Guild Wars 2 Revisited

In the past 6 weeks or so I have got two characters all the way up to 80, and the weird thing is that I almost never duplicated content doing it. One character is human and priory, and stuck to Human and Sylvari zones.  The other is Norn and Order of Whispers, and stuck to Norn and Charr zones.  Except for 4 or 5 personal story missions every character does, I have not repeated content — and I still have 5 zones of content I have yet to explore on either character.
That is an amazing amount of content for a newly released MMORPG, and why I have been playing for 6 weeks straight without getting tired of the game.  I remember I was playing DC Universe Online for 3 weeks and got a hero and a villains both up to max level in only about 3 weeks and pretty much exhausted all the content there was to play.

Early Concerns

When I first started playing the real game and not the pretend beta game, I had two major concerns that were quite annoying: Personal stories and crafting.

GW2 has personal instance missions which can be done as a team but they are designed to be solo missions.  A lot of them were either too hard to play for the level they were supposed to be at, or were bugged where you could not finish and had to get out and start over.  The good news is that Anet is responding to complaints about these missions and fixing them. Many were fixed in the 9/25 update, and many more in the 10/1 update. Unfortunately, many bugs remain.  The most notorious is in a mission called “Forging the Pact” which is one of those 5 missions that everybody has to do.  Despite ANet saying it is “fixed” in the last two updates, it still isn’t.

The second concern is in crafting.  Just before launch, ANet increased the requirements to crafting green “Masterwork” weapons and armor, but did not increase the drops of the materials to craft them.  As a result it is basically impossible to specialize in two weapon/Armor crafting professions, because you will never get enough drops to do both, unless you “farm” for drops, and even then ANet has anti-farming programming in place.  My plan was to have my Ranger craft Huntsman and Leatherworks so that she always had the latest gear, but was very disappointed to learn that was not possible.

The In Game Economy: Heavy Deflation

However, things changed as the economy started to flatten to a market clearing prices on items.  In the trading menu, you can buy pretty much anything cheap, and getting cheaper.  This is very bad for people trying to make money, but for people that want stuff, it is good.  You no longer have to “farm” for stuff, you can just buy it cheap in the trade center.  And you don’t even have to craft to get the latest armor and weapons, in fact pre-crafted armor and weapons are always priced below their materials price, except for rare and exotic stuff.  Thanks to the in-game economy, the only reason to craft at all is free experience points to level up.

Anet, to their credit, set up a true laisse fare economy, where supply and demand rule the day.  World of Warcraft trading was limited to each server so it was possible to “corner a market” and raise prices. The Trade Center combines stuff from 50 different servers, so market cornering is impossible.  Of course, as you play you  gather materials and get weapon\armor drops.   You can sell or salvage drops to get rare materials that might be worth more, or if the drops aren’t worth it, you just sell to a merchant.  Only the latter choice (sell to a merchant) stops supply from rising.  Everything else results in increased supply and lower prices across the board.

The only thing that is increasing in value are gems.  Gems are purchasable with real money, and can be traded for in game gold, so if you are willing to put up the bucks, you can buy whatever can be purchased.  In the first few weeks, people needed gold to get lots of stuff to have the best characters.  Then people started getting rich and bought gems, increasing their value vs. gold.  With all items deflating in price, the only way to make money is invest in gems.

New Concerns

One of the cool features of GW2 is the “level down” mechanism that allows you to do lower level content at the appropriate difficulty.  No taking your level 80 character to level 5 zones and slaughtering everything in sight.  If you go to a level 5 zone, you will play as a level 5-7 character, and can be attacked and killed by these low level creatures.  This makes all content playable and challenging, and worth doing.  The original plan is that when you play low level areas, you would still get drops relevant to your level (and sometimes you do), but most of the drops are appropriate to the level of the zone you are in.  If  you are trying to gather crafting materials for low level weapons or armor, this is a good thing.  If you are trying to collect high level rare or exotic items, or get lots of XP from events, then you pretty much have to stick with appropriately level zones.

The bad side of this is as time goes by, most players will be either playing in low level zones, or high level zones, just like every other MMORPG out there.  Now ANet has thought of this issue and if you are in one of those neglected middle zones where no one else is playing in, you will get bonus XP for kills and events, and sometimes the bonuses exceed the normal XP if you are in a particularly barren land, but I am not sure how big of an incentive that will be.

