Thursday, September 10, 2009

Harnessing Familiarity to Breed Excitement

I enjoyed playing Lord of the Rings Online for the three months I played. I didn’t get a character to max level, but I did bring a Captain and a Minstrel to around level 40. I found that once I had chosen a character class and set out into the game world, playing the character was fun and the content was good enough that I had little problem soloing my way through most of the character advancement I saw and engaging in limited group play when it became appropriate. The standard MMO leveling process that LotRO leads its players through is familiar to me, so playing the game was a comfortable fit.

Where LotRO failed: Never did I fully grasp the capabilities and intended roles of each class. It seemed to me that the classes had a diversity of abilities to fill different roles to varying—mostly quite small—degrees. Every class can solo effectively and every class has some usefulness in a group scenario—probably more so than in WoW—but I did not find myself getting excited about potentially playing any other class. Never did I look at their abilities and think that such a class would be able to fill the role I’d like to fill in a group while being fun to play solo.

Why did I feel this way? Because the classes in LotRO do not feel familiar to me. If they do not feel familiar, my expectations don’t match up with reality. The Minstrel class is an instructive case of this. Minstrels (or Bards) in Dungeons and Dragons and in most RPGs are utility characters that use their song to buff friends and use their guile to manipulate NPCs. Bards have a small cadre of arcane magic they can use, but those incantations are usually tricks to help them with their previously stated roles. In LotRO, Minstrels are basically clerics. This dissonance forced me to throw out my knowledge about the roles and goals that a Bard or Minstrel should have—I cannot be excited about the potentiality of playing a class of which I have no ground-level understanding. Excitement occurs only when you can project an interesting and vital future for the decisions you make—if you can’t perform this projection, the dissonance that results saps excitement and, in my case, my motivation to roll a different character. I find myself in a similar situation with every class in LotRO.

I should be able to answer this question: “What is this class designed to do well and how will it do that?” If I can’t, my motivation to play the game suffers significantly. If I can’t answer that question even after playing the game for two months, there must be a problem there.

It doesn’t matter how well-designed and balanced a game’s classes are: if I can’t get excited about starting a new character, I will not care.

10 comments:

spinksville said...

It's an interesting point. I found LOTROs classes curiously unexciting but I'm not sure entirely if that was the reason.

OK, so the minstrel is the main healer. But the guardian is a fairly standard tank, hunter is a standard ranged dps, champion is a standard melee dps, for example. You could probably find something to play if you just wanted to go with those roles.

Some of their classes were poorly defined -- captain and loremaster in particular. People liked them but no one really understood the way the buffs and debuffs were going to work out.

But still, way before we even started to worry about that, I knew that I wasn't that excited about the classes. I'm sure what you have said is part of it. But I think there's something else too - not sure what, maybe they don't really have enough different mechanics. (I mean, compare with WoW which has rage/mana/energy/etc, or with WAR which has a different mechanic for every class.) LOTRO just has a mess of different abilities to press.

So I suspect they didn't copy enough of the familiar stuff.

Jason said...

I think they class design shows them clearly trying to avoid the tank/dps/healer style of play, but then being forced to move back toward it during beta as players complained about not being able to play.

To me, the bigger problem is players coming to a game expecting it to play the same as a previous game by another developer.

evizaer said...

The other part of my disinterest in the lotro classes was what spinks brought up: the classes that were familiar were clones that brought little interesting to the table.

The lesson: harness familiarity but don't clone. Clones are just as boring as unnecessarily unfamiliar classes are uninviting.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Hmm, a lot of interesting points here.

Whether you intend to or not, you seem to be advocating that the D&D model is the only viable model to copy for games. Your example of LotRO's minstrel is an interesting one. In character creation, it says right in the window "Role: Healer". They also have a little movie talking about the minstrel's powers. When you enter the game with a new character your three powers are: melee attack, healing spell, and ranged attack. I don't really see how they can introduce the character class much clearer.

So, where is the fault here? Should LotRO not have used the name Minstrel for this class since it reminds people of Bards? Should they have shoehorned healing type priests into the setting? Should they have tried to come up with a completely new type of battle system that didn't rely on "healing"? I'm not trying to just be snarky here, I'm interested in what you think the solution is here.

My concern here is that you're essentially trying to justify being set in your ways. Instead of trying out a class in LotRO to learn how to play it, it seems you try to "short-cut" the process by saying you already understand the system by substituting your own preconceptions. You're essentially arguing that a fantasy type game can't move past the D&D style mechanics for fear of alienating someone. Even if the mechanics are still rather similar to other games (LotRO definitely has the "holy trinity" type setup at the core of the classes).

Spinks wrote:
...maybe [LotRO's classes] don't really have enough different mechanics.

