The interview: uncut version

I noticed that Zonk published that interview I was using as an excuse to write here for another month.

I believe that he actually did a great work to condense all I wrote and retain the sense. Editing all that stuff in a presentable form must have been a pain in the ass.

So thank you.

When he asked me to do this thing I thought I couldn’t care less. I don’t want to publicize the site, I don’t want new readers, I don’t want to show it to a bigger public. I always did this relatively alone and never joined things like the “carnival of gamers” because they are beyond the purpose of what I do here. I think those who may be interested about what I write know already the site and that’s more than enough.

So I couldn’t see the purpose and couldn’t be bothered doing this. But then I was also curious about the… “interview”. I saw it like a test. I particularly liked the idea of having an interlocutor and have a discussion about games, ideas and the rest. I liked the idea of a confrontation. In fact I wish the interview was more like an interview. More interactive. I wanted to DELVE into things, not doing a “presentation” of the site to people who probably couldn’t care less. I’m not selling anything. I don’t need ads.

But if it didn’t exactly as I expected it’s mostly my fault as my insanely long replies surely didn’t help to make the an eventual discussion “breathe”. I took all the space and then more.

I actually asked Zonk to not cut the flames, but he did ;p In particular that “Mark Jacobs is an idiot”. Oh well, it was fun.

With the off-topic flames he also cut a few passages I cared about. Mostly my design thoughts on certain parts. For example when I use my experience with UO to talk about “directed play” and the part where I talk about “communal objectives” and the bland footprint that players leave in WoW, along with some critics to its PvP model. I think that part was important and pertinent to the point I was trying to make.

So this is the “uncut” version of the interview. Or more like: Zonk gives me a theme and I write about it.

There was also a last question where he asked me to comment about mmorpgs in development and who I think is going to succeed. You know that I wouldn’t back off “predictions”. So I went commenting company by company without sparing bullets. That’s a very long reply.

I don’t know if publishing it is a good idea, as most comments are sort of “unnecessary” or apparently unjustified. But if I’ll do it then it will be standalone.

The point is simple, though (and a J. quote): there aren’t anymore free lunches.

In bright yellow the parts that were cut. I hope the color is distinguishable enough.

The interview, “uncut” version

Michael: The Cesspit is primarily, it seems, a focus for your design-related ideas and thoughts. What prompted you to start the site? Was it a specific event, or just a general need to get your ideas out there? Once you’d begun, what kept you blogging over the course of the two+ years since May of 2004?

Abalieno: Well, there are many different aspects to it. Let me take this from an unconventional perspective. I recently watched the second movie of “Ghost in the Shell” and it talks a bit about the concept of “external memory”. It’s something both modern and ancient at the same time, also deeply connected to the “nostalgia”. What I can say is that it’s something I’ve always done a lot. That I have the “urge” to do. Before I started writing on a website I always went around with a voice recorder. I have thousands of hours recorded with my thoughts about everything. Then I have notebooks. The ideal would be about using a videocamera and record just everything, every single second. The particular light of an evening, your thoughts in that moment, and so on. It’s like an obsession (Wim Wenders’ “Until the End of the World” is also about this).

More specifically, I think everyone who participated to a community like a forum knows the frustration when a site goes down or a database gets wiped. Or an hard drive crash, in a more personal case. I don’t think I’m the only one who freaks out when things like that happen. Well, starting from the “golden age” of Lum the Mad there’s so much that was lost. Millions of messages, articles. That’s our history and it’s priceless.

You can go pick randomly an old post on my blog/webiste, or any other blog and I’m sure you can find plenty of broken links and severed discussions. That’s one reason why I tried to include as much as possible in my posts, quote a lot, save the news, comments from devs and so on. The website basically has two purposes, work as a memory and a workshop.

Initially the website was the result of a whole lot of frustration. I beta tested “Wish” for a couple of months and poured a lot of thoughts on the beta message boards. There were many interesting discussions going on but shortly after Christmas everything changed, Dave Rickey, the lead designer, was fired and the game took a completely different direction. It was very clear that it was all going down the toilet. And in fact it did. My shouts at that time were really awkward and out of place, but also a true description of what was going to happen.

I saved some forum threads before the beta boards were closed. The frustration was because I couldn’t accept that all the community had done, and all the good premises of that game were going to be wasted. I couldn’t accept that the time I passed there was going to be simply useless. So I felt the need to save all that, give it a “following” so that it wouldn’t be all lost and forgotten. Keep a memory of things. Learn lessons. Be part of a process. It was an attempt to contrast all that, and also the natural “volatility” of the forums, where threads and meaningful discussions disappear in the span of three days. You say something and two seconds later it is forgotten. Or repeated anew every two months, which is worse. Like living in a loop of redundant forums’ habits.

