Monday, August 31, 2009

Information Availability: An Underused Asset

MMOs are confronting a unique challenge in the gaming world: detailed information is available about any MMO—and is expected to be available—that can potentially compromise the fun of the game.

This problem is critical in MMOs but inconsequential in single-player games. It’s easy to control information flow in single-player games. You reveal information to the player as you see fit. You do not need to design with the expectation that your players will enter the game world knowing how the game works and exactly what they’re going to do to get as powerful as possible. Players can gain more information than they should simply by playing the game multiple times (or by going online and reading FAQs and guides)—this is an unavoidable situation but it’s not usually a problem. In a single-player game, there can be some illusion of fairness: some illusion that a player will not try to completely compromise the game by finding game-breaking exploits and repeatedly performing them. Such an illusion is reasonable because if the player exploits a game to death, the only person they’re harming by performing the exploit is themself. They’re robbing themself of the full experience of playing through the game as it was intended to be played.

But in multiplayer games, it’s expected that the players know the game systems well—if a player doesn’t start without enough skill, he is stigmatized. When failures affect other people, failing has a multiplicative effect and can cascade, causing disproportionately large penalties. When a game is conceived without a single-player mode, the learning ground must be built into the multiplayer experience. RPGs are naturally attuned to this learning stage because character growth is usually slower than player skill acquisition (provided that the player actually tries and isn’t babied through the content). MOBAs, as I discussed in an earlier post, do a poor job of this.

Information availability is a double-edged sword.

The first edge helps players: new players can more easily master the core concepts and mechanics of the game using the information available to them as an aid. This can cut down the trial-and-error needed to succeed in-game significantly. The community is doing the interface designers’ and documentation writers’ jobs by documenting the mechanics of the game: pointing out pertinent, critical information about the mechanics and how to use them in a reasonable way.

The second edge hurts game designers: no longer can static information be used as a critical point of gameplay—this means that typical means of storytelling in single-player games will not work as intended because they’ll be spoiler instantly and disregarded. When more than fifty thousand (or another arbitrarily large number) human beings are going to experience your content and solve the exact same problems, there is a sufficient market for the solution of those problems that the information will be made readily available. Gamefaqs and thottbot are the two websites that embody this principle, though one generally covers single-player games and the other only one massive multiplayer game. Players are incentivized to find thottbot when they play WoW. They’re incentivized to use addons like QuestHelper to help them streamline their play sessions—this is not because they want to compromise the content (as they regularly will do and blithely remove the fun from the game, then complain about it) but because they have no reason to avoid the good information that makes playing the game easier and significantly lubricates the otherwise daunting expanses of character advancement. As a designer, you must assume that story and fun will always be compromised by success in a social setting.

There are two take-aways I want to emphasize from this analysis:

  1. Designers in the MMO space do not need to be afraid of creating deep, complex, and difficult games composed of mechanics that take time to learn and master. As long as character advancement reveals abilities and mechanics at a sufficiently slow pace without boring seasoned gamers, complexity and depth can be assets without presenting players with a wall of unmitigated and impassible difficulty. Information availability should be emphasized in-game to allow players to learn faster and become versed in the fundamental mechanics as soon as possible.

  2. Storytelling needs to be rethought. Static stories will no longer be effective for a large enough percentage of the playerbase (and for the louder part of the playerbase). Even more flexible conversational systems (like Star Wars: The Old Republic’s system) are fodder for expanding informational awareness. New ways of storytelling need to be invented that allow for dynamic worlds that aren’t as dull as procedurally generated content tends to be.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Remnants of an Age Past

What shall be named The Mistake, I started playing It again. I was trying to save myself like a Kama Sutra monk, waiting for the Aion release (double entendre definitely intended). The last flirtation involved gallivanting through Northrend, an unexpectedly fun experience (pre-Tournament Icecrown is my favorite zone in all of WoW).

But this time I am trekking through Azeroth, all the old content, and I have come to a realization. I must call it a revelation, lest I get so frustrated at the bait 'n switch that I end my adventure here and now. I have finally understood that "killing with purpose" motto pronounced several times by the WoW designers. It's like the missing link between EverQuest and Aion. Newer quests are not as crude as 1.x WoW quests as to reveal this dark secret. I feel like I've discovered Ida.

Prior to WoW, mobs were simply grinded for experience points. You or your party found a camp somewhere and just killed mobs for hours. WoW quests are a layer of story on top of this grinding. The quest gives you a "purpose" to go an kill 100 boars, but you are still camping somewhere and killing mobs for hours. This is prevalent throughout much of 1.x WoW:
  • Recipe quests which ask you for several animal parts which would require you slaughter an entire field many times over.
  • Enemy stronghold quests which make you kill an entire cave of humanoids only to get a follow up quest to go back into the same cave and kill the leader (after all the mobs have respawned).
The idea of grinding mobs doesn't really go away; now there is bonus experience for doing the "purpose" layer.

I'm putting purpose in quotes because Blizzard seems to think that players just killed willy-nilly without rhyme nor reason prior to the Deliverance. Those xp camps had purpose: get experience points. And as I've said before, I enter some twisted, meditative state when I'm just farming mobs for an extending period of time. I also like xp parties, something I'm looking forward to in Aion.

