Thursday, July 30, 2009

Learning from Opinions

I find reprehensible the dismissive attitude towards opinions—especially when, as a result, people selectively dismiss opinions when there is disagreement. We’d all like to think that we know facts when we see them and don’t need to give credence to the opinions of others in a field like game design, but we really do not have enough information and experiential data to support fact claims. Subjectivity and opinion is at the core of game design: what can be more subjective than the concept of fun? Fun doesn’t exist without an experience to host it and those experiences don’t exist without beings to have them—this is subjectivity at its most obvious.

The subjectivity of a statement or concept does not prevent us from gaining useful information from that statement. Dismissing all opinions because they are opinions, and therefore are useless to discourse, is sacrificing the immense amount of data that is held within what caused the opinion to be held. Each opinion must be held for some reason (although asking for details may lead beyond the point where, as Hilary Putnam put it, one “turns his spade”) and understanding these reasons will offer us insight, or will give us a reasonable cause to dismiss the opinion.

Of course, opinions that are purely a matter of taste are generally less useful because they are not reasoned opinions—their causes are entirely biological, genetic, or due to other permanently subjective or non-intellectual factors. For example, it is of no use to argue over the tastiness of mustard, because no matter how much we argue over it our opinion of mustard will not change. Similarly, if you simply do not like certain game settings in a visceral way, you aren’t going to start liking them even after extremely detailed debate because your opinion is a matter of taste and thus irrational. Debating over taste always gets us nowhere—but we cannot avoid the fact that we all have tastes. We can use our knowledge of our own tastes and the tastes of others to inform our judgments regarding if their opinions and ours will align. (This touches on a basic issue I have with game reviews: what exactly is the objective of a review supposed to be? It’s impossible to rate a game “objectively” but without objective metrics we’re stuck in the land of tastes and judgment calls.)

There’s a lot to learn from other people’s opinions, but only if we have some knowledge about the person’s tastes and their experiences. To hedge against unfamiliar readers getting nothing out of our opinions, we should back them up with our best shot at expressing the reasons why we hold our opinions, including what objective perceptions and facts on which we’re basing our opinions.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cutting Down the Role of Chance: Loot

There are two key factors in making looting fun—we shouldn’t trample these in our attempt to remove randomness:

The first is Variability. In the case of very low variability, loot becomes routine and uninteresting. The potential for rare or unique items is limited by either the number of rare or unique NPCs in the game world or the number of high-skill crafters. High variability can lead to overpowered or useless loot being the majority of what is dropped; this can spell havoc for power growth schemes and leads to looting becoming a very cheap, high pay-off slot machine.

The second is Appropriateness, which can be split into two factors: appropriateness for the player doing the looting and appropriateness for NPC being looted. Players get excited when they find loot that is appropriate for their character—here we encounter the first kind of appropriateness. Loot that offers an upgrade from the character’s current equipment (without breaking power growth balance) or that offers a different kind of ability to the character is viewed as appropriate. Loot should also be appropriate to the NPC carrying it—a bear should drop a bear pelt, not a sword.

So how do we remove the role of chance from loot and what does that do for us?

An easy and very intuitive way to handle NPC equipment and possessions: give each item a 1 in X chance of being on a given NPC or NPC type, then specify an offset value for each (this value can be anything as long as the offsets are different). Start a spawn counter for each NPC type and give the NPC each item when spawn_counter + offset is divisible by the X above. X can be modified depending on the kind of players that have been hunting the NPCs (if the NPCs are intelligent enough to make such a modification)—perhaps a camp of human bandits will start spawning with more fire-resistant gear if a player has been ravaging them with fireballs for the past half-hour.

At first, this approach seems sufficient, but we’ve made assumptions that aren’t necessarily true in an MMO. Looting isn’t an entirely blind process. The player might know loot rates and so kill off a lot of creatures that drop certain items, greatly unbalancing the totals of important items available for future players to loot off of mobs. Also, there may be some mechanic that allows the player to see what kind of loot the NPC is holding (for instance, if the NPC has a giant glowing sword, a player would be more likely to go after the NPC because of the higher reward). The counter-based solution is good for generating your starting NPC population’s loot, but the system has no awareness of what’s already in the world. If players only kill off the NPCs they know have certain items, the drop rate will stray because the existing population has drop rates that are effectively significantly lower. To counteract this, the system needs to keep track of the loot currently on NPCs in the world and spawn NPCs with or without the loot in order to keep the distribution on or near target. This certain doesn’t need to manifest itself in unique mobs respawning instantly after they’re killed, though; I mainly imagine this solution applied to make keep quests doable without excess grinding.

We can also use the way combat resolves to modify the loot enemies will drop. When different kinds of attacks land on the opponent, they can lead to different effects on the opponent’s equipment. A fireball would burn away cloth armor or melt metal armor, for instance, leaving nothing worth taking in the former case or only some metal scraps in the latter case. The more times the opponent is hit by standard weapons, the poorer condition his armor is going to be in. You can imagine a myriad of attack-item reactions that can lead to loot being lost or transformed. Suddenly, spells that debilitate the opponent without affecting their belongings will be a crucial tool in a mage’s arsenal and allow them to be more than just glass cannon DPS.

If we implement these two policies, we not only increase the role of player decision-making in what loot is dropped (and also encourage a diversity of effect types in order to preserve or destroy certain items), we also prevent the ever-annoying problem where the random number generator gives you a fifty percent chance of getting that quest item, but the coin keeps landing on tails instead of the needed heads. We certainly don’t have to compromise any variability or appropriateness in the process.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Outrageous Tasks Revisited

Building on some of the "outrageous tasks" (long travel times, forced grouping, harsh death penalties, grinding mobs for money) I mentioned in my previous post, I'd like to talk about what they accomplished in terms of dynamics, and thus what MMORPGs have lost over the years. I would be an interesting exercise to then reinstitute these mechanics and discuss methods to improve them rather than cut them.

Long Travel Times

The first journey into unknown lands is thrilling, but that excitement suffers extreme diminishing returns. The 80th time you fly from Ironforge to Stormwind, that mock Drawf battle isn't cool anymore. So to pass the time to chat with your guild or party. This is downtime for the player: a time to stop and smell the roses. Problem is that not everyone has the time to have downtime. Casual gaming is coming to the forefront and players want to get in, play the game, and get out.

