Abandoned Virtual Worlds (revised)

We discuss a lot about how to create believable game worlds in class, but never really about what happens when they are gone. What happens to a world when the computer hosting it shuts down, or when it has no more players in it? Of course, it never existed in reality in the first place, but to the players that once inhabited it for that period of time, it was real to them. So what happens when a world is devoid of players?

A world, empty

This train of thought was inspired by a video of a youtuber, Vinny, deciding to explore Active Worlds, an old online virtual world made in 1995 that allowed users to create content for it. It has since been mostly abandoned, and the landscape of the barren world gives off an eerie atmosphere. The empty streets and the abandoned houses are evidence of the world that once was, still the way the players left it long ago.

Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRgATG6PUA0

It makes it all the more creepier when Vinny finds a lone player in the world, spouting rather strange phrases to him. He thought it was an NPC or a bot at first, but slowly realized that it was another player. It was interesting to see the interactions between them, and seeing Vinny wonder whether this mysterious player was friend of foe. It really showed how powerful a world is even if most of the inhabitants aren’t there. I personally felt that it gave off a similar feel to an abandoned theme park.

cc049ede128ab65459161558cd27a05a
Can’t drive those now.

You can imagine the people playing in this world, giving life to it. But now, they are just there, quietly left to the elements, whether it be the local greenery or the server computers. There’s a kind of sad, quiet elegance to these environment that I appreciate. The one difference is that time stands still in this virtual world as long as the server is up, you can come back 10 years later and still find that old tavern in the same place it once was. This world felt like a real place that was left behind by the times, frozen in place for all eternity — at least until the server shuts down.

A world, gone

Playstation Home was a social gaming platform on Playstation that was shut down last year, without too much fanfare. As said by this article, “As anticlimactic in death as it was in life.“. It wasn’t a particularly good game, but it did find a niche audience that were sad to see it go.

Some people went out quietly:

Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWMfq4dNKKs

While others went out with a bang:

a4
Goodbye
a3
This time, it’s real

It’s interesting to think that it might be how we will actually react if the world really ended. Virtual Worlds do mirror our own after all. Just imagine, all your belongings, your clothes, your person, all disappearing at the flip of a switch. I imagine that would what most users feel when a game that they’ve dedicated months of their life to gets shut down.

A more recent example of a world getting shut down would be the Nostalrius, a very popular vanilla World of Warcraft private server that was shut down by Blizzard. A lot of players were not happy with this, and there was a huge outcry about the shutdown. Many people played on Nostalrius because they didn’t like current WoW anymore, and Blizzard’s refusal to provide legacy servers meant that people naturally flocked to servers like Nostalrius. In this particular case, the players didn’t just want a world, they wanted a very specific version of that world to inhabit, because the “official” version of that world didn’t satisfy them.

In the future, there will be many more online game servers slowly being abandoned and eventually shut down, which is kind of crazy to think about. Just imagine a game like World of Warcraft shutting down. It seems impossible now, but I think that it will be an eventuality. I wonder, what happens to worlds when they are shut down permanently? Do worlds persist even if the servers that host them don’t exist anymore? When a world is deleted, the avatars of every player are deleted along with it. Avatars are in a way, an extension of the player, which is why I feel like deleting a world deletes a piece of the players along with it. Yes, there are private servers, but they are not quite the same. Sure, you can make a new character, and see the same things that you see in the official servers, but the game can no longer evolve the same way the official game can, as the admins of those servers won’t be able to add content like expansions and such to the game.

Some day in the future, the last WoW player in the world, in their little private server, will quietly log out for the last time, bringing an end to an era. I suppose in a rather cliche way, these worlds will remain in those who lived in them, until the memory of those worlds fade away.

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My Backlog and game playing habits

Everyone has their own personal backlog of games. That game you were meaning to play because everyone says that it’s good, that sequel to a franchise you liked but put off playing because life got in the way, that game (or ten) you bought during a steam sale because they were 75% off, so how could you not buy them, look how much money you saved by buying all these games!

