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Archive for June, 2007

Ugh… moving…

I have done a big move across country twice. First, I moved from Jersey to South Carolina. About 6 years after that, I moved from South Carolina to Seattle. And now, I am planning to move from Seattle to North Carolina. If there’s one thing I can say about moving, it’s this:

I hate it.

Now, I don’t actually mind going to a new place. Change can be good. In my case, since I utterly despise the Seattle weather most of the year, and I dislike the area in other ways (the traffic is completely vile at all times of day), I am looking forward ultimately to living in North Carolina instead. I can’t wait to get away from the Pacific Northwest. Living in a new place, is fine.

However, the act of moving is just not pleasant at all. There is the search for movers, and the hassle of dealing with agents and getting estimates. Then there is the “bamboo shoots being shoved up my fingernails” experience of going through every single object I own, and making that decision: do I want it enough to pay to have it shipped across country? Am I even going to conceivably ever use this again? And why the hell did I pay to move this the last time, and the time before that?

Part of the problem is that I have too much clutter. I am not a super-pack-rat the way some folks are, but I do tend to keep things around “just in case I need them” — which I mostly never do. Today, for example, I found reams and reams of paper worth of old printouts, grading sheets, and so forth from classes for which I was the teaching assistant (TA) at least 10, in some cases 15, years ago. Surely I do not need to still keep these old things. However, I could not just throw them out. You see, foolishly (and annoyingly to someone like me, who likes to learn the name of every student), colleges and universities use people’s Social Security Number (SSN) as their identification in school. That means every single computer print out, grade sheet, etc, that I have from the schools at which I taught, holds dozens of SSNs. I don’t want these to fall into the wrong hands, as those poor students could then have their ID stolen. So, I had to go through every page of every folder, and take out anything with an SSN (or what might be part of an SSN) on it, and send that to the shredder. This ended up taking me 2 hours instead of the 2 minutes it would take to just throw it away. I might be a bit paranoid, but my guess is those students would rather have their SSNs shredded than just thrown in the dumpster out behind my apartment.

All told, after two hours today, I packed up one box of old papers that I just can’t really part with (most of these are xeroxes of journal articles I read 10 or more years ago and never have since, but, since I make notes on them when I read them, what I’m doing is keeping my notes, rather than the articles), and threw out three brown paper shopping bags of junk I just am not going to bother moving. Some of it is old data from papers long ago published. It’s possible someone might want to see the data, but, too bad. (I have all the raw data either in lab books or on video tapes if I really need it.) Supposedly in science you are supposed to keep your data forever, but… when the journal editors start paying for my moving expenses, maybe then I will decide to keep everything, forever. I do, of course, keep whatever I think I will likely need… I just toss what I don’t imagine ever needing. And I never throw out old lab notebooks. Fortunately I only have about six of those.

What I resent perhaps most of all is the time this all takes, and even worse, the brain cells I now have to invest in learning things like “moving terminology” and figuring out which of the forthcoming estimates of time/expense to go with. Just a few minutes ago, I had to make a new bookmark folder in my browser, and bookmark the websites for three moving companies that I am starting with in terms of getting estimates. I really wish I didn’t have to devote energy to that but… oh well.

Since the position I am entering is a tenure-track one, and since I am hoping to get tenure, maybe I will get lucky, and this will be the last major move I will have to endure. But somehow, I doubt it. I seem destined to move about once every 7 years, like getting a “7 year itch.”

The one good thing that comes of it is, I will get rid of a lot of junk I didn’t really need in the first place.

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The “I” word…

My mother and I, over the years, have developed a little bit of a code. Every so often while conversing, one of us will refer to a mysterious concept we call the “I” word. I suspect anyone listening to our conversation would be somewhat confused. And yet, if you are anything like me, you are confronted with the “I” word every day.

Have you ever been told by someone that something is in the mail… and it never arrives? And then when you called you found out that it had never actually been mailed in the first place? That would be a case of the “I” word.

