25 May 2015

On Semantics

Semantics as the study of meaning is a branch of philosophy related to linguistics. It has a close connection to the field of pragmatics. In a very simplified way one can say that semantics is concerned with codified meaning whereas pragmatics identifies the meaning of utterances in concrete communicative situations. The phrase “it’s all just semantics” which is frequently used to invalidate a different opinion or to shrug off differing opinions seems to suggest that semantics is not important. I disagree strongly with such a sentiment because I consider semantics to be central to the understanding of the human condition. Our reality is defined by our language and in order to successfully communicate with other human beings nothing is more important than to adequately express what one means.

All too often, however, there is a stark contrast between what is said and what is meant. One reason for that might be that many speakers assume that their use of an expression is shared by all speakers of their speech community and that said expression has a fixed meaning, probably assigned by a dictionary. And, to be honest, in most cases they are justified in that assumption. In other cases, however, it does make a lot of sense to define essential terms at the beginning (or during the course) of a discussion in order to establish a solid basis. Alas, it seems that many people are reluctant to discuss fundamentals – for whatever reasons – and rather want to focus on minor details, oftentimes taking the second step before the first. This can be frequently observed when politicians or “experts” discuss an issue in political talk shows. These discussions usually lead nowhere because everyone is only interested in promoting their own agenda. A personal pet peeve of mine is the misinterpretation or misrepresentation of statistical data or terminology by politicians, especially the difference between correlation and causality.

So how does this excursion into semantics pertain to MMOs? In the scientific community it is standard practice to define terms and concepts relevant to one’s study and maybe MMO bloggers could adopt this approach as well. Take, for example, this post by SynCaine where he talks about “backer-envy” in relation to crowd-funded video games. Irrespective of the content of his post he fails to define what exactly he means by this expression and somehow takes for granted that his audience already knows the meaning or that it will become apparent by reading the article. Unsurprisingly, the very first comment – by Rohan – asks specifically what SynCaine actually means with his concept of backer-envy and the following discussion – beautifully continued by Bhagpuss – is needed to clear the waters. As I understand it now SynCaine considers backer-envy to be the reverse of buyer’s remorse which is how I originally understood it. So the new concept (“backer-envy”) is formed in analogy to an already established concept (“buyer’s remorse”), but with a major difference: it’s not the backers who are envious but rather the other players who did not back the game. This confusion could have been avoided by defining the relevant terminology at the beginning of the article.

Similarly, there’s an ongoing debate about pay-to-win scenarios in video games without a general definition of what that actually means. It seems that almost everyone has a broad understanding of the concept as such but working definitions are far and in-between. To be more precise the term “pay-to-win” should actually be abandoned because etymologically it suggests that a financial transfer results in the completion of a victory condition within the framework of the game providing a win for the buyer. If one agrees that the primary purpose of any video game is to play, then it doesn’t make any sense to buy a win and rob oneself of the playing experience. In addition, MMOs do not offer any win conditions at all. They are open-ended, never finished and won’t reward players with a “Victory or Game Over” screen. Boss fights and PvP matches hardly count in this regard because the victory is only momentarily achieved and does not constitute the final goal of winning the entire game. The expression “pay-to-win” is a misnomer and should therefore be replaced with the more accurate phrase “pay-for-power” (or maybe “pay-for-advantage”). Both Gevlon and Dàchéng have discussed this as well and I think that their contributions are very noteworthy since they offer a sensible definition of the “pay-for-power” scheme as any item being sold in a cash shop that “affects the gameplay of other players”, i.e. the gaming experience of other players is directly influenced. The focus on other players also explains why most objections against pay-for-power items are brought forth by PvPers. Note that the situation in professional, competitive environments (e.g. e-sports) is purposefully excluded here.

The final example to highlight the importance of semantics has to do with language change. I’ve talked about this before. All natural languages are constantly changing and evolving which sometimes leads to words acquiring a new meaning, i.e. they are used in a way that differs from established usage. In the discussion of MMOs this can be seen by the inflationary use of the term “burnout” to denote that someone has lost interest in a specific MMO or in a specific activity in a specific MMO or in MMOs in general. Essentially, some people who have lost interest in or are bored with anything related to MMOs claim to be “burned out”. I find it quite hard to imagine that every single one of these people is actually suffering from a “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress” because, as a psychologist, that is my understanding of what the word means on a basic level. The psychological concept and medical diagnosis are, of course, a lot more refined. It may very well be the case that “burnout” was overused in media coverage in recent years and people subconsciously feel that saying they’re burned out is sexier (or more socially accepted) than admitting that they are simply bored. Regardless of the reasons behind it, this new use causes a devaluation of the medical component which in turn could lead to problems for people who are in need of help. One should at least be aware of this.

