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Column: Play Evolution

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': Massively Modern Warfare - Guns, Goals and Evolution

December 1, 2009 12:00 PM |

I want one of those pony titles so bad.[“Play Evolution” is a column by James Lantz that happens sometimes and discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution through goals in Modern Warfare 2.]

FPS games have undergone a weird, subtle, and totally pervasive change in the last few years. Every big budget FPS now cocoons the actual shooting part in an MMO shell. It's hard to tell where this trend started, but it's been increasingly present in FPS games in recent years – most notably in the Battlefield series and the Call of Duty/Modern Warfare games. The now combination MMO-FPS nature of these shooters brings up two major questions: what made this MMO-structure so quickly envelop every major FPS, and what effect does it ultimately have on the games that choose to use it?

The simple answer to the first question is that MMOs are incredibly popular. The carrot-on-a-stick leveling system gives people constant short-term goals and a concrete long-term goal and keeps people playing. It also rewards time as much as it rewards skill, so casual players or less skilled players will never actually go down in rating and get discouraged, as they could in Chess, Go, Starcraft, or other games that use a ELO-style rating system (which adds or subtracts points from your rating depending on your rank relative to your opponent's rank and whether or not you lost the game).

In an MMO, you're always making progress, you always have an easy short-term goal and a distant long-term goal. Many of an MMO-system's advantages over a skill-based system are obvious – for instance, it helps keep casual players playing and it helps players create short-term goals that they can complete in a single sitting.

It also has some less-obvious advantages. For one, I would guess that it also helps keep hardcore interest as well, because it helps players who play the game obsessively to have a more concrete goal in mind than "getting good." For some players, getting good works just fine as a long term goal - but it can often create a sort of trap for players who are hardcore enough to take the game seriously and want to play competitively but aren't quite skilled enough or don't have quite enough time to devote to the game so they just stop playing.

These are all good reasons for FPS to adopt the MMO-style system, but where did it come from in the first place? To answer this question, and to shed some light on the other questions I've asked, let's take it out of the specific case of MMO-style goals for Modern Warfare and Battlefield and into the more general case of how goals affect how we play games and how, therefore, gameplay evolves.

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': The Evolution of the Modern RTS

April 15, 2008 12:00 AM |

It's a plane![“Play Evolution” is a column by James Lantz that happens sometimes and discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution in the RTS genre]

After the huge success of Starcraft and the large success of Warcraft 3, Blizzard stepped off the RTS stage and let THQ nudge their way into the spotlight with Dawn of War and Company of Heroes. But, despite their commercial and critical successes, neither franchise could hold a flame to Starcraft’s ability to produce and maintain competitive play at a high level.

Right now, Blizzard is probably asking the same question we’re about to investigate: what made Starcraft a huge competitive success while Dawn of War and Company of Heroes have a comparatively piddling competitive fan base? And are Dawn of War and Company of Heroes really an example of where the RTS genre is headed?

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': The Evolution of World of Warcraft and Its Many Games

March 13, 2008 8:00 AM |

Yeah, I wish that thing in the back was a mount, too.[“Play Evolution” is a column by James Lantz that happens sometimes and discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution in World of Warcraft]

You can’t beat World of Warcraft – there’s no such thing. There are no victory conditions, and you’ll never see a screen that pops up and says, “You win!” You may think that getting to the highest possible level is an obvious victory, but that’s not true for everyone. Some people are satisfied with hitting the level cap, but others want to beat every raid boss.

It’s perfectly feasible to imagine hundreds of personal goals, even ones as obscure as crossing from one capital city to another at level one, or camping an important travel NPC so no one can reach his hub. Because there’s nothing as simple as beating the game, every goal in World of Warcraft is completely arbitrary and set by each player to match his or her own desires.

With this in mind, it seems less bizarre that World of Warcraft shipped without any PvP system to speak of. The scaffolding was there – you could attack other players and enemy NPCs in PvP zones – but there were no rewards of any sort for defeating opponents, and absolutely nothing to lose. In a way, though, this was a breath of fresh air in a massively multiplayer game where every menial task was rewarded and every action had an incentive.

In a game where all the goals are ultimately arbitrary, what’s the difference between the player who PvPs with no reward and the player who levels up to level sixty? At the end of the day, neither player is closer to objective victory, because there is none.

Hell, if a player sits and dances in his hometown for twelve hours, he’s just as close to beating World of Warcraft as the level sixty is. The only difference is that one of them has a “sixty” next to his portrait, while the other one has a “one” and has been dancing for half a day.

