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.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
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
- 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.
- 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
Saturday, June 27, 2009
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 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.
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
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
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
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
Sunday, June 21, 2009
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
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
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
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
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
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
- 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.
- Opportunity costs.
It is easy to imagine attractive features of the alternatives that we've given up.
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
- 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.
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.