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General: Webb: Cow Tools

StraddenStradden Managing EditorMember CommonPosts: 6,696

MMORPG.com columnist Justin Webb uses this week's space to discuss a Gary Larson cartoon and its relevance to game design.


During a design meeting this week I was forced to make the following reply: "Nope. That's 'Cow Tools'." There were a couple of blank stares in the room, mostly from the new guys. I often forget that not everyone knows about Cow Tools, or my propensity for using obscure pop-culture references as examples, so I had to explain. I'll do so again here. Here goes ...

In 1982, Gary Larson drew a Far Side cartoon called Cow Tools. It features a cow standing behind a table. On the table are four objects: two blob-like things, a weird stick, and something that looks remarkably like a saw. In the background is an American-style farm barn. It's kind of like American Gothic, but with a cow. The caption reads "Cow Tools". I'd love to link it here, but Larson is well known for keeping his Far Side cartoons off the internet. However, there are copies of Cow Tools out there if your Google-Fu is strong.

Read Cow Tools.

Cheers,
Jon Wood
Managing Editor
MMORPG.com

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Comments

  • tro44_1tro44_1 Member Posts: 1,819

    UMM OK.so

  • VexeVexe Member Posts: 549

    I'll be sure to impress my Game Design teacher by mentioning this. Thanks!

  • DistopiaDistopia Member EpicPosts: 21,182
    Originally posted by tro44_1


    UMM OK.so

     

    I think he's basically saying in game design don't add useless junk, that on the outside looks like it has a use.

    As an example, I'll use a Ps3 game.

    In way of the samurai 3, there's quite a bit of reference given to picking up a hoe. Now the premise of this is to say put down the Sword and take up farming. Now when you're told this, conviently there's a Hoe sitting right next to the NPC. So natually you pick it up thinking maybe you can farm or something. Nope the hoe acts just as any other weapon in the game, making the whole converstion null and void IMO. Now of course this is not in any way detrimental to the overall experience. WHich makes it an even more needless possible dissappointment or frustrating scenario. Bad example maybe but I think it's going along with what he is saying....

    For every minute you are angry , you lose 60 seconds of happiness."-Emerson


  • KhalathwyrKhalathwyr Member Posts: 3,138

    I don't know...no, I'm pretty certain I don't agree with your "Wizard Paradigm". Some of the most interesting  encounters I and many other have had in this genre were in Ultima Online With its infamous tank mages. There is some comfort in the predictability of certain aesthetics yet I would in most circumstances leave that to the realm of world objects and not characters. I'd have to guess that for many gamers, especially those who have been doing so 15+ years, being able to "spice up" the status quo as far as "roles" is a desirable. The thought of "Oh, look, a guy with a long beard and robes. He's a mage" is very, very cliche and boring to me. Especially since there are thousands of references to spell slingers in western as well as the rest of the world's fantasy stables where visually they eschew that stereotype.

    With respect to Cow Tools in general, I can see where in certain circumstances I would agree with you. The danger that makes me balk on your position is that I can very easily see where your point, when put into practice by developers who don't actually get it (and that weighs heavily on that I'm understanding your point correctly) and use a sledgehammer instead of a regular hammer and knock out all creative mystery elements in a game. They use this idea and drain every bit of any reason for the player to actually go out and learn to do things in game because it is all spelled out for them.

    Discovery of one's self (character) and of one's environment is something that in my view is a powerful attractant and one that is rarely used in game design today. There is hardly any gift wrapping done and instead the present is given directly with the price tag still attached.

    "Many nights, my friend... Many nights I've put a blade to your throat while you were sleeping. Glad I never killed you, Steve. You're alright..."

    Kickstarter 2 / Naysayers 0

  • battleaxebattleaxe Member UncommonPosts: 158

    Every MMORPG breaks this rule.

    I kill a guy wearing full platemail and swinging a flaming sword at me.  I ransack his corpse.  WTF?  I can see the platemail on his dead body and the flaming sword in his cold, dead hand but looting his corpse only provides 2 copper and a rusty dagger? 

    Stupid game designers.