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': Difficulty Levels and You

December 22, 2007 12:01 AM |

THE WITCHERERERER.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution and progression in difficulty levels]

I picked up The Witcher the other day on a whim – and well, also because Bioware had its magic paws in it – and the first screen it greets you with upon starting a new game is the difficulty selection screen. At this point, you have three options: easy, medium and hard. The game describes “Easy” as a difficulty level where the combat is simple. Under “Medium” it says that the combat is of average difficulty and that alchemy is powerful but not required. On “Hard,” it claims that the use of alchemy is required to survive. That’s it. That’s all it says.

First off: what on earth is alchemy? I know what its definition is and I know that it will probably have something to do with potions and probably something to do with mixing them and maybe even something to do with witches and cauldrons, but how am I supposed to know whether I want to be forced to use it or not? How am I supposed to know whether it’s an interesting and well-developed part of the game or a complete waste of time?

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': Single-Player Games - Wait, What? Single-Player Games?

October 31, 2007 12:02 AM |

I remember this one.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: single-player games can evolve as well!]

When we talk about the evolution of a game, we usually think about a competitive multiplayer game, like Counter-Strike or Starcraft. However, a game does not have to be multiplayer or competitive to evolve. Single-player games evolve too, although it’s harder to see it.

The most obvious example of evolution in single-player games is the speed-running community. In order for a game to evolve, it needs a goal for players to work towards; something that players can get better at. Since most games are fairly trivial to complete, this goal cannot simply be to win, as it is in most multiplayer games. The speed-running community establishes a clear goal: to win as quickly as possible.

Even this goal, which seems relatively simple, inspires incredible evolution in single-player games, although some games take to it better than others. Super Mario 64, for example, has one of the largest speed-running communities around, because speed-running Super Mario 64 is incredibly deep. To complete the game you need to collect [EDIT: 70 out of 120 possible stars] in the game, (although there is a small speed-running niche that does all 120 star completions) so the first step for any speed-runner is to map out their path.

In some games, this is relatively trivial and is just a matter of choosing the fastest route on a map. However, a Super Mario 64 speed-runner has to decide exactly which 70 stars they can get in the fastest amount of time. Not only that, but each level has seven stars in it, making it worth it to stay in the level for a few extra stars to avoid travel time, even if those stars are harder to get.

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': EVE Online's Eve-olution

October 4, 2007 12:02 AM |

Spaceships are big.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: the shifting rules of EVE Online.]

Ever since its inception, EVE Online has harbored a tight-knit community consisting largely of hardcore players. The small size of the community allowed developers to retain a certain intimacy with the evolution of their game and the opinions of their player base that most developers cannot afford to have. As the developers released patches and the players began to grow familiar with the intricacies of the game, they revealed several problems that were woven into the core design of EVE. Some of the issues EVE found itself facing remain unsolved in any MMO to date.

As EVE’s developers released their first content patches, they decided to create new and more powerful ship classes instead of expanding the uses of those currently in the game. However, only the most experienced players at any given time could fly these new, freshly minted ships. Experience in EVE has nothing to do with player skill or decision making, it’s simply a matter of age: the older your player character, the bigger ships you can fly. With its complex interface and ham-handed tutorials, EVE was already unfriendly to new players, and the content patches weren’t helping matters.

However, the main draw of EVE is its massive galactic wars and these new patches did nothing to diminish the innate draw of deep space antics; EVE’s player base grew steadily, albeit slowly. As the players began to explore the game’s limits and poke about its soft bits they found a wealth of powerful strategies and profitable exploits. The developers, however, were tied so closely to the game’s evolution that they began to patch out any imbalances as soon as they arose.

COLUMN: ' Play Evolution' - Team Fortress Classic

September 12, 2007 12:02 AM |

Dear God this was a long time ago.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: the life and death of Team Fortress Classic.]

The evolution of Team Fortress Classic is one of the strangest I’ve ever seen. It was so sudden and so decisive that it, quite literally, divided the player community into two halves. As the community played quasi-intellectual tug-of-war, individuals began to take sides and the game itself began to change - every server began to branch off into its own set of rules and restrictions. Most of these are still explicit, but some became unwritten and, to this day, are laid carelessly about the fringes of the game, the final nail in Team Fortress Classic’s long-suffering coffin.

Team Fortress began as a Quake mod in 1996. Based on the Quake engine, it was an incredibly fast paced CTF game based around movement exploits: bunny hopping, rocket jumping – all that fun stuff. It developed a small but devoted following, but only a few people followed it to its next iteration in the form of a slow paced Half-Life mod called Team Fortress Classic, three years later.

Team Fortress Classic caught fire, both as a competitive and a casual game. The draw of CTF is universal, and the meticulous setup of offense and defense adds a fresh layer of strategy to what is otherwise a pretty plain variation on Team Deathmatch. As the competitive players began to explore the limits of the game they found it warm, fleshy, and pleasantly yielding. For awhile, everything was roses and unicorns and happy springtime elves.