RPG Rules: Guidelines or Roadmap?

Tabletop RPGs have been having a kind of renaissance over the past few years for some reason or another. Maybe it’s the growing pervasiveness of geek culture, or a backlash against all things digital. As much as I write about tabletop RPGing, I don’t really immerse myself in the culture as much as I do with video games simply because you can’t effectively solo tabletop games, and without a regular group it’s kind of difficult to get traction, so I’m only guessing that we’re seeing a resurgence.

But the internet can be leveraged to bring people together to talk about and even to play tabletop RPGs (I’m just calling em “RPGs” from here on in), and that’s where I’m getting my vibe from. I don’t know if it’s just me or what, but I’ve seen a lot of people talking about a “right” way to play these games, and a “not quite right” way to play these games, centered around the rules and what it means for mechanical execution.

I’m using the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition versus the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition as the whipping boys because the D&D franchise is probably the best know, and the two editions offer the most stark difference, it seems, in perception. For those who don’t keep up, the 4E rules changed pretty significantly from their popular 3.5E predecessor. The biggest change seemed to be a relentless focus on an almost board-game-like tactical presentation for combat. Previous editions were all about the “theater of the mind” game play, which relied on each player’s imagination to envision the action based on what the DM was telling them. 4E’s rule book goes to great lengths to lay down the rules for distance, line of sight, marching order, and all kinds of things that are far more relevant to playing the game with a map and minis. 5E seems to me moving away from the minis and back to the old school method of pure imagination, but the 5E rules have been promoted as  being “modular” by allowing players and the DM to pick and choose which sub-systems they want to use in their campaign, and that includes using or discarding tactical game play.

So a lot of people seem really hung up on the notion that if you’re playing 4E, you must be playing it like a war game, and that there’s no possible way it can be played otherwise. I’ve heard of people who refuse to look at 4E because they’re not interested in tactical game play, and are therefor looking forward to 5e (or have jumped to Pathfinder or the more loosely coupled FATE system).

When I was younger, my friends and I played a lot of RPGs. I fondly remember playing the Ravenloft modules for D&DGhostbusters, and Call of Cthulhu, among other titles. When we ran out of money to buy new systems, we created our own. It wasn’t all that difficult, and we didn’t need a Kickstarter to do it. Most of the time, we played over the phone, which obviously precluded the option to play with minis (this was in the late 80’s, way before the Internet). The point, of course, is that we were pretty loose with how we applied rules, even with games that had large core rule books.

The underlying purpose of tabletop RPGs is to present a collaborative and dynamic story. The rules, in my opinion, are there to keep people inside the game world and to model the aspects of real life that govern chance and outcome. Anything beyond that that tells you what you can and cannot do is pretty much fluff, and it should be decided by the group which of those fluff aspects to include, not what to jettison. Take Pathfinder: the core rule book has almost 600 pages of tables, stats, and rules, rules, rules. No one should have to memorize that many pages of information about things like the chance that a crossbow will malfunction in a sandstorm. And no one wants to slow the game down by having to “rules lawyer” every question from a thick tome of small fonts. It just really brings down the whole atmosphere.

If a game system offers tactical combat, and the group doesn’t want to use the system because it talks about tactical combat, then throw out the tactical combat. If the rules focus only on how to resolve combat in tactical terms, then fudge it, or come up with alternate rules. RPG systems are designed around core concepts, and deeper systems are built on top of those core concepts. That means that almost anything can be handled by simply knowing the most basic how-tos and adding a little house-rules spin to it if the specific rules are confusing, too cumbersome, or undesirable.

RPGs are about imagination, and there’s no “right way” to play any of them, even if the rule books dedicate a lot of ink to nudging players in a specific direction. I really think the 4E tactical combat aspects were only designed to sell maps and minis, but in a far less cynical vein, there’s no reason why they have to be used at all.

To Use Or Not To Use (Minis in RPGs)

On Wednesday, a friend put forth a general question, re: Pathfinder and minis. Was it required? He claimed that a lot of the presentation of the Pathfinder material was leading him to believe that the game was intended to be played with minis.

Originally, tabletop RPGs weren’t so designed. They were all played in the “theater of the mind”, where players were expected to visualize the action. I remember Back in My Day(tm), we didn’t even care for distance or movement rules, except where it would really screw us up or provided noticeable benefit. The GM would simply keep track of rough estimates of who’s in range of whom and if a player wanted to hide, they’d ask if there was something to hide behind. The GM decided that there was or there wasn’t, and if the player said that they were hiding behind that object, it was so. Otherwise, they were out in the open. It was a lot more cinematic in that regard, because each player had a vision of his or her own scenario in mind, and the game was more personal.

Minis were in the realm of wargaming, where position and quantity are everything. But then computer games showed up, and suddenly everyone wanted visuals. Taking a cue from both wargmaing and video games, RPGs started pumping out official minis because people seemed to like the idea of replicating the idea of known space and relation in their tabletop games. This lead to an industry where mini creators were producing not only characters, but obstacles and terrain and accouterments meant to litter the field with everything that players used to simply imagine.

