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The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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6:16pm on Saturday, 30th July, 2016:

Level Thinking

Comment

I've been replaying Pillars of Eternity this week, and have made my usual mistake of going somewhere meant for higher-level characters. I'd much prefer an open world, in which I could go where I liked when I liked, but there are few RPGs where that can happen. The reason is simple: levels.

Levels are typically used by designers because they give players goals, rewards, a sense of power, and choices over how to develop their characters. This is fair enough, because levels do have those properties. Unfortunately, if your character becomes more powerful, then your enemies also have to become more powerful or the game becomes too easy. This is usually implemented by having tougher enemies in parts of the game world that you'll come across just at the right time if you follow the proper path (which is what Pillars of Eternity does, or by having the enemies level up at the same time as you do so it doesn't matter when you find them, they're always going to be as hard/easy to beat (which is what Skyrim does).

In an open world, you can't control where players are going to go. Either (static difficulty) they're going to come across enemies they can't yet beat from time to time or (dynamic difficulty) they're going to come across ones they can't beat ever (alternatively, that they can't not beat unless they try really hard to lose). I much prefer static difficulty to dynamic difficulty, but that's not what I'm going to rant about at the moment. I'm going to rant about levels: specifically, I'm going to rant about how too few designers know what the theory behind them is.

In role-playing games, levels are not only a mechanic for driving forward gameplay. They are a reflection in the game world of something the game world has no access to: the player's self-image. When people play a content-heavy game, they improve at it; the point of levels is to recognise this in the game world. It's not that your character is improving, it's that you are improving; the character is merely going up a level to acknowledge that you, the player, are more experienced.

If a designer understands this, then when a character goes up a level there doesn't have to be much of a gameplay-relevant reward at all. You can have the extrinsic, columns of golden light and annointment music if you think the players are expecting it, but there's no need to add new spells or access to new weapons or more health or anything else like that. You can do it while the player is still learning the ropes, tutorial-style, but after then you can really cut back. The effect is that you can have levels, but they don't really do much to the character.

This isn't to say they don't do much to the game world, though. Through the character's level, the game can recognise the player's level of expertise and react appropriately. Thugs and cutpurses won't attack you because they know you can beat them through skill (rather than because you have a sword with a dozen enchantments on it). Merchants and nobles will ask you to do things because they know you can handle yourself (rather than because you're basically a Dalek with legs). You can wear armour because it fits, not because you're now suddenly strong enough to put it on. You can wield a sword because you can wield a sword, not because you've tripped the switch that turns it from being a useless piece of metal into being a finely-honed fighting blade. An open world can be open without having to have end-game enemies that could kill early-game enemies with a sneeze, or by having every enemy be an end-game enemy when you reach the end game.

In MUD1, the stats for high-level characters were the same as for mid-level characters. There were a couple of extra abilities, but nothing that really made a lot of difference. Low-level players left high-level players alone because the high-level players were high-level players and would roundly thrash them; they didn't leave them alone because they were playing high-level characters that came with extra stats and abilities.

If today's RPGs flattened out their level curves more, we could have the open worlds we want without having either to gatekeep areas off using narrative or to level-up the game to fit the characters.

I'm still enjoying Pillars of Eternity, though. I just wish I'd chosen to play a barbarian this time round.



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3:15pm on Friday, 29th July, 2016:

Now in Colour

Anecdote

The pictures in my book MMOs from the Inside Out did not print well (as in, some of them you'd be hard pressed to know what they depict). For the benefit of that half-dozen or so people who have bought the book, I've therefore uploaded all the images to http://www.youhaventlived.com/MMOSFTW/index.html.

Bonus: they're in colour!

I'll maybe get around to doing MMOs from the Outside In sometime, too.



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3:49pm on Thursday, 28th July, 2016:

Catching 'em All

Anecdote

If you'd asked me two days ago what I would have been doing at 2:30pm today, I don't think I would have replied "Participating by phone in a discussion about Pokémon Go on the Islam Channel TV programme Asia Wired". Still, that's what happened.

Also in the discussion (well, it was more of a question-answering exercise) was Chris Bateman of Bolton University, whom I've known for quite a while but we've never met face-to-face. He sounds much better over the phone than I do, and his answers were far better than the meandering responses (punctuated by coughs) that I managed myself. If I were Islam Channel, I'd be inviting Chris back for future games-related pieces but I'd be deleting my own name from the contacts database.

Weirdly, before the recording they phoned me on my land line to make sure it was clear, which it was, then for the recording itself phoned me on my mobile.

The programme will be going out sometime on Sunday. I'm hoping Pokémon Go will still be a thing by then.



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5:00pm on Wednesday, 27th July, 2016:

Icons

Weird

This clash of iconographic symbolism has so much potential:





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4:14pm on Tuesday, 26th July, 2016:

Eldritch Wizardry

Anecdote

I didn't just buy Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes the other day. I also bought this, which arrived this morning:



Eldritch Wizardry was the supplement for dungeon masters who didn't like to kill off player characters, so needed more end-game content for them as they continued their inexorable rise (hmm, sound familiar, MMO players?). We used the psionics rules from it for a campaign, but they suffered from extremes: almost no-one had anything usable, but when they did it was utterly devastating.

