My Favorite Music of 2013

Back when I worked in record stores, my boss Daryl used to tell me that as long as there was something among Tuesday’s new releases that he could fall in love with, he knew he hadn’t overstayed his time on the job. I can’t say that I find a new record to love every week, but I think there’s enough new stuff to like each year that I still enjoy creating this list of favorites.

This is the first year I bought more music digitally than I did on CD. This is mostly due to having moved away from the East Coast and the excellent Newbury Comics chain, my weekly haven for both music and comics. Even though I live pretty close to the wonderful Lou’s Records in Encinitas, life is busy enough that I don’t make it there too often. The other factor is that I’ve really embraced Amazon’s Cloud Player, which makes it ridiculously easy to access my music across devices.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my favorites for what’s proven to be an excellent year of music. Continue Reading »

Safe Harbor

There were layoffs today at SOE. I was not among them, but it was a shitty day anyway. It’s something that happens way too often in our industry. My personal scars are still fresh, and the events of today have made old wounds ache once more.

Some of the layoffs hit very close to home–many folks had been fixtures at SOE a long time, and were doing great work. I don’t know the logic behind who was let go and who wasn’t–that’s the kind of thing companies don’t go into detail on. It is what it is.

While I’m very glad to still have a job, I can’t help but feel a bit of survivor’s guilt. Why them and not me? I try not to dwell on it, because doing so accomplishes nothing. Better to spend that mental energy trying to help those folks make connections and find a safe place to land. Assuming there’s any safe place, I mean.

I remain in the games industry, even through the heartbreak of days like today, because it’s immensely fulfilling on a creative level and I feel that my best work on MMOs is still ahead of me. Yet events like this make me wish my destiny was more in my own hands and less at the mercy of others.

Sin City Revelation

Later this week I’ll be participating in SOE Live 2013 (the event once known as Fan Faire) in lovely Las Vegas. It’s at Planet Hollywood this year, so it will be interesting to be in a new venue.

This will be the biggest SOE fan gathering in a number of years, no doubt in large part because of the big reveal of EverQuest Next. I’ve been on the EQN team for a number of months now, contributing to narrative and game design. There’s a lot of really cool and different things happening, so I’m excited to see the public’s reaction.

I’ll be participating on two panels: the World of EQN, which is Friday at 5pm, and the Lore of EQN panel on Saturday at 2pm. Be sure to say hello if you’re attending. Even after the reveal I won’t be able to answer every question, but we’ll finally be out of the black box at least.

Buying me drinks won’t get me to say anything I shouldn’t…but you’re welcome to try!

One Year Later

There are various dates one can identify with the death of 38 Studios. You could cite the day the company failed to pay its employees. You could choose the date the company declared bankruptcy. For me, 38 Studios was about the team and the friendships we shared, so I mark May 24 as the point it ended–the day we were officially laid off and walked out of our office together for the last time.

As one of my former colleagues recently noted, in some ways it feels like barely any time has passed; in other ways, it feels like a hundred years. There remains a surreal quality to the whole thing, a disbelief that it ever really happened. Yet there are reminders of it everywhere in my life, reminders that leave a sense of unfinished business.

The studio and its most recognizable faces still turn up in the news regularly. Most recently, the lawsuit against Curt and others involved in the bond deal has made headlines, along with an article saying that the IP and assets are finally going up for sale. The former is a farce grounded in political posturing, an attempt to shift blame away from politicians who want to be reelected. I’m confident the truth will come to light.

The latter is more personal. My blood and dreams flow through Amalur; the lack of closure has left me unsettled. The prospect of someone finally buying the work that my friends and I put so much of ourselves into leaves me with mixed feelings. Copernicus will never see the light of day, at least not in the form we intended it to take. Some buyer with an engine and a suitable back-end could take the considerable assets we created and plug them into their game, instantly owning some of the best looking characters, environments, and animations on the market. While much of the focus in the press has been on the MMO, another possibility often overlooked would be to take the work the BHG team had done on pre-production for Reckoning 2 and release a sequel. The first game was well-reviewed and it continues to attract players, so there’s definitely money to be made if a company could do it right. But with the key members of both teams spread across the globe, the chances of pulling off a successful product are slim at best. After all, it’s the teams who truly make their games shine–not assets on a hard drive.

