Idle Picasa is the Devil’s Plaything

Confession time: I keep looking back at my own habits and tendencies, finding what I hope are good traits for a game designer. Many of these are expressed as near-obsessive compulsions. I love to alphabetise things, to form cataloguing systems and maintain an orderly hard drive, however it’s often the process which excites me more than working with the system itself. To wit:

  • I’ve created four separate game design-related blogs in my time, all achieving roughly the same goals;
  • my website has been through near enough a dozen revisions and three name changes since its original launch, all with quite different layouts and logos;
  • my hard drive too has seen tens of gigabytes of data reshuffled many times over, all so I can access my picture libraries more easily.

You would also not believe how many times my bedrooms have been shuffled about. It is a mercy that my current furniture layout cannot physically fit any other way, and my bookshelves have to stay as they are. Despite that, this weekend has seen me re-organising paper documents, installation disks and the behemoth that is my Picasa library, mostly for fun.

I think I was an early Picasa adopter, once Google had bought it and released the desktop photo manager as a free download. I piped my photos into it, and all was well until I read an article by ‘Duddlebug’ in ImagineFX. He suggested using Picasa’s smooth layout, handy thumbnail views and tagging features to organise a visual reference library. I remember this much: the fortnight after I had read that advice were a blur. The fifth or sixth iteration of my file folder system was thrown out of the window as I set about importing everything into Picasa, then toying about with its albums and categories. It took a while, but I got there and have a system which stands to date. I’m rather proud of it.

If I were to read this staple of my digital life back as a design brief, I’d have the following:

  • My Picasa library is a combination of visual reference and photo album – there are spaces for my own photographs and a variety of visual mood boards comprising found images, magazine scans, screenshots and downloaded artworks.
  • The system is mirrored in Windows Explorer under the ‘public’ and user -specific ‘My Pictures’ folders.
  • Pictures are sorted by:
    • theme, e.g. cyberpunk, erotic art, pulp;
    • and purpose, e.g. stock, photos, inboxes.
  • There is room to tag each image with appropriate keywords, or they can be searched for by title and folder name too.
  • Photos can be held in a temporary tray and exported into new destinations, compiled as photo sheets, or added to ‘mood board’ albums independent of folder structure.

This creates a desktop-launched environment in which I can scroll down a set of themes, opening each to see a few dozen folders, all containing images related to that theme. I can then pick out a few pictures from various sources and bind them in an album for sharing online, printing as a contact sheet or exporting to a disk.

Open “raypunk”, for example, and I find:

Screenshots: "Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog", "Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow", "Flash Gordon" and "Things to Come";
Artworks: Andy Hill, Bradley W. Schenck, Frank R. Paul and Johnna Y Kuklas;
Generic pictures relating to artworks, fashions, architecture and even glamour shots taken in the raypunk style.

Pretty useful if you happen to start designing a raypunk-themed game!

I’m currently threatening myself with starting a tagging regime. As with many of my cataloguing systems, the tags drifted into obscurity as I imported too many images to handle. My Picasa installation is surely housing around 10,000 images if not more, and I have to wonder about the balance between ‘making do’ and investing a few days’ tedious data processing in order to add another, more useful indexing method.

Sadly, it’s hard to find an answer when even tedium fulfils some odd compulsion of mine.

Shiny Syndrome: the Push to 80

I’ve recently witnessed quite a shocking but fascinating conflict between an emergent cultural practice and those of a world’s designers. I speak of Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft and not Linden Lab’s mis-handled “come to Second Life, but please don’t lead a second life” discussion (and I offer no apologies for slipping that in on a tangent – it’s been a hard rant to tame).

I observed the following between three players: two level 50-60 characters, clearly alts. (sadly named in a typical ‘noobish’ style with words like “pwn”) and an apparently new user in Orgrimmar. It’s edited for grammar’s sake:

“Ah, noobs these days. You don’t need items, you just need to get to level 80 A.S.A.P. Then you get items.”
“True.”
“I haven’t bought anything almost this whole time. Just grab stuff from dungeon drops and push to 80. Save as much gold as you can.”

