Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Boy am I sick of time sinks

My current involvement with EVE is nothing more than a game of Progress Quest. Last week I was running around in my railgun Merlin doing level 1 combat missions, got pretty bored with it, and decided to look for a new ship. I don't know if I should pirate or join a sovereignty-seeking corp, but I'd like to get into null-sec and start playing the real game.

I'm having a bit of an issue getting over the towering barriers to entry in EVE. I think I've been a pretty good sport with it up to now. Using my existing Merlin, I plugged in some Ion Blaster IIs, some Rocket Launcher IIs, and a bunch of other necessities (like a good Afterburner, a webber, a warp scrambler, and some damage control) into EVE Fitting Tool. The loadout is decent for learning PvP. I can afford to trash a few as I get my feet wet.

However, I then used EVEMon to plan a skill progression to use all these modules, and the 14 skills will take over 12 days. All my first tier Learning skills are rank 4 or 5. This is such a complete waste of time. Good thing I don't have to actually grind any of this out, but waiting around for 12 days just so I can begin to learn how to PvP in EVE is ridiculous. (To learn how to just sit in some of massively huge and powerful ships in EVE takes over 200 days of training, and the ISK price isn't chump change either.)

Similarly, it takes weeks in WoW to get to level cap where competitive play starts to exist. FFXI and even older MMORPGs take months or years to get to level cap. Why should I be so upset? I've dealt with these time sinks before. Probably because I'm growing up, and I don't have 10 hours a day to throw at a game.

About a year ago, when I quit WoW for the umpteenth time, I made a note about why I left. It was something along the lines of:
As I'm leveling a new character, I'm not really learning anything new. It feels as if I need to prove myself to the game, once again, that I'm worthy of level cap. While in TF2 or DotA or some other non-MMORPG, I'm already at a level playing field, and the skills I learned through months of playing follow me and will be with me no matter when I decide to join up again. The system doesn't make me prove myself; I prove to myself that I still kick ass.

So here I am in EVE, just waiting to learn how to play the game competently, trying to prove to the system what exactly? That I know how to queue up a bunch of skills, go to work, and come home and play TF2 all night?

How about you let me fly whatever I want to fly, equip whatever I want to equip, and use any ability I want to use without having to prove to you that I have the $30 for 2 months of playtime subscription. (Of course I'd have to purchase these things which would take some time to acquire the ISK/gold/gil/etc.) Instead of making me learn Caldari Frigate 5, Destroyers 5, and Interdictors I (for a grand total of 35 days), how about you make the system complex enough (which EVE combat is) so that I acquire player skill and actual combat aptitude as I pop Interdictors.

All in favor of removing these "I am not worthy!" requirements, say Aye!

Emergent Solutions vs. Exploitative Solutions

In my last post about minimalist design, I didn’t go very deeply into the implications of minimalism in MMO design. I’m going to work on the idea of minimalism and emergent behavior over the course of several posts exploring what emergent behavior is, what it means for MMORPGs, some suggestions how to make it happen, and the new problems it introduces. This post is about what emergent behavior is, how it manifests itself, and why theme-park MMORPGs don’t make it happen.

This article on emergent solutions in interactive fiction fascinated me. This is exactly the kind of things I’d like to see in MMOs. Instead of having the goals be resting points set by the developer, though, I want players to set goals for one another and interact to find solutions to the problems that stop them from reaching these goals. This goes much deeper than “I want to be more powerful. I guess I’ll kill a thousand rats. I’ll do that by swinging my sword at these rats until there are corpses on the ground and experience points on my character sheet.”

An emergent solution is a solution that the developer did not premeditate as being a possible solution to a problem. You allow emergent solutions by providing a rich game world with sets of interrelated operations that players can perform on different items in the world, modifying their properties and allowing an explosion of possible paths of action. The author of the article I linked to earlier mentions a great example of an emergent solution: to get the seeds out of a seed bag, the player killed a rat, cut off its tail, froze that tail in liquid nitrogen knowing that it would become brittle, shattered the tail into sharp shards, then cut open the bag with one of the shards.

Exploitation as an Emergent Behavior

The primary kind of emergent solution behavior in the current generation of MMOs is actually exploitation. The game puts the players on rails towards completing certain tasks that are supposed to be at a certain challenge level; to compromise the tasks by reducing the challenge level through exploiting the flaws in the game logic surrounding them is exploitation and poor behavior. The designers have thought up the problem and the solution and you had better solve that problem with that solution! It doesn’t matter if there are other feasible solutions, because the game isn’t about actually solving problems, it’s about receiving the rewards—or at least that’s what the developer is telling you through his design.

But exploitation is emergent behavior. If you see game systems only as arbitrary sets of rules that stand in the way of accomplishing what you desire, then there is no difference between using a wall hack in Darkfall to farm mobs imperviously and cutting off a rat’s tail, dipping it in liquid nitrogen, shattering it and using the sharp shards to puncture seed bags so your character can feed itself. Game rules do have meaning, though, because they relate to what we do and what we’ve seen done. People can’t walk into walls to avoid being hit by missiles, so this is considered an exploit. A person could conceivably use the shards of a frozen rat-tail to cut open a seed bag, so it’s considered an emergent solution.

The Leakiest Metaphor

It’s important to understand game rules as metaphors for real life causal relationships. In MMORPGs, this relationship can become obscured by the gulf that currently exists between what a player should be able to do if the metaphors hold and what the game allows the player to do. MMORPGs have extremely limited player-world interaction schemes. The player has a tiny vocabulary of actions he can perform and few of them have any lasting effect on the game world. The metaphors only apply at a very abstract level: you can fight, make stuff, and get raw materials out of the earth. Those three actions vaguely mirror their real-life counterparts if you squint very, very hard.

The good kind of emergent behavior occurs when you seal up those places where the metaphors squirm and fail. You don’t have to directly model every single part of a real-life process to seal these gaps. You just have to do a good enough job of designing and implementing with minimal-impact bugs a metaphor that is uniform in its depth and actually engaging to play through. If the metaphor is inconsistent or too shallow, players will rub up against those things that it seems they should be able to do but they can’t because the game arbitrarily seems to frustrate their attempts.

Monday, June 29, 2009

MMORPG Combat Mechanic: Concentration Points

I present the first pass at a new MMORPG combat mechanic. This is not entirely original, and I'll give credit to the Age of Conan pet mechanic for inspiring me (albeit I never got to experience the mechanic; and it probably wasn't even implemented at release when I played anyway).

The idea is that a player only has so many "Concentration Points" (CPs) and can thus only concentrate on so few abilities at once. CP is the primary resource the player has to manage to use abilities.

Players have a selection of abilities and a few CPs. Players must use CP to use abilities. The effects of the activated abilities are in effect as long as the player keeps the CPs used/consumed/tapped. If the ability expires or the player decides to relieve CPs, those CPs become available to the player to use again.

Players move freely, and action is realtime. Player have 7 CPs.

There will be NO stunning, mezzing, fearing, polymorphing, rooting, or any other incapacitate effect which removes control from the player.

I imagine play to be highly positionally tactical. Mages will be summoning aoe effects on top of each other, placing walls and obstructions at choke points so the enemy will fall right into their hands. I envision melee slowing ranged opponents with several primed strikes, and the mage frantically placing walls between the assassin and himself. The mage gets the upper hand and has boxed in the warrior who find himself looking up at a falling meteor. Healers can only concentrate heals on so many friends; enemies will switch their focus.

You can do some fun PvE things also. If you have players defend something, you can have a Tower Defense game where some players make walls and others make automata (the towers) which attack the enemies (as long as these golems are strong enough so players use them instead of aoe summons).