Final Note: Whiny Players

There was a post on Reddit’s GW2 board that got a lot of attention:

God save me from some aspects of the MMO community. You people are impossible. You have ruined a ton of AAA games in the last few years – you DEMAND treadmill gated endgame, beat it in a month, and then whine and abandon a game for not having enough content (you all know exactly the games I am talking about). Now a game has to literally FORCE you to stop doing the same mindless activity over and over and actually do different things to enjoy endgame, and you all bitch and whine because you can’t grind yourself to boredom in a month like you have done with every other MMO.

You are destroying the viability of MMOs by being entitled impatient kids who can’t make fun for yourself, you have to have a game hand it all to you on a silver platter and whine and bitch if you don’t get it fast enough, or complain because you have to work hard to get something you want because they won’t let you run the easiest dungeon over and over or run the same dynamic event over and over. […]

Maybe the problem isn’t the MMO, maybe the problem is you. Maybe you need to examine the way you approach an MMO – many of you will spend hours playing a FPS with no progression because it is fun – and then you whine because spvp has no progression and say so “what incentive do I have to do spvp if I don’t get better gear?” (Actual statement I have heard).

Guild Wars 2 is a reinvention of the MMO, and I read with disbelief people complaining about some of the best features.

I was visiting GW2guru which is one of the largest GW2 forums but not official. Some clueless player posted a thread about “What would you change about GW2” and he had “No down leveling, bring back the Trinity (healer-tank-wizard), and bring back Henchmen” as his 3 changes. I had to post that those are precisely the three things that makes GW2 GREAT!, and that he should go back to WOW if he doesn’t like it. There were an amazing number of people on his side. (sigh)

There is an awful lot of content in GW2, and it is likely going to be late October/November before I will see it all. Being an altaholic I have no problem re-rolling, but those who don’t can find dynamic events, WvWvW, or dungeons to do forever.

GW2 is not perfect, and there are legitimate gripes to be made. But I hate when complaints about the game are along the lines of it not being like all the other MMOs, because that is precisely the point.

An Introduction to Guild Wars 2

This weekend is the head start for Guild Wars 2, the official launch is Aug 28th.  I have been involved with beta and thought I’d throw out some advice to those looking to join the game.  Let me just say that Guild Wars 2 is an MMORPG, a type of online game that has been dominated by World of Warcraft for 8 years.  Based on what I have seen, GW2 is very good candidate to unseat the current champion.  WoW became popular  by redesigning the MMORPG for a wider audience. Since then every MMORPG has mirrored the WoW model.  Guild Wars 2 is a completely different design for hopefully an even wider audience.

For those familiar with MMORPGs, GW2 represents a new redefinition. Outleveling content is gone, kill stealing is gone, forced team missions is gone, running back and forth to NPCs for missions is gone, wasting time trying to recruit a healing specialist for your team is gone, annoyingly expensive and time consuming crafting is gone, grinding is… ok some of the heart missions get a little grindy, but it is not a constant grind.  Basically, everything you found annoying about MMORPGs of the past is gone, and replaced by some really cool fun stuff to do instead.  That is why I think GW2 is the first of the genre to unseat WoW.  Oh and I failed to mention, monthly subscription fees is gone!  GW2 is the first free to play MMORPG designed from the ground up to be free to play.  So hopefully I got your attention, Lets play!

What’s an MMO?

For those not familiar with MMORPGs,  an MMO is a Massively Multiplayer Online game. A lot of this blog is devoted to Second Life, which is an MMO, but not an RPG.  As you play the vast majority of the characters, correction “friendly” characters, are other players from around the world.

What’s an RPG?

A role playing game is where you invent a character to play within a (usually) fantasy realm.  Dungeons and Dragons was considered the first. It was played with manuals, paper and dice.  Everything is on computer these days. Recent popular RPG video games include Dragon Age, Skyrim, and Diablo 3. 

Put the two together and you get an MMORPG. The most popular and famous is World of Warcraft, but there are hundreds of them out there. I have played Lineage 2, spent the better part of a year in City of Heroes, 7 years off and on in Guild Wars 1, Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online, DC Universe Online, and now by far the best is Guild Wars 2.

