Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Objective Moral Relativism

Moral Relativism

I am a moral relativist.  More precisely I am a Meta-ethical moral relativist.  According to wikipedia "Meta-ethical relativism is the meta-ethical position that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is not objective."

But recently I've been having discussions with various people wanting to challenge my position -- apparently moral relativism has more than a few negative historical and cultural connotations beyond the basic definition of the term.  Who knew?

This sort of thing is nothing new to me.  My education is in mathematics, not philosophy, and certainly not history.   So of course what often happens is that I will first figure out my own position on a matter and only then go about attempting to find the appropriate established terminology by which to concisely relate my point of view to others.

So, returning to my assertion that I'm a Meta-ethical moral relativist, I thought perhaps I should write down much more precisely what I mean by that.  Perhaps I'll discover that I've misnamed my position entirely.

Objective Truth

In my search to clarify my position using common language I ran across an article on Moral Objectivism which, among other things, had an interesting explanation of what the author meant by objective truth.  The principal example given was whether an object was was red.  Whether or not an object was red was an objective truth because the "redness" was "in the object".  Now I'm not bringing up this definition of objective truth because I agree with it, I'm bringing it up because I find the statement "This object is red" to be wonderfully analogous to the statement "This action is morally wrong".

Now, let me be clear.  I'm not at all suggesting that moral truths are objective -- as a moral relativist I certainly cannot make that claim.  Nor am I suggesting that redness is subjective, I'm simply trying to point out that one cannot make a claim of objective truth without first defining one's terms.  What is meant by a "red object"?  One could define red light to be any light with a wavelength between, say, 648nm and 652nm.  And then one could define an object to be red if, when the object (in a certain temperature and pressure range) is placed in a beam of white light, that only red light is reflected away from the object.  And then one could finally make objective assertions about whether an object is red.

The point here is that the statement "This object is red" is no more inherently yielding to a determination of objective truth than the statement "This blarg is bilgeboppleful".  We can't even have a discussion on the objective truth of a statement until we mutually agree on what the statement means.

One final observation regarding objective truth is in order.  I claimed an analogy between the statements "This object is red." and "This action is morally wrong" and I maintain that the analogy goes beyond a mere requirement that we must define our terms before we can discuss objective truth.  I maintain that typical efforts to define the redness of an object will ultimately result in a statement about actions and reactions.   If you shine white light on it, red light will be reflected.  In the same way, when two people begin a discussion of what is meant by a morally wrong action, they often end up making claims about the consequences of so-called morally wrong actions.

If I did believe in any sort of universal moral truth, I do feel that this would be the "correct" way in which to go about defining one's terms.  Don't tell me that "This action is morally wrong" is universally true.  Instead explain to me exactly what you think the consequences of those actions would be.  At least then we can begin to have a discussion about the objective truth of statements.


Moral objectivists often use the human rights abuses perpetrated by Nazi Germany as examples of actions which were objectively and universally, morally wrong.  I agree that genocide is unacceptable.  But all I mean by that is that I will refuse to support groups wishing to carry out genocide and that I will do what I can to prevent such groups from taking action.  The only reason I need to support my actions in this area is that the thought of genocide makes me feel terrible.  Do I need more reason than that?  Do I need a reason to remove my hand from a flame other than that the flame is causing me pain?  Obviously I don't.

But then, how is my statement above that genocide is unacceptable a moral statement at all?  Well it isn't.  By reducing it to the level of "pain equals bad", I've effectively avoided the morality question entirely.  A system of morality is a system that assigns the concepts of "good" and "bad" to actions independently of the immediate painful or pleasurable consequences.

Personally I do place genocide in the "bad" category and I can therefore make the assertion that I find genocide to be not only unacceptable but morally wrong as well.  But what I'm not willing to do is make the additional leap that there is any underlying objective truth to my statement that genocide is morally wrong.  This unwillingness on my part has outraged certain individuals, but I tend to feel that the outrage is misplaced.

People seem to associate my denial of objective moral truth with a willingness to accept any system of morality.  I cannot stress enough that this is not the case.  I have my own system of morality and do not find immoral actions acceptable or justified.   The only place I draw the line is when I'm asked to assign some sort of objective or universal truth to any moral statement.  How can I agree to something to which I am unable to assign a meaning?   Asking me to assert that "The wrongness of genocide is objectively true" is the same as asking me to assert that "All blargs are bilgeboppleful."   Until we have some sort of agreement on what we mean by a statement, how can we possibly agree that the statement even has meaning, let alone whether or not the statement is true?


It seems at this point that I've merely reiterated the same point over and over.  I cannot accept, in fact I cannot even discuss the objective truth of moral judgments until we all agree on what is meant by the objective truth of moral judgments.  It probably seems that I've simply avoided the question.  Well in a sense I have, at least for now.  Clearly the next stage of my analysis must address the possibility of actually defining objective truth for a system of morality.  Because if we were to do such a thing, and agree on our definitions, then all of a sudden I would be forced by my own reasoning to use said definitions to finally address the objective truth of specific moral questions.   And an obvious side-effect of this would be that I would no longer consider myself a moral relativist at all.