Some definitions:
  • Area of Effect (AoE): ability which effects an area in the world and players within that area
  • x CP: Cost in Concentration Points
  • Summoning Time: time required before ability resolves. Player is able to move.
  • Casting Time: time required before ability resolves. Player cannot move.
  • Consumed Time: time CPs are consumed before freed to the player
  • Duration: time ability is in effect before CPs are freed.
  • Automata: minion which acts on its own will, striking at enemies of its master
  • Primes ability: ability is "cocked" and is resolved at the player's input rather than after a certain time.
Possible mage abilities

These are just some examples, are not finished (no damage information), and are certainly not balanced. Nor is the list complete. They are used to illustrate the variety of abilities and hopefully ignite some head-playing and discussion.
  • Summon Meteor (aoe template): 1 CP; 3 sec summoning time; ground targeted instant AoE
  • Summon Ice Wall (obstruction template): 3 CP; 1 sec summoning time; 20 m obstruction; originates from player outward 90 degrees
  • Frost: 1 CP: 2 sec summoning time; 10s duration; 15m in diameter slowing ground targeted AoE
  • Summon Golem: 2 CP; 2 sec summoning time; slow moving automata
  • Summon [stationary] 1 CP; 1 sec summoning time; stationary automata
  • Teleport: 2 CP; 2 sec casting time; primes ability; moves player 15 m forward
  • Fireball (nuke template): 3 CP; 3 sec consume time; instant nuke spell at target
  • +Speed: increases run speed
  • -Speed: decreases run speed
  • Heal over Time: restores health; active as long as CP are dedicated
  • Damage over Time: removes health; active as long as CP are dedicated
  • Empower: increases damage of abilities; active as long as CP are dedicated
  • Enfeeble: decreases damage of abilities; active as long as CP are dedicated

Most melee abilities are Primed. They concentrate on several strikes, and when they get in close to another player they resolve the abilities. All melee will have either a Sprint ability or a Slow ability in order to catch other players. Ideas from WoW: Sprint, Charge, Intercept, Hamstring, Slowing Poison.


I have not decided how targeting will happen. I'm reluctant to use both traditional MMORPG targeting schemes and aiming. Most spells with be ground targeted AoE, but will Melee also be mini-AoE (around player)? We could have targets declared when the ability is first announced, or when the player wishes to resolve it.

Players have a 3rd person view and move the character via WASD. If the camera is not allowed to orbit, then the mouse is free to target. If the camera is in orbit around the character, then targeting becomes more frantic (you have to manage the camera and targets with the mouse).

Abilities are announced and resolved with keys and/or mouse clicks.


Every player concentrated entity in the world will have its ability icon near it so other players know what it is. AoE summoned damage spells will also have soon-to-be decimated locations marked with the ability icon. Any player with a primed ability will have its ability icon near the head of the character.

This way players have a lot of information regarding the battle and can anticipate attacks, predict when players teleport, and not get frustrated when they walk into a meteor minefield.


Building upon earlier posts, players can pick and choose which abilities they want to "carry". You can even do some crazy MTG deck building mechanic where players "draw" new abilities once they use them. There are many layers which can be placed on top of this CP mechanic.

Feedback is appreciated.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Minimalist MMO Design

I’m a software developer by trade. I read programmer news aggregation sites like programmer reddit to find inspiration for software projects and to reinvigorate my design ideas. Last night I came across a great post by Jeff Lindsay about minimalist software design. This article offers some insight into how to design games as well—I think that a minimalist method of game design will lead to a lot of advantages for the player and developer, allowing games to be much more replayable and rewarding while taking less time to make.

The trick with minimalism, in general, is knowing what’s actually important—the essence of the message or design. This is a big part of my design process. Asking, “How can I fold these requirements into fewer features and UI?” instead of directly implementing a feature for every requirement.

The fundmental principle of minimalist game design: sets of simple rules interacting can create complex but parsable situations that are fun and rewarding to untangle, understand, and later manipulate. I believe this is the essence of good gaming and games that harness this will succeed and continue to be rewarding experiences for their players after repeated playthroughs.

But you can’t just throw any set of simple rules together an call it a game.

The risk with minimalist software is that a simple design choice can drastically change the direction of the abstraction and make or break whether the software fits your needs.

Like any other design principle, if you aren't careful and thoughtful, you can still produce crap. The rewards to the designer and the player are tremendous though.

“Luckily, minimalism buys you a sort of abstraction that can enable projection. By this I mean that users can project their actual process and workflow onto the software.”

This means that the player can grasp the fundamental concepts that you’ve designed and recombine them dynamically ad intuitively in an attempt to achieve a goal that the system doesn’t explicitly grant the player. This kind of emergent behavior can be difficult to control, but if harnessed may be the next source of great games in the MMO industry.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Flaw of Luminary: Weak Core Gameplay Mechanics

Some consider the core of Luminary to be its economy. I disagree.

The core of a game is not what works the best, but what, at the lowest reasonable level of abstraction, the player does the most. This does not mean “clicking the mouse”, it means, at the most concrete, attacking an enemy. Games that focus on the economy have a second important facet of core design: the crafting and gathering actions. If you don't make these core actions fun and engaging, it doesn't matter what your more abstract mechanics are.

Let’s look at the core processes of Luminary one at a time:


Choose to attack an enemy. You auto-swing until either you or the enemy is dead. The only action you take during combat is drinking potions to restore mana or health.


You can AFK gather. That’s good, because it’s the least exciting of the three (and that’s not saying that any of them are at all exciting, mind you). I haven’t done this myself, but I get the impression that it’s a matter of clicking what you want to harvest and waiting for it to be harvested. This isn’t much different from other MMOs, but I have issues with the standard MMO gathering system anyway, so this wins Luminary no points.


Luminary’s crafting seems to be it’s best core mechanic. It’s a bejeweled clone. But it’s not even a well-implemented bejeweled clone. It doesn’t have a twist or any special way. It’s just match four (or three? I forget—doesn’t matter) same-colored gems and they’ll disappear, new gems fall in from the top to replace them. Great! Well, if only I didn’t have to play it for minutes just to make one item. That turns it into a pretty brutal grind.

The Problem

These activities are all boring! The designers didn’t spend more than twenty minutes working on ANY of them. This is ridiculous. The three fundamental actions you do in game all vary between being brain-dead simple and a step below doing ninth grade math. I don’t care if the more abstract features are great—if I’m going to be spending most of my time in this game engaging in these three activities, I don’t want to play the game. If you’re not giving me an opportunity to make intelligent decisions in two of the three principal activity of the game, you’ve relegated the game to being a slightly dressed-up Progress Quest with a market, anime graphics, and a voluntary mock UN.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Are Persistent Worlds Too Persistent?

In my quest to come up with ideas that work well together for the next generation of MMO (revolutionary instead of evolutionary), I’ve hit upon a stumbling block. It turns out that having your character always be in the 3d world of the game causes a lot of developer and artist time to go into trivial elements of world-building, as well as causing players to waste a lot of their time.

I know this is hard to swallow considering it’s one of the base tenets of the MMORPG genre, but perhaps we don’t need to keep characters in the same 3d world all the time.

The 3d world is responsible for a lot of boredom. Think of how many hours you’ve spent travelling around the world uneventfully, yet you could not be AFK because you had to guide your character through various simple obstacles. Sure, there are times when travel is exciting, like when you’re trying to sneak through a higher level zone to get to some city, but most of the times it’s either boring or annoying. You might as well queue up your travel operation and have it take slightly longer than it would if done manually (in order to dodge enemies and such), but allow you to be AFK. In a 100% persistent 3D world, you would not be able to pull this off, but if you give up the ghost, suddenly players aren’t complaining about travel times.

