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This summer, Cryptic Studios, original makers of City of Heroes, and current developers of Champions Online and Star Trek Online, announced they were making a multiplayer, but non-MMO, game called Neverwinter. This game is based on the original two Neverwinter Nights games, and will apparently include a toolset like those did.  Since Cryptic is a major player in the MMO market these days, the announcement created a buzz, and in August, Jack was interviewed by ZAM.  As part of the interview, he said,

“I’ve been pretty honest about our faults in the past and people have accused us that I’m virtually admitting that we pushed out Star Trek and Champions as unpolished product. But as God as my witness, when we launched those games, we had zero idea that we thought they were anything less than excellent [my emphasis].”

The fact that Cryptic thought their games were excellent, but most of their customers (by Jack’s own admission here and elsewhere) thought the games were unpolished, unfinished, and at best mediocre, points to a very serious problem at Cryptic studios.

The problem Cryptic has always had, even in the COH heyday, though it was not as pronounced, is a lack of understanding at the basic level of game theory and game design.  I’m talking about the Raph Koster  level here; I don’t always agree with Koster, but he thinks deeply about what systems should be in a game from the standpoint of why they are putting the system in in, and what that system has to do with the rest of the game. Far too much of Cryptic’s design philosophy (and to be fair they are not alone as a development company) is, “Well this works in *insert game here* and people like it so let’s do it.” Auction Houses and Crafting are a great example.

But ask yourself: Why did they put auction houses into COH? Was it because they were an integral part of the smash-hit superhero movies like Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and Iron Man 2?  Was it because you see superheroes in most comic books stopping by the auction house at the start of each issue? Was it because auction houses as a concept flow necessarily from the fact that the game was essentially loot and completely craft-free before adding them? No! Auction houses are actually the opposite of what the game’s original design and its thematic inspiration would lead you to predict.  So why were they added? Because Jack played WOW and got addicted to WOW’s auction house!  He saw how much people loved it, and how many subscriptions you could get by addicting people to it, and thought “let’s do that in COH.” How it would affect the overall game, what the heck it all has to do with the comic book genre, and whether it would actually be workable with their game system, design, and interface, he didn’t bother to ask. And worse: He doesn’t even seem to know those are valuable questions to ask.  To Jack, the game is just a set of systems designed to make people want to subscribe and pay him money.

This is why Cryptic threw out so many of the great COH systems when they made Champions Online. The instanced missions that scaled to your group size were a huge draw of COH, and frequently listed by players as a favorite feature.  Yet the company that invented them ditched that system when they made CO. Why? Was it to replace the system with a better one? Nope.  The sum total of Cryptic’s penetratingly deep design logic seems to have been, “WOW does it with static instances and open world quests so let’s do that.” And so, they copied WOW. They admitted it more than once on the beta boards, too — that “because WOW does it” was their design philosophy. What this ultimately means, as a friend of mine once said, is that when making Champions Online, Cryptic had no design philosophy. But I think it’s even worse than that. Not only don’t they have a design philosophy; they don’t seem to see the need to have one!

SWG for all its flaws — the original SWG — had a very deep and well thought out design philosophy. Koster was a student of the Bartle system and explicitly made a game designed to appeal to all the types (Killers, Socializers, etc) and the hybrid classes were designed to appeal to hybrid players (Explorer/Socializers (Rangers), Killer/Achievers (BHs), etc).  That’s why for all the programming flaws, the fundamental system worked.  There was an underpinning of solid game design theory there. Systems were included for a reason that was based on the fundamental design.

Cryptic, in contrast, seems to look at a game as simply a collection of modular systems invented by other games, like WOW, VG, AOC.  They seem to believe that, as modules, these systems can just be plugged into the game in question like interchangeable computer components.   But game design doesn’t work like that.  What Cryptic has historically done when designing games is analogous to someone deciding that since the soccer rule that ‘no one but the goalie can touch the ball’ works in soccer, we should import that rule into football and prohibit anyone but the quarterback from touching the ball.  Would that work? Of course not.  Soccer’s rule works only within the context of soccer.  Football is a different game and requires fundamentally different ball-handling rules. This basic concept, that each game needs an underlying philosophy and must have systems based on that philosophy, seems to have escaped Cryptic Studios, and especially Diamond Jack Emmert.

