Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Network Monitor

Ok I’ve posted enough rants about the state of the Gaming Industry recenetly. Now it’s time get back to the hardcore tech!

Over the past fortnight, I’ve been working like a dog on issues around a new firewall implementation. I won’t go into those issues because quite frankly, they’re pretty boring. However I’ll talk about one thing I’d recommend any IT pro or enthusiast become familiar with.

The art of Network Packet Analysis.

Being the Microsoft fan boy that I am :) ... I’ve been using Network Monitor and it’s been serving me well troubleshooting issues with my bastard firewall implementation.

So to begin your journey into the wonderful world of layers 2 and 3, you can load up NetWork monitor and then select what interface you want it to listen on. Then select New Capture.

Then click start

As soon as you click start you’ll see there’s probably a whole bunch of frames streaming in and your brain will be frozen by data overload (well ok mine usually will be anyway).

In this situation it’s a good idea to filter your data. To start with select the display filter

Now try these filters;

To filter by address Ipv4.address == (or what ever IP your like)
To filter by port tcp.port == 80 (port 80 is for web traffic but we all know that... check this link out for more ports!)
To filter by application Conversation.ProcessName == "wspsrv.exe"
Note you can string multiple filters together by using an “and”.

Once you’ve found data that is relevant you can right click on a frame and select Find Conversations, obviously this will show you all frames in a given conversation.

Interpreting the data provided by an application like this can be tricky but the more you do it the better you become at it. I would encourage anyone working in the field to become at least vaguely familiar with tools like this one.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Economics of Ease

This may seem like a middle aged bloke pining for his youth, but let me just say; Games today are nowhere near as difficult as they were when I was young.

Yes there is a certain amount of nostalgia associated with that statement; however it’s also an irrefutable fact! I’ll even go on to say the reason games are easier is purely economic.

Back in the 80s (Haha! More nostalgia!) one of the primary sources of high end gaming experiences was the local arcade. Or in my case, having grown up in a small rural community, it was back in the 90s you could play Mortal Kombat at the local Laundromat. Nevertheless when on holidays I’d locate the nearest coin-ops and pump the majority of my spending money into them. My spending money was by no means meagre however it never really lasted more than a day.

These games were hard, unfriendly to new players and bloody addictive. As a result my brothers and I experienced game play in 3 minutes blocks between which we’d frantically feed our parents hard earned coins into that tiny but insatiable slot. The response was almost Pavlovian;

  • “Warrior needs food badly...” = insert 20c
  • “Woah! Shell Shocked!” = insert $1
  • “Game over... Continue?” = insert whatever we’ve got left!

Now with the benefit of hindsight the economic incentive for this level of difficulty is obvious. And just as obvious is the incentive we had to be better at the games we played.

This level of difficulty was mirrored on the home systems we enjoyed. The arcade ports were just as difficult and the titles developed exclusively for the home platforms shared this apparent contempt for the player. But as a wise man pointed out while we discussed this very issue; there were far fewer gamers back in the “good ol’ days” and the kinds of people who enjoyed games also enjoyed more intellectual pursuits.

Find a gamer in the 80s or 90s and chances are they would enjoy chess, puzzles and generally derive value from things that required skill and cunning. These attributes characterised the games we played as youths. Yes they were hard; but with this level difficulty, also came a high level of satisfaction when you managed to achieve victory!

Then the rabble came. I blame Sony. Their slick marketing of the Playstation brought gaming into popular culture and as it became less of a niche pursuit the difficulty of games was diminished.

This time the economic incentive was to sell more games to people who would play at home. So as the demographic broadened then by necessity the skill and cunning required to enjoy games was lessened. If game got a reputation for being unforgiving fewer of this new wave of gamers would be willing to shell out cash for a copy. Who wants to pay to be punished? Actually don’t answer that.

But it gets worse because then the MMOs came. These games are all about extracting as much cash as possible for the audience but instead of inserting coins every 3 minutes you insert credit card details every month. The value proposition of an MMO is so much greater than that of an arcade game but they’ve achieved that by flattening the difficulty curve to such an extent that a human doesn’t even have to be at the keyboard to be successful! If a game is so repetitive that it can be botted; how can it really be all that interesting? As I’ve said before this is a dangerous concession to the lowest common denominator and it’s made entirely as an economic decision.

