Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hardline into Hardtimes...

This "event" that took place on the night of January 22nd and the morning of the 23rd (2009) was more of a situation than a performance...However, this situation - as depressing as it was - does capture the essence of being trapped within the Matrix Online...Here are some photos...


...hardline arrival...

Distri jacks into the Matrix Online looking for a new art-performance to create...



Distri roams Metro City looking for something non-combat related to do...Although she has managed to avoid overt combat, nothing has captured her creative curiosity yet...



Suddenly, Distri realized that it had been snowing all this time...Distri wanted to take refuge in a dumpster for something to do but all dumpsters seemed perpetually locked and devoid of interactive possibility...Other than seeking "shelter" or just admiring the resolution of the snow-pixels, Distri was still not inspired to do anything creative...



Although it was still snowing, no snow ever accumulated on the terrain...Distri felt that maybe the trucks would have something creative to offer, providing that she stared at them long enough...Perhaps trucks in general are not the best contemplative objects to hallucinate from and experience the virtuality behind all apparent virtualities...


Distri did find some construction equipment but...these static meshes did not inspire her into action either...maybe she was beginning to realize how claustrophobic it can be living in a mundane matrix? Maybe she was just getting depressed?


Finally, the snow had stopped...Distri, however, already began to feel nostalgic for virtual snow-fall since at least the snow was animated and simulated a complex climate...As far as simulation goes, snow seems reliable and comforting...


Distri briefly considered taking the subway to another part of Metro City for something to do but she recollected how long it took to wait for the bus at the local bus stop...Is waiting worth the wonder? No, it is better to wander....


Despite feeling uninspired, Distri did enjoy taking many self-portraits in front of tagged buildings. Who was the tagger? Some hacker? Perhaps, even Morpheus? The Architect? Neo? The Oracle? Agent Smith?


Eventually, the respite from the snow subsided into mundane rain...As far as resolution goes, rain is fascinating...however, the effects on the psyche are typically depressing...


Even with the possibility of being intrigued with the agent-design of the pigeons, Distri began to feel hopelessly under the weather...morose...despondent...miserable...


The Meek shall inherit the streets? Pretending to empathize with the poor suffering NPC beggar in the rain only made matters worse...



...more pigeons...more rain...there seemed to be no rational way to rid oneself of the grid and jack out into the sunshine...


Distri could not take it any longer...Being a performance artist and academic researcher in the Matrix became too depressing...So, she decided to take the red pill and jack out of the Matrix...

END OF LINE

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Distri's Supermarket Shift (performance)...

This performance intervention took place on January 23, 2009 in the Matrix Online...

For a period of about 2 hours, Distri voluntarily worked retail by standing behind an unopenable cashier till at Metro City's local Supermarket. For what seemed like virtually an eternity, Distri eagerly awaited customers who might desire one of the static-images posing as actual food products on the store's wall and shelving units...Since no one else ever seemed to work the till at this store, Distri was ready to put her improvisational skills to work in order to prove that the customer was always right...Here are more historical details (and documentation) showing this performance event...


Most of the non-combat time in the Matrix is spent hanging in front of dreary graffiti-tagged walls or roaming around aimlessly with the vein hope of actually developing friendships and engaging in meaningful conversation with Metro City's citizens...In many cases, stores would be closed (boarded-up) and/or unoccupied...


It was only a matter of minutes before Distri began to seek out an impromptu performance-art intervention opportunity...

Uninspired, Distri roamed around Metro City looking for something to do as a "performance"...Just about every place seemed vacant and when a place was occupied, it usually was by an automated citizen (program) who may as well not have needed to have been there in the first place. One had to be very creative and use their agency very explicitly to achieve a sense of "reality" and "life" in this second-rate simulation of the real...Eventually, Distri had an idea while attempting a conversation with the news-stand vendor near the subway...


Distri decided to emulate the charming two-dimensional behaviour of the news-stand vendor by finding her own cash-register to occupy. As Metro City was an ill-conceived world with partially interactive possibilities and uninhabited (possibly evacuated) retail zones, there arose the possibility to perform as a volunteer clerk. Distri then looked for stores where she could work retail. Ideally, she would like to work at a record store...but all she managed to find this day was a supermarket-sized grocery store...Predictably, there was no one either in the store nor at a till so Distri ensured that at least she could work the till...maybe then, citizens would realize that the illusion of a genuinely functioning store (including a clerk posing as one of the NPCs) would become slightly more compelling than before...




Working as a clerk for hours on end without a customer in sight allowed Distri ample time to practice her combat moves. Distri discovered that strafing around the aisles helped ensure that no one was covertly hiding behind a shelf and stealing product from the store.



Distri spend most of the time memorizing each product for sale in order to devise creative excuses as to why none of this product could be peeled off the wall and dropped into a customer's inventory...Usually, the customer is always right but in instances like these, the Architect makes the rules...



Distri also spent time figuring out why there was a 1/2 price sign in the store. Wouldn't the customers expect a full refund once they found out that the product was merely a simulacrum? It probably did not matter anyway since Distri had no way to actually open and close the cash register, let alone collect money directly from customers.

Performance Video-Documentation on Ice?



Somewhere locked inside the Matrix might reside some previously-forgotten video-documentation of a couple of performances...

Any breaking news about such findings will occur in the coming days...

Briefly, there may have been some video-documentation showing Distri stalking NPCs...Also, Distri spent a considerable amount of time waiting for a bus to arrive at a designated bus-stop in the Matrix...This solo performance occurred sometime in February 2009 and a group version of this performance was proposed to the Ars Virtua group shortly after the extremely mundane "completion" of this performance (the bus never arrived). However, by the time Ars Virtua took serious interest in the performance idea, the Matrix had shut down.

Even if this documentation cannot be found, there will still be more posts appearing on this blog very soon. These forthcoming posts will show Distri's Retail-store performance (2009) and some other events that only liminally would be considered as self-conscious "art-performances"...

In the meantime, take the green-pill...relax....and await the upcoming posts with Neo-like anticipation...

Distri's NPC Stalking Tour (performance)...

On January 26, 2009, Distri was initially determined to enlighten the citizens of Metro City by attempting to wake them from their slumber. Hopefully, one of them would wake up, realize they were in the Matrix and exhibit more convincing social behaviors. Unfortunately, most of them had been completely possessed by the Machines and exhibited NPC-like behavior. Feeling alone and in desperate need of an art-performance opportunity, Distri decided instead to stalk each citizen by asking them inane questions and following them around - everywhere they went.


Since these citizens followed pre-determined routes with mundane precision, Distri's performance was nowhere near as engaging as Vito Acconci's similar experiments with stalking that took place 40 years earlier.

Due to bandwidth issues, no video was documented of this event and for some reason, only a single screenshot photo (above) has been recovered outside of the Matrix.

Onto the Virtual Virtual DJ (performance)...

This performance intervention in the Matrix Online occurred on January 22, 2009...

This was Onto's very first day in the Matrix...

It all began when Onto found no immediate shelter from the prohibitive digitized weather...

Gradually, Onto began to accept this non-interactive dystopian world as part of his mundane and unquestionable reality...

With no open doors or windows in sight, he eventually sought refuge amongst the occasionally animated static-mesh squalor on the streets...


Since the found ghetto blaster contained no music (other than the world's embedded muzak), Onto gradually became bored and felt the urge to roam around the Matrix for signs of (night)life....Eventually he found a door that was slightly ajar. Curious, he managed to open it and soon enough, he discovered a corridor to Metro City's local nite-club. Onto was not sure if this was the only club in the City but he felt it was here where he could be the life of the party. Clearly, there was at least one other entity in the corridor..


it did not matter if this fellow entity appeared un-attentive...The posters on the wall indicated some exciting live events to come...Onto was curious to see where all the party-going entities were...Eagerly, he descended into the basement with the promise of booming techno music.