Creating a Character

If you are new to the whole MMORPG and want to check out Guild Wars 2 to see what everyone is talking about, here are a few basics.  First thing that you do is create a character.  There are 5 races to choose from.  Except for their looks and a few minor skills, there is little difference between them play wise.  Each race has a different starting zone and major city to explore, though all races can visit all cities.  Your character’s personal story will center around your races zones and city.  If its your first time ever in an RPG, you probably want to go with Human, but much of the fun is experimenting.

Next up you pick a profession.  If you are new to the whole MMORPG experience, I highly recommend starting out with either a Warrior or a Ranger.  Easy to learn, lots of weapon choices, very versatile.  As you play, you will find certain play styles might fit you better.  There are 6 other professions to choose based on your play style.

If you like running up to bad guys and smacking them around, then you probably will prefer melee classes.  Two professions specialize in melee, the Guardians, and the Thiefs.  If you like running up and putting the smackdown on the bad guys, you will like the Guardians.  If you prefer the sneaking up from behind and stabbing them in the back, you will like the Thief better.  Thiefs are a profession that requires lots of motion, jumping, evading, stealth.  If you grew up on Super Marios 3D type games, you will probably make a good thief.

If you prefer to stand back and do your damage from afar, there are two classes that specialize in that too: Engineers, and Elementalists.  Another thing these two have in common is lots and lots of skills to choose from.  No matter what you need to do, you probably have a skill to do it somewhere in your bag of tricks.  Elementalists are spellcaster types.  Each weapon has 20 skills, 5 fire, 5 water/ice, 5 air/lightning, 5 earth/stone.  Engineers are tech heads.  The hardest part of Engineer is that your bag of tricks come in the form of kits that you cannot get access to for quite a few levels, making the first 20 or so levels of the engineer profession a bit lame.  Don’t worry, you will get better.

That leaves Necromancer and Mesmer.  These two spellcasters rely on raising minions to dish out and take damage.  Their play styles are very different from the rest, so if you are looking for something very different than melee or range, well here you go.  Note that while I am saying that certain professions cater to certain kinds of play style, all professions are pretty flexible.  All can do range, all can do melee, all can cause conditions to happen, and remove conditions, all can do “Area of Effect” damage to multiple foes at the same time, and all can support and defend their fellow players.  All are capable of self heal.  There are no dedicated healers or tanks or damage dealers as every player is capable of all 3.

All 8 professions are available to all 5 races, so that’s 40 different types of characters to play, all of which come in male and female versions too.

The First Mission

In Guild Wars 1 (and most other RPGs I have played), after you create your character and watch an introductory video and find yourself in world, it is typically a good 5 to 10 minutes of tutorial stuff until you finally get to actually fight something.  In Guild Wars 2, after an introductory video, it is typically a good 10 seconds until you are attacked by something.  Basically, you learn by doing, so you are thrown to the wolves right out of the gate.  Each race has an opening conflict that ends in a giant boss fight.  You are given a weapon with one skill unlocked. Two more skills will unlock very quickly.  As you go through the opening mission, you will see what talking to an NPC looks like, what an event looks like, and what happens when you nearly die. It also shows you how to follow your personal storyline.

Here is the biggest difference between Guild Wars 2 and a typical MMORPG, I’ll pick on Lord of the Rings Online, but my problems with that game are common in many MMORPGs.  One of my biggest pet peeves is standing around waiting for a team to form for a group mission you need to progress in the story.   You are given a mission that requires a team of 4 to 6 players and it begins at point A. So you run to point A and start spamming the chat channel “LFT Dungeon Run” until someone finally answers back that they need the mission too, and then you wait some more for others until you got 4 players.  You start the mission, and it goes on for 20 minutes or so, and it goes OK until someone gets disconnected from the game, you don’t have enough players left to finish, and you end up right back at point A spamming the chat channel again.  This is why I quit Lord of the Rings Online among others.

In Guild Wars 2, a message appears on the screen that a nearby character needs help, for example a merchant is trying to get a load of goods to the next town and needs protection from the bad guys trying to rob him.  You jump in to help, but you are the only one.  Suddenly, bad guys attack! There’s about 3 of them, they are a challenge for you but you can handle it (or maybe not and the event fails).  Another player sees what is happening and joins the battle.  Suddenly you are a team fighting together, no spam needed.  The next attack on the caravan has 5 or 6  bad guys that the two of you have to take on.  Other players join in.  Suddenly there are about 10 players protecting this caravan.  The next attack of bad guys has 20 to 30 bad guys attacking.  There is no waiting around, events just happen, and events automatically scale depending how many people are participating in the event, meaning it will always be a fun challenge.

