Game talkEmmert’s Serious Games Keynote

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Oct 312006
 

Jack Emmert heads up design over at Cryptic, of course. And it looks like he just delivered a keynote at th Serious Games Summit in DC. Serious Games Source has a write-up. Among the things that jumped out at me:

  • He defines the canon of Western MMO’s:

    • Ultima Online

    • EverQuest
    • Dark Age of Camelot
    • Star Wars Galaxies
    • World of Warcraft

    An interesting list. A while back on MUD-Dev, similar questions were posed, and I listed a fairly different set, which included key text games such as LambdaMOO, DartMUD, and Gemstone, plus some of the off-the-beaten-path modern stuff like Second Life, Tale in the Desert, and Runescape.

  • He lists keys to retention as being
    • “Make players own stuff”, which is of course in the Laws and has been for years.

    • Grouping, which seems to run a bit contrary to recent trends towards “playing alone together” — although he later mentions that forced grouping is something players hate.
    • Interdependent player roles and classes
  • Interestingly, he focuses on fear of strangers as a major barrier to enjoyment. I think I agree with this one pretty strongly, but I can’t recall having seen it stated so baldly anywhere. He lists the sidekicking feature as a way of overcoming this, but I had always seen sidekicking as primarily a mechanism to prevent levels from tearing groups apart.
  • Another interesting tidbit is this one about the bases feature in CoH:

    “We spent more time developing [bases] than any other feature in City of Heroes or City of Villains,” he says. Although bases are built by a team, Emmert and his team viewed them as being “incredibly, incredibly individual” because each piece of the base is designed and added by individuals.

    “What happened was players hated it. It’s the most underused facet of the game. It received almost no coverage in the press. And there’s nothing like it in any other MMP.” Emmert’s hypothesis is that “people don’t like contributing money to a group to express individuality. … At its heart, these MMPs are individual game experiences in front of a computer terminal.”

Jack concludes by saying that game design is really a relatively recent discipline, only 10 years old or so; by making this claim, he’s basically saying that folks like Dani Bunten Berry and Richard Garriott and others were “just programmers” when they designed some of their classics… Hmm, gotta disagree.

  23 Responses to “Emmert’s Serious Games Keynote”

  1. That looks like an interesting keynote….will have to go check it out!

  2. “people don’t like contributing money to a group to express individuality. … At its heart, these MMPs are individual game experiences in front of a computer terminal.”

    How is that system in COX ANY different than guild halls like in SWG and the soon to be made Vanguard?

    I think the real reason people didn’t like it is, it is VERY detached from the main game.

    That, and COH is a VERY arcade like game, meaning most people that are attracted to it, really don’t care about “neopets” (lol, or any kind of social micromanagement, housing ETC..)

    It was just a great feature in the wrong game and player base.

    IMO.

  3. [...] Comments [...]

  4. Couple of random things:

    His choice of canon is interesting, and I suspect solely based on “Games over 200K subscribers in North America” which leaves out a few (EQ2, Runescape, arguably Guild Wars, arguably Second Life). If he’s speaking of “canon” in the sense of a “writer’s bible” sort of design literacy, well, you should probably be familiar with them all! But of course that’s almost never the case. I was the only member of the DAoC launch team who was familiar with Ultima Online, for example.

    His keys to retention – fairly standard, but I’d just boil it down to “providing social experiences”. The more opportunities for social experience, the more people buy into the world and make it their own.

    Fear of strangers — hmm. I wonder if this is a World of Warcraft-centric perspective peering out. MMO players generally have no problem with group content as long as groups are available and optional. Ironically, CoH has some of the best group-finding tools available.

    And I disagree pretty strongly with his point of MMOs being single-player experiences. They’re not. When players gather online to discuss the high point of their gaming histories, other people are always involved.

  5. A bit disappointing that someone who is usually so informed can make so many, frankly, inaccurate statements. If you’ve ever seen him do trivia contests at conventions, you know the guy is an encyclopedia of facts about many industries.

    I shouldn’t be surprised by now that someone focuses entirely on graphical games. To put it in Emmert’s terms, that’s like saying that the most influential comic books are all post-X-Men. This ignores a lot of work that was highly influential even if it doesn’t always have popularity in this day and age. It’s also slightly disappointing that he equates large numbers with success; at least, that was the impression the article gave.

