Archive for the ‘Gaming’ Category

The Joy of Words

Posted: April 11, 2012 in Gaming, General

I used to love flipping through the dictionary to find new words. Not all of them were useable—at least not in everyday conversation—but still interesting to come across.

For example, I remember finding “snickersnee” and thinking it about the greatest word ever—the sound of it, the definition (the art of fighting with knives), the etymology (from the Dutch “steken of snijden,” meaning: “stick or snee,” to cut and thrust in fighting with a knife). How cool is that? If Dickens had a prize knife-fighter for a character, he assuredly would’ve been named Mr. Snickersnee.

Today, an article revision came in from a writer (one I’m thrilled to be able to publish on the D&D website; I’ve been a fan of his blog for several years) that contained another fine word, one I’d never heard of before:

Sesquipedalian.

Ironically, it’s a word that itself means tending to use long words, or polysyllabic. Just as good, the etymology from Latin means “a foot-and-a-half” (that’s the “ped” component, as in “pedestrian,” or one who walks by foot). A “foot-and-a-half” word. I love that. The ancient equivalent of a “fifty cent” word, I suppose.

The context for it came from the language appearing in the 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks—where, as the writer noted in his article, a good many of us readers picked up a new word or two:

For me, portcullis, stalagmite, and stalactite come instantly to my mind.

Just a final thought on Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken (from my previous post), that she presents wonderful thoughts on the use of games—or, on the efforts spent playing games to be put toward solving societal problems.

However, one of her fundamental positions that I can’t agree with tends to be her convenient positioning of games as “better” than reality. It’s there in the title of her book, and chapter after chapter explaining why gamers are drawn to games because they offer a better, more rewarding, more satisfying experience than reality itself. As McGonigal writes:

“Compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions.”

As she goes on, games are able to provide that sense of “awe” often lacking in reality. Awe, or “the orgasm of positive emotions,” as it’s referred to, is a wonderful, powerful sensation… but I reject her pitch that games are better able to instill awe within us than can reality. Or that reality is too banal to ever compete with the environments, interaction, and risk/reward systems found within games.

Again, I find it simply too convenient for McGonigal to take this position. Her book posits that games are more compelling than reality, so why not leverage them to better reality.

However, I feel, that’s just one side of the Einsteinian equation—that “there are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle.”

Saccharine, trite, I’ll grant, but I still adhere to the opposite side of this equation, that “The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

My current class in the MCDM program is titled, “Gaming, Virtual Worlds and Communication.” It’s rewarding—where else I can I learn about the rate of fire in Halo 2’s sniper rifle as part of a discussion on game balance? Or test out the Kinect during a look at usability?

It also gave me a chance to read Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken—a book I was interested in picking up already, and was now assigned.

The premise of the book is pragmatic optimism—essentially, that the combined effort of gamers can be beneficially applied to personal or communal needs for the betterment of our society. Which is a good thing.

The book entered our class discussion, as we looked at “serious games.” That’s the somewhat unfortunate (or at least dry) moniker for games with a practical point: Learning games (the much beloved Oregon Trail, for example). Games that raise awareness (Dying for Darfur) or for charity. Commercial games played intrinsically for fun sell far better than serious games; yet, as McGonigal proselytizes, we need to better harness the power of games to further our society.

There’s a slight disconnect here, but one that I think can be breached. Serious games have a reputation for being boring, even preachy. Deservedly so or not, their gameplay is simply not compelling enough to draw sufficient players. These players are instead playing Call of Duty, Angry Birds, or—as the example in her book, Halo 3; their gameplay is essentially untapped effort (as compared to serious games).

The trap is thinking that a serious game can ever be built from scratch with the express purpose of becoming a blockbuster. Instead, I believe that agents of good (charities, local governments, etc.) need to look toward already successful games to then connect with societal benefits.