If you eliminated most of the useless expanses of nothing and purely cosmetic terrain and structures that constitute the majority of the space in MMORPGs, you eliminate the need for a lot of graphics to be loaded on the client-side. You also reduce the amount of graphics the artists for the game need to make. And, even better, the graphics that you do see can have more time and effort spent on their perfection. Imagine if just the cities and major towns in MMORPGs were replaced by a good interface for their services—so much lag would be eliminated and so many entirely cosmetic pieces of art would not need to be loaded into your client or made by the artists. And you would save time, too, because you wouldn’t be stomping around the place looking for the goddamned reagent vendor who is hiding underneath a rock along some obscure road down which you have no other reason to travel.

I suggest we take a close look at what we actually get out of forcing characters to be in a 3D world for their entire game experience. Perhaps we can make better games if we give up this ghost, and perhaps we can do it in less time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Darkfall’s Design: Sounds Good, Smells Bad

I’m going to stir the Darfall hornets’ nest. I waited a bit after DFO's launch before putting the contents of this post anywhere because I wanted to see if AV would make progress towards getting through some of these odd decisions... And they have not as far as I can so. So here goes.

I don’t understand the logic behind a lot of the design decisions in Darkfall. I’m not talking about business logic, either—I’m talking about the feasibility of the mechanics that AV put in place from the beginning and continue to work on today.

Consider the following blurbs that are on the Darkfall site and what they are actually saying about the design of the game:

“A Huge… Fantasy World.”

Oh no. A huge fantasy world? In a heavily PvP-focused game? This isn’t good. You don’t want a huge world, because in a PvE-minimal game, it’ll be an empty world. The more space you have, the more emptiness. This is doubly the case for such a niche game where you know you’re not going to have huge server populations to fill the world. It gets worse as the game matures and alliances solidify power. If you thought there was enough travel time to get from hamlet to hamlet, try going five hamlets over so you can get out of the alliance safe zone.

In a game focused on player conflict, you have to have a relatively high-friction environment. This means that content should err on the side of being just slightly uncomfortable in its proximity. You want players fighting over what is valuable, not walking 20 kilometers, killing some AFK harvesters, then having their game crash due to a memory leak exacerbated by loading the 15 zones the player had to traverse.

“In Darkfall, there’s much more to character development than, say, raising your riding or mining skill by mindlessly killing rats all day. Instead, you'll need to practice your skills if you want to get better at them.”

Oh. So I’m going to have to participate ad infinitum in really boring actions like mining and fishing—actions that have just about zero intelligent choice involved in their prosecution? That doesn’t sound as promising as I think they intended for it to sound. A lot of other MMOs have this problem too. I don’t think that forcing your players to perform such an unremittingly mindless activity while they’re at their keyboard is good design.

What’s worse about this promise, though, is the invitation to exploitation. If people have to repeatedly do dead simple activities in order to level those skills, they’re going to macro! It’s not even hard to imagine this being the case, yet Darkfall had huge macroing and exploitation issues at launch and still does.
So really, this blurb should read “In Darkfall, there’s much less to character development than, say, completing quests and earning levels all day. Instead, you’ll need to find a macro program or keyboard and shoot at a wall or AFK mine if you want to advance quickly at them.

“You will never have to re-roll your character again. With Darkfall’s flexible character development system, your character simply adapts to the choices you make for him.”

What does that mean?

It’s basically saying that character advancement is meaningless. You can always go back and change everything—or, even worse, you can be good at everything. Currently, the latter is the case. There doesn’t seem to be any late-progression mechanics in place. This is a fundamental lapse in attentiveness that doesn’t bode well for the game’s future.

Why even have character advancement in the game (especially the vertical variety). This is supposed to be a game that focuses on player skill, right? And there’s nothing more carebear than having some kid who has grinded for a week longer than you beating you 1v1 because he had 10 more points in his Sword skill.


There are some serious issues with the mechanics of Darkfall and you don’t need to dig deep to find them. Sandbox games live and die by their core mechanics. Darkfall may not have much of a future if there aren’t some serious adjustments and outright changes and reinventions soon. As much as I like player-focused, sand box world games, Darkfall can not even earn a try from me given the issues I’ve outlined here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Group vs. Solo

With the FFXIV news at E3 and the 9th annual FFXI census, talk about forced group play is stirring once again.

I'm going to be pretty blunt: group play makes games much richer, more social, and much more enjoyable than any solo play. Solo play makes players more reclusive, less interactive, less trustworthy of their fellow players, and downright terrible at the game. I'll cite WoW and all her offspring as examples.

FFXI was a hard game which wasn't very forgiving. However, by the time you were level 30, you knew how to play your class, as did everyone else. Once the party of 6 was assembled, you decided on a place to camp, and off you went. Getting there took some time, but once you were settled, the game play was slow-paced, but not easy. You had to make sure you were paying attention, but not so thought-intrusive as to stop the wonderful social experiences. You got to know a lot of people in your level range; you grouped with them frequently. If you were a jackass to people, you didn't get an invite back into xp parties. FFXI is often sited as having one of the most friendly communities in any online game.

Sure, after playing FFXI for 3 years and tired of waiting around in Jeuno for hours looking for a party, the prospect of soloing was a highly welcomed change. But I've seen what it does to communities, players, and the game itself. Players are not very friendly in WoW. They want to get in, get their shinies, and get out. If you are new to the encounter, you are going to flamed to high hell. Once at level cap, the game changes. Players have no idea how to play in group content because they've been soloing the past 2 months. This creates bad experiences for both the newbie and the veterans.

Imagine getting a pick-up heroic instance group together in WoW and not having to worry about how good the other players are. That is how FFXI is.

There is a sense of urgency in WoW that I think is very insightful: if you can't get a group together in 10 minutes, everyone leaves the party. It doesn't matter if they are multi-tasking by questing or farming, they will still leave.

Maybe the lesson to be learned from this recent generation of MMOs is not that soloability is desired, but rather instant-action. Bring back heavy group content, but make sure someone with only 50 minutes of playtime can get something done. It shouldn't have to take 3 hours to find a group, but I shouldn't be playing an MMO by myself either.

The Seven Questions I Ask Myself About An MMORPG

I have trouble accepting an MMORPG solely as an experience for longer than a month (maybe even for longer than a week). I know people who can uncritically immerse themselves in games wholly and not see the flaws in the game or actually think about what they are doing outside of the scope of whatever game system they're immersed in. Sometimes I wish I could immerse myself as they do and simply enjoy games for what they are instead of seeing the flaws and constantly questioning design decisions. Unfortunately for me, I’m always thinking about how I’m actually spending my time in the game, what effect it’s having, and if it is actually worth it to continue to play this game. This curse of perception and judgment manifests itself in games wearing thin more quickly than I would like. Because there are few sources of relatively objective MMORPG gameplay analysis on the internet, I’m forced by my curiosity (and interest in finding the game that I’ve always wanted to play) to indulge in playing games that I ultimately end up discarding before I’ve exhausted their content—before even getting to the level cap.

After analyzing the way that I think about my play experience in MMORPGs, I’ve come up with this preliminary list of questions that I ask myself about a game system in order to determine whether I’ll like it or not.

1. What proportion of my time in the game world is spent doing important things that yield effects on my character? Other characters?

I should be spending most of my time in-game making progress towards my goals as a player and character. This progress should be non-trivial—I’d consider walking across the map as a trivial endeavor (90% of the time you’re doing it; there are exceptions, of course), whereas completing quests is mostly non-trivial. I have yet to find a game that lets me focus most of my time on non-trivial tasks.

2. Do I understand what is going on with the important mechanics of the game?

I should know the fundamental mechanics of the game enough to use them to achieve my aims by the end of the first couple of weeks of play. I shouldn’t have to go out of my way to learn how to do something in the game that is core gameplay.
An example: In Atlantica Online, it took me a while to figure out how to even open the window for crafting. It was hidden in one of the multiple menu systems in the game. Crafting is a crucial activity in that game and it’s inexcusable that the ability to craft wasn’t clearly laid out before me. Many hours of play after I learned on my own how to craft, the game’s tutorial missions finally told me how to do it. This is no good.

