Archive for October, 2008
Thursday, October 23rd, 2008
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!” – Rudyard Kipling, “In the Neolithic Age”
We recently read a book called “Tribes,” by Seth Godin. Seth is a bestselling author of books on marketing and copy-writing. His latest book is all about leadership and forming what he calls “tribes” of people with a common interest. “Tribes” has some great ideas and is well worth reading. It is also very relevant to The School for Heroes.
A Brave New World
What is a tribe? It is any group of people with a common interest who get together to do something about it. It could be a company, a club, or a Web site. It’s the whole “If you build it, they will come.” idea from the film “Field of Dreams.” Successful tribes are those where people care about that common interest (let’s call it “the vision”) and work towards goals that support the vision. Tribes are about communication and cooperation between the members, not about orders handed down as commandments from on high nor about directionless chaos. Directed chaos is fine.
The thing is, for a tribe to be successful, it needs a leader (or leaders). A leader holds the vision and finds ways to share it and to bring the tribe together. A leader does not need to be the “person in charge.” He or she is a facilitator and a communicator. Great leaders are often rebels who buck the system to come up with innovative solutions to problems.
In “old school” organizations, position matters. The rank and file members do not innovate; they do what they’re told. From personal experience we can tell you that computer games created under the leadership principle come out much better than those dictated by management. We’ve worked on both kinds.
The Tribe for Heroes
The School for Heroes is a tribe. There will eventually be an adventure game with the same title, and we hope you’ll enjoy it, but the game is secondary. What matters is the tribe – Empowering people like you to live your lives as heroes. Of course, you’ve always had the power, but the school web site will give you more. It will make you part of a community of other people who care. It will give you a support network to keep you on track and it will give you an opportunity to support and lead others with the same goals.
We can’t make the world a better place by waving a magic wand and saying, “Let’s make the world a better place!” Heroism takes work. It takes commitment. It takes caring and sharing the glory and the pain. We aren’t going to try to pass down the wisdom of Solomon and tell you how to accomplish great things; it wouldn’t stick and we’d probably get it wrong as often as we got it right.
What we will do instead will be to plant the seeds of a few ideas and set up an environment where you can work with them, provide your own, and share the results with others. Together we can build the Tribe of Student Heroes, and if we get it right, then others will find us. We are using the metaphor of the school, but this is one in which the teachers will learn from the students just as much as the other way around.
Intentsive Hero Training
On October 31st, The School for Heroes will open its doors to a few select seekers. The School will feature the “What Kind of Hero Are You?” test, a page about each of the “classes” – Warrior, Wizard, Paladin, Rogue, and Bard – a personal page for each student, and discussion forums. There might even be a few class assignments – this is a school, after all.
However, this won’t be a school like any you’ve ever attended. Nobody will force you to do your homework. You get to choose the assigments you are passionate about. But each one you complete will help you to understand yourself and discover your personal path to heroism.
The School forums will be set up for everyone to share what they learn and do. Small step by small step, we will make the world a better place… by leading, by doing things that matter, and by making ourselves into better people. Most importantly, we’ll all have a lot of fun doing it.
“The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.” – Seth Godin, “Tribes”
That is what we are trying to do with The School for Heroes. We hope you will choose to follow us and then become leaders for those who are to come. We challenge you to take the “What Kind of Hero Are You?” test, sign up for the school, complete your first “mission,” and share the site with others. With your help, The School for Heroes can become a tribe that matters.
Wednesday, October 15th, 2008
Okay, all you wannabe Heroes – this is your call to action.
Today, around the world, more than 9 thousand people are writing on the internet about working together to solve the issues of poverty. Since this school is dedicated to promoting heroism, we are joining Blog Action Day to put our ideals into actions.
Like all things heroic, it doesn’t have to take much effort on our parts to make a difference when it comes to poverty. All of our old clothes and appliances are donated to charity. We give extra food to the food banks. Corey donates blood regularly, and just last week, I joined him. I put aside my squeamishness and the fact I have small veins so it requires more effort for the nurse to babysit me, but I survived the process. We also give money when we can to those environmental causes that deal with people as well as animals.
