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MMO MMOnkey: Comparing active attack and auto attack

Age of Conan, Game Mechanics, PvE, Opinion, MMO MMOnkey

In the opening sentence of a previous column I compared Age of Conan's active style of combat in which the player must instigate every attack with a keypress to the auto-attack combat common to most MMOs. I characterized auto attack as a go-make-a-cup-of-coffee type of combat which, as one commenter pointed out, was a bit of hyperbole designed to accentuate the difference between active and auto attack but which offended several other people who thought their combat skills were being denigrated.

The earlier column had nothing to do with styles of combat but all the combat-related comments got me thinking about some of the differences between active and auto attack. The two types of combat appear to have few, if any, important differences for the experienced player at the operational level (deployment of unit or squads in raids) or the strategic level (player-controlled access to important game resources as in EVE Online, Dark Age of Camelot and possibly Warhammer Online). When we look at game mechanics and individual unit tactics, however, important and potentially interesting differences begin to emerge.

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MMO MMOnkey: Why I stopped playing Age of Conan

Age of Conan, Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings Online, Bugs, Launches, MMO Industry, Opinion, MMO MMOnkey

Stopped playing because . . .
I like Age of Conan. I like the combat system that demands active engagement rather than the auto-attack, go-make-a-cup-of-coffee style of combat used in so many other MMOs. I enjoy exploring Funcom's recreation of Hyboria with its lush graphics and infinitely varied and "realistic" topography. I find the early game's seamless integration of an instanced nighttime story with a shared daytime world both innovative and engaging. I think the design team did a fine job capturing the spirit of Robert E. Howard's original Conan stories in both the look and feel of the game. Funcom got a lot of things right.

As everyone playing AoC knows, Funcom also got a lot of things wrong. Announced features like DirectX 10 support aren't in the game, many of the features that are in the game aren't working properly, technical issues cause frequent crashes for some players, in-game and tech support are apparently dreadful, bugs abound. Although Lord of the Rings Online showed us that an MMO launch doesn't have to be terrible, most of them are. I expected AoC to have these kinds of problems at launch and wasn't upset by them. With the disaster that was the Anarchy Online launch looking over their shoulders I also expected Funcom to work hard to eliminate AoC's launch problems and all indications are that's exactly what they're trying to do.

But yet I've stopped playing the game and I think game developers would be interested in knowing why.

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MMO MMOnkey: The greed game

World of Warcraft, Culture, Game Mechanics, Endgame, Opinion, MMO MMOnkey

Take a look at the world around you.
Tell me, why is there so much need?
Because of greed.
Because of greed.

Damien Dempsey, "Celtic Tiger"
(From the album Seize the Day)

Greed. Countries go to war so that the powerful can take land, gold, oil from the weak, can kill them and take their stuff. Greed. The richest 1% of the population of the United States control over 30% of the country's wealth as they clamor for and are given massive tax cuts by the government while, by the government's own estimates, roughly 12.5% of its citizens live in poverty. Greed. Corporate executives with multimillion dollar salaries lie, cheat, steal and commit fraud as they gut their companies and destroy the jobs, lives, retirement funds and futures of their employees. Greed.

No matter how much they have, they want more. No matter how little you have, they want more. Greed. It infests our countries, our governments, our corporations and businesses. It infests our favorite MMOs.

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MMO MMOnkey: What to do when the Age of Conan servers are down

Sci-Fi, Age of Conan, Culture, Guides, Lore, Raiding, Server downtime, Comics, Roleplaying, MMO MMOnkey

Art by Gary Gianni from The Bloody Crown of Conan
Your Tempest of Set has been set down and your Dark Templar's gone dark. You've really gotten into this whole Conan thing but the Age of Conan servers are down for maintenance. Now what are you going to do? Well, you're sitting at your computer so you could check out the wealth of online forums, fansites, wikis, whatever, that are devoted to the game. But if you really want to dig into Conan and his world you're in luck because there has never been a better time to immerse yourself in Hyboria.

Of course, the best way to learn about Conan is to read the stories written by Robert E. Howard. Howard completed 21 Conan stories between 1932 and his suicide in 1936. Although his writing style may sound somewhat stilted and some of the cultural attitudes about women and non-Europeans prevalent when he lived may be offensive to the modern reader, his work holds up remarkably well. Howard was an exceptionally evocative and imaginative writer with a marked ability to bring his extravagant settings to life. There's a reason why the creation of a pulp fiction author living in a small rural Texas town has not only survived for decades but has become so well known that it's the basis for a best-selling MMO from a game company based in Norway. The original Conan stories are well written and exciting. The problem has been finding them.

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MMO MMOnkey: Age of Conan reinvents the early game

Horror, Age of Conan, Lord of the Rings Online, Game Mechanics, Reviews, Leveling, Quests, Opinion, Free-to-Play, Hands-On, Virtual Worlds, Hands-On (Massively's), MMO MMOnkey

The damsel awaits.
Like a damsel in distress, MMO players have been held captive by game openings that have relied heavily, much too heavily, on bounty quests of the "Kill twenty of these and then come back to me" variety. Trapped in chains of tedium, experienced players blitz through early levels to get to the point where something interesting starts to happen while gamers new to the genre often wonder why anyone bothers to play these games before they quit from boredom. At least that's the way it used to be.