People today mock me with the phrase “I predicted this on my blog”.

So my site served the purpose of “fixing” some stuff. Maintain a memory and use it as a value to fuel a learning process. My own. I think working on games is exciting also because there’s a lot going on, a lot to absorb. And I’m a sponge. The site was a way to embrace all that.

I also have to say that my site wasn’t just about game design thoughts, but also about reporting news with some commentary. This is something I’m looking for even when I’m a reader. I like when on VodooExtreme or Evil Avatar I can occasionally find some “unsolicited commentary” from the editors. Many think that those are out of place and unecessary, often going too far. Instead it’s exactly what I’m looking for as a reader and what I tried to provide with my own site. Not just the “polite and clean” press release handed to you right from PR staff, but also some objective and subjective commentary that tries to delve deeper. For what is possible, as we all know that “game journalism” isn’t something easy to pull.

I’m always looking for different opinions and points of view, as long they are backed up by solid arguments. And I think there’s always the need to put beside the blind fanboysm some more objective and critical commentary. It builds consciousness when the trend is to get rid of it, uproot it systematically through polls and surveys. Today eveything goes through polls and surveys. You aren’t anymore entitled of an opinion that isn’t pre-made.

From that point onward, meaning the reason why I continued and now pulling the handbrake, is simply for one reason: addiction. An endless passion that I fear is way beyond what I’m allowed to do. So the dead end.

Michael: On the site, in commentary, and in your discussion of why you started the site, you show an obvious passion for Massive games. What got you ‘into’ the massive genre in the first place? Was there a friend or game that drew you in?

Abalieno: Well, should I answer? ;) Because here it shows how I’m FAR from the stereotype of the hardcore gamer who has been around since AOL and played and beta’d so many games that you would need three pages only to list them.

None of my friends play online games and none of them could be considered “gamers”, so I’m mostly a loner. Even today I’m not really part of any community, in the sense that I’m not an active part of any guild, I don’t use any Instant Messaging programs and my e-mail is relatively silent, if you don’t count spam. Sure, I post a lot on various forums, read a whole lot, but I was never able to feel at home in any group, even if I don’t know how to explain this part. I’m somewhat elusive and often people fail to recognize and understand me. It’s not a choice, just the way things are. So it’s not the hook with a group that led me to online games by chance. Instead it was something I looked for all by myself and that I strongly wanted.

Previous to mmorpgs I had some experience on MUDs, both as player and as maker, but as maker I just wrote a whole lot of ideas, so many that is not even funny. Months passed, I keep writing and nothing was ever implemented… I liked the kind of experimentation that Tarn Adams is doing today on Dwarf Fortress, and I wanted to bring that to a MUD. At that time I was also inspired by another MUD very popular here in Italy and absolutely impressive (The Gate, now closed). It was one of the most innovative, deep and articulated MUDs I’ve ever seen, sadly never exported outside Italy. It was similar in complexity to Dwarf Fortress, completely skill based, roleplay enforced and with an impressive building/crafting component. Even in that case I spent very little time playing and a whole lot discussing features, development and more, but I wasn’t part of the team (and all of the design and coding was done just by one guy) so I was just there creating and participating to discussions. Then, with the time, the MUD kept growing and drawing in more players and the focus moved more toward the game itself, worldbuilding and less on the experimentation and creative design, so I slowly lost interest and moved my attention somewhere else.

I’m not particularly smart, nor particularly creative. But I’m a sponge. I absorb, understand and learn very rapidly. And as a sponge I think I’m one of the best in the world ;) This means that everything had a strong influence on me at some point and that I owe a lot to my experiences, the communities and so on.

Michael: What was your first MMOG?

Abalieno: My first “real” mmorpg was Ultima Online. I was in a mall with my friends, around the end of November of a few years ago and I noticed the boxed set of the “Second Age”. I was already “late” on the mmorpg thing. When was that? I don’t even want to remember… Anway, I’ve always been a fan of all kinds of RPGs and obviously also of the Ultima series. My first computer was a Commodore 64 and I never had an Ultima game for it, but I remember that I kept rereading hundreds of times the same reviews of those Ultima games, the Bard’s Tale series, Wastelands… For me they weren’t games I wanted to play, they were dreams. Playing those games was for me like the ultimate wish, so I created a myth in my mind that wasn’t necessarily tied to the reality of those games, but just the way I imagined them. That kind of approach still influences me today. It’s something extremely strong. When I was young the *quality* of the game didn’t matter. I remember that I played and loved games that from the design perspective were terrible. Despite this I still preferred them to much better games because I saw in them the projection of my myths, my desires, and that was stronger and more important than everything else. This is something I have a strong nostalgia about. The sort of feelings I had by playing those game when I was young are lost and elusive. And when I try to imagine something today I try to go back with my mind and try to seize those feelings. The possibility to see in a small group of pixels the most incredible things. The more time passes and the more you feel detached, and you need more and more so that you can feel a similar emotional bond. But at the end, even today, that’s what keeps me hooked to games and, inherently, to game design. The immersion. The “magic”.