In the book, Halo 3 is a cited example, of players finally reaching a combined 10 billion enemy kills. And that’s with millions of players; what if all 6 billion people in the world worked together, one player asked—imagine how many kills they could achieve then! McGonigal instead asks, imagine if those millions of gamers worked together, but instead of pursuing kills were putting their efforts toward something greater (fighting cancer, or the like—I’m taking liberties with her exact examples, but in the spirit of her message).

Again, I don’t feel that commercial games and serious games these need to be mutually exclusive. Halo 3 players revel in their accomplishments, and they are mighty in number. But these same players are not likely to switch over to a serious game and expend their same efforts there, not even with a greater real-world goal. So why not take a successful game like Halo and find a way for player efforts already underway, such as kills, etc., applied toward real world goals? (The “how” this is accomplished remains undefined here, admittedly rendering my idea mere optimism.)

This would harness the players’ efforts in a realistic way, and work to continue the longevity and popularity of a game—if the players understood their efforts now had both in-game and real-world significance.

(Continued from Part 2.)

Creating a Compelling Training Tool

So far we’ve looked at America’s Army mainly as a recruiting tool. Additionally, the game serves a secondary function, made possible due to its intentional design as a highly realistic military experience: that of an effective training tool for active military.

Once players complete basic training, they are able to participate in highly realistic, multiplayer scenarios meant to simulate actual combat missions (securing and defending areas, retrieving lost diplomatic material, and—my personal favorite in the game—locating and destroying enemy weapons caches, etc.). Players are even organized in their units according to role, and armed appropriately.

Again, commercial first-person shooters have the advantage of offering a glamorized version of military combat (although most such games also pride themselves in creating a realistic experience as well). By America’s Army opting for a strictly realistic experience (at the expense of a more fantastical, story-driven one), it can also be used by active military personnel to practice and play through various situations. In some ways, it is similar to sports figures (notably NBA and NFL players) known to thoroughly enjoy playing sports titles—especially as themselves.

As one soldier commented on the message boards [4], America’s Army is the “(n)ext best thing for those of us that do not have units nearby. Mainly this game is intended to teach tactics and teamwork…. By the way, you the taxpayer paid for this game for the Army to use, and if it’s good enough for them, why not us?”

In this case, the soldier is mistaking the game as a training simulator first and foremost, believing its function as a free game for civilians to try is entirely secondary.

By having actual soldiers playing the game, this also serves as a further positive feedback loop for marketing purposes. Positioned as a realistic (in fact, officially presented) military experience as a draw for hardcore gamers, this is further supported by having military personnel actively playing the game.

Drawbacks to a Realistic Experience

However realistic America’s Army may be in creating a military experience, one area in which it fails in verisimilitude is with mission settings. For political sensitivities, the game sets its missions in fictitious proto-European nations (with the unspecific and unpronounceable names of Travnizeme and Czervenian).

In commercial games, players are able to immerse themselves in (and vicariously thrill to experience) combat against real and historical wartime enemies: Nazis, Soviets, Middle Eastern terrorists…. America’s Army, however, cannot depict missions against actual counties, since such an official representation could be construed as demonstrating U.S. aggression against these countries. Imagine, for example, if the game were set along the border of Iran; while its missions might be useful training for potential military action, it would present a dangerous statement of U.S. military intent against unfriendly nations. Such activities would also present a danger for U.S. citizens abroad. Amir Hekmati, an American-Iranian citizen, was arrested in Iran under allegations of spying; evidence against him included his creation of an anti-Iranian video game [5]. Conversely, China has developed its own version of the game, Glorious Missions, in which the enemy soldiers are American [6].

Concluding Remarks

In choosing to discuss America’s Army, my initial assumptions were that its gameplay would prove irreverent to its purpose. After all, here was a clear marketing tool, freely distributed, with the explicit goal of promoting the U.S. Military, and the implied purpose of fostering recruitment. It was not being promoted simply for its qualities as a game. And yet in examining the game—especially as marketing tool for a hardcore audience—it became apparent that demonstrating effective gameplay was absolutely essential to its success.

