Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Archive for January, 2010

Valhalla Project: What are they playing now?

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 25, 2010

Many months ago I went about the MMO blogosphere making a nuisance of myself and asking quite a few bloggers and podcasters questions about their gaming lives and habits.  Somehow this became known as The Valhalla Project (a name which I’ve grown to like).  In thinking of ways to continue with this project I thought it would be interesting to check back in with many of these participants to see what games they were currently playing and which ones they were looking forward to. 

The answers I got were quite varied and seemed to cover a wide range of gaming tastes and habits. From nuns with standing offers to kiss Craig Zinkievich’s backside, to burned-out tri-boxers, to those not currently playing any MMOs, to those not playing any games at all, the replies were interesting to say the least.

Enjoy.

RC

*   *   *

What game/games (not necessarily MMOs) are you currently playing?

Aaron Miller

I’m not currently playing anything. I’ve given up gaming, at least temporarily, as my last blog post explains. As much as I love games, I believe the vast majority of them are nothing more than entertainment. Though they might be more engaging than a typical movie, they have little value beyond passing the time. Games don’t have to be that way — they could offer deep insights and inspiration, like good literature does — but they are generally not a productive use of my time. So I’ve decided to devote that time to other things.

Almazar

Dragon Age, Assasin’s Creed II, Dawn of War II, Left 4 Dead

Anjin

I’ve been playing four games with some regularity this month. They are (in Steam menu order):

  • Grand Theft Auto IV
  • King’s Bounty: Armored Princess
  • Borderlands
  • Plants Vs Zombies
  • I’ve also been playing a lot of World of Warcraft, but I just unsubscribed again yesterday.

Ardwulf

Dragon Age: Origins

Brent

Left for Dead 2, CoD: Modern Warfare 2, Prince of Persia (that latest one that came out ahwile ago) and Warhammer Online

Brian

I am currently playing: Lord of the Rings Online, Champions Online, and a Twitter game called Echo Bazaar. I’ve also been beta testing Star Trek Online.

Cuppy

Right now, I’m currently playing through Dragon Age:Origins. I’m also playing World of Warcraft a little bit still on a baby Draenei alt. I’m about to start playing Mass Effect in preparation for Mass Effect 2 coming out. And I’m playing a slew of casual Facebook games such as Island Life, Castle Age, Kingdoms of Camelot, and Treasure Madness.

Darren Love

- Currently playing World of Warcraft again to ramp up for the expansion. Good to go there. I’m finding my eyes aren’t bleeding from raiding anymore…go figure.

- Testing out the Star Trek Online beta…getting ready for launch.

- Playing some really great strategy titles: AI Fleet War, Gratuitous Space Battles, Hearts of Iron 3

David

I just started up Dragon Age: Origins for the PC, along with Fight Night Round 4 and NHL 10 on the Xbox 360.  MMOs are on the backburner for now, probably until WoW: Cataclysm comes out.

Esri

World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Star Trek Online (beta)

Euripedes

I suppose this is probably common knowledge by now, but I have been playing a significant amount of Dragon Age: Origins recently. I do quite like me some RPGs, especially of the Bioware flavour. I cannot even begin to fathom how much time I’ve clocked into things like Neverwinter Nights and Mass Effect. Hundreds, probably thousands of hours.

As always, I dabble with console games, largely Rock Band, whenever I go to a friend’s house. Very recently, I gave Saints Row 2 a try and it was… cathartic. Absolutely cathartic. There is little quite as satisfying as taking a cute asian girl and hunting FBI agents with a rocket launcher. Better yet, there is actually a quest in the game to do just that.

Saints Row 2, huge thumbs up. It’s basically what GTA should have been, instead of the “i r srs game about hookers” the GTA series is trying to be right now. The writing is surprisingly good, the characters in the game are especially well written and extremely entertaining. This is a game where you are given a quest to soak neighbourhoods in poop, and yet it contains multiple heartwrenching moments.

Or maybe I’m just sentimental towards hyper violent psychopaths.

I haven’t tried any other MMOs in a while. The abject failures of everything from Tabula Rasa to Age of Conan to the mind boggling stupidity of the games that haven’t been failures yet (Warhammer, Aion) to the successful games being, essentially, a copy+paste of World of Warcraft (Lord of the Rings Online comes to mind) has turned me off the idea completely.

It feels like, besides WoW, I have a choice of either playing (pardon my irish) the shitty ripoff, the shitty failure, or the ripoff that is boring instead of shitty.

Ferrel

I’m currently playing EverQuest 2.

Foolsage

Lord of the Rings Online, World of Warcraft, EverQuest II, Vanguard, EVE, Wizard 101, Aion, Fallen Earth, Sims 3, (as well as a few betas) Allods Online, Star Trek Online

Geldon

Currently, I’m mostly playing Dungeons and Dragons Online after a recent decision to stop investing in monthly subscription MMOs games.  In addition, I’m dabbling with a deluge of cool but cheap games I picked holiday sales including Majesty 2, Swat 4, Braid, and Ben There, Dan That!

Gnomeaggedon

World of Warcraft & Dragon Age: Origins

Gordon

Non-MMOs: I just finished Dragon Age: Origins and am currently playing Fallout 3.

MMOs: I’m only really playing WoW at the moment although tempted to resub to EVE Online.

Hatch

I’m currently playing World of Warcraft, Dragon Age: Origins, New Super Mario Bros Wii, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Final Fantasy Dissidia.

Hudson

Fallen Earth, Star Trek Online and Global Agenda eat up my time

Ixobelle

I play World of Warcraft; it’s basically what I play. WoW has effectively destroyed any other game’s chance of squeezing into my free gaming time, so there you go. I poked around in the Allods beta (a nice WoW clone!) for a few days, and that was kind of neat, but the beta ran out and now I’m back to WoW. I bought Aion when it went live after having a pretty positive experience with the Chinese Client before it was available in the states, activated my account, and managed to actually play it one day out of my entire free month.