If I forget what time it is, then the game I’m playing is a good game. Which is still the exact opposite of forcing long playsessions and get bored to tears.

Anyway, I was in the mall and I saw this box of Ultima Online: The Second Age. If I turn my head I still see it there in the pile of chaos behind me. They don’t do anymore good packages like that. Even “holding” the box triggers sensations that are part of that magic I wrote about above. ANYWAY, less digressions, I obviously had read about the game and I had a decent enough PC at that time to make it run. The only problem was that the game was online and I didn’t have a credit card to pay it, nor a decent connection, so I never considered the possibility. It was the REAL ultimate myth, the classic RPG love joined with the true “alternative world” where you could live with other real players the myth of the “virtual life” (at that time there was a lot of interest in the media for everything “virtual”). I was admiring the box in my hands, with the growing desire to play it despite the hurdles of the online play. It just wasn’t accessible, but the desire was so big that I decided to convince one of my friend to lend me the money (I didn’t have any available) and buy it, while starting to think all kinds of escamotages to find a way to pay it. I also knew there were unofficial shards, so in the worst case I could have continued there. Instead, in the ultimate effort, I was able to convince my mother to make a credit card just for that and the journey began.

I still remember when I logged in the game for the first time, after the long patching process. I made a new character in Trinsic (mimicking the start of Ultima 7) and the very first impact wasn’t too bad. I already knew how to use the UI as I had some experience from previous Ultimas and the inventory system was essentially unchanged. But while I didn’t have any problem with the basics, I still didn’t have any clue about what to do. There wasn’t any kind of NPC who came to greet me as the “avatar” as I expected. I was dumped in this new world without even a vague clue. After getting lost in Trinsic (and get disconnected twice because of crappy connection) I decided that a trip to Britain to visit Lord British should have been my first goal and I met another noob just outside of Trinsic. I remember we had a little chat as both of us didn’t have any clue about what we were supposed to do. So… You know what? We decided to call a GM. No, really. The game didn’t give you any direction, today players have a lot of initiative on their own, but at that time, despite being familiar to the Ultima world, I just couldn’t figure out what was the point of the game, what should have been my next step. So after a brief discussion with my occasional noob friend the most logical thing to do was to call a GM so that he could give us a clue. The problem was that the GM took some time to appear and he did in the worst moment. We were walking north toward Britain as in my initial plan, but, I don’t remember exactly, we aggroed something and neither of us knew how the hell to fight back. I remember that the GM appeared right as my noob friend died and I started to flee as fast as possible, leaving both of them behind.

That was the first and last time I called a GM in UO. I made to Britain only to be left clueless again. I was expecting to go straight to Lord British, but the throne room was deserted. Actually Britain in general was deserted. I was expecting to find it filled with NPCs, quests and stories to discover, and instead the more I continued to explore the game, the more it was impenetrable to me. For months all I did was to go from the inn near the center of Britain to the sewers to kill some rats and frogs while skilling up a little bit. When I had the courage to dare some more I learnt to go deep in the sewer till I was able to zone into the “Lost World” where I could fight some more challenging monsters, and in the case I died I could quickly come back and save my stuff. I memorized that path and that was all.

Really, for many months that’s all I saw of the game. Britain, the sewers and a very small fragment of the Lost World. I usually played during the evening for a short time and it became like an habit. I never grouped or talked with anyone at all if not to ask repairs or buy better armor. One year later my main and only character… well, still had just one GM skill (swordmanship) and another at 95 or so percent (tactics, I think). I could have won the medal as the worst player, but despite all that, I still liked the game even if I still wasn’t able to “get it”.

If I’m writing about this it’s because today if we talk about World of Warcraft, in a certain way, it is BECAUSE of those experiences I had. And I’m not talking about my personal case, but the fact that today “directed play” is one of the most important topic when mmorpgs are discussed (see the recent interview with Bioware). Or what I always defined “accessibility” (and not “polish”). And these are things I felt strongly and wrote about for a long time. It’s actually disappointing that we had to wait for that game to address very, very basic problems that were identified by our communities from a LONG time. Today everything seems foregone, but at that time it was like a crusade, or trying to fight the windmills. No one would listen or understand. And the first who did, got 8 millions of players. Heh.