  • GeekDadManGeekDadMan Member UncommonPosts: 121

    Great article. I never knew about Cow Tools until today, and it's certainly given me something to think about.

  • MacAllenMacAllen Member UncommonPosts: 64

    Really well done and insightful.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen this in games (not just MMO's), where something is partially implemented, sets an expectation, and then fails to deliver it elsewhere.

    Expectation management is the hardest part of game development.  You can buy an engine.  You can even buy an IP and story.  But customer expectations are something that only exist because you brought them into being, and rarely behave like you want them to.

  • aleosaleos Member UncommonPosts: 1,933

    This to me was pretty much it since you said it your self.

     

    "My take is that developers need to be very careful when putting something into a game that looks like it does something specific. If the "thing" ends up not doing the specific action, people can get confused, frustrated, and often angry."

    I'm pretty sure the world of gaming is allready used to things such as faded doors and objects that look like they do something but obviously don't due to color, graphics and whatever else. It's no different when watching a cartoon seeing an object on the ground more colorful then the surrounding area and you know its about to be moved. so...........we really don't care.

    And im curious to know at your game design meeting what the other people or person actually brought up that you concidered to be "Cow Tools"

  • druuidruui Member Posts: 8
    Originally posted by battleaxe


    Every MMORPG breaks this rule.
    I kill a guy wearing full platemail and swinging a flaming sword at me.  I ransack his corpse.  WTF?  I can see the platemail on his dead body and the flaming sword in his cold, dead hand but looting his corpse only provides 2 copper and a rusty dagger? 
    Stupid game designers.

     

    I believe that not every MMORPG breaks the rule that didn't let you loot the corpse fully.  For example, Darkfall allow you get everything from the corpse.

  • RemainsRemains Member UncommonPosts: 375

    Cows sweat through their noses... just saying.

  • JaedorJaedor Member UncommonPosts: 1,173

    I lol'd. :D

  • AlverantAlverant Member RarePosts: 1,146

    FYI the cartoon used in the "recent news" picture isn't Cow Tools. The cow on the left is grilling a steak. The two cows on the right look horrified. One is saying in the caption "You are sick Jon. Sick! Sick! Sick!"

  • MMO_DoubterMMO_Doubter Member Posts: 5,056
    Originally posted by battleaxe


    Every MMORPG breaks this rule.
    I kill a guy wearing full platemail and swinging a flaming sword at me.  I ransack his corpse.  WTF?  I can see the platemail on his dead body and the flaming sword in his cold, dead hand but looting his corpse only provides 2 copper and a rusty dagger? 
    Stupid game designers.

    Not an MMORPG (yet), but Neverwinter Nights let content designers set everything a mob was using/carrying to lootable. You could even set the mob to use potions and scrolls, and if you killed it fast enough, you got what hadn't been used in the fight.

    "" Voice acting isn't an RPG element....it's just a production value." - grumpymel2

  • LexiscatLexiscat Member Posts: 204

    Hmm...

     

    I see a back-scratcher, some kind of udder cover or prod, and a saw to cut through the wooden fence cows are commonly found contained by. 

    I lol'd at the Back-scratcher. You know that has to annoy the crap out of a cow, they can't even rub up against a tree or anything. Maybe that is the cause of Mad Cow Disease.

     

    Most rpgs i've played do this. In Dragon Age the most recent single player rpg i've played, there are rooms full of books or book shelves, and only one of them will be interactive.

    What it did for me was cause me to explore every nook and cranny and never assume anything wasn't interactive. It turned empty rooms, into large areas of mystery to be explored. It made scenery into content.

    Whether this is a good or bad thing for you is subjective. I rather enjoyed the intrigue. Reminiscent of the early adventure games, where you never knew what was interactive, what was a prop, and what was needed to complete the puzzle.

    “Nothing excites jaded Grandmasters more than a theoretical novelty”

  • MastadaMastada Member Posts: 40

    Great article. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    And as MacAllen said, it's all about managing expectations. That's what I pulled from the article, and it's ironic because I had just posted a "managing expectations" post in the STO forums (on beta testing) before reading this. OK, maybe it's more coincidence than irony, but I thought the timing was funny.