Are we poorer for using minis? Yes and no. Minis make the game literal. There’s no ambiguity to what we see, and while that’s great for cleaving to the rules, it also limits us in what we can accomplish in a game that’s really about the “suspension of disbelief”. Minis also make things difficult for the GM. He needs to come up with maps that are to-scale, and not only needs to keep track of where the players are, but where the NPCs are. If the game uses minis only for combat (no one can sanely use minis in an entire city, for example), then the immersion comes to a screeching halt when the game transitions from an RP situation to a combat situation, notifying the players that there’s a fight coming up. On the other hand, minis bring tactical elements to the game. It lets players know their limits and exploit their strengths, and to use the unambiguous terrain to their advantage. When using a virtual tabletop software solution to play over the Internet, a lot of the burden placed on the GM is alleviated by the software itself. Playing with minis gives players something to look at other than each other.

Minis are a matter of choice. The purpose of an RPG is to engage the imagination, and the decision to use minis or not is merely a matter of where you want to put the needle along that scale. If you want to have the visual aides, to adhere to the rules as faithfully as possible, then minis might be the best option. If you want to be able to improvise or not be bound or limited by the materials you’ve bought or made, then relying on imaginative description is the best option.

The one thing that I think any new GMs need to understand is that no RPG system is absolute or complete. You pay big bucks for a thick and glossy rule book, but the game is ultimately played with a sheet of paper, a pencil, and some dice. Much hay has been made about the “modularity” of the new D&D 5E system which will allow you to pick and choose the rules you want to use in your game. That’s pretty fantastic, but it’s nothing new; with an RPG, you’re always free to pick and choose the rules you want to use or not use, to follow the rules to the letter, or fudge them for convenience. How you play is totally up to you, the players and the GM in agreement, and there’s no “right way” to play.

Dungeons And Dragons 5th Edition

I went through the D&D Starter Kit5th Edition over the weekend. The boxed set comes with a generic “instruction book”, a larger-than-the-instruction-book pre-made adventure, five pre-made character sheets, and a bag of dice. When they say “starter kit”, they mean it in the most unambiguous way possible. You can hit the ground running with this thing in about 30 minutes; less if you have a history with D&D.

I have to say, I am exceedingly pleased with the tack that Wizards has taken in their presentation of the material this time around. I’m not talking about the rules (I will later, though), but their instructional leaflet uses very straightforward language, copious examples, and writes the document in plain English.

One of the issues I’ve always had with RPGs, and D&D in particular, is that they seem to be written for people who already know how to play. They make a lot of assumptions, although they also spend a lot of time explaining how the dice work and such. But character creation always seemed like one aspect that was way more dense than it ever needed to be. As a reference book, neither the DMs Guide nor the Player’s Handbook were organized well enough to let a DM or player find info quickly.

The starter kit’s intro guide doesn’t really cover character creation (it’s a starter kit, and the official guides are coming in a few months), but it does a stellar job of explaining the core of the game in a way that easy to understand. Part of that, I’m sure, is the streamlining of the rules. Obviously, with fewer and less complex rules, explaining things is going to be a breeze. A good 1/5th of the starter guide is spells, 1/5th is gear and equipment, and the other 3/5ths is the meat and potatoes of the experience.

5E seems to be the bridge between the 3.5E and the dreaded 4E that was always missing. It’s more modular, and less about “The Rules” than it is about getting back to the roots of the genre. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll get to play it, but I’m very happy with I’ve seen in the starter kit and look forward to the official release of the DM’s Guide, Players Handbook, and the Monster Manual.

In Support Of Blasting Through Content

This isn’t actually something I normally support, but I got to thinking about my current Wildstar experience, and some of the bon mots that typically surround the MMO genre, and in doing the math, I think I understand why I’m enjoying the game up to this point.

The one statement that has always made my cringe is “the game doesn’t start until the level cap”. The explanation, of course, is that the real challenging content is in the end game: raiding, mostly, but by virtue of great ideas, hilariously encompasses repetitive dailies and mindlessly grinding for gear. Wiseassery aside, the game itself has all lead up to the point where you’ve gotten enough practice in to really put your skills to the test, which is the desire of every MMO player, right? Right? Sure, why not.

Except that journey is really fucking long. Like, really long if you’re soloing or have no power-leveling group which buys into the idea that the decades of levels, zones, content, dialog, gear, NPCs, enemies, dungeons, and anything else I might have missed are nothing but time-wasters holding them back from what they really should be doing. If this idea of starting the game at the cap were true…why don’t we start the game at a the cap? Why hire designers and artists and developers to create 50-100 levels worth of throw-away content that passes by like scenery outside our bullet-train window on our way to our destination? Why not just make level 1 super powerful, and the game nothing but one big Raid-Go-Round?

I only every got to about level 68 in World of Warcraft before I couldn’t stomach any more. And that was about two or three years ago. There was a lot to do, with several expansions, that I had about three quarters as much ahead of me as I had already put behind me, and as someone who doesn’t raid, I couldn’t endure the slog any longer. Some people say that WoW is too easy to level, and I’m sure it is if you’re on your second account because you’ve filled your first with the as many alts as the game let you create.

