Monday, September 13, 2010

A Look at FFXIV

I've spent some time with FF14 in its open beta over the last week. The game is very reminiscent of FFXI in that it isn't going to hold your hand through anything, and I am perfectly OK with that if that is type of game SE is pitching. But they are hyping this casual-friendly, non-punishing, happy-go-lucky MMORPG where everyone gets their nose wiped and bad times are a thing of the past. Whoever approaches FF14 with that predisposition is going to experience something completely disjoint from their expectations.

UI and Controls

The most significant and show-stopping issues with the game deal with the interface and controls. It is as if they pinned up a keyboard sketch and bound functions to whatever keys the dart happened to land on. As of this writing, there is no way to officially remap keys. The controls were so obstructive that my first few sessions were only 10 minutes long, and I had to log off in frustration.

In FFXI I could play without the mouse because I used the numpad for movement, menus, targeting, and confirming actions; the arrow keys for camera and item selection; and used my left hand to perform skills with alt/ctrl+#. SE decided to keep the familiar numpad binds, but not the arrow key camera controls. So I need to use IJKL or the mouse to control the camera. A WASD/mouse scheme would work well except that the mouse is rendered on a software layer and thus is unresponsive to the point of unusability. I've been getting by with using a full keyboard setup: movement with numpad, camera with IJKL when I need to.

Some of the FFXI slash commands are in FF14 except for their shorthand aliases. E.g. instead of /cm p to change default chat to party, I must type out /chatmode party. I did not discover a PM reply shortkey or slash command; only after I type out the character name in a /tell does ctrl+r auto-populate a reply for me. These are just minor annoyances.


The basic resource in combat is Stamina which operates exactly like WoW's Rogue Energy mechanic or Global Agenda's combat: each ability depletes some amount of Stamina, but Stamina refills fairly quickly. There is no auto-attack. Prior to realizing that I had another skill at my disposal, I was simply hitting '1' over and over again, and cried with boredom, "This is it?"

With the aid of my friend (and the audience around the Aetheryte Crystal I pissed off by bitching about the game in spacial chat), I found out that jobs get new skillz every even level. And in fact once a player completes the intro scene (and subsequently hits Lv.2), they should have at least 2 skills. This makes combat slightly more interesting (although as a Gladiator, my Lv.2 skill requires MP; and MP doesn't refill unless you return to the Crystal...).

Explaining to players that they have new skills and how to find/equip them are obviously not priorities at SE. I leveled several jobs to around Rank 4 before I even realized that I acquired new abilities. In the Abilities menu, there should be a drop down box on the right. It defaults to nothing (which is completely moronic); if you select a weapon from the list, then equippable skills will be shown.

Where to find abilities in FFXIV's GUI

Upon hitting Lv.6 I got a skill that required only Stamina and TP, so this actually did add choice during fighting. The skill was also AOE, and since we were duoing mobs without a problem I started to engage and pull them near each other in order to make things go a bit quicker.

My two-player party was out in the field just killing mobs without any real guidance. Guild Leves (AKA quests) will not fill up a complete play session unless that session is very short. Expect to kill mobs without a quest prompt telling you to do so.

I'm not entirely sure how the mob relative strength gauging works. We were primarily killing blue-con mobs, but we tried to fight a blue monkey once and got killed quickly. Also, like its predecessor, FF14 doesn't indicate what mobs aggro (and perhaps how they aggro).

The first time I died, my body lay on the ground for 5 minutes while I awaited a GUI popup with some options. None such message was displayed, and I eventually found a "Return" option in the main menu. This teleported me back to the Aetheryte Crystal.

I found the death penalty to be contradictory. Returning to the Crystal waypoint debuffs the character with "Weakness". This status effect reduces its HP, MP, and Stamina regeneration rate. So the player is pretty much just waiting around for this to wear off before setting out again. For an MMORPG that is supposed to be catering to the casual crowd I find this mechanic to be defective. Displacing the player is already a loss of time; why make them wait around even further?


I didn't experience all the Disciplines of the Land (AKA Gathering jobs) first-hand, but I am willing to bet they all operate the same way.

Gathering professions can equip some skills that help players find resource nodes, giving distance in "yalms" and a compass direction. One ability even provides a sprint buff if the player is far away from the closest node.

Nodes aren't "claimed" as they are in WoW. Anyone nearby or late to the show can walk up and start gathering from the same node. Each player get a personalized Attempt count. Once a player runs out of Attempts, she's gotta move on. The node itself seems to have a global Attempt counter and will deplete eventually if enough people gather from it.

The act of gathering is a simple pattern matching hot-cold guessing game. Players get 3 or 4 guesses along a meter. An indicator moves back and forth along the meter and hitting Confirm places the guess. The game responds with text clues indicating if the guess is way off, going in the wrong direction, close, or very close. If a very close message is presented, guessing the same location again seems to still produce an item. It is possible to guess correctly on the first try.

This gets old fast.

Before the minigame starts, the gatherer indicate "where" they would like to gather. It is a height meter indicating, for example, the depth at which you want to fish. I have a hunch that it skews the probabilities of receiving certain items. I seem to find Copper Ore near the top of the meter, while I often strike Tin when mining near the bottom.

Synthesis in FF14 is very similar to that in FFXI, except there are some additional options. The familiar 8-cell grid for materials is present, and players still have to discover recipes.

The UI is extremely slow; a single synth took 5 mins. The game even froze for 2 seconds (looked like blocking network i/o to me) each time the materials grid was displayed.

I have a feeling all the crafting professions are very tightly coupled. So players are expected either to level multiple Disciple of the Hand jobs (lol), or to pay out the nose for refined materials. And with no Auction House, things might get a bit frustrating. I didn't get past rank 1 Armorer and cannot fathom how someone could level a Crafter primarily.


When information was first breaking about some of the systems in FF14, I feared it would fall flat on its face. But now I see that it does carry on the FFXI legacy, and all those players will enjoy it very much.

However, I don't understand how seasoned and AAA game developers can completely neglect UI and controls. A game is its interface. A sluggish or cumbersome UI just makes the game unplayable, and FF14's UI will delay my purchase until it is remedied. (I am told that the game plays like a dream with a controller, but when a PC title launches 6 months before its console version, the PC controls better be just as intuitive.)

I'm willing to bet that the instruction manual goes through a lot of the basics (like how to equip skills and to accept defeat). It would be nice to have in-game guidance, especially in a post-WoW MMORPG--pop-ups, tutorials, some form of assistance on how to use the UI. But once again those are GUI concerns, and that department doesn't seem to exist at SE.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Vision and Direction

Players are bad at far-mode game design decision-making. People, in general, are bad at far-mode thinking. People live in the here and now, and they don't want to think too much. They may know that they aren't happy, but they can only take almost-random guesses at why. Most people do not care enough to figure out what is wrong. They just know something is wrong and someone should make it better. When they try to articulate what is wrong, they run into a twofold problem: first, they actually do not know what is wrong; and second, they couldn't communicate well enough to convey the problem effectively if they knew the problem.

Would you blame people for not thinking? Thinking gets you into a situation like mine: I'm at a point where I feel like game design is borderline a hopeless endeavor and that we are doing no more than flailing around in semantic mud by talking about it as if we know anything. If I didn't think about games, I wouldn't be here. I could enjoy whatever I happen to enjoy, write love notes on the forums, and leave the blogging to more qualified meddling mages than myself.

People who are smart, thoughtful, and good at reasoning have trouble deciding what is wrong with complex interconnected systems like games. Taste can wash out reasoning about games easily, leaving a designer feeling like there is no anchoring point for making decisions. Without a logical framework from which to make decisions, a game designer would be no better than some guy off the street. You can only get so far by thinking really hard about fun--or even just thinking really hard about what you, in particular, find fun.

People tend to reason through emotion, not through logic--and I am also guilty of this, as is everyone made of biological matter that I've ever talked with. This means that we'll prefer that game mechanics and interfaces work a certain way, and this preference will have no backing in logic. We'll dig for reasons, but in the end the reasons aren't the source of our preference, they're just an attempt at post-hoc justification. Whatever mechanic or interface will simply feel right to us. It's hard to have valuable discussion about such matters, but we desperately try.

The odds are stacked against meaningful and useful discussion. When a designer sets out to create a system and tune it, he's set adrift in a rolling sea where waves of subjectivity splash incessantly at every odd angle and nothing remains as it was for long enough to be appraised and understood. In this environment, designers are left reaching desperately for some kind of raft, some surface that remains stable in the roiling undulations.

What can a designer do to make something of this intractable situation?

One possible solution is to rely on other people to validate the big picture. Unfortunately, other people just won't get what you're trying to do. If you don't have some kind of idea of why you're making a game, then don't make a game. If you do have such an idea, the advice of arbitrary other people will uniformly be useless if not damaging. Asking the right people for advice, though, can greatly help, provided they understand your vision (not a safe assumption under the best of conditions).

