Thursday, 21 August 2014

Tinfoil hat speculation abounds: what is Arenanet working on?!

I'm annoyed.

I'm annoyed that I am having to write this blogpost to set some things, which I feel are perfectly freaking obvious, straight.

There is a "theory" doing the rounds that goes a little something this:
Angel McCoy said 20 people work on the Living Story, what are the other 280 staff at Arenanet doing?
We had this conversation in our guild last week and Hunter's Insight wrote a post about it.  I'm sure the same question has been asked elsewhere too. It's a good question to ask but let's not be blinded by speculation, cloaked in hope, masquerading as fact.

Right, debunking trousers on.

Firstly, she said those 20 people "create the Living World content".  That could mean literally anything. It could mean they do every single thing: write every word of dialogue, construct every single character model, design mob abilities, code events, QA every second.  It could also mean they are the production team.  A team of people that come together, agree and oversee the work of all the other employees in creating each release.  It could be something in between.  You can interpret what she said in a multitude of ways: there's no facts here.  That's why they pay PR people.  So ambiguous facts don't creep out and confuse users and, much more importantly, shareholders.

Anyway, to quote Angel, assuming she is a "reliable narrator":
My responsibility as narrative designer for the team is to keep the lore in check, to ensure the dialogue for the iconic characters is in voice, and to guide us through the overarching storyline
She doesn't mention writing any dialogue.  A lot of the dialogue varies based on your race... just checking that all would be a big job, right?

Secondly, just where has this 300 staff number come from (possibly here)?  Regardless, let's break it down based on my experience of an organisation with well over 2,000 employees.

We know people at Arenanet.  There's a good 50 people we can probably name right now.  Teams that we know for a fact exist:

WvW - at least 5 people
PvP - at least 5 people
Community Team - at least 9 people
LS Team - at least 20 people
Random PR/Leads - about 5 people

OK, let's list the "other" teams they might have just as a typical business:

Customer Services
Facilities Management

They all sound OK?  Any number of those could be outsourced.  Notice I haven't listed any animators, artists, game programmers, designers, producers, composers, monetisation or QA.

Now lets look at their current vacancies:
What does this tells us?  There are at least 4 different sorts of programmer.  And, oooh, Spanish QA.  So we need a QA team PER language so, that's at least 4. And, of course, we'll need a localisation team for each language too.

Are we getting the picture yet?

There is no way on Grenth's green earth, with that much specificity in each post, that a team of 20 people churn out a Living Story episode every two weeks while everyone else works on Cantha. OK?

I am absolutely certain that a good portion of Anet's staff ARE working on things for the distant future and that MAY include an expansion.  But since they have stated categorically that they are NOT working on an expansion right now.  I'm inclined to believe that designing, building and maintaining a game played by people all over the world takes more than 20 people.

Right? Get back to fucking work.

I edited this post because it seemed overly critical of an individual and that wasn't intended. My posts are purposefully written with a slightly tongue-in-cheek, angry tone: that's my style.  As is comedic extrapolation.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The gamification of games

Gamification was recently all the rage but I get the sense that it's kind of on the wane; it's becoming a bit passé.  In case you don't know gamification "is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems."  Mostly gamification takes the form of points, bars, badges and achievements.  Foursquare and Codecademy are great examples.

In essence it's a great idea for user engagement.  I actually enjoy the game aspect of Foursquare so I am disappointed that it's (sort of) going away in the new Swarm app.  I might just stop using the app all together.  Anyway, bit off topic.

At this point you're probably thinking "Dibs writes about GW2, where is this heading?"  Well, we're into Season 2 now.  Episodes 1 and 2 have been very well received and many people agree that Season 2 feels right and is set to deliver what was intended all along.  I'm with them.  One of the most notable changes for me is the separation of the achievements from the story.  Previously it felt as if the story was almost built around the achievements and I did not enjoy grinding achievements to get rewards from "the story", especially as there was only a limited time to do them.  In essence they gamified the story.

Season 1 of the Living Story became a system designed to pull you into the game every two weeks to complete tasks and get your badge.  They were right to call them meta-achievements, they became a game within the game.  I was one of the many that fell for it.  From the business point of view gamification was a great idea for player retention in the absence of a subscription, it got people involved and "marketed" the latest cash shop goodies.  But what I think the gamification of Guild Wars 2 showed was a lack of confidence in the story itself as a draw for players.

Yesterday I read a great article about the creation of a game called Threes.  You may not have heard of it.  You will have heard of 2048, which is supposedly a Threes rip-off.  If you read the article you will see that the designers went through many iterations to make the game re-playable and rewarding.  I decided to buy Threes and when I went to the Play Store I saw it featured Leaderboards and Achievement support.  So, having done all that work to perfect the game itself (and games are complex things), they still gamified it.  Weird.

But then that's not actually surprising when you consider that Call of Duty is a one of the biggest entertainment franchises in history, rivalling Harry Potter, Star Wars and the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). Except CoD is unique from these in that, as we all know, CoD has no story.  Where many games tack on multi-player CoD tacks on story. Gamification is the game in CoD: unlocks, achievements and badges.  All of this adding to the further gamification of games: your gamer score, whether it be on XBL, PSN or Steam.  In short, gamification works.  With that in mind you can't blame Arenanet for gamifying Guild Wars 2.  It makes both your stakeholders (player concurrency, baby!) and your players (yay, badges!) very happy.

So, you have to appreciate just how clever the change in Season 2 is.  The gamification is still there but it's literally secondary: the story takes precedence.  Achievements have finally taken a back seat to The Lore.  Oh, and what Lore it is.

I never played GW1 and it's only recently become clear to me just how much of GW2 I don't appreciate because of that.  I have a guildie who frequently complains about pre-Searing music in Kryta.  I don't understand why that's a problem.  From GW2 I know what the Searing was but until recently I thought the Searing created the Ghosts of Ascalon... and we're off and running.

I believe that RPG players love story. You only have to give us a taste and we'll hunger for more.  When you have a story as deep and rich as Guild Wars you really are onto a winner.  With Episode 3 moving into Iron Marches I have realised I have a problem: never mind GW1, I haven't even finished World Completion!  I have only been to Iron Marches for Guild Challenge.  There is Lore splattered all over the countryside just waiting to me gobbled up and digested.  Oh, and the much maligned Personal Story?

I, like Bhagpuss, discovered there is Lore oozing out of the racial Personal stories.  Gorr's theories explain a great deal about why the Elder Dragons are bad and telegraphed just exactly what those vines we're seeking before Episode 2 was released.  The Living Story finally links to the Personal Story and you suddenly realise while we were all off achievement whoring, there was an actual plan for the narrative of GW2.  The dragon shaped "2" logo wasn't just a reference to Zhiatan, the Elder Dragons plural are at the heart of the story.  At least we think so.  Maybe.  But at the very least I now feel a strong urge to get the sylvari story done!

So, what does that tell us about the last 2 years?  Well, after a good start, the Arenanet ship started to list.  It listed towards players that value gamification and achievement points, over story.  Now it looks like the ship might be righting itself.  Admittedly, the QA is still deeply questionable on some releases (Episode 3 is still broken) and I am a bit concerned that Anet over-relies on people having played GW1 to appreciate a lot of what GW2 has to offer in terms of story.  Publishing core story in books and online ("What Scarlet Saw") was probably a mistake but could have been a forgiveable necessity.

People are saying that Season 2 harkens back to GW1's style and feel and, since GW1 was never marketed as an MMO, maybe what was needed all along was a little more RPG.