In conclusion, I’d suggest using the expression “pay-for-power” instead of “pay-to-win” and to avoid equating “burnout” with a loss of interest or boredom.

16 May 2015

Back in Business

Shintar, the Priest With A Cause is back! This time on a private vanilla WoW server. Not that she was ever really gone. Nonetheless, it was her post together with this very personal piece by Kadomi that sparked my return as well. Kadomi talks about her personal life and how it affected her gaming and blogging in some detail and while reading, I kept thinking: “Hey, this is very similar to my situation”. Here are two quotes (with my emphasis) that describe how I feel as well:

It’s not that I don’t want to blog. When daydreaming at work, or driving home, I have fantastic ideas for blog posts. Very briefly, work was slow enough that I actually wrote draft ideas into Evernote, at least working titles.
By the time I am home from work, I don’t want to sit down and write blog posts. A full post takes me an hour minimum, if not longer. After work, I want to lounge on the couch, play Candy Crush Soda Saga for a while (sue me), and do something relaxing. Now that I am in my 40s my interest in PC gaming is waning, because I would much rather sit on the couch in comfort than spend hours at my desk. Then there’s dinner to cook, my SO would like to spend time with me, the kitties have demands and bam, it’s bed-time.

Now, I don’t use Evernote, but I too have written down a few points or working titles that I would like to expand upon some day. I also don’t play mobile games for that matter and I’m not in my 40s yet. We don’t have any pets and I walk to work. But these are just minor circumstantial details. The simple fact of the matter is that blogging takes time and we’re both very busy and otherwise occupied.

I commented on Shintar’s post that I had actually stopped gaming altogether for over a year. There were several reasons for that and it was my choice. First, I simply no longer feel that I am among the target audience for video games in general any more. Virtually all recent developments are going in directions that I do not appreciate (e.g. mobile gaming, casual and “accessible” gaming, free-to-play, cash shops, DLC, Early Access, etc.). The World of Warcraft that I loved is destroyed. The World of Loading Screens” (SW:TOR) that I could get on board with became a glorified slot machine selling hotbars. Console manufacturers have no interest in offering backwards compatibility because now they can sell the same game several times to the same customer. I have no intention of paying for any of this on general principle!

Additionally, my real life got a lot more complex. My wife’s second pregnancy was strenuous – not dangerous or complicated – just a lot more demanding than her first one. This meant that I had to manage our daily life (cooking, cleaning, etc.) by myself, all the while working (almost) full-time at the university. In general, I keep a tight schedule, meaning that my day is very structured. I get up at 6 o’clock every morning and exercise for about an hour. Afterwards I shower and get dressed and prepare the breakfast for the family. Then we enjoy a nice family breakfast and I head off to work. The trip takes about 20 minutes by foot and I always walk. I usually arrive shortly after 9 a.m. and start the work day with some administrative tasks such as checking the mail and answering e-mails. I teach my first class from 10 a.m. to 12 noon and afterwards have lunch with co-workers, some time between 12 noon and 2 p.m., depending on who’s coming and where we’re going. The next class is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and then I stay until at least 7 p.m., sometimes even longer. When I arrive at home, I have to prepare dinner for the family (or at least assist my wife) and then spend some quality time with my wife and children. The kid’s bedtime is usually at 8:30 p.m. and then it’s just my wife and me for about an hour or two before we go to sleep.

This cycle repeats the next day, every day, every week from Monday to Friday. I do not mind this at all. I value consistency and structure very much. I’m one of those guys who could eat the same meal every day and still enjoy it. I don’t get bored easily. Looking at this timetable there are hardly any opportunities for blogging. “By the time I am home from work, I don’t want to sit down and write blog posts. [...] I want to [spend time with my family] and do something relaxing”. This excludes playing video games. I’ve written a couple of posts at work but I just cannot take the time to do that anymore. Workload is very intense. Becoming a professor is no cakewalk. I suppose I could write on the weekends, but we clean the house every Saturday morning and Sunday is the family day where we visit relatives or have a picnic or go out for a walk or do other stuff together. That only leaves Saturday afternoon as my personal free time. When I’m not teaching, all the work I do is computer work or paper work (correcting papers, doing research, writing articles, etc.) so I’m glad if I can do something else in my spare time, like playing actual golf. Even when work was less demanding, I’d much rather spend my time actually playing the games I enjoy instead of writing about them. This explains why I was such a poor SW:TOR blogger.

Nonetheless, I wish to take up blogging again and for the future my plan is to publish one post every week, possibly on Sundays.

