Gameblog Interviews: Mischiefblog

Welcome back, everyone! Hopefully, Christmas has left your slots full of loot! Here is the next entry in our continuing series of interviews with interesting fellow MMO bloggers.

Today we talk to a gamer, hopeful-one-day-again-soon-indie-game-developer, programmer and fellow MMO fanatic …

Chris Jones of MischiefBlog

WorldIV: Tell us a bit about Chris Jones, a.k.a. Mischiefblog.

Mischiefblog:I’m a software developer, in my mid-30’s, married, no kids, with a bunch of pets. I’m a wannabe game developer, and interested in network code, messaging, persistence, toolchain development, and scripting engines, plus some interest in game design, theory, and backstory development, and a healthy desire to be involved in MMO business development and creating business models. Professionally, I’ve been developing and architecting software for employers and clients for 12 years, mostly in Java but also frequently in C, C++, Perl, and Python.

I used to (try to) be heavily involved in PnP RPGs but it was tough finding enough people to regularly play in my area, which directly led to interest in using the computer to manage the game and perform GM functions. I still have my collection of PnP RPGs. I used to be a gamer, in that I put a lot of time playing console and computer games until I was around 23: I started with the home Pong console, Atari 2600, and moved to the Atari 800, and later IBM PCs, completely skipping over the Nintendo and Sega consoles. I didn’t buy a PS2 until 2004, and have had an unused Wii sitting in a box on the shelf for a year. (In my defense, we’re going eventually buy Guitar Hero III, Okami, and next fall, Ghostbusters, for our neglected Wii.) I’ve also got a DS Lite (black) for Nintendogs (my Pug has fleas) and Brain Age–I don’t have the free time to effectively play Animal Crossing.

WorldIV: Your blog has been quiet lately. What’ve you been up?

Mischiefblog: I’ve been busy: I had an offer to join a start-up gaming company in July but for various reasons (including the tanking of the housing market) I had to decline. A lot of my creative energy went into discussions with members of the start-up, and I can’t wait to see their products. In October, we had to move back to our house (from an apartment) and that really disrupted my free time in that month, which never really recovered. And at work, for the past few months I’ve been working outside my “comfort zone,” developing components and script to generate parts of Amazon.com’s product and blog pages in addition to the back-end services that I’d been hired to write, in addition to backfilling for senior and critical engineers on my project team who are moving on to other teams.

WorldIV: Why do you blog (as in, what does it do for you)?

Mischiefblog:I blog as a creative outlet, as a chance to write, and as a chance to explore some of my ideas. Occasionally, I’ll comment or reblog on other topics or memes but that’s not my goal. If I’m not blogging, chances are I either haven’t had a fresh idea that’s worth writing about, all my neat ideas are being covered by an NDA, or I simply haven’t had time to type them into my blog and there’s a notebook someplace filled with chicken scratches made while riding a bus.

WorldIV: In the last year or so, I’ve noticed you’ve played Guild Wars, City of Heroes / Villains, Lord of the Rings, Wow. Do you have a current favourite MMO (or MMO-like-game)? What makes it so? Looking back over all the multiplayer online games you’ve played, is there one that’s most dear to your heart? What made it so?

Mischiefblog: I love the character customization and implicit backstory found in City of Heroes/City of Villains. Lord of the Rings has a great setting (I’ve been a fan of Tolkien since fifth grade) and it’s a great opportunity to wander lands that had previously been trapped in my imagination. Guild Wars is fun for a few missions and has well developed storylines. World of Warcraft has momentum and is EverQuest’s true heir, for better or worse.

The only one I’m actively playing is World of Warcraft, and even that’s . . . exceedingly casual in nature (30 minute sessions, three times a week). I’ve witnessed my wife’s progress in WoW and how quickly she took a character from the mid-20s to 50 after the latest patch (with the 20% bonus to quest experience) and how she’s described it as refreshing and fun again, and that this is “how fast WoW should have always been.” I’m still keeping CoH/CoV active, however, for veteran rewards and because it’s fun to log into my Mastermind and lay waste to missions.

I’m torn on an all-time favorite: I was a strong player in Dark Age of Camelot, with several 50s, a good guild (for a while), and a server I enjoyed (Gaheris, the care bear capitol). DAOC really was, for a while at least, EQ-lite with the rough edges knocked off. On the other hand, both my wife and I would go back to EverQuest if we felt it was really possible to enjoy ourselves again: we miss our Iksar, Beastlords, Necromancers, Shadow Knights, etc. I know that people have come to love to lore of Norrath, much as they have Azeroth, but both game worlds always rang hollow compared to the depth of Middle Earth–thankfully, I don’t play for the lore however much I may appreciate it, and I have to unfortunately conclude that gameplay really *was* better back in the good old days even with 10 minute downtimes between fights, and that you kids who started with WoW don’t know how much better or more challenging and rewarding it was back then. Keep in mind that you can never go back, and WoW is still many times more fun and better paced than EQ.

