Monday, February 4, 2013

A Rising Tide

Over the weekend, in an apparent effort to twist my attention away from the last stages of getting my book ready, my partner went and bought a copy of The Sims 3, into which she immersed herself as one would do into a pool with no bottom.  Being human myself, I spent too many hours on it also (while she slept) ... and so now I have to write about it.

I encountered the first version of The Sims while couch-surfing at a friend's house while between cities of residence in 2002, and I have enjoyed playing it from time to time.  The limitations of the first game were not all that evident until the onslaught of editions that followed ... and sadly The Sims 2 was a crap-fest that was clearly built by focus groups who, as usual, led designers far, far away from anything useful.  Mostly, the second version severely stupified the game to make it more "accessible," and in the process made it so easy to play that it was hardly worth playing.  It was pretty like a dumb blonde.

The third version has gone some distance to rectifying the myopic blindness of the second, while opening up the spaces and making it possible to exist in a greater area than one's property.  I enjoyed it, to some degree ... though of course Yachtzee has the last word on the game itself, which is why we love him.  "You are the slave!"

Because I am a tortured, obsessed soul, there's absolutely no way I can play this game without seeing is somehow as a yardstick against which D&D must be measured - both in terms of popularity and in regards to game design.

Here's the thing.  The Sims is hugely popular.  Unlike any game in existence, it is hugely popular with women, and I don't think that is incidental.  Apart from its visual, there is a crafting ethic involved in the game that D&D simply does not possess.  Most of the women I know who play the game - in any edition - are happy to cheat their way into infinite wealth for the sole purpose of creating elaborate, intricately crafted houses for no purpose whatsoever, except that they're interesting to make and time consuming.  The actual people themselves are incidental and - it must be said - unnecessary.

Of course, this is the way that quite a lot of people play D&D.  Sorry, I should say, quite a lot of boys.  We all know that the ever present mention of players by so-called DMs is a questionable truth ... are there any players, really, among the trolls and bulletin-board stalkers who seem available to comment and scream all the time?  Obviously, we're not supposed to ask.  We're supposed to assume that yes, JackWhite34 from Lansing has dozens of players who all LOVE his world, and this his adventures are the BEST EVER, so please do not disagree with his design strategy.

Speaking for myself, I have the crew online, but perhaps that's all I have, and the offline game I occasionally refer to is a mad fantasy inside my head, dreamt up to settle arguments and so I can cry out, tears streaming down my face, "My players love me!" and so on.  You don't know.  Even if I recorded a game, it could have been staged, it could be the one and only time any of us played, etc., etc.

Thus is seems the best thing to do is to imagine we're all furtively inventing dungeons and trade tables and combat scenarios just to make ourselves feel important, and that these things have no more value or importance than all those people manufacturing houses in The Sims.  Go on, splatter your dungeons and your worlds on your blogs and sites ... it proves nothing except that you've got a lot of time to spend producing something pretty (or decidedly less so).

Truth is, D&D is not 'popular' ... certainly not compared with, well, virtually anything.  And why should we not examine why that is?

Well, it's NOT visual.  There are those who will squawk about how the game is better for its absence of hard optiks, and I won't disagree.  Still, I rush to point out that the most visual and tactile part of the game - the dice - have been given a virtually HOLY importance among players.  The dice are sacred.  Everything about the dice has been ramped up to fetishistic importance - the color, the number, the age, the amount of wear and tear, the location from which the dice originate, the manufacturer, the quality, the accuracy, the depth of the number grooves, the extra zeros on the second generation d10s, where and when the dice are rolled, if they should be hidden or rolled openly, what die should be used for what, whether games should be d20 based and so on.  This is a lot of dialogue about the nature of dice, particularly when the game is so commonly described as transcending beyond the concrete.  Some people, it seems, are hopelessly rooted in the real world.

Regardless of the game's desired conceptualism, most of the world does not actually like things that largely depend upon a person's thoughts ... and so therefore D&D is not popular.  Therefore, it would seem to me that one of two positions is called for:  either A) change the visuals of D&D and make it more concrete in order to appeal to a larger number of people; or B) decide here and now that those people who cannot deal with having a thought in their head don't matter and will never matter.

