Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Severe Doubt

I’ve been suffering from severe doubt with regards to the value of my game design thoughts. A friend whose opinion I value on this matter continually subjects my thoughts to a kind of opposition that makes me doubt the validity of putting them on paper at all. Am I writing no more than a collection of misguided justifications for my own taste and perspective? Am I only an elitist clinging to what little foothold in the sheer cliff face of subjectivity that will allow me to raise my head above the press of all the other pundits and gamers?

I feel trapped between a will to further refine my thoughts and the knowledge that these thoughts may just be insubstantial and baseless. My doubts are only worsened because I cannot tell if my thoughts are actually baseless. I’m tempted to throw up my hands in despair after long conversations about fundamental topics in game design and how I approach its analysis. Perhaps I am no more than a thrashing lunatic—perhaps my mental faculties delude me into thinking that there is some significant systematic epistemology to game design at the very edge of my perception so, like a schizophrenic person, I continually shift my eyes to find the thing has disappeared, only to reappear once again barely out of my view a few seconds later.

“Fun” taunts me. Flitting before me, seemingly within my reach. I can nearly contain it in a theory only to see it has left merely one of its parts trapped in the confines of my thought, the rest of it still flutters, free. It slides through my fingers when I try to clap my hands together over it. I try to use logic to present ways to judge game design decisions, but the measuring stick is not logic, but fun. Logic can tell us if a game is designed consistently and if it follows some greater vision as evidenced by the patterns it exhibits when played and analyzed, but logic itself doesn’t capture the goal of game design, which is to generate fun.

Now that I’ve revealed my struggle to you, I wish to make clear a few points about my writing here so that you can better understand my intentions and why I communicate in the peculiar way I do.

A few things you should understand:

  • If experts of game design exist, I am not one of them and may never be. I claim no expertise. I think about game design every day and try to do so productively. This separates me from many game designers who practice professionally, I am told. Does this qualify me to have an opinion? Not entirely. But I feel that expressing my opinion here for others to read, enjoy, and argue against is better than keeping these opinions unexplored and unexpressed.
  • I’m just making stuff up here. I post my thoughts on game design. I express them not because I am in touch with some hidden truth to which others are blind. I write because I think, and thoughts unexpressed—especially those thoughts refined with some rigor—do nothing. There is no use in understanding and knowledge if it cannot be somehow conveyed. This is currently the primary way I can convey my limited understanding of game design. I’m working on games at the moment, but they are not close to release and may not be for some time. My only means of expression is this: the written word, written in the hopes that the small waves it generates among its readers will ignite some significant discussion, discovery, and ultimately better games.
  • I don’t have evidence to show you—I write based on my experience, analysis, and thought experiments. All of the work on game design I’ve ever read (that I can remember) contributes parts to each of the pieces I post here. All of the conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues—each contributes. I base my thoughts on my own limited experience playing the games I find fun and a few that I do not enjoy but played to experiment. I do not approach game design as a scientist, but as a philosopher. If I make verifiable claims that I do not myself verify, I will gladly lean in the direction any significant evidence for or against my claim would sway me.
  • I don’t write here because I’ve found the truth. This brings to mind an aphorism I believe to carry some valuable insight: “He who claims to have found the truth has definitely not.” I may write as if I have found the truth, but I only do so because to fill my writing with disclaimers would make each post an exercise in extracting meaning from apologies instead of directly absorbing meaning. I don’t wish to cloud my writing further than my meager communication and thinking skills so far have clouded it, so I write persuasively with a bold tone. If I am wrong, I hope that the tone makes my mistakes obvious and encourages others to challenge me. If I am right, it serves well at convincing others of my case.
  • I am exploring. Because I am on a journey to find theories that allow myself and others to better design games, I write in an exploratory fashion. I try on new ideas through posting them on this blog and gauging reactions. I’ve learned significantly from this practice, and I will continue to do it. I hope that you can join me in this exploration—try to argue, in the comments, with the intention of exchanging information and ideas, not with the intention to show your superiority to me or to others in the conversation.

Now that I have written these disclaimers, I feel more comfortable proceeding. I hope that you will keep them in mind as you read my posts here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Global Agenda’s Playerbase Stratification Problem

The root problem in Global Agenda’s design is that it pulls its playerbase in too many different directions.

If a skill-based game is good, it doesn’t need to have a lot of conventional content. Counterstrike didn’t have PvE and leveling. Starcraft doesn’t need fifteen modes of play. Themepark MMORPGs tack on many features and endless content because they rely on content to keep their players entertained. Themeparks don’t benefit from sufficiency skill tests and active skill ranking on a broad scale as serious RTS and TBS games inevitably do—themepark gameplay is oriented towards experiencing an event with friends, not towards ranking and measuring your skill. Global Agenda’s player vs. player shooter gameplay (not only the explicit “PvP” mode, but AvA as well), the focus of the game and the very core of the game, naturally establishes skill orientation between players. There is no other gameplay except for PvE missions which reward teams for completing them in a sufficient time with at most a certain number of deaths. Though slightly more experience- and content-oriented, PvE is also a sufficiency skill test.

Global Agenda strives with one half of its being to be a skill-focused game, and with the other half to be a content-focused game. Though games are not zero-sum compromises between skill- and content-focus, creating a skill-based game with high quantities of traditional content limits the amount of work that can be done on game balance—you can usually either work on lots of content or you can create very balanced content, not both. The skill and content tug-of-war forces players of two distinct kinds to coexist in the same game: those who are content-driven (generally MMORPG players) and those who are skill-driven (generally FPS players). There’s clearly friction here in the game’s design.