WorldIV: You’re a busy fellow … job, wife, mortgage, etc. Nick Yee’s self selected survey suggests that an average MMO player puts in about 20 hours a week. Do you hit the average? Is the market currently serving “gamers with lives”?

Mischiefblog: I’m well below average, with one to two hours per week over the past six weeks. During different parts of the year, I achieved 10-20 hours in during a week, sometimes more depending on what was going on in the evenings and on weekends. By comparison, when I was playing DAOC, CoH/CoV, or WoW every day after work with my wife, I’d be online during work days for an average of five hours per day, and spend an additional 30 hours per weekend, so I’d get about 55 hours in per week. My wife usually managed to play over 80 hours per week. We’re not that hardcore any more, but it doesn’t have anything to do with burnout: taking three to six month breaks alleviates that problem.

The market is beginning to serve gamers with lives. Games like Guild Wars with a distinct solo player experience (henchmen and heroes) helps to provide adult gamers with a low time and monetary investment, while more traditional games like WoW or LOTRO have many soloable quests (at least in the low and casual levels) that can be completed over several evenings. Where many games fail to serve casual and adult gamers are in the collection game, the addictive quality of DIKU-like games such as EQ: the best gear is only available through spending hours socializing and networking, adventuring to get prerequisite items or equipment, and participating in disciplined raids. I’d spend between two and six hours on a single raid in DAOC, plus two or three hours daily networking and farming at a minimum so that I could participate in that raid, and I don’t feel that the time commitment has really changed with games like WoW. On the other hand, mechanisms are in place in WoW to provide alternative means to getting raid-level gear, such as Arenas and Battlegrounds, but this is likely seen by the designers as a way to appease PvP focused players rather than casual PvE players (as is evidenced by the decay of or wiping of PvP victory points).

The market needs to move to ubiquitous gaming. I carry around a Nintendo DS so that when I’m at a bus stop, sitting in the car in a parking lot, on the couch at home, or with some free time, I can game a little. I can imagine moving that to an AJAX or Flash capable mobile (like an iPhone) if web based games were persistent, multi-user, latency tolerant, and designed appropriately for frequent, short use. It’s a different model than we’re used to playing, and it’s likely to tie into other areas we typically don’t associate with gaming (such as real world proximity, tagging, social networking, public event queues, ad-hoc networks, etc.) in ways that most of us haven’t imagined yet. Think Hive 7 or a multiplayer version of the Murloc RPG rather than multiplayer Half Life on ad-hoc networked PSPs.

WorldIV: <Much time … wasted … invested in research at this point.> Thanks, Mischiefblog, for reminding us about the Murloc RPG!

WorldIV: A while back, you were working on a combat design. Combat certainly is a core element of basically every Diku derived MMO out there. Why did you choose to focus on the combat aspect in your personal projects?

Mischiefblog: I don’t believe combat is essential to a good game. Conflict is essential to good drama, but combat is only one tool for expressing conflict, and it happens to be one of the easiest to automate. Facade could be seen as an attempt to provide conflict without combat.

WorldIV: Very well put! Facade was definitely “interesting” and we’ve both tried it a few times (and usually end up focusing on finding ways to encourage the couple to break up, or to get them to toss us out). In the end though, it didn’t have the staying power to keep either of us interested beyond a few trials. This question came up in previous interviews … can you think of a non-combat metaphor for conflict that would be fun for “us” but also appropriate and accessible for families?

Mischiefblog: Competition isn’t combat. A game of soccer, for instance, managed by the player and mediated by the game rules is family-friendly and produces a winner: this would work well within a game based around league play or simulating franchise ownership (rather than concentrating on simulating gameplay).

Another PvP game could be one where the players are rock stars, and rather than actively playing console instruments, instead develop their personae through evolving musical styles, building audiences, and trying to be booked into venues while actively promoting the persona by behaving appropriately for the target audience. Other players may work against personae by releasing scandals, stealing audience, and competing for headliner status at venues. Player interaction through alliances and rivalries add spice to the game that wouldn’t be present in a single player game.

In these cases, the goal is impeding your opponent but not killing or violently attacking. “Cock blocking,” as exemplified in EQ raiding, was a prime example of PvP non-combat conflict (and drama!) in a combat-oriented PvE game. Think about board games where players have an action available that forces another player to lose scrip, game position, or available actions: the metaphor may not be combat or dictated through combat resolution, but is essentially a conflict between players. Bring three or more players into the game and you’ll have the opportunity for alliances and betrayals and begin to build drama.

We’re troop or tribal primates and therefore almost always interested in social interactions, especially gossip. A game that has gossip incorporated from the beginning should have a strong chance of being very interesting to most players.