My mother often has to deal with doctor’s offices, and she sees a lot of it there. When her doctor orders a test, and after the test is run, his office never gets the results, and my mother has to personally call the testing office over and over to get them to send her results… only to have them mail the results to her instead of her physician, we have once again encountered the “I” word.

When I get repeated mailings from the very company that holds my (long ago consolidated) college loans, telling me that “It’s time to consolidate,” but when I respond to these mailings, they tell me, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to you,” we have another case of the “I” word.

Have you figured out what the “I” word is yet? No, it’s not “idiot” or “imbecile,” though you’d be entirely justified for thinking of those. I’ll try one more.

When my current place of work was bulging at the seams with employees, they ordered a new “double wide, double tall” trailer to house more office space. Within days of it being occupied, this new trailer was discovered to have such extensive levels of mold that it was condemned. That’s right, a brand new trailer was condemned. Apparently it had been stored improperly by the company while awaiting sale, and had been infested with very toxic mold. The whole thing had to be torn down within days of being put up. This is yet another case of the “I” word.

Have you figured it out yet? Give up? All right, I’ll tell you what our little code word means.

Incompetence.

It seems a fundamental reality of life that many, many of the people you deal with are simply incompetent at what they do. I don’t know if it’s people being lazy, or if people are badly trained, or if they are overworked, or what. But the sad truth is that one ends up dealing with incompetent people day in, and day out, all through life. What really frosts me is when I think about all the time these people have wasted for me. How many hours have I spent on the phone trying to undo something that was done by an incompetent person? How many hours have I spent trying to untangle red tape generated by incompetence? I can hardly guess, but I’d wager it’s many weeks or even months of my life — all totally gone, all time I can never get back, all wasted by incompetence.

And so, the next time you’re dealing with a thick-headed bureaucrat, or completely oblivious sales person, just do what I do. Think about the “I” word, and maybe give yourself a bit of a smile at sharing our little secret.

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What SOE needs to apologize for

Almost 2 years ago, SOE totally revamped and changed Star Wars Galaxies for a second time, and completely alienated the majority of its players once and for all. In the time since, hardly any of those “veteran” players have returned. Some of us take refuge in places where we still post our anger and disappointment, two years later, about the destruction of the game we loved. On MMORPG.COM, one of the writers posted asking “What can SOE do to win us back?” And in answer to his own question he said that one thing they absolutely must do is apologize for the entire thing. I agree with him, but I think there’s more to it than that, and this post will be about why I think that.

See, here’s the thing: They’ve said a few times either by implication or once or twice directly that the NGE “was a mistake.” But my concern here even if they apologize is, why do they think it was a mistake? It’s a mistake to them because they lost subscribers and company rep. On the other hand, it was a mistake, by my lights, because what they did was unethical and inexcusable. That is, they think it was bad because it had a bad end. I think it’s bad because, whatever the ends, the means were unacceptable. If we let them get away with “the end was bad so we apologize” then we are just as bad as they are, allowing the end to justify the means.

So, if they want to truly apologize, what they have to do is back up and say, “The end we were trying to achieve did not justify the unacceptable means we used to get there.” These unacceptable means include (1) overtly and knowingly misleading people about the expansion to get them to buy it when they otherwise would not; (2) as part of that deception, purposely waiting until the day after everyone’s CC account was charged to announce the massive upcoming change; (3) making all sorts of minor changes to the CU to purposely preserve the illusion that they were working on it and keep the NGE a secret; (4) refusing to even remotely consider that what the vet players were saying had some validity; (5) caring about the potential market more than the current fans.

They have never apologized for any of that (and I doubt they ever will). When they say they “made a mistake,” I do not get the feeling that they thought any of those 5 things were, themselves, a mistake, but rather, they think that “something” they did with the NGE lost them subscriptions. I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts most of them have no idea why they got so hammered in the subscription/reputation department. Their closest answer seems to be that once they found out we wouldn’t like it, they should’ve launched it more slowly or maybe on alternate servers or something. But they don’t understand why we didn’t like it. Yes some of that was them changing our old game, but the main factor was them utterly dismissing long-time, multi-year customers as irrelevant and thinking they could treat us any old crappy way they wanted and we’d still re-up our subs.

