Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I’ve been playing the RUSE open beta. The game has impressed me so far with its outstanding balance and macromanagement, strategic focus. For once, an RTS is actually a strategy game, not a tactical micro-fest!

RUSE is not a game where you can spam any one unit against a competent player and win. The game has an amount of genuine strategic depth seldom found in RTSes. Most RTS games are designed in such a way that unit micro becomes the primary occupation of the gamer as he plays. Games between even high quality players come down to one out-microing the other. RUSE minimizes micro through reasonable unit AI, and a wider scope than most RTSes. It also puts an unusually strong emphasis on intelligence gathering and deception.

Buildings and Economy

Every side has the same set of production buildings. Their costs differ between sides, though, by as much as $20.

  • Barracks – Produces infantry and occasionally armored recon. Italy gets a light tankette from its barracks.
  • Armor Factory – Produces armor and occasionally armored recon.
  • Artillery and Anti-Aircraft Factory – Produces towed, self-propelled, and/or armored artillery, assault guns, as well as towed, mobile, and/or armored anti-aircraft guns. Some sides, like Germany, get Anti-Aircraft weaponry that can also be turned on tanks.
  • Anti-tank Factory – Produces towed Anti-tank guns and Tank Destroyers.
  • Airfield – Produces fighters, bombers, fighter-bombers, and recon aircraft. Can only house 8 planes at a time.
  • Prototype Factory – Produces special country-specific units like jumbo tanks, flame tanks, hybrid weapons, and all-around late-game units.

Every side also has the same logistics buildings.

  • Headquarters – You start the match with an HQ pre-placed and yuo cannot build another one. The HQ is the source for engineer trucks (the only source until (if) you build a secondary HQ). Supply trucks need to go from your supply depots to your HQ (or secondary) in order for you to receive money. If you lose your HQ and have no secondary, you cannot use ruses and all your units become visible.
  • Secondary Headquarters – Engineer trucks can originate from this building if the site of the building they’ll build is closer to the secondary than the primary HQ. Supply trucks can drop money off here if it’s closer to the supply depot than the primary HQ is. If you lose your HQ, you don’t lose access to all the goodies mentioned above if you have a secondary HQ up.
  • Supply Depot – build a supply depot on a supply dump and supply trucks travel from the dump to your nearest HQ, providing you with your main source of money in most games. There is only so much money available in each supply depot—they run out and cannot be replenished.
  • Administrative Building – Expensive and fragile building that provides monetary income at a slightly slower rate than supply depots. These are not often seen in shorter matches, but in game modes with more than 3 players a distinct transition in gameplay happens where supply depots run out and player must transition their economies to admin buildings or be cash-starved.

There are also a number of AA, AT, anti-infantry, and multi-purpose bunkers available in different combinations for different sides.

Unit Mechanics

RUSE has a relatively complicated rock-paper-scissors unit balance. I can’t render the counter system here in a particularly readable way, so I’ll simply tell you that for every strategy I’ve used or seen, I can easily think of a counter. No one unit seems too powerful in every situation. Units have clear weaknesses and strengths and combined arms rule the day.

The game breaks down to putting the right units in the right place at the right time—more so than most RTSes. In 1v1 games you don’t have enough time to counter everything (you will surely lose to any competent player if you try). You have to assemble groups of units with certain composition depending on what the enemy has shown you and what you know—map size punishes unit composition errors and intelligence laxity by preventing players from moving units to hotspots rapidly. Preparation and foresight are the bywords in RUSE.

The most notable unit for its interesting mechanics is infantry. Infantry are the cheapest unit in the game at $5 a piece. Infantry are generally weak in combat, but they can hide in woods and cities and launch devastating surprise attacks on enemy units that pass by without recon. Infantry can also capture buildings, including supply depots, with surprising swiftness.