The solution isn't to drift aimlessly in the eddies of popular opinion, clearly, because there is no direction there.

Direction comes from establishing some theory and then trying to test it. To make a great game, you need a (mostly) unified and consistent vision of the boundaries of the game systems and some relatively particular idea of what you're trying to accomplish. Some players can help on small matters, like fine-tuning and balancing within existing frameworks (though players' feedback will almost always be garbage), but when designing the basic concepts of how a game will work, there's no substitute for vision.

Even if parts of the game fail, a designer with vision has something to fall back on: they can ammend their theory to account for the failure, or simply come to the realization that a core idea just does not work and move on. Following popular opinion, the designer will simply get lost and have to thrash about if something larger fails because he has no framework within which to make a profound, solid judgment of what has actually happened. "My source was wrong," is all he can say, "and now we need to come up with something else to try." At this point, you might as well be designing your game by adding random features and sticking them together as quickly and easily as possible.

Even a "follow the leader" mentality fails without vision. You can't choose the right mechanics to copy if you don't have a reasoned way to pick mechanics. Picking at random will only get you so far in game design because games are not collections of independently operating mechanics and their metaphors, but are instead systems of highly dependent systems of mechanics whose results are often greater than the sum of their parts.

Without vision, the chances of success greatly decline, the value of success declines (because you chose at random and cannot reproduce success through reapplying reasoning), and the value of failures is almost nothing (because the only alternative to choosing certain random elements is to choose certain other random elements). So when someone asks me why a dev isn't doing what the players want, I respond "maybe they know what they are doing". And if the devs are thrashing about and demonstrating there's no vision guiding them, I know it's time to abandon ship.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Woeful Post of Doom: "Selling Out" Edition

MMORPGs are games that should require and thrive on a large number of concurrent players. In order to keep players logged in, the game needs to go one of two routes: Massive numbers that ensure that the servers seem busy even if everyone plays only 15 minutes a day; or requiring existing hardcore players to play the game for long stretches in order to the get the kind of rewards that hardcore gamers love.

Clearly the casual market is the easiest market into which to grow an MMORPG playerbase. Being casual-friendly is not far from "going mainstream" and "selling out", though. Casuals are generally non-gamers--in order to appeal to them, game designers need to assume less and less knowledge is at the disposal of a new player.

A designer can take two paths here. The hard and "right" path: he can do his best to design the game well by keeping mechanics simple but deep and by designing interfaces that are easy to learn but powerful. The other path--the "easy" one--involves stringing together the cheapest, most addictive proven gameplay mechanics on the market and wrapping them up in an inoffensive and relatable shell, replete with social tie-ins and micro-transaction money sinks.

Casual players will not have developed tastes in gaming. Cheap tricks can keep naive players entertained for a surprisingly long time. The number of naive players is so high that even if a naive player gets bored of a cheap hook within a few days or a month, there are enough naive players around to cycle through the system that there won't be much of an issue making more sales and keeping servers busy.

Regressive design preys on the naive casual gamer. We see this with the retro game resurgence--new generations of players are growing up in a world where their first game experience is in a 3D, multi-ten-million-dollar blockbuster game like Halo, Modern Warfare 2, or Mass Effect; game mechanics ancient, tired, and overdone in the eyes of experienced older gamers are novelties to the younger generation. They will play these games and give a market for the regressive and inferior. Of course some games can do justice to the old ideas, but most--as is the case in almost every arena--such games are crap.

Recycling the same tricks in better wrapping seems to make plenty of money. This is disheartening to me as someone who cares about games and enjoys seeing game design evolve towards radical new directions.

MMORPG design is falling into the same degenerative pattern that players of MMORPGs fall victim to: always taking the path of least resistance at the cost of long-term fun and success. It's worse in MMORPGs than it is in other genres, though, because the cost of putting an MMORPG together and running it dwarf the same kinds of costs for other games. And players have come to expect ridiculous amounts of polish and content from each new MMORPG. Expectations are in the wrong directions and far outreach almost every single development team's capabilities.

Where do we go from here?

To players: I'd suggest leaving the MMORPG scene and finding better games to entertain you. Or just stick to a polished and successful game like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online or enjoy a niche game that suits you like EVE, Darkfall, or A Tale in the Desert. Give games with alternate payment models (not F2P or P2P) a shot--like Guild Wars 2 (are there others?). Don't waste your time and money playing games that seek to exploit you instead of provide you with consistent fun.

To developers: Ditch the approaches where success will cost you upwards of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Make smaller, well-crafted games. Try new things on the cheap. Try different business models: don't fall into the micro-transaction conflict of interests and don't try to charge subscriptions which encourage artificial content extension. Or maybe just give up on MMORPGs all together and try to branch out into a different kind of MMO that may have a better market at the moment.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Immersion and Realism

Realism is one specific path towards immersion. It's neither a necessary condition of immersion, nor is a game's level of realism at all correlated with how immersive an experience it can provide. Realism is nothing more than a game's resemblance to real life. Real life has an open, impossible to fully articulate (as far as we've been able to, anyway) set of rules, while games have their own sets that are generally self-contained, fully-definable, and self-sufficient. When we're immersed in a game world, it's not because it is real, though strong realism can aid in immersion; we become immersed because we buy into the systems and metaphors of the game. This buy-in requires that the systems and metaphors be smooth to our mental touch. Awkward metaphors, obvious technical issues, and broken game systems can open gaps in the closed system and force us out of buy-in. Other activities outside of the game itself can also hinder buy-in, too, like a crying child, feeling ill, a headache, or just being in a bad mood. When immersed, you and the game are communicating smoothly. Any break in that communication or unwillingness on either side to communicate has a significant chance of breaking immersion.

Game design is communicating interesting problems to the player and then giving him the tools to communicate back solutions that the game then somehow tests and gives feedback on. Game mechanics are communicated through metaphors that reference fantastical or conceivably real objects through the simulacra of sprites, models, textures, and sound. The most obvious way to communicate with a player is to use a "language", or set of metaphors, that they already know: such a language is how-the-real-world-generally-works. This is a shortcut to immersion. Of course no game is truly realistic, but we don't mind that because the exceptions to realism in an immersive game are generally mechanically and metaphorically consistent and make the gameplay better. Games that don't aim to be realistic still use the real world as a basis for the metaphors that pull the player into the game. Realism isn't necessary for immersion, but the game does need to provide the player with ways to relate to the game world.

All games have a base level of likeness to the real world. Realism beyond this point has no correlation to the game's ability to provide an immersive experience.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Does Anyone Actually Play an MMORPG

Chris at Game by Night brought to my attention the current WoW raiding scene. I am wondering if this is a winning scenario for Blizzard.

Back before Burning Crusade, before badge gear, raid progression was set in stone. Players went Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, Ahn'Qiraj 40, Naxxramas. Zul'Gurub and AQ20 were mixed in occasionally to get a few odds and ends. If a guild was fresh to the raid scene, they went to ZG and MC.

In Wrath, this insertion point progresses with the aid of badge loot. Naxxramas and Ulduar are obsolete, and subsequently see little action. It seems like the vast majority of fresh raid teams try their hand at ToC (after acquiring their mound of badges).

This is what players wanted. Raiders in 1.x cried foul when Naxxramas was released, claiming that they would never see that content (never mind that they still had parts of BWL and AQ to see). Now the newest raid is but one stepping stone away, but this stepping stone can be pretty mighty for unseasoned raiders (as Chris points out).

I would be very curious to see some numbers comparing these two systems. This is completely speculative, but let's say that the percent of players who "consumed" part or all of raids was something like: 40% MC, 35% BWL, 20% AQ40, 12% Naxx; while with in Wrath: 35% Naxx, 30% Ulduar, 30% ToC, 25% ICC. In terms of content consumed, I think the Wrath system is better. Sure there are some players who are late to the game and won't see Naxx and Ulduar (because they jump right to ToC), but those same players wouldn't see AQ and Naxx in 1.x. At least now they could potentially go back to the obsolete raids to see the pretty lights.

In terms of gameplay though, I think the former system is superior. I don't think either is particular good, but as a friend of mine points out, "[Guilds] could still go in [to AQ] and feel like they accomplished something. Now you are just silly if you go to Naxx to get gear."

Observing these two systems, I can't help but wonder if playing an MMORPG is really "play". CrazyKinux linked a very good article about a psychologist's definition of play, and this stuck out to me:

To the degree that we engage in an activity purely to achieve some end, or goal, which is separate from the activity itself, that activity is not play. What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions. The actions are merely means to the ends.

In play, however, all this is reversed. Play is activity conducted primarily for its own sake. The playful student enjoys studying the subject and cares less about the test. In play, attention is focused on the means, not the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends.