On the one hand, I’d love to see something finally come about from all the work we did. But if the result is some stranger butchering our material and slapping the Amalur logo on shoddy work, I’d rather the assets just fade away into the mists of time. I can only hope that if someone does buy it, they treat it with the respect it deserves and realize they’ve acquired something pretty special. We’ll soon find out.

Today I read that it takes half the duration of a relationship to finally get over it. If that’s true, I’ve got at least a couple more years before I can truly move on. But that’s okay; despite the challenges and pain I’ve felt since it ended, the memories and friendships forged at 38 continue to enrich my life, and have given me countless lessons to draw upon in my career going foward.

It was all worth it… every beautiful, heartbreaking minute.

So, What Have You Been Playing Lately, Steve?

After playing some Guild Wars 2 for a while, I finally decided to fire up Mists of Pandaria and see what WoW has been up to. Although I had a higher-level death knight, I decided to yank my good-old level 70 arms warrior from retirement (the undead fellow who still decorates the banner of this site) and see how I fared.

Checking out Pandaria on this guy, of course, required that I play through Lich King and Cataclysm as well. This dampened my enthusiasm, as I’d already played through a lot of that stuff on my death knight, and I hate repeating content. So I opted for dungeon finder, and found myself having a ball. As the ultimate non-commitment tool, dungeon finder allowed me to sail through XP and gear acquisition without having to repeat the Lich King quests I’d previously completed. And if I screwed up, it was no big deal–it wasn’t like I’d ever see any of the people I was grouped with again. The Wrath dungeons are a lot of fun, so I enjoyed myself quite a bit, and my warrior was 80 in no time.

Playing through Cataclysm was less fun. The XP curve from 80 to 85 was slower, and I found the dungeons in this expansion far less enjoyable. It’s not that they were more difficult really; it’s that the same tricks seemed to be used over and over, as I was endlessly looking for burning spots on the ground to avoid. To pad my XP gains, I ended up playing through the whole underwater zone as well, which I found abysmal (pun intended). I mean, it was fine and all, but the design of the quests felt a little uninspired. The one exception was the naga city where you enter a vision and play through the invasion that had happened there–I thought that was a cool line with a nice payoff. I was surprised how buggy the content was after all this time, though. Because Blizzard does such a nice job of polishing their work, any problem really stands out. I ran into several places where I had to abandon quests and do them over again because a trigger didn’t work right or something. Still, all things considered, it was far beyond the level of polish most MMOs attain. I hit 85 and was forced to leave, even though I would have liked to check out Deepholm. I flew around that zone and it looked fantastic.

I’m currently level 87 in Pandaria, and so far I’ve been extremely impressed. Both the solo content and the dungeons have been really well done. Cut scenes and cinematics are regularly worked into the content, and the pacing feels very nice. The WoW team has gotten a handle on using phasing to effectively tell stories and show change. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the culmination of the Jade Forest quests was extremely impressive. This zone felt like the best example of storytelling I’ve seen in any MMO to date–newer titles included.

At this point, the biggest negative I can point out is that WoW feels burdened by its aging quest mechanics. The whole paradigm of walking into a hub and loading up my quest journal feels so old and dated. I much prefer the GW2 approach of entering an area and being given objectives relevant to what I can see going on around me. Instead of being ordered to kill 10 of this and collect 8 of that, I’m urged to defend the keep, drive out the centaurs, and other goal-oriented play. It’s a distinction purely of presentation–you end up collecting X of this and killing Y of that–but one method makes the world feel much more alive than the other. The rare moments in WoW when I can forget about the quest journal and just engage with the content are by far my favorites.

Not sure what I’ll do when I hit the level cap, but for now I’m very much enjoying my return to Azeroth–monkey poop and all.

Satisfying Psychological Needs

I was reading an article called “The Psychological Appeal of Violent Shooters” and thought it had some interesting correlations to MMOs.