America’s Army first chose to build on a standard, high-quality gaming engine universally recognized and appreciated by hardcore gamers. Furthermore, its strict adherence to a realistic military depiction—from training through its missions—set the game apart from other, commercial military titles; especially reinforced through the endorsement of military personnel promoted on the game’s website and by soldiers playing the game.

To some extent, America’s Army is not trying to further recruitment through creating the perfect military-style shooter. It would certainly have failed in that regard; there will always be a new first-person shooter hitting the market, advancing the field and pulling away audience share. Instead, America’s Army manages to achieve a good measure of success as a military simulation—presenting life as an active duty soldier and challenging its audience to transition from the risk/reward system of the game to that of actual military service.

References

[1] Stuart, Keith (November 18, 2011). Modern Warfare 3 Smashes Records: $775m in Sales in Five Days. Guardian.co.uk (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/nov/18/modern-warfare-2-records-775m).

[2] Game Politics (January 5, 2010). CSM: America’s Army Distorts Impressions of War. Gamepolitics.com (http://gamepolitics.com/2010/01/05/csm-america%E2%80%99s-army-distorts-impressions-war).

[3] Koster, Raph (2005). A Theory of Fun, pg. 82.Scottsdale,AZ: Paraglyph Press.

[4] CorpsVet71 (August 24, 2009). Using AA3 as a Training Tool. Unitedstatesmilitia.com (https://www.unitedstatesmilitia.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1202).

[5] Doctorow, Corey (January 14, 2012). Was American Arrested for Spying in Iran Producing “Propaganda Games” for CIA? Boingboing.net (http://boingboing.net/2012/01/14/was-american-arrested-for-spyi.html).

[6] Praetorius, Dean (May 17, 2011). ‘Glorious Mission,’ Chinese Video Game Targets U.S. Troops. huffingtonpost.com (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/17/glorious-mission-chinese-video-game_n_863166.html).

(Continued from Part 1)

Creating a Compelling Game

1. Game Engine: Utilizing Existing Hardcore Tech

Where America’s Army meets these demanding criteria first comes with the underlying game engine the developers licensed. The Unreal game engine offers a solid foundation upon which the designers have created an experience with at least baseline comparable graphics and gameplay to similar titles that also make use of this engine. It is a known standard for quality games, and accepted as such by gamers, including hardcore gamers. Just as importantly, as America’s Army has been released iteratively, it has done so using later versions of the Unreal engine (America’s Army 3.2 runs off of Unreal Engine 3, used in such venerated titles as Batman: Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect, and Gears of War).

The only drawback to this for me (and other potential players) was experiencing the game as a more casual player. Developing the game for a hardcore audience with a sophisticated engine can tax a user’s hardware/connectivity. More than once, I had difficulty launching the game, even with a dedicated corporate internet connection (so yes, I was playing the game at work!).

If the target demographic includes hardcore gamers, developing America’s Army using the standard for hardcore game engines—and keeping the game current to that engine­—has been essential part of its success.

2. Gameplay: Recreating the Military Experience

Along with an accomplished game engine, the next criterion for developers was in generating compelling gameplay. The emphasis for America’s Army has largely been to simulate the military experience as closely as possible. The opening cut scene is nothing so dramatic as a recruiting class simply making their pledge to the Armed Forces; the game menu also features a lobby resembling a standard military recruiting station.

Players are then sent through an introductory tutorial that teaches the basic mechanics of gameplay through the setting of boot camp. Here, the distinction between America’s Army as a game versus marketing tool imminently becomes clear. In many games, the tutorial is meant to be a fairly quick experience. Most players view them as a necessary chore; for game designers, the goal is likewise to get players into the actual gameplay as quickly (but as knowledgeably) as possible.

In America’s Army, however, the tutorial is not just to provide instruction on playing the game, but also to illustrate the experience of an actual boot camp. Instead of a quick overview to speed through, the tutorial is structured into the identical 9-week program of U.S. Army Basic Training (including its location inFort Jackson,South   Carolina). The tutorial even includes activities completely irrelevant to gameplay, but that are necessary (albeit unglamorous) components of a realistic boot camp—such as having one’s head shaved and learning the proper upkeep for barracks.