Now, this is partly our fault, because we HAD been loyal to the game through a lot of BS. The rangers and BEs can tell you about this. Skill boxes that had no skills… skills that didn’t work… recipe ingredients that never existed… uncraftable camo kits… etc… They stuck with it and were loyal, and I’m not really faulting that. After all I stuck with it through all sorts of Entertainer problems. But SOE took from this “No matter what we pull these idiot players still have 3 accounts each and keep paying us so we can do no wrong.

Of course what they did not count on was that it was not Star Wars that we were loyal to (the only thing, literally, that stayed the same from launch to NGE is the Star Wars theme, however corrupted and mis-handled), but the original game system, with all its flaws. But again, by sticking through the CU, which should have been unacceptable to most of us, and all the problems for months and years, they just thought they could keep messing with us.

This does not excuse their behavior… I am not blaming the victim. But, when they decided to do the 5 unethical and unacceptable things I mentioned above, if anyone raised objections, I’m sure that they said, “Don’t worry, these players live to be abused. Look how we’ve treated them so far. We’ve got them hooked.” And it is that attitude (“Don’t worry, even though what we are doing is wrong the players will let us”) that they need to be sorry for. That’s the part that was unethical. Making a mistake is a mistake, and is not, by itself, unethical. Knowing you are doing wrong, doing evil, and doing it anyway just because you think you can, that is unethical.

So, if SOE wants me to change my tune about SWG, they not only need to apologize, for “making mistakes”, but they need to be entirely specific and repentant about the reasons why these were mistakes. In short they would need to release an official statement that says something like this:

“We did purposely trick people into buying an expansion using false advertising, and we apologize for that. We knew you would all hate the NGE, and that is why we waited to announce it until we charged your CCs for the expansion, and we are sorry we did that. It was wrong. We even tried to deceive you further by making irrelevant changes to the CU that we knew would be over-written by the NGE, and for that we apologize. It was unethical. We tossed aside everything our loyal customers said and did, every suggestion they made, because we did not value them as highly as we valued the idea of all those people not playing the game. We listened to people who didn’t play rather than who did. That was wrong, because our current players had been loyal to us, and we should have repaid that loyalty in kind. We are sorry. For all these things we apologize. We understand why what we did was wrong, and will never do any of those things again.”

That would be a real apology with some teeth.

Of course, we will never get it. But… if they just say, “We’re sorry we rolled out the NGE the way they did,” that means nothing to me. It means not that they are sorry about what they did to us, but about what the NGE did to them.

And so, this is what I think “they need to apologize” has got to mean. Just “we made a mistake, sorry” ain’t gonna cut it with me, or a lot of vets. What they did was not “a mistake” — it was willful set of malicious, dirty tricks designed to scoop in money and disregard customer loyalty, time, effort, etc. It was on purpose, in other words. They only view it as a mistake because it failed, not because it was wrong. And until that changes we have gotten nowhere.

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Telltale Signs…

There is usually a telltale sign that I am not playing an MMORPG… and the telltale sign is, I am not blogging, posting, or in any other way, ranting about game design. I haven’t mad many game design posts for the month of June, so what does that tell you? Yup, I canceled Vanguard a couple of weeks ago, and I am not playing any other MMORPGs right now. It should be no surprise, then, that I am not blogging about game design.

This might lead one to suspect that I have not been playing games. However, such is not even remotely the case. I have, indeed, been playing games, just not MMORPGs. Right after quitting Vanguard I went back to an old game I played last year, Empire Earth II. I played that for a while and plan to try some online battles with one or two friends. At the same time I wanted something different — tired of war games, tired of MMORPGs, I went to the store and found a really fun game from 2005 that is still out in a few stores: The Movies.  This is a really fun game that is part simulator, part artistic. The simulator aspect is running and balancing the money coming in/going out, for a movie studio. You start in 1920 and go to 2005 trying to win as many awards and unlock as many sets and costume designs as possible. It’s quite fun and I am currently somewhat addicted to it.