Here’s a quote:

In their book, Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, Rigby and Ryan describe “self-determination theory,” a fairly well established framework that aims to describe why people pursue certain voluntary activities. In part, self-determination theory says that people are motivated to engage in activities to the extent that they satisfy three psychological needs:

  • 1. Competence – progressing in skill and power.
  • 2. Autonomy – being able to choose from multiple, meaningful options.
  • 3. Relatedness – feeling important to others.

The article asserts that most shooters do a pretty good job of meeting these three needs, although studies indicate the games could be just as satisfying without all the blood and headshots. It’s worth a read.

It got me thinking about how MMOs come at the three needs outlined above.

Competence

One could argue that the entire DikuMUD style (which was a dominant influence on EverQuest, and therefore most of the MMOs that followed it) is built to satisfy this need: you gain levels or skills, hunt for new and better items, take on increasingly more powerful opponents, ad infinitum. And certainly if you look at early games in the genre, they allowed for the types of emergent gameplay that made players feel skilled and powerful. As an EQ monk called upon to pull in Plane of Fear, Temple of Veeshan, or for raids like the Avatar of War, I felt pride in the skills I possessed which made me better than the average player of my class.

However, one of the frequent complaints about MMOs–particularly as they age–is that they’ve been “dumbed down”, made easier for less-skilled players to succeed at. The long list of changes to WoW’s talent system is an often-cited example of this trend.

We have to admit that MMOs today get mixed marks in this category. Accessibility is a key pillar of most triple-A MMO projects so that the game has the best chance possible of recouping its extravagant budget, and in the process, player competence typically isn’t a priority target for developers–even though they often claim that it is. Accessibility is the enemy of player competence.

Autonomy

Using the article’s definition of this word, MMOs get mixed marks here as well. On the good side, MMOs tend to give players multiple types of content to choose from: leveling up a character solo, doing group dungeons, raiding, crafting, PvP, pet battles, house decorating, dungeon designing, collecting, achievements, and other forms of play are common in MMOs. That’s a nice variety not present in most other genres.

However, once you delve into each path in detail, it’s apparent that autonomy isn’t really present. Most paths in triple-A MMOs, be they narrative-based or achievement-focused, tend to be very linear and without a lot of choice. You might be able to pick which zone you go to at a given level range or which instance you’ll run, but once that decision is made, you’re locked in. You can’t choose how to solve a quest. You can’t choose the strategy for killing a boss. You can’t make up your own recipes for making items. You’re limited to a certain type of housing item or paint color.

MMOs are better at giving you the illusion of autonomy rather than the reality of it. Problems tend to get solved once, and then that becomes the de facto strategy for achieving the desire result (and you get yelled at if you try a different approach). While there are certainly exceptions to this trend, they are few and far between–at least among triple-A titles.

Relatedness

Importance to others is where MMOs shine. Just about every aspect of MMO gameplay is done better by other genres of games–shooters are better at fast action, single-player RPGs are better at telling cinematic stories, etc.–but at least so far, nobody beats MMOs at the social aspects. (Note: This is changing fast! Developers, plan your careers accordingly.)

Skilled players are crucial to a raiding guild. Helpful crafters are the cornerstone of any social guild. Nice people willing to help out someone in trouble allow for those priceless moments of player-to-player interaction that make these games so sticky. Players are the glue that hold MMOs together.

And yet, even MMOs don’t get a perfect mark here. WoW’s dungeon finder is the best (worst?) example I can think of. While I have fun jumping easily into content and leaving with shiny new items, all I do is select my role and get pulled into the adventure with a bunch of other players I don’t know and probably won’t say a word to unless something goes horribly, horribly wrong. WoW can get away with it because they have so many players and so much to do in the game, yet for smaller titles this would be a terribly depersonalizing experience. Automated matchmaking gets players to the content faster, but ultimately undermine relatedness. When the appeal of the content runs out, players are left with fewer social times to the game itself. This leads to churn, which most MMOs that aren’t named World of Warcraft are unlikely to overcome.