I’ve been working a lot in the Neverwinter Nights 2 toolset, creating something that I intend to shop around for a position in the gaming industry, so I guess you could say that I’ve been playing NWN2, but ugh…. that game is horrendous, and I file my time spent in that engine as work, not play.

Jaxom

I’m currently sucked into Dragon Age: Origins. I just finished my second play through of Mass Effect and moved onto this other great Bioware RPG. I have dabbled from time to time with Cities XL, picked at Knights of the Old Republic, and flirted with Bioshock. Unfortunately my MMO of choice, Lord of the Rings Online, is on hiatus right now. After 3 years of consecutive and almost exclusive play, I needed a break. Hopefully I can soon add it back to my currently playing list.

Jonathan Morris

Dragon Age: Origins, Fallen Earth, Fallout 2, and a nostalgic return to Kings Quest 5 with my kids.

Julian

City of Heroes

Kelly

I’m not really playing an MMO at the moment–the holidays involved a LOT of traveling for me, my finals involved 5 10-20 page papers, and it was just too much to have an MMO going too. So while I WAS playing World of Warcraft for a bit, I’m now messing around with Diablo II (lol), Neverwinter Nights II, and an iPhone game called Inotia II: A Wanderer of Luone. …That’s a lot of sequels! Until things settle down a bit, I probably won’t be playing another MMO.

Makkaio

World of Warcraft, EverQuest2, Star Trek Online Beta, Earth Eternal, Heroes of Gaia, Farmville, Dragon Age: Origins, Grand Theft Auto IV, Team Fortress 2

Matticus

Torchlight, Defense Grid, Mass Effect, Call of Duty: MW 2.

Pete

Bouncing between Star Trek Online open beta, Lord of the Rings Online and Dragon Age Origins. With a sprinkling of Borderlands on the 360.

RC

Taking a break from Lord of the Rings Online; currently on my fourth tour of duty in World of Warcraft and playing Dragon Age: Origins.

Riknas

Champions Online, Dragon Age: Origins

River

World of Warcraft, Star Trek Online. Saint’s Row 2, The Witcher. Dragons Age: Origins.

Saylah

I just recently canceled all subscriptions.  I had been tri-boxing World of Warcraft in an attempt to get two Shadow Priests and a Mage as options for 5-boxing TBC 5-man instances.  I got them to level 53 before losing interest and free time.  I once again subscribed then unsubscribed to EVE Online.  At the moment, I’m out in the cold.

Sente

Champions Online, City of Villains/Heroes, Star Trek Online (well, have beta tested anyway, will play at release also), Fallen Earth

On PS3: Uncharted (the first one) and Brütal Legend.

Sister Frances

I’m currently playing, what I have been playing for the last 4 years…World of Warcraft. That’s about it. I played Champions Online for a while, but lost interest. I played Aion Online for a while but lost interest. I played Warhammer Online for a while but lost interest. The only game that has KEPT my interest is WoW. I almost hate to say it, because so many people poo-poo the game, but it just has the elements that seem to hold my interest.

Sister Julie

World of Warcraft, but only on Wednesdays nights for raiding. Rob Pardo is in league with the devil and I hate myself for having gone back (even though it was at Fran’s invitation to raiding night).  I have threatened to unsubscribe from WoW but Fran told me to lay down until the feeling goes away.

Star Trek Online (beta): I was there afor closed beta (thanks Cryptic), and I am there for open beta. I have pre-ordered the collector’s edition. I have been waiting for this game for a LONG time.

My offer to kiss Craig Zinkievich’s (executive producer for Star Trek Online) butt on mainstreet for helping to save the game still stands.

Fallen Earth: It’s post apocalyptic and I get to ride motorcycles and shoot zombies – it is probably the perfect game and ICARUS STUDIOS ROCKS!!

Champions Online: Only so many subscription dollars to go around and something has to give. This will probably give.

Alganon: A good game off to a good start and fun to play.

Fallout 3: My favorite single player game (and hey I know how to re-program it!)

Oblivion: This is sort of my fall back Swords and Sorcery game when I can’t get online anywhere.

Stargrace

Lord of the Rings Online, World of Warcraft, EverQuest II, Vanguard, EVE, Wizard 101, Aion, Fallen Earth, Sims 3, (as well as a few betas) Allods Online, Star Trek Online

Syncaine

Currently playing mostly DarkFall, although I still play a little Torchlight (have yet to finish it once), and I just picked up King’s Bounty off steam. Also playing New Mario on the Wii.

Tipa

I am currently playing Monopoly, Scrabble (board games), Dragon’s Lair and Tap Tap Revolution (iPhone), Legends of Zork and Echo Bazaar (browser-based), World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Wizard 101 and Star Trek Online (MMO).

Tobold

World of Warcraft

Troy

Everquest II and a little known german web game called Ogame

Werit

Currently I am playing Warhammer Online and when I get a chance, Fallen Earth.

Wiqd

World of Warcraft – Just raiding until we kill Arthas to end the Lich King expansion. Not sure if I’ll play Cataclysm, but I WILL buy Collector’s Editions of it, just in case.

Aion – Gives me a nostalgic feeling of Everquest, which I enjoy. The game is also beautiful.

Everquest 2EQ was my favorite MMO of all time, so continuing it goes w/o saying. Even after it reverted to an easy-mode MMO, the lore is great and I love seeing places I used to frequent in EQ, updated.

Ysharros

Everquest 2, have been for most of a year now (again). Currently my only MMO.

EchoBazaar, a fun little game I discovered through an RL friend a week or so ago. In the last week about a dozen of the people I follow/who follow me on Twitter have joined, since you can tweet descriptions and actions from the game.

… Sad to say, that’s all right now, unless FreeCell counts. I played Dragon Age: Origins for a while and was very enthusiastic about it (lots of blog posts ;)), but at some point it somehow lost its grip on me and I haven’t even finished it. The Sims 3 languishes similarly unplayed.