Now, I don't argue that DDO is the logical future of the game - but just between you and me, if your desire is for D&D to be something more than a misanthropic self-satisfying excursion with paper and pencil and graph paper (which NO ONE in the sketching/business world uses anymore for any reason), you've got to recognize that some kind of technology that lifts the game out of the dark ages is going to be necessary.

What else makes D&D not what we would call 'popular'?

Well, you might notice that The Sims, as well as DDO, and a wide assortment of other games vaguely related to characters, are entirely mechanical.  Oh, please, don't get upset when I say that.  Yes, of course we have roleplaying in D&D.  All I mean to point out is that roleplaying, as it more or less exists, doesn't seem to appeal to very many people.  Sure, it appeals to you and all your friends, and to the little group of pretend-wannabes that are lying to you in chatrooms about their bust size and their income, but on the whole, where it comes to selling a product or spending time with a product once its purchased, roleplaying really doesn't present the most desireable option.

See, where everything is mechanical, people can trust it.  The game might be hard, or easy, or it might be a bit mundane or repetitive, but the game is not adversely making shit up out of the blue as we go along.  The game is not judging my acting ability, my creativity or my general worth as a person.  I may suck at The Sims ... it may take me longer to build my house and get promoted, etc., but in general the game doesn't care.

A huge reason - the only reason, really - why a lot of would-be players of D&D or other roleplaying games never come back after their first night is because they're absolutely certain that they're being fucked somehow.  It's partly the steep learning curve of the game, but its MOSTLY the sense that those persons farther up the curve are a bunch of smug pricks ready to exploit that learning curve for purposes that don't quite seem obvious.  Thus, as a noob, every time I pick up dice or write something wrong on my character sheet or answer the DM in some not quite standard way, I feel like an idiot.  This is not - it may astound some to hear - an encouraging experience.  This does not lend itself to thoughts of, "Gee, I sure would like to do this again!"

Moreover, this is intensified by the apparent infantilism that tends to seep into the participants of the game, where the participants are randomly setting fire to things, or killing things, or acting like assholes or self-satisfied pricks, in order to obtain a lewd, momentary sense of control over their surroundings.  Usually, its the sort of behavior one expects in High School from jocks or heads or people who are four grades older ... but get a group of nerdish social lepers in a room together to 'hunt orc' and suddenly they possess among themselves all the same dull antagonism of supreme assholes for whom dumping your math books into the mud was the height of their day.

So yeah ... if you possess even a little security about your life and the manner you're living, its difficult not to look at these insecure little twinks slapping around orcs with abandon with a feeling of, "hm, not getting laid much, huh?"

It's not that DDO is so much more played than ordinary D&D - and it truly is - because its better or more accessible.  It's that the rules seem not to depend upon dangerously retarded basement despots getting their corruption on.  There's an absence of vainglorious clay-footed gods snobbishly keeping the players in the dark "to make the game better."  Obviously this sort of thing appeals to some people.  Some people like to pour feces all over the floor and have sex in it.  There's a wide variety of activities in which some people will indulge.  That some people will do this or that and proclaim the feast to be truly piquant is a very tiny, very worthless argument that is, at any rate, demonstrated to be so by the truly small number of participants it applies to.

So where I come off making arguments about the improvements of D&D being a little less reliance on "roleplaying" and a little more upon the "mechanical" fundamentals of the game is that I actually feel the core of the game CAN appeal to more people than a few copraphiliac pundits.  And I don't feel I'm alone in this.  I believe firmly that there are literally thousands of players who are pretty appalled at the ongoing drudge of the same meandering, effectively meaningless arguments about screens and characters and dice - the ones that are never solved, because they don't matter.

There is one solution to all this shit:  mechanics.  Mechanics for everything.  Visual mechanics, tactile mechanics, causality mechanics, etc., etc.  All the persons in the hobby who scream and shriek about the absence of mechanics need not be considered - they have had their four decades of onanism and - ultimately - they have the same voice today as they had in 1972.  Virtually none at all.

D&D is not popular.  It really could be.  And when it is - through the mechanics of computerization and visual representation - all the voices that cried against it will be silenced, or drowned out by the millions who play.  Ultimately, a rising tide lifts all boats.

And sinks that which has not been made well.


Lukas said...