And this explains why Jack is starting to realize that his games are not as “excellent” as he thought they were before launch.  He’s smart enough to intuit that the games are a bust (quite independent of the sluggish sales and subscription rates), but not clever enough to figure out why.   He must sit there thinking, “Gee we took all these popular systems from successful games. Why aren’t they working for us?”  And my guess is he has no idea why they don’t work, because this is a failure at the design level by someone who doesn’t seem to realize there needs to be a single, strong, internally consistent design to any good game.  Instead his games are just a polyglots of all the “cool ideas that players seem to like in other games.” And no game with such a flimsy design philosophy will ever be a “success”. Not from the design point of view. And not with subscriptions, since players will intuit that the game “doesn’t seem right” and go elsewhere.

WOW has a design philosophy. It may be one that I hate, but it’s there, and they follow it religiously. Thus it works.  GW2 seems to have a very solid design philosophy. My guess is that, as a result, it will work.   Cryptic Studios makes games that have no design philosophy.  Games without a design philosophy don’t work, but Jack doesn’t seem to get that. And the reason he doesn’t get it is that he doesn’t even know he needs to have one.

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Over the years, I have spent a fair sum of money on recreational activities, and in particular on my hobbies.  As a teenager, and through my college years, I collected comic books.  Weighing in at only 60 cents a month in the 80s, I could collect about 3 titles a month for 1 week’s $2 allowance, and later (once I started working part time), I could collect 5 titles a month for two hours of $1.50/hr pay answering phones after-hours at the local church.  I also played role-playing games, and it cost some money to buy the books, dice, lead figures, and other paraphernalia needed to play those games.  Usually these were expensive enough that they were relegated to birthday or Christmas presents.

In college, of course, my salary increased to $3.35/hr and up (the then-minimum-wage and slightly higher), but the price of comic books and game materials increased. Comics rose to $1.00 an issue, and at one point I was collecting about a dozen a month, raising the monthly hobby budget to $12 just for comics, and probably another $5-10 on gaming materials like “DM Screens” and “Dragon dice.”

I didn’t have a lot of money to spare in those days, and although I kept up with the hobbies, in the back of my mind, I always felt a little guilty — or maybe the right emotion is silly — for spending quite so much on a hobby.  Whenever I expressed this reservation to my mother, who is usually far more frugal than I am, she dismissed it, pointing out that I rarely ever splurged or wasted money on unnecessary items, and that everyone needs to spend a little on personal pleasure or risk going a little nuts.  Hobbies are a way in which we relax and have fun, and everyone needs to relax and have fun. Continue Reading »

A second blog — 1:160

As the readers of this blog know, it’s multi-topical. In other words, it contains content about all the things in which I am interested in. Primarily I have discussed computer and video gaming, but I have also discussed roleplaying games, electronics, books, movies, politics, science, and education. Enigmatic diversions is, therefore, an online diary or a “web log” in the most traditional sense of the “blog.” You can find lots of different topics here, and that will continue to be the case.

The big advantage to a multi-topic blog is that one can post just about anything to it, and the content “fits.” However, the disadvantage is that if one wants to follow a particular thread or theme — if one wants to concentrate on something — that theme can become lost in the “clutter” of the other topics over time. Certainly, clever use of categories and tags can ease this difficulty, but there is something to be said for a more narrowly focused blog that concentrates on one topic.  Continue Reading »

I’ve recently gotten a Barnes and Noble Nook, which is an eBook reader and B&N’s answer to the Kindle.  I’ve read a few novels on it, and some novels before getting it, and thought I would review them here in a big group. These are the same as my reviews on B&N’s website. I just decided to cross-post them here. I give them, as on the B&N site, 1-5 stars out of 5, with 5 being “highly recommended” and 1 being “don’t waste your time.”