 Just look at the Nintendo Wii. It has out sold the Xbox 360 and Play Station 3 presumably on the premise that it’s more accessible thus securing a larger market. But that may be to the platforms own detriment. The Wii may well the best selling console but it’s also the least played (ref )

I don’t want to come off as a grumpy old man caught up in the nostalgia of his youth. I think it’s great that games now have a wider audience; as the capital generated by this larger player base has facilitated the production some really entertaining titles. It’s just that these titles are designed so the majority of players will be able to witness the final cinematic.

All hope is not lost though as there also seems to be a bit of trend towards ramping up difficulty ('s_Souls#Reception ). Maybe we’ll witness the creation of a new subgenre, Hardcore games for Hardcore gamers.

Whatever happens I really hope that games in general aren’t diminished by their acceptance into a larger market.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why MMOs make you a Crap Gamer

Those that know me know I play a lot of games. I’m not that good at many games but I sure enjoy playing them! What I want to talk about today is a specific genre of game. The MMO.

I put a couple of years into World of Warcraft but I never had enough time to be “hardcore” and what free time I did grab for WoW was to the detriment of my relationship. But I honestly thought this game was simply the best thing since Malt, Hops and Barley were mixed together in water!

When I first loaded it up using a free trail from a friend (isn’t that always the way?), I remember being a little disappointed. The pace of the game play was deliberately slow and the combat was quite abstracted from the user input, this I later figured out was to accommodate for laggy internet connections but it really made the game feel less immediate. Despite this initial disappointment I remember rushing to level 10 driven largely, I must say in an effort to be useful to my friends who were already well into the game.

Then when I did meet up with them I remember them laughing at my lame gear, which sent me off again in search of upgrades. Well that pretty much set me on the treadmill. From there on out I was chasing the twin carrots of levelling up and better gear, so I could be more useful to my regular playing group.

It eventually occurred to me I was doing the same things over and over. The same three or four button combos to down an enemy, repeating the same instances hoping for the right item to drop from a boss. So many hours wasted just seeking an item that would allow me to down an enemy a few seconds faster. But because of the hours I’d sunk and my regular playing group, I attached immense personal value to the fruits of my virtual labours.

Eventually though I did just crack. When I saw the treadmill for what it was, I just couldn’t be bothered to sink the hours required to gain a better grade of gear.

I then moved on to games with more responsive controls and less “hamster on a wheel” style game play and I had a ball!

I’ve concluded; the MMO essentially rewards crap play, almost as well as skilful play. You can achieve maximum level in an MMO regardless of skill level. It’s in the developer’s interest to never make you feel like giving up you are paying a monthly fee to play their game after all.

Once I moved on from WoW I found really challenging multiplayer games like Soul Calibur 4 or Dawn of War 2 so much more rewarding. There is no persistence in these more challenging games but I didn’t miss it at all, I felt so much better when I was able to be competitive on an even footing.

To be competitive in an MMO you need to chase the correct gear, you can chase that gear regardless of skill level and yes gear does make a huge difference. Once you have the correct gear and know the correct combat rotation, there’s not much else left to do.

What threw this into stark relief for me was the Dawn of War 2 mod; The Last Stand. It takes the DOW2 engine and creates a survival mod where you fight waves and waves of enemies while also adding RPG-like persistence, that is, they tacked on a levelling up component. As you level up you get better gear and can thus survive longer. Making you value levelling up more. It was like a tiny MMO where it only takes a couple of days to hit max level. Then seeing how many people could get to level 20 but still be quite awful at the game it all became clear...

MMOs are dumbing gamers down.

Gamers no longer compete on a level playing field; it’s no long a finely balanced scale of skill and luck. If you find an area challenging just stick with the game long enough, you’ll be able to come back with a higher level character and better gear and kick some ass.

The tendency to introduce elements of persistence in modern games is sold as “adding replay value” to the game. But really it’s a potentially harmful concession to the lowest common denominator. Give me games that require skill, I’ll find my own replay value!

Anyway I’m off now to play Dungeons and Dragons Online! :P