    Anyway, wrapping up that thought, isn't that what all MMO developers struggle with now? Gamers get on here every day screaming for something new. So developers give them something new. And then the gamers essentially react "Wait, this isn't what I am used to! This isn't what I expected!! A wizard that doesn't act like a normal wizard!?! This game sucks!" I still feel there are tons of new things MMO designers can do to keep this genre awesome, but I think in it's current state we have hit a plateau, and it is going to take a huge shift in thinking, from both designers and gamers, before we have another really really big MMO hit on our hands. And the company that can do that will manage those expectations both in-game and outside of the game, and will have mastered their own Cow Tools.

  • OzmodanOzmodan Member EpicPosts: 9,545

    I have to go along with Kalathwyr about the wizard paradigm.  The worst thing a MMO can do is restrict players from using something or wearing some armor.  There should be repercussions for doing so, but not complete restriction from such.  Ultima handled this nicely by letting you wear plate if a wizard, but it basically killed your mana regen.  The asian games are so predictable because you can look at someone and say he is a xx level magic user or such, everything is class and level specific and you only have one option in that range.  There is no point taking all the mystery out of a game, all that does is make it overly boring.

    Looking at that, maybe cow tools are not such a bad idea.  Introduce some mystery into a game, instead of the current trend of leading the player by the hand for everything.  Maybe that is the problem with all the current games.  A lot of us like challenge and exploration.  The current lot of games has been so dumbed down there there is little of either anywhere.

    So maybe you should rethink your cow tools message, unless of course you feel the need to make another boring copycat MMO.

  • SnarlingWolfSnarlingWolf Member Posts: 2,697

    Talk about misplaced anger.

     

    If I walk up to a door or other object in game and can't use it I move on, I don't even think twice. Why do I care if the door doesn't open, if I can't use it then it can't be used and I'm done with it. I don't think about it, ponder it at deep hours in the night and think something mysterious is going on, I just don't care.

     

    I think this whole post is a view of what happens when someone takes a game more seriously then they should. It's a game go play it and have fun but don't try to derive some deep philosphical meaning to items and don't think that every door should open and ever lense be able to be looked through.

     

    It's just a game.

  • just1opinionjust1opinion Member UncommonPosts: 4,641
    Originally posted by Khalathwyr


    I don't know...no, I'm pretty certain I don't agree with your "Wizard Paradigm". Some of the most interesting  encounters I and many other have had in this genre were in Ultima Online With its infamous tank mages. There is some comfort in the predictability of certain aesthetics yet I would in most circumstances leave that to the realm of world objects and not characters. I'd have to guess that for many gamers, especially those who have been doing so 15+ years, being able to "spice up" the status quo as far as "roles" is a desirable. The thought of "Oh, look, a guy with a long beard and robes. He's a mage" is very, very cliche and boring to me. Especially since there are thousands of references to spell slingers in western as well as the rest of the world's fantasy stables where visually they eschew that stereotype.
    I couldn't agree MORE.
     
    With respect to Cow Tools in general, I can see where in certain circumstances I would agree with you. The danger that makes me balk on your position is that I can very easily see where your point, when put into practice by developers who don't actually get it (and that weighs heavily on that I'm understanding your point correctly) and use a sledgehammer instead of a regular hammer and knock out all creative mystery elements in a game. They use this idea and drain every bit of any reason for the player to actually go out and learn to do things in game because it is all spelled out for them.
    *cough*  WoW  *cough*
     
    Discovery of one's self (character) and of one's environment is something that in my view is a powerful attractant and one that is rarely used in game design today. There is hardly any gift wrapping done and instead the present is given directly with the price tag still attached.
    And this is why I have fallen in love with Fallen Earth. I have cancelled every game sub I had running and just given it all of my gaming time without regret, because Icarus...does not do that. They expect a player to explore, discover, and omg...use their BRAIN. Some of the questions in the help channel since they started the free trial, are a perfect example of the kind of brainless no-thought-required shit we have out there for MMOs today. I think my post-WoW days of jumping from MMO to MMO trying to find a game for intelligent people that doesn't involve constantly living in a spaceship....have finally come to an end.  (Sorry EVE players...I realize that your game does require intelligence, and for that...I enjoyed it briefly. However...I just don't "dig" the space genre. It's simply a matter of taste.)
     
