Justin Achilli

Month: June, 2010

AR Tagging in Virtual Game Worlds

Wikitude and other AR applications show you an additional-information “overlay” of the real world.
Do you use Wikitude or Layar? Or Foursquare? Or a service that allows you to “tag” a location via a browser-type interface? These are augmented reality services that allow you to mark a location with you attendance and leave a comment for  future (or past, I suppose) visitors. “The reuben is great here,” you might leave in a Foursquare check-in at a restaurant. “You can let your dog off her leash at the dog park,” you might tag Piedmont Park. “Hot bartender,” you may comment for others on a visit to a nightclub.

Demon’s Souls does this, too, to a certain degree. Players can leave comments for other players. If those other players rate the comment as helpful, the comment lasts a little longer and the comment-maker earns a sort of mechanical benefit. But demon’s souls isn’t an MMO, it’s not a persistent shared world, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of player-set goals. (These aren’t shortcomings, by the way, it’s just not that type of game.)

LOTRO’s Arda-Online community has built an application that makes possible one iteration of this idea: They’ve Google mapped Middle Earth. Their tags are very neutral and rudimentary and aren’t built into the actual systems that carry the game, but it’s a step. At the very least, it’s a rendering of the virtual world that can be commented on. It’s a world tool that builds community.

Some element of this exists in a tabletop environment, but it doesn’t happen on the scale that we’re talking about in an MMO. Ben Robbins’ beautiful Western Marches campaign is built on a narrative adaptation of tagging. The carved-map table at the tavern where the explorers gather is effectively this. Granted, the play happens only when the GM-as-server runs the game, but the fact that he allows his players to drop in or drop out for a given session means that the information archive becomes relevant on a per-player basis. The benefit and persistence systems of the tagging become less important here, but the core idea has value.

You’ve already made the leap with me, haven’t you?

Get this augmented reality tagging into an MMO. Let me drop tags into a virtual world that show others where I’ve been and how I dealt with the content that was there. “The wraith-king is susceptible to fire spells,” you might remark. “There’s an ammunition cache behind the service panel.” “Only scout-class ships can dock here, but they refuel at +15 percent.” Hell, you could even engage in a bit of subversion and lie to your fellow players: “The lich-king is immune to spells; engage him in melee combat.” You scoundrel.

And to those tags, a system exists that rewards fruitful commentary and community building. I rank your comment helpful, you gain a buff. I rank your comment unhelpful (along with enough other players) and it vanishes.

What concerns arise with this idea? A few arise, but none so significant that they undermine the benefits of the system: community, persistence, and player ownership of the world.

  • How do the tags fit into the world – what in the setting do these tags represent? Are they an abstraction of hearsay around the adventuring community? Are they actual VR tags in a sci-fi or modern environment, data points that contain the information in question? Likewise, what’s the justification for the systemic bonus to the player? Where does the buff (or whatever form the benefit takes) come from?
  • Why wouldn’t I just check this out on a service like Allakhazam or Thottbot? The systemic benefit seems to cover this. As well, integrating the system into the game means not having to alt-tab into a separate application to search for information. Granted, Allakhazam and Thottbot have information that’s as “true” as possible, making subversion and misdirection of limited value if people check for veracity at one of these other sites… but, let’s face it, lots of people don’t use them. The only time I’ve ever used an external service is when playing WoW four years ago (the current state of in-game questing really gives you everything you need to know), EVE (hey, I work at the company and I don’t even know all the available equipment or best loadouts), and Final Fantasy XI.



Ni no Kuni: Ghibli’s Video Game Endeavor


So it looks like gamers will have a chance to play in a Studio Ghibli world!

The video shows a lot of gameplay that looks like the Tales of… series by Namco and perhaps a bit of monster-ranching like Pokemon. Navigation reminds me of Square Enix’s Radiata Stories title, too. I’m really interested in seeing more of the content, but there are tantalizing bits of the Ghibli hallmarks in here, like quirky characters who are reflections of their environment and the very evocative world map.

It looks like this is a Nintendo DS game with a planned… port? companion piece? available on the PS3.

Thanks to @greategress for finding the story and passing it on.


La La La

New music here for you. The opening and closing bits are from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but aside from that, it’s…


  1. Cinnamon Chasers, “You”
  2. La Roux, “Bulletproof” (Manhattan Clique Remix)
  3. Hello Goodbye, “Here” (Tommie Sunshine Robots Up Mix)
  4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Heads Will Roll” (A-Trak Club Mix)
  5. Demon, “Happy Therapy” (Lifelike Remix)
  6. Goldfrapp, “Rocket” (Richard X Eight Four Remix)
  7. Grum, “Heartbeats”
  8. Lady Gaga f/ Beyonce, “Telephone” (Electrolightz Remix)


About half an hour, non-stellar bitrate to keep the file size down, you know the deal. Hope you enjoy.


