swap their choice for the other one at any time if they wished; the second group was also told to choose but that their choice was final and irrevocable. After a week, the first group was distinctly UNhappy with the photo they chose compared to how they rated it on the day of choice, while the second group was significantly MORE happy with the photo they chose. However, when a third group was asked if they would rather have the flexible choice or would rather have an irrevocable decision to make, the majority said they wanted the flexibility -- even though this would clearly result in them being far less happy with the photo they finally ended up with.

Gilbert's data demonstrates that while people think they want flexibility and choice, in actual fact, they are measurably happier with what they're given when they have no choice at all. This too raises some questions about game design. While players are constantly clamoring for more choices and more options, are we in fact actually making them happier? Or do they just think they will be happier with more choices, as the third group of college students were? Would players be happier with quest rewards that offer no choice, rather than allowing them to select which reward they want? Would they be happier with a smaller variety of classes, class abilities, or races? I don't believe that less is better in all situations, but I do think in some cases it might be best not to offer options. In many class-based MMOs, for example, players often request that they should be allowed to change classes without having to reroll or create an alt. Based on Gilbert's talk, I wonder whether this would really make them happy. Would they then pick one class, and constantly agonize over whether they picked the right one and whether they should change again? Being forced to stick with the one class might actually increase their happiness with the class that they have chosen; it could prove to be a poor design decision to acquiesce to these requests and allow free class changes.

Fascinating thoughts, the way these behaviours are already being taken advantage of in MMOs, and the way they could potentially be in the future. However, that's enough rambling for a first blog post, so I will just heartily suggest following both the links above and drawing your own conclusions.