Maps in ruse consist of several terrain types and features:

  • Roads along which units move faster. Production buildings can only be built abutting roads. Supply trucks only travel on roads. Engineer trucks generally stay on roads. Roads act as the main arteries of the battlefield—along them most units travel and controlling them has a significant impact on the match.
  • Rivers provide for choke points by blocking land unit movement. Occasional bridges along rivers comprise the choke points in ruse.
  • Forests block line of sight, and provide certain units the ability to hide from all but recon units and surprise attack nearby enemy units. Many units cannot move through forests, like artillery, heavy AA guns, tanks, and tank destroyers.
  • Mountains are impassable and block line of sight. You don’t see many of them in RUSE.
  • Towns are groups of buildings along roads where infantry and other light units can hide. It’s difficult to see into towns—they’re a great place to ambush tanks.
  • The terrain aside from what I’ve just mentioned usually takes the form of fields and farmhouses. This standard terrain is the basic and most frequently seen kind of terrain. It doesn’t grant any bonuses or penalties.

Ruses and Intel

The defining feature of RUSE is the ruse system. RUSEs allow you to manipulate the intel (and occasionally alter the abilities of units) your opponent receives. In RUSE, you have three levels of intelligence about enemy units.

  1. No information whatsoever. THe unit is effectively hidden. This occurs when units are hidden by the use of the radio silence ruse or when certain units are in woods. If your recon is nearby, hidden enemy units within its line-of-sight will be revealed to you.
  2. Unidentified. Units that are not hidden but are not within the line-of-sight of a unit are shown as “counters”. There are counters for aircraft, heavy, and light units. The counter you see for an enemy ground unit may be altered by the inverted intel RUSE. You also cannot tell if an unidentified unit is a decoy.
  3. Identified. The exact unit count and names of units are known because you have a spy ruse active in the sector or the units are in line-of-sight of your non-recon units or air recon.
  4. Fully Identified. If ground recon units have line-of-sight on an enemy ground unit, they can tell if it’s a decoy. Air recon cannot.

Here are the ruses currently in RUSE:

  • Blitz – One of the few ruses that doesn’t have to do with intel. Blitz doubles the speed of your units in a sector.
  • Terror – Enemy units in the sector will retreat after sustaining less damage than usual.
  • Fanaticism – Friendly units in the sector will sustain more damage before retreating.
  • Spy – Reveal the identities of all enemy units in the sector who are not under radio silence.
  • Decryption – Reveal the orders given to all enemy units in a sector who are not under radio silence.
  • Radio Silence – Hides all of your units in a sector. They are only visible when in a unit’s line of sight.
  • Camouflage Nets – Hides all of your engineer trucks and buildings in a sector. They are only visible when in a unit’s line of sight.
  • Inverted Intelligence – Units in a sector who are unidentified appear as if they were of a different type than they actually are.
  • Decoy Building – Place a decoy building (corresponding to a unit producing building) in a sector.
  • Decoy Assault – Attack a sector with decoy tanks, planes, or infantry. You can only decoy assault with a kind of units that your production buildings or decoy production buildings can produce. The only way to tell a unit is a decoy is by shooting at it. Decoy units die in one hit and show a “decoy” message when they die.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Innovation for Innovation’s Sake

I am not convinced that blind innovation is categorically bad—if it’s a meaningful concept at all. Starting from scratch and trying to make a game that is unique is a great way for game designers to get out of their comfort zone and produce something that aggressively explores and opens up the space of possible game rule combinations.

The Naive View

Let’s assume that innovation and fun can be objectively defined and universally acknowledged. In this case, I see innovation through the improvement of existing systems as moving a particular genre of game forward towards “perfection.” A perfect game is one where the mechanics, if changed incrementally, cannot be made more fun. If you don’t fundamentally alter the rules of a perfect game, you cannot make it more fun. It has reached the end of its evolutionary development. Innovation for innovation’s sake is not moving forward, it is moving laterally. Different paths towards the perfect game are found by discarding what mechanics have come before and coming up with something entirely new. Discarding mechanics can happen at any level: you can discard really basic mechanics like the character being in one world; you can discard mechanics like character death upon reaching 0 HP; you can discard relatively superficial mechanics like instanced raids. Through discarding the old in favor of building the new from scratch, new passageways to perfect games can be opened and these new perfect games have the potential to be more fun than past perfect games.

Those who rail against innovation for innovation’s sake want perfect games before they want lateral exploration of designs to occur. In this case, though, you can have your cake and eat it too: there are enough people making games that there’s no reason to discourage some of them from innovating blindly because you’ll still reach perfection at just about the same speed with or without a few rogue developers who try to reimagine the fundamentals.