3. Do I know what the strengths and weaknesses of my character are in a game-specific sense?

I should have a feel for the limits of my characters power as I’m playing him. If the game doesn’t give me enough information about my own character or enemies, this becomes difficult and the result can be frustrating.

4. Do I know how to improve the parts of my character that I find lacking? If not, can I easily figure it out?

Within the framework of the strengths and weaknesses I’ve found that my character has, I need to know how to improve different aspects of my character. The answer to this question is often with different gear or a different spec. I need to know enough about each of those options so that I can make an informed decision about what I should do.

5. Are there meaningful choices in character advancement?

Not every character of a given persuasion should play the same and end up the same. I want to be able to customize the way my character performs enough to suit my desired play-style without being gimped. I’m not asking for every character to be able to do everything, but for a given class to have a few different viable builds—I’d love it if there are more than a few.

6. Do I have to be in-game to do things that would make more sense if queued up and done AFK? Are there a lot of simple, repetitive tasks that I have to do in the game—tasks that do not benefit from any level of intelligent play?

I have yet to find an MMO that satisfies me in this area because every MMO is a grind in some level of elaboration. For a lot of these games, you have to be doing a lot of repetitions of some mundane, trivial task that a computer could handle doing in your stead at little cost—activities that don’t require an iota of intelligence to accomplish and don’t actually benefit from being done more intelligently above a very low threshold.

7. Is it clear to me what I can do and where I can go next? If the game sets goals for me, do I feel an appropriate need to accomplish them?

This is very important. If the game doesn’t give me the tools to come up with goals for myself in the absence of goals it provides for me, I lose interest very fast. The next achievement or point of advancement must come relatively soon (and benefit from being achieved intelligently instead of just ground through). If the pacing falters during leveling, I have no problem with logging off and finding some other way to entertain myself.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Fostering Community Growth

The last two MMORPGs I have tried were Darkfall and (currently) EVE Online. I was on the roller coasters for quite a few years and wanted to see what the other side of the genre was like.

I've made observations about sandbox games, particularly in the newbie areas since I haven't played either game for more than a few weeks. I will say that as complicated as EVE is, it does a much better job than Darkfall at weening the rookie off the training wheels and getting players doing at least something. Maybe it's because EVE has been around for 6 times as long as Darkfall. Or maybe not.

But there is a major fault in both these games that I want to address--namely how the player goes about becoming part of a community. Finding a joining a guild in a sandbox is very much a chore and takes initiative on the players' part (like all things in a sandbox). There are in-game and out-of-game recruitment channels, but there are no accidental recruitment channels. In theme-park MMOs, you put together a questing or experience party, you are meeting potential members for your guild. You think "hey, this guy is fun and knows how to play; I'll invite him to my guild." Done. Easy for the recruitment officers. Easy for the potential members.

In EVE and Darkfall, there is no native trial-run environment. Although there were a few spontaneous parties created around the goblin camps in Darkfall, everyone in the party was still seen as a potential enemy, not a potential comrade.

The solution is pretty simple: create co-operative environments where both guildless and guilded players can come to let their guards down long enough to get to know other players. Where players see others as potential friends and companions rather than potential backstabbers.

I know this sounds very artificial and against the open-world, anything-goes mentality of sandboxes. But with a subgenre so heavily focused on communities and relying on those communities to generate the fun ships for the players, you'd think that it would be less of a chore to get into one of these guilds.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Class-based vs. Skill-based Advancement Systems: A Superficial Issue?

Bill Campbell wrote an article on his blog, World of Discourse, about his belief that skill-based and class-based systems only differ superficially. It’s definitely worth reading—this post started as a comment on that article, but rapidly grew into an article worth posting here.

I've been thinking a lot about class- vs. skill-based systems. I disagree that the distinction is superficial. The two systems do share the same basic building blocks: powers and abilities. They each do define boundaries on how a character can interact with the world and how effective it will be. But these two facts do not mean that the two systems are indistinct. They are appreciably different organizational schemes--different ways of character planning.

I may go as far as to say that this is a false dichotomy. There is no canonical skill-based system, and all skill-based systems naturally move towards classification (and being accused of being a disguised class-based system). Whatever ties different skills together and allows them to more easily advance in parallel becomes a classification. For example, if I want to be an expert swordsman, I’m going to want to have skills that allow me to dodge and parry my enemies frequently as well as do a lot of DPS. I have strength and dexterity as my main statistics. Naturally I’m pushed towards certain types of skills by my decision. These common sense patterns of skill bundling are inherent in what we’re trying to do when we play MMORPGs. It seems like the distinction is “does the system have explicit classes?” If it does, it’s class-based. If not, it’s “skill-based.” When someone says “class-based”, you immediately know what he’s talking about: a game whose power advancement is similar to Dungeons and Dragons in its fundamental concepts. When someone says “skill-based”, he’s not giving you much information, aside from the fact that the game may not be close to D&D.

In short, skill-based systems are defined by a lack of explicit, forced ability bundling, but this doesn’t actually tell you anything about the advancement system!

And I haven’t even mentioned that there are also class-skill hybrids: the job system in Final Fantasy Tactics is an example.

But why is the distinction between class-based and non-class-based power advancement not superficial?

In a class-based system, character planning is significantly simplified. Most of it is done by the game designers. The number of viable builds per class is usually no more than three, most often two or one. There are often more classes then there are roles to play in the game, and a character that only can fulfill one role is boring to play. There ends up being a lot of ability duplication in the game by necessity. Balancing this duplication becomes a primary concern of designers.

When you remove this pre-bundling of abilities, players now can have a much stronger role in the shaping of their character’s power. There are important decisions to be made throughout the character’s career and the player must make them with intelligence in order to have a strong character. Although the developers still need to keep many different abilities useful, shifting the balance responsibility of power bundling from the developer to the player vastly changes the way the game is played—the player has more agency in their character’s progression than the developer does (within the rules of the game system), and I believe this is very important to the design of the system. it’s a far-reaching and meaningful difference.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Life After Death: Permadeath in MMORPGs

I have not played any MMORPGs that have implemented an important, game affecting perma-death mechanic.

MMORPGs have focused on players cultivating single characters throughout some predefined progression scheme. The effect of the character reaching zero hitpoints is some kind of baffling reset of location and arbitrary penalty that isn’t particularly related to being dead. Sure, corpse runs in all forms make some sense—but they’re still quite ridiculous if given an iota of thought. Bob dies, so Bob gets a brand new body and has to run back to his old one? We’ve succeeded in violating conservation of mass and energy, though I guess magic borks that from the onset. We’ve also instituted an intensely arbitrary time penalty by making the character’s new form physically run back to the old one’s lifeless remains.

Lord of the Rings Online sidesteps this oddity by claiming that when a character has no life points left (called “morale” in LotRO), he is demoralized and must retreat to some nearby rally point. This makes a little more sense, but I think it’s a little more than demoralizing to be whacked by weapons and consumed by magical flames. It’s also odd that the demoralized character would return to a graveyard. I thought being around the decaying corpses of deceased heroes and commoners would be more demoralizing than not?

In order to make death a meaningful occurrence in MMORPGs, we need to broaden the scope of the game to not just one character. Progression needs to be extended to cover multiple characters in some kind of lineage, and individual character progression needs to be more horizontal and much less vertical. Characters that live longer and do more in their lives make more bonuses of higher value available to their children. Bonuses are passed down in a diluted form from grandfathers and mothers and so on. A deceased character’s assets can be passed down to its children, as well, though they might not be immediately usable. Characters can also have an actual lifetime in in-game time. Aging can turn into an important mechanic that ensures players don’t get too attached to individual characters. The emphasis will shift from playing most often to maximizing your characters action while he has the ability to act.

The larger design I’m working on as an exercise uses a more involved form of what I just set out. I will lay that out in future posts here.

