Justin Achilli

Tag: Social Networking

Up-to-Date Draft Development

I wish they would have called it “OSX Cougar.” I really do.

One of the things that has me most excited about OSX Mountain Lion is its built-in sharing. This doesn’t sound like much on the surface — in fact, as everything continues to update, it’ll become downright mandatory — but for right now, I like that it’s integrated into productivity applications. For me, that’s great. When I finish a chapter of Hunters Hunted 2, say, I can post it to Facebook and Twitter and share that in-progress chapter directly from the application itself. Right now, I have to cut-and-paste from a word processor into a WordPress blog that’s not my primary WordPress identity, then manually cut-and-paste the URL into Twitter and Facebook separately. Yes, I know there are other apps that handle this (talk about first-world problems), but the integration is the key part of all this. It’s part of the native application itself, and part of the whole OS UX.

This is a huge production boon to me, as the more work I do, the more that goes to players for Open Development consideration. I also like that it’s active use. It’s less about “Look at this video I watched” and more about “look at this thing I made.” That lies at the epicenter of today’s game designer’s role.

P.S. I got Rickrolled at work today. Not Nickelbackrolled, Rickrolled. And Luc did it to me after I got indignant about a “Booth Babes of E3″ video.

After the Grand Masquerade

So, with the Grand Masquerade at its conclusion and the debut of some news and an art-driven animatic, word is now out that the WoD MMO is going to be based on the Masquerade, built on three spheres of playstyle (cofeeshop, sandbox, and themepark), and highlight the ideals of Danger, Power, Romance, and Mystery. One of the panels at the Grand Masquerade offered players a chance to tell the devs what they wanted to see. I took notes like a diligent designer should, and here’s the summary:


  • Not a lot of quests. Org versus org. Player-driven faction content and conflict.
  • Not a WOW clone. Repetitive quests are boring and unfulfilling.
  • Concerns over how mental or social influence powers are handled. How to do this well and meaningfully? Players uncomfortable with a loss of control over avatar.
  • Players want to control other characters, however.
  • Territory control. An adult-only play space. Roleplayers want a space where the integrity of the setting colors the conversation. Don’t want to suffer through Chuck Norris jokes and other immersion-breaking chatter.
  • Content that reinforces themes that are the cornerstones of the WoD. “Shivers up the spine.”
  • An exploration of who a new character is, so that he’s not just dropped tabula rasa into the world. Random backgrounds, connections to the world, hooks into world participation.
  • Powers that cleave closely to the powers that exist in the game, but also expand into new directions for appropriate Disciplines. Making them work in tandem with the system, so that they make sense in the world.
  • Finite numbers of the supernatural critter types.
  • Permadeath. Server type preference?
  • Allow social powers to be socially versatile. A character can be successful socially; not all advancement is tied to combat or traditional “leveling.”
  • Factional control of regions or assets. Benefits to controlling key areas or establishments.
  • Live team events built upon a foundation of existing world lore. Real-time events, historical Masquerade characters, GM NPCs who can be interacted with or pull players into stories.
  • Influences, boons,  hallmarks of the social origins of vampires.
  • Accessible to casual players. Low-intensity tasks to just pick up and do so players don’t have to sit there idly.
  • Playable Sabbat.
  • Creation, building visible things that can be added to game. Ex. Toreador art, Nosferatu caverns. Some kind of crafting system.
  • One big world with a dynamic power system that allows different factions to thrive.
  • Stay true to the adult content. Blood, gore, darkness, tits.
  • Present the themes of the World of Darkness as playable elements. Let the players participate in the things that make Vampire what it is.
  • Allow players to participate meaningfully as casual and part-time players.
  • Image and customization consultation — players helping other players create their looks.
  • Playable neonate-ancilla-elder model with meaningful play, all with impact on the in-world vitae economy.
  • Status system — how to represent and elder concept. Players that can participate as setting, a piece of the environment.
  • Unique and empowering via rarity.
  • Rarity of combat unless it’s a character’s focus.
  • Severity and fearsomeness of combat.
  • World that responds to the actions of the characters. Dynamic, changing, adapting to how players use the world.
  • A system to allow players to form groups of their own design as opposed to just sharing commonalities like clan and Disciplines.
  • GLBT friendly content.
  • Rewards for advancement tied to tiered mastery of ability or chance rolls.
  • Final Death.
  • Bloodline characters. Seeing the effects of actions the players have taken in character selection.
  • Use relationships with fan organizations to allow players to play their LARP characters and vice versa.
  • Crafting +1 but not materials farming.
  • Immersion as a priority. Reward the long-time player who’s been into Vampire as opposed to the sillier players who are aggravating elements in other MMOs. Jumping goofball players break the mood.
  • Non-unique names as a matter of character identity.
  • Other WoD critters. The whole panoply of supernatural creature types.
  • Cherry pick the strong parts of Requiem.
  • Mortals, participate in the Embrace, etc. X2 X3
  • Embrace. X2
  • Diablerie.
  • Ability to flag self for PvP allowability.
  • Communication needs. Make communication happen in a way that’s not as as intrusive as “global chat UI”.
  • Politics outside clan and sect. City politics, for example. Domains and territories?
  • A sense of history imparted to elder characters. Flashback sequences, historical instances, etc.
  • Narrative that’s not wholly reliant on players to facilitate the content.
  • Control the rate of character progression and provide content so that casual and time-constrained players can still participate meaningfully.
  • Personal spaces like havens. Ability to damage or conspire against havens. Or help cultivate them.
  • Torpor as a clone-type mechanic as a backup.
  • Casual player rewards and impetus. 