Exploration should be a part of character progression, not a hurdle. Make the player undergo memorable sojourns to a new town, but then accelerate his trip thereafter. I think WoW's travel system is near perfect. A change I'd make would be to require players to have been at a teleport destination (much like the taxi system) before they are able to teleport there. I think the Summon spell needs to be tossed out the window also.

Forced Grouping

I've already commented on forced grouping and how to lubricate party creation.

Harsh Death Penalties

Games need to have a losing condition and some risk and reward. MMORPGs have gotten soft though. There is no more loss of experience or that terrible experience debt system (seriously, how did this even get past the alcohol-saturated napkin is was written upon?). Players praise Blizzard for removing these Draconian practices yet curse the newbs in their end game content. Guess how these baddies got to the level cap? Insufficient death penalty which failed to properly teach the players.

In Mario Bros. or Portal if you can't learn how to use the tool, you don't progress. If you don't understand that you must run full speed nonstop in order to cross the series of tiny pits, you have to restart the level. If you don't get the hint to " you...your...elf", you don't get to hear GlaDOS' next snide comment. In WoW, if you don't understand how the threat system works, don't worry about it, you'll be level cap in no time.

(My first level 60 was a Tauren Warrior. I had come from FFXI in which tanking was done primarily by spamming an ability called "Provoke" every 30 seconds. Think of Provoke as Taunt. So when I was tanking Scholo for the first time, I would spam Taunt and watch my party die mercilessly. It was then that a kind soul informed me to use Sunder Armor because it generated Threat. Sunder Armor wasn't even on my hotbars. I had gotten to level cap and tanked various dungeons along the way without even a basic understanding of a very important mechanic. That is design failure.)

A resolution would be to change the attitude toward leveling systems. If players are in a Diku-style MMORPG, the mobs need to get more challenging. As players get new abilities, AI designers must present situations in which those abilities must be used in order to advance. The fun comes from learning how to use these tools. Leveling in an MMORPG becomes monotonous if players can succeed using a only tools from the beginning of the game and they aren't tested with the possibility of failure.

Grinding Mobs for Money

This actually hasn't gone away. WoW's daily quest system has reduced its importance slightly, but grinding is still grinding, whether you are just killing mobs or "killing with a purpose". I find there is a meditative quality to grinding mobs for money, but perhaps I'm just insane.

I don't know how to reconcile this. There has to be a mechanic to inject money into the MMO economy, and you can't just toss out the MMO economy; that's a major feature in MMOGs! Perhaps economic advancement can be the main attraction, and players play together for resource gain rather than Experience. Now we have issues with illegal gold farming and selling.

Maybe this is just one of those "real life" lessons where you hate your well-paying job but do it to pay the bills... Yea, I didn't think you'd buy it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Innocence

I recently got accepted into the League of Legends closed beta. It has a pretty strict NDA, and I may only disclose "that the beta exists and that I am participating in it". Let me tell you--I am having a blast. Guinsoo (and all the excellent people at Riot Games) has done it again. DotA++

I'm not really playing any MMOs at the moment, and I'm having tons of fun with Team Fortress and LoL so I'm not thinking about MMOs either. I also don't want to just rehash other bloggers' topics--a phenomenon evizaer likes to call blog inbreeding. But Keen and Graev have had a series of posts which made me a little nostalgic.

Which reminds me of comment I made to evizaer in an IM the other day, "I really want my MMO innocence back." My MMO history is fairly young; my first MMO was FFXI. It also isn't that extensive. I typically play a single game (any multiplayer game) for months or years at a time, get completely infatuated with it, and learn its deepest and darkest secrets before moving on. But there is something about that first MMORPG which completely overwhelms you, and you find yourself willing to do the most outrageous tasks for the game (long travel times, forced grouping, harsh death penalties, grinding mobs for money).

Some players will argue that these chores "build character", help stratify the players, or are actually fun (see Keen). The first time. My first run* to Jeuno in FFXI took probably close to 45 minutes. I did it with personal friend. We had a map, but it wasn't terribly useful at describing where the zone exits were nor where they led. I remember describing land features to my guildmates, hoping that they'd know where we were and could guide us. It was a fearful journey; I leveled down in one of the zones, and we had to duo some tough mobs to get me back to level 20. But I think the most remarkable feature of the whole trip was that I remembered it all. It was a lot of fun, akin to all my ventures into the exotic lands of Vana'diel. You just don't see this anymore.

* I originally had a typo here which said "my first fun". The human brain is fascinating.

Is that sense of adventure during travel gone because new MMORPGs make travel less of an issue or because that first time was really exceptional and we've lost our innocence? I'd like to think the former, lest I end up a fiend injecting raw source code into my veins to get my fix.

Games like Guild Wars and Global Agenda (which I am excited to try) are removing that large world feel. Instanced, instant action. It's what the masses want. And I would be lying if I said these games don't make huge improvements to the MMO genre at large.

After experiencing a long line of tired or mediocre gameplay (WoW, EQ2, AoC, GW, Darkfall) I'm wishing that I wasn't an experienced MMORPG player, that I could pick up any one of those games and be enamored by the wonder that makes MMOs what they are instead of nitpicking every single feature. I wish I could see past all the faulty mechanics and immerse myself again in the world and the community. I wish they were new.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Floodplains of Ambiguity

There was a discussion on Twitter yesterday about narrative as story versus gameplay. in_orbit compiled the tweets into a thread-like style; you can read it here.

Additionally, I'm sure you've heard of Train by Brenda Brathwaite. There is an article written by Ian Bogost on Gamasutra which had some interesting input, namely how the ambiguity or open-endedness in the rules resulted in the players becoming more immersed. The player has to figure out how to jam the people into the trains. The player is confronted with the desire to neatly order the tokens in lines.

This ambiguity in rules reminded me of yet another major event in recent MMO news: the Dr. David "Twixt" Myers experiment in City of Heroes. A philosophical debate on social rules and games was waged on World of Discourse (check out the comments).

The gist is that Myers was playing by the rules of the game but disliked the social consequences of violating the social rules; he was griefing other players and was taken aback when they verbally threatened him--the player not the character. In the little pocket community of CoH, social norms of acceptable play grew out of a lack of game rules or rather a manipulation of those rules.