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I don’t really have a large backlog because I have managed to resist Steam sales so far, and also because don’t have a decent enough PC to run many of the games there. Most of my backlog consists 3DS games I bought when I first got my 3DS slightly more than a year ago. Some of the games on my backlog are Shin Megami Tensei IV and Majora’s Mask 3D, two really good games, but I just haven’t gotten around to actually playing them. The weird thing is, I even picked up a couple of new games since then, and have been playing those games instead of the ones in my backlog. Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to go through my backlog first before buying new games?  I even have games that I’ve started playing but  dropped halfway, like Fire Emblem Awakening. I think it was a mixture of the semester starting, the game getting tedious, and my laziness that caused me to stop playing.

So how do I decide what games I want to play at the moment? I think the recency of a game affects my decision to play it, because when I first get a game in may hands my natural desire is to play it right then and there. This means I sometimes end up dropping a game I was playing halfway to play the more current game. This results in me not touching the game I dropped for a while, even after I’ve finished the other game, as thought of picking it back up again after not playing it for a while is daunting. Also, I generally play games only once, as I don’t like playing games over again because I feel that the time spent replaying a game could be spent playing a new one. This means that I would rather completely drop a game then replay it to catch up on the plot or get used to the mechanics again, which results in quite a few games I have never finished.

Bravely Second was released a couple of days ago, and I almost completely forgot about it, even though I was really excited about it when they announced the localization about a year ago, and planned to get it on release. I suppose it was because localization took so long (more than a year), so my interest in the game waned as time went on. If it had came out soon after it’s release in Japan I would probably have bought it on release day, since I would have still been hyped about it. I do want to play it eventually, as I enjoyed its predecessor Bravely Default, but I just don’t have the desire to get it right now since my hype about the game is basically gone.

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I’m still curious about what End Layer means though

So how do game developers maintain interest in their game over a long development cycle? Companies generally will release information about the game piecemeal, throwing out a trailer or new images every couple of months to keep interest going. This means careful planning around what information gets released when, an extensive marketing campaign, and adapting to things like delays in the release schedule. For a well established franchise, it means keeping the longtime fans interested while trying to bring in new players. Heck, the hype around Final Fantasy XV has been going on for an entire decade! An entire decade’s worth of expectations and excitement coming to a climax in September, which is kind of crazy to think about.

I am planning to get a PS4 for Final Fantasy XV, Persona 5, and Kingdom Hearts 3. I don’t think my interest in these games will fade away just yet, as I have been waiting for them for too long at this point to allow that to happen. The PS4 will probably introduce a new game backlog for me to accumulate, although I do hope I will be better about finishing games then.

 

 

 

Abandoned Virtual Worlds

I talked about building worlds in my last post, now I want to talk about abandoning them. We discuss a lot about how to create believable game worlds in class, but never really about what happens when they are gone. What happens to a world when the computer hosting it shuts down, or when it has no players? Of course, it never existed in reality in the first place, but still to the players that once inhabited it, for that period of time, it was real to them. So what happens when a world is devoid of players?

Active Worlds

This train of thought was inspired by a video of a youtuber, Vinny, deciding to explore Active Worlds, an old online virtual world made in 1995 that allows users to create content for it. It has since been mostly abandoned, as you can see on the video, and the landscape of the barren world gives off an eerie atmosphere. The empty streets and the abandoned houses are evidence of the world that once was, still the way the players left it long ago.

It makes it all the more creepier when he finds a lone player in the world, spouting rather strange phrases to him. He thought it was an NPC or a bot at first, but slowly realized that it was another player. It was interesting to see the interactions between them, and seeing Vinny wonder whether this mysterious player was friend of foe. It really showed how powerful a world is even if most of the inhabitants aren’t there. The world felt like a real place that was left behind by the times, frozen in place for all eternity — or at least until the server goes down, which leads me to the next online community.