Well I do have some additional thoughts on this, on how one might go about defining objective truth for a system of morality.  But the short version is that I don't really believe that acceptable universal definitions even exist.  I do plan on elaborating in a followup post, but at least if you've read this far you now have the punchline.  There are no objective moral truths because the concept of an objective moral truth is inherently meaningless.  Furthermore, any attempt to give it meaning will fail.  I don't claim to have proven either of these assertions by the way.  These are simply things that I believe.  Perhaps at some point in the future I will believe something else entirely.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A "crisis" of faith

Note: This post has nothing to do with games, writing or mathematics.

When asked if I believe in God, my response if I provide one is usually something along the lines of: "Do you believe I have change in my pocket?"  Despite the confused looks I receive, I really do feel that this is the perfect response.  Of course the other person doesn't "believe" I have change in my pocket.  Nor do they "believe" I don't have change in my pocket.  They don't know either way and, more importantly, as long as they remain uncertain, the existence or non-existence of change in my pocket is unlikely to change their behavior in any way.

There may be a God.  In fact, one can relax the definition of "God" to the extent that there is almost certainly a God.  But, dispensing with the self-defeating task of trying to define the almighty, let us just assume for a moment that God does exist.  Let us throw in some additional qualifications as well.  God is aware, God had something to do with my creation, God has some sort of plan, and God is so far beyond me on the spectrum of being that, to me, his nature is incomprehensible.

Despite those rather impressive attributes, or perhaps because of them, I would claim that the question of God's existence is irrelevant to how I live my life.  Like most people I have a sense of "right" and "wrong".  It's neither constant nor infallible, but it's certainly there.  I have free will as well, and at every moment I can chose to do "right" or "wrong", but experience has taught me that doing "right" yields better long-term results than doing "wrong".

I take no issue with those who believe this sense of morality is God-given.  But, to return to my original analogy, the question of where my ideas of correctness come from is as irrelevant to me as the amount of change you have in your pocket.  Honestly, if a great being appeared to me, claiming to be God, and if that great being directed me to perform actions that went against my own code of ethics, then I would be forced to conclude that such a being was not God.  Of course such a being might modify me in some way to bring me in line, but then I would no longer be the person I am now and this entire essay would become moot.

In conclusion, not only is the existence question both unknowable and unimportant to me, it must always remain so.  If God plans to allow me to keep my free will and my ability to question all things, then God cannot reveal herself to me.  Doing so would either fail, or would change me into something else entirely. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Inaccessible Content

For many players, raids are inaccessible content.  They were for me all through classic WoW and, while I wasn't particularly happy about the fact that I still hadn't gotten past the first few trash mobs in Molten Core when Burning Crusade came out, I still loved the game as a whole.

Now that MMOs have become rather mainstream, inaccessible content is verboten.   In my last post, I toyed with the idea of a new type of content which would probably be inaccessible to some -- especially if such content were randomly generated each time, thus eliminating the possibility of looking up the answer.  And I'm certain that the forum-rage would be significant if some foolish developer went forward with the idea.

But, in my opinion, it is not in any player's best interest to rebel against such things.  Would anyone really wish to live in a world where any activity that was inaccessible to the mainstream was banned?  I think existence in such a world would be terribly depressing.  What's the point in attempting new things if success is guaranteed from the outset?  And doesn't such a philosophy completely ignore the fact that our abilities and desires change over time?

Raids were inaccessible content to me at one point.  They are no longer.  I don't particularly enjoy them, but that's a different topic entirely.  I'm glad I was able to experience the journey that took me from wishing I could raid to finally being part of a raiding guild.  And if I had never experienced raiding?  Well then it would still be something that I could work towards.  I don't think a sense of entitlement towards all things is healthy.  I think immediate gratification of all our desires is destructive, and I wish developers would start showing us some tough love.

Sadly, I have the feeling that we're already screwed.  Perhaps five or six years ago a company could have developed a successful MMO where there were dozens of types of activities which were mostly inaccessible to players.   If our expectations had been managed early on and if we had been taught to appreciate games in which we couldn't really hope to ever master all things, I suspect fewer people would be burning out on the MMO genre today.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


There's an old type of logic problem which I know by the name of Saints and Pirates.  The central premise is that Pirates always lie and Saints always tell the truth.  Given this, and given a number of statements made by people who are assumed to be either Pirates or Saints, one sets out to determine which ones if any are Pirates.

There are often additional criteria given to assist the solver, and there may be additional information that is to be determined, such as the name of the Pirate, but the overall idea remains the same.

Here is a simple example of such a problem.

There are 4 numbered suspects whose names are Bri, Dee, Cay and Ann, though it is not known which suspect is which.  It is also known that three of the suspects are Saints and that one is a Pirate.  Given the following statements made by suspects 1 and 4, determine the name and suspect number of the Pirate.