I'll disagree here. LotRO's classes have a lot of different mechanics, but it's not as obvious (or game-disrupting) as rage or energy was for WoW's classes. For example, Champions need to build up "fervour' to unleash their abilities. That's kind of like Warrior rage and Rogue combo points. Hunters have focus which goes away as the character moves around. Minstrels have different tiers of songs they have to play in order. Captains have a bunch of abilities they can use after an enemy falls in battle. Guardians have a bunch of abilities that are usable after they block or parry an ability. Runekeepers have an attunement system focusing on nuking or healing. Wardens have combos they can perform. Burglars have tricks they can add and remove from enemies to disable enemies or help themselves. Loremasters have different pets they can use with different abilities.

Of course, at low levels you don't really see a lot of these abilities. The classes do feel very similar level 1 because the game doesn't try to overwhelm you with too much information. Of course, WoW has the same issue where even a Priest is going to be engaging in melee to kill stuff before they really get their better abilities.

Again, I think part of the problem here is that the experienced people are going in and imposing their own preconceptions based on their experiences. Your level 80 Warrior (or whatever other class) plays vastly differently than a Druid (or whatever other class) in WoW, but you've forgotten how similar they were at level 1. Then, upon visiting a new game, people wonder why all the classes feel the same. Hell, I'm sure I'd do the same thing if it weren't my job to really notice the differences. So, to try to be constructive here: what is the solution? How can we get experienced players to grasp the situation while not overwhelming a completely new player (or even an overconfident "experienced" player)?

evizaer said...

Yes, I wouldn't have made this post if the first RPG I ever played was LotRO. That's true.

But when you're designing a class-based game, what makes more sense to you?

A class is called a Priest of Hral'Thor. What do you think the class does?

The class is called The Wrath of Hral'Thor. What do you think the class does?

What if I told you that The Wrath of Hral'Thor was the healer and the Priest was actually a bow-wielding DPS class? (Hral'Thor is a battle God that imbues his followers with divine fire and superhuman strength when they mend the wounds of an ally in battle. The Wrath of Hral'Thor is a class that can only heal in battle and unlocks more powerful DD attacks through doing so. The Priest simply enchants their bow with different kinds of damage and buffs by calling on the power of their god.)

You're going to be thrown off because your expectations are upset. It's the same with the Minstrel in LotRO. It doesn't matter if you tell me that this class is a healing class. I still don't have a feel for how a minstrel is going to heal--does it mean you're going to have to specialize in healing to do it well at all, or is the class built to always be a healer? Now that my expectations are contradicted, I no longer can adequately understand the concept of the class without playing through many levels of a character of that class.

I didn't go into the lore of LotRO being the real problem, because the point I'm making here has nothing to do with that. I'm not suggesting that LotRO should break lore. I'm just saying that the decision to reverse familiar roles is a disorienting one that prevented me from getting excited about the classes in the game. When you're designing a game, it's important to keep the familiarity in mind.

Meridian 59 (correct me if I'm wrong) has schools of magic named after fictional gods that any new player to the game would be unfamiliar with. I find that disorienting. Instead of just having the familiar and perfectly valid geomancer, pyromancer, etc., I have to learn a bunch of gibbering that has a one-to-one mapping onto sensible words I'm accustomed to using.

How would you like it if I started a game where swords were "Kazkarun", daggers were "Vezkathal", bows were "Sworadon", and magic was "Krithanaz"? I'm just renaming what's familiar in an unfamiliar way and wasting your valuable first impressions of the game on being baffled by the odd names of otherwise perfectly familiar things.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

A class is called a Priest of Hral'Thor. What do you think the class does?

Abuse apostrophes? ;)

I would assume the class is involved with the worship of something named "Hral'Thor". If Hral'Thor were a patron god of the hunt (like Artemis), then being a bow-wielder wouldn't surprise me.

The class is called The Wrath of Hral'Thor. What do you think the class does?

The problem here is that you're dealing with two different definitions: the connotation and denotation. Denotation is "dictionary" definition, and connotation is the meaning associated with it. The word "wrath" has nothing to do with healing according to the dictionary definition. As for connotations, "wrath" is usually it's associated with negative and destructive emotions.

How would you like it if I started a game where swords were "Kazkarun", daggers were "Vezkathal", bows were "Sworadon", and magic was "Krithanaz"?

How about:

Druids as poet historians with an interest in human sacrifice instead of neutral nature hippies?

Bards as wandering poet singers paid to do public relations for royalty instead of a Fighter/Wizard/Rogue multiclass?

Paladins as warrior politicians instead of holier-than-thou warriors of a god who get a free horse?

Minstrels as traveling singers and entertainers of a much later era instead of another name for a Bard?

A lot of the terms you think you know aren't quite right. "Paladin" is particularly incorrect according to the historical meanings of the words. Yet, we seem to grasp the alternate meaning.