I'll have to keep this copy in its plastic bag, because it stinks of stale tobacco.

I wonder if more young men were turned onto D&D by the cover or more young women were turned off by it?



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4:18pm on Monday, 25th July, 2016:

Coding Time

Comment

If the urge takes me to do some programming, I think in future I'll try to do it first thing, rather than after I've got all my annoying bits of admin out of the way so I can have a clear run.

That way, I may finish an interesting bit at a time that makes sense for me to break for lunch. It was 2:30pm today before I got around to it...



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10:10am on Sunday, 24th July, 2016:

Willikam Danser

Weird

One of my ancestors on my dad's side is one William Danser of Winstone in Gloucestershire. Here's the earliest reference I can find for him, from the Winstone parish records of 12 Feb 1587 (Julian calendar):



I don't know what the first word is (I think it might be "Henry"), but the rest says:

"[?] Stockwell of rentcomb in seeking to rob men at the parke wale was wounded to day by William Danser and buryed in the churchyard of Wynstone the 12 of February"

No need for a court case, it seems.



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11:05am on Saturday, 23rd July, 2016:

Translation

Anecdote

I was interviewed live at 11:30pm yesterday for W Radio Colombia. It was only 5:30pm in Colombia, hence the late hour (f0r me).

It was an odd experience, because of the translation aspect. An interviewer asked a question in Spanish; a translator translated it into English; I replied in English (trying not to use so many words that the translator lost track); he translated it into Spanish; the interviewer asked her next question.

The translator addressed me as "Mr Bartle"; I said he could just call me Richard, so he continued by addressing me as "Mr Bartle". I think politeness must be ingrained in Colombian culture (which is why I didn't say "That's Dr Bartle!").

The first question asked about why I created MUD. As always, I pointed out that it wasn't just me, it was Roy Trubshaw, too. I said we did it because we didn't like reality and wanted to create an improvement on it.

The second question seemed to me to be a rephrasing of the first. My answer was therefore pretty much a rephrasing of my earlier one, just with too much extra detail for the translator. Somehow, I neglected to say that MUD was about freedom, which might have made my answer a little clearer than it was...

The final question asked what I thought about World of Warcraft and Pokémon Go. I said I liked WoW but didn't see PoGo as sustaining its popularity for long; eventually, only hard-core players will be playing it. In her wrapping up, the interviewer (who could speak English perfectly well herself) said she hoped PoGo would eventually come to Colombia, then we went off air, said our goodbyes and that was the end of it.

I immediately went to bed and spent a night of suffering as I have a nasty cold that's making my nose come off.



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11:33am on Friday, 22nd July, 2016:

Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes

Anecdote

Look what arrived today:



I have the original three D&D books plus Greyhawk. Back when I was in my teens, I wanted copies of the supplements but couldn't afford them all as they were quite pricey. They're still pricey, but I'm earning more money now than when I was a bingo caller so I can afford them.

What's that? Do I need a supplement I'll never use for a version of a game I'll never again play?

Yes. Yes, I do need it.



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4:12pm on Thursday, 21st July, 2016:

Bunting

Weird

One of our neighbours has decked out their house in small Norwegian flags.

There must be a reason for it, but rather than ask what it is I'm just going to invent one.

I'm guessing they found oil under their pond.



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2:51pm on Wednesday, 20th July, 2016:

Beautiful

Comment

Next to the picture of the Amazon in my Dungeons & Dragons first edition Men & Magic is this one of a Beautiful Witch:



I always wondered why it had the adjective. If you're an artist, and you have to tell the viewer that the witch you've drawn a picture of is beautiful, doesn't that suggest a lack of confidence in your artistic skills?

Actually, this is probably the best-executed drawing in the whole booklet. I don't think TSR engaged the services of professionals...



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2:46pm on Tuesday, 19th July, 2016:

Different

Comment

Just in case you think Essex University has a monopoly on bad slogans, here's the coat of arms of the University of East Anglia:



Not that our motto parses any better: "Thought the harder, heart the keener".



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5:26pm on Monday, 18th July, 2016:

Blue and Gold

Anecdote

My younger daughter Madeleine got her MPharm in Pharmacy (you don't say?) today from the University of East Anglia. Here she is all engowned:



That yellow is, apparently, officially gold.



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3:31pm on Sunday, 17th July, 2016:

Sting in the Tail

Anecdote

I was stung by a bee yesterday. I've been stung by wasps many times, but this is the first time a bee has got me. It's nice to know I'm not allergic to bee stings, but was nicer not to have been stung. It got me on the back of the shoulder muscle that comes out of the neck after buzzing me for some time because I had the temerity to want to empty the skip on the back of the lawnmower two metres from its base.

Bees! They swarm in uninvited, set up home and before you know it they're everywhere. Yes, they do a lot of good work pollinating the flowers, and we're going to get a bumper crop of apples and pears as a result, but it's not a good idea to go near them. Now one of them has turned violent, we're wondering whether to destroy the whole nest to keep ourselves safe.

Wow, it's amazing how far you can push this bees=immigrants analogy.



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12:23pm on Saturday, 16th July, 2016:

One Man Went to Mow

Outburst

Damn it, I go away for two weeks and when I get back my lawn has turned into a meadow.



I'm going to have to rent a goat or something.



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Copyright © 2016 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).