Wildstar was created by many ex-WoW minions who have claimed that they wanted to “fix what was wrong with WoW“, and they have, in a manner of speaking, in regards to their level curve.

Normally, I’m extremely sensitive to this curve. I have made it to the cap in only two games — one because I had people to play with, which kept my interest and momentum, and the other because of an automatic supplement to active XP gets. Normally I burn out between levels 15 and 30, which when you consider that a lot of games have caps between 60 and 100 equates to the young adult demographic if we’re talking age.

So far with Wildstar, I haven’t even had that inkling. I’ve consciously thought to myself, “do I want to keep going with this”, and the answer has always been a mental backhand. Normally when I find that question being asked, it’s not so much a question as an ultimatum, and I know the end is near. This time, the leveling in Wildstar is happening so smoothly that my need to see progression is assuaged without my even knowing it. In most games my trigger fires when I can’t progress, quest wise, but Wildstar hasn’t been shy about piling on the work. I’ve even got back-up work like tradeskills and work orders, housing planning, and Path missions. And although I’m not usually an alt-lover I haven’t ever gotten very far on the Exile side, so I have that entire half of the game to tackle.

Now, it could be that I’m still in the “honeymoon zone”, and I may find that the higher the level, the more of a slog it becomes, but I don’t know that it’ll bother me. I’ve not been measuring my progress by level so much as I have been by sub-zone and zone, with the Most Metal Level Up Noise Ever being the icing on the cake. And of course there’s Path stuff, and finding the hidden crap that’s out there…knowing it’s out there, but not knowing where…

Wildstar is the first game that I think has purposefully put it’s money where it’s mouth is in regard to the game starting at the cap, because they’ve done a good job at making the journey worthwhile, and not something you simply blast through. I know old habits die hard for some (as there were level 50s very shortly after the game launched), but the game really seems to want people to hurry up and get to the cap already…but not at the expense of the hard work that the devs and artists and musicians put into the journey.

Being Productive

I want to do more than just consume. I’ve always considered myself a producer, but I’ve never really produced much for public consumption, outside of this blog and my irregular attempts at streaming.

A lot of the common outlets for creating stuff for this community seems to be group based (aside from blogging and streaming, which is why those are the two I’ve attempted). That means you need to find other people who are just as jazzed about a project as you are, and if you manage to find people of such refined taste and breeding, you have to ensure that everyone has the time to make it happen. No amount of refinement and breeding can ensure that.

It IS possible to do a podcast or videocast solo, but is that really appealing? Listening to or watching someone just jabber on? I suppose if it were presented in such a way that made it appealing, which might be easier for a visual medium than it would be for audio-only.

What Twitch Can Do To Improve

The fine people over at Anook.com fired off a quick Twitter poll yesterday asking Twitch (or other) streamers if they felt it was important to welcome their viewers by name:

Personally, I don’t really care. I rarely return to view any amateur channels, and will only view professional (read: companies that stream) when there’s breaking news, so being recognized as a repeat viewer isn’t going to happen for me. But I do know that some people are using streaming to “become a brand” by streaming on a schedule or streaming a specific game. They do up their display with backgrounds, chroma key effects (“green screen”) and tickers. For them, recognizing their viewers is good PR.

Twitch is a great resource for gamers on either side of the camera, but they could really do a lot better for the people who are broadcasting. I’m not a professional, but here’s some thoughts I had that I think would make streaming a lot more powerful for everyone.

1. Multi-Location Input

RTMP (Real Time Messaging Protocol) is a fancy way of saying “video goes in, video comes out”. It’s essentially Twitch’s business, but their system only allows a single stream in, and a single stream out. Most users get around video composting at the client level by using apps such as OBS, FFSplit, or XSplit, all of which allow for multiple inputs at the local level.

But wouldn’t it be great to allow gamers from different locations to merge their video into a single output? It’s possible; You can do it right now. Setting up your own RTMP server is quick and painless, with the right instructions, and you and your friends can broadcast to a custom server, and have another friend accept each feed into a single source, passing it on to a specific Twitch channel. Complicated? Yes, but I’m sure Twitch could set up this kind of merge on their side, and ease people into it to allow remote users to stream together.

2. Live Stream Tools

I used to use a service called Livestream, but that was before they dropped their free tier and went pro-only. That was a few years ago, but their tools were lightyears ahead of what Twitch offers.

Using the Livestream web dashboard, users could merge multiple inputs from multiple remote sources, preview “on-deck” video, and switch over to it on the fly, just like you’d expect from real live broadcasters like your local 6 o’clock news shows. It had built in tickers and watermarks and graphics, and you could add clickable links to the video that users could click for whatever purpose you desired.

If Twitch had something like this, it would work great with item #1. Just these two elements would make Twitch a lot better than it is today.

3. Better Interaction

Users watching a stream can chat with the broadcaster, but it’s more like the floor of the NYSE than a way to interact. In a crowded room, text streams by so quickly that it requires a second person working with the streamer to filter it all and handle the channel interaction. Some users will block off a region of their screen where they can broadcast Twitch chat via the web page or via IRC, but that takes up real-estate.