Since the Enlightenment, Blizzard has seemed to have forgotten how things were and are addressing the outcry of monotony originating from the mistake of calling these story purposes "quests". We have bombing runs, vehicle combat, and other mini-games focusing not on "killing with a purpose" but on "fun".

Maybe we can change how bonus experience is distributed.

In FFXI, when you killed mobs within a time window of each other, you received bonus experience. It wasn't something to sneeze at; you could get upwards of 50% extra experience. What if we changed the quest experience system to something resembling the bonus experience system? Instead of stocking up on "Kill 20 Monkeys" quests, let's reserve the title of Quest for actual quests. When players start killing mobs in a certain area, give them a heads up as to how to acquire the bonus experience. Ask them to kill 10 mobs in 5 minutes; or 50 Rats total. Once they complete the objective, give them the bonus experience.

Of course this is assuming we have the standard, target-hotbar MMORPG combat system. A few months ago, I had envisioned a high-intensity combat system--somewhat of a throwback to Action RPGs. Characters have large amounts of AOE attacks, designed to cut through hordes of enemies quickly. Think of Diablo II. But instead of giving experience points just for killing mobs, we make the players run Gauntlets. Think of Gauntlets like instanced dungeons, with start and end locations and checkpoints along the way. Players receive bonus experience when they reach checkpoints and ultimately the end.

Simple. Fun. Flashy. Not monotonous like "Kill 30 Vultures". There is even the potential to record times of parties as they race to the end: have a leader board for the Achievers.

This originally was part of a grand territory control system, but as a middle layer game, what do you think?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

MOBAs: Newb-Unfriendliness Typified

I can’t talk specifically about what MOBA I’ve been playing, but I have been playing one that Mot really likes and I like a bit as well. The gameplay is engaging and requires constant attention. There are several layers of strategy involved, and inadequacy at one level can cause a loss when playing competently. From what I’ve read and seen, this game is representative of MOBAs in general, so I will comment on the genre instead of the game specifically.

My initial impression of MOBAs was largely skewed because the game forces newbies to play against people with vastly superior skill at random. The matchmaking engine for the MOBA we played, in particular, used an ELO rating system that matches up teams with similar aggregate ELO ratings (exactly how the aggregation happens is unknown to me). Mot is a good player and I’m a brand new newbie, so naturally we are pitted against good players when we choose to play together. This leads to my prompt destruction and eventual frustration as players who know the game inside and out pick me apart for mistakes I didn’t even know I could make.

And when I made mistakes, it cost my whole team the advantage. I basically was forced to throw games in our opponents favor just because I was new, and this was frustrating my unwitting teammates. I expected some backlash, but people were either understanding or silent in most games. There was a minor taunting episode once that didn’t affect me much. Being a burden on others and not having much fun in the process left me unwilling to play the game again.

Why should I play a game where I will cause other people to not have much fun for half-hour increments? A newbie playing a MOBA is a lose-lose deal. The newb gets a dose of harassment and taunting from angry teammates, and those teammates are forced to deal with an ineffective team member and come near wasting a half-hour of their life.

I played a few more games before I wrote this post and they solidified my observations. I played well in two games and enjoyed myself, scoring two wins and contributing to the victories as much as I could. The third game, though, left me wanting to never load the client again. The other team was well-coordinated and played very well throughout the contest. I could hold my own in a lane for the first stage of the game, but the other team got together early and destroyed us repeatedly in small engagements and sometimes in a large blob. I don’t know enough about the game to combat a fluid blobbing strategy, and my teammates were reviling me. I asked them to actually help me instead of making fun of me, and they proceeded to be negative and make the whole experience a miserable one for everyone.

Afterwards, I went to the forums and did some more reading about the game to try to better my play. I’m confronted with advice to learn what every hero can do. There are 28 heroes, five of which you’ll play against in a given game. That means in six matches, ideally, you’d encounter every hero in the game at least once. Some champions are far more popular than others, though, and you only tend to learn an opponent well if you lane against them for a while and see what they can do. This means that it may take 20 to 30 matches to lane against each hero and have a passable level of knowledge about your opponents. At 30 minutes per match, that’s 10 hours of being a newbie—ten hours of dragging your team down as you try to learn the game. Combine that with trying different champions and the tendency for the MOBAs to be extremely unforgiving.

It seems like MOBAs are rigged so negative and frustrating situations have to happen to new players. I doubt there’s a lot of growth potential in the genre with such a miserable newbie experience. It’s a shame, because the game mechanics are unique and fun when you are playing against opponents at your skill level.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fifty Posts Deep

We have dug a shallow grave so far, though not deep enough to fully accommodate my ego or drown out Motstandet’s inane ramblings. Our grave is more than fifty posts deep, but what have we done besides put thirty thousand words on the uncompromising sieve of uselessness that is the Internet?

Mot and I never came out and said what we’re trying to do here. It doesn’t matter—we could continue writing without a clear direction for the rest of our lives without blinking—but I think it deserves a scant few paragraphs. If I write what I’m trying to do and you read it, that means at least the two of us can understand the meaning of the pit all these words are meant to fill.