Interestingly, when playing most single-player games, I have no real urge to blog about game design, the way I do when mostly focusing on MMORPGs. The reason for this is quite simple: most single-player games are infinitely better designed and far more fun than most MMORPGs. Because single-player games do not rely on subscriptions, they only need to keep you playing for a few weeks (at most) to feel you got your money’s worth out of them. An MMORPG has to keep you playing, and keep you paying, to stay in the black. However, MMORPG designers seem to think that the way to keep you playing is to make everything take incredibly long, and thus be incredibly tedious. They don’t seem to have figured out that bored players cancel without reaching the long-term goals of the game. On the other hand, most people do play single-player games to completion, since it’s fun to do so. Single-player games are meant to be enjoyed. MMORPGs seem meant to be endured — see my earlier post about this.

And so, as long as I am playing single-player games, I will probably be posting less game design content to the blog. I may pick up with other things, or perhaps even write a review of The Movies at some point… I may even post some movies here (or links to ones I post on the official online site) if I get around to making any good ones. But I don’t think, if I stick to games like Empire Earth or The Movies, that I shall have very much to rant about. The reality is that these are solidly designed games. Now, they’re clearly not perfect, but they are fun, and my urge to rant is usually aroused by sensing a game design that is purposely set up to not be fun. That, in my view, is bad design, and I just feel the need to vent about it. (I also have this vague hope that some day, some game designer or budding developer will read this blog and actually learn something about how games should be fun, before running off and making yet another boring treadmill game, but that’s probably being way too optimistic.)

At any rate, when you see the game design rants go away for a while on my blog, it’s a telltale sign that I have stopped playing MMORPGs. This is another way of saying that pretty much all MMORPGs I have ever tried, are badly designed as games.

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Dear Game Developers of the World,

Many of you seem not to understand why players decide to play your game, or why they complain about the game you’ve designed, or why they cancel their subscriptions without getting to the maximum level or skill box in your game. I thought I’d clue you in. It has to do with the value of your game.

Fundamentally, when engaged in playing any sort of game — whether a computer game or a board game, or even a simple game like “Hide and Go Seek”  — players always spend at least one thing: time. In most cases, unless it is a game you made up yourself, or that has no commercial value (such as “Hide and Go Seek”), a player will spend a second thing on the game: money. This expenditure of time and money is voluntary, and both entities — time, and money — have implicit and real value to the player. Thus, a player is spending something of value to obtain his gaming experience, which implies that for someone to want to play a game, it must have value. In other words, players value their time and their money, and are unlikely to part with either, unless they value the game experience at least as much.

The upshot of this, is that games have an intrinsic value to the player — the entertainment provided is worth enough to spend your time, and usually your money, on it. That also implies that if the player no longer sees the entertainment as being worth the time/money spent, he will probably stop playing the game.

For most people, these two expendable entities — time and money — do not have equal value. For example, to a very poor person, money will be harder to come by than time, and will be more valuable. To a busy person, money might be easy to come by, but time in short supply, and thus time will be more valuable. The relative value of time and money can also change over the years, as a player grows, ages, changes jobs, and the like.

For me, the more valuable entity was definitely money until a few years ago. As a youngster, I was on a small allowance (a dollar a week when I was a kid, for instance), so I had very little money. On the other hand, I had long summers of free time, and weekends and evenings were free unless I had homework. Free time was therefore easy to come by, and I parted with it just as easily, hardly giving it a second thought. There were more hours than I could find interesting things to fill them up, so I often would spend time watching cartoons that I didn’t even like.

As I grew older, of course, the demands on my time grew. In high school and college, I spent a lot more time studying and a lot less in recreation. Still, as a student, money remained much more difficult to come by than time, and my summers were still (largely) free. Even in graduate school, although I was far busier than ever in my life, I remained without much disposable income. I had to “budget” the purchase of games, limiting myself to no more than 2 or 3 a year, and I certainly would not have had the money for a monthly subscription, even for only $5-10, had online games existed at the time.