There was, I initially felt, an extremely high risk to this strategy. Just as hardcore gamers would be turned off by a sub par game engine, I estimated that they would likewise have been turned off by fairly dull, if realistic, initial gameplay experience—at least, as first presented in the tutorial. After all, do gamers choose war games for the realistic depiction of life as a soldier? Or for an exciting, glamorized depiction of life as a soldier?

America’s Army chose to adopt the strategy of an extremely realistic presentation of military life, and once the game proceeds from training to actual missions, the hardcore gamer is satisfied with having endured the glacially slow start—more than satisfied, in fact. A look at the host of awards won by America’s Army through its various iterations include Best Multiplayer Game, Best Game of E3, Surprise Game of the Year—and even Guinness record for most downloaded war game.

Note: As an anecdote of realistic versus glamorized tutorials, the Adam Corolla podcast ran a discussion about the experiences of the host attempting to play through Call of Duty: World at War (a WWII first-person shooter). The game starts with the player in the role of a sailor onboard a ship under attack; the tutorial is meant to guide the player through the basics of gameplay through the immersive experience of getting topside and manning an anti-aircraft gun.

As a non-gamer, Adam had a hard enough time getting a handle of the controls—so much so, that he couldn’t even manage to get topside, but found himself trapped below deck. That was the beginning and end of the game for him. Although more a critique of difficult tutorials (America’s Army simplifies things, asking players to learn the controls by navigating an obstacle course), it also shows that hardcore gamers have come to expect an immersive experience right from a game’s medias res opening. America’s Army, while aimed at a hardcore demographic, nevertheless offers more of a casual tutorial experience—and a thoroughly lengthy one at that.

3. Accomplishments: Comparing Yourself to the Military

America’s Army adherence to a realistic depiction of military life in its training and missions essentially sets it apart from similar (and superior) first-person shooters. The game engine is of known quality, and the gameplay compelling enough for a tactical shooter. The advantage for America’s Army, by creating a realistic military experience, is that the sense of in-game accomplishment is meant to be relatable to actual military service.

As a recruitment tool geared to hardcore gamers, America’s Army seeks to immerse players in military experience, and then allow them compete within that experience. Awards earned through completing missions, for example, are pegged to actual military ranks (e.g., E-1 as a new recruit, up to E-9 as sergeant major). By creating a realistic military experience, with training and advancement corresponding to actual military service, the overall impression the game attempts to convey is that of what gamers (already competitive by nature) would accomplish if actively enlisted.

Furthering connecting the game to the actual military, the in-game menu prominently links to Go Army, the official U.S. Army website. The game website itself links to Real Heroes, which presents actual soldiers writing about their military challenges and accomplishments, with such evocative taglines as “I will never quit,” “I will never leave a fallen comrade behind,” and “I will always place the mission first.” Again, the connection presented is, now that you’ve played the game wouldn’t you like to be challenged and recognized as an actual soldier as well?

And this is the bridge that America’s Army is ultimately attempting to make, in my opinion. The game provides a safe, but realistic version of the military. The goal is to entice players to seek out the actual version, by appealing to their interests and sense of challenge.

4. Giving Away the Game

Finally, this is a briefly mentioned but incredibly effective component of their marketing strategy. America’s Army is simply given away for free, allowing a wider distribution than if it were attempting to compete in the marketplace against superior games.

(Continued in Part 3)

The following was submitted to my communications class; rather lengthy for a blog, so I’ll break it up into various parts here.

There’s an obvious trick behind America’s Army. The U.S. Military (U.S. Army specifically, in the role of “publisher”) is not trying to be particularly secretive, but the trick is fairly fundamental to the game.