Suspect 4: I am not Cay and Bri is not a Saint.
Suspect 1: Either Dee is not a Saint or Cay is not a Pirate.
Suspect 4: Either Suspect 2 is not Bri or I am not a Saint.

Now, feel more than free to solve this and post the answer or, if I've screwed up and allowed for multiple possible answers or no possible answer, feel free to point that out as well.

But the real question is, if you encountered such a problem in an mmo, would you:

1. Look up the answer because you view such problems as annoying obstacles.
2. Look up the answer because you wouldn't want to risk possible negative consequences.
3. Look up the answer only if you couldn't solve it after some time.
4. Avoid looking up the answer even if you were never able to solve it.

I think I'd fall into category 3, though its a moot point since I suspect we are well past the time when developers would bother putting such things into an mmo as they fail to cater to the average player.

Note:  I've made up hundreds of such problems over the years -- so if there were any interest at all, I might post a few more.  Heck, I might post more even if there is no interest.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Diablo 2 Memories

All the recent talk on the various blogs about Diablo 3 has me fondly remembering all the good times I had in Diablo 2.   For a time, I was a frequent poster on alt.games.diablo and some of the friends I made there and in-game became friends in real life.   In anticipation of good times to come, and possibly of chances to re-connect with people I haven't spoken to in almost a decade, I thought I'd repost one of my old posts from 2003.

So here is a brief chronicle of  my adventures with the passivezon build which, at the time, was a fairly new concept.  Variations of this have since been taken all the way through hell, but I still think I was the only one who added the restriction to avoid attacking anything directly.

Oh, and there never was a part 2.  The original thread does contain some followup, but nothing worthy of note.  Ultimately I seem to recall that EvenSong was unable to progress beyond Act 2 Normal.

Hello All.
Some of you might recall that I asked earlier for thoughts on an amazon
build using only skills in the passive tree.  Well today I started
EvenSong and, just to make things interesting, I decided to try playing
without attacking.

Let me repeat that:  No attacks allowed whatsoever,  no bow, no throw, no
melee, no spells -- at least not by EvenSong herself.  Truly a Passive

Anyway, here is a rough outline of her adventures through Blood Raven.
And yes, she did take down Blood Raven, untwinked, simply using a
strategic running-around-wearing-the-right-equipment technique.  ;-)

First, before ever leaving the rogue camp she sold her starting equipment
and set her left and right "attacks" to throw.  That way she was in no
danger of accidentally attacking a monster (since she wasn't wielding a
throwing weapon).  Her next concern was then gold -- being unable to
damage anything she was, at the moment, in no position to start thinking
about gaining experience.

Several chests later, and several hops through the cold plains portal,
she was finally able to buy a Sturdy Quilted Armor of Thorns (an entire
1pt. of damage done to attacking monsters).  Excited, she ran right back
out into the Blood Moor and promptly stood smack dab in the middle of a
pack of Fallen.

Sadly, to no avail.  It seemed that her fine Suit of Armor was providing
sufficient defense to prevent frequent hits upon her person by said
Fallen.  They'd hit EvenSong occasionally, but then would fully
regenerate before hitting her again.  Then a voice from above (whom some
know as my wife) said:  "Run!!!!".  Ok, the voice wasn't quite
that emphatic. ;-)   The point being that running makes you more open to
attack -- something I didn't know until now.

Anyway, prompted along by the Powers That Be, EvenSong started running
madly back and forth through the pack.  Success at last!!!  Moments later
she had her first few experience points and the game had finally and
truly begun.

Some short time later, EvenSong reached Level 2.  She placed her skill
point in Inner Sight as a pre-requisite for her eventual Valkyrie, but
had no need of skills as of yet.   Also, by then she had pretty much
liberated (that's what she calls it) every Fallen she could find, was out
of gold, potions, chests, and was completely unable to kill anything
other than Fallen effectively.

A quick "nap" in the Rogue's Camp (i.e. A New Game conveniently provided
by those same Powers That Be) allowed all the Fallen to regenerate and
the Chests to refill -- though she did notice that they were repositioned
somewhat, and she certainly didn't remember those two Experience Shrines
placed conveniently near the Cold Plains Portal.  She wasn't one to look
a gift horse in the mouth however, and after purchasing a Sash of Thorns
(another 1pt of damage, but a 100% increase from EvenSong's point of
view), she very quickly arrived at Level 3.

Charsi at that point was beginning to get the idea, and pulled a Shield
of Thorns out of the back room and sold it to EvenSong at a very
reasonable price.  Finally, at level 3, and doing 3 points of damage to
attackers, EvenSong was able to start taking on Zombies, Fallen Shamans
(yes, they really do have a melee attack if you stay close), and Dark
Hunters,  --- but not Gargantuan Beasts, at least not in packs, and
certainly not that Nasty Extra Strong Unique Gargantuan Beast and his
Minions who were hanging out right on top of the Cold Plains Portal.

Fleeing wildly from that, ummm, situation, EvenSong decided another nap
was in order (but it would be the very last one before Blood Raven, lest
you start thinking she's a bit on the lazy side).

