Lord of the Ringworld

Unless you (A) live underneath a gigantic asteroid with no Internet connection or (B) are one of those journalism types who ignore the video game world, you probably know this week is Halo 3 week. In a huge way: $170 million-in-first-day sales kind of huge.

This third installment of Bungie Studios‘ epic, if convoluted, tale of cyborg supersoldier (Master Chief) vs. religious zealot aliens (the Covenant) vs. infectious galactic zombie plague (the Flood) picks up where 2004’s best-selling Halo 2 left off. Though the Xbox Live online features of the previous game were wildly popular, fans complained about the somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying ending.

Unlike say, George Lucas, Bungie was smart enough to listen to its fanbase and cranked out an unexpectedly moving finale to the Halo trilogy with many community suggestions incorporated into the final disc.

One such ardent Bungie fan is pillar of the Halo community Claude Errera, better known by his admin handle “Louis Wu,” (an apropos nod to Larry Niven’sRingworld) the founder of halo.bungie.org [aka HBO]. Though unaffiliated with Bungie, Errera’s site is the most widely-read fansite for the Halo series and garners a jawdropping 600,000 pageviews a day. (He doesn’t sell advertising, by the way.)

HBO’s recipe of game rumors, news, strategy, “machinima” (animation cinema made by video capturing Halo games), fan-made art, contests and forums are the focal point for the Halo community–so much though that Errera’s name appears in the Bungie “Thank you section” of the credits in Halo 3.

OJR spoke to Claude about what makes a vibrant fan community and how to run a good forum site for them.

OJR: You’re thanked in the credits of Halo 3. How long have you been involved in the Halo community and how did you get started?

Claude Errera: I was one of the people who kicked off blam.bungie.org when the first information about what was to become Halo leaked out of E3 1999. So… I guess 8.5 years. 🙂 I got started because bungie.org covered ALL Bungie games; Blam (and Halo as it followed) was just the next step on the road.

OJR: Why do you think the Halo series has such an active community? What’s most rewarding about being involved with it?

Claude Errera: It’s active for a few reasons – Bungie does a great job of interacting with their fans, which makes their fans want to interact with them. Bungie’s inspired enough enthusiasm with the game that people want to create things for it (artwork, models, fiction, etc), and sites like HBO provide a place to show those creations to the world, which in turn inspires others to do the same. It’s a positive feedback loop.

The most rewarding part of being involved is seeing what people are capable of creating – and helping to get those creations out to the rest of the world.

OJR: How will Saved Films (built-in video capture feature) and Forge (built-in level editor) affect the quality and popularity of user-created content–machinima for instance?

Claude Errera: I think quality will go WAY up, because getting the shot you want will become much, much easier. (We might go through a phase of ‘every angle under the sun because we can’ filmmaking at the beginning, but it’ll settle down; it always does.) I’m not sure quantity will increase all that much; it still requires the ability to capture video from your Xbox to turn it into something that can be shared on YouTube.

OJR: What’s the best thing about the Halo fan base?

Claude Errera: For me, it’s the amazing creativity the fan base is capable of.

OJR: Where could the community improve?

Claude Errera: Well, that seems like a nebulous question. Where could the planet improve? Where could our nervous system improve? The community is made up of individuals – some are positive contributors, some are negative contributors. I don’t think the COMMUNITY can be blamed for either one.

Subgroups (like site forums) can improve their own little worlds by treating newcomers with kindness and respect, instead of scorn; on the internet, we’re usually too quick to flame. That is not unique to the Halo community, however, and the solutions are not different for us than they are for any other group.

OJR: Describe the culture that has grown up around halo.bungie.org. Generally speaking, would you say posters are well-behaved? What are some problems you guys deal with? How did you resolve them?

Claude Errera: In general, yes, the community is well-behaved. We occasionally have people who want to see if they can disrupt things; they actively troll to try and rile people up. We deal with them with warnings to begin with, and then bannings; often, what’s perceived as a problem is really only a misunderstanding, and some gentle guidance is enough to get things back in line. For folks who really ARE a problem, it’s just a matter of teaching the forum regulars that feeding trolls is generally a bad idea. If they don’t get a reaction, they leave.

OJR: Does HBO make advertising revenue? How many traffic do you get?

Claude Errera: HBO has a strict no-advertising policy. We get about 600,000 pageviews/day.

OJR: You could be making tons off Google ads right?