And that is, the intrinsic purpose behind America’s Army is not to function as a game. Any number of military-themed games already accomplish this (and far more successfully; Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 broke all previous sales records [1], earning $775 million in its first five days). The gameplay is merely a means to an end—that of marketing the military to potential recruits. Of course, its stated goal is less overt. America’s Army claims to offer a positive view of the military, but I would argue that its understated goal—of offering a positive view of the military in order to advance recruitment—is really the driving force behind the game.

I don’t believe this is not an especially cynical viewpoint (any more than I believe Cheerios commercials are meant to sell breakfast cereal, not promote a healthy diet), nor is meant to be (I come from a military family). Some critics [2], however, have derided the use of games to promote the military, considering it as inappropriately targeting minors, and that the sterile depiction of warfare ignores its harsh psychological effects. In Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, he even writes of ‘ex-military persons decrying first-person shooters as “murder simulators’” [3]. Advocates (myself included) might counter that the game simply targets its recruiting demographic using the best platform to reach that demographic; and in the following paper, I look to examine the game’s corresponding goals, gameplay, and results.

Overview

America’s Army plays as a first-person tactical shooter. You take on the role of a soldier, playing through basic training and then move on to real-life missions. Essentially, the game is meant to simulate the experience of being an actual soldier in a modern military unit.

Marketing: Using Games to Reach Recruits

Regardless of the moral implications of marketing through video games, there is an undeniable logic for the U.S. Military taking this approach. Recruitment is a constant challenge. While servicemen and women are universally held in high regard in popular culture, enlistment is not encouraged. (Unless it’s enlistment for WWII; Captain America was the last time I can recall signing up for the military being depicted as a desirable undertaking.) Recruiters struggle to even be allowed on many campuses, and it’s a rare youth that already has it in mind to visit their local recruiting center. So at a time when unpopular, polarizing conflicts are still very much underway, joining the military can be a fantastically tough argument for recruiters to make—especially when there are difficulties even approaching potential recruits.

As such, reaching potential recruits through alternate means has become a necessity. As reflected in recent ad campaigns, the U.S. Military’s goals seem less to glamorize military life so much as associate it with activities favorable to its target recruiting demographic; for example, by broadly sponsoring key sporting events, especially the NFL and MMA fighting. Act of Valor, an upcoming film, is marketed as using actual soldiers in its roles (for a movie I predict to be undoubtedly realistic, but far more supportive of military life and operations than, say, The Hurt Locker).

The same marketing strategy has also been to use games like America’s Army to showcase the military using a suitable venue that better reaches its target audience. Using video games for recruitment has an obvious connection; the target demographic for new recruits also coincides with the traditional demographic of hardcore gamers—primarily, young men (ages 18-24).

Nevertheless, these particular gamers are choosey if not already outright jaded. Hardcore games require no small commitment of time, and there is no shortage of contenders for their attention in the marketplace, especially with military first-person and tactical shooters. For America’s Army to succeed as a marketing tool, to capture any interest, it would have to be thoroughly appealing to this knowledgeable, highly selective audience. Creating any game with sufficient appeal to hardcore gamers is challenging enough, but with no small distrust of the military during unpopular conflicts, a game would have to absolutely excel in order to succeed at drawing in players.

So how does America’s Army approach this daunting task? (Continued in Part 2.)

Through the holiday break, I managed to play a couple of games: one with family, one with coworkers. One game proved a fairly resounding success, one proved something of a misfire.

Kill Doctor Lucky

The first game: Kill Doctor Lucky, I’d played several years before when it was originally sold by Cheap Ass Games. Like most of their games, it came in a plain white packet with 6 pieces of sturdy paper that fit together to form the game board and a basic set of cards; the whole thing looked like more like a prototype of a game than an actual product, but that was the appeal of Cheap Ass Games. Good games, cheaply packaged and sold.

I gave the updated version of the game to my wife for Christmas—a nicely repackaged edition published by Paizo, that featured a real game board and nice production values all around.

The game itself is a fairly straightforward. Dr. Lucky moves through his mansion in a regular pattern. You try and move into the room he’s in, when no one else can see you, and try and kill him. To do so, you play a murder card. You opponents try and play failure cards that add up to your murder card. That’s it.