There’s an article on MMORPG.com by Nathan Knaack
where he reviews several ways to make permadeath a plausible mechanic beyond what I’ve mentioned here, you should check it out. It’s well written and has some great ideas.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Would You Play a DotA MMO? (Part 2)

Joe commented on my last post about a DotA MMO:
I don't think this could ever work. The nature of a MMO is being in an environment with many people at the same time, having the ability to interact with any of them. You log on and can play with your friend who has been grinding for 2 hours already. If you both are already max level you won't be 2 hours behind him and unable to play with him.

Trying to isolate and start at level one and play a game can only be done with a limited number of people. The more people you try and cram into a game the worse the game is. After dealing with people leaving (rage quitting or disconnects) and having the game length a respectable amount (2 hours max) you are left with a finite group of players. If you require X amount of players in a game then it will start, that will put wait time on creating new games, and that is never fun.

These two genres have such different principles that if one were to try and combine them it wouldn't retain anything from either of the original genres.

So I decided to write up a short description of how some DotA game mechanics could be applied to the MMO scene.

Bare in mind that there are already some mechanics in MMORPGs which are close to local-scope progression. Most instances in WoW will retain temporary progression. The Skill Chain mechanic in FFXI uses a sequence of Weapon Skills to inflict bonus damage; after a level 3 Skill Chain is executed, the players need to start back at level 1. LotRO has a similar party mechanic.

All we need to do is turn character progression (specifically ability and power/strength progression) into a game. I say this as if it were trivial, but this is very tricky. MMORPGs typically reward players for completing an activity, which aids in future undertakings of that activity. For example, a player might:
  • PvP to get PvP gear to aid in future PvP encounters.
  • craft items to get skill points to craft better items.
  • kill mobs to gain explicitly power to help kill more mobs.
But is it possible to play DotA to get [reward] to aid in playing DotA? Giving out explicit power gains to the player for playing the game goes against local-scope progression; it is now global-scope (such as the unlockable weapons in Team Fortress 2). Any explicit reward given to the players which can be used in the next game creates explicit disadvantages for the other players. This is seen as "unfair". An interesting side note: implicit player skill from playing for months and years is not seen as unfair (unless a Matchmaking system is responsible for pitting a newbie against a veteran).

Additionally, this progression game needs to take place in a closed arena which has an end: a map, battleground, party, session, time cycle. They all have an end. (Evizaer and I have a Mission system we've talked about before. It would fit in nicely here.) It's imperative to maintain the power curve also. We can't have a level 1 running around with a level 20 on the opposite team. There has to be a clear beginning with either no player injection (a bad idea, and a major problem with DotA), or match injection, which would do something like give the average (or lowest) experience/progression of all other players to the player joining.

The following would be a middle layer game.
  • Player has a selection of locked abilities. These must be unlocked before they can be used.
  • Player is on a team of a certain number of members. Teams play against other teams, human- (preferably) or AI-controlled.
  • Killing things in combat (think Honor system in WoW) gives some sort of resource local in scope to the current game only ("Vigor"? "Momentum"?).
  • This resource allows the player to unlock abilities or strengthen existing ones.
  • Only allow X number of Y skills to be unlocked.
  • Number of unlocks is related to the players via a "Power Level". There is a Power Level cap.
  • Other temporary resources (some currency) used to buy items.
  • The game begins with all players at Power Level 1, no items, and a set amount of resources. They can unlock 1 ability to start with.
  • The game ends when 1 team accomplishes the game objective. This could be to destroy a key structure (DotA), defend a structure for a certain time, escort civilians, etc. Once play is over, all abilities become locked again and all items and game resources are removed from the player.
Items are more tangible than imaginary "abilities" and players are reluctant to give up items at the end of the game. So the bonuses given by items to heroes in DotA can be renamed to "Magical Enchantments" or something else equally ephemeral. The currency used to receive these boons are also temporary (ears, souls, etc.). The player is more understanding of the time-sensitive nature of these rather than bullion.

Winning the game gives a permanent resource (gold?) which is used to purchase abilities and customize the character's appearance. Players like gear and looking cool, so the vanity purpose is obvious. But should gear give a VERY slight stat increase? Perhaps gear can be used to limit which abilities the player is able to use. This way mages aren't running around in plate mail, and warriors in nothing at all...

As another balancing issue, since there are no strictly defined "classes" or "heroes" (players can pick and choose which abilities they want), I think it would be a good idea to have abilities in groups and only allow "Invigoration" (AKA unlocking) of 1 ability from a group. For example, a player would have 4 ability slots (Red, Blue, Yellow, and Green), and he can only unlock 1 Red ability, 1 Blue ability, etc. even though he may have 10 Red locked abilities, 5 Blue locked abilities, etc.

I haven't described lower or higher game layers around this, but they aren't terribly hard to imagine. The standard MMORPG camera/control scheme can be used on a low level, or even the RTS style, which is what DotA uses. Higher levels can include map control or land conquest. Another middle layer can include a crafting system (someone has to make the cool looking gear). As long as there is higher level persistence and the player can interact with other players in a virtual world, then the "MMO" feel is preserved.

There. Would you pay monthly for that?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to Trivialize Your MMORPG

Games fail when they do not allow their users to make meaningful decisions, or, even worse, when they offer what appears to be a meaningful decision, then render the decision utterly pointless later on. Colin Brennan ran into both of these phenomena and wrote about them at massively.com with reference to a new MMO, Jade Dynasty.

MMROPGs are two-faced. The first face presents you with carefully crafted characters and a story that takes time to absorb and understand before the player can be involved in it. The other face is one that touts the great end-game content—how the game opens up when you hit max level and you will have a powerful hero at your disposal that can crush the forces of evil (or good) into a fine pulp with pleasure and pizzazz. As you play the MMO, you realize that the first face is telling you nothing. There’s no motivation to care about the epic tales it spouts because, in the end, it cannot reward you. Only the second face can reward you. And, even worse, all that story is further trivialized by how every other player in the world can hope to achieve the exact same goals. The worst part: none of these great, harrowing achievements actually change the game world! All the raid bosses, enemy faction leaders, great kings of evil and chaos simply respawn after they’re killed. The world remains exactly as it was before aside from a few trinkets looted and perhaps a level gained here or there.

The face that presents you a non-trivial experience is directly contradicted and proven worthless by its counterpart. You are left with only the game mechanics. And, as any experienced MMORPG player knows, those certainly have a long, long way to go before they become non-trivial.

Imagine a coin with two faces. One faces is brilliantly hand-carved by a master engraver with a picture of the symbol of the state gloriously displayed and the other side has only a number or symbol printed on it. When you pay with the coin, the merchant who receives the coin can look at and admire the first side of the coin as a piece of craftsmanship, but, really, all that he cares about is the number printed on the other side which tells him how much richer he has become. After seeing a few of these coins, the sensible merchant would no longer care about the masterful artwork on the first face, he would only care about the number. Soon, the Mint decides that it is too much work to hand-engrave a thousand coins a day, so they simply press a standard pattern into the first side of the coin. No one but the rare collector or particularly observant will notice the difference.

Jade Dynasty doesn’t reveal that all MMORPGs are actually grinds. It commits a deeper double fraud: first it presents the same double-faced personage where the first face is trivialized by the second, then it trivializes the second face, laughing all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Would You Play a DotA MMO?

What would a DotA MMO even mean? DotA (Defense of the Ancients) is a custom map (Blizzard's version of modding) for WarCraft 3: The Frozen Throne. Because it is custom content, Blizzard does not officially support the game, but I'm willing to bet that all the WC3 box sales in the past 3 years have been because of DotA. There are in-depth articles, tournaments, even songs about the game. One interesting feature is that it is constantly being updated and expanded by its makers, The DotA Allstars (TDA), specifically IceFrog. Items and heroes constantly get balanced, retooled, or added. The game boasts of over 95 heroes and over 100 items.