I’m trying desperately to find fun games to play. If I can’t find them, I will try to give people the ideas that they need to make them—perhaps I’ll even try to manifest those ideas in code myself. I see the MMO genre as one with amazing potential. So far, that potential has been very poorly shown by even the herculean efforts of companies like Blizzard. If you play one MMO and get burnt out, chances are you’re going to burn out faster on the next one until you just stop playing MMOs. Why is this? Because variety and product differentiation in MMOs is very narrow. I want more MMOs trying different ideas; the way the market is looking currently, there are not enough people speaking up who are like me. And so I speak up.

The spirit of That’s A Terrible Idea is to revisit older ideas that never caught on and give light to new ones. We want to analyze what’s here as a way to see what can come next. We want to change the paradigm to get past the current rut in MMO design. I know we cannot do this by ourselves and there are other blogs out there that are trying as well—we may just be pissing into the wind, but if enough of us are doing it someone downwind of us is bound to get wet and do something about it.

That said, I’d like to link to a few of my posts that I believe lay the groundwork for my MMO design thought. Because, at best, only 10% of anything is worth the effort, I’ll give you the four posts (roughly 10% of my contributions to this blog) that I think are good enough to merit a read for newer readers or a reread for the very few of you who have been around since the beginning.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The One Character Fallacy

Many of the character advancement problems that we encounter in modern MMOs are caused by the one-character philosophy. Single-player RPGs adhere to this philosophy for good reason and originated it as a metaphor. As with the blind adoption of many of the other tropes of single-player RPGs, MMOs have taken this one blindly and not done adequate work to adapt it to fit the realities of massively multiplayer gaming.

The one-character philosophy exists and has persisted because of these design decisions:
  1. Player characters do not age.
  2. Player characters cannot actually die.
  3. There can only be a limited number of PCs per player.
  4. Character advancement is very time-consuming.
  5. Character advancement is almost entirely vertical.
The one-character philosophy doesn’t need to be a static emplacement in MMORPG design. There are several well-documented issues with expecting the players to stick with one character throughout their journeys:

  1. Grinds are necessary to keep players playing if they are meant to stick to one character. Developers want to milk as much play time from characters as humanly possible.
  2. Vertical character progression has to be long. This means that level barriers lie between you and having fun doing what you want in the game world.
  3. The wild swings of the nerfbat turn your favorite max level character into a useless sideshow in your favorite style of play. You’ve put 150 days of playtime into your character, but now it’s all rendered moot because the balance has tipped out of your favor.
  4. Making an alt means repeating the whole grind again!
  5. Lots of vertical progression means lots of content strewn across the game world that is only accessible to narrow groups of players at a time. 90% of the game world is useful to less than 10% of the players at a given time. Making good content is difficult and uneconomical considering the low number of total hours players will spend with that content.
  6. Max level boredom is the result of grinding your way to max level, then looking out over the desolate landscapes of useless locales and wondering “now that I’ve climbed the mountain, what do I do next?” This is less a problem is World of Warcraft, because the game is very top-heavy, but in other games this is brutal. (Warhammer)
  7. Death has to be meaningless or half of the players will run around naked, sit in town and macro all day, or become exploiters due to inhuman risk aversion.
  8. Permanent decisions are anathema because characters have to live with what might be cripplingly bad decisions for the rest of eternity unless the player wants to throw away the time spent on that character.
MMOs refuse to stick to this metaphor wholesale (aside from Darkfall and other games that force you to only play as one character on one world) when they allow alts. This allowance is the first down the road to mortal characters in MMORPGs.
Problems with perma-death:
  1. Discourages character investment.
  2. May overly reward excessive play-time.
  3. Character progression may be overly repetitive.
  4. Managing too many characters at once.
Design responses (off the top of my head):
  1. Focus on horizontal character progression.
  2. Ensure there are important activities that a character can only do when the player is offline. Characters may have to sleep for a certain amount of their lives to not face penalties. Such penalties make it optimal to play multiple characters while not necessarily making every one of them uber.
  3. Reduce vertical progression to the side-effect of good and skillful play. A 10% cap on vertical ability gain would be reasonable. Ensure that vertical progression is no longer the focus—speccing well and having a strategy for your character should be more important.
  4. You don’t need to be logged in as particular characters to perform certain actions. Perhaps web-based or otherwise out-of-game interfaces would be more effective for managing the auction house, trade goods production, and other repetitive activities that can be more effectively managed from a dedicated interface outside of the game engine.
Discarding the one-character philosophy has its own problems, but it’s impossible to fully grasp the potential of a multi-character system until it’s actually implemented, and I don’t see any games giving it an honest go yet. One-character thinking has reached its natural conclusion; we need to move on. MMOs have proven their marketability, it's time to make game mechanics that leverage the nature of an online game instead of shoe-horning single-player mechanics into multi-player games where they do not belong. I believe the one-character philosophy is one design stumbling block past which we will find much better MMOs.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

MMO Novelty and Social Networking

We are at a turning point in the MMO genre. It is a point which will bring about either the downfall or the pervasion of the grandest display of video games seen yet. Up to this point, I feel MMOs have survived entirely on the novelty of playing in a large, persistent world. Players were willing to do very un-game-like activities because that's just how it is in an MMO. By the time grinding catches up with them, they are bound to the world with social ties--guilds and friends they've played with over the months.