I am a fan of the Sims series. I played 1 well past the 100 day tips, played some of 2, the best thing in that version I feel was the college expansion, and now mooch off my Girlfriend's 3.0 version which is very up to date.

Ignoring the minefield of bugs involved in that game, it definitely represents an extremely entertaining, consistent and customizable uncaring environment.

Things you do can turn around and bite you in the ass one week later. It's a very interesting development in the world of video games, and I wouldn't be surprised if it had a reasonable effect on the dawn of many of the current Facebook game systems.

Roping this back to D&D I find Sims also shows a part of me that also is part of why I enjoy pen and paper roll playing games. You create your character, pushing the numbers around to your goals. Maybe evil, maybe bookworm, throw in a love of grilled cheese and blue.

Then you settle into the world, adjusting yourself and improving yourself towards your goals. Maybe your goals change and you have to make big shifts.

Encounters occur with parties, work events, robberies, fires or what have you. You may even die.

In the end you're gather wealth and XP until you reach the peak and retire, or die of old age, depends on whether or not you subscribe to their immortality methods.

As you can tell, I'm not big on family Sims. But hey, having a horde infesting the world is another goal some players have I'm sure.

Eric said...

" mechanics. Mechanics for everything. Visual mechanics, tactile mechanics, causality mechanics"

This is far from the first time I've mentioned these games, but Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online are two excellent places to look for systems that are "mechanics all the way down"

A caveat: Minecraft and World of Warcraft are much more commercially successful than their more purist counterparts mentioned above. EVE and Dwarf Fortress have extremely loyal fans, but they're both about as far from mass-market as I can imagine.

Alexis said...

Eric, I'm not looking for a video game. Video games - any video game - has too few mechanics, and are basically railroads.

I want - and have contributed to - a set of mechanics for EVERYTHING. Which means what I want is the power to make what I am already doing visual.

I'm not talking about a future of the game for next week. I'm saying here's what we ought to be playing in 2025.

YagamiFire said...

First some background: I have worked in the cellphone industry for around 9 years (geez it doesn't seem that long at all). Prior to that I worked in the video game industry. Prior to that I went to school for game design.

Suffice to say, I like games, I like technology and I am here, so I like discussion.

That said, the phone industry has also made me painfully aware of how most people interact with technology...and when it appeals to them. D&D, as a brand, is HOPELESSLY behind the curve of appeal. The game is as opaque as chocolate milk when it needs to be as transparent as can be. People do not trust things they cannot understand. They do not use things they cannot understand. They do not BUY things they cannot understand.

And the worst part is whether or not they can doesn't even is their perception of their capability that makes or breaks it. They need to be eased into things...they need to be given a wealth of avenues towards understanding...they need to be wowed but not overwhelmed.

Back to technology, is absolutely asinine that I cannot transition a map saved on my smartphone to my HDMI enabled television. Absolutely asinine. Well...I can...but it does not enable me to conveniently play D&D on it. All I can do is show it.

Right now I can pair my phone to my television and output video to it live of whatever I am running on my device. Hell, I can boot up Final Fantasy 6 on my phone right now, a game from 1994, and have it have more visual impact on my D&D players than anything I created by WOTC in the last 10 years.

This should not be so. It shows a profound disconnect from the target demographic that WOTC claims to want to capture with their games (games ARE for kids right?). In fact, I just snatched up my phone while typing this to check for WOTC's app presence. What did I find? Nothing.

No wait that isn't correct...I found apps made by fans to support WOTC products. Surprise surprise! WOTC is too lazy/ignorant/takeyourpick to do anything but sit back and rely on the fans of their properties to do the heavy lifting to support their games in the digital age. I imagine, somewhere in a meeting room, they also bemoan their flagging profit and dwindling market presence.

It baffles me. And just so as to be fair...I checked Paizo as well. They have two for for fumbles...neither free...both of limited use. Yawn. At least it's something though.

I know this all diverges from your topic a bit, but I think thematically it is close enough...pencil & paper needs to move BEYOND pencil & paper. Smartphones have never been capable of more and yet their design is elegant enough to make it possible to pick them up and use them within a very reasonable amount of time...even immediately for a vast part of the population. D&D? Nope. Not in it's current form at least. Not even close.