Unfortunately, these acts are a little like putting a bandage on a gaping wound. They don’t really solve the issues of poverty. Even with a used coat and blanket, a homeless person shivers at night as winter approaches. The real bases of poverty are unemployment and the inability to find a way to get enough food and adequate shelter.
Commitment to Creating a Cure
What will it take to find a solution to the poverty problem? First of all, it will take Commitment. We can’t ignore the problem and hope poverty just goes away. Poverty is a reason why endangered species of animals in Africa are being poached. Poverty is a reason why the rainforests are being devastated daily. Poverty is a reason why children are dying around the world.
We all need to look at the issues and causes of poverty and seriously address what we can do. Then, above all, we need to Do Something!
Lighting the Way
We believe strongly in the power of education – after all, this is a school. Education takes many forms. From the “One Laptop per Child”, whose goal is to provide children around the world with new opportunities and ways to think, to Habitat for Humanity, where people actually learn how to build their own home with the help of volunteers, there are many ways education can change the world.
Poverty won’t be solved by trying to teach starving people how to read and write – but it can be solved by teaching them hope and empowering them to change their own lives.
A Real Hero
One of our fans of the Quest for Glory computer game series is an active force working against poverty by empowerment, education, and economics. Pam is a wonderful artist who lives in Thailand. She and her sister went up to the hills and poor villages in her country to teach the craft of jewelry-making. She helped people there sell their art over the Internet. She makes a real difference in the world – sharing her time and sharing the beauty of her art.
Putting Words into Actions
In addition to our participation in Blog Action Day by blogging, I entered PSDTuts contest to create a button design to publicize and promote “Solving Poverty.” PSDTuts is the best site I’ve found for tutorials on Photoshop – much of the style of the School comes from what I have learned there – so I wanted to support their cause. For another thing, I really wanted to do more than just write about Solving Poverty – I wanted to do something about it. PSDTuts and its sister site, Vectortuts, which had a contest to design a t-shirt, offered over $1000 worth of prize money to the best designs. However, the prize money doesn’t go to the winners. It goes to Kiva.org in the designer’s names.
Kiva offers loans to people who need money to start businesses all over the world. The money goes directly to individuals who are actively working to make their lives better. This isn’t a charity – the people are expected to pay back the loan once they earn enough money to do so. It gives a hand to people who otherwise would not have a chance to get a loan from conventional methods. This doesn’t just benefit the borrowers. They create businesses and employ other impoverished people. This helps raise the standard of living for many people in their area. Kiva borrowers pay back 90% of their loans, an astonishingly high ratio considering that startup businesses in the U.S. are 90% likely to fail.
One of my designs – the “Give a little, Help a LOT” button – came in as a runner-up design. It will be for sale on PSDTut’s Cafe Press website along with all the other winners. So if you would like to own a “Lori Ann Cole” original art design button, or just support and promote the cause, check out the site and buy a button or a shirt there. All the profits will be passed along to Kiva.org.
Solving Poverty – We will find a Way
I ask each of you to take a moment to be a true hero and help find a solution to poverty. What will you do to end Poverty? Add your voice to this cause and comment upon this article. Do you know of a charity who addresses this problem? Perhaps you know another true hero who is making a difference in the world. Share your thoughts and inspire others to take part in this discussion. It’s a call to action for all of us.