The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz (3 stars out of 5)

I’ve been a Dean Koontz fan for a long time. I like his style of suspense novels, the way he builds tension, the way he writes his characters, and so on.

This book has some interesting and some suspenseful elements, but unfortunately it does not rise to the standards of Koontz classics like Lightning, Watchers, Whispers. The characters are very well done, as usual, but that’s the book’s only real strength.

The plot itself is very simplistic, much less complicated than usual for a Dean Koontz novel, and the story is much too slow to build up. Normally in a Koontz novel, something startling, supernatural, or surprising happens right away, and then you are on a rollercoaster ride of suspense for the rest of the book, unable to stop turning the pages until the ending. This time, however, the startling or surprising thing comes later, and is too subtle and vague to be quite as tension-building as usual. The plot took too long to develop.

If this had been a very long book, a slow-to-develop plot, although not typical of Koontz, might have been just fine. But unfortunately, just as he finishes developing to the story to the point where it’s interesting, the book comes to its ending — an ending that felt rushed and was distinctly unsatisfying.

I won’t put any specifics here, since I don’t want to spoil the surprises for people — this book does have some surprises as most Koontz books do. But from where I sit many were predictable and thus not all that shocking, and the climax happened so fast I had to actually re-read the few pages at the end just to see if I missed something or if my Nook had messed up and skipped a bunch of pages (it didn’t).

This book is fair, but not up to Koontz’s usual standards. He has many better novels I would recommend ahead of this one. If you want to read one of his really good newer ones, I’d recommend The Good Guy or the Taking

Relentless by Dean Koontz (4 stars out of 5)

Relentless is a classic Dean Koontz novel with some small variations. It’s written in first person, which is unusual for Koontz (I can only think of one or two other novels he’s written in first person voice). It has a great cast of characters — Cubby (the narrator), his wife Penny, his son Milo, and their dog Lassie — and a villain who is unique and interesting through most of the book.

Unfortunately, when the mystery is revealed, it’s a lot like ones Mr. Koontz has done a few times before, and I was disappointed in that. I was able to predict most of what happened at the end before it happened, which is unusual for a Koontz novel. Perhaps I’ve just read too many of his books, and am too used to his style. But this book’s “reveal” will not be a big surprise to people who have read some of Koontz’s other work.

The novel is well worth a read, and I enjoyed it… but the ending left something to be desired, by my lights.

The Good Guy by Dean Koontz (5 stars out of 5)

Dean Koontz has a distinctive style in the thriller genre, and I have always liked it. I haven’t read a book by him in a while, and realized that it’s been long enough that a good half-dozen new ones are available. Of them all, this one sounded the most intriguing, so I tried it first, and I am very glad I did. This is trademark Dean Koontz — a page-turner from the very first paragraph. I could not put this book down, and read the whole thing in three days despite being on vacation and visiting relatives.

The book’s strength, as with many of Koontz’s, resides in a tight, twisty-turny plot, and in very well drawn characters. The villain is suitably threatening, and the two main characters — Linda and Tim — are wonderfully drawn. Koontz will have you caring about them both from the get-go, and you will be hard-pressed to put this book down without making sure they are both safe.

If you have never tried a Dean Koontz book, this is as good as it gets, and a reasonable one to get you started. If you have read Koontz and you like his style, you will love this one. It is up there with False Memory, Watchers, and Lightning as one of my all-time favorites.

Velocity by Dean Koontz (3 stars out of 5)

Velocity is a decent novel, but it represents a departure from some of Koontz’s normal style conventions. Although I appreciate the effort to do something different, to experiment a bit, I thought the experiment was unsuccessful. The book is tense and suspenseful, as Koontz novels always are, but throughout most of the novel I felt it lacked something. It was not until the end that I realized what.