    The whole fear of strangers thing is a bold way of putting it, but not really anything new. I’ve seen this behavior quite a bit in M59, where people distrust unknown players for the risk they present to the guild. Especially once someone has been betrayed, they tend to assume the worst in an unknown quantity. (As a Meta note, I find it interesting that the keynote ascribes us not knowing or trusting our neighbors to fear, whereas before it was attributed to busy lifestyles. A sign of the times?)

    And, yes, 10 years is way too young for the game design discipline. Hell, that’s about as long as I’ve been in the game industry at this point, and there was a lot of great, considerate game design for much, MUCH longer than I’ve been making games professionally.

    Ah, well. Hopefully he won’t take our criticisms too hard and may even learn something. ;)

  6. Got to agree with trucegore-

    COH/COV has a low/medium level of community building mechanics, why then put time into bases, bases, and guildhalls are byproducts of a community building mechanic embeded into a game im my mind. To use your term the more “worldly” (hopefully correctly) a game is the more the mechanic should be fine tuned and fleshed out. You cant plop a base, a guild hall or an imperial HQ down and call it a day, “well we got bases in, we got a guild hall in for guilds, we got an imperial HQ base players can buy we must have a community, guilds and a GCW now right? Not without a reason….

    Otherwise it was a good read

  7. I can’t disagree more vehemently with the hypothesis that simply because the bases feature in CoH/CoV failed to attract much attention that people don’t like contributing in-game currency to a group to express individuality. Shadowbane’s city construction functioned almost totally on this principle in action. Survival itself was tied to the player functioning as an integral part of a cohesive social unit and the monetary contributions made to it.

    The reason that bases aren’t that attractive to the player base is because they were introduced as a “take it or leave it” feature. If the game mechanic has no strong bearing on the day to day activities of the player, and it obviously flagged as “Optional”, then the players will treat it as such.

  8. Fear of strangers is a very real problem now – it wasn’t so much a few years ago. I actually wrote a reply yesterday to one of my guildmate’s blog posts about his playstyle that maybe helps to explain why it’s an issue.

    Here’s the link. The forum we use for blogs (we don’t like GP’s blog feature) should be open to the public.

    Click here to see Tal’s long-winded and only loosely on-topic reply to his guildmate’s post.

  9. To be pedantic: CoV’s base building feature certainly sounds cool, but I agree with GreyPawn — just because it’s all “one building” doesn’t mean that it’s something totally different than city-building in SWG or Shadowbane. I think they were the first two big-publisher MMOs to really have the concept of player cities as actual self-aware entities, rather than collections of unrelated buildings a la old UO. In SWG and SB, each building was owned by an individual, but they worked together as a whole.

    If he’s talking about the ability to design custom layouts, UO eventually did that, too.

    When I consulted in China a few years ago, some locals showed me a game with a base building system that sounded pretty similar as well. Your guild earned points and you could spend them on new rooms with special functionality in your guild hall (dungeon teleporters, etc.). I don’t remember the name; it was in Chinese. :)

  10. To further the harping on CoH/CoV bases: a prime facet of their rejection as established was the incompatibilities with the metaphors of the underlying media the game represents. Certainly the Justice League had some very nice bases of operation, but at the end of the day Batman still has his Batcave and Superman has his cave of solitude… Even within the framework of the game itself, certain “special” NPCs are represented as instanced in their own “personal bases”, regardless of being in the style of whatever larger group they owed allegiance. There’s something of a feel of unfairness when Commander Adam and his bland soldiers have a “special base” instanced, even if the guy’s name is from a psuedo-random generator and you only fight him once with no real significance. Yet, for a player to have a base you have to share it with 30-50 other people to get to even a fraction of the size of some random mission instance.

    There is a glut of stupid random instance levels and this weird artificial scarcity of such a place that might be personalized. It’s obvious that Cryptic focuses on the PvE experience, and they’ve done so much so that the PvE and PvP experiences are almost too different. Maybe it is just me, but it seems like Cryptic could get so much interesting Player content by merely cannabalizing its PvE efforts… if they were to give even half as much control in instanced “Player bases” as the PvE engine has in building even just the average pseudo-randomized missions, they might see some very interesting Player-created content (individual missions, and then elaborate story arcs in collaboration with others’ missions).

  11. Fear of strangers – In RL, people’s hair styles, clothing, accessories, and way of speaking says a lot about them. (People even specifically adapt their appearance to fit in with social groups.) In a typical MMORPG, everyone looks the same and/or has no choice of what armor/weapons their wield… which means that there are fewer clues to what someone will be like.