Lord of the Rings Online took a giant step toward freeing the damsel when they placed the player in a solo instance at the very beginning that gets the player immediately involved in the story that drives the game while also providing instruction in basic game play. It is a terrific way to begin an MMO and the people at Turbine did a great job with it. LotRO weakened the chains but did not quite free the damsel. Now Age of Conan has arrived and by incorporating LotRO's approach into an extended opening that is innovative, immersive and exceptionally well implemented Conan has rescued the damsel by reinventing the early game.

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MMO MMOnkey: The rat Skinner, or negative reinforcement in MMOs

World of Warcraft, EverQuest II, Game Mechanics, Leveling, Quests, Hands-On, MMO MMOnkey

Kanchek - Ancient Rat Warrior, painting by Ed Cox
Like the wardens in Everquest 2 or the druids in World of Warcraft, reinforcement in MMOs is not always what it appears to be. In an earlier column we wrote about how positive reinforcement, as defined by behaviorist learning theory, occurs whenever the player receives something beneficial and pointed out a number of the simple ways this kind of reinforcement is used in MMOs. A second column used the bounty and collection quests in EQ2 as examples of how positive reinforcement could be well (the bounty quests) or poorly (the collection quests) implemented.

Several Massively readers who enjoy the collection quests took us to task and pointed out some of the ways EQ2's collection quests can be rewarding in terms of gold, experience and loot. They also made the point that bounty quests, like hot elf chicks, are old, tired and overused as staples of MMO play. I mean, really, who wants to kill another 20 rats for Fatboy the quest giver? Not me, and I'm guessing many of you don't either.

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MMO MMOnkey: MMOs as conditioned learning engines (Part 2)

EverQuest II, Culture, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Quests, Opinion, Hands-On, MMO MMOnkey

I die and you finish your bounty quest. Bummer.
In a previous column we looked at some of the many ways that game designers use positive reinforcement and reward in MMOs. Positive reinforcement occurs whenever an action is accompanied by or results in something pleasant or enjoyable. When a person is positively reinforced or rewarded they are more likely to repeat the action that is associated with the reward. The importance of reinforcement for MMOs is obvious; the more the player is rewarded, the more likely she is to play the game.

A deeper understanding of how reinforcement works in MMOs can be gained by comparing an example of where it's done well with a case where it's done poorly and Everquest 2 provides just the examples we need.

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MMO MMOnkey: MMOs as Conditioned Learning Engines (Part 1)

World of Warcraft, EverQuest II, Culture, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Opinion, Hands-On, MMO MMOnkey

The behaviorists were like the orcs of psychology. Limited in vision, arrogant, belligerent and intolerant, they ruled the world of scientific psychology with an iron fist from the 1920s through the 1950s. Many of them were very capable scientists, however, and much of their work, especially in their signature area of learning, has stood the test of time. The behaviorists' biggest mistake lay in insisting that the principles of learning they discovered provided a complete and thorough explanation of what people do and why they do it. They thought they had the whole story. They didn't. They only had part of the story but it was an important part. We don't want to make the same mistake the behaviorists made and think their learning theories fully explain what we see people do in MMOs. But we also don't want to ignore the very powerful effects the principles of learning they discovered are having in every successful MMO on the market because when you get right down to it, games like World of Warcraft couldn't be better conditioning engines if they had been designed by B.F. Skinner himself.

Behaviorist learning theory is commonly know as operant conditioning and it is based on the simple idea that actions that are accompanied by good, pleasant, or desirable outcomes are more likely to be repeated while actions that are accompanied by outcomes that are bad, unpleasant or undesirable are less likely to be repeated. In other words, actions that are rewarded are likely to recur and actions that are punished are not. People didn't need the behaviorists to tell them this; the behaviorists' contributions were to clearly distinguish between different kinds of rewards and punishments and to demonstrate how each had different effects on what people do and how they do it. The behaviorists called the learning procedure that has the largest effect on how we play MMOs positive reinforcement. This type of learning occurs whenever a person does something and gets something they enjoy or value as a result. When people are positively reinforced, they are more likely to repeat or continue the action they were doing when they were rewarded and MMOs shower their players with positive reinforcement.

For your own positive reinforcement on this topic, read on.

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MMO MMOnkey: Short Circuiting Social Stereotypes with MMOs

Lord of the Rings Online, Culture, Opinion, Races, Virtual Worlds, MMO MMOnkey

I was playing Lord of the Rings Online one night when a player agreed with something mentioned in general chat by saying "Indeed!" Without rancor or hostility another player laughed at this stilted language and asked whether people really talked like that. Of course the question was answered with a chorus of "Indeed!" but in the ensuing conversation the player who had laughed said that he or she was from an economically disadvantaged area where the use of language like "Indeed" was wholly foreign. S/he was surprised to discover that language differed so radically among different socio-economic groups. And I thought, "Now, this is one of the reasons why MMOs are such interesting places."

People categorize each other based on visual attributes like age, gender, hair and clothing style, and skin color. We also use political, religious, and social ideologies, musical, cinema, and leisure time preferences, and socio-economic class differences to divide ourselves up into different groups. The tendency to categorize and divide has more to do with the basic functioning of the human information processing system than bias or narrow mindedness on people's parts, and it is useful in allowing us to function effectively in the complex, dynamic, and often dangerious environment we call the real world. However, it does have it's drawbacks. It's long been known that people have a marked tendency to identify themselves with a group, identify people who are not members of their group as members of an out-group, and assign negative characteristics to the out-group. Moreover, we tend to spend most of our time with people who are like us. In other words, we hang out with people who look and think like we do and tend to think about people who are not like us in negative terms.

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