Sunday, April 25, 2010

King of the Internet

Facebook released some pretty interesting technologies a few days ago at f8. You can read Raph Koster for the doomsday scenario, but I doubt it will get that severe. We are approaching a new version of the Web. Mark Zuckerberg leads the charge, undoubtedly reestablishing himself as the King of the Internet.

You will see Like buttons at the bottom of all the posts here now. Enjoy.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

On RTSes: Physical APM vs. Mental APM

We can see RTS interfaces as a communication mechanism. You communicate to your units your intent. You can relay intent at many different granularities. Fine-grained intent could be queuing up a series of move orders, then precisely telling your unit who to attack and for how long once it finishes moving. Other games, like the Paradox grand strategy game series Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis, and Victoria, give a far more abstract view of war, where the player gives broad orders to his units. Usually such orders would be simply to move to another province—if enemies are there, a battle will begin, otherwise the unit stations itself in the new province. The grain of control is usually what we use to differentiate the tactical from the strategic when discussing RTS games.

Much like MMORPGs, RTSes have seen parts of their acronym misused and misunderstood. The “S” does not (at least in practical usage) refer to strategy in the military sense—strategy meaning military planning that sees individual engagements as the atomic unit. Very few RTS games work at above an engagement-level, and so are more fit to be called tactical games, at least by the military definition. The “S” apparently does not refer to the military definition, though: it refers to planning being a inextricable, central component of gameplay. This is the only definition that seems to hold true to the genre today.

But planning cannot itself a game make. Strategy games are engines that compare plans. The plan is communicated to the engine by the player manipulating the game’s interface. So often strategy games have incorrigible interfaces because a depth of communication about specialized concepts is necessary—and the player probably does not go into the game understanding these concepts. Concepts implemented in the game may also not map closely to concepts in real life for various reasons, including weaknesses in simulation and insufficient or excessive granularity of control. Sometimes games represent concepts that do not actually map onto any real-life experience at all; communicating the use of these concepts is doubly difficult.

The quality of an RTS game hinges on the ability of the game to interpret a player’s commands to reproduce her plan in the game’s engine. The game must give the player an appropriate set of commands, and allow the player to use these commands in a sensible way. The player needs to see how the commands can be combined to produce aspects of their plan—the player will need time to learn how to do this even in the best of cases, but some games either do not expose the necessary commands to sufficiently implement appropriate planning, or they so confuse the player in how they expose commands that the player cannot figure out how to use the commands to accomplish even relatively simple tasks.

An RTS's interface should aim to make communication as easy as possible. If a player needs to click multiple times and press several hotkeys to communicate a relatively simple order to his units, that is a flaw in the RTS. The common measurement of user activity in RTSes, Actions per Minute (APM), takes on an odd character now that we have brought to light the critical role of communication in RTS games. A well-designed interface for a specific game’s mechanics would allow the player to communicate his plans to the game with such facility that APM, above a certain level achievable with a modicum of experience with the interface, would be unimportant to how well a player plays. Instead of physical keypresses and mouse-clicks being a barrier to plan execution, the mental act of planning becomes paramount. It follows from this discussion that a great RTS rewards mental APM—the ability to create and adapt plans—more than it rewards rapid clicking and hotkey pressing that characterizes physical APM.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Where Has All the Content Gone?

What started as a conversation about Aion's level grind and their promotional Double Experience Weekends, quickly turned into a conversation about end game and leveling. I recalled FFXI, my first MMORPG, as evidence of how things used to be before World of Warcraft, and how this generation of MMORPGs tend to be about getting to max level as quickly as possible. This urgency to hit level cap is very off-putting.

This post is going to get extremely anecdotal, but bare with me. I never hit level cap in FFXI (level 75). I had a few jobs in the level 50-55 range after playing for about 3 years. But I did not mind hovering at those middle levels because there was stuff to do. The world wasn't devoid of interesting quests and fights for low- and mid-level players. Gaining experience simply opened more doors. This is in contrast to WoW's model where you don't even get a key to the building until you max out.

The mechanic FFXI employed to make this low level stuff interesting was level caps. This wasn't a "use it or lose it", loss aversion technique, wherein you locked yourself out of content if you leveled beyond the cap. It was an explicit lowering of a player's current job level to at most the cap (you remained at your level if you were under or at the cap).

One piece of capped content was also an excellent way to make money. Mobs in the world had a chance to drop Beast Seals. Collecting these non-tradable items gave you a non-tradable token, called an Orb. Gathering a party, you went to the zone entrance and used the Orb to start an instanced arena fight against special monsters. As soon as your party zoned in, you were immediately reduced to the appropriate level. All your buffs were removed, and any gear above your new level was immediately removed. With a 55 Bard, I would do BCNM 40 fights. I had my gear for level 55, but I also kept a set of level 40 gear for this particular fight.