This is in relation to play in general and not just games (play with goals), but it seriously threatens the notion of playing an MMORPG. Don't think about "fun"; fun is an illusion, a bag of tricks to keep you entertained: random item drops akin to slot machines, leaderboards, etc.. When was the last time you actually played an MMORPG? Used your character to perform some action for sake of that action itself? Visited a dungeon you liked not for an Achievement and not for a piece of loot? Or even just fought a monster to play around instead of consuming it like a resource?

When there isn't actually any play involved, raid content dies. Naxx and Ulduar will be forever empty like ZG, BWL, and AQ with its enormously entertaining C'Thun fight. The "carrot on a stick" design mantra of WoW is great for entertaining users, but later on players will painfully grind reputation and badges.

Don't think I'm picking on WoW; the entire genre is like this. And it is very unfortunate.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lanchester’s Laws and RTS Design

(I’ve been playing a lot of World of Tanks lately. I can’t talk much about it because of the NDA, but as soon as the open beta rolls around I will make a post about the game.

I have a few other articles I’ve written this month that are awkwardly close to completion. Hopefully I’ll get them up soon. Here’s a short post to tickle your brain while I put together more substantial content.)

Predicting casualties is easy when two even-skilled sides are fighting in melee, says Lanchesters' Law:

In ancient combat, between phalanxes of men with spears, say, one man could only ever fight exactly one other man at a time. If each man kills, and is killed by, exactly one other, then the number of men remaining at the end of the battle is simply the difference between the larger army and the smaller, assuming identical weapons.

But what about when units with ranged weapons engaged? The same simple model can no longer hold.

With firearms engaging each other directly with aimed fire from a distance, they can attack multiple targets and can receive fire from multiple directions. The rate of attrition now depends only on the number of weapons firing. Lanchester determined that the power of such a force is proportional not to the number of units it has, but to the square of the number of units. This is known as Lanchester's Square Law.

This fact is of critical importance for RTS design. Games that mix melee and ranged combatants can face strange balance issues that arise because of asymmetric forces of melee and ranged combatants combining in different ways. Ranged units may be balanced against one another, but when melee units are added the balance is damaged more than the addition of another ranged unit would have. 

In games that consist entirely of ranged units, like Company of Heroes, balance is a fickle thing. When developers make even a small change to a unit’s capabilities, the squared effect of that change can cause ripples through the entire metagame and cause certain crazy strategies to become viable (pioneer spam was one such issue in CoH).

This fickleness applies to both unit strength and the cost of units. Adding to a numerical advantage by cheapening a certain unit for one faction in an RTS can cause very severe issues if the other faction isn’t also adjusted, because the asymmetry will cause a much larger effect on the battlefield than most anyone will expect.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

No Bore Core

I have a very bottom-up approach to game design. I like to think in terms of fundamental, atomic, core mechanics, and build them up in layers to produce a cohesive system.

After making those minigames for my cancelled Facebook MMORPG, I am fairly confident that there are 2 types of "core" mechanics: mathematical and pattern matching. My evidence is purely anecdotal, but after observing players for several months, I believe that pattern matching is a superior mechanic for video gaming. I attribute this to the amazing subconscious pattern matching and recognition facilities in the human brain.

Pattern matching as a mechanic is usually coupled with input device mastery. Two prevalent forms of PM are shooters (click the button when a target lines up with the reticule) and rhythm games (click the buttons in sync with an auditory cue). Both these games involve some sort of prediction, e.g. leading targets, interpolating target location, and maintaining musical beat/rhythm.

To help understand the difference between pattern matching and straight up input device mastery, think of any implementation of Whack-a-mole (any WoW addon for a support role will work). The mole surfaces at random locations (debuffs are placed on random raid members), and the player hits the mole (clicks the grid to decurse the target). There is no prediction, pattern, rhyme or reason to where the moles will appear. The player simply invokes muscle memory to move the mallet to a location and swings her finger.

If we examine the shooter mechanic stack a bit more, the very next layer on top of pattern matching in most shooters is resource management (which is a mathematical mechanic). Ammo, weapon clips, reload time, and health--these are all resources that are managed by the player.

I thought this would be an interesting template for RPG combat, and thus I arrived at "ability clips". The entire system would be mirrored from the standard shooter weapon system: the player primes spells in much the same way that weapons are reloaded; when the player depletes a clip, they must reload using a reservoir of mana; each ability has its own reload time, clip size, mana cost, etc.. Players can only have 1 active ability in the very same way that players only have 1 active weapon. The game becomes a third-person shooter with guns that shoot health buffs and movement snares.

There are already a few games that play with functional abilities on weapons. Global Agenda was one. Many of the devices in GA were some sort of non-damaging spell, e.g. speed boost, restore health, stun buildings, and forcefields. Its combat was great; it could have been an amazing example of what I advocated above if Hi-Rez decided to pursue the shooter side rather than muddy the gameplay with hollow additions like persistence, progression, and gearing.

Team Fortress 2 is also an unlikely example of an ability shooter. The interface for swapping weapons isn't as robust and clean as GA's, but many of the newer items added to the game perform a non-damaging ability. The Demoman has a shield which reduces explosive damage and gives them a Charge ability. The Sniper can equip "jar based karate" (it is a jar of pee), and toss it on enemy players to increase their incoming damage by 35%. It also reveals cloaked Spies and puts out fires. Spies have several items which change their cloaking behavior. Heavies can restore health with Sandvich.

Of course these are PvP games. Could an ability shooter work against dumb computers? Players in GA ran PvE missions for the phat lewtz, so I am not entirely sure that those missions without progression rewards are fun. All the mobs did was shoot (from what I remember). If they had a wider range of abilities, maybe it would be a bit more interesting.

Combat as an ability rotation is dull and a precursor to grindful play. The design goal should be to provide the player with interesting decisions, and those require interesting situations. The game must constantly test the player's knowledge and demand that they react, not simply act.

So what other sorts of pattern matching cores could be used to build a combat system? It does not necessarily have to be real-time, but it should have the potential to place players in interesting situations against AI. Some other constraints to think about involve porting the system to an MMORPG, namely how much volition does the player have if set in an open world (player state can't be reset easily; what happens if the player engages more than 1 target).

And if you are interested in passing some time, you can take a look those prototypes. A game of particular relevance is StrongMan. It does have a superficial score attribute tacked on to give feedback to the player, so it is not a pure example of a pattern matching game, but it is pretty close.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Air Units in land-based RTSes

Air units are a source of tremendous cognitive dissonance in RTS games. As a metaphor, air units usually seem awkward. They hover in the air infinitely or, if the developer wants to be "realistic", they fly to accomplish some objective and then run out of fuel and ammo and have to fly back and land again. The sorties usually do not see units going too far afield, which makes sense considering air units that would realistically go 100x the speed of ground units instead travel at barely double their speed (at most). In terms of game mechanics, seldom do air units make sense and offer balanced viable options for a player. Air units often are the most powerful units in the game (Battlecruisers and Carriers in Starcraft, bombers that can level base buildings in one run in RUSE) if they are allowed to be built on-map and are treated as units.

Land-based RTSes are generally based on map control. The map is critical to how the game unfolds. Where are resources? Where do players start? Where are the impassable boundaries the players have to work around? All of this is circumvented by air units. Air units generally do not exert map control unless they're implemented simply as ground units that ignore terrain. Ignoring terrain is, itself, an issue in games where much of the interesting strategic choice blossoms from terrain.

When given the viable option at the beginning of a match, a player should almost always choose air units before they begin to use ground units to cement map control. An air unit that is equally as effective as a ground unit at ground attack is significantly more valuable in that it can ignore terrain to harass the opponent from any angle. Since games have a sharp divide between units that can shoot air units and units that cannot, the early game units generally are putrid at air defense. If they were good at air defense, then air would never be a viable strategy because building basic units would hard-counter it.

Most standard RTSes circumvent this problem by requiring a bit of tech research before the player can buy air units, or by nerfing air units to the point where they are weak enough to not be much of a threat unless massed. Both approaches remove air from viability in the early-game. The best approach to air unit design allows air to be effective and viable throughout the entire game--or at least until the opponent builds counters.

Air units are too fast and too long-ranged to be presented effectively with similar mechanics to ground units in most RTSes. Unless the game is on a very broad scale--a scale which is very rarely attempted in RTSes--air units will not fit into the balance of the game. The speed of air units can cause then to be a must-have in the early game because they can project force much farther and much faster than any other unit and then run away from danger just as quickly. The advantages of going air may be too great for competitive palyers to pass them up, as they were in RUSE during open beta, which leads to the set of viable builds being constricted because the player needs to build air (or a significant amount of ground-based anti-air) first.

There are two ways to "fix" air units in land-based RTSes.