A new Morning Dawned and with it, EvenSongs first big test.  A pack of
Champion Dark Hunters had moved in (right where those Vicious Gargantuan
Beasts had been the previous night) and proved to be her greatest
challenge yet.  With Flavie's help and strategic use of fences along the
boundary between the Blood Moor and the Cold Plains, she was able to
isolate them one at a time and eventually prevailed.  Lo and behold, what
should one of them drop but a Small Brown Leather Cap which would
completely change EvenSong's way of thinking.

A Cap of Charged Bolt.

Yes, I know one doesn't normally talk about (even less Capitalize) a Cap
of Charged Bolt, but it had a 10% chance to cast level 3 charged bolt
when struck -- more than enough to wipe out entire crowds if she was
lucky enough to get the thing to fire off twice in rapid succession.

In any case, after picking up and selling all the great stuff dropped by
the Champion Dark Hunters, EvenSong had about 6000 gold saved, and was
able to purchase another Charged Bolt Item at Charsi's.  A Belt, which
unfortunately meant she had to make a decision between direct thorn
damage and an increased chance of casting Charged Bolt.  After some
experimentation, wearing the Charged Bolt Cap and Belt, and the Thorns
Armor and Shield, seemed to be the most effective combination.

At this point, EvenSong had reached Level 5 and finally decided to go
clear out this so-called "Den of Evil" she had been hearing about.  Turns
out she needn't have waited so long.  The Den was quite easy at that
point.  Strategy mostly consisted of luring lots of Fallen near the
larger monsters, rushing into them, and letting the resulting Charged
Bolts take everything out.  She tried to leave the Shamans alive as long
as possible because being hit by the extra revived Fallen running around
actually helped a great deal with the larger Gargantuan Beasts and such.

Unfortunately she ended up fighting CorpseFire all by himself.  Took two
trips back to the Camp for Potions, but he eventually fell and dropped
nothing of note.

Feeling heady after her first major victory, EvenSong headed to the Rogue
Camp and prepared to tackle Blood Raven.  Preparation pretty much
consisted of purchasing extra potions and adding 15 points to her
Vitality, bringing her life total up to 103.

Blood Raven was tough.  EvenSong had some quick early luck when Blood
Raven decided to stand right in the middle of her undead army.  Simply
standing there alongside Blood Raven and quaffing potions was enough to
generate sufficient Charge Bolts to bring her life bar down to about
half.  Unfortunately, that killed off the army and for some reason Blood
Raven was smart enough not to raise more dead -- at least not for about
the next 3 minutes.

EvenSong spent those minutes trying desparately to stay close enough to
allow the, now rarely seen, Charged Bolts to actually hit.  But
controlling the direction of the Charged Bolts was difficult and Blood
Raven proceeded to heal back up to about 2/3. 

Eventually though, EvenSong was able to gather Blood Raven's remaining
(and slowly growing in number) troops in a fairly tight bunch and won the
day in a Charged Bolt Spectacular worthy of Song (well, worthy of
EvenSong at least).  ;-)

No drops to speak of there at the end.  And EvenSong was pretty tired at
that point so wandered off to take a nap.

And that's all for now.  Mostly I just wanted to see if I could get
through to Blood Raven.  Now that EvenSong has a merc, things should go
much more smoothly.  I still do plan on avoiding any sort of attack and
playing untwinked as well, so if I have anything interesting to say (and
if there's any interest here) I may post a part 2.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


from the North Island Scrolls, Vol 39 , author unknown, translated by Aaron Greyson

Prophecy is therefore a different sense entirely, not a vision, not sound or smell, but something closer to simple knowing.  Any analogy is of course imperfect, but consider an archery tournament.  Spectators will often react almost immediately when an arrow is released as if the knowledge of the result were some sort of foretelling.  But while the arrow is in flight, no-one has seen the result.  There are no visions of precisely where the arrow will land.  And a gust of wind could certainly offset the course of the arrow, as could minute imperfections in the weight and balance of the arrow itself.  Nonetheless, an experienced archery enthusiast will instinctively absorb dozens of tiny clues the moment the arrow is released and know with some reliability whether the arrow will hit its mark.

Coupled to this sense of knowing is a sense of rightness.  By rightness, one does not mean correctness, factual or ethical.  Rightness is simply that feeling a prophet will get when faced with a choice.  One choice will often seem to be the right one even if, which is most often the case, the prophet has no understanding of the consequences of said choice.  It is important to note here that rightness is very much dependent on the desires, both conscious and sub-conscious and both short and long term, of the prophet herself.  Consider for instance a game of wind-and-water*.  A prophet might play against one untrained** and lose even though she expected to win and despite the fact that she chose her move at every stage according to her sense of rightness.  While this phenomenon is not fully understood, most explanations boil down to a combination of the ideas that, for whatever reason, she didn't really want to win or that, in the long term, losing was the better outcome for her.

