Saturday, July 11, 2015

We Need More World-Events

In my line of work I often meet people (mostly teenagers) who share my love and enthusiasm for video games and we often end up both playing and talking a lot about them. The other day I got to hang out with a guy who was playing Runescape (among other things) and he told me a bit about it. It seems like a cool game in general although extremely grindy (apparently quests of the sort "kill 100 of these" are standard. Yes 100, that's no exaggeration) but one thing in particular stuck in my mind. He told me of an event that, if I understood correctly, happened pretty recently in-game as part of an update/expansion to the game. Players were asked to hand in buckets of sand (and possibly other things the kid didn't mention) and in the end an island (or possibly beach) emerged in the game that hadn't been there before - complete with new places to skill up different professions or techniques. Now if you happen to play Runescape and know I got that all wrong, what matters is that it got me thinking about inclusion in video games and that it is the one thing that really sets MMO's apart from your every day singleplayer game.

And they say WoW graphics are outdated (Runescape in 2007) -

It might sound weird to talk about inclusion when talking about video games, because in essence video games are all about inclusion. Their interactive nature naturally invites the player to feel included and feel like they affect what happen around them (more or less). But MMO's can provide inclusion on a different scale, one in which the individual (that is you) gets to truly feel like they are part of something bigger and like they made a difference in the world around them.

Looking at a game like World of Warcraft, Blizzard have always known the power of this and allowed players to feel included in every expansion they released. Instead of just telling players there was a new expansion coming, they allowed us to experience it and take part of it through special events in game. One of my favorites was the massive event that preluded the opening of Ahn'Qiraj. Back then I had just started playing and was far from a raider, so I had little understanding of what was going on other than that everyone, from a low level casual scrub like me to the hardcore raiders, regardless of faction, united to achieve a common goal. There was something to get for everyone, you didn't have to be part of a big guild or know a lot of people who played - you just needed to take part in the event. It just felt magical to be part of something as massive as that undertaking. The event included gathering a vast variety of items and hand them in, but everyone could chip in and that was the important part.

You had to be there -

And the events that lead up to Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King were similar huge folk festivals where everyone seemed to stop what they were doing and come together to achieve the same goal regardless of whether you were a pvp:er, raider or quester. My rose tinted goggles will allow me to ignore the fact that Blizzard obviously cleverly designed the events to entice these different groups to come together, but that is exacly what good game design should do.

I think this is different from multiplayer games in general, where you obviously also see a bunch of people work together (hopefully) for a common cause. Most importantly because these MMO events offer change - they allow the player to take place in changing the world that they live in rather than just repeating an action (like any multiplayer shooter for instance where the same goal is achieved or failed over and over without permanent change, similar to the seasonal events or pvp done in WoW.)

Party with the dead -

Could you implement something similar in a singleplayer game? Would we even want that? I am thinking both yes and no. On the one hand I always think it's interesting to see how you could develop new gaming experiences, on the other hand I feel like singleplayer and multiplayer games deliver very different gaming experiences and that's ok. Naturally there are things in multiplayer you can't do in singleplayer and vice versa and I doubt you could conjure the same feeling of scale in a singleplayer game as you could in a multiplayer, unless you somehow managed to hook up singleplayers making it a sort of inbetween like Dark Souls. Could you make multiplayer games other than MMOs adopt this idea? Could a game like Team Fortress 2 or CoD include this kind of gameplay? I am sure they could, in fact I would love to see it be done more often. Instead of just giving players a new map/arena/whatever, you could have an in-game event regarding it. Whether it would go down well or people prefer things to be as static and predictable as possible in these kind of settings I don't know - personally I would love a bit of gameplay diversity (which might be why I don't play those kind of games much).

And what kind of content should have these kind of world-events? Anything? Free stuff or pay for stuff? It worked in WoW to have everyone engage in a world-event that essentially preceded something that you still had to pay for to experience but I am not sure that works in any kind of game. But I am probably getting way ahead of myself here.

I haven't played enough other MMO's to know to which extent they incorporate this kind of gameplay, I can't recall anything like it in the few months I played Warhammer though. I do realize it is probably a huge undertaking for a game developer to try to achieve but the reward must surely be worth it. I can only speak for myself but all of the world-events I took part in in WoW, which was pretty much all of them from Vanilla to early MoP, became some of my fondest and best memories of the game.