Zoso

Been a bit of a funny time recently, the phone line went out 11 days ago in heavy snow and still isn’t back, so no broadband and no online gaming.  I blogged a bit about three sandbox-y games I’ve been playing, Grand Theft Auto IV, Saints Row 2 and Red Faction: Guerilla, and after finishing the main Saints Row story I’ve been heading back in to chip away at various other activities.  Also dipping into Dawn of War II (not really convinced by it so far), and Men of War, which is a bit rough around the edges but really good.  Once the internet’s back I’m looking forward to getting back into Dungeons and Dragons Online with a few other bloggers, and also a bit of Champions Online.

Zubon

The Lord of the Rings Online, Torchlight, Team Fortress 2

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Reading the text: J. Patrick Williams interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 15, 2010

J. Patrick Williams is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and coeditor of the books Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games and The Players’ Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming.  Here he talks about his experience working on Gaming as Culture, the challenges an ethnographer faces when doing video game research, his personal views on video games as well as his own background in gaming.

*   *   *

Would you mind explaining what you do for a living?

I am Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where I do research and teach in the areas of social psychology, culture, and new media.

You are coeditor for the book Gaming as Culture. How would you describe the book? Why was it put together and who was it written for?

Gaming as Culture was intended to provide a serious, in-depth look at the culture of contemporary gaming. I’m a sociologist and social psychologist and so I had a clear interest in a certain way of studying games, but I was quite open-minded about what the book might end up looking like. I actually have a diverse intellectual background—I earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology, two graduate degrees in sociology, and also completed doctoral coursework in cultural studies in education. So when I decided to edit a book on gaming, I knew that there would be many different ways to approach games academically: anthropology, business, cultural studies, education, geography, media studies, psychology, sociology, and so on…each of these disciplines has scholars who have scholarly interests in games. At the same time, what constitutes “games” is equally as broad, and I had that in mind from the beginning as well.

The book’s existence is a tribute to the camaraderie that exists within the breadth of the games community. In 2003 I had just started as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Georgia and my wife had just started the doctoral program in linguistics there. One weekend I accompanied her to a linguistics graduate student party. As the night progressed I found myself standing around a campfire talking to my future friends and co-editors, Sean Hendricks and Keith Winkler. Sean had a PhD in linguistics and ran a media lab in the education college; Keith had an MBA and had just begun working on an MA in linguistics. We quickly discovered our shared love for games and began discussing all sorts of games we’d played previously: including D&D, Magic, and arcade and console games. I also remember lamenting how I never read any research on games and how it seemed like an untapped area of social-science research. What I was thinking was that gaming is oftentimes a very important part of people’s lives…so why weren’t scholars publishing much research on it? A week later I had spent a lot of time in the office scouring databases for games research and found that, except for a few monographs, there was little/nothing out there to serve as a resource for scholars interested in doing games research. I guess this gets at the second part of your question—why it was written and who it was written for. I wanted to give something to gamers who were interested in seeing their leisure pursuits from an academic perspective. I also wanted to legitimize games as a object of study for scholars and simultaneously to give something to students who might become tomorrow’s games scholars.

Are you pleased with the way it turned out?

It was my first experience as a book editor and certainly nearly six years after having started the project, I would do things a bit differently, but overall I am happy with the result (as are my co-editors). With Sean’s interest in education and linguistics, Keith having a background in business, and my own studies in sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, we wanted to spread the word widely to see what kind of breadth we could capture. We made sure to clarify from the beginning that we were interested in what we called “fantasy games” scholarship so that we wouldn’t receive submissions on “mainstream” games like poker or Monopoly. We specified role-playing, collectible, and video games….games through which individuals entered a fantasy world of play. Even in something like Magic the Gathering, there is an underlying assumption that players enact the roles of battling wizards. We found that to be the most important criterion for inclusion.

When the closing date for proposals arrived, I was a bit surprised at how many scholars were actively doing videogame studies specifically versus other types of games. We had more than fifty submissions and in this regard were forced to be very picky; there just wasn’t room to include so many papers. It was also apparent that all the papers not related to video games, as well as many of the videogame papers, were qualitative and micro-oriented. That’s why the subtitle of the book ended up being “reality, identity and experience in fantasy games.” That highlights the type of studies presented in the book.

If you had a chance to work on a newly revised edition, what additional topics would you like to see covered?

All of the studies in Gaming as Culture were North American, though it was not my intent to produce something only about North American gaming. What I found when reviewing all of the submissions was that the European scholars seemed to be focusing on video games. That’s not an accurate representation of fantasy games research, but it’s what I had to work with at the time. I remember one of the first reviews of book criticized it for not including Nordic studies of role-playing games. But no Nordic studies were submitted for consideration…. If I were to work on a revised edition, I would spend more time seeking out contributors from around the world in order to better represent the field.

The other shortfall I would try to address is the range of substantive topics. For some genres, like LARPing, we didn’t receive any submissions. I would like to stretch out in order to include a wider variety of game genres.

Would you mind giving us a brief overview of your own gaming background?

My mother was active in taking my brother and me to the library regularly as kids, and he and I both became pretty avid fantasy readers. By the age of twelve I was tearing through all of Ursula LeGuin’s and Anne McCaffrey’s books, as well as struggling with Tolkien’s prose. Fantasy books led me to fantasy games, and I had a group of friends that tried to make sense of Dungeons and Dragons without any real contact with an adult gaming community. I also got into painting D&D miniatures in the early 1980s, but had some problems with religious elements in my family who saw D&D as irreverent if not just plain evil. I moved away from games in the mid-1980s, but came back to them in the late-1990s while working on my Master’s degree in sociology. My next-door neighbor came over to introduce himself right after I had moved to this rural Appalachian town. He saw my Wheel of Time books and asked me whether I played Magic. I had heard of it but not played before. Twenty minutes in to his tutorial I was hooked. He got me into community and competitive play and I ended up doing research on a local network of Magic players (which you can see in my research chapter in the book). The next year (1997) when it came time for me to choose my MA thesis topic, he had just bought Ultima Online and I was fascinated by the idea of an online gameworld. I proposed to do an ethnographic study of UO but the proposal was rejected…there just wasn’t faculty support for doing that kind of research at that time/place. Looking back I really think it’s a shame because that study would have been ahead of the wave, so to speak, in the sociological study of online games.