The easier but less satisfying way involves making all air units act as if they're nothing more than ground units that ignore terrain. These air units have to have speed comparable to land units, or perhaps be slower, to avoid obsoleting ground units.

The best way to solve this problem (at least that I've encountered) is to make all manifestations of air power into special abilities. "Off-map" air. Company of Heroes does this to great effect. The key is to not make on-map anti-air units required or common. Give otherwise-useful units the ability to shoot down planes if the planes take certain paths. For instance, the flak 88 in Company of Heroes is a powerful, long-range anti-tank gun primarily, but also acts as a supremely powerful anti-air gun that can shoot down a plane in one volley. As long as air use is relatively rare in the context of the game, making all air units off-map call-ins tremendously increases the seeming realism and fun of air units while doing nothing to damage the metagame.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Engy Update is Credit to Team

In case you've been so caught up in RealID drama to ignore the other happenings on in gaming news, Valve released the final class update for Team Fortress 2 yesterday following an interesting promotion. The Engineer update also came with a few new maps, including a new Payload Race map, plr_hightower, and it looks like Valve finally figured out how to make PLR fun.

The update focused on adding new weapons and features to the Engineer class with the goals of untethering the player from their buildings, particularly their Sentry Gun, and increasing Engineer mobility altogether. The update hits the mark perfectly; I haven't even played the new Engineer yet, but I love all the new choices presented. A big issue with typical class updates is that the class gets overplayed. We have class caps (limit 4) on our server, but I have no qualms with more teleporters and dispensers!

The first enormous change (that doesn't involve acquiring new weapons) is that Engineers can pick up and redeploy buildings now. If an upgraded building is redeployed, it begins life as level 1 but instantly starts upgrading itself to its old level right before the Engy's eyes, without any input or metal. To redeploy a level 3 Sentry Gun takes maybe 6 seconds. There were plenty of times last night when I rounded a corner to find a level 3 SG there when only moments before there was nothing.

One problem with the old Engineer was how reliant the class was on its Sentry. If destroyed, typically the Engy was in hot water. Well Valve added a new shotgun called the Frontier Justice that shoots "Revenge Crits" after the SG is destroyed (even if blown up by the Engineer himself!). For every kill the Sentry gets, the shotgun stores 2 Revenge Crits; for every assist, 1 crit. The downfall is that the Frontier Justice has half the magazine size of the normal shotgun (3 versus 6), and doesn't receive normal crits.

If planning isn't your thing, you can equip the new melee weapon, a mechanical hand called the Gunslinger. It provides an extra 25 Health to the Engineer, guarantees a crit on the 3rd successive melee strike, and let's the player deploy a Mini-Sentry. This cute little tripod costs only 100 metal (versus 140 for the normal SG), builds 4 times faster, and deploys with full health. Problem is that it cannot be repaired or upgraded and only deals half the damage as a normal Sentry. This certainly helps the Engy be more offensive.

Another game changing weapon replaces the pistol and is called the Wrangler. Activating this device let's the Engineer take control of their Sentry, letting them aim the stationary gun with no range limits and fire at double the normal rate. A laser originating from the Engy points to the target, and the Sentry gains a damage shield that absorbs 66% of incoming damage. Should the player die or deactivate the Wrangler, the SG becomes inactive for 3 seconds. Previously infeasible sentry locations and now usable since Engineers can overcome the range limits.

There is also another wrench you can find which adds a bleed effect to victims, making pesky Spies easier to dispatch.

I think it may be too soon to tell if the game has completely changed. Very rarely does anyone do the typical Sentry turtling, but that may be because of the novelty of the update. The game does feel fresh though, as many people are trying out crazy tactics and enjoying all the new options.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What Blizzard Should Have Done

Regardless of whatever Facebook integration plans or independent social networking plans Blizzard may have, and however optional posting may be, they should not unveil a player's real name on the forums. It is absolutely unnecessary, and just plain asinine. I was on the fence about purchasing StarCraft II, but now I will be giving that one a pass. I could just watch matches on Youtube, since I always end up spectating RTSs more than playing them anyway.

This is how RealID should have gone down. Upon account integration or creation, the account holder should create a Player Handle. This handle would be a singular player identity across and Blizzard's games. If a player posts on the forums, the handle is used as a pseudonym. Reputation is maintained, and players are held responsible.

So players have 3 levels of identity:
  • a real name which is as global as it gets;
  • a player handle which unifies a player identity across characters and Blizzard games;
  • and a character name (or player alias in the case of non-RPGs).
This is exactly how most gamers structure their identity already; the worst part would be working with the interface in making it official.

When someone is RealID befriended, a player only shares the handle. There would be no code to share someone's real name; it isn't needed. Sharing of someone's real life identity should be done on a individual basis, thus simply stating your name in a private message would be enough to "share" it. Of course if a player chooses to integrate with their Facebook friends, their Facebook name must be displayed. Just add the name in a comment in BNet's friend list.

Notice above that I said Facebook name. I have a close friend who does not display her real name on Facebook because she is a middle school teacher. It would be disastrous if her students found her Facebook profile. She obviously already has everything hidden from public view, but that includes Wall Posts, an entirely optional feature of Facebook. Posting on a Blizzard forum would not only share that comment with everyone, but it would use her real name, an identity not even presented on Facebook itself!

I can only imagine two cases for Blizzard. Either they thought about this immensely, did the research, watched the Facebook privacy debacles, and then decided to go through with it anyway; or they have absolutely no idea what they are doing, haven't consulted a single privacy expert or sociologist, and think that people don't care about privacy.

If you are interested in privacy in social networks, I would recommend you check out Danah Boyd's blog. A few really great articles:

Fundamentally, privacy is about having control over how information flows. It's about being able to understand the social setting in order to behave appropriately. To do so, people must trust their interpretation of the context, including the people in the room and the architecture that defines the setting. When they feel as though control has been taken away from them or when they lack the control they need to do the right thing, they scream privacy foul.

Zuckerberg and gang may think that they know what’s best for society, for individuals, but I violently disagree. I think that they know what's best for the privileged class. And I'm terrified of the consequences that these moves are having for those who don't live in a lap of luxury. I say this as someone who is privileged, someone who has profited at every turn by being visible. But also as someone who has seen the costs and pushed through the consequences with a lot of help and support. Being publicly visible isn't always easy, it's not always fun. And I don’t think that anyone should go through what I've gone through without making a choice to do it. So I'm angry. Very angry. Angry that some people aren't being given that choice, angry that they don't know what's going on, angry that it's become OK in my industry to expose people. I think that it's high time that we take into consideration those whose lives aren't nearly as privileged as ours, those who aren't choosing to take the risks that we take, those who can't afford to. This isn't about liberals vs. libertarians; it's about monkeys vs. robots.
And I definitely think that Spink's has the quote of the year:
There was a time when Blizzard was viewed as a company run by and for gamers. That time is now over. Even aside from the wrongs or rights of the proposal, no company that fails so badly in understanding gamer culture can really claim to be one of us any more.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

HiRez Saves Global Agenda

HiRez announced last week that Global Agenda will never charge players subscription fees. Global Agenda will follow the same business model of almost every game in existence: Charge for the box and then charge for expansions. The only twist is that they’ll offer token- (to buy loot with) and XP-boosting services at relatively low real-money prices.

Why did this happen?

AvA was supposed to be the key selling point for the subscription. AvA is a garbage mode. It’s not a good competitive mode and you can’t be competitive in it as a casual. AvA satisfies no one, and there are no fixes forthcoming. On the US servers, one alliance (JL) dominated. Your choices were to join them or lose. The mode only rewards first-place finishers, so competition is shelved in favor of collusion—this renders AvA a complete joke as a competitive mode. HiRez made an attempt to improve AvA by putting everyone into one huge zone with player-set territory opening times instead of having multiple independent geography-based zones that are only open for two hours a day at various times of day and night. This decision led to JL dominating the entirety of AvA instead of just a couple of US zones. AvA went from bad to pitiful in 1.3A, and AvA was the main reason why people would subscribe—at least theoretically.

Without AvA to draw players to the subs, why would players bother? There are only so many good-spirited people who would blindly throw their money at HiRez in the hope that they might get value in return. The potential low number of subscribers would have crippled all of the other subscriber content, each mode of which would have required queues to be busy enough for matchmaking to happen. None of those modes alone—and probably no combination of those modes—would justify paying a subscription (there were two arena, full arranged team modes and a PvE mode). The fact that matchmaking may not even be possible because of a low population of subscribers means that if matches were made, they would be terrible due to the matchmaker being starved of players at different skill levels to match-up.

A Bright Future?

I still don’t have much confidence in HiRez after the half-assed attempt to MMORPG-ize the game in 1.3A. I think that the decision to remove the subscription was necessary to avoid the game completely dying. Now players can reasonably have some hope for the future of Global Agenda. What HiRez will do with that future, we will see.