In recent years, of course, having graduated and secured what one would call a “real job,” the demands on my time are greater than ever. However, although I’m certainly by no means wealthy or even what you might call “well off,” I have enough disposable income that I can buy a lot more games if I want. The only problem is, I tend not to buy them because I now have a shortage of the other entity — time.

This change in my situation has particular meaning with regard to online games. Sadly, many of them are designed to do nothing more than take up my time, without really entertaining me during all the hours you are logged in. You developers want me to sit there and “camp a spawn” for hours to get the reward, or to click buttons 1,000,000 times to master a crafting profession. And the more you game designers require me to do that, the less patience I have, and the more likely I am to either not buy the game or, if I made the mistake of buying a subscription game that is made up of time sinks, to cancel rather quickly.

Interestingly over the years I have changed my references to why I cancel or am unhappy with a game. Years ago I would decry its lack of monetary value: “This game is not worth $15 of my hard-earned money every month to play it.” The money was in short supply, so that was what I begrudged the designers of this purposely tedious, plodding, treadmill of a game.  I could have spent that $15 on a DVD, or a CD, or even a couple of matinees to the movie theater. The designers, by making something be boring and tedious, wasted my money.

I realized when canceling my last MMORPG (Vanguard), that my criteria have changed, and become more demanding at the same time. Now when I cancel a game I will often decry its lack of temporal value: “This game is not worth the hours I put into it.” Instead of begrudging the designers of the boring treadmill the money they have taken from me, I find myself begrudging them the time they have taken from me. Again, I am not wealthy, but $15/month can be easily come by at this stage in my life, so it’s trivial. I don’t care about the money at this point, in other words — what I care about is my time. What else could I have been doing with my life, that was more fun than sitting there in Vanguard clicking the same tedious diplomacy card conversation over and over again to grind “faction” or “presence” so I can finally get to the good stuff? If the answer is “almost anything else,” then the game is not fun enough for me to spend my valuable time upon.

The take home message is therefore this: you developers need to design a game that I will, for some period, find more worth spending time on than any other game or even any other recreational activity in the universe. You see, if I don’t find your game to be the most fun thing I could possibly do, why in the world would I spend my valuable time doing it? I have so few hours of recreation time available as a “grown up”, that I am not going to piss them away on something that isn’t enjoyable.

Now for one-off games, that is, games designed to be bought once, played for a while, and uninstalled, this is not all that big of a deal. If the game is new and different and interesting, I will be hooked on it for a while and during the first few weeks after purchase, I might well consider it to be one of the best ways to spend my relaxation time. But for an MMORPG, where your company makes money more from subscriptions than from box sales, this is a huge challenge. You designers not only have to make your game be a better way to spend my relaxation time today than any other way I could spend my time… but you need to make it continue to feel that way for weeks, months, possibly years to come. And that is damn difficult. I appreciate how difficult it is — more so than many gamers might.

However, when you game designers  purposely design their games to be time sinks — that is, purposely designing a game to waste my time — you are making a huge mistake. And you are making it not just with regard to me, but to all the gamers out there who have more than enough money to spend on a few game subscription services, but whose time is limited and therefore highly valuable. The reason so many of the old “traditional” MMORPGs are struggling to hold onto players is just this. Only someone who does not value his time highly is going to be amenable to having it wasted. To the rest of us — who are, based on subscription numbers, in the vast majority — having our time wasted is not something we appreciate, and as soon as we detect it happening, we will begin to object.

My advice to game designers, then, is this: stop purposely wasting my time. Design a game that I keep playing because it is so fun I can’t put it down. Stop artificially making it take longer by drawing out the grind in the hopes that your players, having nothing else better to do in their lives, will just let you waste their time. The evidence is all around you that we will not let you waste our time, and that instead, we will cancel your game and go play another one that appreciates our time more than you do. Our time is valuable, in other words…waste it at your peril.

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