By coincidence I was logged in as my blood elf priest at the time who, if you can forgive my brief distraction to background context, hovers around the level 70 mark so that my guild-mates and I can enjoy The Burning Crusade‘s dungeons. Thanks to the persuasive suggestion and outright pressure from our peers to reach level 80, I’d managed to skip large swathes of World of Warcraft‘s first expansion pack in a rush to reach the so-called ‘endgame’ in Wrath of the Lich King, despite having paid around £20 for the privilege. That struck me as a little insane, so my priest is kept there to heal a party whose very purpose is to explore what the pre-level 70 world of Outland has to offer. I do have some bias towards this practice as a result.

This aspect of the player culture seems to ride pretty hard against Blizzard’s designs. There’s a global delusion that says all the game’s most fulfilling content has been built into a chunk at level 80, despite the fact Blizzard have pushed this game past two other ‘endgames’ already – at level 60 in Azeroth, and 70 in Outland. A lot of the lore has been designed so that stories seeded while growing up will come to fruition in that game’s harder dungeons, and this is expressed in some hard-to-reach quest chains spanning tens of levels.

Most of what actually keeps players amused at the endgame are the challenge of heroic dungeons, a more active player versus player (PvP) scene an the tiered gear rewards which come from high-level raids. The sad fact is that unless a player retraces his or her steps and commits themselves to quests which offer relatively little monetary reward and inferior gear rewards, the story and player interaction is actually fairly sparse here. There’s also a bitterness against which I’ve done my fair share of ranting; push a character straight to 80 and it’s very likely you’ll be denied access to the heroic raiding parties you were hoping for precisely because you’re entirely devoid of play experience.

Gear is the only material reason for players skipping content. It’s a well-known fact that at level 69 (once only a level away from the endgame), a player can expect to find gear of a superior quality in Wrath of the Lich King‘s quest rewards than they will from persisting in Outland. Professions like jewelcrafting suffer most, going so far as to offer low-level recipes to Wrath of the Lich King arrivals which exceed even the hard-to-reach ‘epic’ gem cuts offered in the Burning Crusade expansion.

The problem is that both expansion packs have had to cater for a split audience. Those who bought Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King on launch are likely to have spent a lot of time in the game already. Those were the players who had met the previous game’s challenges, sought out the best gear available and now expect to meet similar challenges in the new world. It’s unlikely that they will even use the gear offered for the new expansion’s opening quests.

Gear Shift

Fast forward six months or more, and we have players whose characters have only just reached levels 58-60 or 68-70. Though they may still tackle the older game’s dungeons out of curiosity, it’s unlikely that they will work on the daily quests, faction rewards and dungeon farming that their predecessors did to get at their gear sets. It seems likely, then, that they will move on to the new content and find themselves battling enemies of a significantly tougher nature in relatively common gear – after all, such enemies have had to put a decent fight up against veterans, too. The solution to that is simple – freely offer gear only a few steps below the old game’s optimum in order to up the players’ survival rate.

All of which has somehow been lost upon the majority. Without wishing to sound too cynical, it is an affliction of the shiny. There are questions asked at 58 and 68 as to where a player’s character should spend their time:

“Do I plug away at these Plaguelands quests, tackle Stratholme and Scholomance.. or instead do I hop through the Dark Portal and get fantastic gear for comparatively little effort?”

For participants in a leisure activity like gaming, this is not a hard decision to make.

Personally I’m stuck for any solution other than blocking the expansion content to player characters below levels 60 or 70. By allowing players to accept quests in each of the expansions’ new continents at 58 and 68, Blizzard have allowed for a compromise in which we can skip straight to the more polished content; quests and dungeons made after the lessons of the previous game were learned. They could leave it no lower, for even players starting at 59 may struggle to overcome the new world’s obstacles. Leave it higher, however, and the older content need not have been so ruthlessly abandoned. Nor indeed would the player skills be lost for what are often the level 80 ‘noobs’.