Certainly, the light show interested him but the place appeared unusually lifeless - even for a virtual world. The music was decent although the place certainly needed livening up, if anyone was to take a break from melee combat and engage in some melee dancing!


Onto was easily bored from dancing almost virtually alone and instead, chose to sit down for awhile and contemplate the ways he could make the venue more habitable.


As there was an extra DJ booth, Onto decided to occupy it and become the venue's house virtual virtual DJ. Onto stayed there for quite awhile...Since looks are everything in the Matrix, Onto seemed quite at home air-DJing to the beats...it was almost as if he manually pressed the play-button on the CD, adjusted the record on the Turntable and pressed the occasional key on the keyboard (or whatever was really behind this console) all by himself.

This performance event went on for approximately 30 minutes despite the complete lack of any improvement in attendance...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Academatrix - DRAMA



“Tension relies on these two factors in combination – neither is sufficient by itself. Without uncertainty, the outcome of the game becomes a foregone conclusion, and the players become spectators. Without inevitability, the outcome of the conflict seems distant. Players are given little incentive to invest their emotions in the contest”. (Marc LeBlanc, Tools for Creating Dynamic Game Systems, 1999:445).

Based on a segment of game-play that occurred on February 01, 2009 – there were many more examples where I had personally encountered structural elements of uncertainty than inevitability. This is likely due to the fact that the Matrix Online’s story-world belongs to the narrative of the original movie trilogy where the nature of ontological reality itself is questioned and therefore, what is presented is a recurring and perpetual game-state (Leblanc, 1999) driven almost exclusively by aesthetically produced emotional content that is expressed in the form of “paranoia”. These irrational feelings of paranoia and ontological uncertainty form the basis from which an illusory game mechanical bias (Ibid.) is psycho-somatically perceived and apprehended on a hyper-real intensity.

The controlled pseudo-cybernetic feedback chain of Marc LeBlanc’s Dramatic Arc appears to have been inverted since it is the aesthetics (emotional expectations) of the game that influences the dynamics (behaviors) to the point where they are a by-product more of these aesthetic parameters than simply being technically derived from the core game mechanics.

In addition, it appears as if the players are meant to possess an emotionally distant attitude in order to more effectively contemplate the consensual hallucination of the Matrix and so, each player modifies their dynamic behavior for a more long-term form of “awakening” so that they can make living emergent history through their appearance in future “chapters” of the game. As a result of this long-term goal-fulfillment, the players on a localized level do not require the same sort of ludic incentives for an immediate competitive closure found in more conventional games built upon what Eric Zimmerman has called a “contest of powers” (Zimmerman, 2004). Therefore, all the game-play iterations up to now are gradually confirming the hypothetical assumption that the Matrix Online was created on a top-down level to emphasize uncertainty over inevitability since the players are encouraged to become distant spectators witnessing their own customized combat configurations rather than executing the martial-arts moves manually via their own agency.

For non-gamers (like myself), the Matrix Online allows casual players to focus more on contemplating the story-world than being distracted by the stress of actually playing the game. For those who are game-literate, however, the lack of agency causes too much uncertainty and therefore, an unsatisfying ludic experience.

What is odd about the Matrix Online in particular is that the players can become spectators with a complete aesthetic sense of uncertainty not only retained but reinforced. This experience subverts Leblanc’s notion that players only experience themselves as distant spectators due to a lack of uncertainty. Perhaps Leblanc decided not to consider the ludic dimension of “cognitive interactivity” (Zimmerman, 2004) that can successfully emerge out of an intentionally uncertain ontology.
Here are some examples from my recent game-playing experience that illustrates this methodical yet inherently biased cognitive emphasis of uncertainty over inevitability...

I – Combat related uncertainty...

“When taking or dealing damage, one player's damage influences are pitted against another player's resistance influences of the same damage type (i.e. a gunman's ballistic damage versus an opponent's ballistic resistance). Higher resistance versus lower damage means that the defending player will not take as much damage. When attacking or defending against attacks, one player's accuracy influences are pitted against another's defense influences of the same attack type.” (Matrix Online Wiki – Accessed online on January 31, 2009).



Here is a new example of close-melee “combat”. In this case, Distri easily kills this Non-Player Character (NPC) with a head-butt. Since head-butts seemed to have killed many other NPCs in one of the first regions of Metro World (the urban sprawl in the Matrix), one initially gains a sense of inevitability. However, this ego-fueling assumption is quickly shattered when a distant NPC kills Distri before she even has a change to engage her combat icons. In addition, many NPCs act like spaced-out zombies and do not make any effort to approach Distri unless she walks right up to them and initiates combat. It was quite a shock to see an NPC suddenly become aware of Distri’s presence from a distance and quickly engaged in long-range combat. The intelligence behind this one NPC seemed to be far superior to other NPCs that seem virtually lifeless, even when engaged in conversation. The inconsistency of any sort of game mechanical bias with regards to both combat mechanics and artificial intelligence implementations leads the player towards a very self-conscious state of paranoid uncertainty. In terms of the game mechanical bias, since the entire combat choreography is illusory and beyond the agency of the player – everything appears artificial and more in line with the Matrix’s story-world. There is not even the sense that a player has any handicap or spite advantages over the opponent since any perceivable ludic advantages seem completely arbitrary and not scaled towards more rational intelligence behaviors. The combat and NPC behavior follow from aesthetics rather than mechanics.

Since the supposed balance between “damage” and “resistance” of the game mechanics are too confusing for the non-gamer demographic, there is a high degree of uncertainty as to exactly what kind of opponent one is up against. In one case, I was shot dead without being able to even approach my opponent and yet, in almost every other instance, I would at least be able to walk right up to the NPC for the purposes of engaging in the intimate form of close-combat called “Interlock”. Since it is only non-gamers who would appreciate the spectator-mode of combat – then one can safely assume that if SEGA’s (and Warner Brother’s) intentions were genuine, the mechanics were intentionally confusing as to provide the kind of uncertainty that leads to the illusory perception that there is some sort of game-mechanical bias at work that “randomly” (perhaps even frivolously) toggles between the opponent’s handicap and spite (Leblanc, 1999) capabilities for the sake of story-world suspense.



In this instance, Distri has activated an “evade combat” maneuver but her body language seems to indicate that she is still actively engaged in combat. It seems as if the game mechanical bias always keeps her body on alert and leaves her in an animated state of uncertainty just in case she receives some sort of miraculous handicap or spite advantage over her opponent. This screenshot also serves to illustrate Distri’s mellee halo which functions both as a marker for her intimate engagement zone but also reminds her of her intended archetypal path since the halo visually alludes to the abilities of a code-shaper. The so-called “tactic-booster” that she had just received from a recent corpse-loot seemed to simply act as a confidence boosting placebo since Distri was easily killed by every NPC opponent who confronter her after this one instance. This “tactic booster” then – unless it was used improperly by Distri – was merely an illusory “accelerator” (Leblanc, 1999).

In other words, the supposed game mechanical bias for each player is also a mystery since the combat moves are actually based around a “random dice roll” that cannot entirely take into account the pre-designed “damage” and “resistance” combat aptitudes. The only indication that one NPC was more powerful and had an advantage over my player was when another player warned me about confronting nearby “gangs”...I assumed since I defeated every other NPC easily that I would have no problem combating the “Bell Janets". Because of this, it is unclear whether or not one is in handicap nor spite mode since the combat seems completely objectified and distant from the player’s actions/agency once set into motion. Also, the leveling in the game seemed arbitrary as one could roam from one part of Metro World to just a few blocks around the corner to engage with an NPC of a much higher level than the player. Socially speaking, it is assumed that the only form of “cashing out” (LeBlanc, 1999) from previous ludic experience has nothing to do with the quantifiable measures of “levels” since all of the prestige - outside of the social standing due to one’s aesthetic appearance – is entirely dependent on intangible and truly “virtual” units of experience known as “information”.