You got one attempt per orb. If everyone died, tough. If you won, a treasure chest appeared which had tons of goodies in it. These were slowly sold on the Auction House, and all participants were given an even cut. (This amount of trust speaks volumes about the community in FFXI, but that's another topic.) Spending a few hours on a Saturday, running half a dozen BCNM netted you a few hundred thousand gil, certainly not chump change. This would be equivalent to a few hundred gold in WoW. At level 40.

Other BCNM fights were capped at various levels from 20 to 75 (uncapped).

There are Garrison fights capped at level 20. These are open-world fights where waves of monsters attack an Alliance (3 parties of 6 players = 18); the last wave contains a boss which drops loot.

The Mission for Rank 3 (Missions were FFXI's way of communicating the main story to the players and are otherwise indistinguishable from Quests) was capped at level 25. Another Mission fight was capped at 50. One of the expansions had tons of level 30 capped Missions until you got near the end of the arc.

FFXI had a realm event where Giant Treants spawned all over the world. They reduced the players to level 20, 30, or 50 depending on which one you fought.

Crafting training didn't require levels. Exploring, and thus mining, logging, or fishing from, any part of the world required spells like Invisible and Sneak so you did not aggro mobs (these were available as a level 25 White Mage or you could purchase consumables which gave the same status effects).

So even though FFXI's forced grouping leveling system is sometimes called Draconian or grindy, or simply took too long, you were not at a loss for things to do. I managed to get 3 years out of the game without even hitting level cap. Today's MMORPGs don't even start until cap, which is such a shame.

In WoW all signs point to leveling. Players cannot even craft without leveling. The only low- and mid- level stuff to do are instances, which are really just quest locations and group leveling sessions.

What could be done to WoW to make those other levels interesting? An idea which immediately comes to mind thanks to FFXI is low level capped raids. Create a 10- or 25-man raid for level 50s. Loot that drops can be both soulbound and sellable. Cap Deadmines at 20. Cap SM cathedral at 40. Remove the level restrictions to crafting training. Write some epic questlines like Scepter of the Shifting Sands, but cap players at 60. Possibilities are endless.

At the end of the day, players just want interesting things to do in the world. There is no reason to require them to hit level cap for those interesting things to occur. The question players ask of developers should not be "What is there to do at level cap?" but rather, "What is there to do?". Players have forced developers' hands by simply demanding shorter leveling curves. Why would designers spend months trying to balance content for mid-levels if the average time a player spends at any one level is 8 hours? Might as well funnel everyone to max ASAP and make the content there. I personally hope for the return of longer levels and less cap-centric content.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Post volume has dropped here. I’m busy playing games and not having much to say about their design. MMORPGs are boring games for me now, of little interest in any aspect. I’ve been looking for work, which has eaten a surprising amount of time, while also holding an editorship at a smal independent literary journal. My time has been eaten and my interest in kvetching about design has waned.

I’ll probably post once a week or less for a while as my motivation and interest is lax.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Designing a Game: Mage War

To solidify some of the ideas presented here, I have decided to make public my design process as I design a game. The game is tentatively titled “Mage War”. It is a short, replayable game of strategy.

Here’s a sketch of the skeleton.

In one sentence: In Mage War, two ancient wielders of arcane power warp the very world on which they battle in order to tap greater amounts of magical power and eventually trap their opponent and forever strip from him his magical capacities.

Key mechanics:

  • The game is turn-based.
  • The game plays out on two tile-based maps simultaneously—these maps effect one another throughout the course of play.
    • The terrain map is your standard map of hex tiles that represents mountains, forests, plains, etc.
    • The mana map represents what mana can be pulled from each tile. Mana veins run along some tile boundaries, from these mana veins mana is replenished to nearby tiles more rapidly. The kinds of mana present in a tile depend on its terrain map contents.
      • Mana veins have an intensity, and only mages that can harness a certain amount of mana can cross veins of high intensities.
      • Mana is an exhaustible resource and can be entirely stripped from a tile if there is no nearby mana vein.
      • In order to cast spells, the mage must move in the mana map and collect the appropriate amount of mana, though each turn the mage must start his mana map movement from the tile that corresponds to his location on the terrain map.
      • Mana veins can be manipulated later in the game through the use of meta-mana that accrues to each combatant on the same regular schedule.
  • Magic is used primarily to alter terrain on either map in an attempt to trap your opponent or starve him of mana.
  • There are two ways to trap your opponent, once your opponent is trapped and you’re within casting range of him, you can strip him of his magical powers and win the game.
    • Raise armies of immortal warriors from the villages that dot the map and position them such that the enemy mage cannot move next turn.
    • Manipulate the terrain of either map in such a way that the enemy mage cannot move.
  • Mages themselves cannot be harmed by magic. Casting a fireball on an enemy mage’s square only burns the terrain, it does not do damage to him.

I will be more specific about individual mechanics in future posts (as I design the game further).