Current indications show that they are going to continue on the path of adding other diversions that will extend the number of half-baked things that you can do in the game—they’re adding “open-world'” zones in the next patch. I have no confidence that the “open-world” zones are going to be sufficiently “open” to please anyone; early indications show that zone populations won’t break 50. And HiRez had to spend a lot of time and resources reworking the UT engine just to get this excuse for an open world off the ground, let alone fun. Such poor benefit-per-cost decisions don’t bode well.

I have severe reservations about GA, but at least I know now that it will survive to see something of its potential. If HiRez polishes and builds on the strong points of the game instead of implementing, in an expensive and time-consuming way, half-assed MMO-impersonation features, they would have a much brighter future ahead.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Coupled Combat Systems

I'm going to mention FFXI again in this post, but it's not about FFXI. I promise!

There are many systems going on under the hood in FFXI's combat. The world has a week cycle which progresses through 8 elementally-aligned days; each day lasts about 1 Earth hour. Each spell has an element associated with it, and using the skill during the element's day or the day that is weak to the skill's element will cause the spell to be more effectual. The other side of the coin is that if that spell in casted during the day that is strong against that spell's element, then the spell will be less potent.

Weapons have damage types which grant bonuses or dampen damage against certain foes. Popular leveling locations at the moment are filled with Colibris which are weak against piercing attacks. Thus Dragoons and polearm-weilding Samurai are hot jobs right now.

Less pervasive knowledge, but still important to those that can exploit it, the mobs themselves have a counter system. Attacking a bird with a crab wouldn't be a Beastmaster's first choice.

It's not the end of the world if a Dark Knight (using a Scythe) is invited to a Colibri party or a mage casts Fire II on Watersday. These are intricate systems that provide slight advantages (or disadvantages) to those who understand and capitalize on situations. Over a long enough timeline the optimizations add up, rewarding those who are more knowledgable, but sometimes it is unavoidable--healers will still cast Cure on Darksday regardless of the 10% less potency.

These systems make combat more nuanced--more mechanics to be learned and applied on the road to mastery. Spell rotations and weapons have more considations than just DPS at face value. Melee classes maintain several different weapons and use the appropriate blade depending on party composition and camp location. Monsters have more dimensions than just HP, and thus the world has a bit more personality and feels more alive.

How did we let studios remove these types of systems? Was it deemed too much baggage to get on the treadmill? Too complex for plebian minds?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cheating Death (Pt 2): Kill It

Either make player characters truly immortal or build the game around death being a meaningful and inevitable event. In this article I’ll discuss removing death from PvE MMORPGs.

We can see that moderating the effect of death leads to a watered down, minimal slap-on-the-wrist. Death is not a notable event more than taking a flight path is an event. Serious players deride weak death concepts because if death doesn’t have meaning, then, in an analysis of mechanics, combat where the only punishment for failure is death cannot have much meaning.

PvE MMORPGs generally have long, steep vertical advancement. These games are reward ladders intertwined in an interesting fashion. The decisions the player makes aren’t on the “what should I do to kill this lizardman”-level, but instead on the higher level of abstraction on which rests character advancement and time budgeting. Long and dramatic advancement encourages the player to invest a lot of time in a single character. The player naturally hates the concept of losing that character—and the time it represents—in whole or in part. PvE MMORPGs are supposed to be fun, and seeing 300 hours evaporate in the context of a game is not fun.

In a PvE MMORPG, skill growth is easy and short. You learn how to play the basic aspects of your character in the first few levels. Over the next several hundred hours of your character’s life, the game will grant you access to new abilities at a slow trickle, giving you plenty of time to fully adapt your play to use whatever has become available. The content doesn’t give you a reason to learn to play at anywhere near an optimal level, either. Because players don’t have much room to grow their skill, there’s little skill carry-over to make being forced to start a new character (because your old one is permanently dead) anything but a chore compounded on existing chores.

Death is a pointless mechanic in PvE MMORPGs. It means very little and usually has a crappy lore justification. When designers tack penalties on to death in order to give it meaning, players will avoid interesting, risky content, and when they do die they will end up unhappy for no particular gain. Let’s get rid of it.

Make the game so that the player character can’t die. The player can fight indefinitely against any enemy and eventually probably win, but he can’t be killed and forced to respawn. Give the player an ability that allows them to teleport out of battles (or bad places that would usually cause death) at will. Let the  player disengage an enemy’s aggro, but then bump the enemy’s health and expendable resources back to where they were before the battle. Build the game around rewarding players for efficiently dispatching with enemies. It’s already this way in effect, why not make it the central issue?

Removing daeth would make PvE MMORPGs a smoother and more enjoyable experience, while sidestepping the awkwardness and mechanical faux pas that a concept of death needlessly brings to such games.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Reaching Destinations

Travel seems to be a very controversial topic in MMORPGs. The current trend is to enable instant-action as much as possible and toss "immersion" or other virtual worldly concerns out the window. That's all fine and dandy for a game of TF2--I don't want to walk to Dustbowl every time I want to play the map. But for games that are supposed to have "worlds", that world becomes very small.

Humans relate large distances with time, not actual distance units. I wish I could uncover a paper or study on this phenomenon, but I couldn't find one. Anecdotally whenever I plan a trip, I measure the cost in time. It will take 3 hours to get to my destination. Google Maps displays route times in larger font than the distance. One of Science's largest distance units, the light-year, derives directly from a time calculation. This could be that our society is obsessed with speed and efficiency, and time isn't something to be squandered--especially on a video game--but then all the more important to factor in Time to an activity in an MMORPG.

I think that if an MMORPG is to have a 'world' quality, traveling needs to be significant. If the game is supposed to be a feel-good achievement treadmill, then cut the fat and insta-port the player when- and wherever. That's not a game I want to play. If I want empty trophies, I'll load up FarmVille or Progress Wars. If I want PvP competitive gaming, I'll launch TF2. But if I want something resembling a virtual world, I want travel times. There are plenty of things I do in my life grudgingly, but the difficultly of the journey both creates exclusivity and sweetens the reward.

Tips for Travel in FFXI

Each white box marks a Region which is composed of several Zones. Not shown: Aht Urhgan.
To follow up my last couple posts on FFXI, I am listing some alternative transportation systems.

Teleport Crags: Works like a waypoint system. Players must collect a "gate crystal" from the crag and then be near the party member casting the Teleport spell. Spells can be learned on lv36 White Mages (and some more exotic locations at later levels). The passengers can be any level; only requirement is the gate crystal. There are 3 crags near the 3 starter cities, 3 in high-level lands, and 3 in the Shadowreign zones. There are also items which can Teleport players to crags if a White Mage cannot be found.

Outpost Teleport: This is also a waypoint system, but waypoints can only be activated at certain times. Once a week, there is a "Conquest tally". The 3 nations and the Beastmen gain influence in Regions (groups of zones) and the faction that has the most influence at the start of the tally controls the Region for a week. Players can do Supply Runs to an outpost under their nation's control, henceforth allowing teleportation to and from the outpost for a small fee (the destination remains unlocked forever). One of the most used forms of travel.

Warp: A lv17 self-cast Blackmage spell that can also be cast from items. Returns the player to their Homepoint. Any player can purchase a Scroll of Instant Warp using Conquest Points (a currency acquired while gaining experience points). At level 40, Blackmages can learn Warp 2 which can be cast on party members.

Ghetto-warp: A term given to the act of switching to a level 1 job, running outside, dying, and releasing to your Homepoint.

Escape: A situational lv29 Blackmage spell that only works in dungeons or other "indoor" zones. Transports the mage and nearby party members out of the dungeon. Each dungeon has only 1 Escape destination, so it is possible to use the spell to skip traversing a zone altogether.

Airships: Once a player gets to Rank 5 (a milestone in the Mission questlines), they gain an Airship pass. They are then allowed to ride the airships in Jeuno to any of the 3 starter cities for a small gil fee. Alternatively, a player can purchase a pass for a lot of money.

Chocobos: Players can get their Chocobo License at level 20, which allows them to rent chocobos from stables for a small fee. While on a chocobo, the player travels at 200% speed (that is my guess) and will not aggro any mobs. Chocobos cannot enter towns/cities, dungeons, or any zone considered "indoors". Once a player dismounts, the chocobo runs away, and the player must rent a new chocobo from a stable in order to ride again.

Repatriation: By completing "Training regiment" kill quests at Fields of Valor manuals, player gain a currency called Tabs. At any Field Manual, a player may "Repatriate" for a tab fee. Repatriation teleports the player to their home nation.

Lure of the Wild Cat: Four quests in each of the 3 starter cities and Jeuno which unlock the ability to teleport for a small fee to the distant city of Aht Urhgan Whitegate (a major high-level hub).

