Sunday, April 25, 2010

On Life Simulation

There is a sub-genre that is fairly common to many gamers, casual and mainstream, that is the Life Simulation MMORPG. These are MMO's, like second life, WURM and even ATITD that attempt to simulate real life instead of a fantasy setting. Now when I say real life I don't neccesarily mean on earth (as WURM takes place in a fantasy realm but has the player deal with real life problems like food and shelter).

These MMO's for some reason have a great popularity, and I think I understand why. We, as gamers, play games to experience things we would not otherwise be able to experience, whether this is racing in a Nascar race or fighting an ongoing war between orcs and humans. It would logically seem that the tasks of cooking food and cleaning the house are uninteresting, but games like the Sims have made it clear that they are indeed fun...somewhat. Life Simulation is all about the what ifs...what if i became an astronaut instead of an English Professor. What if I decided to hook up with every girl I met? What if I had to live on my own in a shack I built myself and survive.

As aptly named as the game by the title is, these games give people a second life. Not just an entertaining character to play. People enjoy alternatives without all the penalties of those choices. Lets face it, our current life choices are permanent for the most part. We can't have all the options we can make in video games. That's the point, and why we buy and play so many of them. Lets face it, I'm an alt-oholic. I need to experience as much of a game as possible with many multiple characters, experimenting and trying other things and tactics, which is one of the reasons I liked Star Wars Galaxies and its skill system.

What I'm trying to say is that Life Simulations of any level are interesting because they simulate life. There's a large market niche here, but the difficulty curve can't be too high. More on this later, once I get a little more coherent on my thoughts about it.

On ATITD Bastet

In my last post I spoke about the Bastet shard of A Tale in the Desert. I have since played on this shard, talked to many people on it and on the main shard, and done a thorough search of the wiki for both main and bastet shards as well as the "legacy" wikis from previous tales. I've come to some general conclusions about the game and its future iterations.

The only way multiple servers can effectively work for this game is if they are launched simultaneously; and only then if they treated and maintained like other MMORPG's multi-server systems. The reason is fairly simple...

Critical Minimum Server Population. I'll say it again Critical Minimum Server Population. There exists a point at which a server is not crowded enough for people to play a game effectively. The more single-player oriented the game is the less this impacts it, but all MMORPGs have to reach a CMSP to remain viable. World of Warcraft is very good at hitting this with their new servers, and only has problems with some of its pvp servers. Games like Warhammer Online and Age of Conan and even Aion have problems maintaining population and thus creep closer to CMSP, and failure. Star Wars Galaxies has had to merge servers in order to maintain a level of population above CMSP, but still is struggling.

CMSP is a tricky thing to manage, because Dunbar's Number also applies to this situation. Dunbar's number is a concept that people naturally gather in groups of a certain size, and above that size splinter off into separate groups. The two work in concert with MMORPGs, because if you are near or above Dunbar's number, you have overcrowding, but if you are below CMSP you have no community and players suffer.

In reference to ATITD; they suffer from both problems at once. First, the main shard is above Dunbar's number in terms of crowding (legacy structures from expired accounts that have not been torn down, mines that are beyond reasonable repair, and a lot of crap littering the more populated areas) and overpopulation (the majority of the game is relegated by passing tests, in which you compete against other players. New players are at the moment, virtually unable to pass some of the more competitive tests because of the current server state). This leads to a frustrating inability for players to start and build in the main shard anywhere but a crappy location with poor access to resources or travel buildings.

Bastet suffers from the opposite problem. Competitive tests are easy enough, spots are plenty, but there aren't enough people to pass some of the massive tests, like tests of acrobatics. This test requires people to learn a variety of acrobatic moves one "facet" at a time from others (seven facets to a move). Sounds easy enough but the chance to learn from a person is variable, each person is given one move initially (the rest must be learned) and you can only learn one or two facets per move per person (with a huge chance that you will not be able to learn any facets). Also, there are too few people to ensure you have access to things that require a lot of people, such as stone digs. If you need to buy something or don't want to make it yourself, good luck getting a decent or doable price as everything is rare.