It is here, in the No man's land of ambiguous game rules, where the true power of emotional games arise. In Train, players made a choice of how to pack passengers in the cars, and that article by Bogost notes, "players seem to alter their gestures of passenger loading and unloading as they better understand their implications." I'm sure players in CoH got upset when they lost a "legit" PvP encounter, but did they send death threats to the victor as they did to Myers?

Designers like Brathwaite seem to be focused on creating drama. Instead of discomfort, sorrow, or rage is it possible to leverage ambiguous rules and create joy and pleasure? And can we do it in an MMO? Perhaps we are already doing this. Emergent gameplay and solutions allow the player to discover dynamics with the game rules, and this often feels rewarding. Is it euphoric though?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In-game Historians

We’ve spent several posts discussing the way that MMORPGs miserably fail to tell meaningful stories. Theme-park MMOs have story and gameplay as separate and unrelated endeavors. Story may motivate the fluff around gameplay, but games seldom require an understanding of the story. The story amounts to text that players are encouraged to skip.

How do we make story a meaningful part of MMORPGs? A dynamic world is a necessity, of course, but with a dynamic world it’s easy for the state of the world to become difficult to figure out for even veteran players. There needs to be a way for players to easily grok the state of the game world in order to allow players to make intelligent decisions that will have meaningful effects on the world. We can do this by creating a robust system for aggregating in-game history. Let’s see what we need to make this happen.

1. We need people who are willing to perform the roles of historians and journalists.

As EVE Online has shown us, players are willing to write about their endeavors in the game world—some players are willing to spend hours writing about what other players have done. These players are the historians and journalists of the game world, taking accounts of the history of the world as it unfolds through player action.

Games that have static stories and recycled NPC bosses have players willing to perform the role of historian as well, but these players are relegated to becoming meta-game historians. They don’t keep track of events as they happen in relation to the game world, instead they keep track of the happenings of guilds and other player organizations as they accomplish feats that have no effect on the game world, but are notable nonetheless.

We’ve already fulfilled this requirement.

2. We need dynamic game worlds where important events occur often enough to keep historians and journalists interested and engaged. We need a supply of things for journalists to report and historians to write about.

Theme-park MMOs need not apply. Sure, the meta-game will entertain some players enough, but there’s not much effect of what is notable and there’s not much that is notable.

We need a world where it is important that players know the political situation. In a world where player-run factions have very limited power and are basically interchangeable, an effective news gathering force is not particularly important. Player-run factions need to be able to effect the shape of the game world in some radical ways.

EVE basically accomplishes this goal.

3. We need the game to track the facts of historical events in a useful fashion that can be publicly viewed (or viewed only by the privileged historian group).

Player accountability is the fundamental principle here. There should be some degree of a factual, unfalsifiable record of what characters have done in the game world. It doesn’t have to be in gory detail—it can be as simple as “A defeats B” or “Faction A completes constructions of X in city Y, these players were involved” with a timestamp. The game could even generate a barebones wiki to allow this information to be easily viewed. Historians can then put details of the event and the significance of the event on the pre-generated wiki pages. Each player can have their own wiki page with their accomplishments, as well—everyone loves a good way to brag and a relatively permanent place to keep track of their achievements in the game.

Managing who can edit what pages in the wiki is a little bit of a challenge, but should not be difficult considering you can easily hold players accountable for edits (because they’ve got their edits associated with their account information). It’s not difficult to track how different players participate and ban griefers while promoting the good writers and experts to moderator or moderator-like status (they would be the historians of the game world).

Meaningful in-game history engages many different kinds of players and is a natural extension of a dynamic game world. I would love to see a game where I can click on a “more info” link next to a city in the game and see a history of the people who have controlled it, what they have done, and what’s going on now. Did someone just gank me? I can look him up and see where he hangs out, who he hangs out with, and what he does. Such transparency emphasizes player accountability and has the opportunity to give significant added meaning to the elements of the game world.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Design Concept: Playful Gods

Mot made a big post about horizontal progression. He considers horizontal progression to be characters gaining ability in many roles simultaneously. Certainly such progression would solve group composition problems, but it doesn’t jive with the metaphor of “the character.” If we want to let any character do anything at any time, then we’re basically destroying the abstraction of the character. The metaphor doesn’t work if any individual character can do anything, because real people (real “characters”) experience vertical progression much more often than horizontal progression. We need to create a new metaphor so that this alternative model makes sense when implemented.

Melf over at Word of Shadow came up with something similar to what I’m going to outline below. You may want to read over his post as well as this one to see two different takes on this approach. The both revolve around the same concept of disassociating the player from specific player-owned individual characters.

Instead of having the player create and maintain characters with static abilities and have those characters tied to the player, let players choose the abilities they want to have for a play session, then let them inhabit a hero who has those abilities. Players can save profiles of sets of abilities they like to use, or maybe they can buy unfettered access to certain characters they like by expending some kind of meta-resource.

This character rental system seems odd and awkward at first, but it’s not difficult to see how it could be fun. Players could assume the role of minor gods, meddling in the lives of the mortals in the game world (who are only occasionally controlled by players). Players curry favor with the mortals by manipulating the environment in minor ways, expending some kind of resource similar to mana in the process. These actions have realistic effects on the game world that penalize overuse of similar strategies repeatedly. If you make it rain more so that crops will grow, you will drown them if you’re not careful. If you manipulate the winds, you may slow down trade by creating doldrums where the trade winds once were. Such large effects on the game world cannot be done very often, though, to prevent the world from falling into chaos as whimsical players negligently exploit their powers.

At the beginning of a player’s career, he only has any control over one character: a prophet who has witnessed the player’s power first hand and wishes to draw others to the cause. This prophet, if manipulated properly, brings more like-minded followers to the player’s cause. Although providing divine inspiration by taking control of the prophet is cheap and can be done often, the prophet is weak and will not live long into the game. Players can inspire higher XP-value characters as they gain more followers. Based on the maximum amount of XP-value a player can control and the number of followers the player has, the player can configure characters with the abilities and traits that the player wishes to use in the game.