Runic Portals: A very explicit waypoint system allowing players to transport between Whitegate and various locations in the Treasures of Aht Urhgan zones.

Campaign Teleport: The Wings of the Goddess zones are 20 years in the past. They are called the Shadowreign zones, and a major war is going on in them. Players can join the fight and earn Allied Notes. Players can then teleport to any Shadowreign zone they've visited (they just need to zone into the place; don't even need to talk to anyone or pick up an item) for a small fee in Allied Notes. Players can enter the past/present by going through portals in each zone called Cavernous Maws.

Retrace: Lv55 Blackmage spell. Similar to Warp 2 except that instead of being transported to their Homepoint, players are taken to their "nation of affiliation in the past". Useful for getting to the Shadowreign zones more quickly than using a Cavernous Maw.

Ease of Exploration: Once a week there is a special event where Moogles hide special items called Mog Tablets around the world. Players are tasked to find and return them (and get some very nice rewards for doing do). Once all 11 tablets are returned, three Super Kupowers are picked at random and affect the world for a week until the event starts again. One of these Kupowers is called Ease of Exploration which allows players to teleport to the 3 starter Cities and 2 smaller towns for a small fee.

Run speed modifications: aside from Chocobos which also give players the benefit of aggro-free travel, there are abilities and items which can temporarily boost a player's run speed. Flee is a level 25 Thief ability; Dancers get a jig at 55 to increase run speed; Bards can sing a song to make all their party members run faster at level 37 (and a better one at 73). There are also a handful of items which give the Quickening buff.

Some odds and ends: Nexus Cape, Tidal Talisman.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mastering the Environment

Traveling and exploring in FFXI can be dangerous. A death can end an adventure prematurely or leave you with a mouthful of dirt, desperately asking any passers-by for a Raise. One tip I told my friends who recently took the plunge into Vana'diel is that mobs in FFXI wander much further than in WoW. You could be solo'ing peacefully, and then out of nowhere a Goblin catches sight of you and sticks his gobbie dagger right in your backside.

Notice that I said "sight". One interesting system in FFXI is how mobs actually aggro players. There isn't a single "aggro radius", an invisible border to recklessly run through dodge. Aggro triggers include Sight, Sound, Low Health, casting magic, and Weapon Skill usage. Each type of mob might have none or some of these triggers, and the game doesn't tell players with GUI features how mobs detect. In WoW, aggressive mobs have red name plates; in FFXI, all mobs have yellow name plates and players have to learn the rules. E.g. most Beastmen (humanoids) detect on sight, and it is possible to run right up to their backs safely (just hope that they don't turn around). Undead detect on sound, but will come after low HP players from a much greater distance.

Avoiding low health and magic seems simple enough--don't cast anything. Players also get an arsenal of spells, abilities, and items which silence their sounds and hide from enemies. Any Sneak effect will cancel sound detection, and any Invisible effect will cancel sight detection. Keep those 2 effects active (they last random durations ranging from 15 seconds to 5 minutes), stay out of earshot and sight when re-applying, and players can travel and explore to their hearts' content.

But just like something out of Donkey Kong Country 2, FFXI takes advantage of players' expectations of the rules. Some mobs have True Sight or True Hearing, meaning that Sneak and Invisible are useless. Last night I decided to do the quest to unlock the Puppetmaster job. I must pass though some dangerous areas with True Sight imps and pick up a Key Item from a quest location.

FFXI uses a ??? target (yes, 3 question marks) to trigger events, cut scenes, boss fights, and pretty much anything else that is remotely related to a quest. Players need to be on the appropriate quest and not invisible in order to activate the ???.

Well I died 3 times on my way there. Luckily I was able to grab a Raise from a nearby Red Mage the first time, and then was able to self-raise the other 2 times (using a proactive buff called Reraise).

Normally I have no problem avoiding sight lines, but in this particular zone, there is heavy vegetation which obstructed my view. I run down an alley which I perceive as clear, and then get hit for a fourth of my health. "Crap."

Mobs will pursue targets until the player is quite some distance away--well outside any aggro radius. Originally, they would never stop, and players would have to change zones in order to shake enemies. Yes, FFXI had "trains to zone".

Getting around isn't just a simple time sink. FFXI has vast lands, but they are filled with interesting obstacles that reward players who take the time to discover their traits. There are passages and shortcuts not shown on maps; mobs have different aggro triggers which can be exploited to turn a seemingly impossible journey into a cake walk.

A simple delivery quest can morph into an epic adventure. It's not a flight on a gryphon, and it's not a mounted autorun across the zone. It is a quest to return the ring to Mount Doom, avoiding enemies along the way. It is an opportunity to explore desolate and dangerous places. It is a chance to test your knowledge of the world and master the environment.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cheating Death Pt. 1: Introduction

We must look at death both from a game mechanical perspective and a metaphoric perspective.

Death is a consequence for defeat in combat. The current structure of MMORPG combat is similar to how combat works in bad movies. The hero fights a bunch of nameless trash and the fight ends when the trash are all dead. The trash are designed to be killed. Designers have made every fight essentially a fight to the death—players expect this and would be confused by having it otherwise. Other outcomes are nothing but cheap excuses for death—mere icing on top of the death-cake meant to make it look as if it is not death but instead some form of retreat or injury. But the effect of the prettified death-cake is still practically similar to unadorned death-cake: namely, death.

Regardless, we all know that the death-cake is a lie. It’s the cooing noises a parent makes at its child to ease the child down from the brink of a tantrum. We are no more than petulant children, looking to have some vague feeling of mock-accomplishment we can pass off as “fun”. Death is an unpleasant detour on the path towards that mock-accomplishment, and so designers find death a difficult obstacle to either include or exclude.

Some people want their character’s death to be a mountain, some want it to be a speedbump. The mountainous death is meaningful, the speedbump death is the smallest obstacle possible on the road towards the accomplishments that many think give meaning to MMORPGs.

Lord of the Rings Online cheats death on the player’s end by making the player’s death not actual death, but a mere shock to the character’s morale. The effect is the same: you lose the fight and your character becomes unusable until someone brings him back to the fight with an ability or the player elects to be teleported at some penalty back to a place of relative safety.

How do you design death into an MMORPG without “cheating”? Without being too punitive? Without it being meaningless?

  • Come up with death mechanics that actually make sense and aren’t such a cop-out.
  • Get players used to the concept of death being meaningfull and not just a speedbump.
  • Come up with a metaphor to make the mechanics fit tidily into a game world. Hell, you could even design the game around death mechanics if they’re going to be serious and important to how the game plays.

I’ll go into more detail on each of these points in a future post.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Global Agenda Won’t Dare to be Different

HiRez is normalizing Global Agenda to MMORPG standards and this will kill the game. In a few crucial ways, this normalization is half-baked and has no hope of capturing the MMORPG crowd.

A summary of the game’s concessions to the MMORPG normal:

  • A per-item loot system instead of a whole-character upgrade system.
  • A randomized loot system instead of craft or AH purchase-based gear acquisition.
  • Maxed gear is now much more difficult to get—you used to be able to get maxed gear for one build in a month or two of 60 minutes per night play. Now you may never get it.
  • Open-world “zones” (instances with higher player caps than 20) will be added in later phases of 1.3.
  • Solo missions were added and open-world solo missions will be tacked on in a later phase.
  • Token-purchased “wellfare epics” were added to the game.

HiRez doesn’t understand how these additions appeal to the players they are meant to draw. They’ve missed the point of doing what they’re doing.

  • The loot system is boring, linear progression. Loot needs to be cool-looking, powerful, and very diverse to keep MMORPG players interested.
  • You can’t trade loot, which means that you are forced to keep crappy drops without hope of trading them for something better. The “advancement at all costs” mindset that makes MMORPGs so addictive relies on trading up through the loot ladder by harnessing the value of past loot. With all equipment being bind on pick-up, an economy that is already a joke has no hope of maturing.
  • Solo missions appeal to players because they allow for advancement alongside others, but not having to work together. Global Agenda’s solo missions are instanced so the player is entirely alone versus legions of enemies. The missions are so difficult once you get to a respectable level that none but the more hardcore players—given some practice over several failed runs—can hope to succeed.
  • The open-world zones will just be instances that allow more players on the same map. The largest number of players on any playable map in GA right now is 20, so the number of playres allowed in the open world zones can’t possibly be much larger. The UT engine also does not tend to support large numbers of players (over 64, I think). This will be by no means “massive”.

Let’s look at the real problems with the game as it exists even after the first phase of the messiah patch 1.3.

