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Blizzard's Core Game Design Concepts: A Contrary View
by Bart Stewart on 03/13/10 03:41:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Gamasutra has reported that at GDC 2010, Blizzard EVP of Game Design Rob Pardo described a number of the design concepts behind Blizzard's games.

I'm going to take a contrarian and admittedly somewhat cynical view of these design principles. At the risk of some exaggeration to illustrate a point:

Gameplay First = Dumb It Down
Just like every other corporate developer of multi-bazillion-dollar game product, In any contest between immersion/lore-based play and rules-based play, only rules-based play may ever be allowed to win. No one cares about content that stimulates hearts and minds; emotional and intellectual activity are invalid forms of play that must be avoided at all costs in favor of simple action. Any producer whose studio is making a $10M+ game is expected to lie by saying that they understand the IP and will be treating it with respect in their game -- there's no harm done since everyone knows they don't really mean it.

Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master = Dumb It Down (But Never Admit It)
Individuals are irrelevant, so you can make the gameplay as mind-numbingly simple as possible as long as you let players do things with and to each other. You get "hardcore" for free simply by allowing multiple players to do some things together, so use that as a selling point in your PR... even if the reality is that you will be spending enormous amounts of time watching for and nerfing the many exploits that emerge only in massively multiplayer games.

Make Everything Overpowered = Extremier! To the Max!
Gamers are easily distracted by lots of flashy lights and loud noises centered on their character. Throw lots of flashbang art and audio at them while stroking their senses of self-importance, and players will never notice there's no substance behind the repetitive rules-based action. What could possibly be wrong with telling gamers that they are godlets whose every whim ought to be catered to?

Play Don't Tell = TL;DR
Everyone knows gamers are illiterate juveniles, so clearly there needs to be an iron law that says no piece of text can ever be longer than 512 characters. Design every part of the game as though every player suffers from terminal levels of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and there will some people who will actually pay you to play such a game. And as a bonus, there's no need to hire anyone who is capable of crafting sentences that express meaningful thoughts -- writers would just get in the way of Adrenaline-Pumping Action!!

Make It A Bonus = Mine! Mine! Mine!
You must never, ever be perceived as taking something away from players, who quite naturally believe they own the individual character they play, the "physical" assets and innate attributes of that character, the class-determined abilities obtained for that character through long grindy leveling, and every area in which that character has leveled up. Players must be encouraged to hold that legally false belief of ownership even if it means tolerating massive amounts of RMT and drama over nerfs, because promoting a feeling of investment (i.e., playing with a player's psychology) is how you condition players not to cancel their subscriptions.


Obviously there's some validity to the design notions that Rob Pardo has talked about or World of Warcraft wouldn't as be as successful as it has been until recently. And I don't object to people enjoying what WoW offers -- if people like that sort of thing as entertainment, it's OK that there are games like WoW to satisfy those playstyle interests.

But to go beyond that to suggest that the design principles behind WoW should be used to create other such games? No, thanks. Game developers are already hyper-focusing on simplification of action. That trend doesn't need to be assisted any further.

Design concepts like WoW's that are focused on delivering simple action don't work for other playstyle preferences, such as simulation/exploration play or story/roleplaying play. And they won't lead to games that are equally satisfying to gamers for whom those playstyles are primary.

For those, we need different design concepts... and probably a different kind of game developer. To the extent that Pardo himself acknowledged this, I agree with him.

But is that even possible any longer? Is there anyone willing and able to make big standalone games that are consciously designed to appeal as much to the hearts and brains of gamers as to their hands and glands?


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Comments


Ian Fisch
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I take issue with a couple of your assertions here:



"Make Everything Overpowered = Extremier! To the Max!

Gamers are easily distracted by lots of flashy lights and loud noises centered on their character. Throw lots of flashbang art and audio at them while stroking their senses of self-importance, and players will never notice there's no substance behind the repetitive rules-based action. What could possibly be wrong with telling gamers that they are godlets whose every whim ought to be catered to?"