The novelty is wearing thin, particularly in the combat area. More and more MMOs are appearing to be copies of each other because developers can't get past those poorly designed grinds. Aion, Champions Online, Fallen Earth, SWTOR: all have the same combat system. And guess what? WoW pretty much popped the MMO cherries of any gamer who would begin to try an MMO. Please stop with the "tried and true" single-target, hotbar doldrums. If you stay down this path, then the only way gamers are going to migrate to your new world is if all his social ties move there, and you will lose that battle also.

I'm projecting my feelings for Aion, but I'm willing to bet other players feel the same way. Aion deviates little from the beaten path. The only way I will be paying for Aion is if several of my RL and gaming friends decide to play it.

The only feature I am looking forward to is grouping. Apparently you can kill monsters in groups as a means to get XP, which is reminiscent of EQ, FFXI, and all those aged MMORPGs. What I am afraid of is that this feature gets American-ized out, and the grossly optimal way to level is solo-play. Fewer players willing to group means fewer groups.

So should NCSoft remove my beloved parties, I will be very reluctant to start paying them. I'm not going to torture myself just to chat and play with my friends. If I'm that socially depraved, then I'll start using Facebook more.

And here's the kicker. With all the social networking outlets, with all the social apps and casual games found on all these sites, MMOs will become obsolete. That is, unless they offer something these venues cannot: engaging progression that can't fit inside a Facebook app. If players get the same rehashed game systems over and over, they will learn to stop trying new MMOs. Less players means less revenue, and for a world that requires millions of dollars to create and maintain, that is not a sustainable business model. MMOs will die out.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Discarded Mutants: Design Considerations

On further review, this idea doesn’t work very well as an MMO. The spirit of the game would be compromised by min-maxing competitively against other players and there are significant issues with what happens to player-owned assets when they log off. The game would be far more immersive in a single-player mode with an (perhaps mostly co-op) online multiplayer mode.

Here are some fairly broad design considerations I’ve derived from the concept:

No world map. If you chose an intelligent mutant, you can make a map if you can find the materials to do so—ink and paper may be quite difficult to find, but carving into tree-bark might work. The quality of the cartography depends on how perceptive and intelligent your mutant is.

Combat doesn’t have to be complicated. This game is about survival, not war. There needs to be enough of a combat engine to allow the player to defend himself and hunt for live game if need be. No vertical growth is necessary, though it may be nice to have. Most mutants won’t last very long. This game is more about experimentation than it is about building up an uber character.

A basic social model will be sufficient. The mutant needs to be able to express some simple sentiments. “Go here”, “kill this”, “I don’t have a weapon”, “I’m friendly”, “leave me alone or I’ll throttle you.” The chance of two mutants being capable of spoken communication and actually speaking the same language is infinitesimal, so we don’t have to worry about RPG dialog conventions.

Most gameplay is interaction with the terrain and environmental features—not necessarily NPCs; a dynamic and living world is the focus.

There will be story, but there won’t be exposition. The player, in search of food and water or maybe just to mess around, will stumble upon ruins of lost civilizations. Through ruin exploration, the player can implicitly learn about how the civilization was structured and what led to its downfall.

Interface will be a big challenge. If the interface is poor, all the interactive world systems in the world won’t save the game from floundering in uselessness and unplayability. This point is as important as most of the design points in the game, because without it the game cannot even limp towards success.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Colony: RP Haven

My computer experienced some hardware failure a few days ago. Waiting for parts to arrive, I've been spending the time in front of the TV more than I usually do. I've watched all episodes released of the Discovery Channel's The Colony. It's a reality show about a group of people in a mock post-apocalyptic world set in downtown LA. It's an interesting idea, but I think the producers severely underestimated the resourcefulness of the participants in the "experiment." The people were herded into a very large machine yard. I'm calling it the modern version of Gilligan's Island--the "volunteers" have made showers, laundry machines, flame throwers, and tasers. They even have solar panels powering all their lighting and welding needs.

Some of the situations feel contrived, and it's not as if the people don't see the cameramen everywhere or know they are mic'd. The post-apocalyptic experiment is pretty much defunct, since survival needs were taken care of by the second episode, but watching these people react to certain stimuli is very fascinating. It has become a very alluring, televised role-playing game (one guy even uses a bow and arrow as his weapon of choice).

Those running the show send in raiders or other actors to steal or to stake claims on resources. The producers react to how the volunteers have handled themselves thus far. For example, the participants spent time building comfort luxuries (like that shower and laundry machine), so the experimenters exploited their weak security and defences and sent in raiders over unfortified walls. A trader showed up in one episode. He was transplanted right out of nomadic Arabia; he had a truck, but all his wears were in brown sacks. It was very out of place, almost fantastical.

They are in the process of fixing an old truck to leave for greener pastures. With a water filtration system, steel walls and doors, and a renewable power grid, I'm not sure why one would want to leave, but that's their priority. It's as if they beat this dungeon and want to see the next one.