You're taking your personal denotations and thinking they should apply universally. "Minstrel" doesn't mean "synonym for Bard", it means someone who sings. In D&D, this allows Bards a bunch of useful abilites. In LotRO, it allows Minstrels to cheer people up to restore morale (or heal, in game mechanic terms). This isn't just the developer randomly assigning names or assigning a definition that isn't there, however.

I didn't go into the lore of LotRO being the real problem, because the point I'm making here has nothing to do with that.

I disagree. I think this is the core of the problem. Ironically, Turbine did try to rely on familiarity in the game because they went with the "holy trinity" found in other games. But, the lore said there were no priests for the role of the healer. So, they used their metaphor of people being "demoralized" in battles and having a class restore morale by singing. They chose a perfectly rational name for a class that sings, your D&D-defined class preconceived notions notwithstanding.

Again, I see this as potentially worrisome because it means that a game trying to go beyond D&D-inspired game mechanics. If someone relatively intelligent and thoughtful can't get past the name of a class not being the same as similarly-named classes in other games, then developers are doomed to simply copying games. Or, try to appeal to people who aren't into current games and don't have the same baggage; puts Nintendo's "blue ocean" strategy with the Wii into a clearer perspective, I guess.

I think another problem here is that the LotRO classes are very flexible and therefore confusing, especially to someone who isn't willing to think outside narrow definitions. One of the most amusing things I see on chat is something along the lines of, "Need 1 more for group: champion or minstrel." The fact that a melee DPS class with strong AoE is just as desirable as a primary healer and part-time ranged DPS is pretty amazing to me as a game designer. But, this flexibility obviously comes at a price.

evizaer said...

You are assuming that I believe the "right" implementation of a minstrel is as a D&D bard.

I'm not talking about what is right, only what is familiar. It's always easier to learn what is familiar. You can assume safely that anyone who has played RPGs has been exposed to the D&D archetypes ad nauseum. Why name a class with a name that already has abstract but relatively well-defined assumptions about mechanics built into it if you're not going to utilize those assumptions at all? It makes more sense to name a class differently and avoid any confusion. Immediately indicate to the player through the name that they'll have to learn something new here. That way I might be saying "That new class sounds cool" instead of "that new class that has the same name as something I know is... actually a lot different. I'm not comfortable with its new role."

Take the loremaster as an example. I'm not complaining about the loremaster because it is not named so that it illicits widely known norms in the RPG world. Even though it's not necessarily easy to grasp the role of an LM in LotRO without playing the class, I don't have a problem with that because I am unfamiliar with the LM to begin with and enter with few assumptions that effect how I approach the class.

You are also assuming that I'm arguing about specific meanings of specific words that are being used incorrectly. I am not. I'm not concerned (at least in this post) with what a real bard or minstrel or paladin is, I'm concerned with the mechanics that one would learn and associate with classes of those names in MMOs and RPGs.

My post was saying that it's a good idea to harness the familiar to give the player knowns that he can be excited about manipulating instead of giving the player what first may seem familiar, but is actually an unknown.

I made reference to LotRO Minstrels because they ran counter to the associations I had with minstrels from my past experience. It was similar with other classes to varying extents. This unfamiliarity and uncomfortableness with the classes in LotRO impacted my excitement about the game and willingness to play significantly. This is a very subjective phenomenon, but I know I'm not alone in experiencing it.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

You are assuming that I believe the "right" implementation of a minstrel is as a D&D bard.

No, I'm reading what you wrote.

From the post:
Minstrels (or Bards) in Dungeons and Dragons and in most RPGs are utility characters that use their song to buff friends and use their guile to manipulate NPCs. [...] In LotRO, Minstrels are basically clerics. This dissonance forced me to throw out my knowledge about the roles and goals that a Bard or Minstrel should have....

Is there another way I should be reading this other than, "The name lead me to believe it would be like the (2nd edition) D&D class I am familiar with, but it was not and I was disappointed."?

You can assume safely that anyone who has played RPGs has been exposed to the D&D archetypes ad nauseum.

Slight tangent: I disagree. Back when 3rd edition was released, I remember hearing that there were about 1 million paper D&D players in the world. EQ sold about a million boxes at peak. WoW has reached at least 2 million players in North America alone, that means that if there's any overlap between people who played D&D and also played EQ, there are some people playing WoW that have not played a major, recent D&D(-inspired) game.

I don't have a problem with [the name] because I am unfamiliar with the LM to begin with and enter with few assumptions that effect how I approach the class.

Except this isn't what you said in your comment above. You even went so far as to say Meridian 59 was problematic because it used original names of gods for collections of spells. I could see your complaints being consistent if M59's original developers had taken the D&D spell schools and re-assigned names, but this isn't the case.

