Monday, April 26, 2010

Team Economics in Halo 3: ODST

Doubling up this time, my post seems to have gone up early this week. First is my review of the Perfect Dark remake for N64. I found the game to be an interesting example of how intrinsic the controls are to a game's experience. In this case, using one of those god forsaken N64 setups was an intrinsic part of how the game handled difficulty. Using the 360 dual-analog made the game very easy and unbalanced for the same reason that auto-aim makes the game boring. It's too easy to kill people. Multiplayer survived remarkably intact if not slightly lobotomized, I felt like I was having a quickdraw session in the Wild West most times.

On another note, holy crap level design has come a long way.

This week's post, which is the next to last one in the economy series, is about team game economics. In this case, ODST and its wonderful subgame Firefight. I didn't think very highly of the campaign and it didn't improve my expectations for Reach, which seems intent on abandoning the Saturday Morning Cartoon roots and gunning for this end of the world crap. I hate to say it, but you can only take a story about giant cyborgs so deep before it gets silly. Maybe I'm just getting old though.

If an MMO represents the most sophisticated economy a video game can produce, then it seems reasonable to say that the means of measuring that sophistication can be number of players x number of resources being exchanged. A game like WoW or Everquest has thousands of players and hundreds of resources being exchanged. The key principle being that any one individual player cannot get all the resources they need to survive. So they have to barter and do so by providing the resources they have. This comes in the form of both abilities and actual goods.

A team based FPS reduces all of these figures considerably. Usually resources are only temporarily unavailable, a player can access any of them if they want. A very strict team economy would be L4D, which lets you be pinned by opposing zombies and thus always potentially needing something from your teammates. Something like Team Fortress 2 is a bit looser in that you can still cut loose but coordination often helps. I generally categorize Halo 3 into that concept, it always pays to buddy up BUT you don't really have to. The economy system is optional but obviously relied upon by sophisticated players as they exchange abilities.

Firefight was interesting to me because it blends all of these elements into a pretty clever package. You need energy weapons to take down shields, bullets to take down enemies. The equation gets more complicated if you're trying to make par in terms of score. A shared pool of health and ammo makes sure players are constantly debating who uses what. I think it's one of the best team games I've ever played in the sense that people begin working together immediately and discussing how to use their limited resources against the never ending waves of bad guys.

Simple, but elegant.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Make the Next BPM Banner, Win Money

As long as we're all jabbering about money and art...well the last one anyways, I think it's time to change the BPM banner. Same rules as last time about what I want the banner to be. Lots of chopped images with a nice background and the cropped image of the woman holding the mask must be in it. That specific image can be found here. I'm open to putting her in a new position but I'm going to admit being partial to that setup above. Please put 'Banana Pepper Martinis' in there somewhere.

When you've got something together put it in the comments. Make sure your e-mail is in the comment as well. I'll be posting this post a second time in 2 weeks for a final call, then picking one. I'll probably want to tweak a few things, but once that's done it goes up.

Winner gets 20 bucks on the game service of their choice. The way I did this last time was to just go buy one of those point cards and then e-mail the code. I think that means this will only work out for folks in America, but I can always gift something on STEAM. Thanks for all your support!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

T.L. Taylor's Guide to MMO Culture

The next book in our economy series focuses on MMO culture and how various parts of the design affect different people. Since players are the labor pool of an MMO whose work and shared interests create the value in the synthetic economy, studying how design changes culture is essential. Without people, you've got nothing.

Taylor's perspective was interesting because she was a veteran of MUDs and forums, 3-D games were very new to her and she admits to motion sickness when first trying Everquest. As a result she knew what to look for while at the same time seeing things with fresh eyes. The first third of the book is her discussing how design affects culture, which pans out in a lot of fascinating ways. The second third is on gender and race issues that arise from design limitations like how your avatar looks or where it starts. The final bit she casts her net wide and talks about a lot of things but not in as much detail.

An interesting part of the last third was a criticism she made of Castronova's text. The book was written several years ago so I'm going to modernize her point just a tad. Castronova presumes that people behave rationally in an MMO in regards to the economy. You can go turn on your TV or drop off a job resume if you want to know how that can pan out. The rational market is just as unreliable a presumption in the real world as it is in virtual ones. Taylor doesn't quote Huizinga but she makes the same point, people are here for the competition. Money is just a way of showing how much better you are than someone else. Players will keep accumulating money, or throwing it away heedlessly, for reasons that have nothing to do with economic interests.

Sometimes people just do it for the lulz.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Coin-Op Mechanics

I'd forgotten about this, but it's relevant to the MMO's and money theme going. I had to review Data East Arcade Classics for Popmatters and ended up looking at it from a money making perspective. How much money did it cost to beat the average game? How did they ramp difficulty and flow to maximize profits per player? I'm intrigued by the idea enough that I'll probably expand it into a longer post and download a couple more arcade games to check my ideas. But here's the gist of it:

Truth be told, the whole experience became a lot more fascinating once I started keeping track of when I had to spend money. Bad Dudes cost me $3.25 to beat, Wizard Fire was $4.75, and Secret Agent came in at $3.50. The flow of gameplay always seemed to revolve around long periods of easy fighting followed by an intense choke point of difficulty. This is when you almost always dump another dollar into the machine. The last boss always involved some ridiculously unfair setup. The first level of a game was always beatable in one quarter, while the second was guaranteed to kill you. Some choke points were even designed to make me feel like it was my fault, like the platforming or maze sections in Wizard Fire. A lot of the things that I initially dismissed as bad design suddenly made a lot of sense from a money-making perspective. The game would get its claws into you and then kill you right when the game knew you’d be happy to drop another quarter into the machine.