These events tend to “chain” where one event leads to another.  If you manage to get the caravan to the next town, then the town gets attacked.  All the players in the area now have to defend the town.  Once the town is saved you find out three townspeople were kidnapped back to the bad guys hideout, so now any players that want to can run to attack the enemy base to free hostages, which usually includes a big boss to fight.  This stuff is happening all the time everywhere around you, and always at a level of difficulty that is challenging and fun (unless you accidentally wander into an area designed for much higher leveled players).  You cannot “outlevel” any area.  If you go to a low level area your character will drop in strength to that low level.  With mods, traits, and skills you might have an advantage with the “downlevel” over players that really are at that level, but not enough advantage to make it super easy.  It does not work the other way though, you are not upleveled if you go to high level zones, so watch where you are going.  The exception to the “no upleveling” rule is WvWvW which I will explain below.

Cool Stuff to Do

If missions, story lines, and events are not enough for you, there is plenty of other stuff to occupy your time and get experience points doing it.  Besides fighting, you can explore the world and get experience as you discover new points of interest.  There is a large crafting component that is totally optional, but better weapons, armor, and other enhancements are obtainable if you do.  There are “renown heart” activities which often are odd jobs to do like watering plants, cleaning the yard, harvesting apples, etc.  Bad guys often show up while you do this stuff to make it harder. If you do enough, you get paid.

The primary activities are cooperative PvE (player vs environment) stuff that all the players help each other do.  Guild Wars 2 also has PvP (player vs player) activities too.  Early MMORPGs forced you to play against other players. The “hard core” RPGers love this stuff, but casual players find it annoying as hell.  This is why the first successful MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, allowed people to choose whether or not they would participate in “duels” with other players. The hard core players find this pretty lame, as they have a hard time finding people to duel with.

Guild Wars 2 has something for the hard core players called structured PvP, where you can form a group with 4 of your friends, or be randomly assigned into a group of 5, and you battle another group of 5. In structured PvP, everyone is given the same armor, the same scaled weapon damage, and the same skills to choose from (varying on your profession of course).  No one can have a huge advantage, unless they happen to be good players.

For us non hard core players, there is an intermediate PvP environment called World vs World vs World (WvW).  In this environment, you can join one of 4 “battlegrounds”.  These are huge zones, and contain a lot of the same stuff PvE zones have (creatures to fight, events to participate in, stuff to explore), but enemy players are also there.  Your team gets rewards by holding land and important places on these 4 battlegrounds, so the primary activity in these battlegrounds is take and hold land.  There are always big battles to participate in.  Three of the battlegrounds are “borderlands” which are low key zones with occasional battles.  The 4th is an “Eternal Battleground” where goals are really close to one another so the fighting is intense all the time.  You can choose which to participate.  Upon entering these zones, you are upleveled to level 80. Everyone has the armor, the health, and can do the damage of a level 80 player in these zones.  Unlike structured PvP, your player can get an advantage in WvW by getting better armor, weapons, traits, and unlocking skills in PvE.  None of this can make you super powerful, but every little bit of an edge can’t hurt.  WvW is the primary activity that is attracting gamers to Guild Wars 2, so it is definitely worth checking out even if (like me) you are not into PvP.

More Information

So I gave you a basic run down of the game which I hope got you interested.  For more basic information, check out the official online manual, which includes a nice intro video.  Another very good intro video is this one by a player named Geekasaurus, which covers a lot of the same stuff I mentioned but in video so you can see it in action.  His You Tube channel is filled with lots of helpful and well done videos on what there is to see and do in GW2. I highly recommend it.

As I write this, the game is just a few hours from the headstart weekend launch.  If I don’t post for a while, it is probably because I’m playing Guild Wars 2.

3D Virtual Worlds vs. MMORPGs

I have spent 9 years exploring 3D Virtual Worlds, and 8 years playing MMORPGs.  For the longest time they felt like two different experiences.  3D Virtual Worlds are a creative outlet, while MMORPGs are a mostly cooperative gaming experience.  It seems that recently they have been merging.