By telling people that they should not innovate for innovation’s sake, you endorse the original blind innovations that were built up into our current genres of games. This suggests that current genres of games are the only genres that should exist—certainly that isn’t the case and it’s not beneficial for us as gamers to not want new genres of potentially great games to be invented and also perfected.

The original guy who made games for a spectrometer was innovating for innovation’s sake. He was creating where, in the past, nothing had existed. If you think that people should not innovate for innovation’s sake in games, computer and console gaming would never have existed!

The Nuances of Innovation

The assumptions I made in the first sentence of the naive view are not valid. According to the current understanding the game design community has of fun, we cannot objectively say that something is fun; the nature of innovation is also clearly not objective.

To analyze innovation for innovation’s sake, we must be able to decide if something is innovative. Innovation, though it generally has a positive connotation, basically means change into something relatively new. So if something was changed in a novel way from one game to the next or within one game, we should be able to claim that innovation took place.

Though this is the most intuitive analysis, it does not take into account the intent of the designer or the past experiences of the player.

We don’t perceive change unless we see or hear about the change happening. We must have knowledge of an initial state and a different end state. If you haven’t played games before World of Warcraft and you casually play the game without digging into the universe of MMOs, you would not think that WoW is a change necessarily because you have no other game to compare it against. If you started your gaming life playing shooters and then switched to WoW, you may find it to be innovation for innovation’s sake. Blizzard made a system that converts player time into character power; that’s a baseless change from the paradigm in FPSes of the player’s skill determining his character’s power. A player well-versed in RPGs and MMOs before WoW can see WoW as an innovator and improver. The clear trail of MUDs and past MMOs show WoW to be a slight change that is primarily polishing certain aspects of the genre for good reason, not simply making up new mechanics from scratch.

In order for innovation to be pursued for its own sake, the designer has to actually choose to discard what has come before in favor of rethinking what might be. If the designer doesn’t do that, their innovation is not independent of what has come before. Such innovation must be some attempt at improving a past system and therefore it is not innovation for innovation’s sake alone.

The innovation discussion is a red herring.

What one player finds innovative another might find boring and overdone. A player or designer can never pull back and truly see what is actually new and what is not. A designer cannot willingly eliminate his past experiences from contention as he designs are mechanic. Even if they could, there would be no way for outsiders to tell that this was happening. Is the designer stealing from Obscure Designer B who did it five years earlier, or did she come up with the same solution to a problem independently?

Because “objective” innovation doesn’t translate into fun, perhaps we should not discuss it seriously. The novel is often preferable to what we’ve already seen, but that makes no statement about quality. What is new could be shallow, whereas what is old could be deep.

The question we should ask ourselves is: how does this mechanic contribute to accomplishing the game’s apparent goals, and do these design goals lead to a fun game? If such a mechanic is, in fact, old or new is orthogonal to fun—innovation in games is necessarily subjective in discussions of game design, so it tends to be a red herring. Do we really care about what is innovative? We only care because looking back on how well old mechanics worked seems to be one of our only “objective” ways to see how fun a mechanic is—it’s a poor tool, but it’s the only tool we seem to have that isn’t muddled by our own taste. Until more psychological research comes out about the effects of game mechanics on gamers in the context of different games, we will continue to suffer the tyranny of innovation discussions and “copycat” name-calling. We don’t have the tools yet that we’d need to safely pinpoint the dismal utility of the innovation debate—perhaps the debate will only end when we can make games in a concerted, researched, scientific manner, instead of grabbing at apparitions we saw or heard about from previous games and designers and attempting to glue them to our own delusional and misguided conceptions of fun.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Incentive Addiction

Extrinsic and intrinsic rewards are at odds. When we find no intrinsic reward, we do boring things for extrinsic rewards. When we enjoy something, extrinsic rewards supplant intrinsic rewards when they’re added to the system—take the extrinsic reward away and the intrinsic goes with it.

This has been shown true by thousands of studies, according to Chris Hecker who talked about it in a GDC presentation (here is the summary I read). It backs up much of the writing I’ve done here on MMORPGs, especially in the themepark subgenre.