I can't recommend the show for the post-apocalyptic "experiment" (a "cross section" of society includes no burger flippers, oddly), or even the drama (everyone is a generally level-headed and educated), but if you look at it through a fuzzy lens, you can see the RP elements shining through. Maybe survival MMORPGs will have a market.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Call of Duty 4: Punishing Newbies Sells Boxes (Once)

When I first started playing CoD4 multiplayer, I absolutely loved it. I loved the advancement options and the persistent rewards that made me feel like I was accomplishing something by doing the same kind of standard FPS play over and over. It’s nice to see your name rise on the scoreboard, and it’s certainly fun to gain skill at a game, but to know that a new weapon is just around the corner makes me load up one more round of the game instead of calling it a night. The game becomes intensely addictive as you level up. Gaining skill and gaining abilities was a delight the first time around. I had the best multiplayer FPS experiences I’ve had in my entire life, and I didn’t need to be an elite player to enjoy the game.

I loaded CoD4 onto the gaming rig that I built a couple of months ago. I started a new profile for online play.

I was rusty, yes. My knowledge of the game had dissipated from disuse. But I was so disheartened by being stuck with a level 1 account again that I almost gave up the game entirely. I had a max level account that I played a significant amount within a few months of release—without the options granted by higher levels available to me, the game become artificially difficult and extremely frustrating. I’m stuck with iron sights, for instance. Iron sights are terrible and seriously hinder aiming. I have to suffer through many awkward matches to get to the point where I can use the red dot sight, which is the only sight for assault rifles that I find tolerable.

The game is punishing me for being new. Why is it doing this? At first blush, I thought it did this to limit the options new players have so that they will not get overwhelmed. Then I realized that it doesn’t matter if I have twice the options if those options actually let me have significantly more fun with the game. Why don’t they give me all the sights for the starting weapons? Why do I have to use crap sights for fifty or more kills just to get a sight that is a direct improvement? This is a skill-focused game, not an MMORPG. I’m motivated to play so I can get better sights, but that motivation is counteracted by the frustration I’m experiencing now.

Call of Duty 4 makes it more difficult for new players to have success. This is a bad design decision. You are forced to play uncomfortably for a while before you are permitted to enjoy the full fun of the game. I don’t understand this approach—vertical progression in an FPS betrays the purpose of FPS games. FPSes succeed based solely on player skill growth and challenge being motivating factors; reducing challenge while skill grows is counterproductive! This kind of positive feedback mechanic is damaging to the spirit of the game when you examine it with some objectivity.

So why, then, is Call of Duty 4 so wildly successful? Because the game mechanics are great. They nailed the FPS. There are a number of varied and useful weapons and there are rewards for using them well. Gluing multiplayer matches together with a progression system is a great idea, an idea so good that it pushed aside the counterproductive tendency of the system with its sheer innovativeness and the polish that made that innovation a pleasure to play (the first time through).

One game has had great success by punishing newbies. I sincerely hope that this does not become a trend. I see people asking for unlockables in the fascinating District 8 (which is now in open beta—I suggest checking it out) and I cringe internally at the possibility of having to bludgeon my way through crippled weapons and suboptimal choices until I prove to a skill-based game that I can be a warm body in enough matches to brute force 150 kills.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Game Concept: Discarded Mutants

Humanity has expanded into space and met with thousands of alien races among the myriad solar systems. Eugenics and cybernetics have become vital to the success of the human race. The only way they can hope to compete with the physical power or intellectual acuity of the alien races. Hybridization between human and other species and races also is common among the denizens of the colonized planets.

But there is a great risk to messing with the building blocks of life without fully understanding the possible consequences. Millions of creatures have been created which not even the forsaken gods would wish to bear witness to. When the creator of such an abominations realizes what he has created, he can risk trying to enslave his creation, but more often than not the monstrosity is sent to one of the abandoned worlds. Life is precious, and though eugenics is the order of the day, with the new capabilities that unravels come greater responsibilities. He who brings a being to life cannot kill it simply because it is unsatisfactory—after all, human beings would have been destroyed long ago if extraterrestrials had not had a similar law.

The player takes on the character of one of these outcast mutants right after its memory has been whiped and it has been deposited naked on a planet's surface. The world that the mutants inhabits is an ancient world where great civilizations once ruled—but now it is in complete ruins, desolated by the ravages of the exiled monstrosities. In the beginning of the game, the world is completely free and open and the player can do any crime free of the game stopping him. Players can also change the environment by digging into the ground, knocking down walls, and other actions made available by different items found in the ruins.

The primary goal for the player is survival. Permanent death is a central mechanic. Players are responsible for sustaining their character. That means characters become hungry and thirsty. They must find food to keep themselves strong and water to stay alive. Depending on the mutations the character has, they may need more or less food and water—or they may be able to consume metal, plastics, stone, dirt, or they may be able to use photosynthesis (but then they must find a light source if they’re indoors for extended periods of time). Players also need to deal with the other mutants that they encounter—this means either fighting or engaging in diplomacy.