Conflict between players naturally occurs as gods with different goals, and gods of different things, use different means to curry favor. There are also a limited number of mortals in the world to work their magic on, which leads to competition to better please potential followers.

Group play can involve both inspired characters and allied player gods. The gods can use their abilities to modify the terrain and create effects that will aid the inspired character in accomplishing its goals.

Players would only be able to inspire character when they are to do important things (a similar concept to questing), and if the character does not accomplish its task or, even worse, backstabs allies or causes other problems, this will lead to the player’s followers losing faith and turning to an opposing god for favor.

What do you think about this idea? I’m aware of several flaws in it and I have my own doubts about its feasibility; I want to see if you have similar concerns and can offer suggestions to make this idea more robust.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Name Game

Here’s a quick post about a pet peeve of mine: poorly-named mechanics, abilities, stats, and anything else you can name.

If you’re going to name a mechanic that already has been implemented, stick to a name that we understand and know. If you are going to change the metaphor, make sure it makes sense all the way through and isn’t just a meaningless reskinning. Players don’t like having to mentally remap terms in a new game to the ones they know already from an old one. It’s also pretentious to insist on your own names for things that have well-established names already.

And if, for a different mechanic, you are using the same name as something that is popular in other games in your genre, be sure to make it clear to players that you are using it in a different sense or for a different purpose! Don’t let players get frustrated because they didn’t know that you meant something different than “how fast my character moves around the game world” when you say “speed”.

It annoys me when games insist on using odd names for skill groups. These names should tell me what the theme of the group is. “High Magic” doesn’t tell me much—that could be anything above a cantrip. “Master of Elemental Magic” makes more sense. Sometimes it’s understandable that a greek game company isn’t particularly skilled with English, so they can’t tie their mechanics’ names to the appropriate pre-existing ones, but if you have enough money to internationally release a full-features MMO, you should have the localization personnel on staff to translate names well.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when naming game bits. Flavorful naming is OK when used in moderation, but there’s no need to annoy your players by changing what everything is called. It’s an annoying attempt to pass off the same old stuff as something new. Even worse, it can lead to confusion among players and a steeper learning curve.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vertical Progression: the Proliferation of Big Numbers

One thing is guaranteed when you play MMOs: You’ll start by seeing small numbers and end by seeing big ones. This is “growth” and “progress” for your character. We can grasp progress easily when it’s presented in the vocabulary of gradually increasing numbers. Ten damage is worse than 10,000. No one can contest that.

What is important to the game, though, is not that the numbers grow, but that there is a seeming disparity in power levels between characters (hence the term “level”). This disparity has to be significant between characters of different explicit levels to encourage people to continue playing so that they too can become so powerful.

How easily we forget that power is relative in MMORPGs. It’s not how many levels you have under your belt, but how well you can take advantage of those levels to make your character more powerful than the other ones of your level. You care about this because you are best rewarded for fighting battles where you are of lower or equal level with your opponent. This is especially the case in the ever-rapidly-approaching endgames of theme-park MMOs where level becomes irrelevant when you reach the meat of the game, the endgame.

My enjoyment is not sourced at seeing a character level up. I’ve seen that happen thousands of times in my life. I’ve built Dungeons and Dragons characters from scratch and planned their progression before. I’ve played characters that have gone from tavern brawler to god. The little carrot presented by leveling has lost its meaning. Now all I see are the mechanics before me: what abilities I need to unlock and what gear I’ll need to obtain so that I can execute whatever plan I have for my character.

In a game where there is no real story to go along with the long vertical climb of character progression, I lose interest as soon as the mechanics relevant to my class wear thin. There’s little to substantiate the long grinds I’ll have to endure in order to hit max level. The treadmill-like nature of this action becomes starkly apparent when I notice that the relative challenge of the game never really increases. The stakes never get higher. The rewards don’t get more meaningful. I’m running in place. That discourages me and gets me into a funk that leads to hitting the cancel button.

Players don’t need to waste their time running in place for 50 levels before hitting the real meat of the game. The players that MMOs make the most money off of spend much more time at max level than they do leveling. In World of Warcraft, leveling to max level doesn’t take more than a couple of months (or less) of serious play. I’ve known people who have played the game for five years. They’ve spent maybe three months leveling and at least twelve-fold more time in the endgame with their main.

After all this vitriol, you may be surprised that I do not wish to turn character advancement from a pyramid into a broad, flat plane lying orthogonal to the axis of power. There needs to be some vertical difference between characters with different specializations in order to allow players to mix and match abilities. If we have an on-off switch for each kind of ability in the game that indicates if the player is able to do that kind of ability, but there is only one “level” of each ability, there is no middle-ground where characters can have back-up abilities that they use if their mainstays aren’t useful. It doesn’t make sense to have abilities be “best” or “non-existent”. There needs to be some vertical, though it should not dwarf the horizontal.

I suggest between three and five tiers of power for important abilities. This limits vertical advancement enough that it is not a terrible grind, while allowing some differentiation between characters that want to do similar things but specialize in different places. To make this vertical advancement less grindy, I suggest severely reducing the maximum level attainable or removing levels from the game and allowing players to allocate XP to buy individual skills they want their character to have. Skills would naturally be in some kind of tree structure, but ability gain would only be gated by experience gained, not by level and some other limited resource (like talent points in WoW).

Naturally, in a less vertical system you will need to have caps on total experience points allowed for a character to have spent at one time. There are ways to make experience points above this cap meaningful. For example, once a character achieves max XP and spent it all on abilities, further XP could unlock below-cap XP to be respecced at will (preferably only out of combat). Let’s say the cap is 10,000 XP. Once a character reaches 10,000 XP, he starts gaining XP in a “respec pool”. The player can deallocate XP from abilities up to his respec pool amount and reassign them as he likes. As the character continues to accrue XP, each point of XP may no longer increase the respec pool by one point. Diminishing returns or a cap on respec pool gain can stop players from constantly shifting their characters to different FOTM builds. Or, if you want, you can allow all characters who have advanced this far to respec whenever they want. This would certainly make Mot happy.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Balancing with Tiers

Melf_Himself and I have been having a discussion in the comments of one of my DotA MMO entries.
I've not played DotA, but it's a bad idea to include a large percentage of classes that would never be chosen by competitive players. 10% is a very low number and is much lower than what you'll see in well balanced fighting games. It really makes things hard for new players, making the amount of information they have to possess before they can start playing the actual game a lot higher. Ideally any choice that you make before a match starts should not affect the likelihood that you will win the match, only how much fun you will have.