I really don’t know how to solve this, but better tools for the streamer to keep up with conversations while still playing the game would be a massive boon to interaction on the channel.

4. Pre-Recorded Content

Although Twitch’s bread and butter is live streaming, it records and saves the content that’s streamed for later playback. That means they have storage, and that means that they could offer a platform for pre-recorded video.

As timely and exciting as Twitch streaming is, let’s face it: most channels are just people’s floating heads and a live feed of a game that the viewers could be playing themselves. Unless the streamer is particularly engaging or is offering unique content, a viewer’s time might be better spent playing the same game herself.

Being able to record video, edit it, work with audio, compost other video, and add effects, and then upload it to Twitch (or better yet, be able to do all of that on the Twitch website) could open more opportunities for gamers with more time and skill to reach other gamers. Right now, the outlet of choice is the general purpose YouTube. Twitch could certainly benefit from a healthy stock of videos that have higher production values, and gaming videographers could benefit from opportunities to showcase more than just their gear score.

5. Better Game Integration

This is really outside of Twitch’s control, but if you look at their API you’ll see that there’s a lot of stubs that streaming software isn’t using, like providing the name of the game that’s streaming, or the setting of the stream title. I doubt there’s been any streamer who hasn’t started streaming a game only to realize that they’ve Tweeted the title of their last streaming session. For streamers looking to build a brand, that’s inexcusable.

With Twitch finding its way into specific products, there’s no reason why the service can’t auto-update it’s game and title without forcing the user to visit the website to do it manually.

6. More Platform Integration

Twitch was just a PC thing, but now the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 have it at the system level. I’ve heard that there’s video capture devices for Nintendo xDS, and that Twitch streaming abilities will be coming to mobile and tablets.

One place that Twitch isn’t, and which is as conspicuous as a black hole appearing in Times Square? Steam. Steam is the biggest PC game distribution network, but it doesn’t have any kind of broadcasting abilities. EA’s Origin distribution client does. With SteamWorks as an option for developers to hook into Steam as a platform, why doesn’t Valve integrate Twitch streaming? Maybe they have plans to create their own streaming service…?

Where’s The Fun?

Jonathan “Ardua” Doyle has a post up this morning on MMOGames in which he laments the loss of “fun” in the games we play. I agree with him, and started to tell him so, but the comment got too long (as usual). In the writing, I managed to articulate some things that I had been having trouble putting into text previously, and wanted to fit that discussion into an ongoing framework here at the site.

The thing is, of course, is that “fun” is entirely subjective. There is no getting away from that fact. There is no viable argument to the contrary. Jonathan and I, and you, and your guild mates and friends, will all come up with different definitions of what makes a game fun. That’s key: I’m not going to argue with strangers about how X is more fun than Y. It’s as pointless as…arguing on the Internet!

What I do think we may agree on, then, is that MMOs have been chasing an ideal that we’ll arbitrarily call “World of Warcraft-level Subscriber Numbers”, for a lack of a better, more specific term. MMO design has become less of an art, and more of a science, a modular kit in which designers convene and check boxes during initial meetings: The game must have crafting (check), dungeons (check), raids (check), guilds (check). Only once that list has been compiled do the designers engage the cretive process to figure out how to tweak that formula so it’s not so obvious that they just assembled this game from the pieces of someone else’s battle-tested design.

Part of the reason is financial, as MMOs a big budget projects, and companies footing the bills want assurances on the viability on a return for their investment. The MMO market is pretty saturated, and there’s no stomach for risk. The designers MUST provide security for investment, so they look to what has been successful in other games and adopt those mechanics. But they also look to the consumers. With big budget MMOs, designing to an existing audience’s past preferences hopefully increases the chance that a game will succeed (hopefully).

Before you go getting a big head about your individual importance in the design of MMOs, step back and look at your community. The design of these games reflects the ebb and flow of the community at large, what they (think they) want, what they have rejected, and even a little of what the designer thinks the community will accept.

So it’s finances that tie the hands of designers, but it’s also the consumer’s behaviors that make these games what they are. Let’s face it: the WoW Clone wouldn’t be an optional ideal if people didn’t keep demanding WoW Clones.

So what about the fun?

If we accept that MMO design is more math than inspiration, then we need to shift the talk about the influence of the community. In my opinion, humans like to be assured that their decisions and interests are valid. As individuals we think we like what we like, but in the age of over-sharing and instant feedback, we can get that other people’s thumbs up or thumbs down to validate our decisions. A the end of the day, we just want to be part of some community, and we want to be appreciated for who we are, what we think, and what we bring to the table.

Geeks value knowledge. It’s our currency, our XP, and our Faction rating. According to “stereotypes”, geeks lack physical prowess, attractiveness, and business acumen, but if there’s one market that geeks have cornered it’s knowledge. We trade it among ourselves to prove to one another that we belong in this community, and we expect one another to provide similar bona fides for that purpose. We’re suspcious of poseurs and “fake geeks” who haven’t “paid their dues” but who lay claim to the mantle of “being a geek” simply because it’s become trendy (and profitable) in today’s wider culture.