This “information” is only showcased in any certain and visible way as a kind of pseudo-feedback mechanism (Ibid.) through the use of flashier tricks and abilities in combat which actually have no real bearing on accumulated effort since combat is simply a spectator sport in this context and not one that shows the manual gaming abilities of the player. For the most part, the Matrix Online was not very good at scaling the level of difficulties that reflect neither a positive nor negative feedback system. If prestige and “information choreography” are the main qualifiers for ludic progress in the game, then the dynamics (behaviors) are entirely dependent on the aesthetics for interpretation.

Strictly from a narrative perspective, this ambiguity between discernable causes and affects achieved through manually acquired and tested positive and negative feedback leads to a tense ludic situation that usually resembles a perpetual state of denouement. The substitution of combat-stress with denouement-driven existential angst is fine for non-gamers like myself who want to just hang out and explore the story-world of the Matrix but for game-players the experience is frustrating because one can either easily win or suddenly die without any embodied sense that the combat contains perceivable escalation (Ibid.).

Based on the game’s theme about “illusion” and virtuality, it appears that the designer’s aim was to also create pseudo-feedback as a kind of hallucinatory game-play experience perhaps to reinforce a highly stylized and symbolic kind of a “fog of war” (Ibid.) – whereas in this case, the “fog” is not produced due to a lack of a sense of spatial proximity and positioning but more to do with the “fog” that separates actual combat from socializing or from becoming paralyzed in a frozen narrative denouement.

In the case of “hidden energy”, the Matrix Online in general contains a lot of hidden energy (equivalent to “mana”) within the game-play in any instance. The energy is so hidden, however, it is usually hidden from the players’ own sense of agency. This energy merely highlights to the explicit “potential to score” (LeBlanc 1999:450) rather than any indication that the player is having any fighting advantage over the opponent NPC (genuine PvP combat has not occurred yet).

However, some of the hidden energy becomes manifest through the iconic representation of “melee zones” or “melee halos” that occur when a special archetypal power has been revealed. What is interesting is that because of the “random dice roll” that determines all the effectiveness of each movement combination, a player can only guess at the ludic progress in each combat through the aesthetically pleasing visual display of the halos that he/she produces when fighting. In this way, uncertainty is fore-grounded over any sense of inevitable destiny through the agency of the player. It is unclear at this time, however, if this uncertainty is beneficial to the game’s overall playability and player satisfaction.

II – Cognitive Uncertainty through the Aesthetic Emotional Affects Induced by Paranoia...


This screenshot shows the kind of spatial paranoia that the interface of the Matrix Online provides as a psychosomatic game mechanical bias (Ibid.). In this instance, Distri has just entered a semi-darkened room with a lone NPC standing motionless, mute and unresponsive in front of his office desk. The NPC does not turn around or show any sort of body-language to indicate Distri’s immediate presence and yet in other cases, opponent NPCs have acknowledged Distri’s presence from a distance of a few blocks and have shot her dead on sight. Therefore as this documented example shows, it is uncertain as to the degree of this particular NPC’s intelligence and intentions. In the Matrix Online, there are at least 3 opposing factions that a player can eventually choose to align him/herself with and it is unknown as to which factions each NPC is also part of (if any as it seems like only the players align themselves with a faction with the exception of The Machines group). As a result of the personality and aptitude ambiguity between NPCs, the player is always left with a feeling of uncertainty as to how the NPC might react. If Distri sneaks up behind this NPC, will she be attacked? Will this NPC be responsive at all? Does this NPC have anything valuable to say or offer or will simply act as a kind of intelligent “wall-paper” or “prop” to provide a more compelling illusory experience of a story-world? In addition, a trace of Distri’s circular melee aura is appearing underneath the door that she had just opened. When a player recently opened a door or turned on a light-switch, an activation halo is left there. Perhaps this was intended for functional purposes to show the history of one’s recent actions but in the case of these story-world, it looks almost as if the halo is indicating a melee zone for a ghostly presence that might be lurking on the other side of the door. This ontological ambiguity is at the heart of the Matrix Online’s game mechanics and it can be safely assumed that the designers of the Matrix Online intentionally chose to make the connections between the player’s own agency (green activation melee halos/auras) and that of the NPCs as ambiguous as possible.


Here is a more detailed example showing the nature of the (non)-interaction with the NPC. It is as if the NPC is completely entranced by the illusory nature of the Matrix reality and is “un-awakened”. This screenshot also shows what the activation aura looks like once a light-switch has been recently activated by the player. To add to the uncertainty, there are books with titles on this office desk and throughout shelved in this small room and it is unclear if any of these items are “clickable” and provide any sort of game mechanical bias for the player later on in the game. It is possible that one of these hundreds of displayed books might contain text-string secrets related to ways in which one can “hack” into the Matrix and influence the game mechanics and dynamics in such a way as to provide previously unforeseen handicap and spite enhancing strategies– as this would be consistent with the conspiracy-level “aesthetics” that drive the experience of the game. The lack of genuinely activating, readable and loot-able objects and items might be indicative of an overall design flaw rather than an intentional display of uncertainty and suspense since Metro City is quite large and the designers cannot expect to make every embedded object or item readable and active for every player and NPC.

Regardless of its gestalt effectiveness, the Matrix Online reflects feelings of uncertainty in almost all ludic examples being presented to the player. Even in terms of the story-world, for example, one could argue that the entire emergent narrative progress within the game is ultimately uncertain because each “chapter” (as each historical period is called retrospectively) has a narrative formed entirely out of the combined mechanics, behavior (dynamics) and aesthetics (emotional impact) of all of the players on each server. Since this is an MMORPG, no single player can make any ludic impact on their own that is historically measurable with any certainty. An extreme example of this was a “chapter” where some players had actually permanently “killed” the famous NPC “Morpheus” who was one of the protagonists in the movie trilogy. This now-historic event has proved that even the original Matrix Trilogy story-line proposed by the Wachowski Brothers is not a narrative to rely on with any reasonable certainty. Although, neither of my characters have witnessed this particular dramatic-arc altering event, there is some drama enhanced within the emergent arc that is imbued with the narrative possibility that through the agency of either of my characters, I might be able to eventually create “history” as part of a future chapter in the game. It is from this spark of narrative agency that we begin to see hints of inevitability gradually emerge out of uncertainty. But, in the meantime, here are some rare examples where an inevitable game-state is foreshadowed.

III- Notification-based inevitability...

Due to the high-frequency of cognitive uncertainty that permeates both the game’s mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics as well as its story-world environment (dramatic music, climate physics etc), the main structural ways in which the Matrix Online has attempted to provide a tiny bit of inevitable ludic relief is through the use of pop-up window notifications.


Here is a screenshot showing a pop-window warning for Distri as she enters the agent-monitored region of “Stamos” in Metro City. This pop-up window explicit informs her that a successful evasion from agent-surveillance can be inevitable providing that she finds the access keys that are embedded into various neighborhood complexes. Even with this plea for a positive inevitable outcome, the suspenseful chords evoked by the region-entrance music still proves that cognitive uncertainty is meant to be the most highly elicited emotional (aesthetic) response.

It is through the overt use of text-string warnings in pop-windows whereby the player can clearly comprehend a sense of the inevitability of the game mechanical bias being used to have the opponent NPCs catch up with the player. In cases where a pop-window warning is utilized by the designers, the player actually is allowed to exercise some agency in order to determine another ludic outcome. Although one can argue that the fact that these warnings might not be heeded by the player and therefore, may lead to a compounded sense of uncertainty rather than inevitability, the player is still faced with the inevitability of a binary decision process. Admittedly though, inevitable outcomes are much more scarce than uncertain ones as perceivable mechanics, dynamics or aesthetics from a competitive point of view.

IV – Remaining cues (and clues) towards dramatic inevitability...


The “STAGGERED” notification-halo overtop of either the NPC and/or the player usually reveals the final few moves left against them in combat before they “die” unless a “random dice roll” is rolled in favor of the losing character.