Claude Errera: When we started bungie.org, we had one overriding dislike, among the entire group of founders – we HATED banner ads. I still do. I’m willing to forgo the income to avoid subjecting viewers to them.

OJR: You are doing all the work for free–what do you do in your day job and how to you find time to run the whole site?

Claude Errera: My day job is web design/webhosting. Bungie.org is just a busman’s holiday. I find time… hmm. I don’t know how that happens. I think I must be cheating someone.

OJR: What lessons does the Halo experience teach for creating online gaming communities? What lessons have you learned about running a healthy secondary forum community around a game?

Claude Errera: I’m no expert – but my experience tells me that the keys to managing a successful community are consistency and fairness. Update regularly, give people credit for what they do, stay on top of issues that might build into problems, don’t overreact. If you give people a platform from which to spread their love for a great game, they’ll flock to it.

OJR: Newspapers still sort of treat Halo and other massively successful game franchises as underground or outsider. A lot of the reporting is like “Gee, games make a lot of money, who knew?” Why are journalists so far behind the curve? What would you like to see in mainstream media reporting about games that’s not there now?

I think journalists might be behind the curve simply because gaming became a successful adult entertainment outlet relatively recently. Not that long ago, video games were the domain of kids – I think there are just a lot of writers that haven’t noticed the change. It’s becoming clearer with every runaway success, though.

OJR: Big open-ended question: the future of gaming and online communities-where are we going? You’ve been hosting LAN games for years and have made lots of friendships purely online-how does something like Halo change the way we forge relationships in real life?

Claude Errera: Heh – you lied. You said there wouldn’t be anything long. 😉 I don’t know where we’re going – but I think that neither aspect is going away any time soon. Online gaming is getting more and more social; full voice communication, optional video communication, and now tools that let us relive (and share with others) the moments we enjoy together in a game. At the same time, getting together to play with friends in person is so enjoyable that no matter HOW good the online gaming gets, we’ll still find time to do this; there’s nothing like high-fiving the guy next to you when you score a particularly hard-fought flag cap, or throwing a pillow (or something harder) at the guy who just betrayed you for the hell of it.

10 years ago, the idea of teenagers traveling out of state to play games at the house of someone they’d never met in person was unheard-of; not only was the potential payoff unclear enough to make the risk hardly worth it, but parents would never stand for it. Today, however, it happens regularly; we often know our online friends better than we know our local ones, and the bonds formed can be pretty strong.

Halo is showing that even folks who don’t want to play competitively can enjoy companionship online – co-op is a great way to enjoy the campaign experience. All in all, I think that Bungie is lighting the way towards the future of social gaming – we’ll look back at Halo 3 as the beginning of a paradigm shift. (Heh – now THAT sounds a little pretentious…)

The WoW Factor: the ethics of online communities

Just last week, I created a Facebook discussion thread for USC gamers who want to join a Trojan clan for the upcoming release of Halo 3. According to Douglas Thomas, this action is a tremendously significant one: I’ve taken the first step towards creating an online space where like-minded gamers exchange knowledge and knowledge resource locations.

If that sounds like jargon, it probably is. Monday’s presentation at Annenberg, “Understanding the Gamer Disposition: What gamers can teach us about learning in the 21st century” was largely an obfuscated statement of the obvious… that gamers like those who play World of Warcraft (WoW) are early adopters of online communities and use them in unexpected ways.

Thomas has managed to create a research field for himself that allows him to do what he obviously loves: put in lots and lots of gaming hours. “At this point, I’ve played so much Warcraft that I feel like I should introduce myself as a level-70 warlock who plays a university professor on the USC server,” he quipped.

Thomas argues that WoW, Star Wars Galaxies, SecondLife and other massively-multiplayer online games (MMOGs) of their kind aren’t terribly useful as teaching tools of actual facts, but rather have a secondary market that teaches players how to learn and teach other players. Translation: secondary player-created resources, like ThottBot, a forum of quest strategies for WoW, spring up to allow players to share their experiences in game and synthesize new ways of playing.

“Players pass knowledge around, teaching others how to find information for themselves.”

However, Thomas seems to hold the belief that these objective-driven game environments give rise to an ethical community system. “Games can’t necessarily work as teaching tools, but they can teach ethics and civic engagement,” he said.

That’s the case in WoW, where the game design–by virtue of being an RPG (role-playing game)–has collaboration at the core of its architecture, but what about online games that don’t reward collaboration?

“The social life of a game exists outside the game,” he says. “The gamers define what constitutes citizenship.”