I'm not sure what you mean by "painstakingly difficult to balance because there are so few". The more classes there are, the harder it is to balance them all.

I draw a lot of my design and game-playing principles from David Sirlin. Not only his Playing to Win articles, but also his Multiplayer Game sections.

DotA has over 90 heroes. I would say about 20 (22%) of them are viable for competitive play. My favorite fighting game of all time is Naruto GNT 4 and only 9 out of 25 (36%) characters are viable competitively. A more Western SSB:Melee has 5 characters out of 26 (19%) at the top tier.

DotA isn't a very newbie friendly game, partially because of the reason you described with tiered heroes. That doesn't mean DotA isn't fun or isn't competitive--quite the contrary.

If DotA had fewer heroes, say 10, then all of them need to be viable. That is much more difficult than making 50 heroes and letting the players figure out which ones are the best. The designer obviously needs to make sure that none are dominant and none are dominated, and over time he can try to pull their differences in power closer together. But with "tiered-balancing" the success of the game isn't dependent on the viability of every character.

You are quite right when you say that choices made before the match shouldn't affect your chances to win, which is why MMOs are very difficult to balance. Every class needs to be viable because players have invested resources into the character and are locked in to that choice. Compare this to DotA or a fighting game where players can see what character their opponent (or team) has chosen and react appropriately. I love drafting in DotA and MTG for this very reason. There is a game that takes place before the game starts.

Many moons ago when Blizzard announced that switching gear in Arena was going to be disallowed, I was heartbroken. I have never played Arena, but here was a counter to team composition, and they completely removed it! They had valid reasons for doing that, but it removed an entire level of depth to Arena PvP. Players were not locked into their stat choices and could react appropriately to the opposition.

So for the DotA MMO, we can have hundreds of abilities and scores of ability groups. Allow the player to react to his opposition (either through the meta-game or with a pre-match draft system). Abilities and builds will fall into tiers (WoW talent builds are tiered, by the way). As long as no one combination is dominant, and players have counters to abilities, builds, and team compositions, then the game will be fun and competitive.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Role of Chance

“Cutting down the role of chance” is one of the more overlooked of my 10 Points for the MMORPG Revolution, so I will tackle it first.

The first step towards cutting down the role of chance is to understand the role of chance. Randomness is a root preconception that players have in MMORPGs, and, to seasoned RPG players, it seems absolutely necessary. In actuality, this assumption need not hold. In this post, I will review the roles of chance and why we want to reduce its role in upcoming MMORPGs. In a later post I will offer suggestions as to how to cut down the role of chance in specific instances of each of these roles.

(As a thought experiment, I encourage you to think about how you’d design an MMORPG that does not use a random number generator. We’ll see if our ideas match up when I get to the second part of this discussion later on.)

Here are the three roles chance plays in MMORPGs. (If you can think of more, please comment! I want to make this article as complete as possible without getting overly concrete and nitpicky.)

Random Numbers Simulate Character Ability

In role playing games of all kinds, random numbers are used to determine the outcome of events because they can resolve actions independently of player skill. If a character needs to roll a 15 or more on a 20-sided die to successfully perform an action, that character has less skill than the character who can roll a 10 or more and succeed. No level of player planning can overcome his characters limitations without some luck—this is appropriate, because ability gating and character growth are important, fundamental parts of RPGs.

Random Numbers Model Unforeseen Factors

Random numbers model the effects of actions that are outside of our scope of observation. In real life, we notice events that seem to occur randomly, but this is just a symptom of our subjective viewpoint. Because we don’t see the causes of certain events, we assume that they’re random. Under further analysis, we find that human-level events have complex cause-and-effect relationships that, if followed prior to the “random” event, make the event an obvious effect. As individuals, we can perceive so few of these strands of cause-and-effect that it is impossible to get our heads around most of the complex activities that we are subject to in a given day. Hence, the idea of "randomness" or "chance" in human-level interactions and one of the roles that chance plays in RPG systems.

Random Numbers Provide Variety

Random Numbers are used in generating loot and monster spawns and can be used for determining the behavior of enemies (if there are multiple equally viable AI strategies). This randomness provides variety in the game world and is partially responsible for how addictive loot-heavy games are, Diablo II especially.

Entire dungeons can be generated on the fly using random numbers. Diablo II did this, but there are more interesting procedurally generated maps in roguelike games. Much replayability in roguelikes is due to the ever-different dungeons and maps that present the play with a seemingly endless number of interesting tactical situations and fiendishly difficult dungeon levels.

There’s a lot of work done in procedurally generated content, as well. Most of this stuff is rather technical, but goes to show that there are a lot of people working on effective ways to use random numbers to generate content in games.

Motivation For Reducing the Role of Chance

Why do we want to get rid of as many random number-determined actions as possible? With few exceptions this mechanic has been the core of RPGs for as long as RPGs have existed.

If we want to give the player the ability to change the world and affect other characters in meaningful ways, we need to make decision-making the central process. We need to allow decision-making to determine the outcome of events, not chance. If we provide the player with appropriate information about the decision they are going to make, there’s no reason to build into the game a chance of that decision failing outright due to a bad die roll (something that’s completely out of any player’s hands). I’m not suggesting that we remove failure from MMOs, but instead that we remove unavoidable failure from individual player’s actions.

In a system that allows player success to the best decision-makers, players can easily see what they have done wrong and accept their losses as lessons for the future. If the dice screw you, you’re going to be upset at the game—nothing is learned. If you plan poorly or make a bad decision, you can identify that without the obscuring power of dice rolls and make intelligent decisions using that input in the future, leading to player skill and player learning being the most important facets of the game, not time invested and luck.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Horizontal Progression and Hybridization

Horizontal and vertical progression seems to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I caught wind of Word of Shadow's definition and was going to write a comment. But looking around the Internet, it felt as if I needed more explanation for my thoughts. Personally I was focusing my definition too narrowly, but I have my reasons, as I will explain. I wasn't thinking about it from a high level point of view, but let's start there.