I would love mechanics for weapons degrading...for trade routes...for the economic impact of selling large quantities of goods in an area...for buying large quantities of goods in an area. Beautiful, awesome mechanics for all those little things that are difficult to track otherwise or that usually go ignored...and I'd love for this all to be possible running in the background of an application that presents it all in easy to understand terms with the book-keeping minimized and the impact maximized.

What a great joke...the game is bloated with too many mechanics to remember and implement at a time when it is easier than ever for people to organize themselves at the touch of a screen. And why? Because the designers & developers have their heads up their asses trying to figure out where they've gone wrong while the community argues about why its okay to lie to their players and be lazy whenever possible as a part of "good DMing". If nothing else, it makes me love my two current playgroups all the more...while I mourn the stupidity of everything beyond our little biosphere.

Arduin said...

Yagami nails it here. The technology to improve D&D, even the mythical hyper-program Alexis suggests, has existed for years now.

The issue is that nobody is making it. They are making video games. It is imagined that Baldur's Gate or Diablo can capture the essence of D&D, mostly by people for whom D&D was never more than hacking and slashing.

Even WOTC seems to imagine the video game experience captures D&D's essence, or at least that's the only excuse for 4th edition I can come up with.

Few seem to realise that the monster killing, while an interesting diversion in and of itself, is not the essence of D&D.

It is what surrounds the number crunching of combat that makes the game interesting, makes the combats meaningful.

With that in mind, given that D&D's combat has been replicated before, and easily, on computers, what we need now is a program that, in a visually interesting and mechanically deep way, provides all that surrounds the combat.

If one guy can manage this sort of thing in Excel, I'm sure a team of as little as three could make significant progress.

So, basically, someone kidnap some programmers and art designers already.

Alexis said...

For the present, there won't be any programmers or art designers involved until either someone believes there's a lot of money to be made, or the necessary technology is so cheap that a few really brilliant teenagers can do it over a few summers (thus making themselves stupid rich).

It's a lack of confidence among the businesspeople who may encounter D&D, as they see everywhere this stupid drum-beating for pencil and paper. It's a failure to recognize that those beating the drum do so only because they have fetishized that which they know, because they are unable to conceive the greater accomplishment.

Sadly, I did not spend my life learning to program. Stupidly, I spent it learning how to write. Thus I write to inspire, so that someone who can program will see their way clear to redesigning everything.

Thus the world changes ...

Lukas said...

Alexis, 2 things.

1. Learning to program sounds great, but as someone who spent 5 years immersed in BS comp sci classes, I'd like to note my life and paycheck are not higher.

2. There are teenagers who spend years making things. We keep seeing 5 year projects popping up all over the place impressing people who can't believe one person did it. The problem I see is that the glory and popularity for computer programs is in the existing fields of games...

Alexis said...

Maybe so, Lukas, but what you say only argues that it's a matter of time ...

ESR said...

Agreed, agreed.

But don't some of these apps already exist online? I've seen webpages such as:

- Random weather
- Random inn/gnome/dwarf names
- Random monster/encounter generator
- Geodesic random map generator

I think the reason the whole of D&D hasn't been somehow automated is that it's too extensive. The reason computer games came along with their static boundaries is because if you wrote a D&D app that truly encompassed what D&D is, the app would never, ever be finished, nor would it be useful to any one DM, because there would be tons of rules you wouldn't use and wouldn't want to use - even if you could customize it, the process would be painstaking.

I agree that the playing of D&D relies on trust, and the recent fear-based media doesn't promote trust. We feel safe in what has fixed boundaries and what can be understood within 30 seconds. But if that trust can be built, I feel that the experience is so much more than what can be coded into a computer.

Besides - do you want players interacting with each other, and using a few papers as occasional reference, or do you want them each in their own bubble, interacting with or through a computer? I think the direct human contact has value and appeal.

Alexis said...


I believe you've first conflated the issue with your insistence that it would "never, ever be finished."

Please note, I never used the word "automated." There is a reason I did not use that word. We are not talking about the same thing.

I also believe you've deeply misidentified the intended object of the post by couching your interaction within the "automated" framework which you yourself invented with this comment. Players would not be in "their own bubble" because at no time and in no way did I suggest there should be the creation of any tool that would "automate" D&D.

Technically, this comment is NOT on topic. No further redirections of this kind will be admitted.