There are tons of mechanics which make DotA extremely fun and rewarding. The trend games have taken during the past decade has been to integrate elements of RPG games. This includes everything from item and cash acquisition in Counter-Strike to character stats in Dawn of War 2. Seeing your guns get progressively better or your units do more damage between missions is explicit progression. Not only are the players' skills and knowledge of the game increasing, but also the attributes of the mechanics themselves are becoming better. When done correctly, this is layer of depth which compounds the entire experience for the player.

DotA has what I like to call Local-scope character progression. The game starts, you progress a character, the game ends, and all explicit progression gained on that hero is lost; it goes out of scope. The next time you start the game, the hero is level 1, you have the standard amount of gold and no items. Everyone starts this way. An unfortunate side-effect of WC3 modding, but a brilliant mechanic. Not only must the player understand the low level game mechanics, but he also needs to know how to effectively progress his hero. Given his team composition and the enemy heroes, what are the best ability choices, and what items will be the most effective? I know not of any other game with this same strategic layer as deep as the one in DotA.

Another really important layer is that of team play. DotA is five versus five. You need to push towers, coordinate enemy hero kills, and complement each other's hero builds. The team that works together will almost always be the team to win (some game modes like All Random might give the team a bad composition; here you are at the mercy of the random-number generator). Heroes have implicit roles: some are pushers, gankers (killers), early-game nukers, late-game behemoths, etc. A well balanced team is paramount to success. Game modes like All Pick or any -Draft game bring team composition to the forefront at the start of every game. Don't pick 5 intellect nukers if the other team has 3 gankers. You will be waiting to respawn more often than playing.

But don't let this team play talk fool you: you personally are still responsible for the power of your individual hero. If one player is dying a lot, he is often termed a "feeder" because he is giving large amounts gold and experience points to the other team. When is it OK to be by yourself? Where is it OK to be by yourself? There are 2 enemy heroes unaccounted for--should you be pushing that tower? In team battles, you have to know when and where to engage (terrain matters), when to use abilities, whom to attack first, and when to retreat. Mind games, lures, and straight up fog-of-war trickery are common place. Here is another layer of depth.

All in all, I view DotA as a Strategy Mini-MMORPG. Obviously the team-centricity and individual responsible layers carry over (with some work) into the full-fledged MMORPG genre, but I'm curious about Local-scope progression. MMORPGs usually have global scope progression. Meaning that every time you log in, the character has retained all explicit progression from the last session. Players who level alts or different jobs/classes can make the explicit progression into a challenge--see how fast they can get to the level cap--but there is no real game layer which all players need to learn and master. Sure MMORPGs have talents and specializations, but you are pretty much locked in to your choices for the length of your character's career. There is never a time in your character's career when you need to actively think: I should first get Rank 1 of a stun spell before max'ing passive damage increase because I am against a very aggressive player with an early game hero, and the stun will allow me to escape if I need to.

There is no game encompassing ability progression in most MMORPGs. This is largely because the leveling aspect of character progression is usually against stupid AI-controlled enemies. Obviously a DotA MMORPG needs to be played primarily against other players.

Would it be possible to zone into Alterac Valley, have your character at level 1 with minimal gold and no gear? You have to kill other players and any monsters roaming around to get experience and gold. After you kill the General and win the match, you would be back at level 1. Would this work? Would local-scope be something players would pay monthly for? Or is everyone too much attached to global scope progression where time = gain and their shinies indicate their characters worth in the world?

Save the World! (and Level Up)

Character advancement in classic Pencil and Paper RPGs was a side-effect of accomplishments in the game world—it was not the motivator for accomplishments in the game world. Advancement and story had a symbiotic relationship. The story progressed as the players did more, as the characters did more they became strong so the story could progress further. And so this cycle would continue, one aspect feeding the other, until the characters were killing Gods and destroying elemental planes (or, God forbid, saving the world).

This relationship has been inverted in MMORPGs, and the symbiosis has been broken. The result is a genre that is inherently flawed because it aims to do the impossible with fundamental game mechanics that are aligned for the wrong purposes in the game at large. Players primarily see game mechanics like quests and raids as means of character advancement. This inversion has made it unnecessary to have a story in MMORPGs. “The story” in MMORPGs consists of a series of interchangeable and ultimately marginal parts that provide fuel for the engines of advancement.

MMORPGs destroy the fundamental story-building element of pencil and paper RPGs in the interest of serving large numbers of people without (further) breaking the bank. It’s easy for a dungeon master and six players to control the destiny of a world and actually impact it by their actions, because only six heroes in the whole world have such power. There are seven intelligent beings at a table suspending disbelief and doing meaningful things in the game world once and for all time. In an MMORPG, most of the inhabitants of the world are heroes. This does not make sense and does not work. The metaphor doesn’t hold and the mechanics break down. The real aim of advancement systems, to reward players for changing the world, has disintegrated in favor of advancement being the end. If advancement is the end, then the story is the means. Just as the player will discard the level 6 sword as soon as she finds a level 7 one, players pass by and over the story in MMORPGs because it is simply a tool whose use results in some windfall.

The stories that interest most players these days are not the stories behind the thirtieth fetch quest they’ll do this week, they are the stories that players make as they play. Tales of sieges in Darkfall, political intrigue in EVE, realm vs. realm slugfests and keep sieges in Warhammer, being the first guild to down the new raid boss in World of Warcraft: these are the stories that players find interesting and come to care about. By allowing these stories to become the game’s story (and vice versa), we can make progress towards solving the content problem at which quests have recently proven an ineffective solution.

The players should generate the story as they go, just as they did in primordial pencil and paper RPGs. In this way, we can substantiate character progression and validate storytelling in MMORPGs in general. This means breaking down some of the mechanics we are used to and allowing players to actually change the worlds they inhabit, instead of being forced to spin their wheels by fighting monsters that will simply respawn in five minutes or an hour. Some may object to this as being a “niche” feeling, but this niche has room for everyone. If executed properly, a player-generated story-based MMORPG solves a lot of the problems we have today with much less developer, writer, and designer time needed.

In later posts I’ll elaborate on a possible way to implement what I’ve outlined here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

From Camps to Quests and Back: Building Better Treadmills

A common reaction to an exploitable or boring system is to complicate it by elaborating on its rules or adding new rules. In this post I'll discuss the evolution of the advancement treadmill or grind in MMORPGs and how I believe the machanics have gotten better, though they are still massively flawed.

Back in the iron age of MMORPGs, a common way to level in Everquest was to camp the spawn points of mobs you wanted to kill. This behavior was not seen as fun by the playerbase after a while, and future games tried different ways to discourage camping. The primordial disincentive for camping came in Dark Age of Camelot, a game on the coattails of Everquest that combated camping by implementing a system where players received bonus XP for killing mobs who had not been killed recently.

Is this a good mechanic?

Bonus XP is certainly simple and requires little work from the developers but it is very artificial. The player cannot intuit that this mechanic would exist without experience in the game or in the genre in general. This mechanic isn’t a metaphor for a real life phenomenon, so it breaks immersion and is naturally more difficult to pick up on. The XP bonus forces players to go a little bit out of their way to kill mobs in some sort of rotation to ensure everyone gets the largest bonus, but sometimes that’s not possible because a zone is crowded and there are only so many mob spawns. In the end, we have a mechanic that’s hard to intuit, and either easy to work around or completely impossible. The only positives note is the simplicity of the system and negligible developer time.

Such a hasty patch mechanic is seldom going to survive through successive generations of games. And it would soon see its death at the hands of World of Warcraft. Quest-based play was the next (and is the current) fad after the camping style.

Questing is a much more robust mechanic to prevent camping. The metaphor is solid; Players are familiar with the idea of being given jobs to do and then accomplishing them. As long as the rewards are reasonable, camping can be severely curbed by quest-based play. No real reason to kill the same monsters in the same place repeatedly if you’re not getting more out of it than you’d receive from running to town and doing a few quests.