Global Agenda’s “PvP” mode relies on a matchmaking system. You queue your character (perhaps with a team of three other players at most) and the matchmaker attempts to put you in a game on a random mode and random map where each side has a 50% chance of victory. In order to do this with any degree of reliability, the matchmaker needs a baseline number of players at each skill level. But since Global Agenda is partially content-oriented, a playerbase that would barely be sufficient to keep the matchmaking for PvP supplied with players now is stretched through 7 different game modes.

  • Player vs. Player
  • Player vs. Environment
    • Low Security
    • Medium Security
    • High Security
    • Maximum Security
    • Double Agent
  • Agency vs. Agency (Conquest)

The game usually doesn’t have more than 4,000 concurrent players. Demand between these modes is not equal, though, so the problem isn’t as bad as it may initially look. Regardless, all of the other modes constantly distracting players still starves the PvP matchmaker of player diversity at all times but maybe one or two of the peak hours when most players are online. There will be two or three modes that receive the majority of the attention, and the rest will be starved.

Global Agenda has woven the player-availability problem from themepark MMORPGs into a skill-based game where more players are needed in certain modes to ensure reasonable matchmaking. As the game builds in more game modes (and we’ve been promised some kind of excuse for an open-world “zone”), this problem will get worse. The developers don’t seem to be aware of this issue—they need to pay attention because there’s no guarantee that adding more high-level game modes will draw enough players to keep all the other queues for PvE and PvP moving at a reasonable pace, let alone allowing enough players queuing for the matchmaker to do a good job. If players are subjected to long waits and too many lopsided matches, they’ll leave Global Agenda for better games; I’ve already seen hundreds of posts on the forums about matchmaking driving people out of PvP and complaints about how the matchmaker is “broken”, and the problem will only get worse from here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Beware of Second-Order Effects

Games are basically glorified math problems with metaphors partially covering the numbers and fancy symbols. The best games are usually interesting and engaging metaphors plastered over difficult math problems.

Unfortunately, game designers are a bit less apt at math than programmers. Being both a programmer and a wannabe designer, I approach game design from equal parts design and math. I’m no mathematician, but I have a toolbox of mathematical concepts that I use to better understand game design.

Many games fail to accomplish a semblance of balance because designers add mechanics and reward systems without a view of the broader math those mechanics will force their will upon. One such concept often missed: Second-order effects. Whereas a player’s superior skill has an additive impact on their effectiveness (a first-order effect), complex and over-rambunctious reward systems can multiply that bonus of skill into an insurmountable obstacle for less-skilled players.

The “Slippery Slope” of Success in Strategy Games

Imagine two players of measurably uneven skill at a certain strategy game. If they were to play against one another in this game, let’s say it’s a competitive turn-based strategy game whose result is based entirely on skill, the more skillful player would increase his advantage every turn. Every single turn the less skillful player would be losing by a wider margin than the turn before. The less skillful player can never win such a game and will lose the game each time by a predictably wide margin that has compounded each turn into a massive deficit. This is the nature of skill: this process of compounding advantage/disadvantage cannot be altered but by adding elements of chance and asymmetry to the game.

In reality, a player’s pure skill doesn’t directly map to a higher advantage turn-over-turn. The dynamics of a strategy game usually mitigate skill differences in the early-game (the first four moves in chess, for example) because there are fewer possible moves and those moves are usually somewhat obvious to even an advanced beginner. In most western strategy games, the number of possible moves explodes as the game progresses, peaking at some point in the mid-game, then tapering off due to fewer pieces being on the board, or the board position becoming more and more determinate as more pieces are places and static positions grow. A noticeable exception to this pattern is Go, which moves from a completely empty to a mostly full board throughout the game—leading to a continual restriction of possible moves and possible good moves.

As the game progresses and the strategy space widens, the player who can better distinguish successful strategies from unsuccessful ones will win. This discrimination between strategies is the essence of skill—players who are more skillful are better at discriminating between strategies that might, to a lesser player, seem to have the same utility.

At each point of decision, the more skillful player will choose a better strategy. The more viable strategies to discriminate between, the more of an effect skill will have. At each decision point, the better player compounds his advantage, while the less player sees the game slowly slipping away. The worse player can never make up ground.

(Humans do not behave uniformly, though, and skill is not static. We need to play against others in order to determine there skill, and players behave with different skill at different times. Playing a strategy game doesn’t degenerate as quickly or regularly as a describe here, because I’m describing ideal conditions—human flaws add much appeal to strategy games where otherwise such games would be repeated drubbings of less-skilled players.)

Skill => Success => Reward => Less Skill Required?

Designers love to reward displays of skill with game mechanical perks. Kill enough goblins and you’ll level up! You played well, so now the game is going to become easier. This kind of design is surprisingly dangerous if you want to design a game of skill and not a timesink or casual game. But it’s so intuitive—it rewards you for doing something well, which will make you want to continue to play. Using positive feedback to reinforce the actions in games that you want players to keep doing—this seems like a completely reasonable thought process.

Here we see a second-order effect. Certain mechanics multiply the player’s effectiveness beyond the normal turn-over-turn addition caused by outplaying an opponent.

Rewards can cause second-order effects that ruin the balance in games of skill; A second-order effect that quickly make matches unwinnable for the less skilled side by multiplying the effectiveness of the more skilled player, increasing his advantage by leaps and bounds as the match progresses. In lopsided and poorly-designed reward systems, actions at the beginning of the game are multiplied and lead to surprisingly enormous benefits later in the game, instead of actions at the beginning of the game leading intuitively to equally important actions later in the game.