* The translation wind-and-water is misleading as the original runic text is but a single word which has been seen to refer to both wind and water depending on context.  A certain level of instability or unpredictability is also implied as the term would never be applied to a steady breeze or current and certainly not to a still pond.  "chaotic flow" might be more appropriate, but as the term in this particular context refers to a deterministic game that bears some resemblance to our whites-and-blues, it seemed that wind-and-water would be most appropriate.

** This word, apparently used here to mean non-prophet, does not appear to be a literal opposite of the word used for prophet.  Broken down, it more closely resembles without-study.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Advancement and Challenge

The nouns in the title are two things that tend to contribute to a games enjoyment. 
  • Progress Quest takes advancement to the extreme and removes all challenge. Surprisingly it still retains some entertainment value, at least until the player feels they have seen all it has to offer.
  • An arcade style game such as Doublewires has no advancement to speak of, unless one counts advancement of the timer, and relies almost entirely on challenge to appeal to the player.  Such a game can remain fun as long as the player keeps getting better but will quickly become tiresome once the player either is unable to improve their skill or masters the game entirely.  In this particular example, mastering the game simply means that one is skillful enough to play indefinitely without dying.
Now one could argue that challenge in this context is merely a mechanism used to provide another form of advancement, namely the advancement of the players actual skill level (as opposed to some notion of virtual skill level).   But its more than that because challenge can remain fun even after one has mastered the game in question.  Whether a game falls into the latter category is purely subjective, but for many people Sudoku seems to be an example of this.  With challenge, at some point one moves from advancement of skill to maintenance of skill, and the latter can be fun even with no hope of further advancement.

Nonetheless, I personally tend to have little patience for a game unless it has a good measure of both challenge and advancement.  Disgaea was one such game and it took both of these elements to rather extreme levels.  Advancement was available for both characters and items, the level cap was 9999, and mobs continued to grow in power with the player.  At every point during this progression, players could effectively choose the difficulty by repeating earlier missions or by forging ahead to new missions when they felt they were ready.  On top of all this, the game was kept interesting through the use of randomized dungeons.  Unfortunately the level of variety provided by the randomization in Disgaea was not sufficient to keep things interesting for 10,000 levels.   Nor do I think it could have been, but that's something I plan to discuss at length in another post.

So what about mmos?  Well, WoW certainly has plenty of advancement.  But from my point of view, Blizzard has been systematically removing the challenge from the game.  Its no Progress Quest, at least not yet, but it does seem to be heading in that direction.  Now, lest I sound like some elitist, saying that something isn't providing me with enough challenge is not the same as saying it is too easy.  There are definitely things I'm not able to do in wow.  But for something to be a challenge, it has to be neither trivial nor impossible.  Its not challenging for me to travel to Australia for lunch today, its completely out of the question.  Regarding WoW, and Rift as well, what many companies seem to be doing is separating advancement from challenge so that for 99% of your advancement, there is no challenge, and for the remaining 1% of advancement, the challenge is no longer a challenge, but effectively impossible for a large percentage of the player base.

LOTRO has challenge in the way of skirmishes.  In concept, these are rather perfect from my point of view.
  • Joining one is painless.  No travel time or waiting in queues is required.
  • One may choose the type, mob level, tier (difficulty level), and number of players.
  • The only drops are various types of marks (currency) which can be used at NPC vendors.
  • One gains personal advancement in skirmishes which applies to the game outside of skirmishes.
  • One gains skirmish-related advancement in the way of experience for one's skirmish warrior.
  • Skirmishes have a random component in the way of enemy lieutenants and encounters.
  • Advancing one's character in the main game unlocks additional skirmishes.
  • Completing achievements within skirmishes unlocks additional achievements.
  • All skirmishes are soloable, but there are incentives to group.
 Advancement and Challenge for everyone -- most definitely possible.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rift: Fun and Disillusionment

There has been a lot of discussion about fun lately and I wonder if part of it might be due to the type 1 activity that was Rift.  And if you don't want to go to the link, type 1 is simply any activity that we think we enjoy, but don't actually enjoy.

Rift should have been the perfect mmo for me.  Everything they promised and subsequently delivered was pretty much what I had thought I wanted.  I participated in most of the beta events, participated in the headstart launch and played daily for almost 3 months afterward, the whole time thinking that I was there to stay.

SynCaine does a good job of explaining some of my disillusionment with the game, and I agree with his statement that: The game pitched as “not Azeroth” very quickly started to mirror exactly that.  However, looking back, I think my disappointment started on day one and it took me 3 months to realize I had been lying to myself about liking the game.

I know I'm not the only one.  I had several discussions with other players during the beta and soon after launch that went something along the lines of:

Me: So how are you liking Rift so far?
Rifter: I'm not sure yet.  It seems awesome enough but ...
Me: I know what you mean.  Its incredibly polished, has some unique features, but...
Rifter: Yeah, there's nothing not to like but there's something indefinable missing from it.
Me: Yeah...