Since then I’ve played pretty actively. I burned out on Magic and moved to Mage Knight around 2003 and invested just in time to watch it crash and burn. The next game from there was the card game Anachronism, which also crashed. I miss both of those games a lot and still play them whenever I get a chance. Now I spend most game-related time playing World of Warcraft, though thanks to eBay I’ve collected several playsets of Anachronism and try to pull people into playing it.

At your peak how much gaming did you do? How about now?

It’s hard to talk about peaks, because they’re different for different games. The first really heavy involvement I had was playing Diablo II. I had a few top-level characters and even got into farming items to sell on eBay. For Mage Knight and Anachronism I got into tournament play, so I was playing a couple of times a week at Tyche’s in Athens, GA, plus a couple of additional evenings a week building armies and decks. After I moved to Arkansas in 2006 (Mage Knight was dead by then) I ran tournaments for two groups of Anachronism players…so yea I was playing a couple of days a week for several hours plus prep time. I guess right now is another kind of peak because I’m raiding end-game content in WoW on two characters, which keeps me busy. The first two years playing WoW I literally played one night a week and that was it. But once I got into end-game content I found guilds necessary and thus there was a step-up in commitment in order to get to see the content at all. I probably play 15 hours a week currently—some weeks less depending on work and family life.

Are you a particular fan of MMOs? What has your experience with them been like?

I’ve played Diablo II, WoW, Guild Wars, D&D Online, and looked at a few others, here and there, including a little beta testing. I’ve really enjoyed WoW…it’s become the game for me. Actually I admit to struggling sometimes not to play. Even when I have other things to do, I tell myself “well, just do the fishing daily quest” or “just jump on and make a new epic gem.” Then I blink and I’ve been on for an hour when I really meant it to be on for ten minutes.

As someone who has done extensive research on gaming, do you find it difficult to separate gaming for pleasure and gaming for research?

Yes! But then again, I don’t know that they need to be separated. As an ethnographer, I do my best work when spending a lot of time immersed in the everyday life of whatever culture/social group I am studying. That is how an ethnographer learns to develop an insider’s perspective on things. I think this question forces me to expand my answer to the previous question: my “gaming” self and my “social psychologist” self battle sometimes over definitions of MMOs and their role in (my)everyday life.

As an ethnographer/social psychologist, I’ve focused my research on the significance of games in everyday life while working past what I consider narrowly-defined concepts like “addiction.” The videogame-addiction literature is extensive these days, but most of it relies on experimental designs or surveys, neither of which do much to improve our understanding of what MMOs mean to the people playing them. The “Internet Addiction Questionnaire,” used by researchers to decide whether someone is addicted to the internet, is a great example of what I dislike about psychological science today. It has been used to measure gaming addiction as well. Now if you take a look at the original questionnaire, it had eight questions to answer. If you answered “yes” to five or more, you were an addict. Some scholars will say “it’s been tested; you can see statistical significance between respondents’ answers and their reported behaviors….” But I suggest taking the survey and replacing the word “internet” or “game” with “wife,” “boyfriend,” or “child.” Suddenly you’re answering 7-out-of-8 or 8-out-of-8 with “yes.” But it’s silly to think that I’m addicted to my daughter or wife just because I think about them or want to spend more time with them.

Now back to your question: I see problematic behaviors associated with videogame play, just as with many other parts of life. As a social psychologist I recognize that I play too much sometimes or that I get too involved in the day-to-day life of the gameworld. My “gaming” self gets pleasure out of playing for hours at a time—I’ve got friends online to catch up with, or to help with quests, achievements….whatever. My “social psychologist” self recognizes that my playtime negatively impacts other parts of my life to some extent. So right now I’m working on making sense of my and people’s motivations for playing MMOs vis-à-vis the immersive aspects of game design. Bringing my “gaming” self and “ethnographer/social psychologist” self back together for mutual benefit, I’m doing a two-year project to study the concepts of motivation and immersion in MMOs.

On your website you mention MMOs “have the potential for new forms of learning among young people and adults alike.” Would you mind expanding on this idea a bit?

I don’t see games as separate from everyday life. A lot of people do…they see games as an escape, a way to take a break, or whatever. But even leisure is important—what we do for fun impacts the rest of our lives and vice versa. The same goes for learning: learning is something we do all the time, not just in school. Our schooling effects other parts of our lives, just as what we do outside school effects what we do in school. So I want to constant keep that idea out in the open….games, internet (or whatever) are integral parts of our selves. Sherry Turkle’s book Second Self gave a lot of examples of how people learned to develop aspects of themselves through their internet use. Today, I think James Gee does the best job describing this in a way that almost anyone can understand. He shows how playing videogames is a form of learning. Playing on the playground teaches kids basic social norms about reciprocity, friendship, status, inequality, and so on. They learn informally through doing. MMOs are social spaces where people do all these as well. So the point in what I wrote has to do with recognizing games as an important part of people’s everyday lives that has consequences not only for how we learn about the world, but what we learn as well.

How would you say video games have influenced you as a teacher? How about as a writer?

I have tried various ways of importing games into my sociology courses, oftentimes in small ways to help illuminate certain points. I use “serious” flash games as think pieces sometimes, but would love to spend an entire semester having students study a specific MMO and deploying their sociological knowledge to make sense of what they see going on. Games have also helped me as a professor outside the classroom, mainly in terms of service. I’ve served as the faculty advisor for student gaming associations at two universities, and actually started such a group at another university as a way of helping people who love games get to know each other. Going to university is a big moment for teenagers, and I have found that helping them get in touch with other students who share similar interests helps them settle into university life, sparks some of their creativity, gives them a social venue in which to de-stress, and provides a peer group for support. I’ve always seen games as a wonderful resource for bringing people together. As for writing, I can’t think of any effects video games have had to be honest. /shrug

Would you have any words of advice for aspiring writers wanting to publish articles or books on video games?