But geeks are also just like every other human, and want people both inside and outside the culture to appreciate what they bring to the table. This is why we stream our game play, blog, tweet, write guides and add-ons, and do an insane amount of self-promotion for a sub-culture that’s been stereotyped as “socially awkward”. We’re constantly trying to achieve and justify to others our place in the geek sub-culture by sharing our knowledge (whether people want it or not) in exchange for the high-fives, re-Tweets, and subscribers.

Games are what we know. We want people to know that we know. And so it really helps when what we know doesn’t change, because that would mean re-learning everything we thought we knew, setting us back as a community by devaluing our knowledge-currency. So we demand that these companies not deviate from the formula that we’re familiar with, thereby allowing us to maintain our place in the greater geek hierarchy that we’ve proven we deserve.

Still not hearing anything about the fun…

That’s the pre-amble. Here’s the payload.

MMO game design has been boiled down to a LEGO set that designers provide, for financial reasons, and that gamers demand because it’s familiar. We don’t get new ideas because no one wants to pay for them, and because as a community we’re unsure that we’ll be able to trade in them. Ergo, we get games that are painfully similar to one’s we’ve already consumed, and yet we as a community continue to strip them bare for our own self-interests.

I have to reiterate that fun is subjective. There are boatloads of people who find WoW Clones fun, who find games like EVE Online fun, and of course there’s less game-specific wildcards like friends that can make even the most boring, cookie-cutter clone stupidly enjoyable.

Still, the demands of the plebes and the financial disincentives for the developers are going to produce games which are known quantities. Games with XP, levels, the Holy Trinity (or a smokescreen that looks like it’s Trinity-less, but which gamers will insist on bending back to the Trinity), dungeons, raids, achievements, and the reliance upon loot as the most desirable goal in the game are going to make up the majority of options on the market. Guides are written, streams are fired up, blog posts dissect, and community stars ascend as players figure out who to trust and who’s blowing smoke. Everyone is expected to commit to the community-discerned, community-sanctioned “right way” to play so not to cause a wipe or waste other people’s time. And we do, because we all want to be well thought of, and don’t want to be “That Noob” that ruined the experience for everyone through a demonstration of ignorance.

What we lose out on is exploration and discovery, the opportunity to have dynamic worlds and unique systems, and a personal learning experience through doing, failing, retrying, and basking in our own ultimate success.

Again, fun is subjective, and to be subjective we require an environment where we’re able to find the fun. Most modern MMOs expect us to find the fun in what we’re given, because other people — possibly us — have found fun in a very similar experience in the past. There’s little to no leeway any more as the pressures of conforming to community expectations designed by the community itself matter more than the Zen of the experience of playing the game.

Overall, I think we’re poorer for it. We’ve demanded “different” in the past, but like anything we rarely know what we want, but we absolutely know what we don’t want once we see it. Not every experiment will succeed, but then again, not every MMO has to appeal to everyone. I’m very much OK with the idea of a massive splintering of the genre which allows smaller titles to appeal to different segments, so that everyone can find a game that they really enjoy, rather than have to rely on expensive AAA titles which must succeed in being palatable to a wide a range of paying players. With a more diverse genre, I think we can all find a game which is fun for us on the individual level.

As a foot-note, I’d also like to appeal to folks who believe that guides and walk-throughs are an inseparable part of the MMO landscape. They’re really not. Yes, our time is valuable, and yes, success is much preferable to failure, but I’ve always looked at the reliance on guides as “playing someone else’s game”.  They tell you what to do and what not to do, like an outline or a Paint By Number project, which leaves you only as the mechanical operator of a soul-less experience. Part of the conceit of these “products of fantasy” is giving ourselves over to the experience as much as we’re able. In my opinion, relying on guides is breaking the fourth wall and robs us of a fully realized experience. Yes, that means a high chance of failure, but I know that for myself, the feeling of accomplishment I get from eventual success after failure is far and away more satisfying than simply going through the motions for the carrot on the stick.

How To Automate #Twitch Streams on Google Plus

I don’t stream a lot, but when I do I like to announce it where I live, which is primarily Twitter and of course Google Plus. Setting up the stream, however, can be a chore:

  1.  Remember to set the name of the stream and the game on the Twitch website. Some clients allow you to do this, but not enough do. Forgetting to change the name of the stream to the current game can lead to confusion when…
  2. …You announce that you’re going live through social media. Twitch has Facebook and Twitter integration, but you have no control over the text that the service puts out there except through the title of the broadcast. Naturally, if you have one title but are streaming something different…well, tragedy ensues.
  3. For those of us who use Google Plus, there’s a manual step for announcement because Google — in its infinite and unquestionable logic Praise Be To Google — doesn’t have a full public API for the service. So we have to start the stream, and then compose a post with the URL to the stream, while the stream is running. Yes, boo friggin hoo, but in a First World society, these are the things that matter. Sadly.

So here’s a way to hack it. Kinda.