That’s a basic outline of the idea behind a game I’d like to design. I’m going to make posts discussing the mechanics needed to make such a game possible as I think more about it. If a game similar to this has been done before, I’d love to know about it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

GDC Austin 2009

Evizaer and I have decided to attend Game Developers Conference Austin 2009! We will be there all week and are really excited to go. I'll primarily be doing some career networking, but I'll no doubt be enjoying all GDC has to offer.

Anyone else going to be there?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

TF2 and the Meaning of 'RPG'

Valve is promoting their next update for TF2. They are calling it a "classless" update because typically they will focus their efforts around a single (or pair as in Sniper vs. Spy) class. We are getting a new Arena map, Offblast, which I can't understand given that Arenas (one death Deathmatch) seem to be the least popular map types, and even competitive leagues will use standard capture-point maps, payload, or capture-the-flag maps. King of the Hill is also being added.

Instead of making witty and stereotypical remarks regarding the character of whatever class they are updating, Valve has decided to focus their attention on Hats. TF2 has a very crude item system which was originally designed to allow players to make strategic decisions. Weapons would have sidegrades which could be swapped in and out. The best (and possibly only good) example is the Medigun sidegrade: the Kritzkrieg. The standard Medigun slowly builds √úberCharge which can be used at 100% to make the Medic and his target invincible for 8 seconds. The Kritzkrieg version instead gives the Medic and his target guaranteed critical hits for 8 seconds.

Hats are vanity items which players acquire at random times and are extremely rare (I don't have a single one). They can be swapped like weapons, changing your headwear. Because they are so rare, and often hilarious, players want hats and will comment whenever someone is wearing one. Valve is, of course, playing on that social dynamic:

Throughout history, men have worn hats as a way of showing how much better they are than other men. “I buy hats,” a behatted man seems to say. “I am better than you.”

I don't know who is writing all this, but I find it to be quite entertaining. Here are a few gems someone (Blargh) in my TF2 community posted:

My favorite being the one about hats:

SMELLY UNFORTUNATE: 'Please, sir.... May I have a hat?'
GENTLE MANNE of LEISURE: 'A-ha-ha! You are as PRESUMPTUOUS as your are POOR and IRISH. Tarnish notte the majesty of my TOWER of HATS.'
His COMPANIONE: 'I have maney hats also but did not bringe them.'

I'll bring up the question which has been talked about ad nauseum: how many items does it take to get to the center of an RPG? TF2 has: role-based, tactic combat; items and inventory. Do we need stats other than HP? Weapon ammo can be considered Mana. Are achievements and weapon sidegrades character progression? I would say 'no' considering they are designed to be situational or support different playstyles.

I think it boils down to persistence. DotA and other MOBAs have everything listed above aside from explicit character progression persistence. When the game ends, you start over. If you didn't start over, but played these games with heroes at max level, then would it be an RPG?

What about a story? Do we need a creative team to dream up some world and its history? Single-player RPGs would be incredibly lackluster without a story (would you play FF7 for just the battles?). But is player-generated history enough to support the story requirement?

RPG seems to be one of those really ambiguous terms, like "fun". We know what it is when we see it, but can't describe its components.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Combat of Pure Strategy (Pt. 1: Introduction; Melee)

Mot introduced me to a game called GOPS (short for Game Of Pure Strategy). It’s an exceedingly simple game, but the results of the game are determined purely by strategy. It’s one of the few games that involves absolutely no element of chance while remaining non-deterministic.

I’ll give a general description of GOPS before continuing; if you’re familiar with the game, feel free to skip this paragraph. GOPS is best played by two players. The game pieces are three sets of tokens with value markings on them. Usually tokens are marked with values that start at 1 and increase in a regular fashion (it’d be interesting to have token values increase according to a power law or some other distribution—I haven’t experimented with it before). Each set of tokens is identical to the others. Each player claims a set of tokens, leaving one set left over. The left over set constitute a stock that will be contested by the two players through a simple bidding process. Bidding proceeds by a token being selected out of the stock at random, then both players play a token (simultaneously) of the value they wish to bid. Whoever bids higher claims the contested token. The tokens that the players bid are discarded. Play continues thus, with players bidding on each token in succession and the higher bidder claiming the contested token, until the stock is exhausted. Once the stock is exhausted (the players’ tokens will be exhausted at this point, as well), each player totals the values of the tokens they have won. The player with the highest total wins the game.

If my description doesn’t make sense, feel free to check out the Wikipedia article. Or this.

Several months ago, Mot and I had a series of discussions about fitting GOPS as a combat system for an MMO. I think it’d be great for melee combat, and with some modification it may also work for magic and ranged combat (I’ll cover ranged/magic in a later post).

No random numbers need apply. The system would be relatively simple, as well. Show the combatants the tokens they’re bidding on and give them a time limit within which they must select the token they wish to bid. Better melee characters can receive bonuses for winning certain kinds of tokens. There could be special tokens as well that could be injected into the contested slot (the player would press a hotkey to queue abilities into the contested slot in place of whatever token would otherwise have appeared) by either player in an attempt to perform a special attack.