Thursday, October 9th, 2008
“Writer’s Block” is an ancient curse of writers in every medium and genre. You have a deadline and something you want to write, but somehow the words just won’t come. Well, writer’s block isn’t just for writers anymore. Now anyone in any profession can find ways to zone out, get distracted, and avoid doing useful work. Here are a few of my favorites.
www2 – Wasting aWay on the Web (Win With Wikipedia)
Research! You can never do too much research. And there’s so much information to be had on the Web. Here’s how “research for procrastinators” works. I used to do this with the New Columbia Encyclopedia; now Wikipedia lets you do the same job even better. First, you think of a topic that might be related to what you’re writing, then do a Wikipedia search. You find lots of information and citations, and more importantly many details that don’t at first seem relevant, but do seem Highly Interesting. That of course mandates that you look up each of the related topics in turn. Sometimes a key word will just pop into your head, so you need to look that up as well. Hours later, you might or might not have completed the original research, but your head will be filled with Fascinating Facts you can share with your Friends.
Of course, Wikipedia is but the beginning. There’s a whole World Wide Web full of wondrous and worthwhile wisdom out there. One must keep up with the latest news – There could be inspiration in any of those stories about Obama, McCain, Biden, and Palin. Or about Britney. Or the baseball playoffs. Then there are the blogs – Everyone has an opinion, and some of them are Really Inspirational. Web comics – After all, humor is very important to writing and gaming. Besides, some of them – such as Penny Arcade, GU Comics, and Ctrl+Alt+Delete – are Really Relevant Resources on trends in the gaming industry. Oh, and while you’re at it, check out Looking for Group, because you never know when an orphanage might attack you.
What did people do before Google and Wikipedia? Why, they read books and magazines. Fortunately, you can still do that. Amazon.com has several million books. Several of them are undoubtedly of interest, or maybe even useful, to your work. Why not spend some time browsing their catalog and reading user reviews of a few thousand books. Once you find a few that are clearly critical to your research, go ahead and order them. Of course, there’s no sense working on your project until the books arrive and you have a chance to study them.
ggg2 – Good Going, Got a Game, Got to Go
Well, since we’re best known as game designers, and this is nominally a blog about games, it’s clearly essential that we do even more research… by playing games. Now the small-minded might think this purpose best served by spending a short time each with a lot of different games of varying types. But we know that the only way to truly understand the strengths and limitations of a game is by playing each game thoroughly for endless hours. After all, World of Warcraft is really designed around all the players reaching the maximum level and attempting the raid dungeons over and over. Can anyone who hasn’t wiped on Nightbane or Lady Vashj or Archimonde repeatedly truly be said to have experienced all WoW has to offer? We think not. It is, of course, purely a coincidence that we keep researching the same games and that those just happen to be our favorites.
Corey pursues his valuable continuing game research in bridge, Travian, and World of Warcraft. Those are good for about 10-15 hours a day, so who has time for new games?
Oh, then there’s online poker. How ya gonna get rich if you don’t play? Online poker is great, because you can play it at home, at the office, or in the middle of a meeting with clients. They surely want to hear your bad beat stories! Discipline is very important in poker. You need to fold lots of hands. How better to ensure that than to play while you’re in the middle of doing something else?
Eat, Drink, and Procrastinate for Tomorrow We Diet
There is an ancient saying – “Life is uncertain, so eat dessert first.” Well, maybe not quite so ancient, but the thought has undoubtedly been there since before recorded history. Having thought of the line, I of course had to Google it; two sites attribute it to Ernestine Ulmer, American writer, in 1925. Anyway, having run out of ideas for this blog, I of course ran to the refrigerator. A pear, a chunk of cheddar cheese, and a bowl of Peace Cereal’s “Mango Passion” later, inspiration smote me and this section was born. Never let it be said that we don’t practice what we preach! Real time research, that’s the ticket. Unfortunately, sufficient procrastination through gustation can lead to bloated bellies and thighzable thighs. So can sitting at your desk for hours on end reading, writing, programming, or playing games, so…
Get out there and exercise! Yes, that’s very important. Go bowling, take a walk in the woods, play with the dogs, and pump some iron. All of these things make you stronger, healthier, and most importantly, get you away from whatever tasks you’re avoiding. Besides improving blood flow to the brain, those minutes or hours of physical activity might just give you a chance to find that vital inspiration you’ve been missing. Incidentally, it is clear that testosterone poisoning is an important contributor to stupidity in the male of the species. Therefore, testosterone levels must be controlled through frequent horizontal exercises upon a soft surface to maximize brain activity. More research is required on whether women benefit equally from the exercise… much more research performed as often as possible.
