Corante

About this Author
Andrew Phelps Andrew Phelps is an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, NY. He is the founding faculty member of the Game Programming Concentration within the Department of Information Technology and his work in games programming education has been featured in The New York Times, CNN.com, USA Today, National Public Radio, and other publications. Email: amp-at-it.rit.edu
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

Got Game?

May 26, 2006

PVP and the Honorable Enemy

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

Recently my WoW guild has been having a bit of a debate on the merits of Player-vs.-Player (PvP) within Azeroth. My personal opinion on this is that PvP has its merits, and can be incredible fun, but the system within WoW is horridly, horribly broken. It takes into account the concept of the battle, but battle without consequence, without emotive context, and most importantly, without honor. Consider the following incredibly simplistic notion of honor as it relates to our historical myths of idealized combat:

The notion of the honorable warrior is, of course, completely idealized. In the real world, humans have been doing rather horrible things to one another for quite some time. But in both Eastern and Western culture, the notion of the honorable warrior, the ‘fair fight’, and the ‘rules of engagement’ have emerged.

...continue reading.

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January 31, 2006

Homebrew. YaRLY.

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

I will never understand the recalcitrance of hardware and software manufacturers to open up their platforms for individuals who want to program their own games. It just seems so counter to my way of thinking – it’s like trying to wrap your head around someone at the extreme end of whichever end of the political spectrum is opposite your worldview. I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.

In case you haven’t been following this, SONY has this little gadget called the Portable PlayStation, known everywhere as the PSP. Now the PSP is pretty darn sweet, has a great screen, an awesome design, and is generally cool. Yeah, some people like the DS better. Whatever. I like the PSP, it makes me tingly.

So there is this PSP. The PSP has on it firmware that makes it run. Apparently in version 1.0-1.5 of the firmware, you could execute unsigned code, which of course made it nirvana for hackers of all types, like those over at www.pspupdates.com or www.psp-hacks.com. They did all the usual things like putting MAME emulators on it and whatnot. I could care less, I’m generally not into the whole ‘let’s pirate things.’ But then people started making their OWN games. Their OWN! Yes! Now, I am a very, very interested party to the discussion…

...continue reading.

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404 Evil Conspiracy Not Found

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

I want to touch base with everyone here on something. I’ve read just about every crank site out there with their ‘reasoning’ about why the hardware for the 360 launch was not more widely available. Several folks want to blame Microsoft as some kind of evil monopoly trying to twist the entire market to their world view. First, before you get out your tinfoil hats, lets remember two things:

1. Microsoft is not the monopoly here - there is some pretty fierce competition within the console hardware game. Yes, the players are limited, but I bet we can all come up with the same “other company” that is also well known for their hardware in this context. Duh. So MS trying to limit the install base of their platform makes ZERO SENSE. Now with that established let’s move on:

2. Just because you can lose money, doesn’t mean you like it. A lot of the people I see screaming conspiracy theory point out that MS will still make money this year, as if this somehow by definition means that they screwed their launch on purpose just to prove a point. What? It’s still a company, and last I checked they were still in the games business to make money, just like everyone else. Underneath all the vaneer of “giving the user the best entertainment experience possible” is just “we’re going to make money on games”. It’s that simple. And once again, selling fewer boxes doesn’t do that.

Now, as to what really happened - Microsoft screwed up. They made a mistake, and in doing so they hurt the market channel for publishers pretty bad right there around Christmas time, which is a bad, bad thing. I won’t bore you with the details, because we’ve all seen them floating around CNN Money and the like. But what I thought was interesting on the boat were the reations by employees at Redmond, both in games and out of games.

MS has a really interesting corporate culture in that you almost never hear anyone remarking about a different portion of the company in the absence of themselves. Things are almost always referred to as “we did this well” or “we did this poorly” but never “that crew over in Office really screwed up.” Say what you want to about MS, and certainly with many folks there is no love lost, but in a company of that size I find that to be somewhat commendable. The same held true in talking about 360 - everyone I talked too, from the Visual Studio team, MS Research, MS Games, X-box core, etc. all had the same response - “we really screwed up.”

But the reaction from people was more than that, it was almost downright human. Some people were very sheepish about it, didn’t want to talk about it in public, as if mistakes were just an uncomfortable topic. Others were, I think, legitimately embarrassed. Still others were angry - angry at the company for damaging the distribution channel and for damaging corporate trust in the marketplace. I think beyond angry a lot of folks were just frustrated that it didn’t go better, they had planned for a much better experience and it didn’t come through. Someone made the comment that this would have never happened in the early Windows days - that things needed to return to tighter processes. But no one was passing blame around, everybody took their lumps. Would that academia would do that sometimes (rolls eyes).

So I went looking to see if all the conspiracy theories were right. It doesn’t make a lot of difference to me, I can’t afford a next-gen console just yet anyway, but its always fun to read Internet speculation on why a company has forcibly done this or that. What I found instead were a group of human beings that felt bad about a situation that seemed a bit beyond their control. Liz and I both take it on the chin sometimes for having decent things to say about Microsoft. Well, sometimes the storm-troopers turn out to be people.

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January 25, 2006

Role Playing at Fatherhood

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

So I’m sitting on the boat for the Microsoft Academic Days cruise (which I will be blogging about in a little bit), and I’m staring at the Ocean (with a capital ‘O’ because it is just that BIG), when I start to think about my transition into being a ‘dada.’ And, of course, as any ‘dada’ will tell you, it is a transition. Now there are certainly some aspects to fatherhood that are transcendent, and what I mean by that is that they are not rooted in the core of the everyday world but rather in some kind of spiritual space, whatever it might be. Love for your child would be an example: you don’t love your child because its cute or because of what they do, but because it is your child. The everyday world is not involved.

But there are a series of “everyday-isms,” real-world events and tasks, that any parent can easily identify with that sort of ground parenthood in a common core. Taking a toddler to the mall. Getting them ready for a long car trip. Picking up the toys at the end of the day, and figuring out if any are missing. Making sure that a blanket is always available and that it is THE blanket, the one that is the center of the entire cosmic universe, rather than just some random piece of cloth. Every day, day in, and day out these tasks ebb and flow as needed to construct the tapestry and semblance of life, if not its substance. Most people I know get totally overwhelmed by this, on a regular basis. Well… me too. But I can actually take a lot of pride in a well-orchestrated trip to the mall, or when I have that special item that I just knew my toddler would want hours in advance of her wanting it. So I’m sitting on the boat and I’m thinking these thoughts, when it hits me: my preparation for this, the way I approach the organizational tasks, how I measure success in my real-world day - it all came… …from RPGs!

...continue reading.

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January 16, 2006

Microsoft Academic Days for Gaming

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

On Wednesday, I will be leaving for a trip to Mexico and back on board (my first) cruise. The purpose of this little sojurn is to get together a bunch of folks from the academic community that are teaching (or thinking of teaching) games, and to partner them with folks from Microsoft that can help us make good use of their technology in the classroom. The underlying issue here is that computer science and engineering enrollments are plummeting, and the number of students graduating with the background necessary to power the workforce of tomorrow is rapidly diminishing. Microsoft Research has an initiative in which they contend that by using games and entertainment, we can more directly appeal to students in these areas, and create experiences that are more compelling. Quite a few notables will be there, in addition to MSR: Jason Della Roca from IGDA, Jon Laird from Michigan, Cory from Second Life, etc. I expect to be offline for at least part of the trip, but I will be sure and write up what transpires and my impressions.

Oh, and I have my Dramamine. Just in case.

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January 3, 2006

New Years Resolution

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

Well, my goal for 2006 is to blog more. I’ve been so incredibly consumed with stuff internal to RIT that I haven’t done as good a job as I might have here and elsewhere off campus. That being said, I’ll also use this to announce my fancy new title (below) and I hope to have a formal update on RITs curriculum sometime [very] soon…

-A

Andrew Phelps
Director, Game Design & Development
B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences
Rochester Institute of Technology
http://andysgi.rit.edu http://www.corante.com/gotgame/

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June 13, 2005

Two Oldbie's Talking

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

Had a conversation with Mark Wallace today for a book he is writing for O’Reilly (‘hi’ to Tim, who was a thrill to meet). We talked about virtual worlds and use/play thereof and I had an enjoyable cup of coffee and listened to some things he was looking into. He has written a short synopsis here. I think his book, when published, will be an interesting read.