So three months in I was going along happily ignoring all the signs of impending emptiness, and then rather overnight I simply stopped playing.  There was no hatred, no rage-quitting, nothing like that at all.  Just sudden overwhelming apathy.

And now I want to know why.  I know I'm most definitely not burnt out on themepark mmos -- I've returned to LOTRO now and am really loving it.  That doubt I had during my entire Rift experience just isn't there.  LOTRO is fun and Rift wasn't -- even though I thought it was.  So now I'm left wondering what happened.  And I'm finding myself questioning the nature of fun itself.

Being disillusioned sucks.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lying to Ourselves

I have an annoying (to me) tendency to be overly meta at times.  As an example, I'll be having fun playing a game only to be distracted by wondering why I am having so much fun.  Then I'll start wondering if I should write down my thoughts about why I'm having fun only to be distracted by curiosity as to why I enjoy writing down such things.

I've made a habit of privately writing down thoughts such as these for years, occasionally not-so-privately in the form of a response to some post, and now publicly in the form of my own blog.

And, surprise, surprise, all this activity has gotten me thinking about all this activity.

And all this thinking has led me to want to clarify what exactly I'm doing here.  Put simply, I'm merely trying to better understand myself.  I'd love to make some sort of grand claim that all of us are merely trying to better understand ourselves, but grand claims are usually wrong (see what I did there?) and tend to provide a nice opening for people to tell us that we're wrong.

Such a topic could obviously fill volumes if treated comprehensively, and I have no desire to write volumes.  Heck, if I go on for too long even I will stop reading what I'm writing.  So I'll generally try to limit meta-posts to a handful of observations.

Without further ado, one may classify activities into four types.
  • Type 3 (or 11) -- Things one enjoys or would enjoy and correctly knows or believes this.
  • Type 2 (or 10) -- Things one enjoys or would enjoy but doesn't know or aren't willing to admit this.
  • Type 1 (or 01) -- Things one doesn't enjoy but believes they would.
  • Type 0 (or 00) -- Things one doesn't enjoy and correctly knows or believes this.
Not only is such a classification personal, it also varies in time.  So if one had access to the relevant statistics, one could classify activities further by adding qualifiers such as "for most people" and "for most of the time" or even "for most of the time during the last year" or whatever time interval seems relevant to the discussion at hand.

As an example, it could be the case that playing a story-heavy mmo with a primary focus on immersion used to be a Type 1 activity for most people and has now migrated over to the Type 0 category.  Of course, the answer would depend on the specific mmo in question, but as the statistics are unobtainable, further refinement of the activity in this example serves no point.

I bring up this classification because in my experience a significant percentage of blogging boils down to a discussion as to which of these categories a given activity falls under.  Any time someone says: "I think most people enjoy ..."  or "People often claim to enjoy ... but the numbers paint a different picture." they are essentially making a claim as to what type the given activity is for the majority of people.

And I'm certainly no different.  My blogging adventure will most likely trend in much the same way.  I do feel that types 1 and 2 are the interesting ones.  As a person who is always on the lookout for activities to enjoy, it would serve me well to identify any type 1 or 2 activities and promptly move them to types 0 and 3 respectively.  The fact that the classification varies in time, even for an individual, greatly complicates the situation and necessitates constant self-re-evaluation, but it seems rather clear that I have a penchant for just that.

Obsessive self-analysis is obviously a type 3 activity for me.

Monday, August 29, 2011

More Boars? Really?

This evening I was asked to handle a local infestation of boars.  Of course killing boars in mmos is beyond cliche at this point so it seems appropriate that it was yet another quest to kill boars that prompted this post.

Because, you see, when I bravely ventured out to handle the fearsome boars, boars which I had been told were numerous and on the rampage, there was nary a boar to be found.   And I know they weren't hiding behind trees, nor were they employing some new boar-stealth technology, as frequent application of my trusty boar tracking skill told me there were simply no boars left.

Apparently previous adventurers had already handled the boar problem.

So why did the NPC send me out to kill more boars?  Was it all just some cruel joke?  Surely he knew that, as he had been sending adventurers out all day long on the same quest, the boar problem had already been dealt with.

Humor aside, this is of course a long-standing problem with quests of the kill-10-rats variety.   So long standing in fact that I'd guess it has made the rounds many times in the mmo blog-space.  And yet, the problem remains.

Now, I've seen games that have attempted to address the problem.  The most common "solution" seems to be to increase spawn rate as a function of the number of players in the area, but this is a weak solution in my opinion because it merely moves the disconnect from the beginning of the quest (go kill non-existent boars) to the end of the quest (here's a reward for the boar problem even though you didn't really make a dent in all the boars).

Other solutions I've seen include instancing (Oh, there's no more boar problem?  Ok, let me create a special private magical universe filled with boars so you'll still be able to help me with my boar problem.) and on-the-spot generation of mobs for the player to kill (What? there are no boars?  *makes strange gestures* Why don't you look again?  See?  Plenty of boars.)  Again, these are weak solutions because they don't address the main issue -- that there really wasn't a boar problem to begin with.