Conclusion

While current MMOs have a lot going for them, in many ways they have strayed from the early principles that actually satisfied competence, autonomy, and relatedness really well. High production values and expensive cut scenes don’t make up for these losses. The more you try to force an MMO to feel like another type of game, the less it feels like a distinct genre and the farther you get from the core experiences that made MMOs so popular.

It should be noted that most of my observations above are focused on triple-A themepark MMOs. There are certainly smaller, independent projects that are doing a better job of hitting these marks. Ultimately, it may be refocusing on these core principles that returns the MMO genre to its glory days; if not, its best features will likely be absorbed into other genres. Depending how you look at things, this has already happened and will only escalate from here.

My Favorite Music of 2012 (So Far)

About the only thing you can rely on me to blog about these days is my annual favorite music post. But for the first time, this post has been in danger–not due to my laziness, but because of my pocketbook.

As anyone reading this knows, 2012 was not the kindest of years to me or my family. Being out of work for one third of the year, I wasn’t in a position to buy new music for most of the second half of 2012. Though I caught up on a number of releases once I had a few paychecks behind me, there’s still a long list of music that I just haven’t been able to pick up yet. I eventually broke down and made a sizable Amazon order (some for physical copies, some digital) since I no longer have my beloved Newbury Comics to visit in person. I haven’t actually made it to a proper record store since moving to San Diego, which is fairly shameful.

So all apologies to those artists I haven’t purchased discs from yet: Amanda Palmer, Scott Walker, Best Coast, Bruno Mars, David Byrne & St. Vincent, Bob Mould, and many others. I’ll get to you as soon as I can. I hope you can live with the disappointment of not being on Steve Danuser’s year-end list.

Anyway, please consider this posting a regretfully abridged version of my true musical favorites. As usual, I use the Cold Stone Creamery rating system to divide up my selections. Perhaps I’ll make a follow-up post early in 2013 to tack on a few more titles. Until then, these are the discs I’ve been turning to time and again over 2012–a year my soul was in need of music more than ever before.

Continue Reading »

Taking It on the Chin

Working in the games industry is awesome. It’s a creative field in which, if you work hard and are very lucky, you get to make fun stuff that entertains people. If you’re very, very lucky, you even get paid to do so.

This year, that last point was not something to be taken for granted.

I was unemployed for exactly one third of 2012–four sucky months. Four months during which I wasn’t sure how I’d feed my family, how we’d pay for insurance, what we’d do if we couldn’t sell our house and get out from under our mortgage. Stress was my constant companion, and despair regularly gave me the stinkeye from across the room.

The ironic thing is, it turns out I was lucky.

After four months, I landed a great job at a place I already loved, with people I’d missed dearly. Had to endure an expensive move from one corner of the country to the other, but after that things clicked into place.

Many of my colleagues weren’t as fortunate. Some are still trying to find work, having to compete with more and more layoff victims for fewer and fewer spots. Some had a second mortgage dumped on them for a house they assumed had already been sold. Some were left with no insurance and a baby due in a matter of weeks. Some even faced cancer. All of us still have our retirement funds frozen with nothing we can do about it.

And now, some of those who had seemed to have landed okay just found out that they got laid off. Again. Twice in the same year.

There are many contributing factors as to why 2012 has sucked for most of the gaming industry, and you’ll hear no shortage of theories. We’re at the end of the current console generation. There’s a glut of social/Facebook/mobile gaming companies and the bubble is bursting. Multiple MMO companies chasing WoW overspent and under-delivered. The learning curve of the free-to-play business model has caused many big companies to stumble. No one’s funding new IP. Investors have been scared away by the economy, turning to safer bets. The list goes on and on.

I happen to think the flood of new recruits into the gaming industry is a factor. Not only do you have folks coming in through traditional avenues (QA, CS, community, related fields), you have more and more universities churning out graduates with degrees in game design, game-specific art training, and so forth. More people looking for fewer jobs–not a recipe for happiness.

Arguably the industry is going through a period of self-correction. Maybe some who have been burned badly enough–or who never got their foot in the door in the first place–will move on to other fields. But I bet most will keep trying to stick it out, because let me tell you, when all cylinders are clicking, this is a great space to be in.