Quests give an entire new layer of incentivized activity that makes playing an MMORPG significantly more pleasant, but this style of play has been reduced to a similar grind because of how familiar it has gotten to experienced MMORPG players. Quests also suffer from a relatively serious immersion problem: if everyone’s doing the same quests at similar points in their characters’ lives, doing the quests is just a meaningless way of advancing characters. The pretense of the story that underlies quests rapidly evaporates when you realize that everyone else is doing the same thing in the same world—the fourth-wall is paper-thin if not entirely transparent at points. This leakage of metaphor perhaps has reduced the quest to a slightly more meta version of the mob spawn/camp.

Quests also suffer from being a burden on content developers and being decidedly finite (barring some exceptions like daily quests, which are more like “camped quests”, in my opinion.)

So we’re left in the same situation we were in when camping fell out of favor. The trend became to instance more and more of MMORPGs, but that is just a thin patch of a mechanic that doesn’t actually address the problem: the quest is going the way of the camp and we need to move on to something new in order to keep people playing and playing for longer.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Assessing Game Mechanics

It’s not easy to evaluate game mechanics in a genre as young as MMORPG. I’ve given some thought to this problem recently and I think I have at least a place where we can start discussion of mechanics assessment with some objectivity.

The goal here is to have a way to qualify game mechanics in relation to one another. Once we can qualify effectively, we can begin to try to find ways to determine which game mechanics are best for a game with certain goals in mind. (And perhaps we can develop a system for concisely stating the design of an MMORPG.)

  • Simplicity. A mechanic should be as simple as possible to attain game aims. It’s in the interest of the players that this be the case, because needlessly complex mechanics cause frustration and make the game harder to learn and enjoy than necessary. Mechanics that are too simple are also not particularly desirable because they quickly devolve into meaninglessness, becoming components of grinds.

  • Causality. The causes and effects of a mechanic should be sufficiently clear to the player. They should also be logically consistent within the mechanic and with regards to how the mechanic works with others. If there are counterintuitive causes or effects, they should be made clear to the player. This involves user interface considerations as well as mechanic design.

  • Transparency. Players should receive enough information to make appropriately informed (depending on the game situation) decisions. Information should be available at a similar depth throughout the game, or, if it is to be revealed, revealed in a consistent and sensible fashion.

  • Repetitiveness. Does this mechanic encourage repetitive behavior? If it does, should it? Some degree of repetitiveness is necessary in MMORPGs, but it’s important to know where it occurs and manage it carefully. As a general rule, Mechanics should not force players to do a task many times beyond the point at which the player can be expected to have full mastery of the task (or have gained all or nearly all the utility of performing the task).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Choice is a buzzkill

As the game industry ages, more and more complex games with greater budgets and larger development teams hit the shelves. A not-so-surprising trend is that with each new game more customization is offered. Whether it be character creation, ability specialization, non-linearity progression, or whatever other options designers dream up, these choices are presented to the players because the players have explicitly asked for them and the designers are relying on the intuition that "more choice is better".

Unfortunately, too much choice can be a bad thing. Several years ago at TED, Barry Schwartz gave a talk on the Paradox of Choice. He argues that choice actually makes people miserable. Schwartz explains: choice counter-intuitively creates paralysis rather than liberation. We are less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be with fewer options to choose from. Here's why:
  1. Regret and anticipated regret.
    It is easy to imagine a different choice that would have been better; we experience regret and this detracts from the satisfaction resulted from the choice.

  2. Opportunity costs.
    It is easy to imagine attractive features of the alternatives that we've given up.

  3. Escalation of expectations.
    With all the options available, expectations of how good the final decision will be be increases. We have no expectations when presented with no choice. When confronted with 100 choices, we feel that one should be perfect.

  4. Self-blame.
    With no choice, if we are dissatisfied, then the world could have done better. With much choice, we personally feel that we could have done better. The responsibility falls on the person. There are no excuses.
There is obviously a threshold. Some choice is good, but more choice is not better. Do we really need 50 guns in that new FPS? How about 70 class abilities in that MMORPG? How often do you make an RPG character, only to be unhappy with its appearance 20 minutes later? "Oh man, I could have had that hairstyle!" Have you really ever been satisfied with a game that had 10 alternative endings? (think about BioShock and Fable 2)

Dan Gilbert also gave a talk on Why are we happy. His talk is about synthesized happiness, but he claims that in the presence of choice, happiness cannot be synthesized (Freedom of choice chapter [14:20]), and therefore we become unhappy.

This only applies to choices which are mutually exclusive and final. How unhappy would you be if you could only make a single WoW character? FFXI uses a job system to give players access to all the options without having to make a final decision.

Perhaps we should be asking designers for fewer choices. At least development costs would go down.

Is Losing Fun?

Dwarf Fortress claims that losing is fun. The trick is that in order to enjoy playing dwarf fortress, you need to have such a philosophy.

DF generates a lot of fan reaction because it’s such a unique game. The game isn’t well-designed, well-planned, well-implemented, or well-anything from a technical stand-point (although you may say it's well-received and well-researched). It is the ultimate sandbox, and certain kind of person is drawn to that. To generalize perhaps overmuch, the DF player is a unique creature in gaming—someone who enjoys being given a world and a seed from which the vines of power will grow, someone who doesn’t need to be pointed, with a firm ever-prodding hand, in one direction in order to have the most fun. Dwarf Fortress players find their own way to enjoy a game that leaves goal generation up to you.

It’s nice to play a game that taxes my CPU more than my GPU.

DF occupies a niche so deep and hard to climb into that you might consider it another world in itself. First, you must overcome the interface, which is, even in the dark recesses of the world of roguelike games, obtuse and awkward. Then you must actually make sense of what is happening on the screen, which is not always as easy as it should seem—the screen can turn into an impenetrable conglamaration of characters whose ascii codes are over 127 when you have twenty little dwarf icons alternatively flashing red with the exclamation points of fire and flipping between their icon and the fifteen cats, two mules, one camel leather thong, and one left low chain boot that also share the square. Now that you have some idea of how you interact with the game, you’ve got to figure out what you can do and how you can do it.

Here’s the twist: you don’t actually directly control your dwarves, you give them orders that they will get to when they feel like it (when they’re not too busy eating, drinking, sleeping, giving birth, getting married, being harassed by astoundingly lethal carp, or having a party). You can instruct your dwarfs to perform a myriad of trivial, entertaining, important, and sometimes hilarious tasks and combinations of tasks. Sometimes the dwarves will do what you want in a reasonable amount of time, sometimes they’ll decide it’s a better idea to go get some food from outside and get mauled to death by a skeletal zombie bear THAT IS ON FIRE. In such a whacky environment, the player is forced to adopt a very dark sense of humor and a willingness to fail. Often.

Can MMORPGs adopt a similar mentality? What would it be like if it was as fun to die in a fantastic and ridiculous way as it was to kill the eleventh rat and level up to the level cap? I’m not suggesting make a game that is a Leeroy Jenkins theme-park, but instead I’m suggesting that we can change the perspective on death and failure. Perhaps it should be rewarding to try some radical, crazy new idea and fail miserably. The first step towards this, though, and the step that I’m afraid the modern MMORPG gamer is least likely to take, is the step away from having thottbot open and ready to give them every detail about the ten rats they have to kill. There’s an enormous amount of risk aversion that seriously saps the fun potential of MMORPGs and it is only getting worse as information gatherers get better at gathering and disseminating their material.

Dwarf Fortress’ cult success has shows that a game doesn’t need tons of polish in order to gain acclaim from a sizable (though not WoW-sized) fanbase. If a game has a core ruleset that allows for diverse player action and predictable/deterministic consequences, that game can see success. Even with the majority of the idioms and tropes of modern games stripped away, Dwarf Fortress still can be a lot of fun to play if you can accept some of its surface flaws and learn how to lose with a smile on your face.