It was a pretty exciting panel to be on, especially given that the goals of the players represented here are very much in accordance with the things we’ve been designing and iterating. But what about you? What do you think?


The Grand Masquerade

As the Grand Masquerade approaches – late next week! – I’m really looking forward to it as a one-of-a-kind opportunity for World of Darkness fans of all stripes to get together. I really enjoy the idea of a focused show, where hanging out with players is really the whole point of being there. Don’t get me wrong, I really like things like GenCon and ICC, but those are either general or very specific games gatherings. This one is about “the World of Darkness hobby,” more so than hobby games in general but not as directed as the Camarilla’s LARPs.

This is the first time anything like this has been done on this scale, as well. It’s a true World of Darkness convention, with everything from tabletop games to LARPS to card games. As a visitor to the show, even if you prefer one style of gaming over another, you’ll still be surrounded by other people who enjoy the substance of the show even if your tastes on form differ. The physical location for the show is great, as well. New Orleans is the archetypal vampire city, of course, and the hotel pulls out all the stops on the sort of decadent opulence that characterizes White Wolf vampires. The decadence of the environment gives vampires a refuge in which to hide from their own damnation .

I sound like kind of shill on this, don’t I? I don’t mean to sound like that. I’m genuinely looking forward to this as a unique sort of convention. It’ll have all of the amenities of a CCP/ White Wolf show: lots of parties, lots of activities, panels to participate in and games to play. But most of all, I like the community aspect. Here’s a show where enthusiasts of vampires and the larger World of Darkness can meet each other. Whether you want to talk to a designer or you want to meet other players from across town or across the world, it’s all happening here. Whether you’re a casual gamer or a World of Darkness lifestyler – tattoos and all – this is a show for you.

Also, not to dwell too much on what I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut about: “One future. Darkness revealed.” What does that say to you?


Vampires and History (and My Amateur Psychology)

Implicit to vampires is a sense of history. Whether your flavor of vampires is damned to suffer the vagaries of the world for all time (as White Wolf’s vampires have been) or bears a less florid immortality, the idea is often that a given vampire might well have been around a lot longer than your modern mortal era, which is when a mortal discovers them and learns about this ancient (or at least annuated) evil.

In fiction, that’s easy as pie. Throw in some kind of historical flashback as a prelude, fast-forward to you anachronistic blood-drinker lamenting about how it was easier to be a vampire before information traveled so quickly, and boo-yah, you’re done. 

Suggested lapses in history need not be comical. They can be a point of conflict or a source of understanding.
It’s harder to accomplish in a game, however. In a traditional tabletop environment, coteries often have pretty tenuous relationships keeping their individual vampires together. Here’s my Nosferatu vagrant, for some reason rubbing elbows with your Gangrel hell-raiser, and we’re hanging out in the back of the Ventrue character’s Maibach as his driver shuttles us to some damned charade the Prince demanded we attend. Now add to that some of the implied history that’s available to us — I’m a Roman plebe, you’re a WWI doughboy Embraced in the trenches, and the Ventrue is a young turk from the heyday of American Psycho. With nothing in common, from clans to history, what’s supposed to unite us when we go about robbing banks, attending Princely demands, or doing whatever it is that we vampires do every night?

I think of that as a challenge, not a problem. It’s an opportunity to make something completely unique. Our coterie, with our weird and disparate historical backgrounds, is now unique. It’s more than a stock completion of the MMO trinity of tank-healer-DPS. It’s more than just a from-the-book assembly of clan archetypes. Heck, the way we built the rules, our hypothetical coterie doesn’t even have to be any different in power level. We can all be neonates with no experience affecting our Traits, with a few allowances made for our histories. My plebe starved into torpor when his patrician sire sealed us both into his crypt to wait out the Vandals. Your doughboy’s last memory is of the machine-guns mowing him down before waking in the 21st century with a powerful thirst. Patrick Bateman over there has never known torpor or the fog of ages. And we’re good to go. We can skip the anachronisms, if we want, by assuming we’ve all had a few weeks or months to come to grips with this modern world, or we can take advantage of our implied historical gap and do the stranger in a strange land thing. It all depends on how we want to play it and how deeply. 

A modern perspective contrasted with history or speculation equals content.
On a level other than the narrative, as players, we enjoy the ability to create something called a
theory of mind. We can understand the factors that make other people’s outlooks different than our own. While this has an obvious applicability to game narrative — different roles are important to a roleplaying game — where this really takes shape is in the realm of community. Your vampire and my vampire might not get along, but at least we understand that each other is there and we can potentially project a hypothetical response that each other might have to a given situation. If those don’t mesh well, fine; we avoid each other. If they’re somewhat in accordance, that’s a gold mine. That’s a point of commonality. That’s a thing we want to do… potentially together, so, hey, next time you’ve got an evening free or you’re online, let me know. We can play a game of vampire together. And maybe your doughboy, my plebe, and Joe’s yuppie can finally give that glittering 100-year-old sissy Kindred who dates high school girls what he deserves.


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.



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?



Podcast: Video Games and the Tabletop

Are you geek enough to ride? I’m on the latest episode of this here podcast. Give it a listen if you’re so inclined.

This Hunger for Reality

A presentation by Jesse Schell at this year’s DICE event. It gets a little crazy in the last eight minutes or so, but 1) it’s fascinating otherwise and 2) it’ll probably happen that way anyway.



All that said, there’s a degree of this that’s inherent to the human condition. When something feels pleasurable, we’re inclined to do it, which is why, biologically, we’re inclined to eat, void our waste, and procreate. Turning “mere achievements” into something that reinforces good practices is an interesting way of encouraging them. The scary implication to this, however, is that it sounds like corporate advertising is going to be the entity that decides what “good practices” are.


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