25 September 2013

Card Hunter

Small Update: Work is crazy busy right now with preparations for the upcoming semester and lots of staff meetings.

In the field of gaming, I have been inspired by Tobold’s numerous positive posts about Card Hunter and I decided to give the game a try. Apparently, so did lots of others which led to the minor inconvenience of log-in queues from time to time. Blue Manchu said they were working on increasing the server capacity. Since Card Hunter is a Flash-based browser game, one can always use the waiting time to catch up on some reading.

The game itself is graphically rather simple but it manages to capture the nostalgia associated with early versions of Dungeons & Dragons quite well. It is free-to-play with an in-game shop and some sort of extra subscription, but up to now I have not felt the need to pay anything. Like Tobold, I might pay something mainly to express my support. Currently, I have three characters in my party – a Dwarf Warrior, an Elf Wizard and a Human Priest – all of them level 8. I do not know whether this is the best combination, but it serves me quite well so far and it seems the most immersive.

All in all, I can highly recommend Card Hunter to anyone who enjoys a tactical, turn-based gameplay experience. It’s simply oodles of fun. I shamelessly stole that last expression from my favourite person on the internet. Now who might that be?

30 August 2013

SW:TOR // World Events

World Events are a common aspect found in many modern MMOs and Star Wars: The Old Republic is no exception. In addition to the Life Day festival, four world events (officially named In-Game Events) have taken place over the course of the game so far: the Rakghoul Pandemic Dynamic Event, the Chevin Grand Acquisitions Race, the Relics of the Gree Event and most recently the Bounty Contract Week. Each world event in SW:TOR may look good in theory and I am sure that a lot of players have greatly enjoyed all of them, but I for one felt that they were all rather boring and poorly implemented – some with very distinct drawbacks.

At the moment the Relics of the Gree and the Bounty Contract Week are considered recurring events, meaning players will be able to participate on a regular basis. It seems that the first week of every month will be a Bounty Contract Week while the Relics of the Gree Event will become available again every other month or so. One can assume that the Chevin Grand Acquisitions Race and the Rakghoul Pandemic Dynamic Event were one time occurrences, even though there is some discussion about whether or not the latter will return. This is one of the reasons why I generally dislike world events: players who are not online when the event takes place are going to miss the experience altogether. A problem that is somewhat mitigated by SW:TOR's recurring events. Another reason is that world events distract from the usual business, the everyday routine so to speak. I value structure and order and dependability extremely high, both in the real world as well as in virtual worlds and therefore do not appreciate distractions very much. I can, of course, fully understand why many people feel the need to mix things up now and then.

It was only after reading Shintar's description of the first Bounty Contract Week that I eventually decided to give it a try. I actually did everything exactly as she described it on my Chiss Bounty Hunter, but alas, I found the experience very unfulfilling, if not to say boring. Suffice to say I have no plans to repeat this event at all, let alone being sucked into the associated reputation grind.

Shintar has already beautifully covered the Relics of the Gree Event and its various iterations. I would like to point out that the major flaw here is inclusion of a PvP component which is also the primary complaint voiced on the official forums. The missions themselves only serve as another reputation and token grind and are not intrinsically fun. Therefore it should not be surprising that many people are only interested in reaching the desired reputation level or token count as soon as possible, thereby feeling forced to complete the two additional missions in the PvP area as well. Bringing two groups with very different tastes (PvE versus PvP) together in the same environment is a surefire recipe for disaster. Apparently the same situation has also happened in another game – with the same results.

Interestingly, even many players actually interested in PvP are ignoring this opportunity and behave in an orderly fashion just to complete their mission without delay rendering the whole “let’s add some PvEers as cannon fodder for the whining PvPers”-point moot. This does, however, not happen everywhere and/or not all the time, so that the individual player may still be faced with the typical PvP ganking.

In a similar vein, the Rakghoul Pandemic Dynamic Event was horribly designed because it consisted of several staged missions that only became available the following day (gated content). This meant that it was not possible to complete the entire event in one playing session. Maybe the developers felt the need to entice players to keep on p(l)aying. One may suggest that if this was the case, the experience could not have been so good to begin with. Moreover, the final reward for completing all related missions was a set of Medium Armor gear and hence only usable for certain classes (Adaptive Armor and Legacy gear were not yet implemented back then). Receiving all related Codex Entries required the defeat of three world bosses (two of them level 50), one of which was conveniently located in the open PvP area on Tatooine – again forcing the two different groups into the same environment.