I approach games of skill that involve vertical character advancement and gear collection with intense suspicion because I’m aware of how easily second-order effects can skew the players’ apparent skill levels and sap the fun out of what could otherwise be a strategically interesting game. Most of the time, game designers appear oblivious to what they are doing when they add rewards. They tack on external reward structures to make their games more addictive, but in the process they’re punishing new players who are necessarily less-skilled by giving a multiplicative bonus to the effectiveness of veteran, higher-skill players.

When designing a competitive skill-based games, reward structures need to be looked at with the utmost suspicion. They have a tendency to compound in broken ways—ways that quickly transform a game that would otherwise have numerous viable strategies into a one-dimensional, strategically uninteresting race for the first imbalanced reward.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Leaving Themepark MMORPGs Behind

After last year’s extensive MMO trialing, I’ve come to a few conclusions about what I want out of games at this point in my life. This may not generalize to other people, but it may be an instructive thing to share for those that follow this blog and want to know the origin of much of my game design thought.

The Same Patterns that Lead to the Same Patterns

You can easily define a number of mechanic patterns in MMORPGs. These go largely unchallenged and effectively provide a framework for games in the genre.

  1. Persistent intrinsic semi-permanent character advancement.
  2. Loot advancement.
  3. Your play session is only a window into a game world that continues persisting before you’ve logged and and after you log off. (I’m not saying “persistent world” here because “changes” to a themepark game’s world don’t persist for more than one character.)
  4. The game is based on the player controlling one character at a time.
  5. The player is an adventurer who kills a variety of creatures for various reasons (quests) to gain experience used to advance.
  6. The player can combine materials harvested from nodes or looted from enemies to craft items.
  7. Players organize into game-facilitated groups and guilds to defeat stronger enemies.

Most of the games I played were nothing more than a collection of minor variations in the implementation of those patterns. (And some of those implementations were outright failures.) Very few moved away from this: Atlantica Online makes you control a party instead of just one character and DDO instanced everything and focused on small-group content—two examples of more significant variations.

These patterns bore me. I’ve seen them done so many times. Playing MMOs turned into a process akin to painting rooms in a house. Each room is different in shape and size, some may even have a special feature that needs particular attention for the painting to turn out appealing, but after you’ve painted one or two rooms, you get the point and the rest of the rooms are just minor variations on putting paint on walls and avoiding putting it elsewhere.

You can find such basic patterns in any genre of any medium, of course, but in MMORPGs there seems to be nothing interesting beyond the specific implementations of these patterns. The PvE centeredness of themepark MMORPGs primarily relies on player time investment to gate content and character progress. Since there’s very little one can do in a themepark MMO to set themselves apart in terms of skill—there’s little competition among MMORPG players aside from in the top 10% or less of players who play competitive PvP and raid at the highest end—I will end up playing the game to see how the genre-specific patterns unfold. And when these patterns unfold, the result is boredom.

What Themepark MMOs Show About their Players

(I try not to treat negatively people who play games in different ways than me. I understand that not all players have the same goals when they game. Fun isn’t uniform from day to day, person to person. Even if everyone did have the same goals and fun was uniform, taste accounts for significant variance in what games people play. I hope that the following section is not too negative about themepark MMO players—I intend it to be an explanation of how I feel about the games and not a indictment of other people who play and enjoy them.)

I’ve given up on themepark MMOs (and many sandbox MMOs, as well) due to their direct time-investment focus. When I think about where I’ll be after playing a game for a few months, I’d like to be able to say that I differentiated myself from others through my skillful play and strategic thinking. MMORPGs require a significant time investment before you can get to a point where skillful play and strategic aspects show their faces in any way that would let me distinguish myself from most players. I’d be throwing time into an MMORPG and getting nothing back but the same standard rewards everyone gets for investing time.

Through playing a themepark MMORPG, I think that I would be labeling my free time as a throw-away. Why should I bother playing a game where I’m just one of a huge crowd of other players, unable to differentiate myself in a game-significant way? It communicates nothing about me to others; there are plenty of other significantly more interesting games that could communicate more about me as a player and person. I cannot avoid the thought that the game acts as a medium through which I communicate about myself to others and to myself. I could choose to ignore this communication and just play whatever game tickles me (and themepark MMOs are expert at tickling), but I don’t because ignoring a signal will not make it go away.

These thoughts of signaling through game playing do not occur to most people—and if they did, I doubt whoever thought about it would mind it much. It matters to me, though, so I’ve moved away from MMORPGs to other multiplayer games that act as a more dynamic communication medium.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Global Agenda: Decidedly Flimsy

You can easily to get caught up in playing the game and forget that it has no story (though it pretends occasionally to), involves an arbitrary vertical advancement timesink, has "loot" that is unappetizing, has a funky auto-matching system that is a crapshoot in general (even though I'm sure it is pretty good for what it is), mediocre level design, and uninspired PvP and PvE modes. The game is fairly generic and uninviting unless you actually want to play Global Agenda because you've heard specifically about the few good parts.

"If you ignore the gaping holes in this sweater, it's actually quite a nice article of clothing!"

GA is a tactical third-person shooter, but at night when no one is around it dresses up as an MMO. Sometimes, in fits of extreme fantasy, it fancies itself as a real MMORPG.

But this is nonsense. Whenever you get into a match, it’s clear the game is a shooter. It’s skill-based, relatively fast-paced, and tactical. HiRez would need to severely alter the game to make it a recognizable MMORPG—it’s never going to happen, and if it does it would alienate most of the players who play it now.

Regardless of how much HiRez and the game’s fans trumpet how the game is some kind of MMORPG/FPS hybrid, don’t be fooled. This game plays like a shooter, not an MMORPG. Tacking on character advancement doesn't magically make the game an RPG, let alone an MMORPG. Adding crafting and naming a cooperative mode “PvE'” doesn’t convince any but those who very much want to be convinced.