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Graphics Don’t Matter (and other assertions)

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

I’ve been reading “Graphics Don’t Matter”, as well as the “Gamer’s Manifesto”, as well as hanging out on the Serious Games listserv, and even talking to some friends. And they are all saying the same thing: “graphics don’t matter – what’s important is game-play!” and then they go on to cite some game that they played that had really bad graphics that they enjoyed because of the game-play, as if that singular example should become some sort of example for the industry at large. As if they have single-handedly locked upon the uber-truth of the games industry, the well kept secret at the back of the very well-guarded dragon’s lair. Well, sadly, I have to stand here and tell you that they do, in fact, matter. A lot. Perhaps as much as game-play itself. Here it is in a nutshell:

...continue reading.

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March 31, 2005

Mutually Assured Destruction

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

Everquest, it appears, still has a thing or two to teach us about online worlds. It has begun the process of, if not dying, then at least no longer growing. New games such as EQ2, World of Warcraft, and others have taken significant chunks of the player-base away from Norrath. New technologies make EQ1 look tired, and dated. Even with the new graphic updates, people’s avatars still look old, the community is tired, and somewhat jaded, compared to the original sense of wonder that I remember on my first run from Freeport to Qeynos (the name of which is an inside joke from the original development at 989 studios, the likes of which don’t seem to appear anymore).

So with all that, you get the sense that perhaps people aren’t as invested in their digital personas as they once were. But then something happens that awakens the tiger, that releases the pent up angst of people that have long since seemed to lie still.

Sony is merging the servers together, and the social lessons are.. shall we say, unexpected in their intensity…

...continue reading.

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March 7, 2005

GDC is Underway!

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

Well, it is Spring again, and with it another GDC. This year the whole thing picked up and moved to San Francisco - so everything seems a little bigger, and a little grander than the old haunts of San Jose. I’m sitting here in the press room as lots of folks are checking in, among them Justin Hall from over at Game Girl Advance. Several familiar faces.

Ben Sawyer opened the Serious Games Summit today with an interesting exercise: everyone take a sticky that has on it one of about a thousand government agencies, along with the mission statement for that agency. Come up with a game that helps describe the purpose or mission of that organization. Easy enough, perhaps, for the CIA or the Department of Transportation : but how well can you make a game that describes the purpose of all of the government officies? There were things on that list I don’t think anyone even knew existed…

There aren’t any huge public announcements on anything yet, as the ‘real show’ (ie the tradefloor) doesn’t open until Wednesday - Monday and Tuesday are tutorials and training, except for the SGS. If anything pops up though, I’ll post it here.

More to come as GDC continues!

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January 28, 2005

Whoa... its bad press time...

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

Just a short one, but I went down to my faculty mailbox today and picked up the latest Communications of the ACM. For those not in higher ed, or in the sciences, CACM is the communications bulliten for the Association of Computing Machinery, one of the two main professional societies for the study of computing (the other being the IEEE).

Now, the ACM doesn’t often cover things in the games related space - they have only recently begun a journal on Computers in Entertainment, but for the years that I (and every other) academic in computing have been subscribed, we hardly ever hear about gaming. So I was excited to see games related coverage in CACM! Go Gaming Industy! Then I read it…

…it is yet more coverage of the working conditions and programmer exploitation by the industry, the 80 hour work weeks and no overtime / reward. Hardly the kind of thing that presents to the academic community that this is an industry of professional colleagues. I am growing increasingly weary of seeing this (and only this) mentioned lately. Surely, somewhere, there are examples of games companies that have good work practices, build software on time yet don’t burn out all their dev teams, and still have fun at the end of the day?

Anyone?

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January 12, 2005

Who Ownz0rz "you" ?

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

A reader brought the story at http://tinyurl.com/4ztwb to my attention, an odd post of back and forth about who “owns” a character created in a virtual world. This isn’t, actually, the first instance of this argument, it has been an on going thing. I can remember the [Dark] Elf Controversy when it was covered at Game Girl Advance a while back. Also around this time was the “I have the right to sell my toon” arguments, surrounding DAoC and Anarchy Online. An oh so interesting argument.

On the one hand, the company that produced the game, very clearly, owns the world. It is their world. It is. Really. But a world without anyone in it is… not the same. It is lifeless. It has no character. No spark. You wouldn’t want to stay there, even for a day or two. It would be Narnia without any of the characters. Think about how interesting it is to camp a zone completely, utterly by yourself day in, day out, and ask yourself if you would really play that game.

And so we see that a lot of the world, in fact I would venture to say most of the world comes from the people that inhabit it. They are goverened by the laws of the group that owns the world… for the most part. They also have some stake in their characters because without them - those characters wouldn’t BE those characters. It’s not as if these games ask you to ‘play Superman’ - where Superman’s abilities and character are already known and well understood - they ask you to create a hero within a framework of statistical formulae, the exact blend of powers is up to you. MUCH more importantly, and what the [Dark] Elf Controversy tells us is that it is the character of the hero that is up to you. No two people will make every decision, every dialogue, every nuance of that character the same, it is an individual expression.

Who is legally “correct”? Well, you won’t like this: I’m not a lawyer. What I do know is this: companies regularly put things in EULAs that may or may not stand up in court - they are banking on never having to truly defend it (there was a spoof out there that I wish I could find now from a year or so ago where a shareware developer refused to remove “I am the King of All for Eternity” from the EULA just to make this point). A EULA is only as good as what stands up if challenged. At the same time, players probably don’t completely ‘own’ everything there is to do with their character, it is created only through the use of the game, a game you don’t own, a game you bought a license to use for a bit. The one thing that IS clear is that the current laws on the books are woefully inadequate to deal with virtual property in virtual realms.

What a fun time to be watching!

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November 30, 2004

Oh We Got Trouble

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

That starts with “T” and that rhymes with “G” and that stands for GAME.

It doesn’t seem like a year ago that I was harping on violence in holiday game adds with ‘Ho Ho Boom’. But apparently time flies. This year, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility has published (and used the press machine to promote) the Ten Most Violent Video Games for the holiday season, trying to sway holiday shoppers away from the violence that corrupts the minds of children. More interestingly, they are pointing at some scientific “proof” (in the form of AAP studies) that violence in videogames is more harmful than violence in television or movies. An interesting study, although I might say that a lot of work needs to be done in this area before anything can be considered proven, to my minid anyway. You can read their mission statement and a bit about their work here.

In a response statement the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA) says that in fact violent “M-Rated” games are not being sold to children anyway. They point out that the rating system is still rather new, and that 2 years ago merchants began to really tighten up the system, but that most of the studies conducted as ‘sting operations’ selling M-rated games to minors were conducted before this date. I remember as a child seeing ‘R-rated’ movies as a 13 or 14 year old without parental consent, because the movie theatre didn’t care a whit. I doubt that would fly today (at least in my home town) so there very well may be some truth to this. I don’t know. It’s an interesting tit-for-tat going on though. You can read the IEMA’s arguments here in PDF form.

So with all of that in the background, with the industry having perception problems and the now-standard holiday violence woes, we turn to two ongoing battles in California, the first of which is over CA AB1793, which is discussed at GameSpot, but which was actually more interesting in its original form as it classified M-rated games as matter “harmful to children” (in the same way as, say, pornogrophy). This was backed, in part, by members of the California Psychiatric Association as shown here. You can read the IEMA’s response here. Whatever side you take on the issue, the war is definitely getting interesting, and a lot hotter than it used to be.

The second battle is one internal to the games industry, and I am betting that they are wishing now they kept it private. But the now infamous “spouse letter” has sparked serious debate about Quality of Life issues in the games industry (in fact, there was debate before, this has simply thrown it all over the press). It also set in motion a class-action lawsuit against EA, the result of which will be very interesting, but also possibly very damaging to the industry in terms of public appeal. The IGDA has posted an open letter to the industry calling for reform, but just as importantly documenting that many of the smaller studios that don’t treat employees like this are producing hit games and succeeding in the industry, and calling for more communication and study at GDC and like places (Great Job to Jason Della Rocca, the IGDA Board, and the entire team over at the IGDA-QoL group!).

As an educator, I have good students that are highly skilled in making games, willing to turn away from that career over stuff like this, preparing instead to work at small studios or in related fields because they can’t justify to themselves the lifestyle demanded by some pockets of the games industry. How sad is that? This was first noted by Jesse Schell at CMU, in the November Newsletter for the IGDA, and as I read his words I found myself just nodding along.

NOTE to my friends at Many-2-Many: How interesting that this should all come from a blog, which can be anonymous? How interesting that when employees had to talk to one another, for fear of being traces they used public blogs with IP logging turned off? There is something to that - public communication without identification has some value, it seems.

And so, another holiday season, and another holiday bru-ha-ha. The growing pangs of the games industry continue to reverberate across everything it touches, a gawking teen-ager with enormous strength and potential, wildly swingly its limbs in a china shop. One can hope that soon it gets back to the business of making games, and making them well. Some good stuff came out recently and more is on the horizon: but the key to continued success may be in moderation, both in public relations, employee matters, and in content conveyance.