Fine for World of Warcraft, not so pleasant for online first-person shooters or games like Grand Theft Auto. Thomas believes that games are a “transitional phase” of massive online communities, with games easing our culture into the realm of the future, where online avatars represent us and interpersonal relationships are forged in a virtual space.

As a gamer, however, I find that is not always the case. If the game design rewards cooperation and being nice to one another as in WoW guilds, players will do it–not for altruistic reasons, but for self interest–and if the game does not reward those behaviors, like in Halo 2, where intimidation and threats may help you win, players won’t behave that way unless forced to by the threat of banning.

It’s scary to think that if games are to be these ethical learning engines that teach us how to act in the virtual space, game design inevitably rests in the hands of major media conglomerates that want to sell as many units as possible, with little or no regard to the kind of meta communities that emerge as a result.

Thomas did present a compelling profile of the so-called “gamer disposition.” With more than nine million players logging into World of Warcraft, this is a demographic that is becoming rapidly more important for media folks to understand.

He said that typically, (1) gamers are “hungry to be evaluated and scored” and that improvement and curiosity to see new things keep them playing, (2) gamers quit playing when they stop learning and (3) dissatisfaction with the status quo defines a gamer personality.

In WoW, for instance, players want to get better equipment and level up their guy for two reasons, the first being status, but the second, and more important, being the desire to see new and interesting things built into the game world. “Purple shiny pants let you see new things more quickly,” he said, cheekily summarizing the motivation for getting new equipment in MMO-RPGs.

In the end though, none of these attributes amount to altruism or actual ethics, which are the ingredients to real social world-building. But for the business world, the gamer disposition can be novel and advantageous. Thomas told an anecdote about a software exec who, when presented with a new project, instead of recruiting people and hiring resources to tackle it, simply assumed that the resources and people were already in his company and went out and explored the building to find them. When pressed about it, the exec, a gamer, said “Well, it’s like a quest, right, and I assume that the solution is built into the game environment.” Novel indeed, but not always correct.

Douglas Thomas sees a future where we all lead second lives, with an ethically culpable avatar representing us online. “By 2011, 80% of Americans will have some sort of avatar,” he said. He looks to games as the ushers of this new world order. “The first thing many Brazilians do when they log onto SecondLife is set up dance clubs. People hear the music, and start to talk to one another.”

The benefits of an altruistic, curiosity- and community-driven online realm seem nearly limitless. But to gamers like me who have heard 13-year-old boys with sniper rifles shouting things that would make a Hell’s Angel blush, that future seems a bit overly rosy. The future of the online world will probably look a lot like the present of the real world: there will be nice people, there will be jerks, there will be rewards and drawbacks to being either. Choose wisely.

Using games to help readers understand the news

With more journalistic sites using games as an interactive way to package content, a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge contest will help one nonprofit news site take these games to the next level.

A pioneer in this format, The Gotham Gazette has featured games about New York City policy issues that are an effective and entertaining way for users to weigh decisions and deal with consequences.

Online Journalism Review spoke to Gotham Gazette Editor-in-Chief Gail Robinson about what makes a successful game and why they work well for journalistic sites. Proving good games can be built on a modest budget, Robinson discussed why simplicity works but dumbing down doesn’t.

Online Journalism Review: How did you first become interested in utilizing games at the Gotham Gazette?

Robinson: In 2002 there were a lot of discussions about what to do with the World Trade Center site, so we created a game [Ground Zero Planner] to let people try to envision what they wanted the site to look like, and we got quite a good response.

We’re very focused on New York City policy, and we try to make the material accessible and interesting to people, not just to policy wonks or people who work for city government or bureaus. So our games [become] almost a story set to a game.

OJR: How do you actually conceptualize and build these games?

Robinson: As the editor-in-chief, I’ll be involved and we have a technical director and a design director. We don’t have an illustrator on staff and we’ll probably get [a freelancer] to do the technical work. But probably the writing and content will all be done in house.

OJR: How involved are the journalists on staff in the creative process?

Robinson: In the past we were very involved. [For example] The Budget Game sort of jumped out at us. The city was having a lot of problems after 9/11, so we thought it would be good to dramatize that by letting people make choices with the caveat that because the city was legally required to balance the budget, you couldn’t play the game unless you balanced it.

There were other similar games, so we did a lot of research and played a lot of other games. And then we came up with assignments and writers were assigned to various aspects. I’ve written a lot about education so [I researched] how much would it cost for x number of teachers.