    I value options. At least give me the OPTION to not have the game in a "dumbed down" mode. Thank you, Icarus...for doing this and giving me an interface that is so easily customized to tell me as much, or as little, as I choose.
     
    I also like the "discovery of one's character," as you put it. I am not forced into any particular class or role. I can learn whatever I want to learn and raise my skills in any way I see fit, while still having the need to be careful in spending my AP. In other words...I can't be outstanding at everything. I have to make some choices.  But they are MY choices to MAKE. The freedom is tremendously refreshing. Imagine....allowing ME to determine what I become? Preposterous!


     
    I don't have to look (or "spec")  like another character if I don't want to...there is plenty of varied gear (and also widely varied skills and stats) which I can make any color I choose, that has the same stats as the other gear for the same level of armor skill. So if Joe Bloke wants to look like a cowboy with a cowboy hat, boots, and duster, and skill up in rifles, and I want to wear a hazmat suit and gas mask, and be more skilled in science and mutagenics and oh...I don't know...bombs....no problem.


     
    I am sick to death of games that allow for no imagination on the part of the players. It reminds me of Microsoft, and their stupid incarnation of Windows, called Vista.
    "Let's dumb things down to protect our customers from themselves. After all....we know they're not smart enough to manage their own filing system." 
    Uhm...yeah....first thing I did was take back my own rights to manage my OWN PC. (I wouldn't have even HAD Vista, had it not come standard on machines at the time, and I didn't want to pay extra for XP). I don't need Vista telling me what I can and cannot do. It's my computer, not theirs.  And...in games...I'm sorry developers, but I'm the one creating this character. And while I realize I have to do so within the restraints of your game design....I still take great offense at you assuming that I'm too idiotic to be able to have vast choices and take my own unique path. If you think I'm that stupid...then you simply don't get my money. Period.
     
    Yeah, I know...asking you to have a fantastic story that unfolds around me and then asking you NOT to make it linear....is too challenging for some developers. That's okay....I found a developer that is up to the challenge and honestly expects people to know how to READ and not be afraid to explore things on their own.

     

    Cow Tools....or....."Is that really a saw? Can a cow even use a saw? Why would a cow need a saw?"

    Perhaps we should stop looking at the tools like a human and look at the tools like a cow. Just because that LOOKS like a saw, doesn't mean it necessarily IS a saw. A cow made it, or at the very LEAST uses it enough to consider it "a tool." It might be for something entirely different than our use for a saw, and it may not be a saw...at ALL.

    To me..."Cow Tools" is more of an expose on how human beings assume the rest of the earth's beings think just like they do. FFS....we don't even think like each OTHER. Why would we think another species thinks the way we do? The "saw" may be identified by sight to a human being as one thing, but something entirely different to a cow. Maybe we shouldn't assume, on sight, that something always IS...what it APPEARS to be. That makes the world all a bit more mysterious, doesn't it? And I think I like that idea!

     

    Sorry for this semi off topic journey into my love for Fallen Earth, by the way. I know that many people on these boards don't agree with me. They're entitled to their own views. But I have grown very very weary of certain things done in today's more "popular" MMOs. And Cow Tools....seemed a good fit for my rant.

     

    Incidentally...if you're thinking about trying Fallen Earth and haven't tried the free trial, please just DON'T do it if you're into your game served up on a silver frackin' platter. You won't like it, and the community there probably isn't going to like YOU. 

     

    Please DO NOT come pollute our help channel with "ZOMG ...this sux... it's nothing like WoW...where's the flightpath...there's no fast travel????  How do I get a horse?  How do I get an ATV or dune buggy?  How do I shoot this rifle??  How do I equip a weapon? How do I change weapons? How does "X" attack work?  Why is there no auto attack?  You mean I have to actually TARGET the mob??  I have to AIM the rifle??  WTF?? ZOMG THIS BLOWS!" 