Then, with the time, things slowly improved. I was able to join a guild and they introduced me to PvP, even if I was never able to do anything worthwhile due to lag issues. I was usually just the victim. I was the perfect goose for PKers and thieves. But at the end I had nothing worth stealing (despite veteran rewards, that I lost in some spectacular scams) and I learnt to avoid entirely those places frequented by gank/looters. I have never thought about complaining about them, or that a complain could be legitimate. I had accepted that part of the game and adapted to it. There were instead other things that bugged me in that game, for example the fact that there were more houses outside a town than inside it, or that I couldn’t find a two-handed sword. You know, when you play your first mmorpg you COULDN’T CARE LESS about what the game can offer to you. Instead you bring along your own expectations, your own imagination. Raph Koster actually wrote about this. I wanted to fight with a goddamn two handed sword, but there weren’t any, and I was pissed. Those are the sort of things that I never accepted. The shantytowns outside towns, lack of quests, lack of stories, lack of two-handed swords. And the dragons looked very lame and so far from my idea of a scary, powerful, huge, fire-breathing dragon. UO graphic could have been considered everything but awe-inspiring. It was very conventional and monotonous.

UO didn’t offer me sense of wonder. It killed it for good. It was a world with its own rules and habits. While instead I wanted to play my ideal of a fantasy game, with rules that came from books, movies and other games that were part of my experiences.

What fucking fantasy game is it if it doesn’t have a two handed sword? That’s what I thought.

I’ve never been an hardcore player. My interest moved from the initial fascination about RPGs to the creation of worlds and be part of that process of creation. Being a player was just the least interesting aspect. So, the reason why I care about this genre is because of the myth that lays in Origin’s slogan: “we create worlds”. I was a player as a reflection of the creative part. I like online games when they try to be something else and become worlds with their own depth. I’m still chasing that original myth and fascination. While with the time I’ve also learnt to see things from a different perspective, I’m still clinging to the same philosophy I always pursued.

If we build worlds, then numbers and sequels are retarded. And if we REALLY build a world, then there’s NO END to what you can do. You’ll never reach a point where you can sit back and say: “Ahh, I’m done. Let’s do something else”. A world can be as deep and interesting and varied as you want. And I think online games should capitalize on that, instead of progressively remove their “virtues” ( through instancing, sharding, sequels, mudflation). I often commented this from the point of view of the “ecology”. What all the developers out there are doing is BURN their worlds, and design them so that they can burn as quickly as possible. Till they become completely inhospitable to the new players who may arrive. I know this because I felt it on my skin as I felt those “accessibility” problems I described when I logged in Ultima Online for the first time. I hated all that from day one.

I use to say that this is the consumerism applied to online worlds. You jump on the new, burn it to the ground, throw it away and jump on the next. It’s all going to waste, and, incidentally, it has NO taste. It leaves very little to you. It becomes really just that compulsive, obsessive type of gameplay that gets you hooked through tricks but that lacks a deeper involvement and participation. Some players take the bait and do get hooked, but many others discard entirely the whole thing. As I wrote above, I’m not interested in this aspect, but in the “magic”. The way to create the “sense of wonder”, the awe.

This is why I often have no shame in saying that I have no interest for in-game economies. It’s not that I disown the public who likes them. But there’s very little sense of awe, “looking things as a child”, and “immersion” in an economic system. So I don’t think those parts shouldn’t exist, but they are parts that do not directly interest me. Parts that I cannot create strong bonds with.

It may sound as a contradiction as linear content can better represent the kinds of feelings I described, while a complete economic system can bring the participation and player’s involvement I was preaching about. But the real point isn’t to choose between one or the other. But find an agreement between the two. Coordinate and intersect them.

“Empowering” the players, give weight to PvP, while at the same time always try to make everything accessible for everyone. Removing the barriers. These are some of the interesting challenges. But instead I see the genre moving away from its innate “virtues” like persistence and the “massive” aspect, and those are losses that shouldn’t be underestimated, even if they lead to systems that are easier to manage and control.

But, honestly, my main interest is not even the “massive” aspect, but the “ongoing” nature of the development. As I wrote above I see these games as all-around “worlds”. They are never done and there’s always something to discuss, to learn, to imagine. Something without age. The endless craft. The endless journey.

And, of course, the desire to be there and be part of it.

Michael: What would you say your ‘proudest’ moment from a Massive game might be? The moment you’ll tell your grandkids about.