Now, I know a lot of players don't see this as a problem.   People for the most part don't care.  They just want to kill stuff for experience and loot.   And I can understand that point of view because I love killing stuff for experience and loot.  But if we don't care about the quest-givers, and if we don't care about whether or not they were lying to us about some sort of issue with boars terrorizing the countryside, then I would propose that we eliminate the quest-givers entirely for those sorts of quests.  If boars are a problem, then declare a general boar problem in the local town.  Post it up on a bulletin board that boars are kill-on-sight for the week and remove the need for people to find quest givers willing to falsify boar census numbers.  Perhaps individual boars are worth more experience for the week, and perhaps every 20 boars killed results in an extra bundle of experience as well as a choice of reward (magically transported to the player while out in the field or whatever method suits the lore of the day).

My point mostly boils down to this.  Quests and quest-givers are there for those who care about lore and storyline and immersion in general.  The ability to kill boars for gain is there for those who enjoy killing for gain -- and yes the two groups overlap.   But when quests become nothing more than a transparent artifice to reward players for killing boars, then they no longer serve any real function as story-telling devices and they can end up actually hurting immersion.

So, I'd like to see boar killing quests made even more transparent and automatic by removing the quests entirely.  And with regard to quests and quest-givers, I'd like to see something I've never seen before.  I'd like for mmos to generate actual problems and have NPCs suddenly and dynamically ask adventurers for help with those problems.  The problem can still be a problem with boars -- if only for nostalgia.  But if a quest giver asks me to deal with a specific and sudden infestation of boars, I'd love to finally be able to take up the quest knowing that it was an actual problem.  That there was a genuine invasion of boars in a nearby area.  That I specifically had been asked to go deal with the problem.  That once dealt with, the problem would go away.  And that only I would be rewarded for the effort.

Of course, if someone else kills the boars, I'm not saying I wouldn't take credit.  After all, the quest giver gave the quest to me and if I received help, its no concern of his.

Hardcore Lite

Rogue, Nethack, Angband, and others were ASCII-based dungeon crawlers prevalent in the late 1980's.  And they were difficult.  I played them all, but only ever won Angband, and that only twice.  Among other things, the difficulty arose from the fact that levels were randomly generated and that death was permanent.  Put simply, the only mode in those games was hardcore.

Diablo (1 and 2) came from the same tradition as the Roguelikes -- in fact there was some early controversy on the roguelike forums that the core code for Diablo 1 had been illegally taken from the free-but-not-to-be-used-for-commercial-purposes Angband code.  But really it would have been more surprising if no-one had suggested that possibility, so who knows?

Now I didn't play Diablo 1 enough to remember much about it, but Diablo 2 did have hardcore mode, and death was permanent for characters created in that mode.   Hardcore mode in Diablo 2 was easier than in the earlier roguelikes because the random factor was lessened.  In other words, as long as you had played enough to know exactly where all the dangerous points were, you could then play hardcore mode successfully by religiously following a fairly small set of rules of caution.  There were similar rules of caution in Angband (e.g. don't descend to level x before you have stats y) but no matter how cautious you were, the random factor could always surprise you and force you to start over.

Nonetheless, I never beat Diablo 2 (defeated Hell Baal) in hardcore mode.  If I recall correctly, the furthest I got was Nightmare Ancients and I think I could have continued, but the extreme patience required finally wore me down.   For those unfamiliar, Diablo 2 had you play through content in 3 modes: Normal, Nightmare, and Hell, with each mode having the same essential content, but with successively more difficult encounters.  The Ancients were one such encounter, and was particularly difficult to get pass if you were not properly geared.  So "Nightmare Ancients" refers to the Ancients encounter in Nightmare mode, and I stopped there because I knew I was not geared up enough to succeed.  What I would have had to do is to grind previous areas until better equipment dropped, and then I could have confidently continued.

And then came the mmos.

World of Warcraft took away any sense of hardcore mode.  Sure, you can play with the intent of never dying, but death has no real consequence (other than as a statistic) so there seems to be little point in trying.   The Lord of the Rings Online does have a mini-hardcore mode in that you receive the Undying title if you survie to level 20 without dying.  But Turbine has stated that they would never offer titles for hardcore play after level 20 because it would encourage people to avoid grouping -- or really to avoid doing anything interesting at all.

While I agree that it would be a terrible idea to extend Lotro's hardcore mode beyond level 20, I still really enjoy going for the Undying title.  Its not a title I actually wear -- its rather common and there are more interesting ones to be had -- but I do thourougly enjoy playing with the knowledge that if I did, something permanent is lost, even if it is only a title.

Don't get me wrong, I only enjoy hardcore mode in games to a very limited extent.  Even back in the day when playing roguelikes I would frequently cheat and make copies of my saved game so that I wouldn't have to start all the way over on death.  Indeed, it's only because of my frequent cheating that I was able to become good enough at the lower levels to eventually win the game without cheating.  For some, cheating such as that would have ruined the excitement completely, but death still meant something because I knew full well if any particular game counted or not.  After a first death, I wasn't really playing any more, I was just practicing.