     

    *sigh*

     

    If you're too stupid to be able to mouse over an attack icon and READ how it works (rather than ASSUMING, rather unimaginatively, that IT'S A SAW, so to speak), or too stupid to explore your UI and see how easy it is with just a little simple exploration....please do not come ruin my game.

    If you skip tutorials because you think you know everything about any game and how it works....don't waste my time and everyone else's asking stupid questions in help channel, that would have been answered by the tutorial, IF you'd bothered to DO it. Figure it out yourself if you're so above doing a simple tutorial. If, on the other hand, you've moused over things, READ about them, used the in game database to research your dilemma, etc....THEN ask. But for gadssake....please don't come play in "my world" if you're a lazy gamer and don't want to be bothered with thinking. Or if you do....don't whine about it. Just go back to whatever type of game satisfies you. After all...some people are going to want to use the saw....they recognize the saw.  Some other people are going to want to pick up those other tools and figure out what they do. Those are the people that still have a sense of childlike wonder and want to explore.

     

    Personally, I'm interested in trying to use the thing that looks like a big chicken thigh with the bone sticking out. I think that might make a fun weapon....

     

    Yeah...I know I've taken this analogy a bit too far and that it's pretty skewed, but if you bothered to read all this...you get my drift.

     

     

     

     

    /end rant and bad analogies

     

    President of The Marvelously Meowhead Fan Club

  • Capn23Capn23 Member Posts: 1,529

    This is so true...and it's the little things that piss me off.

     

    There is chair A and chair B.

     

    I sit in Chair A and drink a magical potion.

     

    I get up and go click on chair B.

     

    WHAT THE HELL! WHY CAN'T I SIT IN THIS CHAIR? WoW did that a little too often and it made me want to take the frakken chair and beat gnomes into the ground with it. I'm not talking about the ugly little gnomes...I'm talking about that one gnome that everyone on the server seems to love and is as cute as a button.

     

    invisible walls piss me off too. I want to climb to the top of that mountain damnit. I'm gonna be hermit of the mountain! OW! WALL! SHIT! *nerdrage*

     

    either make the mountains too steap for me to climb or let me climb them.

     

    Arggg! This article is spot on.

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Guys! I'm hopelessly lost in a mountain of mole hills! Them damn moles!

  • just1opinionjust1opinion Member UncommonPosts: 4,641
    Originally posted by Lexiscat


    Hmm...
     
    I see a back-scratcher, some kind of udder cover or prod, and a saw to cut through the wooden fence cows are commonly found contained by. 
    I lol'd at the Back-scratcher. You know that has to annoy the crap out of a cow, they can't even rub up against a tree or anything. Maybe that is the cause of Mad Cow Disease.
     
    Most rpgs i've played do this. In Dragon Age the most recent single player rpg i've played, there are rooms full of books or book shelves, and only one of them will be interactive.
    What it did for me was cause me to explore every nook and cranny and never assume anything wasn't interactive. It turned empty rooms, into large areas of mystery to be explored. It made scenery into content.
    Whether this is a good or bad thing for you is subjective. I rather enjoyed the intrigue. Reminiscent of the early adventure games, where you never knew what was interactive, what was a prop, and what was needed to complete the puzzle.

     

    YES....this ^^^^^^^.

    President of The Marvelously Meowhead Fan Club

  • Zorvan01Zorvan01 Member CommonPosts: 390
    Originally posted by battleaxe


    Every MMORPG breaks this rule.
    I kill a guy wearing full platemail and swinging a flaming sword at me.  I ransack his corpse.  WTF?  I can see the platemail on his dead body and the flaming sword in his cold, dead hand but looting his corpse only provides 2 copper and a rusty dagger? 
    Stupid game designers.



     

    Just about every singleplayer game outside of Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3 have that flaw also. Bugs me.

    image
    image]image

  • DeivosDeivos Member EpicPosts: 3,692
    Originally posted by girlgeek

    Originally posted by Lexiscat


    Hmm...
     