  12. Just to clarify the 10 year statement as I was there. I think what Jack was getting at was that until 10 years ago the idea of designers as standalone defined individuals with no other responsibilities on the team (such as programming, art, etc.) was not truly pervasive. Not that people weren’t designing games or that there weren’t people who were more designer then programmer, or that even a few individuals didn’t exist solely as designers.

    He could have elaborated this out a bit more given the audience might have been more inclined to take it more literally then I did but I don’t for a second think Jack was thinking game designers didn’t roam the planet before 1996.

  13. Ah, Ben, well, that certainly makes more sense, and is certainly more accurate. The rise of exclusive design roles happened when the projects got so big that armies of content creators were needed. At first, they were purely menial labor, often called “design assistants” or “tech assistants” or just “level builders” and so on. There were pure designers before that as well, but they were often called “directors” or “producers,” and wore that hat to some degree. I’d peg it at a little more than ten years ago, maybe twelve, but yeah, he’s definitely right about that.

  14. Somehow I do not believe that the concept of “fear of strangers” is the right one when describing players’ reluctance to group up. I believe that it is the delays while forming a group or when reforming one (due to players departing) that are the major barriers. As long as a group is incomplete for a task which has a difficulty that requires a group then the entire party is paused until the gap is filled and many do not like waiting.

    You will notice for example that players are usually less shy in forming groups in first person shooters like the Battlefield series (where you are automatically assigned) and to an extent in WoW’s battlefields.

    In the original days of Star Wars Galaxies while hunting on Dathomir picking a group was easy. You started out, did a few missions and when you came back for more missions you kept an eye out for those that were looking for a group. If there were not then you could still proceed but if you found one inviting them was just a command away. I suppose it’s a matter of balancing the number of opportunities that require grouping and those that benefit from grouping.

  15. Fear might not be the best term – rather, distrust. Most long-time players I know don’t like doing PUGs (regardless of the games) because they have developed a belief over time that the people they’ll end up grouping with will be lower-quality in some way. As in: noobs, jerks, idiots, children, etc.

    I don’t see this attitude in new players, or even in players who have only been playing MMOs for a year or so. I usually only see it in people who have been playing for several years, AND who have had the experience of having a regular guild or group to play with at some point as well.

    It’s a human problem but it creates a game problem because when it becomes widespread, it inhibits the formation of communities, which in turn can hurt retention.

  16. Like Ben I was there, though I stepped out during the bases part of the talk.

    Ben is right about what Jack had to say about designers, to summarize he said:
    Game creation stage 1: One person is artist, designer, programmer
    Stage 2: Artist + designer/programmer
    Stage 3: (1997 or so) Artist(s) + Designer(s) + Programmer(s)

    My impression of the Fear of Strangers point is this:
    Games where people play in group lead to better retention of players
    To group you have to meet strangers
    Fear of Strangers makes finding a group more difficult

    Therefore as a game designer you want to help your players overcome thier fear of strangers so that they will group and stay with your game for a longer period.

    Personally I found his talk interesting, but a bit disorganized. I do think getting him was a very good thing to do because the serious game space can benefit a great deal from the learning that is coming out of games like City of Heros. At the start he had the guts to stand up and say that he did not know much about serious games and my guess is that the problems I had understanding what he wanted to say came in part from his difficulty in knowing what the audience needed to hear. I’m also being a little harsh, Philip Rosedales Keynote at Serious Games GDC is really the gold standard, and Jack Emmert was good, but not as good as Philip, who did know what we needed to hear.

  17. I think he was talking graphical online multiplayer games when he called out that list.
    I’d have to agree with his list of games. Ultima Online was the first graphical MMO that had such a huge audience. It was sort of a break-away hit, even the producers were surprised by the number of people playing it.
    Everquest took it a step further in creating a 3d quest driven environment. DAOC, brought us realm vs realm controlled PvP, some very nice world effects and of course questing. Star Wars Galaxies was a space theme, 3d version of some of the best stuff from UO, plus more. World of Warcraft brought the MMO to a much larger audience.
    Yea, I’d have to say I agree with the list of games.

  18. His rationale for why bases were a failure is interesting, because from a player perspective I was extremely excited by the concept, and then discovered that the problem with bases was that they required ridiculous levels of currency to make them useful. For a game that represented an open candy store for the character developers and creative fiddlers, the level of play or supergroup involvement required to make a base do something, anything, was out of whack.

