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.