GA is a game trapped between two worlds. Overall the game is "blah". The individual aspects of the game don’t cohere well, the interface isn't particularly good, and I generally get a directionless feeling from the game's design--or perhaps its the feeling that there are too many directions and nothing is taken far enough. Is the game an MMO, or a competitive FPS? Is it supposed to be some kind of RPG? I don’t know—all I know is that when I play a match, I have fun playing a tacitcal third-person shooter.

I find playing in individual matches is fun, but everything on a wider scale is “meh”. The game is less than the sum of its parts. The difference between subscription-free play and the Conquest mode style that you pay to play is too awkward—Conquest isn’t particularly fulfilling, but it’s the only place you can play with a full organized team of players instead of being stuck in a group of 4 queuing to be thrown into pick-up groups of ten players.

I hope HiRez can move the game forward, though. I'm enjoying this skeleton of what a future GA should be.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Gameplay is not Grinding

When players discuss grinding in MMOs, someone inevitably brings up this argument:

Guess what you do in every video game created? The same thing over and over and over and over etc.
FPSs? Shoot everyone who isn’t with you.
RPGs? Level up and kill big bad monster to get super duper helmet of the bear.
RTSs? Kill the enemy.
Platformer? Jump n' duck to the end.


Grinding is more than "doing the same thing over and over". If you continue the process of reducing games to basic physical actions then calling those actions "grinds", you should go down to the level of "computer games are just repeatedly pressing buttons and moving a mouse--they're not worth playing". By that same logic, communication is just moving your body in certain ways, so it's not worth doing.

The reason we play games isn't that the actions of doing so are inherently "special" in some way--we play games because they organize those normal actions into something more, something that has meaning to us. By removing the meaning through reducing games to "grinding keypresses", you completely miss the point of playing games.

The substantial error in logic made in this reduction-based argument that suggests “grinding” is indistinct from playing a game: it claims that if A’s parts are the same as some of B’s parts, those two things are the same. In truth, If you can reduce two things in a certain way so that one thing’s elements are a subset of the other’s, you do not establish a relationship of equivalence. A chair isn’t a wooden leg. A table isn’t a wooden surface. Further, tables and chairs are different, though they both have legs. Desks and floors are different, but they both have a horizontal surface. Two objects or concepts cannot be treated as equivalent if there is relevant difference between them; there’s clearly a relevant difference between playing a game normally and grinding, though grinding can occur while playing a game.

Games are more than pressing buttons on a computer and pleasant lights and sounds emerging from the machine in response. Games are defined by the mental process of play, which leads to physical interactions with the environment. Without play, we cannot differentiate games from other arbitrary sets of rules and goals. Trying to break down games into a series of physical events misses what actually makes a game what it is: the fact that people are playing it, and that the game has meaning to them through their play.

So grinding is not simply pressing buttons repeatedly—we can break down any computer game into pressing buttons repeatedly. Grinding is when the mental process of play breaks down because it became separated from the game’s meaning. It’s similar to when a word sounds wrong and seems to lose its meaning after you say it a hundred times in a row. Grinds separate the meaning from the gameplay by the sheer force of repetition. Since game design is focused on cultivating meaning, game designers should wish to prevent game systems from devolving into grinds.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

“Character” Advancement in Games of Skill

First, Global Agenda institutes an annoying leveling treadmill that turns an otherwise very fun tactical shooter into a timesink and unnecessarily punishes new players in a game where skill deficits are already a huge issue. Now Command and Conquer 4 is committing the same sin in the RTS genre. (Read Bilsybub’s impressions.)

Rewarding people for playing a game longer when the game consists of repeatedly playing matches that are supposedly skill-based? This accomplishes a few things, none of them are particularly good for players or game balance.

  1. Punishing newbies.
  2. Supplementing the power increase of player skill improvement, leading to a further advantage to players who should be better at the game anyway.
  3. Introducing a timesink that the player cannot get around.

Learning to play the game is enough of a timesink—why augment that with an advancement system that is guaranteed to progress slower than your pace of learning? It will only handicap newbies and make their matches less fun.

The people who really benefits from this nonsense? Whoever sells the game. Now you must play for 20 hours in order to even have access to a competitive set of abilities, units, weapons, or whatever.

Gating aspects of a competitive game of skill may prove to be a profitable business decision, but it’s a painful game design decision and can only erode player patience among competitive players. This takes the most soul-sucking part of themepark MMOs and shoves it into games that could not be further from the themepark design philosophy. These games will probably see much financial success because of the addictive quality of vertical character growth—this pattern will spread to more and more titles and continue to bother me and other supporters of skill-based games.

Now the same business vs game design conflict that has brutalized the design of themepark MMOs has come to roost in skill-based games. The future seems to be turning a skill-based game into an MMO by adding some “impact” PvP and vertical growth timesinks. This is bad for skill-based game design—but who cares about game design? Everyone’s in it to make money who has enough money to make such a game, so we’ll see this frustrating trend continue.

Friday, February 12, 2010

GA Follow-up with Todd Harris

, I was extremely dissatisfied with IGN's interview with Todd Harris. I criticized Cydoc and then rhetorically posed a bunch of questions from the top of my head that I, a passionate player, had about Global Agenda.

Hours later, some of my questions were indirectly addressed in a newsletter--particularly random PvP queuing and an extension to the Conquest free trial.

Several hours after that (while I was playing GA), Mr. Harris personally answered my questions. I want to thank him and Hi-Rez for taking the time and for caring about their game as much as I do.