    I see a back-scratcher, some kind of udder cover or prod, and a saw to cut through the wooden fence cows are commonly found contained by. 
    I lol'd at the Back-scratcher. You know that has to annoy the crap out of a cow, they can't even rub up against a tree or anything. Maybe that is the cause of Mad Cow Disease.
     
    Most rpgs i've played do this. In Dragon Age the most recent single player rpg i've played, there are rooms full of books or book shelves, and only one of them will be interactive.
    What it did for me was cause me to explore every nook and cranny and never assume anything wasn't interactive. It turned empty rooms, into large areas of mystery to be explored. It made scenery into content.
    Whether this is a good or bad thing for you is subjective. I rather enjoyed the intrigue. Reminiscent of the early adventure games, where you never knew what was interactive, what was a prop, and what was needed to complete the puzzle.

     

    YES....this ^^^^^^^.

     

    Really?

     

    ...it just made me hold down the tab key so I could grab them quickly and be on my way...

     

    Generally one aspect I prefer is what Bethesda does with most environmental objects. Makes it so you can grab them, move them about, and do just about what you please with it. There's certain aspects I think needs work (placing/arranging objects, range of interactivity, method of construction, etc), but it's a basis that so far has been the only method to make me actually stop and examine everything in a room or dungeon without defaulting to "does it highlight? Does it interact? Yes/No? Moving on."

     

    Honestly, I agree with the cow tools concept, and the fact that people take it for granted that games are just commonly done that way is just another drop in the bucket for me as far as how stuck in a ditch game design remains at large.

    "The knowledge of the theory of logic has no tendency whatever to make men good reasoners." - Thomas B. Macaulay

    "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." - Daniel J. Boorstin

  • LexiscatLexiscat Member Posts: 204
    Originally posted by Deivos



     
    ...it just made me hold down the tab key so I could grab them quickly and be on my way...
     
    Generally one aspect I prefer is what Bethesda does with most environmental objects. Makes it so you can grab them, move them about, and do just about what you please with it. There's certain aspects I think needs work (placing/arranging objects, range of interactivity, method of construction, etc), but it's a basis that so far has been the only method to make me actually stop and examine everything in a room or dungeon without defaulting to "does it highlight? Does it interact? Yes/No? Moving on."
     
    Honestly, I agree with the cow tools concept, and the fact that people take it for granted that games are just commonly done that way is just another drop in the bucket for me as far as how stuck in a ditch game design remains at large.

     

    I think a lot of it has to do with your audience.  If your goal is to make a game that entertains the largest number of people, you'll find that Blizzards World of Warcraft has plenty  "doors to no where". 

    It really has little or no effect on keeping people subscribing to their game.

    In Dalaran they have at least one achievement that is purely based on a person interacting with certain books that occasionally respawn in various static locations.  All this did was create hotspots where people stand and stare waiting for it to respawn.

    What would happen if they made these books spawn in random locations anywhere in Dalaran? Then make similar achievements for ever major city where these books always respawn in random locations in that city? All of a sudden you've made all those empty rooms, and vacant buildings come alive with explorers and scavengers looking for these items. 

    Now imagine they didn't spawn an object, but an object becomes interactive that already existed in these zones.

    Example of Cow Tools influencing the way players interact in your world? Imagine how much deeper you could go using this as a feature instead of a bug.

     

    “Nothing excites jaded Grandmasters more than a theoretical novelty”

  • neschrianeschria Member UncommonPosts: 1,406

    I was just ranting about this to my husband the other day-- I hate it when there are objects in a game that you can pick up that serve no purpose whatsoever. Perhaps they are items for quests not yet in the game, or whatever, but I am the kind of person who will carry things around, trying to figure out how to use them. If they don't have a use at all, that's disappointing to me.  I mean, if I can pick up a plate, I'd hope I can decorate my house with it, use it to "craft" dinner, trade it to a plate-collector NPC, get a point toward a "Plate Thief" achievement, or at least throw it at a goblin's head. If it doesn't do anything, that annoys me.

    ...
    This is where I draw the line: __________________.

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