I have not been adding many new virtual worlds to my master list lately.  While I am probably missing some, the main reason I have not been adding new ones is because there haven’t been any.  This is probably due to good old capitalism.  The potential market just isn’t as big as people thought, and the market that is there is covered really well by Second Life, IMVU, and OpenSim.

In the last couple of years, the growth in 3D gaming has been in free to play MMORPGs.  Not only do they attract a crowd with new gaming experiences, they have co-opted the social model of the 3D Virtual Worlds, creating central meeting places, and free “bases” you can decorate and host private gatherings.  They also have special interest groups you can join in game to meet like minded people.

Basically, everything that makes 3D Virtual Worlds popular, can now be found in MMORPGs too, except user created content.

This is why I now believe that if a complex “Metaverse” like OASIS in Ready Player One is  ever built, it is more likely to be in the form of an MMORPG rather than a 3D Virtual World.

We then must ask the question: How important is “user created content”?  Well, I learned early on during my 9 years of exploring that “content” is vitally important, in fact it is THE most important factor in the success of a 3D Virtual World, and in truth it is also one of the most important factor in MMORPGs, too (“playability” slightly trumps it however).  Allowing user created content is the fastest way to get content, but it is a two edged sword, because the vast majority of user created content is junk.  That user created content has to be loaded on the fly via asset servers which slows down and weakens the user experience.  So if a 3DVW or MMORPG can provide enough “content” without resorting to the user created variety, it is a better experience for the player.

On the other hand, creating the “user created content” is in and of itself the thing that attracts many to 3D Virtual Worlds in the first place.  It is one of the things I have enjoyed most about Second Life and There.com.

The truth is that content creators are seriously outnumbered by both socializers (especially since most content creators are also socializers), and gamers.  Now that MMORPGs are working to appeal to both of the latter groups, it is only the content creators who feel that 3DVWs are the better way to go.  For everyone else, there is simply more things to do in an MMORPG.

As far as “content” goes, competition between MMORPGs is fierce enough that the newest ones are constantly raising the bar on the amount (and quality) of the content they offer.  The thing that triggered this post is my exploration of “Lions Arch” in Guild Wars 2.  I have posted a lot of reviews of 3D builds, but I would say without question that the new “Lions Arch” is the most beautiful 3D build I have ever seen in any game I have ever played, regardless of genre.  It is a true masterpiece of the art form.

As I stated in a previous post, 3D Virtual Worlds are in a slow decline.  It is the competition with free to play MMORPGs that is doing it.  The MMOs are incorporating the stuff that makes 3DVWs popular.  If they are to survive, the 3DVWs need to start incorporating what makes MMOs popular.  They are just starting to do that.  The merging of the two genres seems inevitable.  I for one am looking forward to that, because it is only going to get more awesome.

A Quick Peek at Guild Wars 2

There are a lot of MMORPGs out there.  Three new major ones are coming out this summer Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, and TERA.  They all claim to be very different from the MMORPGs that came before.  I cannot tell you if that is true of the latter two, but with Guild Wars 2, it is very true.

I’m a long time player of Guild Wars, and have written about it some on this blog.  I wasn’t sure what to expect with GW2. I heard it was radically different from Guild Wars and it is.  Except for the lore, the beautiful scenery, and the fact you are only limited to a few powers at a time,  GW1 and GW2 have very little in common.  There are too many differences to discuss, and other people have already.  So I’ll just focus on my own experience.

This beta weekend, they only had 3 of the 5 races to choose from.  Humans (which is the only playable race in GW1), Narns (which are just taller and more tattooed versions of Humans), and Charr.  Looking for something completely different, the first character I created was a Charr.  The character creator part seems to be broken for the Charr, but I rolled a female Engineer. After a brief introductory cut scene, I was handed a pistol and thrown out on a mission with dozens of other players fighting off dozens of bad guys.  No wandering around looking for NPCs to give you tutorials before you finally get to kill some lowly level one skale, like the first few minutes of GW1.  In GW2, you are handed a weapon then thrown into a battle.