Some games don’t benefit from adding reward treadmills—these games have enjoyable gameplay to begin with. Adding substantial extrinsic rewards would only turn the enjoyable game into a grind. This has happened to me to a small degree with Global Agenda. The way GA is continuing, it will only get worse. I hate watching the addition unnecessary and excessive extrinsic rewards ruin a potentially great game. Unfortunately, it seems to be the current fad in game design.

(You might also want to check out this Overcoming Bias article on incentives.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Global Agenda 1.3: Lopsided Timesinks

Global Agenda’s much anticipated 1.3 patch will release within the next couple of weeks. This patch continues the general trend towards timesink gameplay, while potentially damaging the balance of a game which is well-balanced already.

Below I will give impressions on some of the changes as posted in this thread by HiRezErez. (I’ve improved the formatting to make it somewhat more readable. I have not altered the text, though.)

Character levels and specializations:

  • Leveling from 30-50 will now have a lot more meaning.
  • At level 30+ players will be able to choose a specialization path for the character. Each class has two specializations (that match the current Skill Trees)
  • You can only choose one specialization which allows you additional skill points in the specialization tree and allows you to use new weapons/devices that are being introduced.
  • If you want to specialize in both areas and change between them frequently you will need to create and level up another character for that class.

Very negative reaction from the community forced HiRez into reconsidering the sudden inflexibility here that would cause players to have to level up two characters of the same class to have the same flexibility they have in one character now.

Vertical advancement, a problem in this game that is passable at the moment due to its limited nature, will be emphasized and elongated in the patch. I’ve been frustrated with power differences between level 10 and 30 characters up to this point as I’ve leveled alts through PvP—now it’s going to get almost doubly annoying.

New weapons/Devices:

  • For each class specialization new weapons and devices are being introduced. We are trying for at least one weapon/device per slot type per class
    Some examples: The Laser Sniper Rifle, The Barrage Grenade Launcher, The Claw,The Perfect Rifle, The Beacon Tracker, The Impact Hammer, The Multi-Heal Gun, The Oathbreaker Boost. There are over 50 that we are currently evaluating for introduction.
  • These weapons/devices will be earned in a special way using Conquest Tokens
  • These weapons have a minimum player level requirement ranging from 30-50

Conquest and Mercenary Tokens:

  • Conquest Tokens are earned by playing/winning different parts of the game with a maximum tokens that can be earned each day. (Subscribers will get them faster since they will be able to participate in more parts of the game, but everyone can earn enough over time to get the various rewards)
  • Mercenary Tokens are earned by playing/winning various matches with a maximum tokens that can be earned each day. (All players earn these at the same rate)

Rewards, Loot and Crafting:

  • We plan on having full Armor drops as loot in PvE missions which are character bound when you get them (both Co-Op and Open Zones)
  • We also plan on allowing Armor crafters create upgrade kits to these Armor drops to improve their stats.
  • Weapon upgrades will be replaced with Upgrade Kits that allow players to improve the stat on the actual weapons (instead of overall stats)
  • Weapons will also drop as loot in PvE with improved stats over current weapons (which can be then upgraded with Weapon Upgrade kits from crafters)
  • Weapons and Armor can also be purchased with Conquest Tokens and Mercenary Tokens.

Timesinks! Now you have to grind to attain weapons and other equipment to be competitive in PvP, further increasing power differentials in a game already made a bit more annoying by existing vertical advancement.

Balance will also be tossed aside in favor of adding some new weapons and devices which almost definitely will ruin existing class balance. Before this patch, many devices are absolutely useless. After the patch, I’m sure many more will be. Instead of adding more potentially game-breaking devices, HiRez should focus on making more existing equipment viable. HiRez sees that their coffee table is unsteady, but instead of evening the legs, they instead have Aunt Bertha sit on it.

Store openings:

  • More stores will be open.
  • The Jetpack store will have two new jetpacks available that are purchased using Conquest Tokens

A new hightech UI is being introduced although not all screens may be changed to it in time for the 1.3 release

Opening all the stores that were in the game at release but closed? Sounds good to me. The conquest token bit is going to encourage grinding, though, which is counter to the skill-based philosophy of this game’s core design as a third-person tactical shooter.