In the broadest sense, if combat were the only viable path to end-game, then the system would be vertical. Being forced into leveling and combat feels confining for some people, and they'd prefer a "horizontal system". I really don't know what that means. I've seen definitions ranging from a player-skill only system to a system in which there are multiple progression paths to end-game--combat isn't the only means to the ends.

To me, horizontal progression is more of a hybridization technique. If you have a player-skill system, players are still going to min-max implicitly and pick a role. If you have multiple paths to the end game, you are still going to pick one and vertically climb the ladder. A horizontal system means that as you progress, whether through leveling and talents or through some other means, you gain skill equally across all roles.

I was originally thinking of horizontal progression in a very specific realm of play--namely combat. The reason for this is that if you have more horizontally progressed characters, you have more true hybrids. Having the same character being able to fill multiple roles more easily facilitates grouping. If every class is not only a damage dealer, but also a healer or a tank, and they progress horizontally preserving their hybridization, then you don't have to wait around for hours looking for a tank and a healer. You are at worst looking for a single role, which half of the players online can fulfill.

Perhaps an example is necessary. Let's take a look at WoW's Druid. This is supposedly a hybrid class. If you ask your feral Druid friend to shift out of Bear form and heal for this dungeon run, he will laugh at you. "I thought you were a hybrid," you retort. "I'd have to respec," responds your friend. Where is the hybridization? It was lost in the vertical progression scheme of the talent trees. WoW Druids aren't hybrids; very few classes in WoW are hybrids.

Vertical progression is much easier to design than horizontal progression. Make a tanking tree, a healing tree, and a damage tree; done. We're going to switch gears from Druid to Death Knight because Druids are too far gone to be salvaged. Death Knights are "tank and damage dealing hybrids" yet they need to spec for 1 and only 1 role. Their talent trees are labeled Blood, Frost, and Unholy. From a tanking perspective, Blood gives more health and healing powers, Frost gives more armor, and Unholy helps to reduce burst damage.

There are talents in these 3 trees which are specifically for either tanking or for doing damage, but very few for both. If we treat Blood, Frost, and Unholy as different flavors or play styles of the same class, we have an easier time thinking about horizontal progression. Blood will have a vampiric and sacrificial feel about it. Frost will concern itself with slowing and nuke capabilities. And Unholy will deal with damage over time and other debuffs. Thus, as a player spends talent points in the tree (and play style) he chooses, he will gain power equally in both tanking and damage capabilities. He will be unable to min-max into a role.

Now all Death Knight characters, regardless of what specialization the player chooses, will be a tank and damage dealing hybrid. If your group needs a tank, invite a DK and ask him to tank. The player must rely solely on his player-ability to tank, not his gear nor spec. He has progressed his character explicitly down a horizontal path of his choosing and is not gimped in any way because of it.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cyanide’s Blood Bowl: A Two-Faced Monster

I’ve been playing Blood Bowl--the PC game made by Cyanide--recently. There’s a lot to be learned from both the base Blood Bowl tabletop game and Cyanide’s implementation, so I’m going to make a series of posts discussing both the Cyanide implementation and the tabletop game. This post is an introduction to the game itself (I’ll try to let you know as much as is necessary to read my review of Cyanide’s implementation) as well as a brief review of Cyanide’s PC game.

If you want to skip the intro and the specific issues I have with Cyanide's game, you can move on down to the summary and my rating at the end of this article.

A 1,000-foot view of Blood Bowl (The Tabletop Game)

Cyanide’s game of the same name is a rather faithful adaptation of the tabletop game Blood Bowl. In Blood Bowl, you control a team of fantasy characters, each team being confined to one race (standard fare like Elves, Dwarves, and Humans as well as some Warhammer races like Skaven and Chaos), as they play through single games or seasons of a sport that is vaguely similar to American Football. The sport of Blood Bowl has a small number of rules, you’re only forbidden from stomping on players when they’re down, and the ref doesn’t even eject players reliably for doing this—or the ref may be bribed by either side to look the other way when players on that side do something untoward. Players alse have to stay on the field because if they stray beyond those confines the fans will beat them to near-death, putting them out of commission for as long as a couple games or perhaps even killing them.

Blood Bowl is a turn-based game. Teams alternate taking turns, but turns can end abruptly when certain unfortunately events happen, like when a player fails to pick up the ball, fails to complete an attempted pass, or tries to block an opponent only to get knocked down himself. Players move around the field on a square grid. Only one player can be on a given square at once. Players can perform a few basic actions: move a number of squares up to their movement allowance, pick up the ball, throw the ball (and have someone else catch it on either team), block an opponent, or foul a prone opponent. These actions are resolved by comparing the attributes of the players involved to see what chances of success the action has and rolling dice to see if the action is successful. The game uses two types of six-sided dice, a standard pair of dice you’re familiar with and special “block” dice that have faces representing the different outcomes possible when a block action resolves.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually quite simple for a tabletop game. It takes only 15 pages of standard-sized paper for the current rulebook to relate the rules of the tabletop game (the core rules—there are more rules and information after the core rules are enumerated, but you don’t strictly need to read them in order to play), and that is including numerous illustrations, sidebards, bits of world trivia, and examples of play. Compare this to Dungeons and Dragons, which requires a 200+ page rulebook, most of which you’ll be referencing at some point if you want to play the game with a full group of five players and a dungeon master.

The game’s rules have been through five significant iterations; It’s quite mature. Most of the sides are balanced, though some of the sides are designed to be more difficult to win with than others. The strategic depth of the game has impressed me. I’ve read through the current iteration of the rulebook and found myself excited to play the game. I’ll go deeper into the game mechanics as I analyze them in future articles.

The part that Cyanide had no real part in—the tabletop rules—are awesome. These rules are the good face of the game. The other face is everything Cyanide has put around the game to adapt it to the PC.

The Uglier of the Two Faces

Cyanide has implemented the rules as they are written with a few exceptions. The game seems to flow as the tabletop game would. This is great, because the years of players banging on the rules and repeated revision has produced a great, fun-to-play set of rules.

Once you get beyond the rules, things get worse.


