Don’t underestimate science fiction…

I came across a great article by Neil Gaiman on what science fiction, reading and exercising our imaginations via daydreaming can do for us. Here is a very striking quote:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed? It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls. Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

This certainly rings true for how science fiction and fantasy helped to make me the person I am. Though being the person I am, I also have to wonder how far the causality goes the other way…. are the kind of people who would anyway have been drawn to creativity and innovation, esp of a technological sort, also just the kind of people that will get into reading SF&F if it’s around? My guess is it’s probably a bit of both. One issue I’d take with the article is the wording “an obligation for all citizens”. Obligation is a killer of playfulness, and it’s playfulness that is the most fertile ground for creativity. In fact too much emphasis on the value that can be gotten from things like reading, daydreaming and playing is going to undermine that very value! (see also)

Do it, encourage it, but don’t get overly serious and worthy about it I say!

The Great Pay-to-Win Debate: Roundup & Commentary

Simeon_Stylites_stepping_down

When I was pretty young I happened to come across the word “Stylite” in the dictionary. Mind-bogglingly enough a stylite is a member of an early Christian sect which used to live on top of pillars. I’m afraid my teen self couldn’t stop laughing for quite some time, and even now the concept brings a chuckle.

What does all this have to do with MMOs, I hear you ask? Well… it goes to show that people find worth, meaning and virtue in some rather strange activities. Much as people find meaning and worth in some rather strange MMO activities1, and consequently get excited about whether their exertions are devalued by the possibility of others by-passing them and reaching similar goals via the mere spending of money.

It is therefore in a spirit of religious tolerance and anthropological curiosity that we turn our minds to the great pay-to-win debate…

The Great Debate, Part 284

If you’ve been around the MMO blogosphere a while, you have seen this topic come around a number of times.

The current flurry of posts seems to have been kicked off by a piece on Massively OP, The Soapbox: Can MMOs eradicate pay-to-win?. This is a sample…

a quick perusal of the ArcheAge forums invariably turns up posts by thirtysomething I’m-too-busy-to-play types admonishing their anti-P2W counterparts for daring to suggest that games should be played through instead of paid through.

From my perspective, paying for your gear or any sort of character advancement is an extremely short-sighted way of approaching MMORPGs. But I’m seeing it accepted more and more often in games, on forums, and in the blogosphere, and it boggles my mind to see just how many people are falling in line.

Personally I have a good deal of sympathy with the idea (not a new one, but repeated in that post) that if people are willing to pay good money to not have to play some part of your game, that’s a pretty sad indictment of that part of the game. As I’ve said before, too many games contain too many elements that don’t really deserve to be called play at all.

Of course, not everyone likes the same things…I guess it’s understandable that not everyone wants to take part in every aspect of an MMO, and maybe considerate of the game designers to not force that on people. This is something that MMO Gypsy makes much of in Today in P2W: Gamers are getting older and that’s okay!

… obviously there are many ways to find pleasure in games. I’ve played MMOs in the past just to dress up my characters and yes, buy exclusive clothes from an ingame store. Likewise, P2W-players do very much also play the games they invest in, duh – it’s not like they’re just paying money and then never spend any time on actual game play. They just play differently.

Sadly though, the kind of things that come up in the context of the pay-to-win discussion are typically boring grinds that pretty much no-one actually likes, and which nevertheless make up 80-90% of the time spent “playing” in MMOs.

Yes, if people mostly want to skip the crappy 80% of your game to get to the enjoyable 20%, this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of what a great game you made.

What is winning anyway?

Liores (who coined the “Part 284” line I used above) has a lot of interesting things to say in her post The Eternal Payment Model Debate: part 284. A notable theme is the question of what “winning” means in MMOs anyway…

MMOs don’t have a consistent win condition. It varies wildly from game to game, and from player to player. Perhaps you feel that you’ve won an MMO by completing the hardest group content, or maybe you’re an ArcheAge player and you “win” by being dominant in PvP.

I like collecting cosmetic items, and I evaluate my gaming success by getting the “best” hats and mounts and such.

A similar point is made in a somewhat different way by Tobold

I think this is a case of everybody having a different win condition in a MMORPG, and many people wanting that *their* personal win condition doesn’t involve money.

This raises the question of why exactly do people care whether their own “win condition” involves money. There seem to be two separate aspects here…

  1. No-one can “win” without paying. e.g. You can’t get the best cosmetic hat or the finest PVP gear without paying, because it’s only in the cash shop.

  2. While you can “win” without paying, other people can get the same thing through purchases. e.g. The best gear drops in raids, but can also be bought.

Some people seem to object to (1) and I’m finding it hard to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe they think something that seems essential to them should be included with the sub or the box price or whatever, and it’s not fair to charge extra for it. Maybe they’re the type of people for whom the game doesn’t even really start until you’re geared up for endgame raiding.

Many more people seem to object to (2) though. Most of the Massively OP post is about skipping grind after all, and you do hear a lot of objections to insta-level items and suchlike. What is going on there? I don’t know for sure, but I can imagine various types of feelings that people might have…

  • “It’s not fair that I had to work so hard for X, when someone else can just buy it”

  • “My sense of achievement in getting X is ruined by the fact there’s an easy alternative way to get it”

  • “The kudos that should be mine because of what I’ve achieved is undermined because other people have all the outward appearances of what I have earned without any real achievement on their part”

My guess is that a lot of this stuff is wrapped up with people’s self-image and the qualities that they value in themselves. Some people seem to see virtue and character in manfully doing the grind, as the Stylites saw virtue in living on top of a pillar.