You Will Need:

  • A Twitch account! If you didn’t expect this, stop reading now.
  • A Google Plus account! If you’re breathing, you have one, even if you only make smart-ass remarks about it to look cool to your friends (and I use that term in the loosest possible way).
  • A Twitter account! If you are streaming and don’t have a Twitter account, this may be why no one watches your videos. Just sayin’s all.
  • A Google Voice account! Wait, what?
  • An IFTTT account! Because really, why the hell not, right? If registering a new account, use the same Gmail email address you have assigned to your Plus and Voice accounts. This is important!
  • Post-It Notes! Seriously.

Step One: The Convoluted Part

I’m not going to re-iterate the steps involved here because someone has taken the time to write it out, and I’m not going to steal his thunder.

The short version is that you need to use Google Voice to accept text messages, to have those text messages sent to your Gmail account so you can determine the email address that SMS notifications to the Google Voice service are sourced from. This email is the linchpin to the whole operation, because sending an email to this address will auto-post the contents of the email to your Google Plus stream if you have the “Post from SMS” enabled in Google Plus.

Protect this info with your life. Then check out Bamajr’s instructions and return here when you’re done.


IFTTT (If This Then That) is an automated service that “does logic” on “stuff”. I’ve found it to be potentially useful, but there’s always just one really useful option missing from the available building blocks. At first, I didn’t see how I would make this service work for this purpose, but then it dawned on me, and it can dawn on you too if you just. Keep. Reading…

Here’s the recipe:

If new tweet by @YOUR_TWITTER_HANDLE with hashtag #streaming, then send an email from YOURNAME@gmail.com

And the long, drawn out version:

  • THIS: Search or scroll to the Twitter condition. It may ask you to authorize IFTTT to access your Tweeter, so do that. It’ll then offer you a trigger. The service will only parse YOUR Tweets, and I was dissapointed to see a lack of “contains specific text”, like “twitch.tv/CHANNEL_NAME” as a trigger, so I selected “New tweet by you with hashtag”. I opted to use #streaming because that’s what it’s about. I could have chosen #chocolatesparrow or something. Make sure it’s something you don’t use often, though, or else you’ll spam The Plus.
  • THAT: Search or scroll to the Gmail action. NOT THE EMAIL ACTION. You will need to connect your Gmail account (same one used for Plus and Voice). The only action is to “Send an email” from the Gmail account.
  • TO: Add in the funky address you stole from the SMS email that was sent to your Gmail account from Google Voice. It should look like ###########.####.[BUNCH_OF_JUNK]@txt.voice.google.com.
  • SUBJECT: Whatever. The Plus doesn’t care about the subject
  • BODY: Clear the default text and click the “+” in the upper right corner of the entry box. You’ll get a Twitter token selector which allows you to auto-enter stuff from the Tweet that triggered the action (pretty slick!). I added “Twitch Streaming Time! {{Text}} +Public” for the body of my email. This includes the link to the Twitch stream. If you want to omit the contents of the Tweet, then enter your custom text and choose {{FirstLinkURL}} to add just the Twitch URL. The explanation of what The Plus recognizes in an email body is covered in Bamajr’s instructions.
  • Save it! IFTTT will now monitor your Twitter account for any Tweets by you with the hashtag #WHATEVER_YOU_PICKED, will send an email to the funky long email address, Voice will convert it to an SMS and forward it to The Plus to compose a new post on your behalf using the BODY content of the email as the content of the post.

Step Three: Post-It Notes

This is probably the weakest link in the whole process. Remember how we had that chat about how Twitch doesn’t allow custom Twitter announcements? Remember how I instructed you to use IFTTT to watch for a Twitter hash-tag in your “Going Live” Tweet? Remember how we laughed at all those times we started streaming, but the title of the stream didn’t match the content?

On your Post-It, write yourself a note to always change the stream name, and to include #WHATEVER_YOU_PICKED as your hashtag trigger.

The logic, naturally, is that the title of the stream is what’s Tweeted, so by including the hashtag in the title, it’ll be available for IFTTT to catch. The catch is that you have to remember to update the title of the stream before the announcement goes out, which means before you start streaming. Change it after you press the “Go Live” button, and it’s all for naught.

You can include anything you want, either hard-coded and universally added in the body of the email, or in the title of the Twitch stream, and Plus will take it, but it won’t provide the “remote content footer” format that adding a link to a new post via the Plus web UI normally does. The downside is that you’ll get an email to your Gmail, and an SMS to your Google Voice account every time this trips, so if you’re really fussy about having stuff lying around, you’ll have to create a rule in Gmail to auto-dispose of those messages, and clean up your Google Voice mailbox regularly.

When Video Attacks

I just received a customer satisfaction survey via email for the company that sold me the second iPhone replacement screen that I bought from them. The survey was very short and straightforward, consisting of clicking stars for “how satisfied I was” and “would recommend to others”, but at the end, they offered me the opportunity to leave some feedback in two forms. The first was a text box, and the second was a video testimonial. Their Flash widget would access my webcam (if I allowed it) and I could record myself hopefully showing the fine item I purchased, and gushing about how I loved the company that sold it to me.