Playstation Home

Playstation Home was a social gaming platform on Playstation that was shut down last year, without too much fanfare. As said by this article, “As anticlimactic in death as it was in life.“. It wasn’t a particularly good game, but it did find a niche audience that were sad to see it go.

Some people went out quietly:

While others went out with a bang:

a4
Goodbye
a3
This time, it’s real

It’s interesting to think that it might be how we will actually react if the world really ended. Virtual Worlds mirror our world after all. Just imagine, all your belongings, your clothes, your person, all disappearing at the flip of a switch. I imagine that would what most users feel when a game that they’ve dedicated months of their life to gets shut down.

A world, gone

When Atlus announced that they were going to shut down Demon Souls servers, there was such a huge outcry that Atlus reversed their decision and decided to keep Demon Souls’ servers online for as long as they can. It is great that a company would care as much for their community, but eventually there will be a time where the Demon Souls servers finally shut down. In the future, there will be many more online game servers slowly being abandoned and eventually shut down, which is kind of crazy to think about. Just imagine something like World of Warcraft shutting down. It seems impossible now, but I think that it will be an eventuality.

To me, these worlds give off a similar feel to abandoned theme parks.

cc049ede128ab65459161558cd27a05a
Can’t drive those now.

You can imagine the people playing in this world, giving life to it. But now, they are just there, quietly left to the elements, whether it be the local greenery or the server computers. There’s a kind of sad, quiet elegance to these environments that I appreciate. The one difference is that time stands still in virtual worlds as long as the server is up, you can come back 10 years later and still find that old tavern in the same place it once was.

I wonder, what happens to worlds when they are shut down permanently? Do worlds persist even if the servers that host them don’t exist anymore? When a world is deleted, the avatars of every player are deleted along with it. Avatars are an extension of the player, an outlet to express themselves, which is why I feel like deleting a world deletes a piece of the players along with it. I suppose in a rather cliche way, these worlds will remain in those who lived in them, until the memory of those worlds fade away. Will the world’s last World of Warcraft player go down in the history books of the future? Who knows.

Building Worlds (not necessarily Virtual)

I really enjoyed the tabletop RPG assignment, but also found it challenging. Coming up with an entire world in 3 weeks was hard, especially when I did not have any experience with tabletop games. This assignment led me to do a lot of research on tabletops, where I ended up watching a full playthrough of Paranoia, a hilarious tabletop RPG set in a dystopian city controlled by an AI called The Computer. The players start out as enforcers of the rules of the city, but also secretly are part of underground societies that have their own agendas. The tone of the game is very lighthearted and comedic, as players frequently find themselves dying in hilarious situations, which isn’t a problem in a game as players are allowed to die 6 times. You can see the full playthrough below (warning: It’s 4 hours long):

Watching this really showed me how crucial the GM’s role is to the game. A GM not only has to create the scenario for the players, but also adapt to the players’ actions in the game world, that may or may not follow the story the GM has in mind. In this particular game of Paranoia, the GM had to lead 7 players through the game, which resulted in a rather chaotic but incredibly fun playthrough. Delivering an entertaining narrative while managing 7 players is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and I was really impressed in how the GM in this game handled it. Even as I was watching it, I felt immersed in the world, feeling my imagination flow with all the shenanigans the players got into. This experience made me realize the power of imagination and fantasy, that you don’t need pretty visuals on a screen to be immersed in a game.

I don’t think I quite realized until this assignment how important it is to make your world real to the player. When people agree to join your game, they are trusting you to immerse them into a world of your own creation, to guide them through a journey through that world. They are giving you a chunk of their time to explore the world you have created. It’s kind of daunting, to be honest. You are trying to create a universe that they WANT to be in, that they want to interact with. I think the best part of GMing my roleplaying game was collaborating with my players fleshing out the world that I initially created. Now that I think about it, it’s basically how many videogames work. You are collaborating with players to create stories, to create memorable experiences. The players are going to run rampant in your world. Maybe they can find ways to break it. The game designers job is to make sure the players have fun while doing so. When we build games, we build worlds. It is important for us to realize that we want players to think it our worlds are REAL.