The game of pool is the Devil’s own, and we are all liars, sinners, and cheats.

-A

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November 20, 2004

An Interesting Followup

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

Just in case you were interested, a follow-up piece to my article on B-Sides. Its posted in The Hollywood Reporter, at http://www.thehollywoodreporter.com/thr/columns/video_games_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000724447. Interesting, and I will be back to update the blog for the coming holidays in just a little bit. I should also mention that the B-Sides piece was reprinted in PC Gamer Europe last month. I hope anyone that saw it there enjoyed it.

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October 15, 2004

Box Be Thy Name

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

"Thou shalt concieve of a game only as a disc within a box, that shall sit upon a shelf until it is purchased in a store, with cash or equivalent, and this model shall represent my will unto eternity."

                   - The Gaming Industry Collective


Ahhh, but no longer! I was just sitting in my office the other day reading this feature on GameBiz, (and in the back of my mind thinking about how RIT could begin to distribute some of its own games), when I was invited to check out Games On Demand from Comcast. I haven't had a chance to do so yet, but I will be, and I'll try to post my impressions when I do. It certainly *LOOKS* very exciting (and I always wanted to play some of those games, but never got around to it... grin...). The IDEA of it is huge, and although it seems obvious, it represents a substantial shift from the current marketing and publishing model of the industry.

Wonderful quote from that first article: "Even if the download takes all night, it's still faster than the fastest delivery service from a traditional retailer or e-tailer," Jason Bell, executive vice president, Turbine Entertainment Software.

That's good thinking! Now if I could only get my @)#($*) DSL not to timeout... but that is niether here nor there.

The great gaming gods at Microsoft have not been idle either. The other day I noticed the Game Advisor for Windows XP floating around. Very interesting. My friends tell me that this will be integrated directly into Longhorn, and will feature not only the occasional demo download, but also all released patches for games that qualify under the "Games for Windows" logo. Basically a "Windows Update for Games". How much longer until that becomes a distribution channel? I can see the writing on the wall...

I first heard about this concept at a conference a number of years ago, and at the time there were two thoughts, looking forward:

1. This will be great for the consumer because they can try before they buy, they can buy with simple 'point and click', and it could lessen the cost of some games (or at least spend more of it on the game) because publishers wouldn't have to pay for shelf space and print displays. [secretly, I would miss the cardboard cutouts of an_anime_adventure_character_01 when I troll the mall.]

2. This is very bad for small games. If the online distributors lock their services, and are regarded as the 'trusted source' for online download, then they control a monopoly in much the same way that shelf-space considerations lock out the small game today. It is my personal hope that the big distributors in fact link to and support independent game downloads, but I'm not holding my breath. Perhaps someone will start a "University Games Channel" and an "Independent Games Channel" and somehow be able to get them on the XP Game Advisor, but more than likely it will still just be a website somewhere, and won't get that ub3r level of home saturation. Perhaps this is something the IGDA could look at partnering with an online distributor on...

3. Infrastructure not ready [yet]. This problem will solve itself, but currently too many people are still fighting broadband woes, we don't yet have fiber to every home, etc. etc. [ insert any number of current writings on the connectivity issues still facing the USA and the world ]. But this may very well be the application that pushes the next "wiring wave" - home entertainment can get people to upgrade and press service providers for upgrades like virtually no other stimulus.

So as I write this, I'm waiting for EQ2 to finish downloading, and I'm glad I came to school to use their T3's. My DSL laughed at me. But this will solve itself, and perhaps the Day of the Box, much like the Day of the Album Cover, shall draw to a slow and inexorable close. I'm excited to try the Comcast service, I'll let you know what I think.


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September 27, 2004

Where is my news?

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

You see, gaming to me is escapism. Pure and simple. I dig in deep to the idea of alternate reality, and immerse myself in the worlds in which I play. Currently, I am immersed in the world of Norrath, in which Everquest resides, as well as several others. I'm going to use Norrath as an example, but this is applicable to any online persistent world, and in fact to the idea of a set of worlds that people are connected to.

This is my desire:

"The Bazaar reports today that stocks are once again down, with bulk trading up 5% from yesterday as more goods from the lands of Discord continue to flood the market, devaluing existing industries in Kaladim and the Kunark Collective Enterprises. A spokesman for the Freeport Trader's Alliance could not be reached for comment, although a preliminary stakeholder's report is due out before the end of the day."

"In other news, the Rathe Council today authorized full use of military force in retaliation for what it claims is an unprovoked attack on the Plane of Earth by the spawn of Veeshan. Several dragons were seen in the viscinity late last night, and this morning there are substantial questions about a very large glowing orb in the midst of the Plain of Mud. Representatives from the Sleeper had no comment other than to deny any involvement in the attack, pointing to the long-standing truce between Dragons and Gods. Direct questions regarding dragon sightings and rumors of a secret alliance with the Dark-Elves went unawnsered."

The thing is, I don't want this as fan-fiction or some in-game talking head. I want this on my television. I want it in a ticker at the bottom of CNN, right with the rest of my daily news intake. I care about events in that world a great deal. Probably not as much as "real news" like Iraq and the 2004 election, but since I only have about an hour to get all my news in anyway, I'd like it all at once thank you very much.

Fan sites have been doing this for years. I want a recognized voice of journalism reporting on the world I love. I want to know what is happening there, a news stream not biased by guild affiliations and racial divides (those Dwarves do hate the Elves...). [ I also have a dirty desire to see a "Talking Points Memo" from an orc henchman. ]

Part of this is in jest, but I am being mostly serious. I feel I can no longer keep up with my worlds. I need help. I need news. In much the same way that the real news connects us to the rest of the world (albiet with much bias and error), my sphere of interest in my fantasy worlds have grown beyond what I am capable of personally absorbing. Once-a-month fan fiction isn't going to do it, there is no reliability in guild websites, and there is no public voice.

IGN and the various news sites report *about* the game - add-ons, additions, developer issues, etc. I want something from IN the game, that says 'this is happening, these are the major events, etc. etc.' Daily. Hourly. On an RSS feed or something. I'd sign up in a second if I could get a 'Norrath Ticker' on the bottom of my TV that read ''ALERT: hot new XP area discovered by brave adventurers, somewhere south of the Muramite Proving Grounds... Quarm loot dropping off fire beetles in the Northern Desert of Ro, log on now!!'

So I'm waiting. I'm waiting even further for someone to bind all this up into a daily game-news network with reporting from all the worlds online. I'd watch that channel, right along side CNN / MSNBC / FOX. I can think of very few things I'd currently enjoy more. Come home, eat dinner, play with baby, watch the "news" for a half hour, then hop into the world that had the most interesting day.

"This is Tanthalos Sillandor signing off for the Norrath News Network. Don't miss our special in-depth coverage of the Qeynos Election, as we interview each candidate about the issues you care about. Until tomorrow - TS."

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September 14, 2004

The Games Industry Needs B-Sides

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

So I had a brainstorm in the shower. Yes, the shower. It's the only place you can think anymore with a 7-month old tearing through your sock drawer. I was thinking about the claims, made every year, that the games industry is "dead in terms of innovation". That there aren't any new game mechanics, that every game that is a success today is just a game that we've already made with better graphics or one strange new feature. The folks that make those claims would look at DOOM3 and say "It's DOOM with a journal and a flashlight. Whoop-dee-doo." I had recently read a bunch of stuff like this in old GDC proceedings because I was going to use it to challenge my programming class .(Their next assignment is to build an arcade game- and I am trying to promote original thinking instead of getting Space_Invaders_013467).

So I had been thinking about that, and then it hit me: The Games Industry Needs B-Sides. For those of you who never got your music on a grooved vinyl disc, allow me to explain . A "B-Side" was the flip side of an album, the side that you didn't buy it for. On the "A-Side" were all the hits that were on the radio, the sonds that people bought the album for. The B-Side was usually the wierd experimental stuff that the band gave you as 'extra' - you might like it as a hit, you might not. It was yours for the taking, whatever.

...continue reading.

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September 13, 2004

Ethics in Computer Game Content?

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

I posed this question to my graduate class last year: "Does the games industry have an ethical obligation to produce less violent and/or addictive content?"

Not one of them said yes. Zero. I found that astounding. I don't really have an extended entry for this yet, I'm still mulling this over (a year later) trying to come to grips with it: I thought for sure there would be people on both sides of the issue - I've informally asked more students that I see, and *every single one of them so far* has said basically 'no, the games industry can do whatever it wants'.