Procrastination Process Chart
Since some people are more visual than word-oriented, we thought we’d better illustrate our ideas with a flowchart of how not to complete a project. The other choice would have been to write another section or two. Since we ran out of ideas, the flowchart seemed more useful (to our purpose of getting this blog out tonight).
Thursday, October 2nd, 2008
One of the biggest Black Swan events in history has been the meltdown in the financial sector. Triggered by risky lending practices, unemployment, real estate inflation, and overextended insurance policies (the “Credit Default Swap ” insurance market), the United States is currently undergoing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of 1929-1933.
Games have their own forms of economic disasters. As with combat systems, game developers need to walk a narrow tightrope between giving players too much and not giving them enough. Inflation in gold, equipment, and character abilities is inevitable in a long-running game (either a game series or a massively multiplayer game). Careful designers put a lot of time and effort into balancing game economics so that the game is as fun as possible for most players for as long as possible. This can be done by restricting aspects of the economy, reducing restrictions in other areas to keep things balanced, or by providing bread and circuses so the players are distracted from economic issues.
How to Kill a D&D Campaign
Two of my early Dungeons & Dragons campaigns come to mind when I think about game imbalance. In one game, the beginning dungeon master tried to foreshadow the ultimate battle of the first few months of the game. Unfortunately, players tend to focus on the here and now, so we immediately went after an opponent that should have easily destroyed us. Unwilling to have the campaign end in its first week, the DM had an NPC lend us some powerful magic weapons. Using them, we easily won, nabbed the treasure, and found ourselves equipped with magic that should have come much later in the game. After that immediate gratification, the rest of the game was an anticlimax and soon ended.
In a game that I ran, I had a “Deck of Many Things” as a treasure at the end of the first major dungeon. One player pulled a card that jumped her character 5 experience levels, so we had a party of 2nd and 3rd level adventures with a 6th level Cleric. I could handle it these days, but at the time, I found myself completely unable to balance the fights. Anything that would be a challenge for the Cleric would inevitably kill the rest of the party. The campaign went on for a few more sessions, but then died out because I couldn’t keep it balanced.
Whoever Said That Making Sequels Is Easy?
The Wizardry computer game series ran into this problem. Following the typical RPG trope, players started out as very weak beginning adventurers. They gained spells, abilities, and magic items as the game progressed until they were demigod level by the end of the game. Wizardry 2: The Knight of Diamonds allowed players to import their Wizardry 1 characters and continue the game. While KoD was still a very fun game, there was much less room for variety in the game because the player characters started out at a very high level of power. Unable to keep that going, the authors set Wizardry 3: The Legacy of Llylgamyn a generation later, so that players created new characters and began again as beginning adventurers. Wizardry 4 had a nice twist – You play as the evil Werdna, trapped by the goody-goody adventures from Wizardry 1, and have to escape from your own dungeon … starting again as a weak character with few powers.
Dungeon Master had similar problems when they created a sequel that continued where the first game left off. Lori and I loved Dungeonmaster on the Atari ST and spent many hours exploring it. We barely got past the first section of Dungeon Master 2 – It was just too difficult and stressful to be fun.
We kept these lessons in mind when we planned the Quest for Glory series. We intentionally masked the limits of the skill system by putting skills on a 0-100 scale. We figured that players would assume it was a percentile system and that 100 was the highest possible. However, we knew that we would be setting the limit to 200 in the second game, 300 in the 3rd game, and so on. Instead of letting the player wield godlike power by the end of the first game, we gave him a few abilities that would be equivalent to 1st, 2nd, or perhaps 3rd level spells in D&D. That left plenty of room for improvement in the later games.