I think that many people would live happier lives if they learned how to lose with a genuine smile on their face.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

WoW Clones Are Not the Future

World of Warcraft is a mature game. No matter how many years a project spends in development, it can’t hold a candle to the maturity and polish of a product that has had 5+ million users banging on it for several years. Even if you had a few teams of the best testers in the world and top-breed developers working around the clock, you cannot attain the project maturity that is necessary to beat World of Warcraft at its own game.

Cloning your opponents success makes sense in the single-player game industry. Modern single-player games have 10-20 hours of playability out of the box. A dedicated gamer is through such a game within a week of purchasing it—this leaves plenty of room for the reskinned clones to come in and make some sales. In an industry of persistent content, characters, and a never-ending (comparatively) development cycle, there is a pattern of obsolescence, but it is on a smaller-than-the-whole-game scale. As the MMO industry age and their business models push through adolescence, it has become clear that the expansion cycle is critical moreso than the full-game cycle.

Firms will see success in the MMORPG market by carving out a niche of rabid fans, not by trying to rip the casual crowd away from WoW. Look at EVE. Those who move towards creating new games with new ideas can become the WoW of the next generation of MMORPGs instead of being born obsolete and unwanted.

It’s not time to shuffle the deck-chairs, it’s time to build a solarium.

Changing the Fundamental Game Layers

Modern video games have layers. Raph Koster spoke of this at Penny Arcade in a guest article about a year and a half ago.

Games are made out of smaller games – turtles all the way down, until you hit the game that is so trivial and stupid it isn't deserving of the name. In an MMO, we nest games pretty deep, because some games are short-term and some are long-term. In something like WoW, the smallest games are things like “hit Heal on time.” Then you get ‘kill the foozle,” and above that “kill a hell of a lot of foozles” and above that “make yourself stronger by picking the right gear” and in some cases “make your guild stronger” and so on.

The top layers are typically the most complex, building on games in lower levels. At the bottom, we have the purest and simplest games around. This is very evident in MMOs, but it also applies to other games as well.

Take Team Fortress 2 for example. At the top, there are longer-term games such as: win the round.
  • How do we win rounds? Complete the map objectives.
  • How do we complete the objectives? Stand at the capture points.
  • How do we get to the capture points? Construct an attack plan.
  • What is this attack plan? Use a certain route.
  • Why choose this route? There are no Sentry Guns.
  • Who is accompanying us on the route? Player X, Y, and Z.
  • I am player X, how do I help? Shoot, heal, bombard, etc.
  • How do I shoot/heal/bombard? Whack-a-mole.

In a FPS, aiming is a very fundamental mechanic. The muscle reflexes needed to click the target quickly and precisely are a player skill. But the choices of whom to shoot and when to shoot are the game. What are the trade offs if I shoot the Heavy instead of the Medic? If I spend 4 out of 4 rockets just suppressing the enemy, what are my choices when a Scout flanks me?

MMORPG mechanics and games are starting to wear thin. Either fundamental mechanics need to change or the layers on top of these mechanics need to change. Darkfall attempted to change the mechanics, borrowing a very well known idea: FPS aiming. Unfortunately, I'm not too sure it worked out. The restrictive field of view severely stifles play. If you notice, FPS are usually confined to corridors, narrow passages, or linear progression areas. The player always knows which way is "forward". In MMORPGs and Darkfall in particular, the world is open. There is no "forward". For the relatively short time I played the game, I would always find myself strafe-walking, making sure to cover a wider angle than the 90 degrees given by the first-person perspective. This didn't create a "thrilling" atmosphere; it was a nuisance.

I'm not saying that the sandbox MMORPG is flawed or that Darkfall is a bad game. I simply don't think the FPS mechanic works in an open-world MMORPG. Had they used an over-the-shoulder mechanic or a further back 3rd person camera like in Spellborn, then I think the low level gameplay in Darkfall would be more enjoyable.

I want to start changing these bottom layers in MMORPGs and questioning the layers MMORPG players take for granted. What are other ways we can declare targets? Why is it that we need to declare a target at all (aiming with a cross hair is still saying: I want to target something)? What are ways other than levels and skill numbers where we can progress? How else can we differentiate players?

After the core is defined, then the upper levels can begin to take shape. It's important to build a singular design where each layer synergizes with all the other layers. A Find-and-Replace isn't going to cut it. If you swap the top levels, you end up with WoW clones. If you swap the bottom levels, you end up with uncomfortable Darkfall-esque play sessions.

No longer will I accept mediocre games, distracted by the lure of a persistent community and cooperative play.

Design Elements of MMORPGs

In the spirit of Doug Church’s seminal essay on design tools for games, I am developing my own specialized design vocabulary for MMORPG design. I’m sure that these concepts are discussed in depth and have accreted their own vocabulary within design shops—and perhaps within freely-readable design communities—but I’m an outsider to that world, so I think it’s valuable to establish a vocabulary that at least Mot and I can call upon to aid in our discussions.

As I see it, there are four fundamental aspects that all MMORPGs (and perhaps all multiplayer games) share. MMORPGs are distinctive in that, in order to stand the test of time, they must sufficiently address all of the questions both individually and as they interrelate.

Here they are:

  • Conflict Resolution. When players seek to perform actions that somehow change the game world, they necessarily generate conflict. This conflict can be as simple as crafting a dagger or as complex as the political negotiations of two player-run nations. The game must have some system to resolve such conflicts—in this sense, games are mediators of conflict foremost.

  • Goal Generation. A game must provide goals for its players. Aside from the basic fact that a goalless game is not a game at all, players play games that have goals that suit their motivation in playing the game. In an MMORPG a player may see his goal as “to optimize my character for the PvP endgame”; the player will manipulate game mechanics to accomplish this goal—he’ll pick up quests from local NPCs because he knows that completing the quests will advance his character. Quests are, in this way, a smaller-grain goal generation system. Even though the smallest-scale objectives they put in place may be completely arbitrary, they give the player concrete goals to achieve that will produce pre-determined and guaranteed results that are in the player’s interest to attain.

  • Power Growth. MMORPG players expect their character to advance in some fashion that is instrinsic to the character. An MMORPG must decide how character advancement manifests itself and that the advancement options are balanced enough to allow players to play the game effectively in different ways.

  • Player Interaction. All MMORPGs must have a set of social and game-meaningful activities players can pursue when working in concert (or in opposition). The rules for player interaction primarily motivate players more as they reach the endgame of an MMORPG, where they need to become a part of a larger unit in order to reap the greatest rewards—or, perhaps, in order to reap any rewards. The social bonds established through player interaction provide a powerful incentive to play an MMORPG—these bonds may override severe doubts about the quality of the game, so their cultivation should be a focus as an MMORPG is designed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Tale of Two Coders

Evizaer and I have decided to create a blog about our rantings and ideas about game design and game programming particularly in the MMO realm. We have very different approaches and thoughts about games, and typically we find ourselves having very detailed and thorough discussions. We bounce around a lot of interesting and outright nutty concepts. The MMO genre is rather stale at the moment, and we hope we will spark some changes and evolution. A lofty goal for us is to write up a complete design document for a small-scale MMO and code it up.

Both of us are amateurs as far as game design goes, but we are trained computer programmers and software engineers. Personally, I hope to talk about my discoveries and conclusions as I break into game programming. 

We also talk about philosophy, economics, politics, and psychology as it relates to decision making and games. Perhaps there will also be some mathematical entries discussing formal game theory.

Evizaer and I have these conversations frequently and privately. But we want to open them up and see what other input and interest we can obtain. Feel free to comment on, laud, or disagree with any and all posts. Please try to be intelligent about it though.