Sunday, May 30, 2010

What do you want to see?

I've been quite happily not playing a single MMORPG recently. Global Agenda is the only game I play regularly, and there's not much market for commentary on that game--I also don't want to write about it because all I'd do is whine about the idiocy of proposed changes that the devs will compromise on after a 14-page thread (this happened for both item conversion and AvA changes) on the forums.

I also lost a bunch of half-written posts when my harddrive suffered catastrophic corruption issues on Friday morning.

Since I'm not playing games I think are worth comment, I turn to you anyone who still reads this blog. Do you want me to write about anything in particular? Even if it's broad or vague--just a little push towards writing about some topic would be helpful.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Return to Vana'diel

"Rose-tinted glasses," I told myself and my friends. "The game is so slow and punishing. It takes forever to do anything or get anywhere. Monumental advances have been made to the genre since its release. You will unsubscribe the minute you log on."

And yet, about a week ago, I resubscribed to Final Fantasy XI: Online. There was a very illuminating post over at Why people thinking about coming back to this game definitely should.

FFXI is from a generation of MMORPGs where grouping to gain experience was highly advised. The game only had 1 real "solo" job when I played, and that was Beastmaster. But SE has taken a look at the market and implemented a few nice systems to help the solo player.

The first are these really nice experience boosting rings. You equip and use the item to gain a +X% Experience Boost for up to Y XP or Z hours, whichever comes first. There is the annual Adventurer Appreciation event going on right now, and you can acquire an Anniversary ring which gives a whopping 30,000 bonus xp over its lifetime. (Some points of reference: you need 2000 xp from level 7 to 8, and 5700 xp from level 29 to 30.)

When you kill mobs, there is now a chance that they will drop Treasure Chests. Inside, there are temporary items which you can use until you zone or log off. These items are usually Potions or Ethers, status curing consumables, or some HP/MP regeneration food. This significantly reduces down time (there is no natural HP/MP regeneration in FFXI).

Another really great system is called Fields of Valor. In a nutshell they are just kill quests which reward experience and money. There are Field Manuals scattered about the zone, and you may elect to do 1 "training page" per game day (56 minutes). They are typically in the form: kill X of this, and Y of that. One nice part is that you don't need to turn them in. As soon as you kill the last mob, you are instantly rewarded with the experience and gil. Upon completing pages, you also get "tabs", which is a currency used to purchase buffs at the Field Manuals. HP and MP regen is available, as well as a Reraise (self-rez) buff.

It is completely possible to solo to 20 without a problem.

The second problem that the post addresses is the length of time waiting around for a party. Personally, I have spent upwards of 3 hours looking for a party when I used to play back in 2005. But Square-Enix has implemented a Level Sync system. The party leader may synchronize the level of everyone in the party to the level of another member. As long as you are at least the level of the sync, you are reduced to that level and all your gear automatically scales.

The problem underlying mismatched party levels may not be apparent to you. The experience gained per kill is based on the level of the highest party member. Typically, parties opt to fight "Incredibly Tough" mobs, which are 6+ levels above the party. IT mobs give ~200 xp. If someone were to level and make those mobs "Very Tough" (5 levels above), the experience drops to about 120. That is a 40% reduction in experience.

Level Sync means those problems are no more! Parties can be composed of a level 46 White Mage, a level 58 Ninja, and a bunch of other players in the 20s. Everyone will gain the same amount of XP, and veterans can help out their friends and newbies. I honestly wonder why SE took 7 years to make this system.

Unfortunately, SE did not make it easy to install this game. I originally installed off my CDs, only later to purchase the Ultimate Collection off of Steam ($15 for a couple of expansions I was missing), and I had to do a complete reinstall. PlayOnline is perhaps the worst Launcher in existence. And since this game is also playable on PS2 and XBox360 (all on the same servers), there is no need for a mouse. Movement and targeting is all on the keypad (you can change it to WASD if you want).