The thing I least like about most MMORPGs is the repetitive button pushing:  Push button 1 then 2 then 3 then 4, then back to 1 then 2 then 3 then 5 because 4 is still recharging, then heal yourself by pushing button 6, then repeat.  GW1 has a lot less of that because once a bad guy is targeted, your character will continue to fire the weapon until the creature is dead, or until you stop it. You only push buttons for additional skills.  GW2 does the same thing, only you push the 1 button instead of the space bar to fire (the space bar is now the jump button, there was no jumping in GW1).  Not only that GW2 allows you to fight while moving.  No more just standing there and firing like in some 19th century battlefield, you get to use guerrilla tactics, if you can figure out how.

Also gone are the old “Go to NPC, get mission, run a long ways to mission, do it, run along ways back to NPC” time sinks.  The mission giving NPCs are right where the mission takes place, and you get credit and rewarded upon completion immediately.  But that is not all.  As you travel from place to place, there are “event” missions randomly starting up around you.  These have big rewards, involve a lot of players in the area, and are usually a lot of fun.  Even though GW2 is mostly played in an open environment, things like kill stealing and reward grabbing do not happen. Everyone who helps in a kill or a mission gets credit and is similarly rewarded.

The level at which you play at also varies by where you are.  I was doing a neglected low level mission, and noticed my hard earned 700 hit points were reduced to around 500.  Because I was playing a level 3 mission, my character was lowered temporarily to a level 3 player.  That might seem bad, but it means you play all missions at the level they were designed for and everyone in the area who is doing the same mission is on a level playing field.  No more taking your level 20 Krytan character to Ascalon to do The Northern Wall mission designed for level 5 and having it feel way too easy.

Underwater combat is fun, though this weekend did not have much of it.  When the full game comes out there is supposed to be a whole continents of underwater content.  When I discovered the underwater stuff, I was playing a ranger with a cat for a companion.  The cat was not very happy with the underwater swimming, but I found an amphibious drake to train.  When I’m above ground, I can use my trusty bow and cat companion.  Underwater I have a harpoon and drake companion, and a breather so I can stay down as long as I don’t take too much damage.

Probably the biggest change between GW1 and GW2 is character development.  Like GW1, there are multiple professions, each with their own unique talents.  In GW2, there are no secondary professions.  Instead, character variation is done by choice of weapons.  I always liked the longbow, which is a Ranger weapon.  In GW1, any character could wield a longbow by taking ranger as a second profession, but they usually weren’t very good at it.  In GW2, Warriors can use longbows natively, and they have a unique skill set when they do.  I’m not a fan of melee combat, but now that I can build a Warrior with strong armor and give the Warrior a longbow (or a Rifle) and have it do ranged combat, well that is just awesome.  A thief can act like an assassin with two daggers, or like Lara Croft with two pistols.  However you want to play.

Beta weekend is all about trying stuff out and enjoying the beautiful scenery.  Knowing full well that any characters I create will just get erased after this weekend, I did not concentrate on building any up.  I’d play the early levels, then roll a new character, trying all the professions and races.  At the early levels, Ranger is the most fun, but I suspect that will change at the later levels.  Engineers are kind of boring until they get turret access, light armored professions are a bit squishy.

Death in GW2 still needs work.  You can try to revive yourself, but if you succeed, you are often one shot killed rather quickly.  Players can all revive each other, so if you do die where other players are, hopefully they will help you up.  If you don’t want to wait, you can teleport to any wayport you have been to before, but that costs in game gold.  Death penalty, like many other games, involves armor damage which costs game gold to repair (and if you don’t repair it, eventually your character will start running around in their underwear). In other words, dying will cost you.  The death penalty in GW1 was a reduction in max health and energy that went away at the next village you went to.  I kind of like the GW1 version better, but it will not work in GW2 because towns do not work the same way.

Beta bugs aside, Guild Wars 2 is an awesome new MMORPG that is perfect for the MMORPG fan who is tired of the same recycled D&D/WoW model of game play.  Looking forward to the full release.

Metaverse in Transition

I have not written anything in a couple of weeks because I have been busy working on the sequel.

Meanwhile…  There are many little things going on in metaverse land worth bringing up.

First, is the fast decline of Worlds of Warcraft. They are losing net subscribers at a rate of about 100,000 a month.  Currently they sit at 11.1 million and falling.  They are still the number one MMORPG out there by a long shot, but the declining numbers indicates a change in the market I figured would eventually come.