I don't quite understand why you have a problem with making the player feel powerful. Why shouldn't he? It's his game that he paid for. I think a lot of games get this wrong. When you have an assault rifle and you have to pump an enemy with 15 rounds before they go down (like in Far Cry 2), you don't feel like you're holding an assault rifle. You feel like you're holding a nerf gun, which you can do in real life.



"Play Don't Tell = TL;DR

Everyone knows gamers are illiterate juveniles, so clearly there needs to be an iron law that says no piece of text can ever be longer than 512 characters. Design every part of the game as though every player suffers from terminal levels of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and there will some people who will actually pay you to play such a game. And as a bonus, there's no need to hire anyone who is capable of crafting sentences that express meaningful thoughts -- writers would just get in the way of Adrenaline-Pumping Action!!"



I think this is just using the medium to its advantage. A shitload of text is no more appropriate for a game than it is for a movie. In fact a non-interactive cutscene to a game is equivalent to a page of text to a movie. It's an interactive medium, so we as developers should try to make the story as interactive as possible.

Joshua McDonald
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Bart, I usually agree more with your posts, but I'm going to disagree on most points here.



"Gameplay first = Dumb it down": By your description, it sounded like you are saying dumb down story and lore in favor of gameplay. I say "Sounds good." Whenever you hit a point where you're choosing between hurting gameplay and hurting story, injure the story. I love books, and I occasionally enjoy movies, but I rarely enjoy games that try to be either. Each medium should play to its strengths.



"Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master = Dumb It Down (But Never Admit It)"

Chess's gameplay can be fully learned in 10 minutes, but a lifetime can be spent trying to master it. Blizzard's RTS's are excellent examples of this principle followed correctly (though I'm less impressed by their RPG's). Take Warcraft III for example: Only moderately difficult to get the basics down, but learning to use the unique traits of each unit allows enomous room for deep, creative gameplay. I will admit that this does sometimes require some dumbing down of the first part of the single player game (I tend to find RTS campaigns painful and just skip to skirmish myself), but the real meat of the game doesn't get dumbed down.



As for the others, I'll second Ian.



I have my issues with WoW and reasons why I hope their next MMO isn't too much like it, but I generally think that their principles, when properly implemented, are excellent.

Mark Raymond
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This piece feels a little mean-spirited – or, at the very least, misguided. From the article you are seemingly reacting against, Blizzard don't actually appear to be saying that these principles should apply to all games, and I also don't think they're saying they should be taken to the extremes you are unduly criticising them for.

Theshigen Navalingam
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In reply to Ian's comment:



I think what's important to remember is this is just the design philosophy of one company. It shouldn't be treated as the only design philosophy that matters.



On your comment on overpowering the player, there are games that I'd call 'survival' games(like FarCry 2) which much of the immersion is the player feels vulnerable and the game is about creating a sense of dread to the player(the Resident Evil games to a lesser extent). You can't create a sense of dread if the player feels overpowered. I love S.T.A.L.K.E.R for this reason.



On the text thing, I think Dragon Age does an admirable job on this. There is a tonne of text if the player wants to read them. Keeping story telling to ingame scenes alone is extremely limiting as that is limited to the tech, time and cost.

Bart Stewart
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OK, fair enough. Anyone who goes negative has no room to complain when they're called on it, and my comments were negative.



I will point out that:



* I did say I was risking some exaggeration to make a point.

* I did say I agreed that the WoW style of design is as valid as any other, and that it's fine that there are such games.

* I did acknowledge that Rob Pardo was quoted as saying that other studios might use other design concepts.



However, the tone of my comments was pretty harsh. To the extent that that format distracted from my core point, rather than dramatized it, I was wrong.



But I stand by the substance of my objections. At this point I have seen too many games -- particularly RPGs of one kind or another -- favor some arbitrary rules-based play mechanic over anything to do with emotional or intellectual depth to think that "Gameplay First" is a good general rule of game design. I'm tired of game developers trying to define "fun" only as rules-based mechanics when forms of play such as identification with characters and story and the exploration of systems are also absolutely valid kinds of fun. And I see no reason why I shouldn't object when more and more games become more and more simple -- dumbed-down, you might say -- because producers don't know any better than to follow the "only rules-based mechanics count as fun" herd. Of course there have to be some rules of play. And there is no problem with having some simple rules-based games. The problem is when it stops being possible to create complex gameworlds, games with depth beyond simple twitch-mode rules-following. My complaint is that it seems we're getting closer to that world every day. So I object to "Gameplay First" as a general rule of design -- instead, how about a real balance between mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics?