Abalieno: Here’s a question not so easy to answer for me. As I said I’m a rather mediocre player and what I have achieved in MMOs is sometime even less than the “average” player. I don’t remember anything that stands out or that I’m really proud of, again also because I’m a loner.

I think the best moments I remember are still from DAoC. You see, in WoW there’s a lot of activity at the endgame in the raiding guilds, but the way this content was developed “segmented” the community a lot. There can be from ten to twenty raiding guilds or more, each with its own little world and ecosystem. These guilds rarely communicate between each other and, in a general sense, there’s no real community or identity on a server. There isn’t anything that you achieve as a whole or truly communal objectives. So the perspective of “success” or the maximum achievement is always personal and within the bounds of each guild. Outside a guild people simply ignore each other. They are phantoms. There’s nothing that really connect the players in a “world”. And the more you move toward the endgame the more your playtime will be focused on instanced content. The more your “footprint” loses consistence. More and more vaporous.

DAoC from this perspective was really different and *felt* different. You started as a phantom and slowly became tangible. That’s the reason why my memories from that game will remain stronger. The idea of the three realms at war is a very strong one and what everyone was expecting from WoW’s PvP and was deluded when instead we found just gameplay modes ripped straight from first person shooters with very little involvement and motivation. DAoC felt different because it gave truly communal objectives that were shared between all players. There was a community because we shared the world and we played always together in the same zones. The “war” was a context shared by everyone and where everyone could participate. Your own story, or the few hours you had available during an evening to play, weren’t just a personal experience that is relevant solely to you and your guildmates. Instead the RvR zones were a real battlefield, and every other player was playing a part in your game. Participation.

Those are my fondest memories. Playing for hours deep in the night (for me till 6 AM in the morning and later) to defend or capture a relic. Huge, truly epic battles between hundreds of players. A “campaign”. Aside bitching and discussing strategies on the raid chat channel I never lead anything, but even being there as one of those hundreds of players was a great experience. Sometimes the action was very slow due to some design issues. Waiting just too long inside a keep waiting for an attack that never arrived. But despite the downtimes you could feel the motivation and involvement. You could feel part of something. You could capture a keep and be sure that soon the enemy realm would come to take it back. Those desperate battles were something truly unique. It didn’t matter that at the end you would lose, what mattered is that it felt great and you had a part in a greater scenario.

Today we lost completely all that and I think this loss shouldn’t be underestimated. Today everything is relative. You could have killed Ragnaros, or its bigger friends, but it matters to you and maybe your guildmates. It’s a pocket experience that can give some “fun” feedback and maybe adrenaline rush, but when it’s over it is already past you. There’s no sense of “world” and participation. It’s just an experience to “use” and forget. It again gives you the feel of a well-trained phantom. You obediently walk along the line that was traced for you. You are just part of an herd. How’s this memorable?

(and it’s actually interesting that with Warhammer Mythic is going to remove some of those qualities from DAoC to be some more “like WoW”)

Michael: Likewise, what would you say was the most memorable bad experience you’ve had in a MMOG?

Instead I don’t know about the memorable bad experiences. I use to think about these from the perspective of game design. So I can remember bad experience because I was deluded by some decisions. Guild drama never touched me. I never fed it, nor felt it entertaining. I use to think that guild drama only really happens to those who are looking for it. Drama works till it has an audience and people like it much more than what they are ready to admit. Maybe because of my interest for game design, but everything that isn’t directly connected with the game seems to go over me, same for the drama. It just doesn’t stick on me. I’m actually sad of this, because there are some dynamics I think are interesting to observe.

I consider “Wish” as a bad experience for all the time and commitment I dedicated to it. It started abruptly as a nightmare. All at the sudden they decided to fire Dave Rickey, and from there the whole project went downhill till it was canceled a year later. The premises weren’t exactly brilliant but I had faith in that game. Today I’m still between those (few?) who would really love to see Dave Rickey working for a well-founded MMO company. I think he still has something interesting to show and I want to see it.

Maybe I could say I’m angry at Mythic because firstly they brought DAoC to the ground, and secondly because they sold out to EA, wasting in a second all that they had achieved and that was left. I had an infinite esteem for Mythic. But at some point they decided to make a backflip and throw everything in the air. From there they cruised in a downward trend that I still cannot believe was even possible. They made a great entrance in the industry, they were a wind of change. And then they threw everything to hell. You have to have some great talent to ruin completely things like that. Of course, as a fan, I cannot forgive that.

Since I’m not aware about what is going on behind the scenes I slowly identified Mark Jacobs as my scapegoat. And the last interviews he gave confirmed my ideas. He’s an idiot and the first responsible of all the potential Mythic wasted. Whether he actually is or not.

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