I'm not concerned (at least in this post) with what a real bard or minstrel or paladin is....

My point was that the names you cling to had previous meanings before RPGs borrowed them. If I were going to do a historical game set in the time of the Holy Roman Empire, I'd use the term "Paladin" in a way that D&D players would find confusing. As RPG players, we've already learned to associate new definitions for these words from one set of RPGs, so I don't think it's unreasonable to expect people to do it again within reason.

The funny part here is that I agree with your point. And, naming is vitally important to make sure players aren't alienated. I just think that your example of LotRO's minstrel is far off the mark; it's your own assumptions that "Minstrel = Bard = arcane spell caster"; I think the problem is with the first association, and Turbine probably didn't call the class "Bard" to avoid some confusion. And, this is also especially funny since in AD&D 1st and 3rd edition, Bards got druidic (including healing) spells. Even in 4th edition, the Bards described in the PHB2 get a few abilities that heal hit points to allies.

In the end, I just want you to understand what you're saying with your example and how it works with your post. I don't think you've quite communicated your point as well as you might have intended.

evizaer said...

You're still missing my point.

This is all about familiarity and has little to do with the particular associations I have and whether they are "valid" associations (whatever that might mean). It has to do with being aware of the associations that a player will have with certain words and using those words to harness those associations instead of creating dissonance. The LotRO example is an example of how this has impacted me, personally. I used an example to show the dissonance I felt when confronted game concepts that were counter to my expectations but not exciting enough in their power or scope to engage me.

To take the particular example of how I felt about the Minstrel class and say "minstrels don't have to be D&D minstrels/your associations were wrong/your associations were misguided/it's your problem, not LotRO's" ignores the important point that regardless of the "correctness" of my issue, I still had an issue that caused me to play the game a lot less than I otherwise would have. I'm not saying that LotRO should specifically change what I'm talking about--I'm just using it as an example. No matter how much you argue that I was not in the right about my notions regarding minstrels, that doesn't change the way that I felt about the class when I played LotRO.

People don't walk into games as Tabula Rasa.

"Slight tangent: I disagree. Back when 3rd edition was released, I remember hearing that there were about 1 million paper D&D players in the world. EQ sold about a million boxes at peak. WoW has reached at least 2 million players in North America alone, that means that if there's any overlap between people who played D&D and also played EQ, there are some people playing WoW that have not played a major, recent D&D(-inspired) game."

I bet 10+ million people have been exposed to the D&D archetypes, though, because those archetypes are present in so many games that have sold many copies (Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, Baldur's Gate, etc)--even games that don't directly use 2nd or 3rd edition rules, but still worked off of similar bases.

"In the end, I just want you to understand what you're saying with your example and how it works with your post. I don't think you've quite communicated your point as well as you might have intended."

It seems that I haven't. When I wrote the post I was uncertain if it would get my point across sufficiently. I felt the minstrel example was a little bit tenuous. I needed an example, though, and the classes in LotRO were the first that came to mind.

You agree with my point, but you are nitpicking on the "objective" details of a specific highly subjective example. I don't see why it's worth your time.

It also seems like you have a slight bone to pick with D&D.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

....that doesn't change the way that I felt about the class when I played LotRO.

It's the part I bolded that is the problem. You're talking about your personal feelings. Further, you're posting it on a blog for discussion. Even further, you're trying to present this as a design lesson for MMO designers to consider. This would be like me posting on my blog about how much I love inventory management and how it should be a more important part of MMOs. Dear god I'd never hear the end of that one, right?

People don't walk into games as Tabula Rasa.

No, but at some point a designer has to make a decision and go with it. From a design perspective, Turbine calling their healing class "Minstrel" is an acceptable design decision for reasons I mentioned above. Yes, you might have been disappointed because you tried to apply an incorrect assumption to the game. I don't think this is a fault of the design, however. And it's okay for you to have your own feelings and not like the class names in LotRO; games can't be universally appealing to everyone all the time.

I don't see why it's worth your time.

I see promise here in a couple of amateur designers trying to tackle MMO issues, and am trying to keep you off the path to damnation of trying to apply your specific experience as a universal rule of game design.

Or, perhaps XKCD knows best.

It also seems like you have a slight bone to pick with D&D.

Actually, I LOVE D&D. I met my long-term girlfriend (together 15 years this month) playing D&D. I still get the occasional game in with friends, even though we use a virtual tabletop system now. I've named two of my current characters in LotRO on beloved D&D characters I played in college. (Although, reading 4th edition leaves me a bit cold, but I'm still going to play it sometime soon.)

What I don't want to see is every game being bound to D&D type rules. Or WoW. Or even Meridian 59, as much as I love that game. I want to see a wider variety of games, and saying that game design has to match the expectation of someone steeped in D&D is not going to help us move these beasts we call MMOs forward.