My personal opinion is that the experience got watered down as WoW progressed, but it might also just be that every new world-event became less and less of a big thing for me. It was just another expansion with another world-event. I like to think that is not the case and I'm not that jaded, but rather that Blizzard included the players less and less. If I compare the level of player commitment required for the Ahn'Qiraj event with that of the Mists of Pandaria event... wait, did MoP even have an event? I can't remember it if it did. But Ahn'Qiraj wasn't even for an expansion, just another (or technically two) new raids. In Burning Crusade we got to work together to unlock the Sunwell Isle. I would've loved to see more events like that, that changed parts of the game, big or small. To me nothing else ever came close to making the world feel as alive, real and worthwhile as those all-player-including world-events ever did.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Baby & Game (Part 2 - All Fun And Games)

A couple of years ago I read Jane McGonigals book "Reality Is Broken" and eventhough I wasn't overly fond of the book in particular (you can read about it here) I did like the core concept - that through presenting seemingly dull tasks as fun games there is a lot of manpower to be put into useful things. As an example I remember a game that allowed "players" sort through thousands of snippets of old documents found by archaelogists, marking the ones that had letters on them (and which letters), thus saving the actual archaeologists tons of time. I tried this game myself and it wasn't fun, or should I say ellaborate, enough to spend hours on (but then some game concepts are very simple yet keep you hooked) but good enough to jump in every now and then. Even if only a couple of thousand people try it out and spend in total an hour playing it, there is alltogether a lot of time saved for what in reality is a menial task. Hence, Reality Is Broken. The title is actually quite catchy, since it pinpoints something crucial about the world around us. It's easy to make things boring, but it's also not that difficult to make things more fun.

Personally I've noticed that trying to make things more fun for yourself is a much more difficult task than to do it to someone else or have someone else do it for you. Maybe it's a bit like tickling, where it just doesn't work if you try to do it to yourself. Anyone who's tried it knows that sticking to a diet, gym regime or quit smoking all by yourself is a lot trickier than when you have friends who're in it with you. Or if you have some sort of app that allows you to track your progress. I mentioned to a friend at work the other day that the way she was tracking points and progress on her diet was a lot like a game. You're presented with a challenge that you need to overcome and the app gives you clear visual feedback on your progress, something that might be difficult to see if your just checking the scales. I know there are apps that do similar things for smoke-quitters - tracking how much money you've saved and "life you've gained". I once tried a browser game that was meant to make daily chores more fun in allowing for my character to level up and become stronger if I managed to do the laundry and dishes, or die if I failed (I died pretty early on...).

So eventhough the book was so-so, I am a big fan of the idea that by making things more gamey, ie fun, there is a lot that can be accomplished. Both on a society-scale and a personal-scale. I am sure you've also had the thought "if only I put all these hours into a degree/learning an instrument/learning another language/actually writing that book I always wanted to write I'd probably be rich by now". I read the book before I decided to try for a kid and I had embraced the idea long before I read the book but I also think I had fused the two in my head a long time ago. That having a kid could in many ways be seen as playing a game. I made the comparison to Tamagotchi in a post once, and mentioned then that I obviously understand that having an actual child is a lot more serious than "just" playing a game. After all it's another person we're talking about here, not my personal object of entertainment. Unlike a game, a kid is not something to give attention to when you feel like it and ignore when you don't. Nerdraging and rage quitting are not options you should consider. Rather than seeing child-raising as a game, I tried to think about how game-playing could affect my interactions with my child.

If you think about it, they do have a lot in common. There are things you do in games that aren't in themselves particularly fun but that you do anyway because the overall goal is worth it (ie grinding for an item). In the same way there are things you need to do with a child that aren't in themselves particularly fun but that you do anyway because it makes you happy to see your child happy (ie change diaper, read the same book/play the same game for the hundredth time). Most importantly, gaming requires a lot of patience. After having died 150 times to the same boss (yes, it happens), after having failed with the same platforming jump for the 30th time, after having spent 20 minutes on trying to crack a puzzle - having fun will give you the patience you need to give it another go.