Despite that, we still had issues with inflation. We had to balance the combat and puzzles so that a player who started in the second game had a character comparable to that of a player who imported her character from the first game. We tried to keep the game fun and challenging for all character skill levels, encouraging the player to practice skills, but not absolutely requiring it. There were flaws in this process. I think that by the 3rd game in the series, many players found it boring to repeatedly throw rocks until they had a high enough throwing skill to win a spear throwing contest, and so on. We relaxed the “practice makes perfect” requirement in the last two games to try to cut down on the tedium. Of course, in doing so, we also reduced the challenge for players who really wanted tough fights.
Oh Yeah, About That Gold
You might find it strange that I’m deeply into a post on economics and so far haven’t even mentioned money. While gold and silver are the most obvious economic systems in games, there are really multiple economies at work. I’ve mentioned character skills. There is also learning curve inflation – where a player gets so good at the game it stops being challenging – character abilities, equipment, pun tolerance, combat and experience points, and several other reward and challenge systems. If any reward comes to easily, it loses its value to the player. If it becomes too difficult, players become frustrated and might stop trying to get the reward.
In the original Bard’s Tale, no character class had a healing spell until (if I remember correctly) level 3. It was also possible to meet very dangerous enemies with your level 1 party, and it was difficult to earn silver. As a result, almost all of the characters’ money was spent on healing and resurrection spells at the temple. Most players ended up “cheating” by creating mule characters, adding them to the party, transferring all their money, then deleting the characters. Players had to work around the game system because the economy was too stingy.
World of Warcraft and similar massively-multiplayer games probably have the hardest time with inflation and balancing the budget. WoW has been running for over 4 years now, and many of the players have become jaded; it’s difficult to find any reward system that will keep them playing the game. Blizzard has relaxed many of the rules that originally created a tight economy because they know that long-time players don’t want to put in as much work for rewards that will soon be superseded. (Oh, and I learned how to spell “supersede” a long time ago in a Superboy comic book. Lana Lang became suspicious of a Clark Kent impersonator because he mistakenly spelled it “supercede”. Never let it be said that reading comic books is a waste of time – at least not all the time!) Dungeons that used to require long and arduous “attunements” before characters could enter them were opened to all players. This has allowed a lot of players in “second tier” guilds to experience content that they would otherwise never see (see The Burning Crusade paragraph below).
Blizzard initially made a number of good decisions to keep their economies balanced. Rewards for slaying monsters and completing quests were scaled throughout the game, so that each level of player tended to have just a little less money than they needed to buy everything they wanted. Blizzard also restricted magic items by giving them a minimum level for use and “soul binding” them – Once a character has equipped a magic item, it can no longer be traded to other characters. More powerful items are “bind on pickup”, which means that only the character who first picks up the item can ever equip it. These decisions meant that a player with a rich level 60 character couldn’t create a new character and have it instantly become much more powerful than its level.
WoW also keeps players involved by holding special events, often tied to seasonal or “real world” events. During the Olympic Games in China, participants in the battlegrounds became “competitors” and earned special tabards. Winning a battleground gave players a chance to win a “Spirit of Competition”, a Chinese Dragon pet that had no game purpose except to look cool. Other “critter pets” include the Invisible Wolpertinger, a jackalope-like creature that you can supposedly only see when you’re drunk, the Baby Murloc that was only made available to attendees of the first live BlizzCon convention, and many others. The rarer ones are highly prized; some are sold for hundreds of real dollars on eBay.
Black Swans Invade a World of Orcs
There was at least one “Black Swan” phenomenon in WoW that might have been obvious to Blizzard, but caught me totally by surprise. Prior to the release of The Burning Crusade expansion, characters were “capped” at level 60. Unlike in Everquest, where the maximum level was a goal attained by few, a high percentage of World of Warcraft players got to level 60 with their characters. In order to keep them active and interested, Blizzard provided a large amount of content designed specifically for level 60 characters. This included the three major “raid dungeons” – The Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, and Naxxramas – that required guilds to put together well-balanced teams of 40 players at a time to have any chance of success. Most of the big World of Warcraft guilds were structured entirely around the raid dungeons.