WorldIV: You were working on a Java “combat simulator” (simulating the numeracy behind combat, only … no fancy graphics). You hinted that this might be a core piece of your next project. Where do you hope to take the project?

Mischiefblog:
Combat was an interesting project to me because it was (a) relatively easy to simulate, (b) a loosely coupled component of the game architecture (it could be removed or replaced and the overall architecture of the system could remain intact), (c) wasn’t a component I’d worked on before. I’ve developed various iterations of networking layers for both the client and server, parsers for text games, command and task queues, messaging systems, persistence layers, scripting engines: a lot of the components and glue you’d need to build a game server and part of the client. I hadn’t spent a lot of time on game mechanics, however, and this gave me a chance to put on a designer’s hat instead of usually looking at games in terms of architecture. I was surprised at some of the results and came away with a better appreciation of not only game design balancing but also development and testing of critical game mechanics.

I ended up with a reusable combat core which could be plugged into most any game engine, assuming certain objects representing the opponents, weapons, etc., were created properly. I paused the project with several big TODOs:

  • ranged and area combat
  • improved aggro management (I had a very simply aggro system)
  • “magic” or other attack types
  • improve metrics gathering (the histogram data needed another pass or two to reduce memory usage)

I had a clear distinction between the simulator and the combat engine, and could run multiple melees with multiple participants in each. For all intents and purposes, the project had achieved what I wanted: experience with designing the mechanics of combat, tweaking and testing, running multiple (thousands) of combat iterations, and validating the curves I’d put into prior game designs.

I had hoped to add on a simple client, simple server engine, persistence layer, etc., and build a minimally multiplayer system for fun and bragging rights, but around that time I was heavily involved in discussions with the start-up and didn’t want to mix intellectual property or NDA materials, and didn’t want to spend much more time working on a system that could, if I’d gone to work with the start-up, have been redesigned for different game mechanics and rewritten in a scripting language.

If I would be involved in combat-oriented game development again, I’d likely reuse (or refactor) this combat core.

WorldIV: In your response to our request for an interview, you made a rather interesting statement (and a worthy topic for discussion). “In the meantime, consider this: with four weeks of vacation and the help of a good artist and animator, and a server cluster running the Hero Engine, even *I* could put together a decent MMO. That’s one nice, easy learning-curve platform (at least from the marketing materials I read). Simutronics put together some really nice world-building and scripting tools, on par with what Turbine developed for LOTRO.” Please elaborate!

Mischiefblog: The Hero Engine gives most of the tools you need, along with a minimal set of art, animations, etc. Honestly, I felt that all you really needed to bring was cash to license it, a solid game design to implement, some talented developers and artists to bring the design to life, and a good project manager or producer to keep everyone on track. Scripting, messaging, a basic client with everything you need, a kick-ass server with persistence: it’s all there. There would be a learning curve, no doubt, but I was very impressed with the toolset and would recommend it over developing the engine in-house — *if* you are developing a traditional client-server 3D combat fantasy or science fiction MMO.

Doing it in four weeks presupposes completed design (both game and art), experience with the engine and its scripting, and everyone on the team ready to hit the ground running. Because it takes so long to create content (scripted and tested, in addition to graphical) I’d expect a game built in a month to be minimal (a couple fleshed-out zones at most), but you would end up with a great proof-of-concept or demo to get more financing.

WorldIV: In my own experience at developing even the tiniest stub of an indie MMO, a tremendous amount of time is spent on achieving even passable graphics. While I have no real numbers to support my supposition, it seems to me that the vast majority of a MMO budget is consumed by artwork, models and the manual design of challenges. Literally, the “art” of game development. Relatively little, I suppose, is spent on the design and development of game mechanics … the stuff that delivers the fun. Am I wrong? Do you see this as an impediment to indie MMO development?

Mischiefblog: Art is certainly an impediment to MMO developers. Iron Realms Entertainment (Matt Mihaly) made a success of being an indie commercial MUD developer by creating text-only games (until Earth Eternal). In almost all cases, text is faster to create than art, 2D art is faster than 3D, complex animations for 3D art will take even longer (unless you reuse a lot of the animations).

As an indie, consider how to best spend your time and resources: if you already have an art team, is 2D or 2.5D (isometric) art appropriate? Can you get by with smaller models and use an isometric perspective on a 3D game (like many of the sim or RTS games): your models, textures, and animations don’t need to stand up to close scrutiny like WoW, EQ2, GW, etc., plus you’ll generally get better frame rates and can tune your engine better (you can better estimate how many polygons you’ll be pushing).

If you don’t have an art team, but you do have a penchant for the written word, consider releasing as a text game, or a hybrid of text with some graphical elements. You don’t need to create a faithful reproduction of Zork when you can make your players lives easier by giving them a UI with inventory management, friend information, maps, party management, scroll-back buffering, macros and scripting, and more.