    The casual creative player who wants at least /some/ slight benefit (be it an item or a skill) from their time would be faced with massive grind.

  19. [...] Seems everyone’s commenting on something Jack Emmert said at the Serious Games Summit.  I was there too, but since most of the meat is being discussed over at Raph’s, I figured I’d reply to the topics there. [...]

  20. Fear might not be the best term – rather, distrust.

    I’m being a bit nitpicky, but that makes me think of the child who is told, “Don’t say hate. Hate is a very strong word. Use ‘dislike’,” and promptly follows up with, “I really, really, really, really dislike that!”

    Just to clarify the 10 year statement as I was there.

    This worries me, because it suggests that this litany of criticism is based off inaccurate reporting. Has anyone found a better transcript of the talk, or perhaps one they feel has higher fidelity to Emmert’s intent?

  21. Well, when you say fear of strangers, the message that people seem to get is that someone doesn’t want to group because they’re shy, etc.

    Whereas if you say distrust of strangers, the message that comes across is that someone doesn’t want to group because they think the strangers are going to do bad things, which at least in my experience is closer to the mark.

    Either way the problem comes down to the players themselves and their behavior. While the makers of a game can include tools to make it easier to find groups and try to build in ways to make it easier for players to form good, productive groups – but in the end you can’t stop the bad experiences from happening altogether, which leads to the fear/distrust factor.

    *shrug*

  22. Here’s the problem with bases in CoX. While they have some meaning in the game the entire point is to pimp the base out for guild vs. guild pvp, with the goal of this pvp for the attacking guild to come in and take a special power-up item from the base to bring it back to their base.

    While it sounds cool and interesting, I knew very few guilds would ever take part in such a raid from my time in SWG.

    In SWG the closest thing to CoX bases really were the GCW bases. A guild hall was nothing more than the guild leaders home with guild controls. GCW bases however were intended to be pvp flash points.

    The problem with this was they were very expensive in the first version of SWG and often took many guild members pooling together to purchase. They were a selling point to new recruits, and a vital source of income for your guild members (using it to grind faction and money).

    Because of their great value, they brought out the absolute worst in the player population. Guilds would do anything to defend these bases, often pulling every dirty trick, glitch and bug out of their bag of tricks. Once it was discovered players could stop the shutdown sequence while feign dead, smugglers were camped on the floor near the terminal at the first sign of trouble.

    And or course the large, large majority of bases were originally placed in the wee-hours of the morning figuring the server would either be down for maintenance while they were vulnerable or too few players would be around to take it down without a defense.

    The point is guilds in CoX weren’t going to work hard to get this great object, place it in their vault, then schedule a raid with a rival guild so they could come in and take it. They’d rather just marvel at its coolness and have that be than.

  23. “Fear of strangers”-
    You know, it strikes me that at least in early UO, you got to know who you could trust and who you couldn’t. If you didn’t know, someone else did.
    A side note (and this is pertinent as I’ll show), it floored me to learn of a particular case where “roleplayer extreme A” was also “griefer twerp extreme Z”. Excellent roleplaying and community building on one end and outright griefer on the other by the same guy. Such an example is pretty rare, but it reminded me of the case of “Barbasol the Pilgrim” and “Blade” on the Ultima Online Chat Zone boards (Auric’s) during UO’s beta. (If anyone remembers this, it really should go down as one of those infamous things in MMO gaming.) The pilgrim who just wanted to travel from shrine to shrine, meek and considerate, inspiring help from many others to protect him against the villains. And the villainous PKer boasting how he would rule us all and strike fear by the mention of his name. Turned out to be the same poster who even went so far as to post each persona from different IP addresses, untill he screwed up (quite possibly intentionally) and posted one persona from the other’s IP and was caught at it.

    How is this relevant? It boils down to Cafeteria Food. By worrying about such things, you take a huge human element out of the game. An interesting one. An emotional one. Sure, worry about mechanics in things such as secure trades and a justice system, but don’t take the social aspects of human beings out of the games.

    WoW did quite a job of adding flavor to the cardbaord, by dangling fun on a carrot stick with level gained abilities and quest gained items (again according to levels). But as I explained in the cafeteria food posting, it’s only dressing on the cardboard and only acceptable due to the fact that there’s little else to go to. WoW is merely the best at that kind of gamey game play. Add in the ever expanding RMT thing and the followers of both Blizzard and Warcraft, and it’s quite a success. But that doesn’t really mean it’s what players want. Or will want in the future.

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