Once again, even this faint glimmer of inevitability falls easy prey to feelings of cognitive uncertainty since this dice roll can cause a sudden spite or handicap advantage for either the player or the NPC. If the random dice roll is not taken into account, the text-string descriptor at the very least, seems to function as a dramatic semiotic “accelerator” (Leblanc, 1999, P. 451) for the player since the appearance of this halo implies that a certain victory is at hand – but not necessarily imminent. In addition, there are similar semiotic halos that indicate exactly how much closer the player is to actually “dying” in the game. These warnings are in the form of additional text-string halos such as “off-balance” and “disarm” and other strings that are quite overt/explicit in terms of the text provided i.e. ”you are about to die” etc although in the case of this particular game-play segment, my character died before even having a chance to take a screenshot of the archived text...

At this point of the game-play, there does not appear to be any “decelerator” (Leblanc, 1999) of sorts yet but I am sure one will (or should) appear once my avatar, Distri makes her way across the city by achieving higher levels. Because this is an open-ended MMORPG where the history of the narrative is entirely player-generated and “emergent”, there might not actually be a functional reason to place a dramatic decelerator since that would require a more top-down narrative intervention from the games company. Therefore, it is better to add a plethora of accelerators of many descriptions in order for the player to consistently perceive ludic progress in a world that seems stuck in a meta-game-state of perpetual denouement.

Time-delimited quests also provide a very quantifiable sense of inevitability although these quest-giving NPCs were not encountered in this specific game-play session. This quantitative approach to measuring the qualitative and dramatic narrative properties of inevitability can also be applied to the inventory window where my player has collected 7 of 10 storage data-discs of “information bits”. It can be assumed with reasonable certainty that once all 10 of the discs have been collected from looting enough corpses, it will be inevitable that Distri will receive some form of “cashing out” (Ibid.) although the form this “cashing out” will take has not yet been experienced through the auspices of game-play.

In conclusion, the Matrix Online may suffer from a skimpy amount of non-reversible resources that usually endorse inevitable outcomes since most of the resources (even after death) seem to regenerate back to the NPCs from which they originated. However, even this immortal inventory is not quantified with any degree of consistency nor inevitability. Quests can be re-taken, for example and the so-called “non-renewable” resources do not seem to entirely dissipate when reincarnation. Again, because this is meant to be an open ended MMORPG dramatic narrative arc, the processes within the games, mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics were never intended to lead the player towards a game-state of completion. On the contrary, the Matrix Online is set to enhance a perpetual sense of contemplation and discontent in order to foster narrative aspirations that are harmonious with the theme of the story-world.

Perhaps the lack of genuine dramatic mechanics, physics and aesthetics (unless one mean “aesthetics” in the artistic rather than ludic sense of the word), ensures that the Matrix Online never reaches a climax and that the players can then treat the environment as more of a social space rather than a combat zone. Also, it might not be until Distri decides on joining a particular faction will she be able to witness first-hand any dramatic arc decelerators, cash-out schemes or additional examples of uncertainty and/or inevitability.

REFERENCES

Leblanc, Marc. “Tools for Creating Dynamic Game Systems” (1999), pgs. 438-460 in Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric (ed.). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press, 2003.

MATRIX ONLINE WIKIPEDIA ENTRY - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix_Online

Zimmerman, Eric. "Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games", pgs.154-164, in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Harrigan, Pat, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2004

Academatrix - The Post-Reinforcement Pause That Refreshes...

Originally written on February 23, 2009.

Revised for this blog...Content now written in the past tense to account for the closing of the Matrix Online.



Distri is simulating a response to a primary stimulus. However, her behavior goes unrewarded on a ludic level although a lot of positive narrative feedback can result from repeatedly engaging in this sort of behavior.

I –Core Behavioral Mechanics:

In terms of the core positive and negative reinforcers, primary (survival) reinforcers do not really exist in the Matrix Online since a character does not need to eat, sleep nor go to the bathroom (i.e. waste resource management) to survive in the game even though the player him/herself is rewarded in the form of a “bio-break” outside of the game. Admittedly, one can argue that a primal “avoidance of pain” is psychologically prevalent in the game since the headaches caused by the tedium of watching (you do not directly/manually engage in) the NPC combat, causes a reinforced desire to explore the rest of the story-world instead. In other words, any pleasure derived from engaging in combat-oriented choreography is usually systematically extinguished.

II – Fixed and Variable Reward Schedules

“In a ratio schedule, reinforcement is one where the behavior must be performed X times before it is reinforced. X can be a fixed or variable number.” (Butcher, year unknown)


Here is a screenshot of Distri looting a bit of information (money) and a nice ring from an opponent NPC.

In Figure 2, we see a good example of a ratio schedule where Distri must kill several NPCs (and transform their virtual bodies into corpses) and loot each one over and over to see if any quantifiable rewards such as money (“information”) or other treasures can be extracted.

It is presently unclear whether or not this looting ritual precisely corresponds to a Fixed Ratio or Variable Ratio since a measurable pattern of a fixed number of kills/loots translating into a predictable display of information and treasure(s) has not yet been revealed with any consistency. Although the player needs a fixed amount of rewards to “cash-in” and be rewarded for their behavior, the way in which the loot is inserted into each NPC prior to being killed appears to be variably assigned.

III – Interval Schedules...


The Matrix Online has successfully remediated the operant conditioning ritual of using an elevator via expectations derived from the “real world”.

This century-old ritual of using elevators – in “real” or “virtual” life – is a perfect example of a “duration schedule” where the behavior of button pressing must be performed throughout the waiting interval. Similar to triggering a pedestrian traffic light for a cross-walk, the player sometimes presses a floor-button more than once to see whether or not the virtual elevator actually works. In terms of audio feedback, the button sounds do not accurately give a sense that the button is pressed but there is an elevator drone that occurs shortly after (bandwidth latency determines the drone length) which indicates a transition between the floors. Because of this latency, there was not a direct correlation regarding the relative space between floors since the sound did not always sync up. Also, there was no audio or visual feedback (no light nor sound) provided for a floor that was inaccessible or locked. As a result, Distri spent many minutes wondering if there was a glitch in the system (the world crashed) or whether or not a desired floor was locked.

Within Metro World, some of the elevators do not work and in addition, not all the floors of each floor can be accessed. Once again, it should be emphasized that since there is no feedback provided via a sound indicating a successful arrival onto a given floor, the ritual of using a virtual elevator in the Matrix is not properly reinforced on a Pavlovian level since there is no “bell” to indicate access-success. On the contrary, the elevator behavior in the Matrix is far closer to Operant Conditioning methodology since one engages in a mindless and anguishing repetition of the stimulus (button-pressing of multiple floors) in order to hopefully get access to a given floor.

In this sense, the elevator in the Matrix is one of the closest things to a “Skinner Box” (Skinner, 1948) except that the player him/herself functions as an impatient homing pigeon. For the continued usage of the elevator to persist (instead of merely jumping from building to building), the button-pressing behavior must be performed throughout the lifting/descending interval. In other words, as the behavior is learned (and remediated from everyday elevator experience), the frequency of the reward (experiencing a new floor) is reduced as this process is similar to our everyday habits.

In terms of any sort of Fixed Ratio (FR) schedule, the collection of information onto virtual floppy discs can be seen as corresponding to a fixed schedule since a fixed quantity of discs is required before “cashing in” at the locally available hard-line (phone booth) and graduating to the next level. Unlike the World of Warcraft, however, there is no visible progress bar that is used for gradual leveling. As a result, there is not really any incentive to level because the process seems obscured or at worst, totally arbitrary. As is more common with generic MMORPGs, most of reinforcers are given after a specified number of “correct” responses (Butcher, year unknown) and therefore, conform to a Variable Ratio (VR) scheduling system.