Probably my favorite aspect of Dean Koontz’s novels is his wonderful characterization, and his startling ability, novel after novel, with character after character, to make me love and care about his characters. His novels are “page turners” because I care so much about the characters. I worry about them. I want them to make it. And so I keep reading; I can’t put the books down.

In Velocity, however, I did not feel the same way. There’s really only one character. The book is told entirely from his perspective — it could easily have been written in first person format. There are no scene breaks, no shifts into someone else’s mind. Although that is fine, the problem here is that I didn’t really like main character Billy Wiles very much. I didn’t find myself DIS-liking him either… But I didn’t care about him the way I’ve cared about characters in all of Koontz’s other novels. Billy becomes somewhat likable in the very last few chapters, but it happens too late, and for the bulk of the book I found him uninteresting.

Don’t get me wrong. Velocity is not a bad book. If this were a novel by some other author I’d never heard of, I’d probably say it was pretty decent. But as a Koontz novel, I felt it was one of Dean’s weaker offerings. My advice is, save this for last, and read all the other ones first. They’re all better than this one.

Murder on Gramercy Park by Victoria Thompson(4 stars out of 5)

Midwife Sarah Brandt and Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy return in this third installment of the Gaslight Mystery series. This series is charming and enjoyable to read. The novels are set in the late 1890s, during a time when the NYPD was incredibly corrupt, and Teddy Roosevelt was trying to turn things around (though T.R. only rates the occasional mention and does not appear in the novels).

In this installment, Sarah and Malloy have slowly become friends, and it’s clear there is a slow attraction starting to form between them. However, Thompson is careful to subordinate this ongoing thread to the main story, which is about the murder of a famous, newly wealthy “faith healer” named Edmund Blackwell. There are plenty of suspects and like any good mystery, the first few guesses one has will probably be wrong.

I like these novels because, like most Agatha Christie novels, Thompson “plays fair” with the reader. She does not hold back facts or clues and spring them on you like a Deus Ex Machina. All the clues are there if you are reading carefully, and you can figure it out (and I did — sort of… I guessed the murderer about 2/3 of the way through the book, though I was wrong about some details).

To me, a good mystery is one where it is a challenge for me, as the reader, to guess the solution, but not impossible, and that’s exactly what Murder on Gramercy Park is like. On top of that, I like reading about other times and places, and Ms. Thompson does an outstanding job of bringing the 1890s to life.

You can technically read this book without having read the first two in the series, but I wouldn’t. I highly recommend starting with the first book, since it explains the complicated and interesting relationship between Sarah Brandt and Malloy.

Overall, if you are a mystery fan and particularly if you like Agatha Christie’s style of novels, I can recommend Murder on Gramercy Park.

Murder on Washington Square by Victoria Thompson (4 stars out of 5)

Victoria Thompson has once again written a solid mystery novel set in the 1890s. This book is the fourth in the “Gaslight Mystery” series, and it follows on the tradition of those books. The charmingly sweet romance that has been slowly forming between Detective Malloy and Sarah Brandt moves ahead ever so slowly, in painstaking increments that are extremely enjoyable to read. Meanwhile Sarah again becomes involved in a murder case, and continues to assist Malloy as he investigates the death of a young woman in Washington Square, New York.

The novel is well written and the pacing is excellent. The clues are all there for you to find, and I thought perhaps in this one it was a little more obvious than the previous three. I guessed who the murderer was about halfway through, although there was one twist that I didn’t cotton onto until a bit farther along. I always enjoy when I can figure out at least part of the solution before the protagonist does, and I was able to here. Nevertheless I kept reading because the story was interesting and I particularly wanted to see what happened to the permanent characters — Sarah, Malloy, and Sarah’s neighbors, the Ellsworths.

I’ve now read the first four books in this series, and I certainly plan to continue. Thompson is a good writer, and I enjoy the setting and time period. She’s managed to make me like the main characters very much, especially dear Mrs. Ellsworth.