I think my first piece of advice would be: be serious about your research; learn about methods and theory and how to use both to your advantage. As a reviewer for several sociology journals, I get sent manuscripts on games to review and I end up rejecting most of them because the author’s “gaming” self overshadowed their “academic” self. In other words, they wrote about games because they love them, but not necessarily because they had something important to say about the empirical world or theory or method in their discipline (which is what academic journals publish).

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer audience?

Having a baby that’s just a couple of weeks old makes it hard to be coherent in an interview about games right now. I hope I made enough sense that you and the readers will find something I’ve said useful. And thank you for taking the time to put this resource together. I’ve already gotten some good insight by reading your interviews with other people!

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Reading the text: Jeff Howard interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 8, 2010

In this interview Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University, Jeff Howard, discusses his book Quests, his personal gaming background, what he thinks about the current quest system in MMOs and what current game has renewed his faith in the potential of online games.

*   *   *

Would you mind talking a little bit about your book Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives?

Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives is a book about strategies for designing more meaningful quests by drawing on the traditions of allegory and symbolism in classical myth and literature. The book consists of a theoretical component dissecting the main components of quests in the history and theory of quest games and quest narratives: spaces, items, actors, and challenges. The book’s theoretical component is closely tied to a set of corresponding practical exercises and tutorials in level design, object creation, dialogue, and scripting. The main aim of the book is to help quest designers balance meaning and action, finding a middle point on the spectrum in which quests are both highly interactive and purposeful in ways that shift according to each player’s interactions.

Interested readers can learn more about the book at designingquests.com, and the book can be ordered from amazon.com

According to your website, your dissertation was on Gnosticism, post modern fiction, and computer-assisted teaching. How much of Quests was born out of your research for your dissertation?

Very little of the text in Quests comes directly from my dissertation, and few of the specific topics in the book were covered in the dissertation. However, Quests did begin as an attempt to bridge the gap between the binary pairs in the dissertation: technology and mythology, game and narrative, literary theory and educational practice.

The dissertation was called Heretical Reading and had a lot to do with a second-century Christian sect called Gnosticism, which was labeled by the church as a heresy, as well as experimental postmodern novels. I’ve moved away from those specific interests while both focusing on and deepening my interest in game design in Quests. I think the main thing the dissertation gave me was a love of heresy in the positive sense of the word: going against the majority view or mainstream practice in order to assert a deeply held belief or value. I’ve tried to do that in Quests and my other ongoing work.

What audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

Anyone who wants to design better quests. This includes game designers, academics, teachers, and students.

Would you mind describing what the process was like for you in getting the book published?

I started writing the book as an independent effort, and one of the editors at a publishing company called AK Peters was kind enough to take an interest in my description of the book in a biographical note that I wrote for an ACM SIGGRAPH conference, where I presented a paper on quests. I talked to Klaus Peters, who owns the company in conjunction with his wife Alice, and then submitted a formal proposal along with an early, partial draft. A committee of reviewers read the proposal and draft and then provided me with suggestions for extensive expansions and revisions, which I did. This process was followed by many drafts and revisions, assisted by frequent correspondence with my excellent editor, Kevin Jackson-Mead, and the help of a good copy-editor.

Writing and publishing a book is a complicated endeavor, but the great work of AK Peters made it much easier and more pleasant.

What is your professional background?

I am Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. I have a BA, MA, and PhD in English from the University of Tulsa and the University of Texas, respectively. I’ve been teaching in various capacities since I entered graduate school in 2000.

Would you mind taking a minute and talking a little bit about your gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I am primarily a console gamer (Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox, PS2). I especially like action games (e.g. Assassin’s Creed II), horror games (Eternal Darkness and the Silent Hill franchise), and action RPG’s (e.g. Demon’s Souls and Oblivion). I have been gaming since I was young, when I was influenced by tabletop RPG’s, arcade, and adventure games.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds–more specifically MMOs? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

Prior to a few weeks ago, I would have said that my experience of online games was unpleasant, but then I bought Demon’s Souls for the PS3, which has quickly become one of my favorite games. I have long believed that there would eventually be an online RPG that I liked, and this is the one, which re-kindles my hope for the genre.

I have played MMO’s, but they are not my personal favorite games generally speaking. When playing World of Warcraft, I was struck by the degree of mundane, repetitive tasks (kill eight Foozles and bring me back their tusks so that I can give you a sword for no particular reason). I was also distracted by the talking of thousands of people running around, which for me detracted from the solitary experience of what Joseph Campbell would call the hero’s journey: a voyage away from the everyday world and into a deeply personal encounter with the transcendent. I found it hard to look for the Holy Grail when constantly being forced to hunt for boars’ tusks and tune out the noise from multiple chat channels, which have to be at least partially attended to in a game where soloing is difficult and in some cases not possible. I had slightly better experiences with Lord of the Rings Online (because of its Epic Quest Line and the good company of my Fellowship) and Age of Conan (for its dark, mature world that was unfortunately marred by a broken launch and lack of end-game content).

Based on mostly negative experiences with MMO’s and a deep passion for other genres, I have tended to stick with what some have called “Massively Single-Player RPG’s,” like Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV and Morrowind or to gravitate toward non-RPG genres (e.g. console action games).

That is, until Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls is not an MMO but rather a single-player RPG with a massive and innovative online component. Because the game is so difficult, progressing in it at all requires a player to rely on hints left by other players as glowing runes (like “watch out for the ambush around the corner and try not to fall of the cliff into the pit trap with the gigantic leech monster”). By activating bloodstains left by other players, a player can watch spectral re-enactments of these players’ deaths and (hopefully) learn from their mistakes. Finally, when a player dies, he shifts from his live, physical form into a dead, phantom form. He is then able to assist other players as apparitions (i.e. multiplayer coop) and to duel them (i.e. PvP) in order to return to physical form. Demon’s Souls revolves around a single-player experience so complex and challenging that it is enhanced by online play rather than marred by it. Its combat and magic systems are also refreshingly sophisticated, combined with a dark, strange world and quest system that are both stripped down to their haunting, archetypal core and quirkily detailed. The game is difficult to describe and probably not for all tastes, but I love it.