I guess I feel sometimes that just because they can doesn't mean they should. I am saddened that so far I haven't found anyone in the younger than 30 player-base that agrees with me, and I'm wondering where the moral technological compass went. Perhaps it's all at the feet of Napster, the Greek God of Piracy, our ethical obligations in technology creation went right out the window. Seems to me if the games industry ever wants to shake off the shackle of its own stereotype, it has to do something about this issue (and no, I am dead-set against Congress trying to legislate the morality of video games - I am interested in the industry itself deciding for itself what it thinks is right). I've seen presentations of games at GDC where the *authors* of a game go red-faced and mumble about a games content.

Knowing that kids are dropping out of real-life society to slave against your MMORPG for 65 hours a week - sure, I agree, that's horrid parenting - but as a designer wouldn't you feel just a *twinge* of guilt designing that level ladder and reward spacing? Design to the hard-core and let the others bang their heads seems to be the motto of the day, with the exception of Call of Heroes. Final Fantasy XI stuck some warnings about remembering friends and family at the login, and that's interesting, if only for the sentiment.

I am just awestruck at the results. If you have a class, or access to folks under 25, see what they think. Hopefully it is just my microcosm.

EDIT: For related stuffs, see "Manhunt to Mortal Kombat: The Use of Violence in Video Games" by Steven L. Kent in this months Game Developer Magazine.

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Back Again, Time to Tick Off the World.

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

Well I'm back again. This time for real. Got day-care nailed and work is happening, back to playing, loving, and building games. Neat-o.

So for my first act coming back to the world, I shall tick off a good 3/4ths of the gaming world and say I don't like Doom3. Shame on me. I am sure, deep-down, there is something fundamentally flawed about the core of my being. I've tried to like it, I really have. I even went and played it on a friend's computer in the hopes that maybe it was just my play experience. But nope, doesn't do it.


...continue reading.

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December 15, 2003

Good Morning Mr. Anderson, How Nice to See You

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Posted by Dave Evans

Ahhhh the virtual world. It's so... virtual. And yet so very very real. I'm not going to pick on Sony with this one, Sony did the right thing. But the players all around you, one of them isn't like all the others. One of them is a "twink" (a character that has high level gear at an absurdly low level). One of them is a "dirty cheating twink". One of them is getting paid to level up a character as their job. Julian Dibbell (of "a Rape in Cyberspace" fame) reported last year in January about the virtual sweat shops. Odd? yes. But not unheard of. Apparently there is quite the market for pre-made heroes. (The link is older, yes, but believe me when I say that not only are these services still out there, they were very productive under the recent exploits...)


Enter the recent round of dupes and exploits happening in Norrath (the world of Everquest). Not just one or two people but apparently by the hundreds players have been duping plat off of bugged respawn characters and trader cycles, making millions in days and telling no one about their newfound wealth. Level 1 toons are buying dropped items from the gods, strutting thier bling bling in the bazaar as the prices of items skyrocket in a platinum-saturated economy. Don't believe this stuff still happens? Check the going rates !


But that doesn't begin to describe the horror of horrors, the memory hack. By all appearances, a few players have been able to hack the entire system, giving themselves god-like powers and taking over monsters for their own personal enjoyment. When one cheats in an online game, you don't just effect your gameplay experience, you effect everyone else's too. Witness the bizarre screenshots of mobs saything things they shouldn't... is it a hack or a quick hand at Photoshop? Who can say. Either way, Sony Online Entertainment seems to think its a big deal.


Now, the hacker spirit in me seems to always root for these guys, to say 'ha ha they hacked the world, good for them'. And if they are doing it on their own server, more power to them. (The fact that they have hacked together their own servers is super-cool.) But, on the live servers, the effect has been devastating. I can't afford to buy Holiday Gifts for my toons anymore - the currency is completely devalued.


Gambling to the rescue?!? Shortly after all of this, "casinos" went live on the EQ Test servers, and are slated for release on the live side. Characters can throw away a few hundred platinum at a time for a 1 in a million chance of getting some great treasure. Seems rather rushed and they will probably add some graphics and nice things to this over time if it takes off. The world adapts Mr. Anderson, it sees your platinum production and introduces sinks to remove the excess and restore value. Will it work? who can say.


The GM's are on alert - the quaint little world of Norrath, former home of the occasional script kiddie and AFK-BotBoy (players that use scripts to level their characters when they aren't present) is now the bastion for a sneakier and more destructive game. No one thinks for a minute that they have caught them all - only time will tell if SoE can restore confidence in the player community. I think they can, but it will take cost and effort - the real-world kind that pays programmers and game designers, as opposed to arbitrary platinum pieces.


Your move, Mr. Anderson.

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November 28, 2003

HO-HO-BOOM

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Posted by Dave Evans

HO-HO-BOOM


The games industry has an image problem, and they don't seem to care. I've been following this story over at Game Girl Advance, which describes a rather horrible article at HeraldNet which claims that games are training kids to be killers. The GGA piece goes on to describe the reponse over at Penny-Arcade, which is to band together and get some games and toys for charity (Code Name: Child's Play), in the true spirit of the Holidays, and give them to children at the Seattle Children's Hospital. Kudos, Gabe & crew - What a wonderfully thoughtful thing to do this time of year.


So all of this was floating around the back of my head, when I sat on my couch and saw the first Holiday ads from the gaming companies. Ho-Ho-Boom.


The first one I saw was very tongue in cheek, and wasn't for any game in particular. Its a Sony ad, and all through it it has some Holiday carol (I think it was "Let it Snow" but I'm not 100% sure) playing. Set to the music are scenes of random carnage from various video games: people whacking people with swords, blowing up command posts, firing machine guns, etc. Nothing really particularly gruesome, but all of it violent. Now, I don't *personally* have a problem with this ad, I thought the juxtaposition of Peace on Earth and Soul Caliber II was kind of humorous - but I am ready to admit I am not the standard gamer. Are these ads targeted at gamers, or at people likely to buy games as gifts (ie parents) ? These ads would be perfectly suited to, say, adult swim. The middle of network TV, not as much.


But that was the first one. The second ad put me over the top. It was for Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. And this one had 'Let Freedom Ring' playing through the whole thing, with scenes of what may very well have been real soldiers at the start of it fading into game characters at the end. It is now appropriate to use national patriotic tunes? That song is connected with the winning of the War of Liberty, and was reused recently in several pieces on Sept. 11th. Now its being used to market a game... HINT: If I want to see real soldiers, I can flip it over to CNN. Doesn't anyone remember that we are over there RIGHT NOW, that our men and women are very much still in harms way? It doesn't feel like the right time to cheapen that marketing a video game. Seems like the time for a nice generic add 'Get the bestselling Rainbow Six at a low low holiday price at your local XXX store'.


Now lets get one thing straight before you all go off flaming me (and I know you will anyway):


1. Do game companies have the right to make these games? Yes. I fully support the right of anyone to make any game about any content. Welcome to Freedom of Speech. I will defend anyone's right to say anything.


2. Do these companies have the right to market them how they choose? Yes, they do. Its their call, they bought the airtime, paid for the billboards, and so long as they aren't expressly promoting the sale of M rated games to minors, they again have the right to do whatever they want.


3. Shouldn't they be making less violent games? (See number 1).


But that doesn't make it a good idea. The fact is that it just isn't timely. Its the Holidays! Peace on Earth and all that. Granted that may not be forefront on everyone's mind as they fight for shopping carts at Target, but at home on the couch this is the time that most of us were taught to pray for Peace and Love. Its a little contradictory to see holiday ads with carnage and mayhem.


The final ad I saw on Thanksgiving was the one (to my mind) that got it right. Again the holiday jingle, again the lights and snowflakes. But this time just a simple 'Happy Holidays' message from Nintendo, with a silver Game Boy Advance. Simple, and probably less memorable, but to my mind better.


Maybe I just don't understand marketing and these other ads are ridiculously more effecticve. It is a forgone conclusion that the Holidays will sell a bazillioin games, the question is always how many zillion and which games do it. Perhaps these ads are just harmless, mindless fun. But what it seems like is that the gaming companies are thumbing their nose at the whole 'violence in games' issue, that they just don't give a damn, and that they think its all kind of funny. Do they have the right to say this? Sure they do. But I'm not convinced that is the best strategy, particularly at this time of year.


Ho-Ho-Boom.

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November 25, 2003

I Saw God and I Killed It

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Posted by Dave Evans

There are two very distint crowds that play games, the 'casual gamer' and the 'hard core gamer' - or at least thats what the gaming industry says. There is probably a third category of 'I want to be a hard core gamer but I'm an adult and have a life'. We'll talk about that some other time. In any event, the casual and the hard core. I consider myself to be fairly hard core, only because I (a) love playing games, and (b) play them a lot. But I saw the true die hards last week, and I saw just how little the gaming industry understands some of them.