The consumer version of the Oculus Rift, as the time of this blog post, is going to be released in 4 days. We are on the precipice of a huge technological shift in world building, which makes me both nervous and excited. I think Virtual Reality will bring a whole new meaning to worldbuilding as we know it in the time to come. Worlds in VR take on a whole new dimension when you are in them, as the nature of the technology leads the players to naturally be immersed in the experience. However, I do wonder if this means that designers would become lazier about their worldbuilding, since the game is already “real” to the player. It would be easy to haphazardly slap together assets and mechanics in a game and call it “immersive” just because it is in VR. I think it would be more crucial to think about the “realness” of the world in VR, because it would be even easier to break the players immersion when things are off. I think VR right now is sort of the uncanny valley of reality, where you can be immersed in a world but still  feel that something is off, because you can’t interact in VR the way you can interact with the real world. It is certainly a rather big problem for designers to solve, but I think that we will cross that valley eventually. Who knows, maybe one day we will all have Holodecks in our homes.

Designing Viewer-Influenced Games

Note: This post is a revision of my previous blog post on Let’s plays.

Let’s plays have been taking a huge chunk of YouTube space by storm. Gameplay videos with a small rectangular facecam in the corner are becoming a common thing to watch online, especially among younger audiences. Horror games lend themselves especially well to let’s plays, as cheap jumpscares are a great way to get an instant reaction out of a person, and other people seem to love watching that. However, many people also watch games like Minecraft and Hearthstone, either to learn strategies or for entertainment value. Some let’s plays are basically just reaction videos, others have genuinely thoughtful commentary. Many encourage viewer participation, and therein lies something many designers don’t think about: the audience of the game—the people watching the players. Perhaps we should start thinking about designing for the viewers of a game—about enhancing the experience of watching a videogame being played. How could we leverage the mechanics of a game to facilitate viewer engagement, or even viewer participation?

Making use of Twitch chat as input started from SaltyBet, a Twitch channel that streams fighting game matches 24/7, allowing viewers to bet on the outcomes of each match with fake currency. Even though it’s just like regular gambling with no real life stakes involved, and the betters do not directly influence the game itself, hundreds of people still tune in every day to play. It has since then moved betting input to an external site to allow actual conversation in chat, but even then the participatory aspect of SaltyBet is engaging enough for viewers to keep them coming back for more.

The ability to allow the viewers to directly influence the game via the chat system began with Twitch Plays Pokemon, directly inspired by SaltyBet. Here, users input commands in Twitch chat to control the player character in Pokemon Red. Stemming from the success of this project, many games are now are starting to support Twitch integration. Some let viewers vote to influence the game (Rise of the Tomb Raider), while others let players give commands in the Twitch chat like Twitch Plays Pokemon (Choice Chamber).

How do we manage the experience of all those players controlling the state of one game at the same time? Twitch Plays Pokemon used to parse every single input it received, but as the number of viewers grew, the creator implemented a “democracy” system, which allowed for voting on which action should be used as game input. Many people were against this system however, as they felt that voting slowed down the game, and preferred the unmitigated chaos that was before.

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Red, paralyzed by decisions

Pokemon was not made with thousands of players in mind, but what if it was? For comparison, lets take a look at Choice Chamber, the the first game designed to be played on Twitch chat. The main player will stream the game on Twitch, and viewers vote on various aspects of the game, like weapons, powerups, and enemies. Here, the voting does not slow down the game like in Twitch Plays Pokemon, but used to enhance the experience of the person that is controlling the character. It could be considered a form of asymmetric gameplay, as both the player and the people in chat are playing the game. Strong audience participation is the core of this experience, as the ability to interact with their favorite youtuber/streamer directly is very compelling as a viewer.