I’d like to see more games like this in which designers find new ways to incorporate online play.

How would you say video games have influenced you as a teacher? How about as a writer?

My job is to teach game design, so by definition video games pervade every aspect of my teaching. From a very early age, games have served as a metaphor for me about the ways that people change a written text imaginatively by making interpretative choices.

There’s been a great deal of criticism aimed at the quest system in current MMOs. I’m sure you’ve heard the popular lament that no one reads the quest text anymore. As someone who has spent considerable time studying quests and quests systems, what do you see as ways to make this a more meaningful, integral process of the game?

Communicate the meanings of your quests through mechanisms other than dialogue and journal entries.

For example, use your world and level design to suggest to players the goals and purposes of their journeys. For example, designers could use the ascent up a lofty mountain peak bathed in light to communicate a player’s struggle to redeem himself or his world.

Design quest items that communicate the meanings of quests visually and through their function within gameplay, rather than having a player collect a generic placeholder quest item that takes up a slot in their backpack and then rewarding them with a +10 Longsword of Shinstabbing. As a positive example, remember Frodo’s ring: a simple gold circlet that communicates the corrupting influence of absolute power through an invisibility ability that attracts evil enemies and slowly drives its bearer insane when used too often or carried too long.

Use scripting (event-based programming) to implement quests that alter players and their worlds according to the moral and philosophical choices that players make. These choices don’t have to involve long branching dialogue trees but can take place behind the scenes as scripted flags that track player behavior and respond to it, either as an aggregate of group behavior on a server (cf. EVE Online) or of individual/party behavior in an instance.

When you do write quest dialogue, keep it concise and focused on enabling player choice rather than giving paragraphs of quest background with only the option to accept or decline the quest.

I formulated this suggestion in part out of a GDC workshop on interactive dialogue given by Daniel Erickson, the principle lead writer of BioWare, a company that has skillfully put their own advice into practice recently in Dragon Age: Origins. Most MMO’s probably should not have the volume of dialogue as Dragon Age given the existing problem with people not reading quest text, but I think it would be possible to practice a stripped-down version with short, punchy dialogue and quest updates that offer a lot of choices.

To be fair though, do you think that part of the responsibility for making the questing experience more meaningful falls on the player?

Absolutely. Because games are interactive, player experiences are largely derived from players’ choice and only partially shaped by designers. If players are frustrated with dull and repetitive quests, then there are many ways for them to enrich their own experience. For example, a player could join a role-playing server and affiliate himself with a guild of players who want to act out their quests in dramatic ways, plan out strategies for completing them, or memorialize their achievements in a guild hall.

Another suggestion might be for players to slow down a little. Rather than hoarding a long grocery list of quests and speeding to their conclusion, be selective about the quests that would most appeal to your character. If you’re interested in a quest, this interest might even justify stopping to read a bit of quest text. Quest text may often be bad, but the writing will only get worse if nobody reads it and gives feedback to the people who took the trouble to write it. That’s a vicious circle.

On that note, if a player is dissatisfied with the current state of quests, they should consider designing their own with one of the many toolsets and level editors currently available. The Aurora Toolset, the Elder Scrolls Construction set, or (more recently) the Dragon Age toolset are all examples; and there are also opportunities to build and program persistent worlds and private servers in some MMO’s.

Lastly, I’m not sure that I’d phrase players’ ability to make quests more meaningful as “responsibility,” but rather as an opportunity. I want players to have fun. If players would prefer to skip quest text, that is their right. If they enjoy grinding or raiding more than quests, then designers should provide ways for some players to level and progress without having to do quests. In that case, players who don’t like quests at all could ignore them, allowing designers to improve the quality of quests based on feedback from the players who do.

You are currently developing a game entitled Arcana Manor. What can you tell us about the game?

Jeff Howard

In Arcana Manor, the player wields a uniquely immersive and symbolic magic system to defeat the demons of a surreal Gothic mansion and unlock its secrets. Arcana Manor is a ceremonial magick simulator with an elaborate system of gestural sigils, tarot cards, colors, and sounds that makes players feel like true adepts, not mere button-pushers. In genre, the game would be closest to an action-adventure game or first-person action RPG, but neither genre label quite communicates what I’m trying to do. The game grows out of my interest in magic systems, which are the primary focus of my own current research and design. I started designing and prototyping Arcana Manor about a year ago, which involved teaching myself to operate the Torque Game Engine Advanced, do 3d modeling, script/code/debug code, and edit 2d textures and GUI elements. The game has been on hiatus during my past semester because I’ve had to prioritize grading student work, but I’m currently returning to Arcana Manor with a vengeance.

I also blog and tweet about Arcana Manor on designingquests.com and @arcanamanor

 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer audience?

I think there is a lot of hope and promise in the future of games, both single-player, multi-player, and all sorts of new systems of interaction that are only just on the horizon. If we keep an open mind and be positive, there will be different games for every taste and audience.

And last but not least, when was the last time you rolled a 20-sided dice?

November 2009 at Nanocon (DSU’s yearly gaming convention). I had the privilege of playing a D&D module-in-progress designed and Dungeon Mastered by a Wizards of the Coast employee. It was really fun.

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One shot: Drew Clowery interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 6, 2010

Current lead game designer for Flying Lab Software, Drew Clowery talks about his professional background in the gaming industry, his current hobbies and favorite pastimes, including sleeping on couches, and what advice he has for those hoping to get into the video game industry.

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If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind discussing your background in the game industry?

Sure, I got started in the computer game industry in December of 2001 when I was hired as a Customer Service Representative at Mythic Entertainment for the MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot. At the time I was just looking for a full time job, and as an avid MMO player, the thought of turning one of my hobbies into full time employment sounded great, but not nearly as good as the regular paycheck and medical benefits that came with it (Mythic treated their Customer Service people very well at the time, I don’t know if this is still the case).