Ghenwivar writes 'On monday November 17th, in the most amazing and exciting battle ever, Ascending Dawn, Wudan and Magus Imperialis Magicus defeated Kerafyrm, also known as The Sleeper, for the first time ever on an EverQuest server. The fight lasted approximatively 3 hours and about 170-180 players from Rallos Zek's top 3 guilds were involved. Hats off to everyone who made this possible and put aside their differences in order to accomplish the impossible. Congratulations RZ!!!


My hat goes off to you. They killed what Sony Online Entertainment intended to be unkillable. But rather than actually make it untargetable, Sony just gave it a ten billion hitpoints. For those non EQers out there a reference scale: a snake has about 10 hitpoints. A dragon has about 100,000. A god has 1-2million. This sleeper thing really does have about ten billion or more. It took close to 200 players almost 4 hours to beat the thing down into the ground.


Why, you might ask, would anyone waste four hours of their life doing this? Because a game said it couldn't be done. This is like the Quake freaks that fire their rocket launchers at their own feet to propel themselvs up so they can jump straight to the exit and skip 90% of the level and finish in 2 seconds. Someone probably told them they couldn't finish in less than a minute.


Games are about challenges, about hurdles or puzzles or fights overcome. To some players, the biggest hurdle or challenge is how to do what you (the designer) said couldn't happen. If you are making a game, accept this. Now. Why do I say this?


Lets back up to November 16th when the same 3 guilds on Rallos Zek made their first attempt on the Sleeper. They beat it down to 27% and then it mysteriously disappeared. Without dying. It seems that one of the Game Masters at SoE reset the zone because 'they thought the encounter might be bugged' (or, more accurately 'we realized these guilds were going to win, and the Sleeper isn't supposed to be able to die'). Wrong move. Seriously wrong move. First off, realize that a group of players like that, once they have set their minds to something, will keep at it until either the game is modified not to allow it, or until they kill it. Second, this reminded me of a similar incident when I was ten and playing Dungeons & Dragons with the kids next door: my character found a way to get the treasure without killing the big nasty thing that the GM had designed, so he made a stone block fall on my head and killed me. Seemed rather unfair at the time, and this smacks of the same disregard for the players ingenuity.


Sony eventually relented, gave the characters involved back some of their experience, and got them safely out from under the dragons feet. (They did know that they would try again, and had probably already made up their minds to allow it). The damage was done, a level of trust destroyed. Poofing the sleeper said 'we do not really understand why you are doing this, so stop it'. A supposedly PvP server bands together 200 people. The chat channels across the server were ablaze as no less than 5,000 of us listened in with 'OMG They attempting the Sleeper! Good luck d00dz!' Everyone clustered near their screens, sharing the thrill of the fight, the nobility of the attempt and the courage of those brave 200. Play slowed to a crawl on every server as whispers turned to shouts, as naysayers predicted 'it cant be done' or 'it will drop a rusty level 1 sword' and most of us just held our breath, silently urging them forward. Rumours abounded: 'If they win, the whole EQ world stops and you get the text from the end of Wizardry 1' or 'If they win, the president of Sony will log on and congratulate them'. With thousands watching and waiting, the Sleepers health inched ever downward.


Almost three hours into the fight, when victory looked possible, he disappeared, violating every rule in the world of Norrath on how a monster is supposed to behave. We thought you understood us better. The fact you let it happen the next night means very little - the point is on that first magical evening when warriors rode off to battle the supreme, you meddled. They thought of something you didn't, something legal by the rules of the game you set forward, and you meddled. In the parlance of the world you created: "shame & ridicule".


Oh, and God drops no loot.

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November 21, 2003

Return of the Game Getting

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Posted by Dave Evans

Got Game is returning. I am not dead (although I'm finishing up finals and grading lots of things, which I think could be classified as a form of death). I discovered a few things since the last time I posted.


1) I am going to be a FATHER. Interesting. I will have a little girl sometime in late January if all goes as expected. Not to worry, I have already purchased a suitable game controller for an infant, in pink. [ game slang reference: WOOT! although that doesn't begin to do it justice ]


2) Games in academia is rolling slowly forward. I've been away working on RIT's plans in this space (can't comment. WANT to comment, can't comment...).


3) I've missed the blog. I can't wait to get back into it.


Friday: I grade things. Weekend: I collapse. Monday: The Blog Returns.


To quote the ending of almost every episode of Inuyasha: "See you soon!"


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May 31, 2003

A New Kind of Game

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Posted by Dave Evans

I keep reading about the positive/negative aspect of 'online games' as if, somehow, they are completely devoid of any relationship between any other kind of game. I had a conversation with a game developer recently that went something like this:


GD: What kind of games do you like?
ME: Several kinds, but my favorites are probably RPG's.
GD: What RPG are you playing now?
ME: Neverwinter Nights and Everquest, and recently Shadowbane.
GD: Uh... those are online games.
ME: ... but I play them like RPGs
GD: ...


So, we are at an impasse. To be sure, there are several "game design" issues that crop up in online games that aren't there in single player versions ( player killing (PKing), camping (sitting there endlessly while the same content re-spawns and you kill it), etc.) But you know what? These aren't all entirely new - I used to 'PK' people in other games that only supported 2 players, its only easier in massively multiplayer games. I can remember playing Bard's Tale from EA, and I "camped" the same mob that dropped 'phat lootz' by getting there, killing it, saving, turning off my computer, turning it on, restoring to that position, and viola - mob was there! No, I didn't get to be all powerful in front of other players, but I did get to walk through the final dungeon of the game at level 99 with roughly ten thousand hit points on my tanks (things hit you for about 50 if that puts it in perspective). Never even had to heal...


The thing that is a little different, I suppose, is that you can influence the game of someone else, and so cheating takes on a much larger significance. But people still cheat (anyone have a packet-sniffing linux box running next to their EQ machine? eh?). And it doesn't kill the game. In the parlance of our times: /shrug.


"Online games", at its core, is not a genre. Its an extension of several known types of games into an online environment. Is that different? Sure. Does that completely devalue everything we *should* have learned about the existing genres as we apply them to the online world? Absolutely not. Let's take the SIMS Online, which is regarded currently as somewhat of a failure (although I am not sure that it is that, exactly), and which was mentioned over at Many to Many.


The SIMS was a descendant of SIM-CITY in many ways, so I'll start there. SIM CITY was a game that was incredibly interesting because of its play style. A Player setup an initial town and based on some semi-realistic processes and a bit of luck that town grew into a thriving metropolis, or a sink hole, depending on your "skill". This was tuned incredibly well, and struck a great balance between feeling like the player had control and the 'I set some things in motion and I sat back and saw the results of my actions'. That second part is the key to the whole "SIM" part of it - the idea of simulation is that you observe the natural output of a system after seeding it with initial values.


The SIMS took this further as the player got to engineer several little people, and place them in an environment and 'watch what would happen'. The way I and several of my friends played the SIMS was to set up little scenarios before we went to work, and then leave the computer on all day. Then you come home and see what unfolded. The sense of mystery was astounding. The SIMS even extended into a sort of online game in they way you could trade props and sets and objects with other people online and also in the way people recorded the stories told by their little sim-people in websites and emails.


Somehow, in the SIMS Online, all of that was scrapped. Because there are several people interacting in the same space, what you get back from the environment loses the mystery of 'everything that happened was, somehow, a result of my influence in the world'. That was the whole beauty of the SIMS, it was amazingly simple, but direct, and well executed. The SIMS Online forgot the basic lesson of the SIMS. That doesn't mean that a game with online capability is doomed to fail in the SIMS world - it means that there the game design community can't look at an online game as 'a new form of game' - its an old form of game that is *also* something new.


Go check out any gaming magazine at the newsstand that covers more than one kind of game and you'll find 'RPG', 'FPS', 'Racing', 'Adventure', and 'Online' (or something very similar). Online? Online is a technology, not a gaming genre. There is more similarity between Everquest and Diablo than Everquest and Half-Life.



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May 19, 2003

Finals

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Posted by Dave Evans

Hasn't been a lot of activity here lately, but don't worry, the blog will go into hyperdrive next week. Last week / this week is the final exam period at RIT, with graduation this weekend. This generally means that a faculty member's life is counted in hours if not minutes. A great many things are occuring that I need to write about, I'll be back soon.

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May 1, 2003

Appeal to My Group (Part II)

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Posted by Dave Evans

Ross Mayfield has posted a really interesting followup to my last post. He also remembered a little nugget of our conversation at ETCON, I wish I had remembered to write it down (as he points out, I was buying beer).