First, thanks for the attention to Global Agenda. There are a lot of MMOs out there and we appreciate your interest in our title. Clearly you guys are investing a lot of time with the game as you form your opinions and publish them. I may not agree with them all but I can respect informed opinions. I wish all game journalists would be as well informed before they post. :)

I saw your most recent blog earlier today. And so, without further ado, are some quick written responses to the questions you guys were most interested in.

  • The servers are down or restarted almost daily. Are player numbers and activity surpassing your technical expectations?

    Global Agenda player activity has indeed been very strong - slightly ahead of our projections to the extent that we've added more capacity in Europe and are working on new servers closer to our Oceanic community. In the first days after launch we certainly had a set of restarts for tuning and application of server patches. That said, I would invite anyone to compare our 'uptime in the 2 weeks since launch' against any other MMO launch and I think we compare very favorably. In the first ten days we were perhaps overly-aggressive in bringing down the server to apply dev patches. We have moved to an approach where maintenance patches are applied during a pre-scheduled off-peak time unless it is truly a critical issue. This maintenance schedule should make things more manageable for players and still let us continue to improve the game as is our commitment.
  • Why are VOIP channels so shaky? Should we be complaining to you or to Vivox?

    Mainly us. We work closely with Vivox. So, in terms of the exceptional sound quality of our built-in voice, we'll both take some of the credit. :) Likewise, we work jointly to address any issues. We have had zero issues with the core technology Vivox delivers. And we worked hard to ensure that any voice issue would not affect the core game. However, a small set of users have definitely experienced VoIP channel stability issues within Global Agenda and we are delivering a patch later this month that we believe will address those reported issues.
  • What qualifies Global Agenda as an "MMO" while League of Legends is not?

    Each game needs to choose its own path in terms of qualifying itself. And even then we know that players bring their own expectations to the table. We've tried to be VERY candid about what Global Agenda provides and what it does not since some players assume MMO means World of Warcraft with different art. As you guys know, our website states that "Global Agenda is NOT a typical MMO in many respects and does not include: a large, seamless world to explore; quest givers; open world PvP or PvE; elves. If you consider any of these items to be must-haves within your MMO, we may not be the game for you.

    We categorize Global Agenda as an MMO because, although instance based, our game allows thousands or tens of thousands of players to all find one another, interact, and compete online within a single-shard universe. There is no segmenting of the population based on named server as you find in the typical MMO or typical online shooter. We also feel that Global Agenda's AvA gameplay delivers more persistence and consequence than the typical MMO but each player needs to make that determination for himself.

    Personally, I'm encouraged by the many hybrid games now emerging that allow thousands of players to interact online in non traditional ways. These games each trigger lots of debate about terminology but I think the innovation is exciting to see.
  • Follow-up: What makes Dome City more than a glorified lobby?

    I think Dome City hosts functionality beyond what most people would expect in a lobby. Specifically - locations for player mail, an auction house, and player crafting, in addition to the expected set of vendors. That said, Dome City could certainly be called a graphical lobby and I wouldn't debate you on it. Its primary purpose is to support our mission-focused gameplay and accessible character progression. I do think we have lots of room to add social elements and immersion elements to our city spaces over time but our priority was to deliver fun combat first.
  • Players have expressed dissatisfaction with the random PvP mission type. Why hasn't a preference system been implemented?

    A preference system for PvP will be live before the end of this month.

    Earlier today I posted the following to the GA community:

    For initial release we consolidated gametypes within a single PvP queue. With no guarantee around number of players we would have, our top priority was to ensure the players got into matches quickly and to make sure our matchmaking system had a sufficiently large population to balance out sides. That said, we've heard how much players want to specify, or eliminate, certain match types. And we do have the population to support this request. So, we will be implementing player selections per PvP gametype so you can exclude or include each type as you wish.

  • Do you plan on extending your matchmaking system to include character talent specialization?

    No current plans for that. We'll continue to monitor matchmaking and improve it but so far it is doing a very good job.

  • Are players of high TrueSkill matched with similarly skilled players, or does the system try to even out the teams by dropping in low-skill teammates?

    Matchmaking's first priority is to ensure that the average skill-level is equal between the two sides – in addition to considering other factors like keeping classes balanced and character levels balanced. Matchmaking prefers to also keep the standard deviation low within a match so similarly skilled players are together. However we balance all of that against minimizing the time players are waiting for a match. Bottom line: if the population online is fairly low you could have some lower or higher skilled teammates as long as the average skill-level is the same between the two sides.
  • Why is Conquest free until March 3rd rather than for the first 30 days of box purchase, like every other MMO?

    The MMOs that include 30 days with box purchase also shut down your access to the game entirely when you stop paying subscription. We let you play the core game in perpetuity and I think the real question is why every other MMO doesn't offer that! As an aside, we have recently extended our Conquest free offer until the end of March. The extension will allow allow more players to sample Conquest and allow us to demonstrate our commitment to delivering new content frequently.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

GA Failview

Over at IGN, Cydoc interviewed Todd Harris, the Executive Producer for Global Agenda. Or rather: pandered. Not surprising that another game journalist asked questions which could be answered by browsing the Global Agenda website. GA players are going to get nothing out that information session.

Here is a game which is getting bad to no press coverage, and instead of conducting an actual interview, Cydoc turns it into a fact-fest. It's not even a hype-erview.

PR at HiRez might be thinking that it'll generate some buzz, but there is nothing buzz-worthy in the entire thing! There is some drivel about the origins of "No Elves" and Recon sleep darts; I almost rolled my eyes out of my head. I doubt this will sway anyone considering purchasing the game. So who exactly is this interview for?