I also object to the trend of always making players feel overpowered because that leads to the juvenile hyperemotionalism that crowds out any possibility of real emotional expression. I don't want to be weak all the time, or told by a game that I'm worthless -- I simply disagree that it's appropriate to constantly stroke every player's ego. Our culture already fosters a sense of entitlement; our games shouldn't all contribute to that problem.



On the developer attitude that reading is counterproductive to fun and must be purged from games, or at least minimized, my argument is once again that I have no problem if some games try to do everything through play rather than through words -- the problem is when this design concept is embraced as gospel by nearly all developers to the point that this remarkably powerful means of expression becomes demonized. Did all the value of players making an imaginative contribution to the play experience suddenly drop to zero one night? If not, then why the rush to demote text to a third-class citizen at best?



And as for the "make it a bonus" trick... on the one hand, that's just smart design. That's implementing a feature you may need for gameplay balance and cleverly finding a way to frame it so that it's not perceived as some kind of punishment for playing. On the other hand, it does play into the ownership (i.e., entitlement) mentality. A game that you always lose wouldn't be much fun, but what fun is a game you can't lose? Not every game has to be hardcore -- but at what point is the current trend toward eliminating every negative outcome in PvE gameplay going to stop? (This is something I've discussed before in terms of playstyles at http://flatfingers-theory.blogspot.com/2007/12/persistence-vs-per
ception.html. In the context of this essay, I'd say that developers are bending over backward to cater to the Persistence gameplay preference at the expense of the Perception and Persuasion styles.)



To sum all this up, I object to what I perceive as the general trend of games devolving into "insert Tab A into Slot B for 20 XP" clickfests that treat genuine feeling and thinking as nice-to-haves at best and impediments to "fun" at worst. Absolutely there's a place for rules-following, accumulation-oriented games. What I'm trying to say is that there also ought to be room for systems-exploration and character-driven storytelling in games as well... but where are the game designers lobbying for more of those kinds of games? Where are the developers presenting lists at GDC of Game Design Concepts for Deeper Games?



In other words, when given all the evidence of a trend toward simplified, no-lose, linear, mechanics-obsessed game design, why shouldn't I point out the problems with design rules that lead only toward more such games?



Shouldn't someone?



But yeah, I probably could have done that without sounding so snotty. Mea culpa there.



Next time, back to my more usual constructive approach.

Walker Hardin
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Let me start by acknowledging my own bias as a fairly hardcore PC gamer. Not by way of being insanely competitive, or even skilled. I'd never win a Counter Strike tourney, and I only occasionally finish in the top three of a Team Fortress match. I consider myself hardcore because I like to get lost in a game that I've been playing for 15 hours straight. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from exploring and mastering a complex system, or finding a corner of the game world that maybe not everyone who plays will. I actually like the insane complexity of Supreme Commander.



My problem with WoW was never the lack of meaningful emotional storytelling. With the severely limited character models they opted for, I'm not even sure it would be possible. It's just not something I expect from an MMO. I'm forced to scoff, though, when they declare that they champion gameplay over all other features because in my experience their designs are lazy.



Why can't I fight something more than six levels above me if I have tactics and patience capable of handling it? Oh...because you say so? Alright.



Why don't enemy NPCs have to abide by the same terrain navigation rules that I do? Because you don't want players to think and use the terrain to their advantage, thereby increasing our input and ultimate satisfaction in the game? That's cool.



These are the kinds of things that finally drove me away from WoW: fundamental laziness in the game's design or execution. Do most people care? Clearly not. But I think this is more a symptom of WoW's gateway drug-like quality than a magical formula that Blizzard has discovered. Most of its players are not well versed in the other, and frequently better, experiences that await them elsewhere.