The 3D graphics are a little bit behind the times, but not terrible. They look good when they are relatively static. Animations are passable. You will watch these animations hundreds of times, though. There are not multiple animations for frequently performed game actions, so they get boring quickly. As I played more of the game, I began to see the graphics as getting in the way of my experience. I wanted to be able to easily differentiate player types and I couldn’t do that relying solely on the graphics. Some characters looked very distinct, while among others it was hard to tell without staring for a couple seconds or longer.

The game features “instant replays” of important plays. This is moronic because you see the one player either bashing another to the ground or running into the endzone the same way you’ve seen them do those things a hundred times before, but from a different camera angle which makes the graphics and animations no less boring.

Summary: The graphics are passable as graphics, but are not as useful as well-illustrated 2D tokens would have been.

Interface and Presentation

The interface is passable. The graphics on the menus are flavorful and well-done, but the text is often poorly localized to English, which can lead to confusion. The campaign screen that allows you to negotiate with sponsors is one of the worst offenders. The interface elements just don’t make sense and there aren’t tooltips or any helpers to assist you in figuring out what the hell the game means by some of the options presented (like a “Rankings” option that allows you to select a number between 1 and 15: It’s completely unclear what it’s supposed to mean).

When you’re in a match, because some characters take up a couple squares from different perspectives it isn’t difficult to mistakenly click on a player instead of the ground behind him. One time I just couldn’t select the ground behind an opposing player, the game made me block the player which failed and caused a costly turn-over.

There’s also a nauseating cinematic camera that swings around ridiculously on your opponents turn to try to “dramatically” show you what’s going on.

The camera pans across the benches of both teams before any kick-off is played. I find this to be a complete waste of time; the game would’ve been much better off if it had simply provided you an interface letting you know that certain players are knocked out or badly injured or in reserve.

Everything Else

Outside of playing individual matches, Cyanide has done a questionable job of implementing the league play that contextualizes the matches. I doubt this works as it should, because there are enormous money imbalances between human and CPU teams. I have 160,000 gold after winning a cup. A human team that finished second in the first cup now has 600,000+ gold. I don’t understand how when I’m frugal I end up with 5x less gold than my opponents. This would be more annoying if the teams actually spend their money wisely, which they do not seem to.

Out of match AI is suspect and doesn’t make sensible decisions with its money, whereas the in-match AI is generally passable except for not understanding urgency when they’re behind or tied late in the game.

Cyanide has not implemented the inducement system correctly, which makes or some whacky team compositions if teams have low overall values. The Inducement system is intended to balance out team values, giving the weaker team at boost in competitiveness so that the lower-value side isn’t always getting creamed. For teams that cannot field a full 11 players, Cyanide has failed to implement “journeyman” basic players that fill out the roster and are counted towards team value before inducement money is handed out. This leads to situations where a team will be able to buy star players and a lot more bonuses than they otherwise should have. Perhaps this is to artificially make the game harder for the human player, but I don’t really see the purpose of making a balancing mechanic unbalanced in the opposite direction. It comes off as being hacky at best. I’d be surprised if this slip-up was intentional.

This game has loading periods that are over a minute in length! This only happens when you go into the match engine. Still, this is pretty much inexcusable for a modern game. Crysis can load in less than a minute on my old system, why can’t a game with comparatively little in the way of graphics load within a few seconds? It’s not like this is a Playstation One game.

Sound? Well, after one match I was thoroughly sick of hearing the sound in this game and a turned it off. There is some commentary voice-over while the game happens, but it gets repetitive fast. I don’t think sound is worth noting in this game. It has no effect on my judgment of the game.


After 10 hours of playing this game, I feel like the tabletop rules are the strongest part. The implementation of them at the match level is good enough to be very fun and rewarding. Unfortunately, just about everything that Cyanide did themselves outside of match play is either half-assed, poorly implemented, incorrectly implemented, hard to use, or just plain annoying.

I give the Blood Bowl rules a solid 8.8 out of 10.

I give Cyanide’s contribution 5.9 out of 10. They are above a 5 only because they implemented the match play very close to the tabletop rules.

Overall, Cyanide’s Blood Bowl gets a 7.5 out of 10.

(Ratings: Below 5 is not worth even thinking about playing. Around 6 is where the game is good enough for hardcore fans to eke out some enjoyment. 7 is average. 8 is worth playing, perhaps justifying a purchase. 9 is a very enjoyable game that has a few minor flaws but should be experienced and probably has at least 50 hours of game play. 10 is practically unreachable, it’s reserved for masterpiece games that can stand hundreds of hours of play without enjoyment fading noticeably.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Everyone, the Mountain Movers

The problem with MMORPGs is that everyone wants to be the hero impacting the world. It's not too fun if you're just a cog in the machine, told of the glorious deeds of others. You'd rather be the one to swoop in and save the princess, or defeat the invaders, or thwart the plan to conquer the galaxy.

How does a game designer make sure everyone has their moment in the spotlight? How does he make every single player important enough so that they not only enjoy themselves, but also throw money at him? This is pretty easy to do with theme-park MMOs; just build the raid roller coasters. Unfortunately, the world ends up being pretty static as a result. Every update cycle, the players might get a new ride, but they are powerless in influencing the course of events in the world.

How does a game designer make sure players can change the world? They create the tools necessary for players to fight each other for land and resources. One guild becomes the invaders, one becomes the evil empire, and another, the good guys. Unfortunately, only a handful of players are at the helm. The average player isn't the one to save the world; he's just a peon in the plan. The world might change, but the player himself did very little to make it happen.

Designers (and critics) have traditionally seen the player-hero and dynamic-world characteristics as trade offs--as being mutually exclusive. Games are either hero-centric (theme-parks) while giving up world dynamics, or they are dynamic (sandboxes) while giving up hero-centricity. What if this was a false dichotomy, and we can actually have both? Everyone is the hero (or villain) saving (or destroying) the world. A goal should be to make one player the center figure in a story told by another player.

You start by encouraging players to make factions/guilds. The more guilds there are, the fewer players are in any one of them, the more responsibility each player has within that guild. They should also be extremely easy to create. Any group of players from anywhere at anytime should be able to found a guild. No purchase necessary.

Whatever sort of combat is in the game, it needs to be small scale (or to encourage small scale if it's mostly open-world combat), so that each player contributes more and can more easily "save the day". If players die, they should be able to spectate the rest of the battle.