Video is getting to be extremely annoying to me. I spend a lot of time on the Internet (it’s part of my job), and so a lot of that time is spent searching the Internet. Increasingly, I’m finding search results that lead to YouTube or other video service hosts. Technically, these results are 100% valid, but I’m finding that there are videos being recommended for the stupidest and most minor results imaginable. More often than not, my search could be answered in a single paragraph, so why should I have to sit through some amateur videographer stumbling through an explanation when a few words would have sufficed, and have been quicker and easier to index for the future?

Among my online circles, many people will use services like Twitch or Hitbox to stream video game play (AKA “Let’s Play”), but just as many in the same circles pop up like gophers to ask “why watch someone else play a game when you could play it yourself?” That’s a very valid question, and it’s one that is going to need a solid answer soon because game streaming is taking off at an exponential rate. A lot of games have it built in now, and both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have Twitch streaming included at the OS level.

Video has it’s place, but there’s a pretty large hump that a producer needs to get over before is should be considered as the first response in any situation. If all someone is going to do is stream exactly what they’re doing, the way they’re doing it, with no additional value added, then they might as well not do it at all. But far, far beyond that, people who can produce a slick video or stream, who can keep it interesting, and who can bring something more to the table than a paragraph or blog post could bring are going to be worth watching. In the case of watching gaming streams, I thought about it as the difference between watching the Super Bowl (exciting!), watching Little League baseball (notice how many parents are talking among themselves?), and getting your friends together to actually play a game of basketball (at my age, WAY more trouble than it’s worth). Good production values equals good view-ability, but only if you’re looking to put on a show. Doing it just because it’s a thing isn’t going to net any benefits, otherwise.

Building Our Personal Cost-Benefit Analysis

We do cost-benefit analysis in every day life, from comparative shopping to deciding if it’s worth the risk to try bungee jumping. When we evaluate the cost of something compared to the benefit we’ll receive, we make the decision based on what’s important to us as individuls. There’s no “universal standard of worth”. Even currency — which we often think of as being pretty immutable — is subject to fluctuations in value.

The cost-benefit analysis of gaming is at the core of an ongoing debate over how games are made and marketed, and how they’re designed to make money for the developers, and take money from the consumers.

A Brief History of Monitization

I’ve been through all modern phases of video game monitization. Here’s a quick timeline as I remember it (which may or may not be entirely accurate):

  1. Games are self contained and sold for a “box cost”. This was during the early days of the Atari 2600, NES, Sega Genesis, and even PC games.
  2. When the Internet arrives, we get BBS and online provider games through services like AOL and CompuServe, but which require a per-minute fee to play (on top of the money we spent to access the service provider).
  3. As PC gaming continues to rise in prominence, modern MMOs arrives. Now, we pay for the connection, then a box price, and a monthly fee. On paper, this seems suicidal, but thanks to the popularity of World of Warcraft, people warm to it, and the genre explodes over the next 15 years.
  4. Smartphones and tablets arrive, bringing a whole new and untapped frontier of gaming that needs rules to be written. Publishers experiment with different price points to see what the market would bear. With such an open field, devs that traditionally published for console or PC flock to mobile to stake their claim before the money dries up.
  5. Existing subscription games and new online games start to offer non-subscription options. Games add cash shops which allow players to spend in small increments for various services, convienience, and content. Having it’s pedigree in the East, where the model forced players to spend in order to advance and compete, this free to play model gets a bad rap in achivement-oriented Western culture, and is quickly associated with “pay to win”. Meanwhile, mobile gaming has followed suit, offering games for free with cash shops that offer “shortcuts” for players.

We pick up the thread at this point.

A Tale Of Two Cities (Or Rather, Gamers)

There’s two distinct camps in this scene. The first is the “traditional” gamer. The second is the “nouveau gamer”. Sometimes the lines blur, but more often than not, the traditional gamer busies himself with both camps, while the nouveau gamer might not even know the other camp exists.

Traditional gamers are used to at least items 3-5 above. Older gamers can stretch back beyond item 1. Regardless, at some point during the formative period of the traditional gamer’s gaming identity, he found a monitization scheme that worked for him, and he stuck by it. I think that for most gamers, this is item #3 or #1.

MMOs are unique in that — in theory — they never end. The world continues to run when we’re not logged in, and we can (ideally) look forward to expansions that make the game bigger. We also get patches and updates, game play balances, and if we’re lucky, some free content here and there.

They’re also unique in that for the past 15 years, MMOs came with an ongoing subscription, a practice that became the norm. Because of the wild success of WoW, anyone who wanted to make an MMO had to support it by charging that monthly fee, and the company that could reproduce WoW’s special sauce could potentially rake in millions of dollars per month. We as consumers learned to accept this, because we felt that the benefits of the cost were worthwhile. MMOs with subscriptions were “buffets” of content: we had access to everything the game had to offer, with no artificial restrictions or additional payments.

Gamers must have felt that this was a good deal, because the subscription MMO market exploded after WoW. The explosion was both a desire of publishers to have a cash cow, and consumer’s acceptance of paying a monthly fee.

Non-traditional gamers don’t view things in that light. They came into the picture around item #4, and ONLY for item #4. They don’t have the baggage that traditional gamers do. They don’t play a wide spectrum of games, don’t play often, and aren’t used to spending tons of money up front for a game. They don’t see anything wrong with paying $5 for the convenience of playing at certain choke-points, which is how Candy Crush Saga earns millions of dollars.