If you enjoy a good mystery or a good period piece, I can recommend this novel. It’s well worth a read.

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan (4 stars out of 5)

Sagan is a generally good writer, and in this now-classic book he penned a strong and usually compelling defense of the skeptical paradigm. The book is replete with good examples, and has several chapters well worth reading for those who are either budding skeptics, or are interested in learning about how to think critically and scientifically. The man, to be sure, understood science and was a solid critical thinker.

Unfortunately, the organization of the book is somewhat lacking. Sagan touches many of the classic pseudoscientific bugbears like alien abductions, UFOs, hypnotic regression, and prophetic visions, but he bounces from one to the other, never really spending enough time on one topic in concert to make it feel as though he has thoroughly covered the material. Make no mistake, by the end much of it has been thoroughly covered — especially UFOs and abductions — but the coverage is disjointed. He seems to have done this to show the reader the common threads to many of these concepts, but the effect is to produce a lack of organization in the narrative. He would have been better, I think, with a more classical organization, covering each topic in a single, coherent chapter.

The book is well worth a read and has kept me interested throughout, even though I have read or heard most of these ideas from skeptics in the recent past (many, I realize now, borrowed in whole or in part from this book, which came out almost 15 years ago). And some of Sagan’s quotes are priceless. It just lacks a little in organization.

It’s become fairly standard in most video games to have a difficulty setting, and so, I am always surprised when I find a game that doesn’t have one. I would think, at this point, that it is no longer a surprise to people that gamers have different levels of skill, and not everyone can win the game on “Nightmare” difficulty. Heck, even MMORPGs, which for years people thought could not have difficulty settings, have started introducing them. City of Heroes originally only let you raise the difficulty of your missions, but now you can even lower them, asking for enemies lower than your level, asking for bosses and arch-villains to be demoted to the next lower rank, and the like. Although there might be reasons why one wouldn’t want MMORPGs to have variable difficulty settings (though I do not agree with people who take that position), there is absolutely no good reason why one can’t have several settings, such as “easy,” “medium,” and “hard,” in a single-player game.

That’s why I have been surprised recently playing two “Platinum hit” Xbox 360 games – Assassin’s Creed and Fable II – to find that neither game has a difficulty setting. I have only played Assassin’s Creed once, enough to get through the tutorial, but I’ve been playing Fable II for a couple of weeks, and that game has finally frustrated me into putting it on the shelf. For the gamer jocks out there, I am sure they’re laughing up their sleeves at me… Fable II, hard? Ha! It’s the easiest game in the world. Why would anyone need a difficulty slider for it?

It turns out that Fable II is an very long game with lots of content (good things in general), and almost no guidance as to what to do first, second, or third. The game urges you repeatedly to keep doing the main quest line, and there is really no indication that you shouldn’t be doing that. They also don’t give you the option to make multiple saves, so when you get yourself deep into a main quest that is too hard for your character’s level and equipment, you are basically screwed. Now, if they had multiple saves, I could just go back to before I started that quest and wait to level up to it, but I can’t do that. Still this wouldn’t be a problem, if I could just make it easier. But since they don’t have a difficulty setting, I can’t.

What we have with Fable II is basically a perfect storm. First, the game pushing, cajoling, begging you to do the main quest line. Second, there is no ability to make multiple save points, which can leave you “trapped” in the middle of a quest that you aren’t strong enough to finish. And third, there is no ability to “make the game easier” for a few minutes by dialing down the difficulty just to get out of this current mess. I’ve gotten my character stuck in the “Crucible” without any way to finish it because he’s just not strong enough to survive and beat the last encounter (a giant troll). I’ve trolled (pun intended) the game’s forums looking for advice and the main advice I’ve found is “use a high level time control spell” (I don’t have it) and “use a really high level pistol with augmentations” (I don’t have one). Because the Crucible won’t let you go back or quit, I basically can’t get out of this encounter. Your goal is to do it in a minute and a half. I was up to about 18 minutes and I just could not get past the troll.

