Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Favorite Video Game...

Did you cringe at the title? Good, I would too. You can relax, though, thanks to the following facts.

  1. This is not about the video game that I personally enjoyed most as an experience.
  2. This is about the video game whose design ethos I hold the greatest admiration for.
  3. The game in the former description is not, nor was it ever, the game in the latter.

That's right, the video game I admire most as a work of design is nowhere near the one I "like best," nor was it at any time. I have of course played it now and again, and enjoyed most of my time spent on it to a reasonable degree. But, for a number of reasons I will address as well, I have stopped playing it and will likely not come back to it for months... or even years, should it exist that long! But, before I nitpick the things I find personally unlikable, let's go into what it does right.

If you guessed a game with any of these bozos in it, you lose!

If the mention of timespan wasn't already enough of a context clue, it's an MMO. In an ideal situation, the use of a very large and well-populated multiplayer space filled with player-controlled characters interacting with one another in real time is the best way to foster variety in activity. If a designer is going to attempt to simulate a living, breathing world of individuals with their own goals and motivations, the best way to do it isn't with a static cast of hardwired NPCs... it's with actual people.

Players are able to change roles or tasks with a surprising amount of freedom, and performance feedback is constant. Actions a single player takes are monitored constantly, along with minute-to-minute reporting of in-game performance, there are server-wide rankings for players on both the scale of prowess and the scale of time spent at an activity. As part of greater player-populated units, individuals can choose to dabble or focus intently on a single skill; their time investment and their skill as measured by the games' metric are generally at least satisfactory at reflecting both.

It may not be very granular or even explicitly quantified, but you will know how well you're playing.

The way the game balances competitive and cooperative behaviors is surprisingly deft as well. In the bulk of the suggested primary activity of the game, players adopt a set of open roles. Their individual performances are important to the group as a whole and likewise have interdependent effects between roles within the unit. The act of acquiring people to complete a group finds a delicate balance between prizing skill for difficult battles, but not so much that drafting in "pubbies" or "carrying" lackluster performers is impossible.

Hierarchies and player-created alignments exist, but rank is not merely administrative or cosmetic. As one rises in responsibility and standing and the network of subordinates grows broader and deeper, new in-game tasks emerge to complement organizational power. There again is a system of levels to mirror the amount of time spent and skill possessed, and with both readily visible to others it is skill that proves most valued. In this way, players can choose where they wish to exist within a distinctive series of levels of involvement; there are kingpins, there are generals, and there are grunts alike.

Nope, not EVE Online... but that's about as close as it gets.

The way a group's power is measured is in amassment of wealth. That wealth is expressed in the size of player-manned fleets, the riches in an organization's "war chest", or their holdings in either land or storefronts within a vast player-driven economy. Trade and sanctioned forms of player-on-player gambling are as brisk as warring against computer- or player-controlled entities, if not more so. While there exists a fiction to the world and a setting and premise to govern activity, the true stories told derive from the actions of the players, recorded in the battle records, trade chits, shop deeds and governances. Players of import can become as integral to the "lore" of a server as the fictional constructs of the creators. And, make no mistake, the stature of nearly any player is a dictum of their mastery of one, some or nearly all of the rulesets governing a mechanism of the world. Fighters, foragers, crafters, hagglers, masterminds, peons, allies, foes, confidants, backstabbers, spenders, hoarders, risk-takers, conservatives and everyone else has room to exist.

This video game I have described here is available right now. It requires no outlay of money; there are two types of currency, one of which can be bought with real money, but both are fluidly interchangeable on a player-driven exchange, so nothing of gameplay significance is behind a paywall. Competitions for designing new systematic sub-games for in-game tasks are frequently run by the developers and are open to nearly any coder, with the option of using developer-standard open-source design tool included. There is a labor system governed by player input and wages to partially mitigate trade monopolies. Customizable player clothing, housing, and transport are both fully supported. There are countless in-game achievements, some of which even yield items of cosmetic or even tradable market value. The English-speaking servers, though recently consolidated from six to three, are now in their ninth year of existence. And the whole thing runs on PC, Mac and Linux. Because it's coded in Java and looks like this:

Oh god you can't possibly mean-

That's right. The game I most admire is Three Rings' Puzzle Pirates. Next time I'll do my best to explain what it could do better and why I take multiple-year breaks playing the game whose infrastructure I hold in possibly the highest regard.

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