A Day In the Life

Scrum is a great way to get everyone working toward a common goal.
The past several weeks have been exceptionally busy, as we reach the in-house delivery date of our past year’s worth of work, a bundle of features built from four releases worth of planning and design. It’s why I’ve been a little scarce around here and sparse with my posts. We don’t do a huge amount of crunch, as our scrum methodology allows us to plan identify and plan around most iterative problems early, but when you’re putting the finishing touches on a year’s worth of work for over a hundred people’s work, the punch list tends to populate pretty quickly.

So what does a day look like at the end of four feature cycles?

7:45-10:15 – Verifies and documentation. Programmers have built the features we’ve collectively designed, so I go make sure they behave according to that agreed-upon design. If we’re good, then I write a brief doc covering how to use the feature.

10:15-10:30 – Team standup. If you’re familiar with scrum methodology, this is our daily standup. If you’re not familiar with scrum methodology, this is a quick, daily team meeting at which we go over our checked-uot tasks and deliver brief status reports on them. The feature team works closely together every day, but here’s where we’re accountable to each other. For example, those verifies that I do in the morning? I can’t do them until an engineer says, “Yes, this is done and is ready to use.” An engineer can’t do his programming until I say, “This design is ready to go.” QA can’t do the quality assurance tests until programming is checked in and the build compiles, etc.

10:30-12:00 – Install daily build and do programmer approvals. We do daily, everybody-in playtests, so I spend this time installing the version of the client we’re testing. While that’s installing, I’m sitting beside a programmer, looking over his implementations or revisions of the designs we’ve created.

12:00-1:00 – Lunch break. Mondays are design lunches, at which all the designers get together and talk about what they’re working on with the otehr designers.

1:00-2:00 — Project playtest. Everyone associated with the project sparks up his client and hops around the game world, testing feature function, server load, and whether or not some of these sons of bitches actually fixed their bugs.

Design is the process of taking a new look at an existing problem, goal, or need.
2:00-Whenever –
Design and more playtesting. This isn’t a stress test, but rather an exhaustive climbing-into of the features for which the team is responsible. Hit all the edge cases. Do weird things with the features. Watch how long-term use of given features shapes the use of them. Does a thing happen too quickly? Without adequate notification? Can two people do it at the same time, and does it cause an exception when it happens? Does the client remember what I did between sessions? Should it? Is the damned thing fun?

When it comes to actual design, working with scrum makes that process one that’s shared by the group and cultivated by the owning designer. This lets everyone from programmers to QA to artists and producers have a say in a feature, which the designers then harvest and use to build the iteration’s design. It’s a great place for people who aren’t traditionally associated with the design process to participate in those designs, and it’s a great way for designers to gain some additional insight that they wouldn’t necessarily have had themselves.


What I’m Playing: Echo Bazaar

I’ve been horsing around a bit with Echo Bazaar. The game itself is nothing special: It’s a clickfest in the idiom of Mafia Wars and Vampire Wars and presumably any number of Wars preceded by a compelling noun or perhaps adjective.

This is me. If you see someone dressed like this bearing down on you, prepare to be watched, or maybe seduced.
From a setting perspective, Echo Bazaar is an amazing piece of work. It’s a shining example of broad-strokes worldbuilding, in that each piece of the lore you discover illuminates one point in a gaslamp-dim world. The prose is exceedingly well-written, with attention not only to the spoken word, but to the cadence of those words. The writers understand the weight of adjectives, but don’t pound you with them. The sentences build momentum. The images leave enough unspoken to let the reader fill in the lacunae with his imagination. 

The construction of the challenges themselves loop back upon one another, referring the player back to certain “chapters” after he thought them complete, or left their avenues unexplored due to other interests. Something the player finds early on might be a mere trinket, or it might be the key to a new adventure that draws him in with an expectant, “Oh, yeah, I remember that!” Discovery and exploration are the meat of the game. The PVP experience is moodily titled “The Game of Knife and Candle.” 

Where it starts to unravel is in the actual gameplay. Again, this is a “clicker.” A challenge appears as described by the text, with mostly charming colorized line art illustration. The player clicks a button that amounts to “Deal with the challenge in an appropriate course of action.” A probability engine works some boojum behind the curtains and the player receives the results. 