These are the questions that Cydoc should have asked:
  • The servers are down or restarted almost daily. Are player numbers and activity surpassing your technical expectations?
  • Why are VOIP channels so shaky? Should we be complaining to you or to Vivox?
  • What qualifies Global Agenda as an "MMO" while League of Legends is not?
  • Follow-up: What makes Dome City more than a glorified lobby?
  • Players have expressed dissatisfaction with the random PvP mission type. Why hasn't a preference system been implemented?
  • Do you plan on extending your matchmaking system to include character talent specialization?
  • Are players of high TrueSkill matched with similarily skilled players, or does the system try to even out the teams by dropping in low-skill teammates?
  • Why is Conquest free until March 3rd rather than for the first 30 days of box purchase, like every other MMO?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fun and Learning

We don’t have a good way to derive what will be fun for different people aside from attempting to replicate what we find fun. Fun as a concept is transient, temporal, experiential, slippery, subjective, and fickle.

If I were to pick a starting point for a discussion of fun, I would start with the importance of learning. I agree with Raph Koster’s assessment that fun is a matter of learning. But when some players hear this, they pull back from the idea with shock and dismay, curious as to what education has to do with gaming.

Schools have turned learning into dreary work, though we frequently learn and enjoy the process—games are one such case of self-directed learning.

Players resist thinking of games as learning experiences because when society institutionalizes a concept like learning, we associate the institution with the concept that birthed it and draw a confused distinction in our minds between the institutional workings and the actual concepts. Through their experience the American public education system, most Americans have been traumatized into thinking that they want to learn as little as possible. Combine that trauma with a general aura of anti-intellectualism in the United States, and you can easily see how  learning would be frowned upon by working people. Learning is a weapon wielded by the intellectual elites (who they consider to be liberal blow-hards who have never worked an honest, real job). In an idealistic meritocratic society, hard work means more than smarts. Smart people are crafty, manipulative, and cannot be trusted; hard-workers are honest, feel with their hearts, battle-worn, and sympathetic. We, of course, side with the hard-working factory worker instead the lazy banker (not that the banker is necessarily smart or the factory worker is necessarily dumb). Values among Americans are changing with regards to smarts because of the prevalence of computers and their usefulness in the modern world, but there is still this palpable dislike for anyone who wants to make you think—and that dislike extends doubly to people who would have you think for yourself.

The joy of games is that they allow you to think—they make you think without you being aware of it! They are distractions. Distractions make you think about something aside from your normal concerns. Fun games establish self-contained thought patterns that please us because they are outside of our everyday experience. Games let us engage in an exotic kind of thought unlike our everyday drab thinking.

This thinking is simply learning for a different cause.

When you learn, you internalize patterns so that you can recreate them or recognize them later. Pattern matching is the basic operation of the human mind. Everything we mentally do is pattern matching. Our senses provide us with data; our brain processes them and, through recognition, understands the world. From this understanding, we make decisions and change our environment or ourselves. This view is so abstract and big-picture that we do not think of it in our everyday lives. Pattern matching is the frame through which we see the world—it’s easy to see how we wouldn’t notice that frame when we’re so busy looking past it.

Games present us with new patterns, or new variations on old patterns that we like, and we find learning these patterns fun.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Global Agenda’s Design Failure: DPS Medics

EDIT: Please note that this post was written before Global Agenda 1.3 was released. This was before solo PvE was possible. The open world did not exist when this post was written. Please keep that in mind. (In other words, this post may be irrelevant.)

gaevizaer In Global Agenda, Medic is the only class that can be a dedicated healer. Robotics can plant medicrates that heal nearby allies for a fixed amount every second or two, and they can buff allies’ damage through planting sensors or defense through planting forcefields between allies and enemies. Medics can buff as well as robotics, if not better, and they can heal other characters anywhere on the map.

Every class in Global Agenda has three talent trees. All classes have a “balance” tree that provides general improvements like a bigger power pool, faster power recharge, and extra defense. The other two trees are specific to each class. The medic has a healing tree and a poison tree.

The poison tree is a design failure for three reasons.

Reason #1: Poison Medics throw off Team Balance

In Global Agenda, you always play with a team. You play 4-man instances if you’re doing PvE, and 10v10 matches if you’re doing PvP or AvA (Agency vs. Agency; conquest).

Global Agenda balances teams based on class composition. Each team will have roughly the same number of medics (there may be one more on either team). If each team has three medics, but one side has two poison medics and one healer while the other has three healers, you’ll notice that, if skill is even between the teams, the team with the healers will always win.

Keeping allies alive in Global Agenda is paramount—an ally waiting 10 seconds to respawn and running back to the fight location is not helping his team for as much as thirty seconds per death. Perhaps the medic-spec imbalance would not be an issue if poison spec medics could do significant damage, but poison medics are easily foiled because they are reliant on poisons and debuffs that any heal-specced medic can dispell with the press of a button once per minute.

Poison medics act to spoil team balance. Especially when all PvP is through pick-up groups (you can only have a 4-man group when queuing for PvP, but teamsize is 10), a DPS medic takes away a surprising amount of utility from his team because others cannot adjust to fill the roles needed—only medics can fill the role of dedicated healer.

Reason #2: Poison Medics are Redundant

Other classes have DoTs. Other classes are better at doing damage. Why let a support class spec so that it can do comparable damage to classes that are meant to do damage primarily? Other classes do what poison medics do—everything except healing on demand.

EDIT: And other classes can use off-hands and certain weapons that do the same kinds of debuffs that poisons allow. If anything, the Recon class should use poisons. Otherwise, giving medics the ability to counter medics is poor design, considering other classes can just shoot the medic who is healing and kill it before moving on to the teammate he was earlier healing.

Reason #3: There is No Soloing

Why do you need a DPS tree in the medic class if there is no reason the medic should be using it? Damage trees became popular among support and healing classes in other MMOs because healers needed some way to solo so they would be casual-friendly—but you never solo in Global Agenda!