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Voting in Choice Chamber

Designing a game around massive audience participation poses several problems. The first thing is the viewers themselves, who often have different goals. Some have no intention in providing any useful input at all , trolling the player every chance they get. Some are just there to watch the chaos of a massive amount of people trying to play the game. Some genuinely do want to help the player, but are drowned out by the mass of other viewer inputs vying to see the player fail.

This leads to the next issue: As the number of viewers grow, the less influence a single viewer makes. How do developers let each viewer feel that their input actually makes a difference? Choice Chamber handles this issue quite elegantly, by allowing viewers to directly participate in the game as gizmos when they subscribe, so viewers to feel like their input actually matters.

Input lag is also another problem that these games face, as that awkward period of sitting around for 20 seconds for a response is rather disruptive for a streamer looking to interact with his audience. Is there a way to use the mechanics of the game to seamlessly integrate the lag within the game somehow? These issues are something to think about as the design of “crowdsourced games” continues to develop. 

My thoughts on narrative in games

Note: this piece may retread some of the readings and topics that was talked about in class last week.

I’ve always been interested in narrative in games. Don’t get me wrong, gameplay is fun too, but what really gets me excited is the storytelling potential that games have. The interactivity of games could add so much more to the storytelling experience. I particularly enjoyed the Terence Lee reading last week, which mentions emergent narrative. After reading the article, I spent a good two hours reading the stories on dfstories.com, which was linked to by the article. The wealth of stories, some heartwarming, some heartbreaking, that were produced from different arrangement of low-fidelity graphics fascinated me, and made for great reading. Taking the idea of simplified icons being the reader’s identity from Scott McCloud, the simple graphics of Dwarf Fortress allow players to exercise their imagination in creating stories for the characters in the game. The players themselves tell the stories THROUGH the game, which is amazing to me.

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A picture is worth a thousand words

However, I personally will never play Dwarf Fortress because of this reason. Not because it will grind my crappy laptop to a halt, and not because of its visuals, but because it has a learning curve shaped like a cliff.

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Yep.

Now, is there a way to resolve this? Can we construct a game world as deep and interesting as Dwarf Fortress without needing the players to read 1000 pages of the wiki? Probably not, because it would be a totally different game if we took out the complexity and the systems. I suppose I will have to accept the fact I will never play Dwarf Fortress, and will have to settle for just reading dfstories.

Perhaps this explains my interest in Let’s Plays. Nowadays I find myself watching more Let’s Plays than playing games, mainly to save time, since I can do something else while watching a video. Also, I feel that Let’s Plays show me the story of the game, with the commentary serving as an extra layer of story and context on top of the game. It changes the format of games to be a passive activity, which affects the way the game’s story is told.

On another note, despite its praise, I found that the Last of Us had the problem where the player constantly switches from gameplay to cutscene, as mentioned in the Terence Lee reading. Yes, there are times in the game where good narrative is shown in the gameplay, but I still feel that switch back and forth from gameplay to cutscene rather weird. I don’t know if that narrative model will ever go away, but I do hope that future designers will move away from it, or find a way to integrate it well. The problem is less prevalent in story-centric games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Life is Strange, since the gameplay itself is narrative heavy, so jumps to cutscenes are less jarring.

Can a game have both emergent narrative and its own narrative designed by the developers? Those two things inherently oppose each other. How can a game developer tell their own story without preventing the players from making their own? I suppose it would depend on the game and the creative vision behind it, and how the balance is struck in the end. Videogames are a young medium, so there is still much to discover about using them for storytelling, whether it be from the players or the developers. How a person likes to consume narrative is subjective, and how a game presents its narrative may not appeal to everyone.

Games I’ve played for way too long

Throughout the recent years, I’ve played several games for way too long, playing them way past the point where many people have stopped. Games that I’ve played for hundreds of hours and ended up quitting for some reason or another. I’ve decided to list some of them here, analyze why I played them in the first place, and why I quit.