I find this nigh-criminal game design, which is a shame, because so much of the rest of the Echo Bazaar experience is so enthralling. 

First, stuff that happens behind the curtains is horribly disempowering and disengaging. Should I see what’s happening? Shouldn’t I be able to affect it in some way? I’m the player… isn’t the game about my participation? At best, I can use the standard item buff, but even that simply augments the randomized result, rather than having a reliable effect that I can control.

Passing gossip is the same click-click-click as knife-fighting in the gutter or reading a demon’s True Name scrawled on a wall.
Second, the system is the same for all interactions. I click a button to fight. I click a button to seduce. I click a button to spy. I click a button to eavesdrop. This… this is a heartbreaker. Obviously, this isn’t a simulation, but the only thing that indicates that I have chosen a particular style of resolution is the result text. At its grossest reduction, this doesn’t need any fancy supportive text or interesting art. It could just be carried by a simple “SOLVE” button. The result is that combat feels like stealth which feels like persuasion which feels like investigation and they’re all as bland as instant grits. A note to designers everywhere: If you’re making a computer game, you can’t fall back on the tabletop game convention of tying all your game interactions to a single mechanic. Tabletop games have a human referee to creatively interpret the results of the single-engine die rolls. Video games need to create different interfaces for their different experiences so it doesn’t all boil down to doing the same thing. (You know part of why I’m crushing so hard on
Puzzle Pirates? This is another thing they do well.) 

Still, despite the repetitive, uninspiring gameplay, I find myself compelled by the setting. I want to find out more, in the wonderful bits-and-pieces way the experience doles out its scraps of precious world lore. I just wish despondently that the actual play was as engaging as the environment.


Parallel Play

Ernest Hemingway demonstrates the opposite of parallel play.
Around the gaming table, someone occupies the other seats. You’re there with friends, or with new players gathered for the purposes of playing the game. Even in a convention one-shot, when others occupy those open seats, they’re pursuing the same goal you are: Entertainment via gaming. It’s a social pastime, as you’ve heard me say a million times before.

In an MMO, however, while you probably never have to play with someone, you’re always sharing virtual space with someone. You can solo, sure, but you’re soloing in a world space with as many other people as are on that shard or server. 

For many people, this is the appeal of MMOs. These players don’t necessarily want to form a group or join a guild. They just want to know that what they’re doing is happening in a (virtual) physical proximity to other people doing the same thing. In some cases, this is an unwritten competition — gathering materials, say, and wanting to find an ore vein before another player, or hunting monsters and wanting to claim as many of the rare spawns as possible. In other cases, it’s non-competitive: It’s just kind of validating to know that other real people are there, that the pastime of gaming isn’t nihilistic existential screaming into the void. Well, maybe it’s not a motivation that specific or overblown, but it’s comforting to know that other people are there.

In educational theory, this is Jean Piaget’s principle of parallel play. Kids on the playground, while not necessarily sharing a swing, for example, are nonetheless aware that other kids occupy the same playground space. They all coexist. 

One of the hazards of parallel, associative, and cooperative play: Crummy players.
To further examine Piaget’s theory, associative and cooperative play follow parallel play in development. Around the gaming table, the very least you’re going to be doing is playing associatively, engaged in the same activity as other players if not necessarily sharing the same goals. Most traditional-play RPG campaigns fit a more cooperative model, in that all the players’ characters form a “party” and ostensibly seek the same ends. When it comes back around to MMOs, however, it’s not that those parallel players haven’t advanced to cooperative or associative play. They’re fully developed adults (I hope) just like other players in the game world. They simply choose to play at that level.

Two questions arise from this, as I’ve been thinking about it:


  1. It’s quite possible in a campaign that capitalizes on rivalries between the characters — Vampire being the obvious example — to shine in the context of those rivalries. Is this cooperative play in the terms the game sets forward? Or is it associative play, given the negation of the common goal? Does Vampire not quite make it to the same level of play as a more cooperative endeavor, or does it go past cooperative endeavor and come back around to the associative? What does this say about selfishness on the parts of the player and character? 
  2. How do you maximize the value of parallel play? A game on the scale of an MMO shouldn’t force characters into interaction with one another, it should make it possible for players who want to cooperate to do so, and it should provide ample avenue for the non-engagers to enjoy the world and still contribute meaningfully. My proposed player-to-player system can accomplish this, but it needs to make extra efforts to put the player-created objectives into the hands of the parallel players. What other ways can this be accomplished?




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