OJR: What kind of content works well when it’s incorporated in this game format?

Robinson: Almost anything can work with a game if you have an intelligent way of flushing it out– I think it’s important to not be too complicated. That doesn’t mean you can’t have people making lots of choices, or you can’t have graphics and animation. But I look at some games where I feel like they’re asking me to do too many things, to play too many roles.

OJR: You do have a consistent thread of simplicity that runs throughout your games.

Robinson: What we tried to do was create something simple that would show people the story but would still be fun to play. I think you get a lot of that enjoyment partly through the animation and the way you present material.

The infrastructure game called Breakdown is basically a glorified quiz. But we had a wonderful clip of animation showing ways that New York was going to crumble under it’s own weight. And my son who was then 11 (who I don’t think has a lot of interest in New York City infrastructure) loved that animation and played the game several times and then he showed it to his friends. I think that indicates how you can build something straightforward and still make it a lot of fun.

OJR: Can games stand alone as a good storytelling technique or are they best purposed as part of a package?

Robinson: I think they can stand alone. For example, someone can make a decision about something like how to build an affordable housing project in New York. Just by playing the game, the user would probably learn about some of the tradeoffs and then could click on things for more information.

In our case the story is sort of behind the game, and it can be incorporated into the game itself or it could [stem from] a separate article. We’ve actually done both here. The Judges Game [was inspired by] the big probe of whether the bench is basically bought and sold. It had actually started out as an article and then we built the game.

OJR: The games on your site are effective because they help users to understand the consequences of their decisions.

Robinson: Right, that’s what we’re hoping for. That was a big thing with the budget game. People say I don’t have a cop on my corner and why is my child is in a class with 20 students and why are my taxes so high? And this is a really good way [to illustrate that] because you see the money go up or down. You see what things cost to make it clear that you couldn’t have both really low taxes and pay for really tiny classes.

OJR: Do users expect to win when they play games? What kind of reward do they expect aside from obtaining information?

Robinson: We haven’t had winning in these games. For example there’s obviously not a right way to plan Ground Zero, and if there is one the city still hasn’t discovered it. As for winners and losers, my sense is we would like to try both models and determine what people prefer. Part of the Knight project (in general) is to get information out there that other people can use.

On games where people don’t win we hope we’re offering an educational tool. We’re also hoping to get answers back from the readers that we will share with decision makers in the city and [incorporate the responses] into articles.

OJR: From your standpoint what are the technical challenges of building a news game?

Robinson: Knight wants everything to be open source here and that’s probably our biggest challenge. Most games are done in Flash and we can’t use Flash.

OJR: What are some of the games you’re considering now?

Robinson: All the games are pretty tentative at this point because we’ve always let the news dictate the games to some extent. We’ve always had a news peg on the games.

One of the games we’re considering is related to garbage in New York. It’s an endless issue here and it’s one of those situations where there’s no ideal wonderful solution.

In the course of this grant there will be two important political campaigns, one being the presidential and congressional race. Then as the grant ends in 2009 we’ll be right in the middle of electing a mayor, so we imagine we’d somehow want to address that.

OJR: Have you learned anything about what doesn’t work with these games?

Robinson: I think they do have to be clear. I think we have one game that didn’t work–The NYC Preservation Game–although I’m not sure all my colleagues agree with me. I think we could never really decide what exactly we wanted to do with it. We could never figure out if it was a quiz where you’re trying to decide what makes a building a landmark or if you’re playing landmark commissioner.

So it just seems to be that the game has to be well designed and have a clear purpose, whether you’re playing a role or making decisions.

OJR: How do you strike the balance between entertaining and the balance of delivering the news?

Robinson: I think you can do both [if] you keep information very solid. Don’t talk down to someone just because it’s a game. You can put people in interesting, genuinely challenging situations.

Also I think the visuals on these games are enormously important. You’re not debasing the information if you have really clever animation. You’re just engaging people in another way. If you put a really ripping, entertaining lead on a news feature you’re going to pull people into the news feature who might not normally want to read about that subject, and it certainly doesn’t downgrade or dumb down the information that follows.

OJR: How can indie web publishers add a game element to their site if they lack the budget and have technical constraints?

Robinson: That’s one thing I think that Knight is hoping we’ll come up with ways to do. [All the grant winners] are going to be writing, blogging and sharing ideas with each other about that. I assume the plan is to make those ideas available to people. I hope people can learn from what we did right and also learn from our mistakes.