In the year I worked at Mythic I learned a lot, but I think the most valuable lesson I learned was that the guys who made this game were nothing special. I mean they were smart, talented people, but they weren’t magic. I was a smart, talented guy, I could do what they did. I also learned that I needed to know a whole lot more about the technical side of software development, and so in January of 2003, I left to go back to school.

I spent about a year in community college before heading off to Full Sail in Orlando Florida. Full Sail is a private, for profit college, accredited as a technical school. There are people who have really strong feelings about whether or not for profit colleges are valid institutions of learning, and whether or not Full Sail in particular is a good school. You could write a book on the topic, or at least a long blog post, but I’ll tell you my take away: I learned a ton at Full Sail, because I applied myself and worked hard. It was the right school for me, for where I was in my life, but I wouldn’t recommend it to kids coming right out of high school.

After Full Sail I moved home and slept on my parents couch for 8 months before I landed a job at Flying Lab Software. Once here I spent almost two years as a Game Systems Designer on Pirates of the Burning Sea, before moving on to be Lead Designer of Upper Deck U.

How did you get on with Flying Lab Software?

It was fall of 2006, I was living in Virginia, sleeping on my parents couch, and unemployed. I’d been looking for a job for 8 months without success, and I’d come to the conclusion that no one was going to hire me from across the country for an entry level job. I’d spoken to a hiring rep for Blizzard at GDC and he’d strongly implied that if I lived in L.A. I’d have an interview for a Game Master job at Blizzard immediately. They needed experienced GMs badly, and I had experience as a GM.

I’d made the decision to move out to L.A. and start looking for a job, hopefully something in Game Design, but with a willingness to fall back to being a Game Master if it got me into the industry. I had called a buddy from college who lived in L.A. and he agreed to let me stay on his couch for a couple of weeks. I cashed in the last of my savings, said my goodbyes and started packing.

The week I was supposed to leave I saw a job posting on the Flying Lab website for an entry level Game Designer come open. I decided there and then that I was going to make a detour on my way to L.A. I put together a cover letter and resume and sent it in. I told them I was leaving for Seattle tomorrow, and asked them to please interview me when I got there. When I told my World of Warcraft guild about the change in plans a couple of my guildmates, who I had never met in real life, piped up and insisted I stay with them when I got to Seattle. The next morning I left for Seattle.

I stopped to visit family in Chicago over the weekend, then continued on to Seattle the next week. In Wyoming I got an e-mail from Flying Lab with a written design test, I spent an extra day at the motel there to write the test, proof read it, and send it back. I arrived in Seattle that Friday night, spent the weekend with my guildmates (I would end up sleeping on their couch for three weeks before I found my own place, talk about kind hearted people). Monday I got an e-mail scheduling an interview for Tuesday afternoon, I interviewed Tuesday, and got an offer letter Wednesday night. I started the following Monday.

What has been your involvement with Pirates of the Burning Sea?

I was a Game Systems Designer on Pirates of the Burning Sea for about 2 years. Shortly after I was brought on board I was given the Avatar Combat system. When I was given the Avatar Combat system I was still extremely junior, far too junior in fact. What I couldn’t see at the time was that the system was not, despite what I was being told, fully implemented. Further, the design I had taken over was not a complete system, but rather a system that was built as a living argument for features that had already been cut. Obviously this put me in a pretty tough situation.

When I stepped in to Avatar Combat I was told “the system’s done, you just need to make the skills,” which aside from being factually untrue is like saying “we’re done with WoW’s combat system, you just need to make all the spells, combat abilities, and talents. You have a month.” I death marched from December 2006 through March of 2007 trying to get the Avatar Combat system into something resembling a working order. Unfortunately I ran into the problem that what we really needed to do was finish implementing the system. I attempted to do this through clever use of data driven scripts, but the results were not good.

I would continue to focus primarily on the Avatar Combat system until after Pirates shipped, when I briefly worked on the Skirmish system (writing the first draft of the spec), before moving on to the Upper Deck project. I worked on a lot of other, smaller projects on Pirates, but my time was dominated by Avatar Combat. The system was wholly ripped out and replaced less than a year after launch (something that should have been done long before launch).

Would you be able to talk a little bit about the game you are currently working on for Flying Lab?

I can’t talk about the game I’m currently working on, but I can talk about the game I was recently working, Upper Deck U. Upper Deck U is a casual kids MMO, targeted at 8 to 12 year old boys. It was conceived primarily as a marketing device for the sports trading cards of the Upper Deck company. A complete post mortem on the Upper Deck project is a task for another space (and something I hope to make the subject of a conference talk) but the short version is: the project did not have enough grounding in reality and we suffered severe communications issues with our client.

How would you say this game differs from other MMOs targeting younger players like Free Realms?

Well size and scope to begin with. Free Realms is a huge triple A title, Upper Deck U was a small casual ad game. Polish for another, Free Realms is a highly polished game, Upper Deck U, not so much. But the one place where we win, hands down, is this: no client download. There are certain magical phrases that will allow you to get the attention of MMO executives, and these phrases change over time. Right now, one of those phrases is “no client download.” Upper Deck U was a game with no client download, and that’s pretty huge.

Would you mind taking a minute and talking a little bit about your own gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Sure, I’m a giant gaming nerd. I learned to read in order to play D&D. I had some older friends (they were in 3rd grade, quite the old men to a six year old), who promised they would let me play with them if I could read the rulebook by myself. I went straight from “see spot run” to red box D&D, with a whole lot of bothering my mother about what words meant in between. I played Chess, Shogun, Axis and Allies, Risk, and Strat-o-matic Baseball with my father and god father.

When I was a teenager I practically lived in a Games Workshop store, until Magic: the Gathering came out, when I moved to practically living in the card shop. At that store I learned Settlers of Catan, Nuclear War, Twilight Imperium, Titan, and about a dozen others I only half remember. Plus every weekend we played some role playing game or another, Rifts when we were younger, then Vampire and the rest of the World of Darkness when we were angst ridden teens.