If you are interested in trying this out, I can help you through the inevitable installation issues. I am on the Fenrir realm and having a pretty good time leveling one of the new jobs in the latest expansion. FFXI may be the last of its breed--I don't even think FF14 will be as difficult a PvE MMORPG as 11. I'll make a more personal post later, but I'll leave you with this screenshot gallery.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why Open-world PvP-focused MMORPGs are Dead

Players will approach the PvP game within an MMORPG as a game of strategy. All the tools are there for it to be a strategic affair: no real aiming is required, twitch skills play little role, the players has hundreds of potential actions he can take, and coordinating actions with other players is important to success. PvP is naturally approached as a strategy game, but this game is in the context of the MMORPG that hosts it. All the baggage of the MMO carries over—time-spent indicates power in an MMO, so the strategic nature of PvP is compromised by a context that slants the playing field strongly in the favor of the more prepared player, where preparation is a factor primarily of time, not skill. What you’d naturally play as a skill-based mode is actually constructed on the shifting foundations of a timesink. This indicates that PvP may be inherently broken in MMORPGs unless players do not play it like a game of strategy, but instead treat it was a comparison of time spent and resources brought to bear.

MMORPGs are games of time, not skill. An MMO can never be good enough as a game to sustain the kind of beating players will give a system that grants them great responsibility and power. The game will be exploited and those exploits will be shared among the playerbase until the game becomes a collection of exploits. The more players involved, the shorter the space in time is between a content or balance patch’s introduction and its dismantling and exploitation. This effect is multiplied by the potential power that can be gained by exploiting. Complex systems make it harder for players and devs to figure out what is actually an exploit instead of just being a clever strategy.

Players are a PvP MMORPGs’ biggest opponents. The devs have to fight the players for every single minute of fair gameplay. The players expect to succeed in a world that is built to see them fail until they’ve spent as much time as the guy they’re fighting against, but the devs need these punished players to stay playing for long enough for their paychecks to be signed. It’s no wonder open-world PvP MMORPGs have trouble sustaining subscriber numbers over 50k—even EVE, the sweetheart of the PvP community, sees not much more than 10% of its 330k players participating in nullsec activities.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

On RTSes: Micromanagement

The player can only view and manipulate one part of the map at a time in an RTS. This means that the more micro you require for a player’s units to behave effectively, the less can happen on the battlefield at once. This tends to reduce mental APM in favor of increasing physical APM. Better interfaces can reduce the physical APM necessary to sustain good micro, but an interface innovation can’t change the fact that it’s only physically possible to focus on one limited area of the battlefield at once.

Micromanagement requirements are a cheap way for RTSes to build more “skill” into their gameplay. If the sufficient amount of micro to make all the units on the field effective cannot be achieved ever, the game will seem to scale with skill gain indefinitely. As the player improves his micro and learns to multitask better, she’ll play better. This can continue for a long time in a game with a significant micro requirement like Men of War.

Micromanagement requirements can be measured in the average opportunity cost of having your view centered over a certain unit at a certain time as you effectively micromanage that unit. If you lose the game because one squad of infantry stands still while being slaughtered by easily avoided machine gun fire, the opportunity cost of microing your tank well at that moment is enormous. The more often this kind of disastrous misallocation of micro can occur, the more micromanagement-intensive the game is.

Micromanagement can be minimized systematically in two ways: changing the scope of the game and implementing AI that does micro-level tasks better than the player. These tend to be implemented in the same game most often, as can be seen in RUSE. In RUSE, tanks will kite infantry automatically, infantry will ambush nearby vehicles, hideable units will hide and unhide as necessary in forests, planes will circle and engage targets on their own, vehicle crews automatically repair their vehicles when out of combat, infantry gets in trucks for long journeys and gets out at the end without player intervention. The scope of the game allows this to make sense—the game plays out on a large scale, that of Supreme Commander. The AI fills in where micro would otherwise be required; it allows the player to focus on strategy instead of the player needing to focus on individual unit tactics because he fears his units will get killed through their own stupidity.

Some games, like Men of War and Company of Heroes, can’t avoid micro because their scope is so small. WIthout micro, these games would lose much of their appeal. An AI strong enough to allow the player to focus on higher-level concerns would tend to intervene in areas where the player would expect to have to take action, leading to an annoying struggle between player and machine over fine-grained orders.

Micromanagement should be minimized as much as is reasonable, though, because coming up with a great strategy should be more important than putting your limited viewing window over the right part of the battlefield at the right time. If a game requires twitch skill in issuing orders rapidly, the purpose of the game—strategic problem solving—can all too easily be subverted.