The Cost-Benefit Ratio

If there’s any universal constant, then it’s that people like to get the most bang for their buck. That includes getting everything for nothing, but in lieu of that, it means getting as much as possible for as little as possible. We all have thresholds of how much we’re willing to pay based on what we expect to get from it. Like so many things, however, we don’t necessarily know what we want or where that threshold is, but once we experience it, we recognize it, and once we recognize it, we rarely see any reason to keep looking for anything better.

On the other hand, no one likes to feel like they’re being fleeced, or that they’re being treated like a commodity to be nickled and dimed. It’s harder to see value in an overall product when the transactions are spread over time and for different aspects of the bigger picture. This is both a blessing (for publishers) and a curse (for consumers) because the statistics favor the payee over the payer.

For the traditional gamer, and depending on the individual’s genre of choice, the cost-benefit ratio of payment to payout is going to hit a ceiling at some point, and from there it will not budge. Some gamers won’t go beyond pay once, play forever. Others feel that $15 buffet model is tilted in their favor. Still others feel that getting something for nothing is better than getting anything for a fee, and the final group has no issues paying a la carte.

But each level there often seems to be many gamers who are violently reactive to the level above it. Box-cost only fans can’t fathom why anyone would pay a subscription. Subscribers can’t abide by the cash shop model. Many free to play fans won’t go near the cash shop. Only the full-service free to play user has no one to rail against in this space…except games targeted outside of their own demographic.

Many traditional gamers — no matter what monitization tier they occupy in their own space — find the practices being employed in the mobile space to be abhorrent. Brian Green (who worked on Meridian 59, and who therefor knows about this kind of thing) posted a link to an interview with former Free Realms developer Laralyn McWilliams on the current “best practices” in free-to-play game design. Part of the gist of it is that the way the market is now, there’s no room for trial and error, so when a game likeCandy Crush Saga makes millions of dollars by allowing players to spend their way out of a jam, other companies will adopt it, and it becomes the new de facto “best practice”.

Po-tay-toes and Po-tah-toes

Traditional gamers can’t see the benefit to the cost that these “best practices” are espousing because for the most part, they’re used to having their game at their fingertips. Games are meant to be played, and the more game you play without restriction, the better. Just as buffet fans might consider the F2P model to be exploitative, the idea that a company would purposefully design their product to frustrate a player to the point where their progress is held hostage unless they pay money to progress is an affront to what gaming is all about.

One of the best examples is EA’s recent mobile version of Dungeon Keeper. The original PC game allowed you to create and defend a dungeon. This new version follows the same idea, but as you’re building your dungeon, you’re forced to wait HOURS for a single task to complete. Impatient players can spend real money to hurry this along, ensuring a continuous game play experience, but therein lies the problem from the traditional gamer point of view (especially those who honestly remember the original Dungeon Keeper). Why did EA make this bastardized version of such a well regarded IP instead of making another entry in the traditional vein? The cost of paying to skip the four hour build time isn’t worth the benefit. Normally this might be up for debate, depending on the point of view of the person involved, but we have prescident in how the Dungeon Keeper franchise should be played, and it’s NOT having to pay to skip a four hour queue.

Still, some folks are OK with this. They’ve got no baggage the way traditional gamers do. Mobile games are so transient that many strictly mobile gamers think it’s a plus that the games are free. With so many no-cost games, it’s perfectly OK to pay a little here, a little there, now and then. Maybe the “why” is lost on them, but I’m of the mind that it’s not; it just doesn’t matter as much to them as the idea does to traditional gamers. Their threshold for cost to benefit isn’t just higher than that of the traditional gamer, it’s in a totally different league.

In Closing

Everything that we do has a cost-benefit analysis attached to it, and the hierarchy of fees associated with gaming marks different thresholds for different people. But gamers are very covetous of their hobby, including it’s trademarks and use of said trademarks. Many traditional gamers would barely acknowledge most mobile products as “games”, but in the face of business practices that are designed to exploit a person’s willingness to spend their way out of a jam, these gamers will seek to distance themselves and their own aspect of the industry from association with mobile gaming where these are considered to be the “best practices”.

These views are codified based on the cost-benefit ratio that each individual has accepted as his or her personal ceiling. The benefit is how much game they get for the cost, with some preferring to pay for the buffet, and some who are willing to play for free and to spend on content a la carte.

What worries many traditional gamers, however, is the incessant harping that mobile and tablet gaming is the future of the hobby. We’ve heard about how the gaming industry has seen declining revenue over the past few years, with at least part of the blame resting on the notion that more people are gaming on mobile and tablets, and less on console and PCs. For those who count gaming as their primary hobby, being told that their “future” is this platform which values visibility, metrics, and sales over “by gamers, for gamers” is a frightening and infuriating prospect. Traditional gamers have already started hating on mobile gaming when “their” developers ran to capitalize on the empty playground of mobile platforms and put their future PC and console plans into question, but seeing how companies have adopted “best practices” that amount of holding a game hostage is sending many gamers into fits of rage.