Decide where your talents and strengths as a development team lie and start from there. The fun will come from your quality implementation, seeing your vision through to completion, and rigorous playtesting with merciless removal of un-fun elements. *Talk* to other gamers: everyone will have an opinion about what’s fun and what isn’t, but experienced gamers (especially those who like to deconstruct games) will be able to tell you why something isn’t fun, and don’t be so committed to your ideas or mechanics that you don’t modify or abandon them when you are told that they’re not as attractive to other players as they are to you.

Finally, put a lot of design and development effort into the newbie experience. The first five minutes is where you need to wow the player, and the first few hours will determine if they’ll keep playing. People will decide if the game is fun in the first hour, so make sure you deliver new, challenging, and surprising, humorous, or exciting content within the first hour of play. Would you keep playing a game if, after completing the 20 minute newbie tutorial, you’re immediately cut down by a PKer or trampled by a train of mobs led by a griefer?

If you abandon a dedication to high-quality 3D art, animation, music, 3D sound, and high frames per second, you can begin to consider other platforms and player experiences. Find one that works for your team and that everyone can be excited about. As a thought experiment, why is Sudoku so popular? Consider where and how you see people playing Sudoku, how it differs from Magic Squares, word searches, crossword puzzles, Tetris and Bejewelled, and what kinds of platforms or delivery devices are used in Sudoku games. What can you take away from this to apply to your own game designs, and what could be done to make your game as ubiquitous as Sudoku? What are Sudoku’s core game mechanics, and how do they compare to yours?

WorldIV: You’ve written about emerging tools for indie game developers. Care to plug some of the services Amazon offers, and the potential some of these tool might unleash for the indie game development crowd?

Mischiefblog: Two parts of Amazon Web Services really stick out as very useful for indie developers:

S3: Cheap storage. If you need to do digital content distribution, consider using S3 as a way to deliver bytes to customers. For some applications, it can be very cost effective.

FPS: Subscriptions, tokens, one time and recurring charges, micropayments … indie developers finally have someone big and trustworthy (Amazon) to process charges and provide an API for managing subscriptions. (http://www.amazon.com/aws/)

I’m not on any of those teams, and while I get some access to them for internal projects, if I was to use any on my own stuff, I’d end up paying the same as anyone else.

I’m not sure about using Amazon’s EC2 for game hosting: it may not be appropriate or cost-effective versus a colo or dedicated host, so you’d need to research that against your own budget and needs.

WorldIV: Have you followed or tried any of the indie MMO projects out there?

Mischiefblog: A few, but not many. I’ve been restricted in my free time.

In general, they failed to hook in the first five minutes, or they let down over the first hour. Often, this was due to a lack of polish, an overly complicated character creation process or game interface, or lack of clarity in direction.

They’re all works of love, sweat, and the developers’ best efforts, but they’re also going into a market where they have to compete with WoW. It’s unfair but a reflection of the MMO marketplace of today.

I have no doubt that the tools available to an indie developer in 20 years will make it possible to create one of today’s first tier MMOs in the proverbial garage. However, until there are revolutions in graphics, model, and animation creation and very high-level scripting engines with built-in persistence, development teams are going to get bigger, timelines will get longer, and it’s going to be harder for indies to compete on the same playing field as professional studios. Try to get your hands on a PS3 or Wii development box to get an idea of exactly *how* hard this can be.

The indie games I’ve enjoyed the most have been smaller in scope, dedicated in focus, and centered around the aspects of the game that make it fun. Bells, whistles, and special effects are nice, but the core of the game needs to be fun. I haven’t (yet) found an indie MMO-ish game that my wife likes enough that we can play it together. On the other hand, I played on some pretty spectacular MUDs back in the early 90s (in between suffering through a lot of mediocre cores).

WorldIV: You’ve talked at least once about your desire to participate in the game development industry. Have you considered the indie route? What do you think / hope the future holds for you?

Mischiefblog: I’ve considered the indie route. My wife has asked me not to try to join the gaming industry for a while (it’s very disruptive), and I’ve agreed to sit it out for at least a couple more years and continue working at Amazon. When I can carve out some time, I’ll get back into indie development.

For the near future, corporate development at Amazon–which in most other companies would be leading edge, high pressure development. Compared to the game industry, my job is slow paced and low pressure (I go home every evening!) and lags the latest developments in languages, libraries, and techniques.

I plan to get back into indie development, and I’ve got what I think is a pretty keen idea, just as soon as I can make the time to follow through …

Seattle is a great town for casual, indie, and studio developers. While I can’t guarantee I’ll stay here for the rest of my working life, I hope to take more advantage of my situation over the next few years.

Many thanks to Chris for talking with us. We look forward to the day when things calm down enough for him to get back to regular blogging and maybe a little indy game development!

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