It’s great that they’re fixing up the UI. It is quite buggy if not downright bad now. I bet, though, that the interface will be half-converted after this patch and will not be polished and finished for a while yet.

Open Zone (Warzones)

  • We are currently testing these zone which are large open spaces that players will join to do various missions. For the 1.3 release we plan on having open PvE zone with several different mission types as well as a PvPvE zone with several mission types and a zone win condition.
  • We are currently rewriting some of the Unreal 3 server to allow more players to interact in the zone. We don't know what the final number will look like yet but we hope for a minimum of 30 players in a PvE zone and 50 in a PvP zone.

Oh! Now maybe this game can justify labeling itself as an MMORPG/FPS—though it’s still neither an RPG nor an FPS, and it’s barely an MMO.

These new open world areas will further fracture the population, exacerbating the existing PvP and 4v4 queuing problems (not enough people in the queues for the games to be much fun).

What Should They Have Done?

  • 10 new PvP maps: two for each game mode.
  • A new, innovative PvP mode that doesn’t involve standing on a point.
  • Three new kinds of PvE missions that auto-adjust the difficulty level of enemies depending on the team’s character and skill levels. Each of these missions should have a couple of maps.
  • A huge bug-fixing pass on the existing interface. All mouse-overs are unified in a new, clearer style of writing that makes it clear what everything does.
  • 5 new AvA maps.
  • Bugfixing and enhancement of existing AvA platforms, vehicles, and gameplay in general.

This would expand the game significantly for existing players without introducing new timesinks or balance issues. 1.4 would then be spent on rebalancing a large chunk of the non-viable devices and weapons currently littering the game.

Instead of making Global Agenda a strictly better game, HiRez has specialized the game more in the MMORPG direction. At this point, HiRez needs to draw players back and attract new players. They can’t readily afford to further fracture their playerbase and dither on what kind of game they’re making. Unfortunately, they have chosen to try to make the game more like a themepark MMORPG—something which is incompatible with the micro-level gameplay.

I don’t know how this will turn out for the game in the long run. The game may lose a lot of the skill-interested players and gain some MMORPG players who are then turned off by the game’s skill-focus at the micro-level and later quit. On the other hand, the new features may draw enough players back to the game and hook them again. As the game is now, with roughly 1k players online at peak hours, I doubt it can survive by further breaking apart the population into even more queues and introducing increasingly demanding timesinks.

Global Agenda is a game caught between two design philosophies. So far it seems that they either don’t realize this, or they’re simply trying to cash-in on “easy” MMO money through the impossible path of trying to make everyone happy.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Macro- and Micromanagement in MMORPGs

MMORPG characters require attention to micro—you have to tell your character what to attack and with what abilities all the time, even if the task is trivial. This constant interaction keeps people in touch with their characters at a basic level. If these trivial small actions were streamlined away or automated, the player loses his sense of identity with his character. The player feels like she is the character because of all these small routine actions—if the player didn’t have to do these actions, that direct attachment to the character disappears; the player will feel like a detached watcher or manager of their characters instead. This could potentially be devastating to a game that focuses on the player identifying with her character over a long span of time, as themepark MMOs do through their one-character focus and permalife mechanics.

Many players find the macromanagement in MMOs to be appealing: setting up a guild and coordinating reward gathering procedures. They do mundane tasks in service to higher goals—the ends here justify the means to these players. Grinding isn’t a problem in this context. The grind glues the fun macro-elements of the game together.

MMORPGs fail when the macro doesn’t sufficiently glue together the micro. On the other side of the spectrum, shooters focus solely on micro and often have no macro-level functionality. One match is a self-contained unit of play in most shooters. Only recently have we seen MMORPG mechanics like vertical advancement and unlockables build meaningful macromanagement into the shooter space.

Themepark MMORPGs that can’t have interesting combat (and most of them can’t) should focus on making the macro fun. Give players plenty of social options, a great guild interface, customizable characters both in look and capability. The micro-level can safely be dedicated to keeping player-character attachment strong, while the macro-level houses the broader “fun”—social interaction and higher-level activities give meaning to the themepark MMORPG.

One example of this macro/micro split is permadeath in themepark MMORPGs. Permadeath is implicitly built into themeparks at the macro-level. Guilds and groups organically form and disband. Social organizations and practical gaming organizations live and die—and we can easily tell that it’s happening.

