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.

1 comment:

Tesh said...

"It’s basically saying that character advancement is meaningless."

While I'm no fan of Darkfall, I don't read it that way at all. Character choices need not be irrevocable to be meaningful. All that needs to happen is that your choices change the way you play. If they can be changed, it just means you can change the way you play again.

The quest for "meaningful" decisions (read: permanent, often with little indication of what the choice means) has given rise to all sorts of lame grindy mechanics as players have to either test out a series of alts or go to resources outside of the game to get a bead on how to plan their character. I call that bad design. Good for sub addicts, perhaps, but bad game design.