Generally, I find the world events in SW:TOR to be utterly boring and badly designed and implemented. It is never a good idea to combine PvE and PvP aspects and, in fact, one should never, ever listen to PvP players in a PvE game in the first place. Make no mistake here: most theme park MMOs like SW:TOR, WoW, RIFT are actually PvE games first and foremost, with a poorly designed PvP component added on top. If someone truly desires an awesome PvP experience, then maybe, just maybe games like EVE Online or Darkfall Unholy Wars match their profile better.

26 August 2013

Personal MMO History

One of the hot topics in the recent past was the announcement that both WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online will be employing a business model based on subscriptions. The former also offers an alternative payment method similar to PLEX in EVE Online. Bhagpuss has a very good post about how payment models generally do not matter all that much.

I'm a member of the apparently increasingly rare breed of gamers that likes to devote all their gaming time to one game, so a subscription is great in terms of value for money. -- Shintar

Since I agree with this statement entirely, I am more than pleased by this shift away from a misleadingly named F2P model. While I am not that interested in TESO, WildStar on the other hand leaves me hopefully optimistic – at least judging by what has been revealed so far about both games.

Considering the commitment and devotion I deem necessary for real MMO gaming, it should not come as a surprise that I have not played that many MMOs up to now. I am not a very creative person and I find describing aesthetics and art design (in video games) rather difficult. The following is a chronological overview of my experiences with different MMOs.

This was the first ever MMO I played and the one I played the longest. I was deeply invested and the decision to abandon ship so to speak did not come easily. I still think that WoW is the most polished MMO where everything feels natural and in place. Some people are pondering a return, but I am not one of them – even if Blizzard were to revert the game back to a state that I would enjoy. To quote Shintar yet another time: “I think I hit a "point of no return" in WoW, having been disappointed too many times... even if Blizzard changed it into the perfect game for me tomorrow, I'd still be suspicious of it”. Maybe I will revisit my old characters when WoW goes F2P at some point in the future.

It must have been about a year after LotRO launched that a friend gave me a trial pass to test the game. The world Tolkien created has shaped the fantasy genre in numerous ways and the opportunity to enter that world, to be part of that gaming experience – developed with adherence to the lore – was a dream come true. The brutal reality, however, was that I felt almost immediately repulsed by the game. There was no sense of awe or wonder upon entering and I cannot quite point my finger as to why that was. It might have had something to do with the character models, particularly with their movement and with the UI. Everything just felt clunky and out of place. I wanted to give the game a chance so badly that I pushed on until I simply could not take it any more. The level of polish was miles behind what I came to expect. WoW had certainly spoiled me. My wife and I tried again some time ago (long after LotRO went F2P), but we could not force ourselves to like it. My wife is usually very calm and thoughtful, but she ranted on for quite some time about how unfathomably bad that game was and how she was at a loss for words that our friend actually bought a Lifetime subscription.

This is my current MMO and I have been playing it pretty much since launch. The game feels very clean and everything falls into place quite neatly. The level of polish is second only to that of WoW – just ignore the many, many, many bugs. Despite what the haters claim, this game does not suck and its drawbacks are primarily rooted in the limitations of the Hero Engine and certainly do not lie in voice acting or in story-driven content. In fact, it is voice-acting more than anything that has spoiled me yet again for future MMOs. I do not even want to imagine reading quest texts again. Nevertheless, the transition to F2P has hit my commitment and my dedication to SW:TOR very hard and I seriously dislike the direction the game is heading in: more and more daily hubs and an overemphasis on the Cartel Market. I do not know how long I will keep on p(l)aying.

TERA prides itself on introducing action combat to the MMO genre and I felt like giving this idea a try after the game went F2P mainly due to Liore’s positive comments. I have about 14 hours of played-time over the course of a weekend and I can safely say that this is not the game for me as I have come to realize that I genuinely dislike action combat in MMOs. More importantly, however, I simply do not care one bit about the world. I have no prior relationship with the IP and the whole setting feels very generic and exchangeable. This post offers some reasonable explanations as to why TERA is not that successful among western gamers.

This is part of my summer project. I created two characters shortly after the game went F2P and I did have a blast for some time. However, while the game does have potential, especially regarding the soul system, it also suffers from the absence of a compelling IP or lore. There is just no immersive reason as to why players should care about the world, its inhabitants and their conflicts. One thing I will say though, is that RIFT’s F2P restrictions are very unobtrusive, which is in stark contrast to SW:TOR.

WildStar is my new hope on the MMO horizon, though I am only hopefully optimistic at best. The video footage looks quite appealing but who knows what the actual gameplay will feel like. The game seems to be whimsical enough to make me care. However, Syl already adequately demonstrated that the developers have clearly misunderstood and misinterpreted the Explorer archetype. While I do have plans to give it a try when it will be released next Spring, I cannot help but feel a bit uneasy about their intentions.