In the sense that a character is an notional society of cells (though it’s not modeled, that’s how we understand organic beings), MMORPG micro and macro are self-similar and seem to be fractal in nature. Though the game doesn’t model the ongoing fight against entropy in the living organisms of the world, natural processes of organization and disintegration act on in-game societies to produce the macro-level effect without the micro-level effect being necessary. Players bring this to the game through merely playing it.

Themepark MMORPG design can improve by designers being conscious of of the micro/macro distinction and how important it is to the life of the game.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Playing a Healing Medic in Global Agenda PvP

I’ve played over 60 hours on my medic in Global Agenda now, almost exclusively PvPing. Here are some tips and tricks for being an effective medic in PvP.

As a healing medic, you should prioritize targets to heal in two ways: heal good players before bad players. Heal other healing medics first, then assaults, robotics, and recons in that order. Don’t heal a bad assault instead of a good recon, though—keep your eyes open for good players and help them turn the tide by keeping them alive as long as possible.

Remember that healing has a multiplicative effect on team ability. The better you heal a good player, the better he’ll play: he can be in battle for a much higher percentage of the match because he doesn’t have to withdraw when low on health or wait to respawn. A better player will be more useful each second he’s alive than a bad player.


  • When you first get into a PvP match, run a /who on each assault and check their star rating. You should stick to the ones that are higher-rated, because they’ve proven that they improve their team’s chances of winning the most. Most of the time, a high-rated player will contribute more—you can push your team over the top by keeping him alive where otherwise he’d be dead.
  • Just because you’re a healer doesn’t mean you can’t bring along poison wave or poison aura! A great healer adapts to the situation. If they don’t have many medics, well placed poisons can turn the tide of the battle. Change your offhands during the match, if necessary, to maximize your effectiveness. On Scramble and Payload missions, one poison off-hand can make a huge impact because players will tend to cluster around the objective.

Heal Well

  • Use obstacles to block opponents from firing at you as you heal teammates. The less damage you take, the better job you’re doing healing your target. A dead medic can heal no-one. Use terrain to your advantage to avoid enemy fire. Sit lower on a hill than your assault buddy so you aren’t exposed. Heal them from behind a wall. Find a crate that you can crouch behind and heal friendlies without being hit by fire from the other side.
  • Use your offhands to pile on burst healing when a friendly (or multiple) takes severe and sudden damage. Last night I was running PvP with a full group of high-skill players—I was using a three-wave offhand build, with frenzy wave, healing wave, and power wave at my disposal. I could pile on 1300 burst healing in a matter of seconds, along with my right-click heal doing 242ish per tick. I’ve saved many teammates by launching all my waves in the middle of a big fight—power wave and frenzy wave can, when coupled, especially lead to a fight shifting into my team’s favor.
  • Don’t waste your time healing players who are full on health unless you’re trying to regain health using the biofeedback beam. Keep as many people alive as possible.
  • The right-click heal on biofeedback and boost beams does double healing, but it’s much more expensive in power. Use the right-click heal often, but don’t overheal with it. Pay attention to your target’s health and stop healing with right-click as soon as he’s topped off.
  • If you begin taking sustained damage, use your jetpack to hop around erratically until your enemy switches targets. Go back to healing your friends once the heat is off.
  • Never let a bomb recon’s bombs hit you. Taking their damage can easily kill you. EMP bombs can disable you and lead to your team being pushed off an objective. Dodge bombs and grenades as much as possible—your teammates sometimes cannot do so because they’re busy capturing an objective or finishing off an enemy, but it’s your duty to keep them alive after the bombs go off. You probably won’t stay alive for long if you eat bomb damage.