The Third Tree Should be “Buffs”

HiRez should remove the poison tree and replace it with a buff-centered tree that gives  bonuses to different buffs’ durations and magnitudes. A buff-centric medic supports other characters and will be able to heal effectively at any time.

I’m not against medics having a few offensive off-hands—but allowing the medic to essentially substitute his or her entire healing capacity in favor of dealing damage has too many downsides and almost no upside.

[EDIT: I'm arguing that medics shouldn't be encouraged to DPS through dedicating an entire tree to it. I am NOT saying that medics should be unable to defend themselves. Medics should be able to do reasonable damage to foes, but they should not be encouraged to eschew the point of their existence, healing, in order to do a little more damage.]

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Meaning, not Immersion

In MMO games, the concept of immersion is overplayed.

Perhaps it’s a leftover from the era when 3D graphics first arrived and people gaped at how they could be truly within, “immersed” in, a game world for the first time. This would be genuine immersion—just as a you are immersed in water when you jump into a pool, you’re immersed in a 3D world when you play Mario 64. This far immersion makes sense.

But gamers want to take the concept of immersion farther. Now immersive games have to be games where the world is more real. This doesn’t mean that the world has to be more superficially like ours (though that’s what many developers seem to want it to mean)—it means a world that has a similar level of detail to our world, at least as far as the player would naturally examine the world. Players think immersion requires that the game include small details of the real world that have no mechanical reason to be in-game. From many player’s descriptions of immersion, it seems to be no more than an artificial glomming-on of graphical assets and sounds to add detail to the game world, even if that detail has no significance in playing the game.

People who talk about immersion as being of critical importance are picking out nice details and artistic flourishes in a wall mural of a morbidly obese leper vomiting, then claiming that those details are why people enjoy looking at the grotesque mural.

Immersion is bunk because you can’t apply its concepts consistently to an MMO without becoming a gibbering maniac. Wolfshead claims that World of Warcraft is (or was) immersive, in part, because of the little critters that roam about uselessly in the game world. Seeing a cow or chicken wandering Azeroth doesn’t mean much to anyone. It’s cute, sure—but immersive? If immersion only requires a vague similarity to the real world in a superficial Potemkin Village-like way, immersion doesn’t mean much aside from a proliferation of graphics, 3D models, and sounds.

If you try to find immersion in the major mechanics of the game, you will fail. Characters grow vaguely like people do in real life, but do people suddenly become much stronger every time they’ve accumulated a certain amount of experience? Mobs in the game world respawn fully-grown and in a set pattern—this alone should make an immersion-interested gamer turn and flee. Quest-givers give everyone who stops by the same quests to do the same things; what!? This is the least immersive genre ever. Everywhere you look for immersion you’ll fail to find it—unless you’re happy with pretty lights and sounds.

The best definition I can think of for immersion in gaming: the player’s impression that the they're in a real world. This may capture an extremely superficial understanding of why games interest and addict players, but it misses the point. We don’t care about games because they resemble a real world, we care about them because they have meaning to us both derived from the gameplay or bestowed on the game by the outside world via, for instance, communities and social organizations.

Players only care that what they’re doing in the game has meaning to them, whether it comes from the game itself, other players playing the game with them, or from the player herself. Without meaning, a game will fail regardless of its immersive qualities. People don’t want an immersive game, they want a fun game.  Let’s think about meaning as a positive quality in games instead of immersion, because wherever immersion fails, it is a really a failure of meaning, and wherever immersion succeeds, it is because of meaning.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Botched Newbie GA Experience

I am back after a long and busy few months, and I want to talk about Global Agenda. Evizaer posted some facts of the game, and I'm going to share my perspective of the PvP missions.

I played a melee-focused Recon until 25 and a launcher Assault until level 18 in pre-order beta. Starting back at level 5 in release reinforces my notion that this is a very skill-centric game. Even at level 7, I topped damage, kill, and objective charts. However, I am going to attribute my dominance to a design oversight.

There are 5 PvP mission types, each with a handful of maps. I don't know the exact number, but it's in the ballpark of 15. When a player queues for a PvP mission, they cannot select a mission type preference. All enqueued players are pooled together, and when the matchmaking system finds appropriate players, spins up a random type and map, and puts all the players into the game.

That is terrible newbie game design. A game should shepherd newbies into the game, teaching them new systems once the players are familiar with the previous lesson. They should spend a few sessions with one map type, learning the strategies involved. Then the new types should open up, allowing the player to queue if they feel compelled. This is--in fact--exactly how queuing worked in the pre-release beta and some of the earlier closed betas. HiRez decided to change it to a single pool in order to "lower queue times". I never had a queue longer than 2 minutes with the former system. (Not to mention that I hate the spamfest that is GA Payload.)

Newbies who are trying to make heads or tails of combat, class abilities, team dynamics, etc. are forced to learn new map mechanics every 10 minutes. They have to learn where objectives, corridors, and hotspots are on every new map. So rather than focusing on the intricacies of fighting, they have to figure out basic map layout. This lack of consistancy and familiarity delays gaining player skill, and as a result I don't get healed by medics.

And I'll make a little comment about GiantBomb's 33 minute "quicklook": the reviewer ran around with his secondary weapon the entire time. Enough said.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Global Agenda: An Overview

In this post I’m only discussing the gameplay outside of Conquest, a mode that costs you a monthly fee but adds impact PvP to the game.

When you log into Global Agenda and pick a character, your character appears in “Dome City”, which is essentially a 3D lobby for setting up PvE missions, PvP matches, and Conquest. The game is in 3rd person, but in a dead-on camera orientation instead of an over-the-shoulder orientation.