Let’s just say it: World of Warcraft is getting old.  It’s “look” is dated, and people are more attracted to the much better looking new releases like Rift and Aion.  Competition from the “free to play” games is getting tighter too.  At this point, adding new content will boost numbers some, but each “expansion” will be less and less effective.  Developing new content is expensive and time consuming, and at some point you just have to say,  “Time for a new game.”

Speaking of which, I’m getting excited for Guild Wars 2, which unfortunately still has a “sometime in 2011” release date.  November is packed for new game releases, and I hope it does not get lost in the mix.  GW2 and Skyrim are the two games I am most looking forward to.

And speaking of “dated”, There.com is now taking preregistration for their re-release.  Right now they are opening the ThereIM client “by invitation”, and you can reclaim your old account if you remember the login and password, you are over 18, and willing to pay $10 a month.  As nostalgic as I am about my There days, I am not feeling enough desire to go back in.  I wish them good luck in their re-release, but I think I’ll be watching from the outside.

Meanwhile in Second Life, the very long awaited release of mesh is getting close.  They released a “beta” viewer dubbed 3.0, which is the same as 2.0 but with mesh integrated in it.  Second Life has been growing a bit stale lately.  Many older great builds, stores, designer, etc. have been leaving.  I believe the “mesh” age will be a renaissance of sorts, and I am definitely looking forward to new builds and new stuff to see on the main grid when it finally goes live.  Be warned that only paying members will be allowed to upload mesh objects, and the prim cost of having mesh objects in world is higher than expected too, so those will be limiting factors.  I totally understand the first restriction as it is necessary to prevent a rash of copyrighted mesh objects from other games flooding Second Life.  The second restriction can change in the future.

Still, mesh has yet to reach the main grid.  Open Sim already has it, as long as you are using a mesh enabled viewer.  The sooner it gets to the main grid, the better.

Reality Is Broken: A Book Review

I have never actually done a book review before on this blog, but my previous two blogs I did them all the time.  After reading Reality is Broken, I felt compelled to write a full formal review, as its contents are perfect fodder for this blog.  In fact there is enough here to fill a good half a dozen blog posts, but then why would you need to read the book?  So for now here is a brief introduction to the themes and ideas contained.

Reality is Broken is a new book by first time author Jane McGonigal, a professional game designer.   She starts off quoting economist Edward Castronova, who said “We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”, then goes on to quote some amazing stats like, the total amount time spent in World of Warcraft by all players adds up to 5.8 million years, and 500 million people spend at least an hour a day in online games for a total of 3 billion hours a week, and the average child will spend over 10,000 hours playing video games before the age of 21, the same amount of time they spend in school from 5th grade to 12th grade.

While many people react negatively to such huge numbers, considering it a waste of time.  McGonigal insists that it is not enough, that we should have more people playing online gaming.  She believes the world is better off with more gamers.  Being a fan of ideas that defy conventional wisdom (as my last two essays demonstrate), I had to find out more.  I have a hard time figuring out if Reality is Broken is a book about games disguised as a book about social issues, or a book about social issues disguised as a book about games.  I guess if you are librarian trying to figure out where to put the book, this would matter, but for us average readers it does not.

There are basically three themes to this book.  The first is the one that resonates the most for me:  Games make us happy.

The emotional impact of games is something game designers are very interested in, and spend a lot of money researching, so it is no surprise that many modern video games are designed with making players happy.  Consider what I wrote about last week in regards to “finding a purpose” to our lives. The four types of purposes that bring us meaning and lasting happiness:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success.  We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others.  We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves.  We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

Now consider these four categories of “purpose” in the context of playing video games.  Almost all games can hit 2 or 3 of those, and the MMORPG can hit all four categories.  From a positive psychologists stand point, gamers are some of the happiest people on the planet.

I know what some of you are thinking.  Is the happiness you get playing in virtual worlds just virtual happiness? frivolous, fleeting and temporary?  No, not according positive psychologists.  Dan Gilbert himself (see Happiness 101) says there is no discernible difference between synthesized happiness and real happiness.

Which leads to the second theme of the book: Gamers are escaping from a broken reality.  McGonigal list 14 ways that gaming worlds are superior to real worlds.  She is not talking specifically about online video games at this point, but many different kinds of games that help us deal with reality.  The majority of the book is about these 14 “Reality Fixes”, and as she goes through each one she discusses two or three different games or gaming systems that encourage these reality fixes.  She discusses dozens of different games, some I am familiar with, some I’d love to play, and some I do not.