Fight Back

  • Is a recon harassing you, but getting away using his stealth whenever teammates apply pressure? DoT him. Hit him with your agonizer, a poison or powervirus grenade, or a poison wave. While the DoT is in effect, he cannot effectively cloak.
  • Use your melee weapon. If you need to deal damage, your melee weapon is your best bet. Not only does swinging away with your poison injector do more damage than most ranged weapons, you also recharge power while you’re doing it. For this reason you may want to prefer melee to ranged combat if you need to fight.
  • Take out undefended turrets. Do whatever you need to do to help your team. Is a turret harassing your teammates while another healer is nearby? Get behind the turret and kill it. Preventing damage is as good as healing it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Short, Replayable Games

Think of chess. A game of chess is relatively short. A casual game lasts no more than an hour, usually. Serious games can take longer—three-hour-game tournaments are common. Notice that when you play a game of chess, you’ve processed a few dozen board positions and seen some tactics you haven’t before encountered. You can’t hope to get the entire experience of playing chess from playing one game. Chess isn’t “over” when you’re done playing one game.

Too many videogames are considered “over” and exhausted once you’ve finished your first play-through. Experience-oriented games tend to reach a point where they are clearly “over” and “beaten”. Themepark MMORPGs are unique among experience-oriented games because they do not have a decided end-point, but instead have an open end onto which developers tack more and more content until the game no longer is worth the investment.

Experience-oriented games work better with longer play sessions, because they rely on the player holding information about characters and stories in their heads throughout the playthrough in order for the game to have its full effect. Experience-oriented games are designed almost as interactive movies. Their stories are almost always static—created by game designers and writers and consumed as they are intended to be consumed, in whole and unaltered. Designers paste gameplay into gaps between story exposition. The gameplay does nothing to alter the story, though different pieces of the story may be shown at different times because of gameplay.

I prefer short, replayable games because they tend to be designed in a way that avoids several aspects of many games that I dislike.

  • I don’t want to play games that demand so much of my time just to experience a story which will doubtless be less interesting than the stories in the great works of fiction that I could easily sit down and read instead of playing the game.
  • I don’t want to play games where playing the game is a small part of the experience. I play games to play games. If a community grows around the game and they help to give it meaning, I enjoy that aspect—but if the game isn’t good as a game, and if, when I play the game as a game, I can’t have fun, I won’t play the game.
  • I don’t want to play games that rely heavily on rewarding the player at every turn for the mere investment of time. Games that do this are not good games, they are reward engines that push people to perform actions they’d otherwise find boring. Games should not need to rely on extrinsic rewards to keep their players playing—this reliance is a design flaw. (It may make the game more money, though. I’m not concerned with how much money a game makes; I only care if I have fun playing it.)

I love the rapid replayability of a game like chess. I enjoy building my knowledge and skill over multiple plays of a skill-based game. I want more games like this. Especially games that don’t require great reflexes or great eyesight. Strategy games get to the heart of gaming as an intellectual pursuit—turn-based games cut out the physical skill element. I wish more people would make turn-based strategy games meant to be competitively played. I will try to make them myself in the meantime.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Battlefield: Bad Design 2

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has really nice graphics, but its design has some glaring issues. With all of the cheerleading done by reviewers (not that they cover game design much in their reviews, anyway), I think some criticism is in order. Here are a few aspects of BFBC2 that have annoyed me repeatedly in my first 10 hours of playing the game, mostly in multiplayer.

They hate newbies and want them to fail.

BFBC2 has vertical advancement in its multiplayer. Lots of it. You advance as a player through god-knows-how-many levels and unlock equipment. You also advance in each class—assault, engineer, recon, medic. Your class-specific advancement takes the form of unlockables you earn by doing positive stuff (killing enemies, getting assists, capturing points, etc.) while playing as that class.

These unlockables add significant utility to your character. You cannot use your class-specific utility ability until you’ve unlocked it, which may take many matches. This is hideously awful design. Not only is a newb hampered by a lack of knowledge of the basic game mechanics, he also cannot be useful at a base level as his class would indicate. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare mitigated this issue by giving all characters, regardless of level, a full compliment of weapons and perks—increasing level unlocked a wider variety of weapons to choose from, it didn’t outright add new abilities on top of existing abilities that made your character significantly more powerful than someone of lower level.

It’s noticeably easier to get XP once you’ve unlocked your class abilities, as well—this means that the newbie is put through a slog of slow XP gimpiness and he has no way to avoid it. This is terrible design both as a vertical advancement system and as a mechanic in an FPS that should be entirely skill-based.