Having a 1,5 year old, I realize that whether I say "yes" or "no" about something really comes down to patience. No I don't have the patience to make sure you don't break these things, so I'm not going to let you see them. No I don't have the patience for this to take three times more time, so I am not going to let you "help" me. No I don't have the patience to make sure you don't hurt yourself, so I am not going to let you go there. I decided early on I wanted to avoid saying no to my son just because I didn't have the patience to do it. I wanted my "no's" to mean something to him, hopefully making him understand that when I do say no, it's because it really means no, not because mommy doesn't feel like it. And dealing with a child really requires immense amounts of patience. Even if they're completely well behaved they can require so much energy. It also requires so much more patience since you're dealing with someone who has no concept of time and has very little patience of his/her own.

That's why I figured I would probably do us both a favor if I tried to make things more fun, for myself and for him. It definitely helps that I have the time to not have to rush things, I imagine it'll be a new challenge once I am pressed for time, trying to get to work while getting kid and everything else ready (that'll probably be matters for a future post). But now I have the time to let him help out with cleaning, in fact he has so much fun doing something I find quite boring, it gets more fun for me to do as well. Because he loves watering the plants it actually gets done every now and then, I used to forget about it until my plants started turning dangerously yellow (I am sorry!). Because he loves throwing things in the bin we don't have crumpled papers (like receipts) lying around anymore (and have sadly lost some other things when not looking). We can make a game out of putting away things when you're done with them, getting dressed, brushing your teeth (works some of the time at least), sweeping the floor (he loves that too). If he is having fun with it, I don't have to see it as a chore and it's a lot easier to have patience and energy for it. And to be fair I might as well make the most of it while he thinks it's fun, because I am pretty sure that won't last for much longer.

And obviously not everything is fun and games all the time. I can't have my kid help me with everything (like cleaning the toilet) and I can't be available 100% of the time (he still doesn't really get why I need to go to the bathroom). But the mindset definitely helps offsetting a lot of frustration.

In essence, I think games have taught me not to see an unhappy child as an obstacle but as a challenge, an opportunity for me to learn something and maybe try something different. They have helped me to keep my focus on the goal rather than to feel stuck at a problem, knowing that eventually I will get to the reward even if it feels like hard work at the moment. Those countless wipes in WoW definitely helped me forge that way of thinking and I actually think it has helped me in my everyday life.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Top 5 Video Game Music Composers

A question asked way too rarely is - what kind of music are you into? Everyone loves to go on about their favorite music band, but a lot less people like to hear about it, unless they happen to love that same band (which is almost never the case). However, let's assume someone hypothetically asked me this question - I may even dare say it's actually happened once or twice during my lifetime - what would I tell them?
I could tell them I enjoy listening to everything from Prokofiev to Björk to Prodigy to Kate Bush to Frank Zappa to Infected Mushroom to Busta Rhymes to electro swing to whatever this is but frankly they would've probably got stuck on "Pro... what?". A much easier way for me to keep their interest, or at least sum up what kind of music I'm really into in as few words as possible is for me to simply say - video game music.

Now "video game music" in itself is a confusing term since there is a huge difference between music from say Super Mario Bros and Mass Effect. Then there's also Bitpop and Chiptunes which is music made with the same "instruments" as video games to varying degrees, but that doesn't actually feature in any video game. Some video game music we like for nostalgic reasons and some we like because they're just simply damn awesome. This is a list I've been wanting to write for some time now, because I feel like Video Game Composers often don't get half the recognition they deserve. Most people know the names of a dozen artists they dislike only because they're mentioned every ten seconds on the radio, but can only mention Nobuo Uematsu when you ask them about VGM, eventhough they might love the music from so many more. I'm not saying I'm much better unfortunately, but I've really been trying to improve. This is one way to do it, I guess. This has been a challenging post for me though, mostly because I've needed to limit myself, like a lot. The Top 5 was pretty easy for me to do, but to then grab only a handful of songs to represent those people! Almost impossible...

In the name of fairness I will mention that the people on this list haven't necessarily done work on these songs on their own, sometimes it's in collaboration with other artists. But they're listed as the main creator, as far as I know.

5. Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka
Hirokazu Tanakas music perfectly encapsulates something that I've always had the utmost respect for regarding the whole 8-bit era - the ability to create something brilliant from such limited technology. Although 8-bit games are not among my favorites to play (with some few exceptions) for reasons I can only speculate about, I've always been fascinated in how these people could squeeze out so much from so little and the inventiveness that must lie behind it. I am very happy to see a throwback to those days in the new indie-scene but obviously there is never anything like the original style. Hip Tanakas does with music what the game designers did with programming - he manages to make music, some that I am sure you've all heard by now, easy to listen to, recognizable and charming with what limited capabilities the NES sound chip had, keeping it brilliant in its simplicity and in something that sounds like it squeezed every last drop of energy from the sound chip. With only a few notes he manages to make anyone smile or just wanna get up and dance. It's so great because it's so minimalistic and yet makes you feel like it fits the game perfectly.

4. Nobuo Uematsu
I have something of a love-hate relationship with Nobuo Uematsus work. On the one hand he can bring me close to tears with the pieces I have a connection to, ie the music from the FF (or Chrono Trigger) games that I have played. On the other hand, I feel nothing for his music if I haven't played the game it's connected to. I'm not sure what to make of that. He clearly manages to create very catchy tunes, but they're not much outside their setting. They basically need the surrounding and the story for you to understand their greatness, they live off of bringing you back to those places. They are brilliant at being memorable, but only if you have a memory of them. For instance, I think basically every tune on the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack is amazing. And since I've played almost every Final Fantasy I am a pretty big fan of any of those soundtracks as well. But he's done a lot of work I don't care much for, like the Final Fantasy spin-offs (Chrystal Chronicles comes to mind, Blue Dragon). But there is no denying that Uematsu is probably the VGM creator I've listened the most to and I hold his work in very high regard.

3. Naoki Kodaka
Although I only discovered this composer recently and aside from Blaster Master never played any of the games he's composed for I immediately fell in love with this fantastic piece of music. How can you listen to that and not turn your speakers up to max and start bopping your head? Impossible I say. And it's not an isolated event either. Or this. You know in fact, just go listen to the Journey to Silius soundtrack and you will know what I mean, otherwise I'll just end up linking the entire thing here. And yes, that is a NES sound chip you're listening to. If you think Journey to Silius is the only time he got it right (because you're crazy and didn't like the Blaster Master tune), let me prove you wrong. Kodaka manages to create music that make the game seem unworthy. He is a perfect example of what I mean when I talk about video Game Composers that deserve more recognition because all this really good music deserves to get listened to a lot more than just when someone happens to stumble upon the game. So go listen to them.

2. Michiru Yamane
Michiru Yamane is most famous for her Castlevania music (although the music for the first Castlevania on the NES was actually done by another woman, Kinuyo Yamashita), but she also did work on the soundtracks of the Rocket Knight games and Contra: Hard Corps to mention a few. Michirus Castlevania music is some of the very first VGM I got really into listening to, that was long before I even played any of the games myself (which I didn't really do until just last year). So even without any nostalgic connection to the music I was immediately hooked by the tunes. I think a big reason for my love of her Castlevania music especially (although the Contra: Hard Corps music is epic as well) is that I am big fan of classical music and this strikes the same chord within me. Her tunes manage to capture the essence of the game and bring out the exact right mood while also being fantastic tunes just on their own.
Like I mentioned I've since played a couple Castlevanias, mostly the handheld ones (GBA & DS). I've decided to save what I think might be the best for last - Symphony of the Night. And this song that is actually my mobile phone ring signal at the moment. Now if that isn't proof of love, I don't know what is.

1. Yuzo Koshiro
The main reason Yuzo Koshiro ends up as number one in this list (because frankly, it's been damn difficult to grade) is because his music always makes me think "why is this music so damn good?". Somehow the music he creates manages to feel like it perfectly fits the game it's in without in any way falling into the obvious tropes of music creation (like bongo drums on the jungle stage). Koshiro has his own inventive and very recognizable style that just makes me go "hells yeah!" when I hear it. How does this not make you want to punch faces with rage. Yet there is no no agressiveness in the tune, just pure upbeat to get your blood pumping. Even when you start thinking a tune is nothing special he just puts something in there to pique your interest and make you go "oh? This is cool!". There is just so much in each tune to listen to, they're almost stories in their own right.
Here, still recognizable yet with a completely different feel to it. And you know shit got real when you hear something like this.

I'd love to hear what VGM you like listening to, if any!