Now, laugh at me all you want, but this makes Fable II basically a coaster to me. I am stuck in an encounter that I cannot beat, and I have no way to go back to an earlier save and improve my character to make him able to beat the encounter. If the game just had a way for me to set it to “easy,” maybe, maybe, I could survive the encounter (it always depends on what “easy” means), but there is no such option. And thanks to the designers not warning me before I entered the crucible that I was not strong enough to win, and not giving me multiple save points, I am not going to ever be able to get out of the Crucible to continue the game. Not that I’d want to, at this point, since given how aggravated the game has made me.

Designers really need to do a better job than this of realizing what players, especially the non-jock players, people who are just casually playing for fun and enjoyment, are going to need. If you’re not going to let us have multiple save points to help us get out of a jam, and if you’re not going to warn us before we get into the jam, then you absolutely need to give us a way to make your game easier so we can get ourselves out of the jam.

And while they’re at it, designers really need to make game difficulty something we can change on-the-fly. In most Bioware games this is possible, and it has saved me no end of frustration in Dragon Age. I play the game on “normal” difficulty, but every so often there is an encounter that is just too tough – after three or four wipes, I give up, set it to “casual,” blow through the problem encounter, and then set it back to “normal.” Sure, some people see it as cheating. I see it as editing – I am editing out an encounter that the designers made too hard. I say this with confidence (that it’s their fault, not mine) because I can beat 95% of the game’s encounters, even some clearly intended to be challenging, without lowering the setting to “casual.” So that means the few that I can’t do, scattered here and there through the game, are designed to be too hard. Since that’s the case, I have no qualms about lowering the difficulty.

The other way to have a difficulty setting is to set it to a certain level for an entire play-through. This is better than not having any setting at all, but not by much. The reason is, you can’t know how hard or easy the latter stages of the game will be until it’s too late, and now you may be forced to go back and re-play the whole entire game up to that point. This happened with a game that is amazing in all other respects – Batman: Arkham Asylum, which I have previously praised on this blog. I still think it worthy of that praise, but I wish you could tweak the difficulty during the game. I had the unfortunate experience of being able to get all the way to the very final battle on “Normal,” and then, no matter what I tried, I failed at that battle at least 50 times in a row. I never came close to beating it. So now I had to put the game on easy and go through the whole thing again just to be able to finish that last battle. This is silly. Let me go into “options” and lower it to easy just for this battle. Take away my achievement for finishing if you want, but at least let me finish and see the ending, without having to endure an impossibly hard battle.

I know the gamer-jocks think that difficulty settings are for pansies. They think that I “don’t deserve” to see the ending sequence of Batman/Arkham if I can’t beat the last battle – that’s the “reward” for people good enough to win that final fight. My feeling about their opinion? Screw them. I paid my $50 for Batman/Arkham just like they did. If I want to make the last battle easy, I think my $50 ought to earn me that right.

And getting back to Fable II… I didn’t pay $50 for it. It’s an old game, so I got it for $19.99. But I still paid good money for it, and if I just want to get the (bleep) out of the Crucible and go back to the rest of the game to level my character, I should be able to do it – either with a save/reload, or with a change to the difficulty settings. The only other option – which is to start over on a game I’ve already sunk 20 hours of play into – is a non-starter for me. I have other games like the Dragon Age expansion and Star Wars: Force Unleashed that let me make multiple saves and change the difficulty setting so I won’t get into this kind of mess. Why should I waste my time on a game whose designers are clearly just trying to bust my chops?