Personally I thoroughly dislike excessive grinding, and I can’t see a lot to be proud about for having done it. But neither am I willing to pay big bucks to avoid it. Bad news game designers: I have a ton of other fun and interesting things I can do with my time instead of playing your game if those are going to be the only options you offer me.


  1. Collecting hats? Hmm… 

Play is more than just fun

I’ve mentioned before that I think play is an important and much underestimated part of our lives. Here’s a TED talk by Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and researcher into play, that has lots of interesting things to say on that topic.

Some points that struck me

There’s a useful transcript of the talk on the TED site, and here are some key points taken from that, which were interesting to me…

  • “So what does play do for the brain? Well, a lot…. Nothing lights up the brain like play.”

  • JPL, NASA and Boeing, before they will hire a research and development problem solver — even if they’re summa cum laude from Harvard or Cal Tech — if they haven’t fixed cars, haven’t done stuff with their hands early in life, played with their hands, they can’t problem-solve as well.”

  • the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression

  • “So I would encourage you all to engage not in the work-play differential — where you set aside time to play — but where your life becomes infused minute by minute, hour by hour, with body, object, social, fantasy, transformational kinds of play

  • “And this is where my chasing animals for four, five years really changed my perspective from a clinician to what I am now, which is that play has a biological place, just like sleep and dreams do.”

I’m going to be looking more into Stuart Brown’s work, so expect more posts about this in the future.

Tales of Creativity and Play

One of the themes of this blog is that play is an important part of our lives, and playing matters more than many people think.

Here’s a TED video, from the Serious Play Conference of 2008. The main focus is on how playfulness is important for creativity, and it shares many examples of the use of play in designing better products and services.

MMO players might find the section on roleplay, starting at 19:40, especially interesting, though the whole video is well worth a watch. And fittingly it’s a fun watch as well.

MMO game companies and the gaming community might also want to think about the importance of a safe, non-judgmental environment for fostering playfulness. Worrying about what people will think of you isn’t conducive to play or creativity, but our game servers can sometimes be pretty judgmental places with trolling, one-upmanship and such.

Reading Roundup

If you like what I write, you’ll probably like what I read too.

Plus in my reflections on the NBI I noted that oftentimes I don’t need to post about a topic that’s been on my mind because someone else has done it well already. If I do have anything extra to add, it often makes sense to just add that as a comment to the other person’s post.

Which gave me the idea of doing a roundup of posts and conversations that I’ve found particularly interesting this week.

So here goes…

News and Chat

Thirty thousand Orcs and you

At last we got a better look at LOTRO’s upcoming Big Battles system. This was still a guided tour, and only covered a small piece of the overall Big Battles content, but it fleshed out what we can expect much better than anything we’ve heard so far. And it sounds promising!

There’s a nice discussion of this on LOTRO Players too.


Bio Break’s 27 most anticipated games

I’m not one to follow all gaming news avidly, so this was an intriguing list for me. It prompted me to go read a bit about WildStar, and watch some of the dev videos

Poll: How many MMOs are you playing right now?

Interesting to hear what people play, and how many things they play at once. I’ve been thinking about how many it makes sense for me to play and still be able to do them justice. I might write a post about that sometime.

The Newbie Blogger Initiative

NBI Logo

As the NBI came to an end, there was a flurry of last-minute advice and people taking a look back at the month. On top of that, while I was thinking about the NBI, I went and read a bunch of earlier posts. Here’s a selection of the best:

  • NBI: Write Your Worst Article – Some interesting advice on overcoming writer’s block, accepting that you have good and bad days, and avoiding excessive perfectionism.
  • Squeaking in with advice at the last minute! – I’m not sure if it’s all technically advice as such, more of it is funny and encouraging personal tales! Either way it’s a good and heartening read.
  • NBI: It’s almost over – Four bits of specific advice, which I have started to put into practice. Plus nice shout outs for three blogs, including this one.
  • NBI: Class of 2013 – A handy listing of all the blogs to come out of NBI 2013. Which is not otherwise that easy to find!
  • NBI 2013 – Aftermath Eternal and NBI Aftermath look back at the NBI and look forward to the future. Nice thought about what the dragon is sitting on Joseph!

Food for Thought

The Awkwardness of Games is thoughtful piece on whether games can be art, and comparing them to other forms like books and films.

I read a bunch of posts about what makes MMOs fun, and whether they once used to be much better than they are now. The posts aren’t all new by any means, but I read them all this week out of interest in the topic.

  • MMO Future: Understanding old memories – an interesting take from someone that thinks MMOs really used to be much better, with a lot of good discussion in the comments, even if some of it got a bit tetchy.
  • Skills and flow in MMORPGs is related in that it discusses how challenge relates to fun, and how players can inadvertently spoil their own fun.
  • Is MMO Combat Really That Bad? is a post from someone who likes the challenge of PVP and is happier with combat now than it used to be in past.