Ross: "What's interesting about virtual worlds is how when people meet each other in them their real identity is the least explicit of all the models. But gradually as they observe how each other acts in the game and chat, more clues are revealed about who they really are and trust increases. Modes of communication outside the gaming environment are commonly used and occassionally real world relationships are cemented by in-person meeting. Andrew pointed out that the ultimate test of trust is to hand over logins to someone else so they can literally walk in their virtual shoes. Kind of like giving the keys to your car and house in absence of insurance or rule of law."


In other news, a guild I know in EQ has decided to really put the screws on virtual communication and has started hosting a Voice Chat within Everquest - for the entire guild. 80-100 people will all have USB headsets and streaming voice with one another. [ they are working on some communication ettiquette now, about who talks in raids and such, what is allowable voice traffic and what still flows through text... ]


We had a conversation at one of the BOF sessions at ETCON about whether voice would work in a game like this, because most of the users of these games play them passively a large majority of the time (ie while watching television or chatting to another person elsewhere). I am interested to see voice, which is a heck of a lot more 'active' on a participatory scale, and how that works out. We'll see.

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April 26, 2003

Appeal to My Group

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Posted by Dave Evans

I got up and spoke as one of Tim O'Reilly's "alpha geeks" at ETCON about massively-multiplayer games. And immediately afterwards someone rushed up and asked me in the hallway 'Do you think there will ever be another successful MMORPG after Everquest?" Well, yes I do. But there is a reason most of the second generation (2G) MMOGs are failing - namely that they deny the existence of the games that came before them.


In the "original" crowd of MMOGs like Ultima Online and Everquest, players went there having never seen one before. It was brand new. And while you might have played with a small group of friends from work or home, the games threw you together into larger groups (ie "guilds") to take on end-game content. This was 5-7 years ago.


The problem with the 2Gs is that they mistakenly assume that players are once again going to trickle in by ones and twos and want new groups. That is not my experience. Instead, as guilds get bored or outstrip the content of their favorite games, they look for places to move en masse. The colony is looking for a new hive. This means that when I enter a game, I *have* a social structure already - I *know* who the leaders are, who I turn two for organization of raids and distribution of loot. I *want* a game in which, regardless of game power, my position in the guild community is maintained. But none of the 2Gs are offering that - they only offer the ability to "start fresh" - we want new games but we also want to continue playing that game with the hundred other people that we know and love - and that's what is causing the next generation to fail, a callous insensitivity to that simple fact.


An exampe: I was playing Shadowbane with a few players from my EQ days. My friends and I formed a "group" which is a little construct that is well known to us all. But we were also in a "guild" by virtue of which city we started in. I didn't want to be in some strange guild, I wanted to be in *mine*. So then we level up some characters by exploring the world. And one of them levels up faster than the rest of us by virtue of the fact that he doesn't have to teach a night class . And he hits the magic 'player-killer' level and *woosh* - he is no longer in our guild and can't be in the same area as the rest of us. Hey Mr. Game Designer - you just separated me from my friends that I want to play the game with. Mistake.


Now I'm sure that there is a world-balancing reason for this, that it makes sense within the game. But the gaming community is looking to get people onto their second-generation games (with the exception of Sony, who likes to release expansions for EQ).


The next successful MMOG will be one that realizes 3 things:


1. There were two generations and a series of MUDs/MOOs before those. The game should make it easy to transfer my existing social fabric from whatever game I am playing now to the new world. It doesn't matter if I have a level 1 character than can be killed by a wet mop, they should still be able to be an officer in a guild structure that can all be created on day 1.


2. We want to communicate with people in the game, even when we're not. This is the reason that player groups have message boards and phone trees. People want to be able to find out what is happening on their lunch break, that even though they weren't there the guild beat the big red dragon. That's still a victory, however vicarious. The player community has hacked tools to do this - putting IRC and AIM inside of EQ, for example. Most game companies try to stop this - why?


3. The experience of some players matters a lot more than others. Sorry, but its true. If I buy a game, try it, and don't like it - then the game developer is out one customer. But if I log in, try a game, and decide it isn't a good fit for my guild - then all of a sudden I've turned off a whole lot of potential customers. Most guild websites these days for Asheron's Call, EQ, etc. have running polls on other games, about whether or not they are any good. When one of those games is percieved as "better" than what the guild is doing now, they "hop". I've seen this when an a very large guild left my server on EQ for Asheron's Call. It means that the group is making the decision, not the individual player - but game companies are pitching to players, not to groups.


Stop trying to design my social experience - instead pay attention to the fact I already have a very complex one. I want better tools to communicate and facilitate the actions of that group, not a change in the group or the rules by how it is formed.


ETCON was a lot of fun. I'll have more stuff up in the next few days.

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April 25, 2003

Social Software Blog

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Posted by Dave Evans

Liz [and friends] have started a blog on Social Software at Corante. Knowing Liz, and having met Clay, I'm sure that it will be a very interesting place. It is my belief that games and entertainment spaces will define a lot of the future of social software - I know Clay and I disagree on this. But already we are talking about some play between the blogs and getting some things going. Have fun over there, sounds like a great crew, and we'll all be reading!

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April 23, 2003

ETCON

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Posted by Dave Evans

I am here. I haven't run into tons of people yet, I'm sitting here eating some breakfast, learning the ropes and blogging in real-time. Real... time.... technology still amazes me sometimes. First session in a half hour is Howard Rheingold, talking about his book Smart Mobs but everyone reading this blog should know him best from The Virtual Community. Lots and lots of fun.


UPDATE: Ran into Jane Pickard and Justin Hall from GameGirlAdvance! Hooray for having friends (although we'd never met). had an interesting discussion with Jane I want to write up later. Basically I can't keep up with the conference - too fast to digest, will take me a bit to get things out into words. But there will be coverage, oh yes, there will be coverage. A billion ideas crammed into your head in a compressed time. Its a good kind of 'ouch'.


I went to the Wednesday panel on DRM, but my machine died for a bit. Here is a better real-time blog then I could ever hope to make.


Many of the folks from the Social Software Alliance (SSA) are here - you should really check it out if you aren't here or even if you are and missed them somehow. I spoke at a session Tim O'Reilly did about stuff on his 'radar', of which what is happening in online games is an example. I'll flesh all this out into a full post. I used PHANK as an example of a player community. I wonder if anyone in Phank was there...


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April 21, 2003

More Guilty Pleasures

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Posted by Dave Evans

Several more discussion on the 'Guilt Article' (as it is now known around here). Configsys.boy posting a follow up at http://www.configsysboy.com/archives.php?page=log/archives/2003/04/arts_and_electronic_entertainment.php. There were some other threads out there off of www.technorati.com but they seem to have vanished into the ether now. In case you missed it the State of Washington now feels it can independently censor particular kinds of violence in video games - one wonders what else will be 'illegal to depict' in the near future. I realize most everone reads GGA along with this site, but in case you missed it, they have (as usual) excellent covereage here. I'm off to ETCON.

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April 20, 2003

Random Updates

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Posted by Dave Evans

Several of you sent me love/hate mail after the Guilty As Charged article - which is great. Some readers apparently missed the sarcasm running through the article - I do not think games are a waste of time, but I do think that they are perceived as such. Anyway, several discussions going on about that thread at various sites. I'll link up the discussions, some of them were good to read. Also - we *are* working on comments on this blog, and an RSS feed. Really. I don't run the tech for the site, but it is important, and it will happen (not just by popular demand, but also by author request ). I recently became involved in the Social Software Alliance - which seems interesting. I will be at ETCON next week meeting lots of people and talking about multi-user games. I hear there is also this big glowing thing in the sky called the 'Sun' - I am on a fact-finding mission from Rochester, NY to see if this is true. Depending on the network situation there will either be (a) lots of small Got Game? updates during the conference as things happen or (b) one huge update sometime early next week. Either way, I'm excited, and I will record my thoughts. Also looking forward to the plane ride to better acquaint my thumb with my GameBoy. More soon.

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April 15, 2003

Guilty as Charged

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Posted by Dave Evans

So I was having this talk with some friends last week. Surprisingly the same topic came up more than once, which doesn't happen all that often when it's outside our normal conversation paths. Liz was one of these people, and she was remarking about the fact that she spent the night before playing Pokemon on her Gameboy Advance SP (which is a really nice piece of hardware). And she was sitting there in her office saying (to paraphrase) 'Yea, I spent all last night playing game. Sometimes I wonder about playing games with my time, you never really have anything to show for it'. And I thought this was pretty interesting, because you don't really have anything to show for it. I mean, I have a level 9 million wizard in Neverwinter Nights - but so what? That doesn't really mean anything to anyone, and it shouldn't. As Liz and I were talking I came to realize something - she felt guilty. Guilty at having wasted the time playing a game, when other past times would offer a more tangible result. But then she said a very interesting thing. She said (again to paraphrase) "I know myself. I wouldn't have spent that time working. Don't get me wrong I'm not lazy, I work a lot, but sometimes you need 'non-work' time. I would have spent it reading a book or watching a movie or something, but instead I wasted it."