Bart, I'm curious to know what kind of games are doing a good job of giving you the emersion you're looking for. Are you campaigning for more complex and mature games in general, or specifically in the MMO space? I thought Bioshock did a good job (if you turned off the re-spawn chambers.) Deus Ex and Baldur's Gate are also some of my long time favorites. What did you think of recent open world games like Fallout 3 or FarCry 2? Bioware's forthcoming Star Wars MMO seems to be going for the "MMO with real story and character" gold. That's not to say I'm optimistic that they can pull it off. I've been underwhelmed with the Mass Effect style "role playing" where you consistently get the "Press 1 for good guy that gets taken advantage of, press 2 for evil badass" solutions to any situation.



Despite all this, we may be on the losing side of a financially driven battle. It seems to me, and WoW subscription numbers would tend to support, that most people aren't looking for what we are. They're perfectly content with collecting 20 rat skins and getting a virtual pat on the back while they wind down from a day at the office. Now that gaming is officially hip and mainstream the dollar signs are bigger, but to get the mainstream money you have to make games that appeal to all those game-illiterates. I fear the development dollars will continue to gravitate to the less sophisticated projects coming down the pipe.



Anyway, I enjoyed the post. I think your heart is in the right place, and I can certainly share your frustration. I still secretly hope Diablo III won't suck. I guess not so secretly now.

Tim Johnston
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I think a more positive approach to this article would have been to start with this line...



Is there anyone willing and able to make big standalone games that are consciously designed to appeal as much to the hearts and brains of gamers as to their hands and glands?



That is really the question you are passionately wanting an answer to, and rather than contrasting it (negatively) against something that would seem to be the antithesis, I would explore ideas and scenarios in which you could envision this happening.

Ian Fisch
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In reply to Theshigen Navalingam's comment:



I like the idea of 'survival' games too, but I think Far Cry 2 took the wrong approach.



Far Cry 2 took the approach of NEVER making the character powerful. Enemies always take 5-10 shots to bring down, which is why it feels to me like I'm playing with an air rifle instead of an AK-47.



A better approach, in my opinion, is to make the player feel powerful SOMETIMES.



For instance, instead of making all of the enemies super strong, why not just make ammo more rare? Why not make guns degrade or jam up? Why not limit the player to a pistol for a large portion of the game? That way I may not always have the ability to take the headshot, but when I do connect, it will feel like a headshot and I will feel powerful.

Christian Arca
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Bart, I feel that you've missed the point of "Make Everything Overpowered". First you state that you can do this visually and acoustically.



"Throw lots of flashbang art and audio at them while stroking their senses of self-importance, and players will never notice there's no substance behind the repetitive rules-based action."



I do believe that this aids in reactive perception however, take two entities that go up against each other and one is less powerful than the other but has strong visual and acoustic aids - such as the ones you spoke of - you're not only deceiving the player once they realize they've lost but you're confusing them. Quite frankly what the player sees is not what they are getting. This would then - at least in my perspective - would also tie in to the show don't tell. While you are showing a very powerful visceral action that your entity is performing you're going to now have to tell why they are being defeated. Or at least that's how I think that scenario would work out.

Walker Hardin
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@Ian. I too am disappointed by games that think a difficulty curve is the same thing as giving the enemies a ton of health. The original FarCry was guilty of this. I really enjoyed the first half, but eventually every thing I fought was a huge mutant or soldier wearing three-four layers of body armor. When I unload a whole assault rifle clip at ANY enemy and it's not dead, well that's not a game for me (with the occasional boss encounter getting a pass). The effect is not to make me whine about being underpowered, but to pull me out of the experience. I think, "Guns aren't like that in real life." The air-rifle effect, as you put it. This is also why I've never been wild about Halo (though they at least explained it away with shield technology.)



I felt FarCry 2, on the other hand, struck a good balance. Head shots were always a kill, no one had body armor (that I recall,) and ammo for my weapons of choice was not impossible to find - but scarce, sometimes forcing me to improvise with new weapons I was less skilled with, or lower quality versions until I could make my way to an ams dealer and re-supply. It all added up to a sense that I really was wandering out in the wilderness, and if I performed thorough recon, survived almost every encounter. Not too weak, not too powerful.