Distri is in the process of buying some inventory from her local neighborhood vendor NPC, Meek.

Unlike the corpse-looting, the ritual of buying from an NPC vendor is much more reliable and more clearly shows the balance between Fixed and Variable scheduling ratios. In this instance, the prices of the items are fixed (at least in this current game-play iteration) and this NPC is always present in the same spatial location - this continuity of spatial proximity guarantees a stable form of visual-feedback. However, the player’s bank account and current inventory is always variable so the stimulus-response feedback chain is variable to the point where the player can re-visit the same NPC after a given time-interval without becoming too bored with the available inventory selection that the NPC possesses.

In this case, the deployment of static vending NPCs assist in providing one of the few narrative-bound aspects of the game that successfully implement a Resistance-To-Extinction (NTE) behavioral schema. Since one’s inventory is always in flux (variable) than, the usefulness of the same item list in the NPCs inventory can become interesting for different reasons at different time intervals. This aspect is more fore-grounded in the “merchant inventory” pop-up window where the “Hide Unusable Objects” can provide the player with a way to organize their current reward preferences at any given time. Also, the merchant inventory structurally acts as a narrative fore-shadowing tool where the player is gradually conditioned through the variable availability of “Usable Objects” to eventually pick a behavioral archetype. In this case, Distri will be re-consulting this vendor known as “Meek” to see if her newfound objects can help advance her path as a “Code Shaper” along the growing ability tree.

In the examples given, any sort of noticeable “Fixed Interval” (FI) scheduling process never seemed to occur in the game. Even in the case of the consistent positive visual feedback that results from spawning and re-spawning, corpses do disappear after looting but no re-spawning was evident at the same vantage point as the corpse. In other words, the corpse might re-spawn in a different position, such as behind the player or after the player has left the battleground area. Objects and treasure seem to appear at fixed intervals but that is not clear as the treasure might be placed onto an NPC randomly.


This screenshot shows an example of a Variable Interval (VI) that is rarely used in the game but does exist.


The example above, however, provides a unique case where context determines the level of Fixation of Variability on a given schedulable Interval. Due to the lack of other players – i.e. “friends” – of Distri, this particular email message to the author’s own ALT (alternate identity) on another Matrix Online (MXO) server has been completely fabricated for the sake of showing the communication interface and what a “Variable Interval” might look like in a more active community – as the original designers had intended.

If this were a real in-world email, there would be a variable interval between the time this message was sent and the time another PC (Player-Character) would reply. In theory, this emailing system would have provided the player with a sense of sustained fellow-ship and a conditioned variable dependency on other players as has proven successful in the in-world mailbox system of World of Warcraft, for example. Other examples of Variable Intervals (VEs) involve waiting for opponent NPCs to re-spawn but there was no evidence of consistent spatial re-spawning. As this email was never sent (since Distri has no real friends), it was unclear the degree to which overt audio or visual feedback would be provided via the interface.


Here is a screenshot of the loading screen as Distri’s enters Metro city.


On the subject of spawning, since Distri died during the last game-play session, she was able to pick which “hardline” (phone booth) to use for re-spawning. Distri picked Mara (Richmond) as it is the most social area in the game. Even a remote opportunity for social interaction with other players was a sufficient reward to condition Distri’s behavior towards picking this particular phone-booth as her preferred entry point even though she eventually acquired a few phone booths to choose from. Those other booths might actually launch her back into areas where she might progress at a much faster ludic rate but Distri’s main anticipated response the hope of social interaction so she is very much following an Operant rather than a Classical conditioning paradigm. She is intentionally choosing a Stimulus in the hopes of receiving a response rather than responding to an external stimulus.

Without lag, this situation would likely have been originally scheduled by the game’s designers according to a rigid Fixed Interval Limited Hold (VI-LH) scheme but because of the inevitable client-server lag in most MMORPGs (esp. MXO), the Interval is actually determined through a fluid, yet frustrating variable duration.

The first response to this variable interval (loading the game-play textures into the client/server cache memory) would usually involve the greeting ritual of the other players towards Distri (which is a cultural form of positive visual feedback). Certainly that was the expected response that conditioned Distri’s behavior to select this particular phone booth. However, Distri was not rewarded with any greeting from the players once she had finally arrived into the lobby space. Perhaps, due to lag, Distri may have appeared un-responsive and rude (i.e. unable to provide contextual feedback via her body language) to other players while entering and they returned the favor with an equal measure of silence. It is possible then that Distri’s client lag thwarted the other PCs’ (Player-Characters) Variable Interval Limited Hold (VI-LH) protocols of engagement.

Before moving on towards discussions of Operant and Classical conditioning paradigms, it should be noted that all of the tutorial and questing sessions in the Matrix would qualify as being part of a Fixed Duration schedule. However, in the particular segment of game-play, no quest-givers were encountered during game-play although some opponent NPCs cunningly disguised themselves as quest-givers as we will see in the next example...

IV – Operant and Classical Conditioning...


Agent Brady impersonating an allied Quest-Giver. This is Operant Conditioning at work....

In one particular instance of encountering what appeared from a distance to be a quest-giving NPC, a situation arose where one’s socially conditioned behaviors were being put to a test – the kind of test that measured degrees of voluntary (Operant) behavior rather than following a primal unconscious impulse (Classical). This is perhaps the first instance in the game-play where my character was confronted with the entertaining possibility of flirting with moral ambiguity within the story-world.
I was expecting the Agent to give me a quest that conformed to a fixed duration schedule since machines are meant to be very precise and methodical. Usually, the positive visual feedback triggered through the placement of the “i” halo-icon means that the NPCs are quest-givers. Also, the Matrix Online designers claim that quests allow for the player to eventually choose their ethical orientation. Therefore, it was assumed that if I had completed a quest with the machines/agents, I would then become gradually aligned with their faction. However, all “Agent Brady” wanted to do was tell me that they were watching me and that I should consider joining the machines for philosophical reasons. Unfortunately, no actual fixed duration quest was handed out after repeatedly talking with him. This indicates a kind of placebo effect where my own conditioned expectations about the kind of scheduled feedback I receive from a quest-giver (stimulus) produced what BF Skinner would call a “superstitious behavior” (Skinner, 1948). There have been cases in this game-play segment, however where “suspicious behavior” from an NPC led towards a potential extinction of ludic reinforcers.


Here is Distri being forced to wait by the system before engaging in her next combat move.

As illustrated above, this method of forcing the player to wait to fight while the opponent NPC does nothing in return makes conventional turn-based combat look like a highly embodied real-time experience. As shown in this screenshot, the “Blackwood Goof” NPC goofily walks in circles while engaging in the next round of combat. Although being a “goof” is part of this NPC’s character, there is no indication in the game that this NPC should be completely clueless once engaged in combat –especially if he is given a competitive advantage over the player through a loop-hole in the game mechanical bias. Since both the player AND the NPC are left to aimlessly await combat orders, this example clearly illustrates a really lame use of a Variable Duration schedule and therefore in this case, the visual feedback evident in the “you must wait longer...” text string ultimately results in a down-word spiral of negative visual feedback. It should be noted that there were no audio feedback clues given to enhance the waiting message and so, this only confused the player more as to the expected duration of waiting to be re-engaged in combat choreography.

The act of crossing intimate melee zones and instigating initial combat moves should provide a constant flow of actionable-interchanges despite a decrease in weapons and/or energy. Therefore, this system-activity is actually a dis-incentive (negative reinforcement) to engaging in combat. The frequency of the combat being disengaged by the system (via rapid intervals of thwarted close-combat) in favor of an NPC dancing in circles for no perceivable reason caused an unintended ratio strain that began to encourage the fighting/looting behavior involving the engagement of opponent NPCs towards a rapidly implemented schedule of extinction. This trajectory towards ludic extinction gradually leads the player down towards an even more morally ambiguous path that is manifested in the form of a kind of anarchic and disrespectful behavior.