The solution? Well unfortunately none for ATITD. The only true solution would be release both shards at once, however, the whole point of the shard is to bring in more players. If given a choice most of the old players would flock to one server to play together, and inevitably one server would get ahead and the other would fall behind. The stagnant server would probably not be viable for long (that said most of Egenesis's money comes from lengthy subscriptions, and requiring each shard to have its own subscription cost means lots of money would still come in). Releasing one server later than the other leads to the same problem: one overpopulated server and one underpopulated server. The only way to have two viable servers is to have one subscription fee. That way you could play on both servers if you wanted. however that defeats the whole purpose of two servers as many people would play with both and the net increase in population is both hard to measure and probably very low.

In short, ATITD's system is more or less relegated to a single server system. There is no good way to make two servers identical with different groups of population, save binding them together so the populations can't be that out of whack (shutting down new character creation on one until the other reaches a certain limit) or research and technology are kept close (reduce the costs for research on the slower one and/or increase times and costs for the faster one). I just don't think it will work for the players, but it is certain to work for certain pocketbooks.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Shard in the Desert

I've played A Tale in the Desert IV off and on for a while; and while the game has appealed to some of my tastes, the large amount of mismanagement by the games developer (and might I add the only one who sees any money out of subscriptions on the development team) Teppy drove me away from the game...

Well Teppy has announced that Tale 5 will probably start in less than six months, and also that he is creating a second server, or shard for the game. This new server will require a new subscription in order to be played on; which to me just translates into more money in his pockets. This is very unfortunate for the player base, and will cause a great deal of trouble for EGenesis, the "company" that runs the game (I use that term loosely).

I'm debating whether or not to try out this new shard, and I will be surely submitting a trial character to it, moreso to discuss the game with former players and see how this new shard is effecting them (at least one of my friends in-game has moved to the new shard). I'll have more of a verdict in the future but for now, this just seems like another money scheme...

However this shard promises to be "Player driven" instead of developer driven...meaning all the tests and techs will be coded ahead of time, like the game is complete or something....yeah I know...real revolutionary.

Friday, April 2, 2010

On XBOX 360 and Console Gaming

I've recently joined the ranks of console gamers (defined to myself as spending more time per week playing on my console than my computer, which honestly is a feat in and of itself given my addiction to PC games), and I've noticed something that irritates me: Game programmers typically are sloppy with their code.

Now don't get me wrong, i know it takes a lot of work to create a quality game, but does that mean that every loose line of code needs to remain in it? Is this a DNA strand with left over bits of genetic information from thousands of years of evolving? No, it's computer code that is messy. Take, for instance, Assasin's Creed (the original). It played horribly on the PC because of the massive amounts of environmental detail that were loaded, but also because the code was far from optimized (note: my computer is a top of the line model, and more suited to playing that game than my xbox was at the time). When played on the console, though, Assasin's Creed played much more smoothly. Given the relative power levels of my PC vs my Xbox (my PC can run circles around my XBox) it is clear that it is the software that is inferior.

Game developers are limited with consoles. They have to conform to what the console is capable of in terms of processing power and memory. With computers, not so much. They can just slap a higher requirement on the label, and force their customers to evolve or die. Because of this, PC versions ship with looser code and more bugs than console versions.

Another reason for this is simple: Patches. PC games can be easily patched whereas until recently this was impossible for console games (many Xbox games now can be patched through XBox Live, but are still patched to a lesser extent). Patches give the feeling that things can be fixed later, and don't need to be optimized now.

In short, I feel that developers are getting lazy with PC games, and in lieu of quality they choose speed...and the idea that it can be fixed later. The industry is in great trouble if they think this strategy can go on forever. More and more players boycott games that are bad on release until they are fixed, and the internet, once a tool for distributing patches to fix these games, will soon become a gossip ground for avoiding bad games.