Where the game fell short was its narrative structure. The characters were interesting and well written, but because you eventually had to kill everyone no matter who you chose to ally with, the game felt hollow and all their social commentary and well voiced NPCs were reduced to transparent mission dispensers.



I think the key is not for the designer to dictate when the player is powerful, or when the player is weak through strategically placed health packs and weapon drops, but to allow the player to be well prepared, well...when they've prepared well. Teach them the rules of the world. You can rest at x, y, and z. You can buy ammo at a, b, and c. New weapons might be found anywhere you care to look, if you can take them away from their current owners. That way the player can chose how much to prepare for a mission and if they succeed OR fail...it's on their shoulders. They'll think, "Damn, I should have gone and sprung for that rocket launcher before that fight instead of trying it with just my pistol and a smoke grenade." Instead of "Stupid game! How was I supposed to beat that!"



Of course that isn't feasible in every style of game. It doesn't have to be open world, but it does have to be non-linear. Deus Ex pulled it off ten years ago and no one would call that an open world.

Kevin Maloney
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Thanks to everybody on this thread, really interesting stuff. Its good to see a high quality debate.

Bart Stewart
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I also appreciate the quality of the comments, given how easy it would have been to dismiss my original observations as empty flames. Some follow-ups:



@Walker, good points all around -- thanks. It lets me know that I need to stress that I’m not specifically targeting WoW or Blizzard in my objections. My beef is with the kinds of design rules expressed in Rob Pardo’s presentation, which I think could have been stated by pretty much any producer working on a multi-million-dollar game at one of the big studios. My impression -- the thing to which I’m objecting -- is that these rules already appear to have been internalized by everyone making “big” games, and following any significant subset of those design rules can only result on cranking out more such games to the detriment of the entire industry.



Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a World of Warcraft. I enthusiastically support the creation of games like WoW that try to make everything highly accessible to as many core gamers as possible. My argument is that when most developers copy the design rules that led to WoW or other perceived hits, the industry suffers over the long term from a lack of the diversity in product offerings that keep existing customers interested and attract new customers.



For that reason, there’s not a specific set of design rules I can offer, which even if adopted would just become in their turn the next dogma.



That said, I personally happen to think that some of the best games ever made had Warren Spector’s name on them -- Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Deus Ex. These were games with plenty of action, but the action existed within a generally plausible emotional and intellectual context, and it wasn’t the only way to solve problems. Without becoming excessively hardcore, these games never condescended to players. I would venture to guess that no one playing a Looking Glass game ever felt that the developers regarded them as just one of a bland mass of consumers for whom gameplay needed to be “streamlined” down to a few button mashes driving overpowered characters to race around hyper-emoting on the player’s behalf.



I also generally enjoy games from Bethesda and BioWare. Oblivion and Fallout 3 demonstrate that although running on a console requires simplifying the possibilities for action down to a very short palette of options, it’s still possible to create immersive worlds. And while Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins both overconstrain the player’s expressive ability compared to previous BioWare games like Baldur’s Gate, (again, due to the limits of console controllers vs. mouse & keyboard), both are at least “big” games in the sense that the action occurs within large, dynamic, and plausible worlds.



[Edit: A nod to Far Cry 2 is also appropriate here. Despite the very restrictive set of possible actions, as well as what even Patrick Redding has acknowledged as the under-use of NPCs for storytelling, the world-environment of Far Cry 2 was a tremendous success. I would love to see a Far Cry 2.5 with an all-new story, in which developers are able to extend the original systems to allow players more choices in problem-solving, and where actions have more of a ripple effect in space and time in their consequences. In other words, Far Cry 2 would be vastly improved IMO if the social environment and the mechanics-based gameplay could be given the same depth as this game’s worldiness.]