There needs to be NPCs, all of which are completely Common. There can be no desirable attribute about any NPC. No Emperor. No Robin Hood. They are all peasants who need the adventuring players to save them. All of whom grovel at any player who walks by. Whether or not these players actually did any worthy deeds, they are still heroes in the eyes of the NPCs. This illusion is paramount. There should be no "prove yourself to me, private!" or "go talk to the General; he has orders for you".

If guilds can acquire land, then the map of the world should show everyone which land is owned by which guilds. Guilds should be able to designate how their architecture looks in style and color. They should be able to change environmental effects on the lands they hold. E.g. lighting color, weather effects, musical ambiance. Guilds should not only have a political influence on the world, but they should also have a visual influence.

Allow market monopolies. Sure they might be detrimental to the economy, but if players can only get their Zoonie-wigs from Xxpinkponyxx, then that player has become much more prominent in the game. (And if Xxpinkponyxx is charging and arm 'n a leg, perhaps she might get pushed around a bit...) Regional resources are an easy way to accomplish this.

You can give a little guidance to guilds. Perhaps send the guild leader a mission objective once every 3 months. In it, have dynamically generated quests which look similar to Risk's mission system. Make guild SuperMen conquer some land owned by guild Umbrella. Require a guild to get 3 other guilds to declare war against a land-holding guild. Ask a guild to own x square miles in land or a certain region. Amass a certain number of members or resources. Once the guild completes the mission, prominently display the guild and some featured members (those who contributed the most to the mission) where everyone in the game can see. Make those lowly peasants talk about the players and guilds.

These are some very abstracted ideas, and implementation details will vary. Give players the tools to influence the world and some place where they can show off. But make sure there are small pockets of communities. A hero doesn't have to be the one to throw the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom or the one to free everyone from the Matrix. He just has to be the one people tell stories about.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pay-to-Play becomes Pay-to-be-Disappointed

The goal of this blog is not to discuss the business of MMORPGs, but I think it’s important that we discuss the effect of the pay-to-play model on player expectations.

When you pay every month to play a game, you’re doing two things:
  1. You’re validating the enormous amount of time you spend playing the game by “making the game worth the money”.

  2. You’re investing money in the game that you cannot get back. This sum of money only grows.

As long as I pay the monthly fee, I want my money’s worth. As long as I get my money’s worth, I’ll pay the monthly fee. This is an endless cycle! And, in the current forms MMOs are manifest, the cycle is bound to be broken. At some point, the game is no longer going to be worth the money. Everyone gets bored of a game eventually—some people become bored of whole genres of games. But when you regularly pay for a game, at some point you are going to suffer the disappointment of having wasted your money. That experience leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. The taste is made more bitter by the perhaps hundreds of dollars you’ve invested in the game already and how that all has amounted to this disappointment with the game. It’s a completely natural and reasonable process for the player to go through.

In MMOs, You quit a game because you either no longer have the time to play it or because you no longer think it’s worth playing. The result: all former players are either too busy to care any more (or have moved on quietly) or they are bitter or otherwise unhappy. An unhappy former-player is bound to spread his unhappiness to others. Negative word-of-mouth certainly damages games that don’t have multi-million dollar ad budgets; negative word-of-mouth is necessitated by the current business model.

When you pay to play MMOs, you may enjoy them now and continue to enjoy them for years, but you will ultimately leave disappointed. Perhaps Guild Wars’ success can be attributed in part to not generating a wake of disappointed and bitter players. I don’t know if free-to-play games solve this issue, but I do know that it should be addressed if we want the market for MMOs to keep growing and not be eventually subverted by an ever-growing bitter and aggravated populace of former-players.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The MMORPG Revolution (The 10 Points)

I think Syncaine’s got it right in his recent post. MMOs suck as games. As I’ve pointed out before, their mechanics don’t work together with their stories to produce a complete, self-sustaining package. The mechanics lead to the most efficient styles of gameplay being tedious time sinks. Social pressure can keep people playing MMOs for only so long before they completely burn out on the barely-sufficient mechanics and leave. Even the alternatives to theme-park MMOs are weak because they still require from the player a lot of tedious, boring work.

I don’t think these obstacles can be surmounted by evolution—we need revolution. We need games to try whole new styles of immersion, character advancement, combat, crafting, harvesting, and just about everything else.

Below I present you my 10 points for the re-envisaging of MMORPG. I will spend more time going over each of these points and suggesting ways to implement them. A few games have accomplished one or two of these, but I’ve yet to see a game include more than half of them.

The Ten Points:
  1. Severely limit vertical character progression. A character should not be inherently more powerful the longer he spends playing the game. A character should be more powerful if the player plans its ability use better or plays the game better.

  2. Focus on horizontal character progression. More abilities that are of relatively equal power become available as characters progress.

  3. Foster non-combat professions and give players meaningful content that doesn’t involve fighting.

  4. Do not force players into PvP. But reward players for doing it—if it’s a higher risk activity, it should be more rewarding.

  5. Death needs to have meaning. The obsession with single-character play has to end. It yields too much investment in one character which leads to severe risk aversion.

  6. Cut down on the role of chance. We can create sophisticated, innovative, strategically deep combat mechanics, we don’t have to rely on random number generators to provide spice in MMORPGs.

  7. When a player is in-game, he should be doing something meaningful. Gameplay has to have effects, even if they are small, on both other characters and the player’s character. These effects build a story and a living world which reward intelligent action and planning.

  8. Let the players make the story. The world can have a rich history that rewards thorough reading, but the present needs to be in control of the players. They need to have the power to make game-level stories happen and to record them in a way that is publicly viewable.

  9. Encourage community-building behavior. Reward players for being in groups, guilds, and factions. Give groups experience bonuses, better item drops, and other perks for participating in the social part of the game. If a game encourages socialization, it more quickly engenders social responsibility in its players—this binds players and keeps them playing the game.

  10. Focus on the player’s in-game experience. If you give the player a rich world, rewarding actions to undertake, and well-constructed game mechanics, your game can still fail. It’s crucial that you present the game to the player with the utmost care. The game has to allow the player to plan and make intelligent decisions: the player must be presented with appropriate information, well laid-out and easy to read and understand.