This screenshot shows a clear example where the lack of intelligent agency in each NPC within the Matrix Online positively reinforces the player towards gradually subverting one’s “real life” conditioned social protocols.

In the example shown above, Distri does not feel any ethical dissonance from directly interrupting an automated church service by budging directly (rudely) in front of the semi-intelligent Pastor NPC. This new kind of obtrusive behavior can be paralleled with the kind of behavior seen in Grand Theft Auto where one gradually becomes desensitized towards the unethical act of breaking into cars and stealing them. In this case, Distri is gradually becoming desensitized to the NPCs in the game and begins to lose respect for them as autonomous entities. As a result of the neutrality with regards to receiving meaningful social feedback, Distri’s attitude towards NPCs becomes increasingly manipulative and disrespectful. Because this space is populated almost entirely with half-comatose NPCs, the original cultural context of a church as being a sacred space for divine contemplation has been reduced to that of a non-ludic situation that exists simply to relieve combat-boredom.

Another example of operant conditioning can be seen in the routine behavioral patterns remediated from “real” life such as exploring a world through the obsessive-compulsive opening and closing of doors...


Here is a screenshot of Distri getting into the conditioned routine of habitually opening doors and entering them.

In the game, one has to right-click on a door in order to trigger some positive visual feedback in the form of a tiny pop-up window that says “door open”. If not, then it is assumed that the door is just a prop and is not an active part of the exploratory component of the game. In other words, there is a conditioned expectation remediated from similar expectations derived from the “real world” that behind each of these doors is a space one can enter into. There seems to be an appropriate reward for every stimulus, thus far and might even function as a Resistance-To-Extinction (RTE).

Similar acts of Operant Conditioned behavior include turning a light-switch on and off and pressing the “talk” button when engaging NPCs (where hopefully, some inane dialogue will be provided as positive feedback). As is the case with the Skinner box, an expected response usually occurs after the stimulus and if not, superstitious behavior emerges.

Regardless of the level in which suspicious behavior could be stimulated (and simulated as mentioned in a previous critique), there has been a single recorded encounter so far of a behavioral interaction that may in fact be influenced by Classical Conditioning.


This screenshot shows Distri trying to pose and dance at a popular nightclub while her mobile phone incessantly rings in the background.

In a non-ludic instance of the game-play (and there were many since the ludic modes of experiencing the game were not very pleasurable) the phone was trying to act as one of the rare examples of Classical Conditioning in the game. The phone ring acts as a Pavlovian-bell and tries to stimulate the user into answering the phone in order to receive a quest update (i.e. “nag”) from one of the allied NPCs. However, the nightclub was much more entertaining than the phone call so the phone was only answered once to see who it was. When the phone tried to call again, the ring was ignored. From the game designer’s perspective, the mobile phone was attempting to employ audio feedback to catch the attention of the player. However, the player still has free-will and does not need to respond to that audio feedback. If there phone is answered, there is a clicking sound and a pop-window (visual feedback) that appears showing the quest-giving NPC.

V- Reinforcement chaining...
In the Matrix Online, the most predictable and observable form of reinforcement chaining can be found in the way in which the modular combat moves are sequenced into a choreographic whole. What is interesting about these automated combat sequences – beside their aesthetic and voyeuristic appeal – is that the player can be conditioned either through a forward or backward chaining process (Sharpsteen, Brown & Patrick, 2005) of learning on the most effective moves for fighting each opponent NPC. The player can oscillate between forward and backward modes of learning the best combat moves based on the very subjective way in which they perceive the mechanics behind the automated actions.

Since the Matrix Online is a MMORPG with variable schedules and intervals, it is useful to note that the chaining process is somewhat variable as well. For example, the player can place moves together in a chained sequence to learn how each move effects the opponent, OR, the player can randomly pair “learned” combat modules together and reverse-engineer the sequence of successfully triggered combat moves through an intense process of character-observation and introspection. From seeing the result of the chained moves against a random dice roll, the player can gradually work backwards through the chain and through the gradual assimilation of secondary reinforcers, figure out which moves on one’s archetypal ability tree should be gradually phased out (i.e. “extinguished”). If this combat-choreography had modular moves that could be chained together with more than two combat moves at a time, the player might achieve a state of total task presentation (Ibid,.) but there is no way for the player to “accomplish the entire series of responses in each learning trial” (Ibid.,).

In either perspective, the conditioned selection responses are chained so one can observe the combat as a sequence of “learned” autonomous behaviors rather than having to go through a manual trial-and-error process gleaned from direct combat. If one chooses to develop this chain of learned behaviors, one triggers some corresponding visual feedback in the form of a gradually lengthening schematic map.

As mentioned in previous critiques, however, the extra variable of the random dice roll does dilute the ways in which this sequential chaining might become disentangled from the expected ludic behavior of the player since the any sort of clearly associative positive visual and audio feedback is neutralized and thereby, the player may quickly become bored with this method of systematic combat-analysis as theory, rather than practice (praxis).

In other words, the game as a “game” is ultimately not very fun unless the MMORPG was highly populated since developing archetypal abilities and tedious questing/grinding would be rewarded by the prestige and fellow-ship gained amongst peers as in World of Warcraft...in the Matrix Online, however, the servers are not populated enough to activate any of the intended conditioning strategies used to immerse the player in a controlled ludic behavior and so, one quickly learns that the environment is too de-populated for meaningful game-play. Instead, the player learns through constant negative reinforcement via the boring and tedious combat that experiencing the diverse and reality remediating world of Metro Town itself provides a sufficient reward and positive reinforcement for returning to the game and maintaining a subscription.

During this segment of play, none of the feedback mechanisms involved seemed to possess a bullet-proof Resistance-To-Extinction (RTE) and as a result, the game-play was only engaged for analysis/critique purposes where earning a good grade was the only real reward for conducting any sort of ludic behavior. There were many more exploratory rewards, however, and so those pre-conditioned towards non-gaming experiences were inadvertently rewarded while gamer-centric behavior was so extinguishable, engaging in the game-play almost qualified as a negative reinforcer (punishment). Ironically, the desire and pleasure derived from exploring the story-world acted as an extended post-reinforcement pause that occurred from experiencing the negative reinforcing stimulus of traditional game-play activity. Also, there was no evidence of a Premack Principle being used properly in this segment of the game-play since the high frequency activity of exploring the Matrix world rarely provides opportunities (which could be enabled through the NPCs and other players – if enough enthusiastic ones were around) where the player feels any tendency to return to the intended game-play – as this game-behavior seems to occur at a very low frequency.

Even the other frequent “gamers” that were encountered throughout the game mainly hung out at the Mara (Richmond) lobby for chat and socialization and occasionally gossiped via the local-area text chat about the POTENTIAL for engaging in combat when opponent player-characters (PCs) also wandered around the SAME shared lobby. However, none of them felt conditionally compelled to transmute their preferred high-frequency activity of socializing and gossiping into any sort of perceivable low-frequency combat with neither other players nor opponent NPCs. If anything, the high-frequency activity of socializing is encouraged through the negative reinforcement that occurs when one engages in combat. This might be due to server lag where fighting with other PCs is too laggy to make the experience rewarding...In addition, the NPC’s behavior do not seem intelligent enough to simulate a positively reinforced ludic outcome.

REFERENCES

Butcher, Sean. “A Behavioral Approach to Video Game Design.” http://www.betabunny.com/behaviorism/Conditioning.htm

Leblanc, Marc. “Tools for Creating Dynamic Game Systems” (1999), pgs. 438-460 in Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric (ed.). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press, 2003.

MATRIX ONLINE WIKIPEDIA ENTRY - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix_Online
Sharpsteen Don, J., Brown, Karen & Patrick, Tia. AP Psychology – 7th Edition. P. 93-94. ISBN-10: 07386-1209 New Jersey: Research and Education Association, 2005.