BioShock and Half-Life also each get a brief nod. BioShock fails to measure up to the gameplay depth of its “spiritual predecessor,” but it does at least strive to render a world that’s interesting enough to be a character in its own right. As for Half-Life, even if the gameplay itself defines being “on rails,” the world-creation is impressive and their character portraits just keep getting stronger. Beyond a few other games from smaller developers that also achieve some level of scope (The Witcher, STALKER, Two Worlds), pickings are slim.



In conclusion, I contend that major developers have distilled supposedly “big” games down to a magic formula: accessibility, control, pyrotechnics, and SAAS (software as a service). In other words, keep the gameplay simple, never let the player wonder what to do next, make everything BIG, and package bonuses as DLC if you’re not already making an online game.



At that point, pretty much all that distinguishes one of these games from the next is the resource file of art and audio assets. Same game, different universe.



I understand reusing engines. I appreciate the importance of cost containment.



But reusing the same *gameplay design concepts*?



That’s just lazy. And it will hurt the computer game industry.



@Tim: You’re probably right. For some constructive design suggestions on any number of topics (which is my normal mode), please consider taking a look at my other blog site, http://flatfingers-theory.blogspot.com/ . I’ve been playing this tune for a while. ;)



@Christian, I read “make the player feel overpowered” as part of a larger design thesis -- that crosses multiple media -- that in these days of infotainment saturation, in order to get any attention everything has to be BIGGER and BANGIER. You can only be a hero when the stakes are high, so clearly you can’t just blow up Romulus -- you have to destroy Vulcan, too.



I certainly am not saying that everything has to be small and trivial. But not everything has to be turned up to God of War’s 11, either, and definitely not all the time.



Sometimes it’s OK to take away everything but the crowbar.



...



Thanks to all who are participating in this thread. I apologize if I offended anyone, and I hope the concepts I intended to convey are clearer now.

Claudia Hoag
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Great thread.



There's one point I have to (sort of) agree with Bart: design concepts can hurt the computer game industry. Just like with movies, or literature, the designers surely understand what works for some purposes and what doesn't, but those designers will work in a range from "inspiring art" to "cash-making-recipe." So, simply following design concepts may bring down some quality aspects of the product, in that low area of the range.



And yet, design concepts are necessary BECAUSE it's an industry. Plan, execute, cash in, and everyone keep their jobs. It doesn't have to be cold like that, but the organizations that create those games need to have some expectation of profit in order to keep in business, and keep making large-scale games. We need them too.

Claudia Hoag
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BTW, I'm too lazy to read everything an NPC says. Most of the time I'm playing to avoid reading some book, to start with.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks for the comments, Claudia.



Your last note actually got me thinking about something. My wife loves audiobooks, but I’ve discovered that I find them extremely frustrating. As far as I can tell, it’s because I can read much faster than people can talk.



So perhaps I see text in games in a more positive light because I can consume that information at my own pace, rather than having to wait for a character to speak it.



Another aspect of preferring text is that I like background information. That doesn’t mean I enjoy excessively verbose writing; I’m not suggesting that online games need to be as bloated as a Thomas Hardy novel. But a judicious amount of expository information is fun; it helps to give the gameworld a history that makes it feel more like a living place.



So when game developers all adopt a design rule that claims text is bad, and that no one is capable of appreciating more than 512 characters at a time... that winds up making these gameworlds less fun for folks like me for whom a richer, more detailed world makes the play experience more fun.



That doesn’t mean I’m demanding that all games must expand their use of text. It’s a suggestion that games will be more satisfying to a broader audience if some of them aren’t afraid to use the written word to help enrich the experience of their gameworld.



In other words, all games don’t need to use a lot of words, but some should if doing so is right for the world they’re creating. In fact, that’s pretty much my argument against blindly copying any of the design rules of successful games....

Claudia Hoag
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I can't stand audiobooks. I've tried.



You know how online rpg games were text only, eons of years ago? Isn't that funny it worked back then?



But when you're faced with movie-like animations, surrounding sound... you get spoiled.

In the end, it all boils down to knowing what will work to get the effect you're looking for. So if you need dense content, and text is what will lead to the desired effect, then by all means, use it. But remember: we are all spoiled brats by now.


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