For too long, those of us who love the comic-book genre have had to suffer through games that claim to be based on superheroes, but don’t really get the genre right. Perhaps the most obvious examples of a failure to capture the superheroic genre are the two big MMOs out there, both created by Cryptic Studios – City of Heroes and Champions Online. Both of these games purport to be superhero games, but they are really just classic fantasy CRPGs with a superhero reskin. They have too many elements that are appropriate to other genres, like loot, auction houses, and crafting. And at the same time, they are dramatically missing some of the very elements that make superheroes so much fun. To date most superhero games, especially Cryptic’s pair, really only allow frontal assaults with brute force as a means of solving a crisis. The villains have hostages? No problem, just throw a fireball in there – the hostages are immune to it anyway. The villains have rigged bombs all over the building? No problem – you don’t need any sort of bomb-disarm skill; just click on the bomb and it’ll auto-disarm. And finally, I hope you weren’t planning on playing a “stealthy” character like Batman or The Shadow, because stealthed characters usually can’t attack without losing their stealth covering, since otherwise it would be considered an “exploit.”

The problem with the past games is that they were re-skins of fantasy or science fiction games (mostly fantasy), where the genre is really very different. The things superheroes do on a daily basis are not usually seen in a fantasy setting (how many times does Frodo scale walls or swing between buildings?), and so have not been included as features of those games. But if one is going to create a game that feels superheroic, then these sorts of elements really do need to be found in one’s game. I’ve played these genre-destroying “superhero” games in the past for lack of anything that really does fit the genre. But I don’t need to do so anymore, because finally, a game has come along that captures the comic book feel perfectly. And that game is Batman: Arkham Asylum (BAA).

I have been playing BAA almost obsessively over the last couple of weeks, and one of the reasons for that is just how well the genre of comics in general, and the thematic material of the Batman character in particular, have been captured. The guys who created this game finally did it right. Instead of looking at existing successful games like Halo or World of Warcraft, BAA’s designers looked at Batman and his comics and the recent two films (Batman Begins and Dark Knight) and did everything they could to capture the essence of those things. As a result, you can do all sorts of things in this game that would not normally be allowed in a typical action or CRPG game because they’d be considered “exploits.” But far from being considered “rule breaking” here, these things are not just allowed but encouraged.

As an example of something that would never be allowed in a game like City of Heroes, Batman is basically “stealthed” by default (and it costs no endurance to be stealthy!)… unless he walks right into the villains’ line of site, they won’t see him hiding on a ledge or sitting atop a gargoyle. This allows you to do just what Batman always does in the comics… sneak around taking out criminals one by one. You can creep up behind a crook, and with the press of a single button, one-shot him in a “silent takedown.” Not only does he go down in one shot, but as long as you do it out of sight of his buddies, no one will see you or retaliate. So as Batman, you can hide on a ledge, drop down silently behind a crook, choke him silently into unconsciousness, and grapple back up to the ledge, and watch as his buddies find him and ask, “What happened to him?” and “How’s he doing this?” In an MMO, doing one-shots like this would be sneered at by many players and most developers as an “I win” button, but the thing is, it’s genre appropriate. What you’re doing is basically the same thing we see happening at the docks in Batman Begins, when one after another the criminals get yanked into the shadows by Batman and end up unconscious. This is what playing Batman should be like. So the challenge isn’t to do more damage to the villains than they do to you. Instead, the challenge is to take each one out without the others seeing you (because if they see you, and they have guns, they can basically one-shot you, too!).

I know NCSoft is working on City of Heroes right now, and DC Heroes Online is about to launch, and Marvel is thinking of getting into the MMO game again (after bailing on Cryptic and forcing them to go with Champions as a framework). I strongly urge developers who plan to make a superhero game to play BAA and really study what was done here. These guys have captured the essence of a Detective Comics story arc. You really feel like you are the Batman, like you’re right there in the movies or the pages of a comic, doing exactly what Batman does. The very things that most MMOs would call an “exploit” are the heart of this game, and it shows you just how well the comic book genre can work, when the game is designed for it, instead of the genre only being the skin of the game.