  • The loot system is boring. Loot doesn’t do much to differentiate you aside from making you flat out more powerful. But you can’t even become that much more powerful. It’s 4% gains. Flat, small gains do not make for an exciting loot system. It’s just an excuse for a grind.
  • The economy is a joke. There aren’t enough interesting items to trade with other players. Everything’s too locked down and confined to being used by specific characters. Goods can’t be traded freely enough for the economy to take on the kind of full-bodied nature that makes World of Warcraft’s economy remotely interesting. Global Agenda has not been doing anything to improve the viability of the economy in new patches, either.
  • There aren’t enough PvP maps. We have had maybe 3 or 4 PvP maps added in five months. Existing maps are slightly altered as an excuse for “more maps”—this is transparent bullcrap, laziness, and it’s lame. Make maps for your players to play; make good, thoughtfully designed maps that look like you actually gave them some effort.
  • There aren’t enough tilesets—the maps all look surprisingly similar. Crates, metal floors, metal walls, open doors, mainframes, invincible glass barriers—that’s all these maps consist of. The new maps recently added look like they came from an entirely different game. All of the other maps need to be overhauled to reach this standard of design and art.
  • There aren’t enough (innovative/unique) modes. There are six PvP modes. No new ones have been added since release. The existing modes are all point-based and most of them are rehashes of modes we’ve seen in other games, like Team Fortress 2.
  • The story is not integrated into the gameplay. The only story you see is in the tutorial. After that, the game does absolutely nothing to get you into any story whatsoever. Global Agenda is transparent through to the game mechanics.
  • Alliance vs. Alliance is a failure as a competitive mode. The US zones were not competitive before 1.3’s release because all the good players piled into one agency/alliance. The competition was too fragmented to provide much of a fight on a scale broader than a few individual battles. Because there is no reward for finishing anywhere but in first place, there’s no reason to compete—just join the best faction and get your shiny helmet.
  • Half the devices in the game do not have a role to play for anyway—they are not viable in any build for any reason. And there have been little-to-no balance adjustments since the game’s release. This is inexcusable.
  • PvE is boring. The maps are linear. Tactical variety doesn’t exist. The AI is bad, though it has seen limited improvement recently.
  • PvE’s difficulty is primarily due to increased enemy damage, health and increased spawn rates of elites. Hirez did the cheapest possible thing that would increase the difficulty of PvE. They could’ve improved the maps, AI, and added new PvE objectives. They did not.

Global Agenda will not fail because it’s not enough like MMORPGs—it’ll fail because it tries to be like an MMORPG yet doesn’t have the one critical aspect of such games covered: content. Global Agenda has nowhere near enough content to keep a PvE player satisfied—it barely has enough content to keep PvP players playing.

In a market full of much more polished addictive MMORPGs executed significantly better, Global Agenda doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Global Agenda needs to innovate in order to succeed. As events unfold, it’s clear that HiRez does not understand this. They’re satisfied mainstreaming the game right out of its niche and into a market where it cannot compete.

Global Agenda’s lack of vision and direction will kill it. I’ve finally, after playing since release day and earlier, left the game because of the clear disdain for innovation and interest in appealing to a kind of player that cannot be satisfied with a Global Agenda that I would like to play.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Facebook MMORPG That Once Was

A couple of months ago, while I was finishing up my degree, a few friends and I decided to turn our Distributed Systems project into an MMORPG. With all the buzz surrounding Facebook and Social gaming (GDC, the ire towards Zynga, and all Facebook's privacy faux pas hadn't occurred yet), we decided we were going to make a Flash-based MMORPG on Facebook. Lured by short development times and the potential revenue, we hoped to roll out a game in a couple months and use the income to fund a real MMORPG.

That is why I haven't posted much lately.

At month 7 of the project, we felt that the game was simply taking too long for our initial goals and realized that we would be supporting a game that none of us were passionate about for at least another year. The company had 3 co-founders, and we all decided that it was time to pull the plug. We learned about tons of technical problems (and some solutions) for large player zones and how to stream assets so that browser gamers weren't waiting around for 20 minutes to play the game. Some days were really exciting and some were immensely frustrating.

I want to talk about some of the high level design here. I won't be posting detailed item or skill data, which are the parts that actualize the design.

We knew that we wanted an open-world design, where scores of players would be able to interact with each other synchronously. This was a very different approach than most other social games which are said to be asynchronously multiplayer. We hoped players would be enamored by this "living world" sensation.

We went through 3 completely different game ideas and finally reached the conclusion that we were not going to have a combat system. The typical Facebook gamer is a woman in her 30s or 40s. They are not the hardcore 18-25 male demographic. Some potential players told us to "make sure it isn't violent". So, as I said, we decided to leave off a combat system.

The problem with no combat is that conflict is harder to come by. There is no explicit way to represent conflict, risk, or danger nor a way to explicitly resolve problems. Without combat, we decided to have a very heavy crafting game, but we had no way to make exploration of the world dangerous or risky. Players would be able to walk to any place they wanted to without any trepidation--this might have been very boring.

EVE's skill system was perfect for us: it allowed only 5 to 10 minute play sessions where the player only queues new skills, and enticed the player to come back to the game every couple of hours to enqueue some more. The modifications we made included making things more streamlined, i.e. 30 levels in a Skill rather than several books of 5 levels, and requiring players to purchase each skill individually.

This put tremendous pressure on itemization though since players were not crafting silly items every few levels just for skill ups. Every item had to have a purpose, and without combat we had to get really creative to make some functional items.

We had to make a secondary stat on crafting and gathering skills called Proficiency. Training increased your Proficiency in Crafting skills but not in Gathering skills. Players had 2 functional item slots which they used to equip "gear" that increased their Proficiency. For Gatherers, this was their only source of Proficiency; for Crafters, this augmented their Proficiency slightly. Recipes and resource nodes had a Proficiency requirement on them; this ensured that players were buying goods and using functional items.

The Marketplace was a global Auction House were Buy and Sell orders could be placed. In addition to functional items, we had quite a few vanity items: clothing, furniture, & pets. Each player was to get an instanced house and be able to invite their friends. Eventually we hoped to allow players to throw parties or own larger plots of land for special crafting machinery.

To make the crafting and gathering games have a bit more flare, we put in minigames. The problem I and some other gamers have with minigames is that they are very hokey and break "immersion". I designed and prototyped quite a few minigames which included everything from a Sudoku-like Exact Cover problem and a simple timing/reaction game. If you are clever enough, you can find them online :P

There are 6 Crafting professions (Tailoring, Smithing, Woodworking, Leatherworking, Alchemy, and Cooking), 4 Gathering professions (Mining, Logging, Harvesting, and Trapping), and 4 Refining professions (Smelting, Lumbering, Weaving, and Skinning). Each profession would take a bit more than 15 days of constant training to skill cap. We hoped players would focus on 2 or 3 professions, giving them 30 to 45 days of related training. Then they could always train the rest of the professions if they wanted to.

The only profession that didn't fit the mold was Trapping. We decided to merge FarmVille with FFXI's fishing system to make something really exciting. Players would acquire traps and bait, set them up in the world, and come back after a few hours to collect the animal. Which animal was in the trap was a function of the trap used (e.g. steel, wooden, large, small), the bait used (different meats, nuts), the time of day the trap was placed (night, day), and the location of the trap (forest, plains, near water). The animals would be used as pets, leather, fur, cooking ingredients, and bait.

The main focus of the MMORPG was crafting and vanity gear--making your character and your house your own. It was supposed to be a low-intensity distraction where players would be a part of a virtual world. We planned to monetize with an item shop which included training rate bonuses and seasonal vanity items.

Without combat, the game just felt very bland to us--the hardcore gamers making it. Our hearts were not in it, and more than once we had to convince ourselves that it was worth it to continue.

I will say one more technical lesson: I will never use Flash for a large-scale game like this again. It simply isn't made for these sort of projects, and I've uncovered everything from drawing bugs to problems with Flash's event system.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Analysis of FFXI Combat

Several people have asked me what makes Final Fantasy XI's combat "difficult". Thinking about it for awhile I've uncovered that choices have such an impact in the course of battle that the player has little room for error. This doesn't really tell you too much about the game though, so I am going to describe a few characteristics of FFXI's combat as well as some points of reference. This article will primarily focus on combat from a caster's point of view, but melee and ranged classes are also faced with difficult decisions. Abilities which temporarily boost damage output can kill an overzealous player if he/she pull aggro. There are jobs with positional abilities and combos. LotRO fans will recognize FFXI's Skillchain system as Conjunctions/Fellowship Maneuvers.

FFXI is slow. The whole game is. It is from a generation when MMORPGs were still worlds. Pretend that you are waiting 10 minutes for the boat to arrive in Mhaura while you read this (and then take a 12 min ride to your destination). Cast times, cooldown, and weapon swing delays are all several seconds long. All the spells in the Cure line (the quintessential healing spell) have 2 second cast times and 5 second cooldowns. Weapon delays are measured in frames, and the server runs at 60 frames per second. So a 600 delay Scythe has a 10 second swing time. And it will miss.