Anyone looking into game design should read the book if nothing else than for the various ideas that are likely to come to mind while reading.  I came up with an idea myself while reading, and have gone as far as researching some special programming I would need to do to get it to work.  More on that later, maybe.

And finally the third theme: Games can save the world, and gamers are our best resource to do just that.

Games can, and have been designed to help us focus on real world issues.  McGonigal is a game designer who works primarily on a category of games know as Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, which are designed to form communities and tackle problems, primarily problems created by the game authors, but they can also tackle real world problems like “peak oil” which I discussed 2 posts ago.   In 2007, McGonigal was part of a design team for an experimental ARG called World Without Oil.  The original 1,900 players from all walks of life did not find any solutions, but came away mostly optimistic that people can come together in a crisis and adjust their lifestyles to fit new realities.  Since then McGonigal has been part of other socially conscious ARGs, and is confident that games like this can one day change the world.  But in order to make these world changing games to work, we need gifted people to play them.  Enter the “gamers”.

She discusses the fact that more than half of the students today spend 10,000 hours playing games before they turn 21.  That by definition, that makes them “virtuosos” at gaming.  The biggest question is what are all these “virtuosos” capable of?  She breaks down 4 qualities that long time gamers possess: 1. Blissful productivity — the understanding that happiness comes from hard work and not from passive activities like watching TV.  2. Urgent optimism — the desire to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that there is a reasonable hope of success, or desiring the “epic win”.  3. Social fabric — the ability to form tight communities built on trust, like guilds.   4. Epic meaning — the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger thing may just be fictional.  Notice that these four qualities correspond to the four “categories of purpose” listed above.

McGongal’s goal is to find a way to focus the talents inherent in gamers to tackle the problems the world face today and “fix reality”.

If you are interested in these ideas, but not up to spending $14 on the e-book, you can get a 20 minute summary from her speech at ted.com, or there is also a website realityisbroken.org you can read, or sign up to find out about the latest world changing ARG games.

Is it true?

I have not decided how true the thesis is.   Being a gamer, an amateur game designer, and a participant in ARGs, I at least understand the thesis.  I want to believe the thesis is true, but understanding the worlds problems and finding solutions is unfortunately a fraction of the problem.  Experience is that all new ideas that diverge from the “business as usual” tends to face overwhelming political opposition no matter how good or true they are.  The corporate powers that be seem to think that video games are a form of soma to pacify the masses into complacency, and I am not sure that they are wrong.

At the very least I accept the first theme: Games do make us happy, and I mostly accept the second theme: Games are an escape from reality.  I constantly hear complaints from politicians that video games are too violent and inspire more violence.  The evidence is not there to back that up.  As games have gotten more popular, violent crime has gone down, not up.  Places where sex games are common, like Japan, have actually seen a reduction of sex related crimes.  Maybe sex games should be more popular everywhere.  In these respects games have already changed the world for the better.

But there is another way that games can change the world and it is outlined in my last three blog posts.  From The Energy Situation, I pointed out that we are quickly running out of resources needed to grow the economy.  From Happiness 102 I pointed out that materialism, the driving force behind the running out of resources, does not really bring us happiness anyways.  And finally with Reality is Broken we learn one activity, gaming, can be a real source of happiness.  While gaming is not always a carbon neutral activity, it can be.  Thus gaming is a way to reduce our need for diminishing resources while still making life livable. Oddly, I previously posted this idea before.

But it is important to keep all of this in balance.  McGonigal concludes her book:

Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It is unproductive, and hopeless. It is disconnected, and trivial. It’s hard to get into. It’s pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It’s hard to swallow. It’s unsustainable. it’s disorganized and divided. It’s stuck in the present.

Reality is all of these things. But in  at least one crucially important way, reality is also better. Reality is our destiny. This is why our single most urgent mission in life is to engage with reality, as fully and as deeply as we can.

That does not mean we can’t play games. It simply means that we have to stop thinking of games as only escapist entertainment.

Good games can play an important role in improving our real quality of life. They support social cooperation and civic participation at very big scales. And they help us lead more sustainable lives and become a more resilient species.

Games don’t distract us from our real lives. they fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.

Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They are leading us to its reinvention.