The Burning Crusade changed that dynamic entirely. Players who had spent a year or more at level 60 raiding the dungeons or fighting against other Level 60 players in battlegrounds now found themselves doing quests and exploring 5-player dungeons again. In order to encourage players to buy the expansion and try out the new Outlands content, Blizzard greatly increased the availability of gold and the power level of magical weapons and armor in the new environment. Instead of the level 60 raid dungeons gradually becoming phased out, they were all abandoned the day TBC launched. With 20-20 hindsight, we can see that much the same thing will happen with all of the level 70 dungeons after Wrath of the Lich King launches. A few guilds may visit one or two of them for nostalgia, but they will soon be entirely abandoned as players focus on reaching level 80, exploring the new dungeons, and find more powerful items than they could get from the level 70 dungeons.
Overnight, the big raid guilds splintered. Nobody had any interest in struggling for hours in a level 60 raid dungeon to have a small chance of winning an item only slightly (if at all) better than what they could find in a 5-man dungeon in Outland. Some guilds set up teams of 5 players to work together to “beat” the dungeon content and get “attunements” to the new level 70 raid dungeons and heroic-mode dungeons. Many of the guilds collapsed, because the 40-man raid dynamic was what had provided the social environment that held them together. Others survived by emphasizing role-playing or by working together to make sure that everyone in the guild could find fellow adventurers when they needed them. The entire gameplay for most of the players altered.
The Bird’s-Eye View
How do you balance a multiplayer game? Step 1 is to make good initial decisions. Always be aware of the dangers of a runaway economy and build balances and restrictions into the game. Step 2 is to create simulators. Set up test cases for characters of various levels (or skill development for a non-level-based game) and earned or purchased equipment. Run simulations of combats and other quest activities with them to see if the better-equipped characters are overwhelmingly powerful. If so, make adjustments. Step 3 is to put the systems into the hands of beta test players and play testers. Separate them into groups and present different rules to each group. Then keep the ones that are most successful. Finally, pay attention to your players once the game goes live. Gamemasters and community managers can observe the players to see if they’re having fun and where they’re getting frustrated. If there’s too much money in the economy, find things they can spend it on that give them marginal improvements. If there isn’t enough, introduce new quests or other activities that make it easier to earn money. If all else fails, release an expansion.
More than anything else, game balance is what makes or breaks a computer game. Creating and maintaining well-balanced economic systems for gold, equipment, character skills, tension vs. reward, and other aspects of games is essential to creating games that last. Keeping a game balanced while half the players are trying to find ways to unbalance it is one the most challenging tasks faced by game designers and developers. As Julia Ecklar wrote in her song Crane Dance, “Balance is to understand the crane while it’s in flight.” Cranes and black swans – Look at game economies from a bird’s eye view. You’d be bird brained not to.
The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007) discusses rare, unpredictable, and catastrophic events that – after the fact – people say, “Oh, it was obvious that was going to happen.” The current government intervention into the U.S. banking system definitely qualifies as a Black Swan.
Unemployment statistics understate the real issue, since they do not generally include “discouraged workers” who have given up on trying to find work. As unemployment has grown, people have been unable to make their mortgage payments. That’s what is really meant by “high-risk” mortgages – Lending to people who lose their jobs.
The CDS, or Credit Default Swap, is a new type of financial instrument within the last 10-15 years. Companies insure lenders against customers who default on loans. The problem with CDS’s is that they are based on averages. That leaves the insurers (such as AIG) unprepared for catastrophic Black Swan levels of default. The current CDS market is estimated at $55,000,000,000,000 – that’s $55 TRILLION. CDS’s allowed a lot of lenders to overextend themselves with risky loans because they were insured. That didn’t help when the insurers couldn’t cover the losses.
This article was written by Corey and illustrated by Lori. Mojo is Lori’s Troll Beastmaster in the World of Warcraft game who is the proud owner of a baby Murloc.