I’ve read a lot of arguments about why games have poorly designed features, and are set up in ways that are at best inadvisable, and at worst stupid.    The apologists for the designers will wax eloquent about how game designers need to make money, and they do this to make money, and that to make money.  As I read these defenses of poorly designed game, one thought occurrs to me, and it’s this: There is no end to the variety of money-making devices game designers will try to come up with so that they don’t have to bother making a game that’s actually good.

Because let’s face it: if the game is good, people will want to play it, and they will buy it and (for a subscription-based game) they will subscribe.  If the game isn’t making money, it’s because it’s having sales/subscription problems, and that’s usually because there is some problem with the game design in the first place. Players want to have FUN — period. It is why we play games. When designers build things into the game that are roadblocks to fun, or simply cannot be bothered to make some in-game activities fun, or worse when they purposely design them NOT to be fun, that is when your secondary markets and the buying/selling of in game “accomplishments” comes along.

Too often, game designers purposely insert gobs of content into a game that are not really meant to be fun for everyone.  They do this for two reasons:

(A) – Designers often seem not to realize or understand that there are many ways to have fun, and that their way to have fun is not the only way.  This comes up with things like “forced grouping.” The designer feels that “a group of 5 is the most fun way to play this game, so that’s what the content will be designed for.” Now if someone has more fun soloing, or duoing, or trio-ing, well they’re out of luck. And should they complain about it, they are accused of “not playing the game right,” as if there is some objective way to “correctly” have fun and their way is not as legitimate as someone else’s.  I have said this over and over again: you can’t force people to have fun your way.  When designers force people to have fun their way, secondary markets and exploits and all these other things spring up as players try to avoid being forced into what, to their mind, is an unpleasant experience for the sake of playing a game.

(B) – Designers often see pain, boredom, tedium, as a great way to “gate” content. Knowing that players do like to have fun, they make the thing that they want few people to have, take as much non-fun action to get as possible.  Grinding resources for crafting tiers is a great example… Make it so that the activity sucks, and you won’t have a lot of master crafters on the game. Or so they think. Of course, this sort of idiotic design doesn’t work, because again, the “secondary market” or the exploit comes into play (AFK macroed crafting in SWG comes to mind).  Once again the secondary market or the exploit is being used because players want to have fun, but they still want the thing that comes at the end, the thing that the gate was put there to prevent them from getting in the first place.

My feeling in both of these cases is that the fun-reduction design is the first mistake.  If designers would stop making their games tedious, boring time sinks designed to “only allow players with endurance enough to stomach this hateful activity” to complete quests or missions, the secondary market would be little more than a trivial foot-note that only a small group of strange players would ever get involved in.  Instead, because designers think that “good design” = finding a way to make each activity take forever, the secondary market, sanctioned or not, represents a roaring trade that probably makes the secondary market even more money than the subscriptions make the designers themselves.

Developers seem to realize that “something is wrong with this picture,” and that’s true. But they don’t seem to realize that the “something wrong” is their inherently flawed design, where the game is designed to be work, designed not to be fun in the first place, on purpose… or designed to force players to play this one particular way that not everyone likes.  If they would cut that out, and design their games to be all fun, all the time, for everyone, the secondary market would be a non-issue.

Oh, and by the way, people would be willing to pay more than $15/month subscription too — because that’s the other problem the development houses are having.  They need more income but their games are not good enough for most players to accept, say, a $20/month fee… So rather than making their games actually BE good enough to warrant the extra price, they let the game keep being mediocre (or worse), and go in for the secondary market.

Sure it’s a cheap, easy, lazy, lame way for the game designers to make more money without charging a larger subscription fee. But… their time is limited, in my opinion.  Sooner or later, SOMEONE is going to come along who actually gets that games are meant to be about fun, and put out an MMORPG that is fun in all its aspects, and not a deliberate time sink, and that game will bury everyone else — even WOW. It’s a matter of time… but who knows how long? It might be a while… since game designers seem not to be able to realize that there is an outside of the box, let alone think outside it.