The first game I will talk about is Candy Crush Saga. I have completed about 1450 levels in Candy Crush total, which I consider way too long for a rather exploitative free-to-play mobile puzzle game. But what exactly kept me playing it for so long? I think it was a combination of factors: The first was the lives system, the “most hated element in Candy Crush Saga“. Every time you fail to complete a level, you lose a life, and have to wait 30 minutes to gain a life back, accumulating up to 5 lives. In the harder levels, you can burn through your lives very quickly, so it got very frustrating just waiting for lives to replenish. However, I found a loophole: If I reset my computer clock, I could get a full set of 5 lives without waiting! This made it really easy to me to binge on the game for long sessions, and go through levels faster than the developers intended. I do suspect that they intentionally left that exploit in just so that people like me would keep playing, however.

Another reason was the daily wheel spin, where you get to win stuff like powerups and bonuses to give you a chance to win without spending your money on lives. I found myself opening the game just to spin the wheel, hoping for that special powerup that would get me through a level I was having trouble with.  I eventually quit because I got stuck on a particularly difficult level for a week, combined with the rather annoying pop-up ads, so I finally decided that I had enough.

Risk of Rain is another game I’ve sunk a ton of hours into.

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Steam doesn’t lie.

It’s a game where you’re have to find your way off an alien planet and have to collect items and fight your way past monsters to survive. It has roguelike elements like randomized dungeons, items and monsters, and also the fact that the game is over when you die. It has also an interesting mechanic: There’s a difficulty timer. The longer you play the game, the harder it gets.

I played Risk of Rain game mostly for its multiplayer. It doesn’t have a very good setup for online co-op, as you have to host a server yourself or find one hosted by another player to even play, and there are frequent bugs. However, I found it so much more fun than the singleplayer. The gameplay is faster paced, and other players make it such that you dying doesn’t end the game instantly, which meant that you could play longer sessions. It was also fun just having other people to interact with in the game, telling them where good items are and helping them spot the teleporter to the next level. I eventually stopped playing when an update to the game made it such that the game crashed a lot in multiplayer, which made it really annoying to play. A rather unfortunate reason, because unlike Candy Crush, I felt that this game was actually worth my time.

An honorable mention is Flappy Bird. When it was released, I downloaded it out of curiosity, as the hype around this game was immense, and I wanted to know why it was so. All I found was a rather cheap looking game, with a mechanic that wasn’t very original nor exciting. Nevertheless, I found myself playing it over and over again just to beat my high score (currently 82). The game wasn’t particularly fun, but you want to keep playing because the frustration of failing pushes you to do it over and over again. I eventually did get bored of it after a week of trying to beat my current score, thankfully. I still wonder how a game like that became so popular in such a short amount of time.

I recently got into Neko Atsume, and have been playing it for a little less than a month. It is a game where you collect cats. You put out a food bowl, buy some toys, put your phone away to do something else, and come back an hour later to a yard full of cats. They give you fish when they leave, which you can use to buy more toys and more food. It’s a very passive game, but it is somehow fun.

Also, there’s a cat called Tubbs that comes eats all your food at once. He gives you a ton of fish for it, but it still annoys me whenever he comes by. THE FOOD IS NOT MEANT FOR YOU TUBBS.

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I hate this thing.

I think that Tubbs is there to give you a reason to constantly check the game, because you don’t have a set time where your food runs out. I really like Neko Atsume, as it isn’t intrusive about its microtransactions and it’s entirely possible to collect all the cats without paying a cent. This applies to its ads as well: they don’t pop-up at inopportune times so you accidentally click on them, like in Candy Crush. They are out of the way, on the menu screen. You see a cat with a pamphlet in its mouth, and you click on it to see the ad. It’s the most adorable way to deliver advertisements.

I feel that Neko Atsume is going to be another game that I will probably play for way too long. Ultimately, I don’t think it is a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t badly affect the rest of my life. It is important to have the willpower to stop and say no when playing these games. However, many companies do take advantage of the addicting nature of their games, targeting the people out there who are willing to spend money for that extra life in Candy Crush. I hope that as designers we actively avoid that kind of exploitation in our games, even it means that you won’t make as much money.