On the electronic side I got a Nintendo when I was 8, but I was never a super heavy console player. My sister and I used to drive each other nuts playing Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo, and my buddies and I would often play console games waiting for the weekly RPG to start, or after it had wrapped up, but outside of that, I was mostly a PC gamer. On the PC my games of choice were always strategy: Civilization II, Alpha Centauri, Master of Magic.

Not long after Everquest came out I had a friend who got me hooked and ever since I’ve been an MMO addict. I’ve played Everquest, Everquest II, Dark Age of Camelot, and World of Warcraft extensively, but I’ve dabbled in City of Heroes, Horizons, Warhammer, Vanguard, and probably a half dozen other freebies I can’t recall off the top of my head.

Assuming you’re still a gaming enthusiast, what are you playing these days?

Work has been really busy the last couple of months, so my play time has been limited, so these days my game time is restricted to my bi-weekly pen and paper group (currently playing Shadowrun 4th edition), my weekly poker night, and a little bit of Magic the Gathering: online here and there. I’ve really found I enjoy Magic: Online quite a bit, especially the draft formats. They take out the “buy your way to victory” aspect of magic I’ve always disliked, and I have a lot of fun playing them.

I’ve gotten pretty serious out playing poker, my weekly game isn’t exactly nosebleed stakes, but it’s not nickel and dime either. The guys there are all very serious about their poker, and it’s a very competitive environment. We play every week, and one to two weekends a month, so that’s a pretty serious game outlet for me. I also occasionally do a trip out to a casino or a Magic tournament with some of those guys (the crossover, both in players and skill set, between Magic and Poker is astounding).

I also play an occasional bout of Counter Strike or Team Fortress 2 if I feel like a little ultra violence, and I fire up a round of Civilization IV about once a quarter. I’ve honestly been missing MMO gaming recently, but I just haven’t had the time to spend on one. I’ve been thinking about trying out WoW’s new group matchmaking system, but I haven’t taken the plunge.

Would you say working on games has in some ways lessoned your enthusiasm for playing video games?

Well, I wouldn’t say that working on games has, but sitting in front of a computer 40+ hours a week I frequently have the experience of looking for hobbies that allow me to not be in front of a computer. It’s definitely driven me to spend more time on pen and paper, board, and miniature games. It’s not that I never want to play video games, but my tolerance for sitting in front of a computer is definitely lower when I’m working 40 hours a week. It goes down significantly if I’m working more than 40 hours a week.

I will say, when I worked in customer service and spent all day in game in Dark Age of Camelot, it was very hard to play Dark Age for fun. It very much felt like being at work whenever I was logged in.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable experience from your game design days?

When I interviewed at Flying Lab they had me interview with several different members of the team, which is fairly typical of most company’s interview process. During one of the early interviews I had mentioned that I was a big fan of the pen and paper RPG Unknown Armies, which had been co-authored by John Tynes, who was the Producer at Flying Lab. So later on John is one of the people interviewing me, we’re introduced, I tell him I’m a big fan of his work, he’s very gracious, we sit down and start the interview.

Throughout the whole interview he blinks one eye at a time, in sequence. Blink right eye, blink left eye. In one smooth motion. Unknown Armies, if you don’t know, is a game of high weirdness, so through the whole interview I’m trying to figure out if he’s fucking with me, if there’s something wrong with his eye, or if this is just how he blinks. I just go through the whole interview acting like it’s not there, but I spend the next day until I get the job freaking out in my head about what the hell that was about.

A year and a half later, John is leaving the company for greener pastures, and I finally ask him what was up: bad contacts. I spent a year and a half wondering about contacts.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the field?

When it comes to entry level hires there are four things that employers look for, in this order: Skills, Availability, Passion, and Fit. You have to have the skills to do the job For Programmers this is the number one requirement, and the toughest one to crack. Availability means that no one is flying you across the country to interview for an entry level position. If the economy does a sudden about face (unlikely), and you’re a programmer from a well known school this *might* happen, otherwise you have to be local, or close enough to drive to the interview. It also means you have to be ready to work on the day the job starts, not graduating in 6 months. Passion means you’re going to work too many hours for not enough pay. The game industry is an exploitative employer, and they know the only way that works is if people are taking jobs not for a paycheck but because they love what they do. This is the hardest thing for designers to demonstrate, and the biggest stumbling block I find in designer resumes. Finally Fit is just a matter of how well your personality fits with the team. It’s a matter of being not a douche bag. If you need specific advice on this, it’s beyond the scope of my reply.

If you’re going into the game industry you need to understand that you are not going to get rich. People in the game industry universally make less money than their equivalent counterparts in other industries. If you’re serious about working in the game industry start by getting a strong technical background. If you want to be a designer, learn how to program. You don’t need to be a great programmer to be a designer, but you need to know how a programmer thinks, and what software can and can’t do. You need to be able to read someone else’s code, and talk to a programmer in his language. If you want to be an artist don’t just learn how to use your tools, learn how to support your tools. The artists who can use Maya are valuable. The artists who can build Maya scripts are invaluable. If you want to be a programmer, you need to be a great one. Game programming is one of the most challenging programming disciplines, so you better be on top of your game.

Next, start making games. With the advent of flash, it’s really easy to make games on your own, but the quality of those games may not be great. If you don’t want to take on a project yourself join a mod team. Mod teams are a great way to get some experience while working as part of a bigger team. Alternately you can make a level for an existing game (Neverwinter nights was the classic candidate, but I’m guessing Dragon Age is about to supplant that), or a simple UI mod for your favorite MMO. The important thing here is get out and do something game related that your future employer can download, install, and play.

Drew Clowery

Finally start applying to jobs that are local to you. If you’re outside of one of the few major industry hubs (Montreal, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles/San Diego), you may have to face moving in order to apply for jobs. Keep trying. I applied to something like 50 jobs before I got one, and that was before the economy went to hell. That’s not unusual. This is about the worst possible time to be looking for a job in the game design industry. People with years of experience are out of work and have been for some time. Until the economy recovers, something I’m extremely pessimistic about, it’s going to be hard to find a job anywhere, let alone the game industry.

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