Give the rest of the review a viddy if you like.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fable 2's Fantasy Economy

In what is becoming a sheer delight for probably all of you, here is another post about game economies. This time it’s a single-player but that doesn’t really make it go any smoother. It’s just a really difficult topic to discuss because for most gamers this is the equivalent of someone identifying all the trees in a park. To most it’s a tree and it will go back to being a tree when you finally stop bothering them.

Generally speaking, games have fairly dull economies in that they are transparent and mostly serve game design functions like punish or drag out the length. A JRPG has a pretty flat system that just buys low and sells high to penalize stupid purchasing habits, there isn’t much to it. A faction economy would be something like STALKER or Wing Commander: Privateer where certain groups buy things high and sell them low, then you go travelling and making a profit off it. Something more complex would be a simulation game like SIM City or Civilization but those always have transparency issues because value and effect are always explained. The exchange usually ends up binary as you do whatever the game design says will win.

Fable 2 is one of the most interesting economy systems out there because it ties so handily into the rest of the game. It is totally transparent and simple. Crime, stealing crap, cruel rents, and general badness will turn an area evil and make it an unprofitable area. Stopping crime, buying goods, fair rent, and general goodness will turn an area good and make it more profitable for business. Yet unlike most economy games where the only strategy is 'How do I make money' here multiple complications come into the mix. It really forces the player to pay attention and notice all kinds of collateral effects. Whether it’s by making you fat or more probably just forcing you to look for cash, Fable 2 pretends that you can get money by collecting chests and digging it up for just the first few hours. And then it is time to start cutting back on all this nonsense and buy some real property. I’m not sure what that amounts to in terms of procedural rhetoric, maybe it means if you don’t buy houses you’re the Devil, but it’s probably the most fascinating part of the game.

And it even has magic and British people!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Edward Castronova's Guide To Synthetic Economies

This is the first entry in a trilogy of posts on MMO's that tries to engage with the culture and business more than just rambling off stats or game design stuff. The other are write-ups on T.L. Taylor's discussion of Everquest and Julian Dibbel's guide to gold farming. I'll probably be spacing them out but I think together they paint a solid picture of MMO culture. For the record, I used to play MMO's when I was younger but can't really afford to bother with one now. It doesn't look like much has changed except how addictive they are anyways.

If there is a single unifying idea to this book it's that people will turn to whatever culture or mode of life offers them the most fulfillment possible. Even if that means creating one out of thin air. I see a fair number of people complain about this but I can't shake the feeling their concern mostly comes from the fact that as people go to other cultural value systems, their own social capital decreases. The transition from print to internet for news comes to mind as an example, but I think an MMO represents a much more profound shift. We're not talking about where someone gets their news, this is the question of whether or not a person respects or even gives a shit about you. If you are not powerful in their world, the answer is that they probably won't.

Castranova draws his own conclusions about all of this and uses it as a criticism of capitalism itself. I broke down all the essential elements he outlined for an MMO economy and the problems that crop up. It might be dry even by my powdered milk standards but it really helped me to understand the genre and what it has become today.

Money, even in virtual worlds, is a drag.

The Mass Appeal of Farmville

A critical discussion about Farmville is one that inherently revolves around money. All art is naturally about money on some level, you’re still selling crap to people, but in terms of intrinsic importance most critics seem to ignore it. You can declare something is not worth the 60 bucks and that this ruins the experience, but I think most people still critically separate the two elements when discussing a game. Once you start addressing the money element in a video game you cross into Andy Warhol territory and that tends to make people uncomfortable.

Warhol was an enormous fan of capitalism as an art form and understood that the difference between good and bad art had a lot more to do with the consumers than it did any intrinsic element to the work. Or put another way, I don’t really have to make a good painting so long as everyone thinks it’s good and will cough up money for it. The knee jerk reaction is to bitch and moan about this idea because it implies that people are being ripped off but I think that’s a bit misleading. We are, unfortunately, living in an era of things that are mostly good at selling and not actually being good but that’s another rant. You still have to admit that convincing millions of people that you are correct/talented/worth buying is extraordinarily difficult. I’ve heard people describe this talent any number of ways. Alan Moore called it a type of magic, lawyers call it trial advocacy, charisma, charm, divinity, whatever. Warhol simply declared that the act of persuasion itself was an art. And by that standard Farmville is an astounding piece of work because it does not bother with convincing anyone of anything. It is not, by itself, a persuasive work of art. It is instead selling persuasion itself through the mechanics of video game trophies.

The game of Farmville is to see how much money you can not spend while still effectively competing with your friends. This is not quite the same thing as buying a magic sword for WoW on Ebay. The magic circle is not broken here, it simply never existed. Almost none of the goods you can buy in this game serve any purpose except decoration. Creating an elaborate farm has more in common with posting a funny link on your facebook profile than it does being a high level warrior. And if you hadn’t noticed, people like to post crap on their facebook profiles. It does not need to persuade anyone of anything, it is simply another set of things to broadcast about yourself on the internet. That twinge of pride you feel at your gamerscore? That urge to post on Twitter what you’re ticked about that day? That’s Farmville. That’s Warhol’s prediction about 15 minutes of fame, but now Zynga is selling it one minute at a time to whoever will pay in time or money.

This post is the culmination of several months of working on various critical approaches and combining them. The ideas I’ve been using to critically discuss a multiplayer game come into play along with a lot of research on synthetic economies and culture I’ve been doing. I actually finished this column a month ago, which is recent by my standards, but I decided to post it since everyone seems to be jabbering about this game lately. It seemed appropriate to sell out a tiny bit and stay in the spirit of things.

So long Farmville, and thanks for all the free stuff.