Now that's pretty interesting, because it starts to point at a kind of societal acceptability scale for our free time in which games rank last. Why is that? Doesn't playing games teach things like good logic skills and hand-eye coordination? Granted not many of us make a living off of hand-eye coordination any more, but still. Some folks have been using games very much like Sim City to teach economics and city planning in junior high. The military uses games to teach planning and strategy, as well as real-time reaction drills. But no, playing games is wasted time. And to be perfectly honest, I've sat up and blinked after a few good hours of Everquest and said 'Boy, that was a complete waste of a day'. And I felt guilty. And in many cases it is a waste of a day: I didn't do anything around the house, or wash the car or anything. But as Liz pointed out, I wouldn't really have done that anyway.


What I might have done is read. Or watched a movie. Or TV. If I was watching Discovery channel, that would be better right? More productive than Animal Crossing? But if I were watching Dexter's Laboratory, would that still be better? If I were reading that would clearly be better than all of them - does that include Star Trek novels? Ok, I don't read Star Trek novels, but you get the idea. We, as a society, are quick to dismiss any relative merits of game playing as compared to almost any other media: but are we willing to apply the same focus to what we actually do with other media? Part of this is that we really don't know a lot about what games teach us, or our youth. Don't worry though, Joe Lieberman is calling for national funding to study the effect of games. I smell a non-biased study if there ever was one [insert dripping sarcasm]. But this is not just a Congress out of touch with mainstream culture. I offer you this challenge: think of something to do in your free time that is 'less meaningful' or 'worse' than playing the new Zelda that doesn't involve breaking the law. I bet the list is short.


The final issue is one that a student at another university and I were discussing the other day. One of the groups on campus wants to have a very large LAN party on campus. (A LAN party is one in which the party members each bring a computer, network them all together, and then play a multi-user game with/against each other). And the university in question wasn't sure if that was really 'a social event' that they could fund, because the students would just be 'staring at the computers instead of meeting and greeting one another'. Now, is that just ignorance on the part of the school officials because they have never seen a LAN party, or is that how we as a society think of gaming culture and collaboration? Is the stereotype still a teenage male in the basement all by themselves? Haven't we moved beyond that?

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April 7, 2003

Hard

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Posted by Dave Evans

I was having a conversation with a colleague the other day (before the power went out all over Rochester due to our Ice Storm 2003) about the development of the MS in Game Design & Development. And we were talking about the degree, and its overlap with our social software initiative, and how all of this ties together and what we were going to do academically, and what courses they would take and which path and this and that and blah blah blah. And something stuck me in the middle of the conversation which was: The study of games (and more generally any other social software architecture), will depend largely in part upon the social community of the degree itself - possibly moreso than other disciplines.


First off, understand that college is in itself an incredibly social thing. We (faculty) argue about courses and content, but there are a thousand other factors as to whether students get the experience they need to have. Who they date. Where (or if) they do their laundry. What clubs are on campus, and if they identify with them. Who they live with. Who they have classes with. Whether or not they like their classes. Whether or not they like their campus. (Both liking and not liking something have their plusses and minuses). Millions of things that somehow form the collective event of 'being a student'. There are thousands of ways to do it, and some of them work for some people. It is my belief that studying social software will be impossible in a vacuum.


I can almost believe that people can study 'how to build X' without a lot of the above - provided there is a set of predefined goals and step-by-step instructions. Thus, 'how to build a castle that looks exactly like this with this set of building blocks' can be done either alone or one on one. No interaction required. But once we get to 'why' we would build such a castle, the whole thing changes - the faculty member is only a facilitator to the correct experience or set of experiences (who in fact has only so much control on the process because all we are responsible for are courses), because there is no single and correct reponse to 'why'. (Although on is tempted with the childhood response of 'Becuase').


Life, in its absolute, becomes the vehicle of education, because to truly understand a culture, you have to be a part of it. I am not convinced that you can effectively understand what it is to be a gamer, for example, without being one (and if you try to, you will likely become a gamer before you can claim any reasonable measure of success). And this makes them very hard to study and it also makes building a degree in gaming not only an academic exercise but also one of careful social engineering. This runs contrary to the very notion of impartial observer and experimental theory.


I can see this with games, because games effect their makers so strongly. When students come to me their questions are not 'will I study technique XYZ?' or 'will I get a job?' but 'how can I learn to make [game X]?' ( where [game X] is a game that they played in childhood ). Bard's Tale, Asteroids, Pitfall, Zelda, these are all popular choices. Yes, they all want to do it with new fully immersive ultra high-def 3D and whatnot, but generally people getting their feet wet are not interested in studying new forms of play - they are interested in lavishly recreating the old ones with better technology. And there is nothing wrong with studying the old forms first, indeed it is difficult to explore new alternatives without first understanding the major genres and niches - but at some point originality is key... regardless of what we try to study anyone in this culture invariable relates any idea back to a basis in another game, and anyone who isn't in this culture has long since left the room out of disinterest.


As I sit here (and I've had two prospective student emails thus far even while I write this in spite of the fact we only have a concentration at the moment and not a degree) I am floored by the number of people that wish only to recreate, albeit with better tech, that which has been seen and described before. And it is in part because they are a part of the gaming culture, and that is what drew them here. The culture is so iconic, worships its past with such fervor, that it is nearly impossible to break the mold. You can see this in the chicken-and-egg problem described in the GDC coverage about sequels and licensed property, in the venture capital models that are only willing to fund games that are almost exactly like other successful games. I've seen game proposals that literally say 'We want to build a Quake-like thing but that takes place in a kind of giant bee-hive with insectoid enemies'. ("Not that there's anything wrong with that!"). This attitude is now beginning to permeate the study of games in academia, or at least in the way we as faculty and administration are thinking about it.


Example question: What will these students be able to do when they graduate?
Sample response: Build games. You know like [insert example of modern successful game here]. They can be successful like company XYZ, who grew by four thousand percent last year.


So where do they learn to think outside of that box? If all you can point to are successful past instances and what made them successful, how do you learn the art of innovation? When I went to art school no one (ok a few people but not a lot) said 'paint like this person does'. So why do we force developers (through a variety of market forces and cultural norms) to 'build games like that person does'?


This happens in part because we all still lack a frame of reference for the study of this. We all still lack a vocabulary (as was pointed out at the Academic Summit at GDC 2002, see a synopsis here). Academics are great at coming up with mumbo jumbo like 'A successful student will be able to effectively evaluate the competing forces of designs that produce a successful title in the electronic entertainment marketplace". What did I just say? A student will be able to look at a game and determine which features are most like other successful games and thus how likely it is that the game in question is going to be successful. Except - all of the huge successes in the games industry have been the odd-balls, the things that have flown in from 'off the radar' to take the world by storm. Can you teach that ?


I see the same problems in social software on the whole. We study technology, but we do not study with the same effectiveness the culture that makes the technology useful - we look instead only at the past: How this is like / not like the telephone. How this is like / not like the television. And now we're starting in on how is this like / not like email - like / not like the MUD, or MOO. And this is not meant as derogatory towards those many studies, its a great way to begin to understand - to fit current phenomena in a frame of reference that can be understood. But it is not the only way to place this in a context, and it may be that placing it in several contexts at once could be more academically interesting. We try to separate content from presentation from delivery, when it is only by merging these things that anything usable, anything desirable, exists. Perhaps the age old addage of 'break it apart into component pieces until it can be understood' fails in the study of modern computing/communication.


Are we already so far past the birth of the Internet that we can only stare now at the original birth of the browser, forever focused on our collective navel? Or is it deeper than that. It is easier, and one can claim more success, if we focus solely on what we already almost know. It is easy to claim advances in delivery mechanisms, leaving for someone else how that will eventually be used. And that is good and important work, basic research at its core. And we can study how something is already used, what made it successful, digital archeology, even if it happened last month. But how do you get at the in-between, the thing that springs with/from a culture, and produces technology to mold so form-fitting around it, to nurture it and grow it and produce not only a product but a set of people with it, in unison, the way online games have done since their beginning? How do you study that? How can you begin to come to terms with that?


Today is a day my job feels hard. I took a duck in the face (an homage to Pattern Recognition).


UPDATE: An interesting counterpoint to this was presented here by Clive Thompson. Worth the read, he thinks I'm nuts (which may be true).

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April 3, 2003

Shall we Play a Game?