In Diablo 2, my hardcore experiences were also limited.  I played 90% of the time in easy mode, but I suppose in my head my goal was always to win in hardcore mode, so the easy mode playing was again just practice.

So, I'm not a true hardcore player, but I really miss the excitement that limited hardcore play provides.  In the modern mmo, there are occasional glimpses of this excitement.  There are times when one must fight their way through a vast underground complex, or up through the ruins of some abandoned city where, if one dies, one must start all the way back at the beginning knowing that all the mobs will have respawned and that many hours will have been lost.   This is the sort of thing that players will inevitably complain about and point to as being annoying or even stupid.  But I know in my heart of hearts that those places are really the only surviving bastion of hardcore play, and that they must be preserved at all costs.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


I posted the following as a response to this. Enjoy.

`Twas bugdat and the pushdug burz
Did skai and bagronk in the glob:
All mokurz were the krimpatul,
And the kuf golug skrithurz.

“Beware Adventurers, my son!
The arrows that pierce, the cries that stun!
Beware the Hobbit Burg, and shun
The Dwarven Guardian!”

He took his broken sword in hand:
Long time some restful peace he sought –
So rested he at Haven’s peak,
And ate the lunch he’d brought.

And, as in Orcish thought he stood,
The Adventurer, with eyes of blue,
Came barging up the stairs of wood,
Not pausing as it slew!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The broken blade in twain was cleft!
Our orc played dead, and watched with dread
Until the adventurer left.

“And, hast thou ‘scaped the wrath of Man?
Come hither and learn, my fearsome boy!
They claim to explore, but lie evermore
Tis pillage and plunder their ultimate plan.”

`Twas bugdat and the pushdug burz
Did skai and bagronk in the glob:
All mokurz were the krimpatul,
And the kuf golug skrithurz.

My apologies to Lewis Carroll

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do we really need yet another mmo blog?

Well, not really.  But I've been posting responses to other mmo blogs for years and it seemed time to create a place where I could be more proactive about jotting down my thoughts rather than constantly looking for other forums where I might insert my ideas.  

My primary interests from an entertainment point of view seem to be mmos, though my education was entirely in mathematics, and I do spend a lot of time reading fantasy and science fiction when I'm not playing some game or other online.  Other than that, I'd like to play more piano and do more writing, but perhaps someday when I'm retired I'll find the time and motivation.

Regarding my mmo experience and what type of player I am, perhaps a question-and-answer format is most suitable.   So I'll pretend someone has actually asked me the following and provide my response to each.

Q: Top 4 MMOs?
A: (In no particular order) Diablo 2 (yes, not really an mmo), Atlantica Online, LOTRO, and WoW.

Q: Sandbox or Themepark?
A: I lean more towards the themepark camp (which should be obvious from my top 4), but there are way too many things about the current state of themeparks that I dislike for me to feel firmly grounded there.  Storyline rarely does anything for me, nor do cutscenes or phased areas.   And I hate excessive linear gameplay as represented by the Cataclysm questing areas in WoW.   So you'd think I'd be all about the sandbox.  But completely open worlds with no suggestions from the developer as to what I should be doing are no fun for me either.  As a boy, I had more than my fill of standing around in the countryside with my friends all summer trying to make up fun activities to stave off the boredom.   So the Sandbox vs. Themepark question is a difficult one for me and is something I plan to elaborate on in the future.

Q: PvP or PvE
A: PvE period.  Though I've gone through periods where I've learned to PvP and not done too badly -- above average but not much above average.  So I wouldn't say that I'm one of those who hates PvP because they suck at it, but ultimately I enjoy soloing or co-operative play far more than pwning noobs, being pwned, or even engaging in a fair fight between well-balanced classes.  Does this make me a carebear?  Yes, yes it does.

Q: Raiding or Casual
A: Casual, though I'm not fond of the term.  I play a lot, and I take my questing, leveling, crafting, achievements, cosmetics, pets, mounts, titles, etc. quite seriously.   I've been part of a raiding guild exactly once and I enjoyed it for a time, but I was never able to get over the stress at the thought that my screwups could ruin the fun for 20+ other people.

Q: F2P, Subscription, Cash Shop?
A: It doesn't necessarily matter, but there is an underlying thing I dislike which tends to be correlated with a company's choice of revenue generation, and that's the pay-to-win scenario.   I know I said that I'm all about co-operative play, and that I'm not that interested in raiding or PvP, so one might wonder why I care if one player can pay more money to achieve something in shorter time than those who pay less money.   But I do care.  I'm fully aware that all my in-game achievements are rather illusory.  But I enjoy that illusion.  If I spend a year working towards some achievement only to have it later be made trivial by the ability for it to be accomplished in a matter of days, or for it to be purchased outright with real-world currency, then my feeling of accomplishment is lessened.  Perhaps its silly, but its still a fact.

And that's more than enough for now.