I played with my wife and her mother, and they picked it up straight away. There were a few optional rules that could be used to expand the basic gameplay (Dr. Lucky has a dog that can follow him around and try and foil your attempt), which we tried but didn’t care for (moving Dr. Lucky around was management enough, and the most important detail of the game to track; moving the dog around as well became too much management).

That said, the game was simple enough that I can see playing this often enough that groups would devise their own house rules to add to the complexity (Dr. Lucky’s dog was, in fact, a fan-generated option which the publishers’ included—itself a cool gesture, I thought). For example, I can see adding cards that would allow you to close doors (all of the doorways in the house are open, allowing opponents to look into rooms and spoil your murder attempt). Or adding onto the mansion (with a basement level, or the like), randomizing rooms in the house (in the style of Betrayal on House on the Hill), having a second murder target, or a detective that tries to catch the murderers. There’s even a sequel, Save Doctor Lucky, where (you guessed it), you try and save the doctor while in view of another player.

It’s a simple game, but fun—and with loads of potential to customize.

Kill Doctor Lucky

Munchkin Quest

The second game: Munchkin Quest, I played with coworkers after the break. I’ve played the Munchkin card game before—there’s a deck of cards that everyone draws from, to build up their characters with races, classes, and items; as well as monsters you try and defeat. Combat is simple enough: you add up your level and the bonuses your treasure items give you, and try and beat the monster’s level. Succeed, and gain treasure and a level. Fail, and the monster takes your stuff. First player to level 10 wins.

The genius of the game comes from the interactivity in facing monsters. Comparing numbers is easy enough (and certainly works in games like Magic: the Gathering), but players can also either help each other for a share of the treasure, or hinder each other through cards they can play to steal players’ items, buff up the monsters, etc. Negotiations are fast and loose, making for a very enjoyable beer-and-pretzel game.

The style is cartoony and fun, and there are roughly 34,000 different expansions (including zombies, spies, pirates, ninjas—dear god, even Axe Cop, based on the online comic), but with the basic set fantasy-themed. It would make a great gateway product for more complex fantasy games, such as Dungeons & Dragons (teaching kids such basic concepts as the role of fighter, cleric, thief, and wizard). In fact, there’s even a Munchkin RPG now (with covers that more than a little resemble 3rd Edition D&D sourcebooks).

That’s Munchkin. Munchkin Quest is a board game version. I had high hopes for it—players navigate a dungeon, built room by room, discovering monsters along the way to try and fight and steal their stuff instead of drawing everything from a single deck of cards.

While that sounds straightforward enough, the problems came from the added complexity the game chose to hardwire in. Monsters move randomly after every turn. Combat is no longer straight number comparison, but adds in random dice rolls. Every room has its own random effects (often specifically so). Even movement comes with little footsteps tokens for players to turn over if they want, marking how many steps they’ve taken—an entirely unnecessary physical component that just added to the things to manage. If the game had an unofficial subtitle, it would have to be Munchkin Quest: Fiddely Bits.

There was so much going on, that the part of the game I enjoyed so much in the card version—negotiating with the other players to either help or hinder them—was almost entirely neglected. With everything else going on (and trying to learn), there just wasn’t enough mindspace left for it.

I can imagine that Munchkin Quest could be a great game for players committed to mastering its rules and looking for a game with a lot of re-playability. The trap is that all of what should be options are frontloaded into the game. In Kill Doctor Lucky, you start with a fairly simply game mechanic and can ramp it up from there. In Munchkin Quest, you start with everything at once, and enjoyment of the game largely derives from how much of it you can process.

Munchkin Quest

A sense of mastery, I think, is an important factor in games. Most games are fairly self-contained. Others have a few options that can be tacked on after basic mastery. I wonder what games there might be, intentionally designed to ramp up along the way, starting with a basic game and adding elements as players gain mastery along the way.