Skinner, BF. “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon”. (1948). First published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172. Re-published online as part of “Classics in the History of Psychology” by Christopher D. Green (York University, Toronto, Ontario) . http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Skinner/Pigeon/

Academatrix - Games as Systems

Matrix Online. Game-play session. Jan 26, 2009.

Submitted as an assignment for Magy seif el Nasr's "The Theory and Design of Video Games" class, Simon Fraser University (Spring 2009)...

NOTE: This text has been slightly revised for the blog...References to the Matrix Online have now been converted into the past-tense since this world no longer exists.

This description was based on a segment of the game-play for one of my characters, “Distri”. The goal was to eventually transform her into a “Code-Shaper” archetype but I believe that these archetypal assignments would have eventually emerged through the choices made during the game-play.. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the mechanics, objects and balancing metrics in the original Matrix Online and is only reflective of my game-play situation at the time.


Here is a self-portrait of Distri. Distri attempted to jump onto the back of this truck but for some reason, could not jump that high even though the character can leap across the roof-tops of buildings.


The Core Mechanics have been described according to the following sub-heading categories that were based on a power-point lecture provided by the UC Santa Cruz School of Engineering. October 06, 2008.

These core mechanics consist of...

A - Movement Controls (Process Mechanics):


Distri runs towards her new friend “Blackjack18”. Distri is not running directly towards her new friend because of the bandwidth lag that resulted from this particular game-play session. Her character briefly froze when turning left and/or right. This made basic navigation very difficult.

i – Running – Using the arrow keys, the character can run in any direction (until hitting a wall or some other obstacle). As of yet, there has been no evidence of the character being able to simply walk around the virtual space. In some cases, the character can run right through semi-solid objects and this situation may have been embedded by the designers to illustrate the illusory nature of the Matrix reality. Regardless of obstacles or virtual stress-levels, the default motion for any arrow-key movement appears to resemble running.

ii – Strafing - By holding down the ctrl key + the arrow keys, the player can “strafe” or in other words, walk sideways along a linear axis. This strafing technique was first personally encountered while playing Doom in the early 1990s. This type of movement is useful for accurately targeting opponents and for stealth purposes (i.e. sneaking along a wall).

iii – Jumping – By pressing the space bar, the player’s character can jump straight up. If the player is running while pressing the space bar, the player will flip forward. The height of the jump seems to depend on the amount of vitality (its equivalent in WoW would be “Mana”) in the game and/or the current level of the character. Also without any in-game explanation, some encountered obstacles allow for higher jumps than others. For example, one can flip right over a bridge and can easily jump from roof-top to roof-top. However, the character cannot jump onto a small bench nor onto a low-positioned object. This inconsistency between what constitutes a conceivable action versus an accessible one (Crawford, Chris. The Art of Interaction Design. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2003) causes some frustrating game-play scenarios.

iv – looting – Just as in many other MMORPG games, the player can “loot” the inventory from a corpse after he/she/it has been killed by right-clicking the opponent. At this point, only Non-Player Characters (NPCs) have been looted but once Distri has acquired a faction team to join, she may choose to also test the act of looting on player-character victims. With looting, the player’s character crouches over the body and a pop-up window displays the loot that would be transferred directly into the character’s inventory

B - Combat Controls (Fighting – Configurable Core Event Mechanics)


Distri being flipped upside down by “Bell Jane”. It seems as if all the opponents have their own fighting configurations which in this case, proved to be superior to the speed/punch combo (known as “Self Defense Martial Arts”) that Distri had selected to fight back with. In a sense then, the combat interplay is similar to the game “rock, paper scissors” where the player needs to intuitively determine the opponent’s preferred combat style. The player cannot know the opponent’s current fighting style until a given fighting sequence has already occurred. The opponent’s icon combo is displayed at the upper right of the screen. This means that the player can guess as to what kind of combo might be selected yet and can select his/her own combat response accordingly. This flip caused by the automated pairing of “speed” and “grabbing” left Distri dazed and ultimately left for dead.


i – punching and kicking – These moves are interchangeable with slapping, drop-kicking and roundhouse kicks and cannot manually be controlled by the player. Once pre-selected as a “speed”, “close combat”, and a “power” icon from the “hot-bar” at the top of the screen and placed next to another combat icon (see the top left hand side of the screen), the fighting sequences occur automatically. In fact, some manner of punching and kicking automatically occurs when any two icons are selected when engaging another player or NPC in close-combat range. The only icon that reduces the amount of offensive kicking and punching is the “evasive maneuver” icon combined with the “speed” rather than a “power” related icon.

ii- grabbing, flipping, head-butting and the “cheap shot” – Flips become a core-mechanic for the player and/or for the opponent if one of the combat icons selected from the “hot-bar” at the top of the screen involves the “grabbing” action. Head-butts are usually reserved for the player’s (or NPC’s) final move when detecting that their opponent’s experience and health points are sufficiently low enough for a final blow. The “cheap shot” seems to be a completely randomized move (determined by the invisible virtual dice rolls) that is used also as a final blow.

iv – shooting (if one has a weapon) – Each collected gun can be made available in the hot-bar at the top of the screen. When selected, the player can fire a gun at close range as one of the paired combat icon configurations. There is no manual “fire” button per se as the icon is simply paired with another action and the computer automates the chosen shooting/fighting sequences for the player. All of the guns that have been seen and collected so far are variations on machine guns.

C - Chat and Questing Mechanics –

Here is a screenshot showing the menu that is available when engaging a “Hardline” terminal.

i – Hardlines – Also known as a “phone booth”, the Hardline terminals have multiple core functions. One function is to teleport players to other locations. Just by clicking on a hardline for the first time, a player can “landmark” his/her location and have that particular segment of the city added to his/her map for easy teleportation when jacking back into the Matrix. By right-clicking each local Hardline, a menu appears with choices that include the uploading of abilities, quests and also possesses its own marketplace hub.

ii - The mobile phone icon - The tiny phone icon that is on the right hand side of the cardinal compass acts as a short-cut to receiving top-down quests from those NPCs who reside “outside of the Matrix”. This phone icon can also be seen as an “object” but it has been embedded into the GUI as well as a core-mechanical feature.

iii – “Missions” (timed Quests) – The Matrix Online also has an infrastructure in place where every player can embark on a quest. Known as “missions”, a player has the option of either creating a mission, receiving one from another player or receiving one via a local NPC. There is also a fourth instance mentioned with regards to the mobile phone icon mentioned above. Once accepted, all of these quests have fixed completion durations and difficulty levels. In same cases, the player has to hand in an item to the Quest-giver which becomes located on the mini-map window.


Here is an example of Distri receiving a quest from her mobile phone icon. This window looks the same when receiving a quest from the mobile phone icon.


Here is an example of Distri receiving a Mission from a quest-giving NPC. Each quest-giving NPC has an “i” halo over their head to represent “information” (not to be confused with information credits). In this case, the NPC prompts the player to click on the mobile phone icon after speaking with the NPC.



Here is an example of Distri receiving a Mission from another online player. In this case, there is a timed duration to both accept the invited Mission but once the Mission has been accepted, it is up to the Mission-giver to set the duration.

D - Health, Vitality and Recovery Mechanics –health and supplies – The Matrix Online has embedded objects within the various NPC opponents that one might encounter throughout the game. Once killing and looting an opponent, the player can receive all sorts of health potions that when activated, can increase the player’s health and vitality. In this sense then, these objects function as core resource mechanics. In addition to health items such as “Antibiotic 1.0”, “Health Pill” and some “Holy Water”, ammo that is found and collected from looted corpses also qualifies as part of the recovery mechanics of the game. .

E - Internal Economic Mechanics and early balancing mechanisms in the game... (emergent resources when entering the game)...

i - “sources” – the mechanics by which a resource enters the world i.e. spawn points, limited vs. unlimited, automatic resources

In this case, when a player spawns into the Matrix, no perceivable bonus item seems to have been received for logging in unless it is in the form of some intangible resource such as extra Experience Points. However, when you die, you do end up losing items before you log back into the game as will be explained later...So far, it is unknown whether or not there ever were any tangible incentives for spawning.