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Posted by Dave Evans

Greetings Professor Falken... All references to bad movies starring Ferris Beuler aside, there seems to be some recent impetus with games and the military (ok, not so recent, but recently publicized given world events). The New York Times reports on soldiers training through the use of games, including a virtual Iraq. Will Wright has been having all kinds of Sim fun (possibly with the CIA), reported in a recent USA Today article and mentioned at Ludology and GameGirlAdvance. I can almost picture a little Sim Hussein running around with player-community packs for army outfits and super special desert fatigues. Spy glasses to fool the American intelligence community are a special download for $3.99.


The military training with games technology is nothing new. They were doing this with Flight Simulator a long time ago. What's interesting is that they are starting to try and capitalize on "gaming culture" (a la America's Army), and in part on the idea that players are desensitized to killing after doing it over and over in a game (which I argue is a false assertion, that no amount of virtual carnage can compare to the known act of taking human life). Is it true that somehow "gaming culture" may be more suited to acts of war? Indeed the very imagery seen in the last Gulf War and in this one has made war a sort of spectator sport, all you need is a joystick to take part ( a la Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card ). It's interesting to see the military reference EG in the NY Times article above, and yet they missed the subtle point at the end of the story that Ender Wiggen himself is destroyed by what he has (unknowingly) done. A careful read of EG is really about psychological conditioning and the warping of a young mind to the point where Bean does not immediately recognize that killing is even wrong... I am reminded of Real Genius when Lazlo is told that what he was doing was killing people and he 'cracked', living in the basement of the University for years on end.


I buy all the arguments that simulation is cheaper than the real thing, that virtual places are great for wargames. I buy the argument that training in virtual space saves lives because of less accidents. I buy the arguments about reaction time and mindset, about drilling for combat scenarios in differing terrains and environments. I can take almost at face value all the arguments presented General Paul Gorman at PoP! Tech (Windows Media Video Stream here: http://stream.knowtechnology.net/poptech/ ), which argue at the marvelous effectiveness at using games as training tools for the military. But I am personally horrified at the thought of actually implementing a system like that described in Ender's Game, or any one of a thousand other Sci-Fi scenarios.


My reasoning goes something like this: The point of going to war is to win - and if you don't want to win, don't go to war. More formally, the point of going to war is to reach one's political objectives through the use of military force. Thus, there is (or at least should be) some end condition in which one side will perceive itself a "winner" and cease hostilities. Or, if you choose the inverted view, one side will perceive itself the "loser" and surrender by capitulating to the political demands of the "winner". (I am using "winner" and "loser" in the common game vernacular, note that in real warfare these are not nearly so absolute).


The point of a game is not to win. The point of a game is to have fun. Most people associate winning with having fun. But I could build a game that just starts up and immediately gives you 8 billion points and says 'you win'. Fun game? Lots of replay value? And yet, such a scenario would be preferable in war, if you 'won' without the battle, perhaps by amassing all your troops along the border and intimidating the enemy into surrender. If I played the game described earlier, I would want my money back. If I were a soldier, I'd be high-fiving my platoon.


Games can offer a very real sense of what I will label 'pseudo-warlike-mentality' (there are many formal studies that cover this in greater depth). Players are under pressure to stay alive, advance towards strategic goals, and slay enemies. There is a great deal of camaraderie and gallows humor in multi-user games that allow players to serve on a pseudo military unit (either with or against each other). This even works in games in which the backdrop to combat is fantastical - Everquest or Star Command. But the analogy doesn't really hold.


One of the traditions in my EQ guild is that we sacrifice a gnome whenever we fight a dragon. We send someone in to die. There are some strategic reasons for this, and often in real combat soldiers need to be sent into impossible situations (just like a single gnome against a dragon). But the gnome, unlike the soldier, isn't really going to die. My guild laughs when the gnome gets eaten, with a lot of good-natured (and sometimes profane) ribbing. Death, in a game-world has very little meaning. When you attach real-world death to a game, it fails to be a game, because the very goal of a game (to have fun) is lost. Instead, you have a system that uses some display and AI routines to simulate a very serious exercise.


Isn't the whole problem with a lot of the despots we've seen over history is that they regard war as a game? They look at the cost sheets and balances, think of the little men on the board and where they can move to, how many are projected to live and die, what kinds of equipment and terrain they have to deal with - and miss the whole damn point.

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March 31, 2003

Individual Cultures for Individual Game Worlds

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Posted by Dave Evans

I started another Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) this weekend, created a new character in the world of Shadowbane. And as I was playing around, I noticed a few things. First, my Everquest hotkeys don't work anymore. Or at least about a third of them, it seems like the designers used a few of the commands, but not others. Thankfully, the ones they did use work the same. But most of my observations went something like this: What do I think about this game and the people I am playing with? It's an interesting experience every time I start one of these games, because its not only a whole new world, its a whole new culture, with a different set of norms.

For example: In Shadowbane, it is apparently OK to loot other people's corpses. In the Everquest community, this is heresy. Everquest operates on a very important principle of 'thou shalt not steal, unless by cheating the game. Cheating the game is ok, just not other players' (I am speaking from the player culture here, I don't really care what Sony Online Entertainment tries to enforce). In Shadowbane, you are silly for not looting someone's corpse, even in the non- player vs. player areas. I got to watch no small amount of drama as this played out for a member of my group, culture shock extreme as the group looted his corpse and wouldn't return his money. It was his fault for dying.

On the whole, I am left with an impression that the folks I am playing with are younger than they are in Everquest. I don't know exactly how I got that sense, though. I don't (yet) have hard numbers on the player community for SB, but I'd be suprised if the average age isn't lower than EQ. Just things people have said, actions in stressful situations, etc. But who can say. The game itself is interesting but lacks the 'old feel' of my beloved Norrath.

I am, by all reasonable definitions, a newborn. I don't know how to communicate, how to get around, how I fit in the societal structure of the world or its player community. A great lesson here to those that feel they are not "set in their ways" - imagine if you could experience the real world again with no knowledge of it - how would you fare?

I will continue my research of orcs and goblins.

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March 28, 2003

Waking Up Sick

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Posted by Dave Evans

Lots of press and discussion popping up about cheating in online games, and its effects on the gaming communities in which it happens. The New York Times recently ran this piece, which was an interesting look into the issue, and the wonderful folks over at GameGirlAdvance linked back to the year 2000 piece at the Game Developers Conference on the same topic. All very interesting stuff - but the thing that blew me away was a fairly recent development on the Stormhammer Server of Sony's Everquest Legends.


The names here are removed to protect the innocent, and most of the threads I read this on have now been deleted which is why I [almost] think its ok to talk about. It seems that one of the "guilds" on the Stormhammer server has recently had a moment of crises with it's guild leadership. The group of RL (real life) friends that formed the guild apparently had a very different purpose than those intended by Verant and Sony Online Entertainment. After months of leading the guild on several high-end raids and gaining all kinds of in-game items and loot, this group of friends took those items from the guild vault and sold them on Ebay, and then vanished from the server.


Online identity and trust issues abound. But before you dismiss this as 'oh, well, who really cares about some gold pieces and magic swords that are really just numbers in a database', take a good look at what's happening in online communities of this size. One economic study by California State University at Northridge Professor Edward Castronova placed Norrath (the virtual world of Everquest) as the 77th richest world economy, based on the value of the items in the world adjusted to their value in then-current Ebay auctions. This was reported in WIRED (link above) and several other sources.


So the folks that perpetrated this virtual heist won out with what could have amounted to thousands of dollars in US currency. Now, this is devious, I suppose, but I personally know people who make money starting new characters, powerlevelling them up to god-like status, and then selling them off and starting again. Any cheat program or automated levelling system is just an advantage to reduce the time between character creation and profit on investment. So what makes this different?


In a word, trust. What's interesting as a social phenomenon is the idea that people are willing to sell "virtual relationships" and/or reputation for real world currency. The vault vandals will likely never be able to show themselves on the server again (although they *might* as different characters, which is another interesting issue of online identity), the one thread that holds these communities together is reputation. But in the end, was that worth it? I mean, who cares if you blow off some other folks that play a game - it's not like you *really* stole anything...


The other thing that was fascinating was the speed at which this spread through the community of Norrath. Wildfire doesn't come close to describing it, more like 'instant atomic detonation'. And that's because actions like this strike at the heart of what makes massively-multiplayer games tick - teamwork and collaboration. The games are structured such that in the end-game there really is no solo play. Dragons take 40-70 people to kill, and everyone must work together, even if it is to kill 'the other team' rather than a computer controlled monster. To betray your team is to essentially abdicate from the society. So what makes this so incredibly common? The balance of real-world reward to virtual fame? Fascinating.

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