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Lt. Commander
Join Date: Dec 2007
Posts: 120
Okay... My own lengthy history of interaction with Cryptic dates back to interacting with them at Comic-Con before City of Heroes launch. I enjoy their games but I have noticed several tendencies in terms of their design and their internal culture...

Someone in another thread on the STO forums accused them of being gamist. I think this was in reference to Ron Edwards' GNS system. Ignoring the section of the relevant Wikipedia article on balance, I think this stands out:

Combat is frequently heavily emphasised, as is a diversity in options for short-term problem solving (i.e., long lists of highly specific spells or combat techniques). Randomisation (i.e., Fortune methods) exist primarily to provide a gamble and allow players to risk more for higher stakes (for instance, attempting a more effective hit in combat requires a penalty on the dice roll), rather than modelling strict probability.
Examples include, Magic: The Gathering, Chess, and most computer games.
This is in contrast to narrativist (somewhat counter-intuitively being about emergent stories that come through player interaction) and simulationist gaming (where the rules of the universe and immersion trump all). This is all from a theory of gaming rooted in tabletop play, one area I've been studying on a ascholarly level a lot lately.

I think what might also be fair is to look at the ludological vs. narratological debate.

Summed up from wikipedia:

This disagreement has been called the ludology vs. narratology debates. The narratological view is that games should be understood as novel forms of narrative and can thus be studied using theories of narrative (Murray, 1997; Atkins, 2003). The ludological position is that games should be understood on their own terms. Ludologists have proposed that the study of games should concern the analysis of the abstract and formal systems they describe. In other words, the focus of game studies should be on the rules of a game, not on the representational elements which are only incidental (Aarseth, 2001; Eskelinen, 2001; Eskelinen, 2004). The idea that a videogame is “radically different to narratives as a cognitive and communicative structure”[8] has led the development of new approaches to criticism that are focused on videogames as well adapting, repurposing and proposing new ways of studying and theorizing about videogames.[9][10] A recent approach towards game studies starts with an analysis of interface structures and challenges the keyboard-mouse paradigm with what is called "ludic interfaces".
In other words, are games ideally understood as a story-driven media experience or are they an abstract play system in which story is incidental? I'm not gonna lie: I see some value in both perspectives. Jennifer Hepler, a dev over at Bioware, caused a huge controversy when someone found five year old comments from her suggesting that, if cutscenes should be skippable, action gameplay should also be skippable (calculating the result to match average play), allowing people who want to experience games as interactive fiction. She was bombarded with lots of ugly statements, including people trying to goad her into suicide with personal phonecalls... and while I have seen several Cryptic devs express outrage over her treatment, I've also heard rumblings that many or most at Cryptic still think her ideas are entirely wrong.

Personally, I think her position on skipping gameplay was EXTREME but NOT necessarily wrong and that you need to accept that her attitude represents a large and valid opinion held by people who may be poorly represented in gaming but who are valid consumers. I think the Forbes article I linked covers the social issues aspect of "gamer entitlement" or "gamist entitlement" nicely.

And I've noticed observations from other people echoing this in terms of recent decisions in STO, ranging from the ranking system (they want us to be an admiral so we can control more ships, eventually, rather than a more IP appropriate Captain) to the camera changes (breaking ship zoom-ins to emphasize gameplay and the absence of clipping while making cinematic play impossible in a cruiser) to the absence of non-gamelike features (meaningful social hubs, lack of emphasis on interiors).

I think you can see this in longterm features where they develop mechanics faster than they can use them. This has been true in virtually all of their games where a frequently lobbed criticism is that they place little emphasis on story, that story seems like a prop to hold up gameplay. The opposite criticism has been lobbed at BioWare, sure, but in many respects I don't sense a co-equal partnership at either company.

Cryptic also introduces new game mechanics and art assets at a much faster rate than they introduce content. Sure, you could chalk this up to F2P... But they did this in their subscription games. There, you could chalk it up to the cash shop... but it's also how they operated when they ran City of Heroes which didn't have a cash shop for the majority of the time they ran that game. And that's probably because Cryptic exec Jack Emmert, historically has been opposed to them.

He once said, "Microtransactions are the biggest bunch of nonsense. I like paying one fee and not worrying about it – like my cellphone." He has since revised his position because he sees it as an essential way for games without a lot of upfront capital to make games.

This has been discussed before on the forums. But it occurs to me that there's a key part of this that hasn't been looked at. WHY he doesn't like them. I think it's because he is coming from a gamist perspective, which is interesting from a guy whose whole academic career was not in game design but as a student of the Ancient Mediterranean world and who is an avowed mythology buff.

But this goes back to Emmert's claim to infamy with some CoX players, one I supported him on as a player, but one that is a milestone in Cryptic's history: Enhancement Diversification. It was a substantial nerf to promote game balance and avoid the scenarios that emerged where it became routine for players to team up and herd hundreds of enemies to farm for experience. A lot of people expressed dissatisfaction with the nerf because it diminished their feeling of power. Emmert subsequently expressed regret over it and has basically said that while nerfs do not ordinarily cost players, the handling of that nerf cost Cryptic thousands of players. This is what led to the "Cryptic listens" policy we have now.

Now from a game perspective, I think ED may have been the right call, handled poorly. I think that's Emmert's own stance. But it occurs to me, taking this altogether, that ED may represent a philosophical flaw in how Cryptic views MMOs that hasn't been addressed and hasn't been "listened" to: that is whether MMOs ARE primarily games. And I think the fact that people enjoyed being overpowered in a super-hero game (go figure) and hold a grudge to this day, maybe indicates that Cryptic was right about GAME design but was wrong to be DESIGNING A GAME.

Is an MMO primarily a game or is it a social media narrative interactive experience where the game-like elements are not nearly that relevant?

I think I've outlined how a lot of the big issues with STO seem tied into this. My feeling is that the same can be true with Champions from what I've seen.

And if so, I think what we need to be calling for is not isolated buffs or nerfs or fixes, not one more mission series or one less camera nerf, but a fundamental reworking of philosophy at Cryptic. And if they change the philosophy, everything else falls into place.

Please, discuss.