Combat would be constituted of contests which are organized into rounds. Bidding on one contested token is one contest. Each contest would have a time limit of 5-10 seconds. Sets of 5 contests constitute a round of combat. Whoever wins the round (whoever has the higher total value of tokens won) deals damage to the opponent and performs whichever of their own abilities they had won during the round. A one-on-one combat may take 5-8 rounds depending on who is fighting. This would be slower-paced than most MMOs, but this is not a problem because I aim to emphasize tactical decision-making and not rely on twitch mechanics to keep the players aware.

Why have combat of pure strategy?
  • It reduces the role of chance to a bare minimum.

  • It gives players a good reason to pay attention to combat.

  • It is non-trivial to win a combat.

  • It is entirely based on the strategic thinking of the players—you lose because you make mistakes or misjudgments, not because the dice weren’t in your favor.

  • It creates micro-level tactical and psychological contests that are missing from most MMORPGs. It’s very satisfying to read your opponent’s bids and expend as few resources as possible to beat them.

Potential weaknesses:
  • Combat may become too long.

  • Players don’t necessarily want to have to pay attention to combat on a second-by-second basis.

  • The first round or two is a feeling-out period where the results may be not strongly correlated to skill (the players are still figuring out what the other’s strategy might be). If players don’t fight one another often enough or if players switch targets rapidly, the draw of the GOPS system is severely weakened.

I think it’s at least worth prototyping a pure strategy combat system. I see a tremendous upside and a lot of appeal for players who enjoy skillful play but still want an RPG-like experience.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The World As I See It

Crafting seems to be one of those "Love it" or "Leave it" features of MMORPGs. Some players use crafting to motivate play (like me), and others see it as a complete waste of time. Regardless if you enjoy crafting, you can't deny the importance of IRL crafting.

Everything is crafted: the monitor you are using to read this right now; the keyboard I used to type it; the meal you just ate; the machines used to gather the ingredients for that meal; and so on. Every good has a story. It has a long list of people responsible for getting the item to you. Everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Lee Kun-hee to Henry Ford had a part to play in the creation of my monitor.

Human manufacturing is at the center of prosperity (which is why many Americans have issues with manufacturing going "overseas"). A process is applied to raw materials and resources in order to turn those resources into something of even more value. Businesses hope to sell finished goods for more money than the resources used to make that good, i.e. make a profit.

If a virtual world hopes to be a microcosm for the real world or hopes to have deep player-social interactions, then a virtual economy is needed. The heart of this economy should be a crafting system. The system should be infused through all aspects of the world. It should not be an afterthought, a modular widget plugged into the game, nor a bone thrown the players to placate their cries for a crafting system. It should be the grand motivator--the reason players log on and want to progress their characters; the reason players form guilds and fight for resources.

Right about now, you should be imagining me as Tyler Durden, explaining the world as I see it. But pervasive crafting systems are not that outlandish. EVE is its economy. I bet you could delete the AH from WoW and no one would care (except Gelvon). Of course I'm being absurd and dramatic; it does have its merits, and there are plenty of people who adore WoW's economy. There are also plenty of people who enjoy autoerotic asphyxiation.

The crafting system which I have been working on uses EVE as its base. I say that unabashed. EVE has research, invention, factories, manufacturing, resources, and finished goods. I'm going to take it one step further. Not only does this system have Blueprint (AKA Recipe) creation and limited use contracting, but the same kind of research and contracting can be done with processes and technologies. And I would like players to be able to name the Technologies, Processes, and Goods they invent, rather than the designers. Yes, I know I run into the issue of having the PEN15 technology and the NUTSAXLOL finished good, but if I make players work for original discoveries, they might understand the importance of the situation and rise to the occasion. If not, then there is always the UPDATE statement in SQL.

My next post will hopefully contain all the details, rather than those useless generalities above.

Monday, August 3, 2009

From Absurd Gamism to Moderate Simulationism

If you’re unfamiliar with the Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist Theory, please read the Wikipedia article before continuing.

I describe the current state of MMOs as unabashed absurd gamism. The game rules are so strict and so vaguely analogous to real life that the player is forced to suspend disbelief ad absurdum. The metaphors in MMOs are stretched so thin as to be entirely transparent. There’s not even the vaguest notion of realism, not even a modest smear of grit to mar the pristine landscapes that are otherwise dotted with any number of mediocre models there for the player’s pile of pixels to get stuck on.

The learning experience in MMORPGs amounts to becoming accustomed to the ludicrously tiny sliver of actions that your character can perform to effect a millionth of the tiny part of the world that is actually interactive and not just painted adamantium in the shapes of houses, mountains, trees, and terrain. There is a lot of room for MMORPGs to grow into a space that computers are built specifically to handle: simulation.

We have, at our fingertips, machines that can do on the order of 2^30 operations per second (and that’s only counting one CPU), yet we plink around straight-jacketed in game worlds about as rich as a street urchin with a 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars to his name. And it hasn’t gotten better since EQ. Instead of daunting worlds full of lethality and trials, we are confined to playpens full of brightly colored balls and clowns who mirthfully caper about to entertain us. It is entirely within our power to harness the capability of modern machines to do the complex calculations necessary to allow the player to enjoy a significantly more interactive and realistic world.