Here is a screenshot of Distri “jacking into the Matrix” from the offline realm. These loading (cache) textures appear over-top of any character when they log back into the Matrix or enter into it for the first time.

ii - “drains” - the mechanics that determine the consumption of resources...

In addition to the obvious drainable resources such as ammo discharges (when a gun is being fired), there is a more abstract form of resource consumption that is quantified as “Inner Strength”. This usually applies to the generation of proxy NPCs for fighting on behalf of the player. However, only with future game-testing, can this drainage be clear. In addition, there are also “falling damage points” accrued when you fall from a high level in the game. What is interesting here is that there are no “collision damage points” in this game so for every player (before they gain an archetypal specialty at a secondary level), it is much safer to get hit by a car than to fall from a high roof-top.

Another resource that is drained is “memory capacity” but it seems that when a player collects hard-discs, the memory capacity can be retained. The more memory capacity one has, the more specialized abilities relating to their archetype are allowed to be stored.


Here is an example of the Ability Tree currently available to Distri who has the ambition to become a “Code Shaper” archetype. The ultimate ability is to create a “Proxy Coder” NPC that fights on Distri’s behalf but this is a secondary mechanic that was never play-tested.


iii – Codes and Abilities


Here is a screen shot of the marketplace menu. Codes and items (both exist as objects) can be bought and sold amongst players and NPCs. Codes have to do with the ways in which each player learns fighting abilities. The marketplace feature can be seen as a “secondary” mechanic.

iv - “converter”mechanics that convert one resource to another.

No obvious “converters” were ever located within the game-play even though many objects appear as if they could have acted as converters. There were many cash registers and ticket machines but none of them seemed to work. In a previous game-play session, a newspaper could be retrieved from a vender but it was unclear exactly what was traded to receive this news-media...




Here is an example of Distri posing in front of ticket vending machines that did not seem to be active...Perhaps the subway is actually free to ride. The use of many in-active converters throughout the game points to the possibility of internal design flaws.

v - “Traders” - Mechanics that govern the trading of resources between NPCs and players.

As is the case with many MMORPGs, trading in the Matrix happens primarily between players and NPCs. There is a “marketplace” button in the Hardline menu but this does not seem to be the area where active trading occurs.


Here is a screenshot of Distri shopping for clothing accessories from a clothing NPC vendor. The core purchasing mechanics allows each player to appraise an item before buying it. Money is available as intangible resource in the form of information credits.

vi - “Production mechanisms” Mechanics that make resources immediately available to the player.

The closest thing to any sign of core “production mechanisms” was in the form of a borderline “secondary” mechanic based around the custom configuration of abilities. Even though each archetype configures a different set of abilities, all of the players share the interface for “patching” the various movement and combat core mechanics. This interface is known as the “Ability Tree” and files each single ability under umbrella categories called “disciplines”. The unique configuration of each ability under a given discipline heading acts as a mechanism from which fighting moves can be automatically “produced”.


Here is an example of the “Ability Tree” and the division between Disciplines and Abilities.

Vii - “Tangible vs. Intangible resources”if a resource is not directly represented, it is intangible. Money is a typical example of an intangible resource.

As mentioned earlier, the information credits, experience points (XPs) and Inner Strength (vitality/mana) points act as intangible resources. In addition to these, the player gains quantifiably controlled “talents” in the form of what the system calls “attributes”. These attributes are subdivided into “Belief”, “Perception”, “Reason”, “Focus” and “Vitality.

In addition, these attributes can be intangibly enhanced through the use of percentage increases known as “Upgrades”. Upgrades can be downloaded from a Hardline after a player has leveled up their character. The customized balance of these five attributes eventually determines your archetypal path and from there, one would enter the realm of secondary mechanics


Here is a screenshot of the five attributes that have gradually been accumulating point-by-point in the current game-test session.

2- Objects in the game...

As seen in the inventory screenshot below, Distri currently has accessories such as a baseball cap, glasses, three pairs of pants and shoes. Since this screenshot was taken moments after she was killed by a “Bell Janet” NPC, the inventory also has shaded areas that display lost inventory such as health pills. In addition, Distri collects code in the form of discs. Sometimes, multiple copies of the same code are collected onto many redundant discs. At this point, Distri had collected 19 code fragments out of 520 available ones and also possessed an envelope that contained a mission-related item that is supposed to be delivered to a target NPC assigned by the Quest-giver. It is interesting to note that the stored inventory a player can acquire is virtually unlimited in size. This infinite scalability has been known to anger some other players who have blogged about this experience. In the hot-bar during combat, Distri also has 2 machine guns but rarely uses them. Before dying, Distri also had collected a few keys which could be used to access certain buildings. Perhaps those NPCs have regenerated those keys for re-looting purposes.


Here is a screenshot of Distri’s inventory window before entering the Matrix.

The frustrating aspect to the game in general was that many of the objects appeared collectible but in fact, were not. There are many vehicles in the Matrix Online such as cars, vans and even a lone bicycle was encountered. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, there not been any evidence yet that these vehicles can be used. In addition to vehicles, there was no shortage of litter on the street –including some floating newspaper pages.

3- Properties of the objects...

Most of the described objects and core mechanics have already been described in context with their corresponding properties and function. Other examples include a “tactic booster” which allows one’s fighting abilities (in the form of “tactics”) to receive a better result from the “random” dice roll. The numbers that are assigned to these objects seem arbitrary as the random dice rolls seems to drain quantities unrelated to the objects that were received. It is unclear whether this is a design flaw or perhaps has to do with some of the property mechanics being concealed “under the covers” of the interface. Again, many bloggers have criticized the Matrix for this arcane lack of mechanical transparency.

4 -Relationships between objects...
These collected objects eventually activated the archetypal “attributes” that each player aims towards and helped determine ideally paired configurations for fighting...

Some of the objects are access cards which relate to the Hardline phone booths...Also some envelopes are objectified forms of “Missions”. Some of the collected data-discs seem to be related to NPC contact addresses and relate to missions and prestige within the game in case one chooses to align themselves with a given faction (the machines, for example). In addition, the collected hard-discs store additional source code to be used for downloading customized abilities and disciplines.

5- How is the game balanced?

Due to the arcane balancing system that the Matrix Online has developed for each archetypal path and discipline, a whole essay would be need to explain this process. However, here are some visible balancing summaries that emerged from that night’s game-play. The system provides a dis-incentive for death by removing code-bits, fragments from the player’s inventory when they log in the next time. This means that when the player logs back in, they will be farther away from realizing their archetypal role. Through the revoking of inventory items related to identity and prestige, the player still feels compelled to re-enter the game and try some of the same missions again.

In addition, Information Credits can be exchanged for clothing and weapons that provide a ludic advantage when it comes to both combat and prestige (i.e. looking good).

In terms of opponent combat, the game balances itself by assigning each opponent NPC with its own downloaded disciplines, attributes and abilities that can be compared against the ones manually set into motion by the player. Also, each weapon or health item has a version number assigned to the object (i.e. v. 1.0). This versioning allows the collected weapons and health bonuses to be level-specific even when engaging a multi-level spatial environment.

Information in this case, is interchangeable with experience points and money so these points can be accumulated via combat, looting or through accessing/landmarking a new location via a Hardline terminal. This ensures that ludic progress can occur without necessarily having to resort to combat. Because of this choice that is given, the players can have the illusion of “free-will” and eventually come to make a decision between joining a given team faction that matches their character’s ethical standards. This allows for an enhanced sense of fellowship and narrative depth.


Here is a screenshot of Distri being killed by an NPC and therefore, being forced to lose some of her inventory items related to archetype (and therefore narrative) development/progress.