There is no natural HP or MP regen in FFXI. Resting regains these resources, but only after 20 seconds do they begin to tic upward. Resting is cumulative, so the longer a player remains resting, the more MP and HP is restored on each successive tic (with 10 seconds between each tic). Kneeling to rest and standing back up have animations which lock the character in place. Each animation is approximately 2 seconds long, and a player cannot move nor preform any action until they are completely standing. It is not possible to pop up instantaneously and toss a PWS on a critically wounded party member. Players must play with several seconds of foresight and judge when to stand and when to rest.

A Team Fortress 2 friend of mine (Hi Polonius) says that he enjoyed healing in FFXI the most out of every MMORPG he has played because of its difficulty in judging when to rest and when to actually cast those Cures.

The game is filled with tiny nuances in play like the resting animations. The player is technically still resting during the standing animation, and it is possible to get a final tic while straightening up--a skill that requires impeccable timing. Even to chain cast spells one after the other, the player must learn cooldowns and casting animations. Using animation hints like these makes the game feel like a Fighter at times. There are many more places of mastery than just animation hinting.

Buffs and debuffs are immensely powerful; so much so that there is one class dedicated to them: Bard. Debuffs on mobs increase the effective HP of the tank and the DPS of the damage dealers. They can make a party extremely efficient, killing for 3 hours without stopping. The Red Mage's repertoire of white and black magic (particularly buffs and debuffs) as well as some Red Mage onry buffs make it perhaps the most powerful solo class in the game (as 75 RDM/Ninja).

Red Mages also get FFXI's only set of pimp gear.

Some may point to WoW's buffs/debuffs. I will agree that WoW's debuffs are very important to the group or raid, but how many players bother to stack Expose Armor, cast Curse of Elements, or even Judgement on trash mobs? Parties burn through them so quickly, it isn't worth it. Even while leveling or farming, unless the player is fighting a mob of +3 levels or an Elite, she would be more efficient to just do damage. Most of the experience parties in FFXI take 1 or 2 minutes to kill a mob. That is plenty of time to reap the benefits of status effects. Debuffing also generates tons of threat even if the spell is resisted. So if a player casts 3 debuffs and then immediately starts a nuking rotation, they should prepare to pull aggro.

Perhaps the consequences for failure in FFXI artificially make the choices seem more important. This may just be another lesson in risk aversion, but the other side of the spectrum seems to be Achievement frenzies, and personally I'd rather have risk-reward cycles. If I die in FFXI, I lose experience--the question is how much. Becoming "incapacitate" removes ~10% of the experience required to level from your current total. E.g. I have 802/10400 EXP. Dying would remove 880 EXP, dropping me to -78, at which point I would delevel and be at 9122/9200 EXP. I can lie on the ground for 60 minutes until I automatically return to my homepoint. If someone casts Raise on me, I will get 50% of the lost EXP returned (440), and be restored my level (leaving me at 362/10400 EXP). Raise 2 will give 75%, and Raise 3 will return 99% (but is a level 70 White Mage spell). As anyone with any insight into death penalties will say, this is simply a loss of time. But it stings. And letting party members die might label you as a lousy player. The reputation hit in a group-focused MMORPG is more severe than a few hundred EXP.

Bunch of us eating dirt.

By now I hope I've illustrated how little room for error there is and the punishment for failure. An unfortunate characteristic of RPG combat is the reliance on gear. I've heard players say that FFXI is 10% gear and 90% skill, but I find that breakdown to be very off. Melee damage dealers without Accuracy gear will miss. No amount of skill will make that Random Number Generator be nice. The same is true for debuffers who will want to stack Mind, Intellect, or Charisma respective of the spells they cast. Most of the time, players can get by with the cheap versions of this important gear, and perhaps that is what the 90/10 comment was referring to, but there is a noticeable difference between someone with cheap gear and someone wearing a few million gil.

One more thing I will mention is that Square-Enix is very secretive about mechanics in FFXI. I call it a Hidden Information policy. Nine years since FFXI came out, the developers have never actually told the players what stats do. Players have experimented and inferred what purpose Strength has, for example, but I doubt we will ever know the full extend of STR's influence (certain weapon skills receive bonuses from different stats).

Even though FFXI's combat is slower paced than most moderns MMORPGs does not mean it is boring or uneventful. On the contrary, players have time to think and make important choices. Because players are not simply reacting to stimuli on the screen as they would in a faster-paced environment, the developers have created little room for error. Fewer actions are executed in FFXI than in WoW, but each one of those actions (or inactions) carry immense weight and could mean the difference between 10k EXP per hour or losing 45 minutes of your time.

And those of you who like WoW Talent theorycrafting, look up a subjob discussion. There are 362 job permutations in FFXI, and players can change gear while in combat.

Here are some videos of experience parties:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Dark Side of Global Agenda 1.3

There are three major issues with 1.3:

  • Massive offensive ability power creep with no equivalent defensive bonus power creep.
  • The strategy of building a character has been significantly reduced. Many decision points in the old system were replaced by gear progression.
  • The gap between new players and well-equipped players is wider than ever with the new patch, even though HiRez supposedly made these changes to close that gap.

Power Creep

All devices are now at the same “rank”, which is basically equivalent to rank 4 of the old system.  Each device can have modifiers and modifications put on it to give it the equivalent boost to a full set of epics, but localized to that one device.

This is huge power creep. Everyone now does more damage and does not have to specialize their device point build (because device points no longer exist) and upgrades. You can do everything better without good equipment, but with good equipment you can do everything 21% better on top of that.

You used to have to pick two things to get a 21% bonus in across your whole character, but now you can pick one thing per piece of gear.

Character Building No Longer as Strategic

You used to have to pick one stat for armors and one for weapons if you wanted to get a full 21% boost in those stats(armors and weapon upgrades boosted exclusive sets of stats; you couldn’t have +damage armor, for instance). Now, you can individually boost one stat on each device you have. No longer do you have to make particularly difficult decisions about what you want to boost or switch out your upgrades because you are using a different build. Now it’s simply a matter of getting the perfect item—and it’ll take a damn long time to get the perfect item considering they cannot be purchased and must be randomly dropped.

Time is now more important relative to build decisions than it used to be.

THe device system’s removal also eliminates lots of difficult, interesting decisions and small trade-offs that could make a big difference in competitive play (or even PuG PvP sometimes).

The Gap Between Rich and Poor; Much Higher Time-focus

The old method for obtaining epics was to play the game a bit, get some credits, then buy the epics off the auction house for a total of roughly 1 million credits. That does take a month or two of gameplay, but even then it’s not a big deal because you can buy rare upgrades that give you a 14% cumulative bonus for significantly less. You can also buy the upgrades piecemeal throughout your career and see steady growth in your characters capability.

The new system requires you to find epic loot, which does not have a particularly high drop rate from anything, then make modifications (or buy them for roughly the price of what an epic upgrade used to be) to bring them up to a full complement of bonuses. You can buy an epic that is one modifier short of perfect for 200 mercenary tokens. You can earn twenty such tokens per day as a non-sub. So that means you have to be blessed by the RNG, or wait 10 days per piece of equipment to have something that’s roughly competitive. There are 14 such pieces of equipment.

It will take you at least 3 months in 1.3 to have one character outfitted in epics that aren’t even optimal. And the difference between a character outfitted in epics and a character in greys is much wider due to the specialization of modifiers on individual devices replacing the blanket bonus system. And this calculation assumes that you are being a good puppy and playing every single day and seeing success—it may take you as much as 5 or 6 months to have a single character in sub-optimal epics otherwise!

Perhaps if the drop rates were convenient, this process’ time-consumption would be mitigated, but that’s not the case. Drops are quite random and the place where you used to be able to do fast runs for loot—high-end PvE—is now much more difficult. All equipment isn’t useful for each spec, either. My minigun-wielding mobile assault has gotten an epic headhunter rocket launcher as his only epic drop so far. This is entirely useless to me—and its mods are garbage, on top of that. So you have to basically win the lottery to get a good epic item out of the RNG: you have to get an item you will actually use, and then it has to have feasible mods on it. It takes at least 10 minutes to earn one such random drop. Even with some luck, you’re still going to have trouble getting useful epics in any reasonable span of time.

New players have a hard 3-month path ahead of them before they can compete with the play-everday bunch. It was frustrating in the old system to play against opponents wearing epic upgrades when you were just trying to level an alt who barely had uncommons, now a new player or an alt has to look forward to a few months of being beaten senseless by players who have done nothing but invested more time.

It was arguable before that GA’s equipment system could be overcome without much tribulation by sheer skill—HiRez has made it much more difficult for this claim to hold up.