I’m not saying we should force players to piss in the woods every two hours or risk soiling their undergarments—I’m suggesting we build games that allow players to harness their creativity and knowledge of the real world to solve in-game problems. And if the player fails, he may actually learn something about the world he actually lives in (as well as the world his character lives in). Solutions do not need to be esoteric processes labored over by some poor intern. Just like in a tabletop roleplaying game, individual players can use what they know of the environment to come up with a solution.

Even if we do not open up the entire world to the player’s whims, we can at least aim to make combat more realistic and interesting. Perhaps it’s not best to make it as lethal as it is in real life, but at least we can all the players to use terrain, obstacles, and other features of the gameworld to their advantage—not the circle-strafing nonsense that goes on in games like Darkfall, but a more sensible system where positioning is crucial and in-battle tactics amount to more than what hotkeys you pound into the ground in what order. Shamus Young of Twenty-Sided wrote a great article where he proposed one such system.

One of my mission statements is to move MMOs from absurd gamism to moderate simulationism. That means making the game world more like a world and less like a set of gimmicks arranged to be quickly used up and discarded. I believe that this will be one of the many faces of the MMO revolution.

The Curse of Innovation

It’s difficult to innovate well. It requires smart people who have vision and strong analytical skills. But if you innovate well, your chances of success skyrocket. You harness the power of the long tail of gamers who want the new kind of play that your game offers. Differentiation is critical in markets cluttered with the detritus that the internet allows to accumulate, and strong innovation is the strongest differentiator.

Keen makes a stilted and awkward attack on innovation in one of his recent posts. I’d like to rebuff it here because I feel like his vitriol towards innovation is almost a direct attack on what this blog stands for—I cannot leave his attacks unanswered, especially when they are so confused and weak. I’m especially concerned because of the support he received in the offending post’s comments, so I feel that a long-form response is justified.

(I’m going to take on the more forceful of Keen’s arguments, because, quite honestly, I think the weaker version that is more agreeable is only agreeable because it says nothing notable. There’s no need to argue about stating that developers should stop making “bad” games.)

Keen’s Crippled Conjecture

Keen’s attack on innovation relies on a very flawed conception of how games are designed and implemented. By showing that his assumptions are mistaken, I will dispense with his argument.

Keen suggests that a game mechanic can be in one of two states: core game mechanics that are proved fun and worth perfecting in future games; peripheral game mechanics that are still experimental and should be subordinated during development to the core mechanics. Keen uses these classifications to make the statement that the former should not be compromised in pursuit of the latter. According to Keen, developers should not innovate if they have not perfected the core game mechanics.

There are several gaping flaws in the assumption that underlie this position.
  1. How do you define the core game mechanics of a genre? To define a core set of game systems that are intrinsic to a game genre is far from trivial and deserves significant study.

  2. Not all game concepts fit neatly within a genre.

  3. What about innovative core mechanics?

  4. How do you ensure your core mechanics actually work? If we’re not going to mercilessly copy every single formula, stat, talent tree, and advancement nugget from previous games we can ignore this, but if we stray at all from exactly what has been proven to work, we have to prove the validity and balance of our “standard” system all over again.

  5. It’s impossible to find a “core mechanic” with which everyone is satisfied—without such mechanics, there is no bedrock of solid design constructs for us to perfect and later build innovation upon (according to Keen’s theory).

  6. Not everyone agrees on what is a mistake and what works. Different kinds of gameplay are fun for different people. What is fun for players is generally what works and we all know how subjective, whimsical, and fickle fun is.

  7. Perfection in games is impossible. Different games are perfect for different players. Aiming for perfection either means diluting the character of your game so it appeals to a massive audience or you need to know exactly the kind of player you want to have fun in your game and maximize that player’s fun. Both of these choices are impossible: the first because it’s impossible to perfect a game for everyone and the second because it’s impossible to narrow the audience of a game down that much without targeting exactly one player.

These seven flaws illustrate the weakness of Keen’s assumptions. His deductions made based on those assumptions cannot hold water.

The Source of His Sordid Suspicions

After reading Keen’s post, I quickly understood why he held such an opinion. It’s a simple case of response bias. Keen plays games that have some chance of interesting him—this immediately filters out 90% of games, most of which are worthless clones with little to redeem them. Keen is biased towards playing innovative games, because innovation is more interesting than faithful cloning. The spectacular failures among these innovative games pop out like 300-pound tumor on a 150-pound man. It’s easy to remember the games that innovated but were let down by a some decisive lack in design. It’s much harder to remember the games that didn’t innovate and were entirely pedestrian because they blur together into one ignominious mass of boredom.

It’s all a matter of what makes Keen—and probably you, too—care about games’ failures.

Why won’t people care that your game failed?
  • No one knows about your game (or you have a very small playerbase).
  • Your game is pedestrian (or worse) and is a glorified rehash.

Why will people care that your game failed?
  • Your game is hyped (or you have a significant playerbase).
  • Your game is a significant evolutionary step forward.
  • You promise innovation, but your game does not innovate.
  • You promise innovation, but your innovations fail.