The Player Character

  • Health. The standard measure of life. The game tells you how much life you have and lets you know how much damage you’re taking per shot by scrolling numbers above your head. Damage and healing numbers relevant to you scroll above the appropriate character.
  • Power. You don’t reload in this game and there are no ammo limits. You have a pool of “power” that you expend to fire different weapons and burn your jetpack. When you’re out of power, you can no longer fire the weapon or use your jetpack. Power regenerates when you’re not draining it.
  • Melee Weapon. There is no choice of melee weapon—at least from what I’ve seen. You always have one available to you, though.
  • Ranged Weapon. Different classes get different kinds of basic weapons. For example, medics can either use a standard assault rifle or a shorter-ranged poisoning gun; Recons can use SMGs or assault rifles; etc.
  • Specialty Weapon. Each class gets a unique selection of specialty weapons. Recons get sniper rifles, medics get their healing guns, assaults get rocket launchers and miniguns, among other weapons and gadgets.
  • Off-hand Abilities. You can equip three off-hand abilities. You can trigger each of them roughly once a minute. They offer class-unique effects, deployables, and area effects on friends and foes.
  • Jetpack. Everyone has access to a jetpack at all times.
  • Boost Ability. Each class has a boost ability that they can use after sustained excellent play. The effects of the boost are different for each class, but usually it’s a big help to your teammates and can alter the tide of battle.

The game features four character classes: assault, medic, robotics, and recon. The classes are vaguely similar in concept to Team Fortress 2 classes. Each class has three skill trees that you put points into as you level up the character. Characters do grow vertically in this game—though it’s a game of skill.

  • Assaults have high attack and defense. They use grenade launchers, miniguns, and rocket launchers to deal lots of damage. They have shields that allow them to become temporarily invulnerable to different kinds of damage.
  • Medics heal friends or use DoTs and debuffs to aid their allies in dispatching foes. They can either use their off-hands for improved healing and buffing, or they can gain access to poison auras and grenades to debuff and sap their enemies’ health.
  • Recons use stealth, sniper-rifles, mines, and bombs to sabotage enemies’ defensive positions and reap havoc on any lone player they can pick off.
  • Robotics kill and heal through the use of drones, turrets, forcefields and "medicrates”. Robotics are a utility class that offers tremendous strategic potential.

Player vs. Player

Without paying for a subscription, you can play five PvP modes and five difficulties of PvE missions. To play these modes, you queue up in Dome City much like you would for a battleground in World of Warcraft. The game then attempts to fit you with a relatively balanced team. Usually it does a good job. Occasionally the queue is just too unbalanced for the automatching system to deal with and you get lopsided teams—I’ve been happy with automatch so far, though.

The PvP modes are

  • Control. Teams vie for control over three points on the map. The team who controls the majority of the points gets victory points. The first team to a set number of victory points wins.
  • Demolition. Mot calls this “reverse CTF”. Each team has a “robot” that a player can man. The first side to get their robot to the other team’s base three times wins the match.
  • Breach. One team attacks and one defends. The defenders attempt to prevent the attacking side from capturing three critical points—one at a time. If the attackers can’t claim the next critical point within ten minutes, the defenders win.
  • Scramble. A critical point appears on the map at “random”. Teams fight for control of the point. When the point is captured, a new critical point appears a few seconds later and the process repeats. The first team to capture four of these points wins the game.
  • Payload. Two teams struggle for control of a cart on rails. The attacking team tries to move the cart to the defending team’s side of the map. There are two checkpoints along the way past which the defenders can’t push the cart once they’re reached by the attackers with the cart. If the defenders prevent the attackers from pushing the cart to the next checkpoint in 10ish minutes, the defenders win.

Player vs. Environment

[I initially wrote "enemy" instead of "environment" absent-mindedly. Thanks to Randy for pointing it out to me.]

PvE missions consist of four-man instances. I haven’t played enough of these to have a good idea for what variations occur. Generally you and your team fight your way through an mob-populated locale and face off against a random boss at the very end.

Players gain loot through PvE that can be used to craft. I’m not sure exactly how crafting fits into the game, because crafting didn’t seem to be doable outside of Conquest in the beta. I’ll report back on crafting at some later time.

Experience point gain seems to be balanced between PvE and PvP missions. Because you have a signfiicantly higher chance of success in PvE, the XP rewards are noticeably less.

Unique Issues and Features

  • You don’t jetpack around and shoot people at the same time. You need to switch to the jetpack in order to use it, so you can’t fly and fight at the same time. This creates an interesting mobility dynamic and gives a lot of room for player skill to show.
  • No reloading and no ammo! Power is tied to using any equipped item (aside from boosts and off-hands). This creates some unique trade-offs: do I jetpack away with my remaining power or try to kill my opponent? If I try to kill him I won’t have any juice left to jetpack away easily. This kind of opportunity cost built into the game adds a unique tactical dynamic.
  • A variety of off-hands leads to several unique and viable character builds. Every class has at least two viable builds.
  • You can change your build within a match. You aren’t locked into your character build when you enter a PvP match for the entire match; if you’re in an equipment zone, (basically, your “dropship” where you spawn by default) you can freely alter your character build.
  • Cooperative and competitive game modes keep gameplay interesting and diverse. Tired of PvP? Get together with your friends and take on the challenge of a PvE mission. If you’re tired of facing dumb bots, queue for a PvP match and enjoy a challenging match within a few minutes.

I will post more commentary on the game as the mood strikes me. It seems like not many of the bloggers I follow and that seem to follow this blog have been covering Global Agenda, so this overview post can act as an introduction to an otherwise unfamiliar game. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in a comment.