But in the meantime, I’ve got more friends to worry about, more jobs to help them find. And man, that really sucks.

Back in the Saddle

Looks like it’s been a while since I posted anything that wasn’t mopey. A rough few months will do that to you.

I’m pleased to be able to deliver happier news: I am once again gainfully employed, at the place where my career in games began: Sony Online Entertainment. I lead the design team as Creative Director on Vanguard, which has recently been converted into a free-to-play title.

It was an unexpected turn of events that led me back. Truth be told, I’d accepted a position at another company in a different state, but an old friend called with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Though I’d been away nearly six years, the folks at SOE have made me feel very welcome–a fantastic feeling.

So, why SOE? And why Vanguard?

Though being part of an epic collapse after years spent working on a large-scale MMO tends to have a negative effect on one’s psyche, ultimately I love this genre and couldn’t bear to stay away from it. There’s simply no challenge in game development like it. And yes, it’s risky, but when it works it’s very satisfying. I loved my time at SOE and made many great friends, so being asked back was a true honor.

As for Vanguard, I have a certain personal history with the title. I was community manager on EQ2 while Vanguard was in development, and I heard from a lot of people who told me how the latter was going to stomp all over the former. But despite some initial hard feelings over that flack, I couldn’t help but root for Vanguard; as an old-school EQ fanboy, it sounded like the type of game I really wanted to play. I was genuinely disappointed at the state of the game at launch and how it dwindled soon after.

But things change. After surviving with almost no development support for years, the conversion to free-to-play has breathed new life into the game–enough that SOE has made a serious commitment to it. Thus the hiring of folks like me, as well as bringing back some others who’ve worked on Vanguard in the past. It’s a lean, dedicated team made up of people who love the game and want to see it live up to its potential. Especially after the events of recent months, that’s the kind of redemption story I can really get behind.

Working on a live game again feels good, and making my way back to the forums is exciting too. I’ve even got FanFaire–er, SOE Live this week!

So here’s to homecomings… and happier days.

A Few More Glimpses

Former 38 team members have been posting more work-in-progress assets, and I wanted to honor the team’s efforts by passing them along. It should be noted that I’m only linking this material–some of the coverage of my last post made it sound like I’m the one releasing them, which is not the case.

The first video shows off Jottunhessen, seat of power of the Amaranthine. It was built upon the ruins of the Kollossae floating city of Pelios, which was brought down through the combined efforts of the Dokkalfar, Jottun, and Tyrgash about a hundred years before the start of the MMO. This event would cause the collapse of the Hyperian Empire and usher in the Age of Heroes. The city retains elements of Kollossae architecture, but was deliberately perverted as a way to remind the haughty giants that they were brought low thanks to the manipulation of the dark elves. (How’s that for a lorebomb?)

The first video shows the city as it was originally built, but we found that it exceeded our performance budgets and made the client engineers’ heads explode. An optimization pass had to be made, which is what the second video captures. This kind of rework is a reality of game design, especially when your engine is still being optimized along with the art. The lessons learned here saved us a lot of time on subsequent cities, such as Valiance.

I wanted to call out one of our philosophies in world design: if you could see a point of interest in the distance, we wanted you to be able to get to it. If you notice the huge spire hanging over Jottunhessen, that was the ruling seat of the dark elves and you could make your way up into that tower for an awesome view of not just the city, but of surrounding zones. You could jump out a window in the spire, and if you lined up your jump correctly, land in the Well of Souls that was positioned below. That was a ton of fun to do!

Again, please understand that these are artist-created milestone review videos intended only for the team, and should not be thought of as trailers or something that was meant to show off to an outside audience.

One of our composers has also posted some samples of the excellent music he wrote for the project. We had some great music written for the game, and this is just a taste of what had been recorded over the years. We believed that music and sound effects were every bit as important for storytelling as art or design, and I was always delighted by how seriously our audio team took that philosophy to heart. They really sought to understand the story and world we were crafting, and were regularly running their work past me and others to make sure that what they put together matched the tone of the zones and the races who inhabited them.

I hope you enjoy these bits of beauty as much as I do.