Grenade Hell

Taking one grenade’s damage will kill you. Modern Warfare took note of this peculiarity and added a “grenade danger indicator” graphic that lets you know where a nearby grenade has landed. BFBC2 gives you no indication that a grenade has landed nearby—the only way you can tell would be to actually see the grenade thrown. When you’re busy aiming an innacurate gun at your opponent and praying you’ll hit them, it’s difficult to see every little flying detail around you and differentiate between a grenade and, say, a piece of completely superfluous garbage fluttering in the wind.

In Global Agenda, grenades can’t kill you in one hit. There’s no grenade indicator graphic, but there is an audible “CLICK” sound when the grenade hits the ground. Grenades are also huge glowing balls of death, easily visible. Global Agenda’s third-person perspective allows a wide-enough field of view that you can usually see where grenades are coming from and react reasonably. Grenades are balanced in this fashion.

Grenades in BFBC2 are instant and near unavoidable death because there are no audio or visual cues unless you’re staring right at the person throwing the grenade. This is not balanced and it is not fun.

Big Maps Mean Marathons

My pinky hurts from holding down the shift key half the time so that I can get between parts of the map at a reasonable pace in the standard case of not being near any vehicles. The Conquest multiplayer mode will wear out your shift key in this fashion.

Big maps are great for vehicles—piloting a tank doesn’t make much sense in a small map. But the maps in BFBC2 are annoying large if you don’t have a vehicle. You usually won’t have a vehicle. The maps are large, but you still will regularly find that it makes no sense to drive a tank through much more than three or four clearly delineated pathways through the map. This makes vehicular combat usually pretty boring and predictable, because mobility is limited to a large enough extent for strategic maneuvering to be minimal.

Big maps cause gun balancing issues. Suddenly, the range of a weapon is critical information for the player to have, because he will regularly encounter situations where he can see enemies who are beyond his weapon’s effective range. Outranging your opponent can win you a battle in such an environment. Most weapons, unfortunately, aren’t particularly accurate at any but short-to-medium range—unfortunately there’s no indication of weapons’ effective ranges. Obviously snipers will dominate in such an environment.

Ever try drawing battle lines among 32 players who can spawn just about anywhere on a big map? So seldom is it clear who is attacking from where that the little pinhole first-person perspective through which I see the game is even more inadequate than usual to the task of giving me reasonable sensory data on my surroundings.

Other Assorted Annoyances

  • You need a shocking amount of XP earned before you gain access to the red dot sight. As I said in my post about CoD4, using iron sights is almost strictly inferior to using red dot sights. This is yet another example of how vertical advancement in an FPS can be surprisingly frustrating.
  • There’s no clear indication of the effective range of different weapons in BFBC2. This game has huge maps—you need to have a good feel for how far the gun will fire if you’re to gauge combat situations appropriately.
  • No clear sound when you hit an opponent. When firing a relatively inaccurate weapon at range, the little symbol that appears to indicate you’ve hit an opponent does not provide enough feedback for you to gauge the amount of damage you’ve dealt.
  • BFBC2 punishes you for being near an explosion by distorting your sound for several seconds. The game’s sound is already suspect—occasionally an appropriate echo or some such dazzle will be cool, but the sound isn’t as useful to me as the sound was in CoD4—punishing players who are already besieged by explosive-wielding enemies by stripping them of one perceptual input is unnecessary. If I don’t have my headphones on while playing, tanks can sneak up behind me without me noticing the audio cue.
  • There is so much bloom, random particles in the air, and camouflage that I find it very hard to see enemy combatants at range unless they’re moving. My eyes aren’t particularly good, but I notice that in this game, particularly, I have lots of trouble seeing enemy combatants.
  • Every vehicle and combatant icon on the radar (which could be quite nice otherwise) has a bloom effect on it that makes reading the radar completely impossible if there are more than a few players or vehicles in the same place. This is terrible primarily because you rely on the radar to choose where you want to deploy, and deploying in the right place consistently is a huge contributor towards capping points in conquest and winning games.
  • You can be a part of a squad of up to four players. Anyone can spawn on top of a squadmate anywhere they are on the map as long as they're alive. This means that where one enemy is, 3 more can instantly appear. This renders strategic movement moot to some extent, because a dead enemy will just be magically respawned with full health and ammo where his one remaining squadmate is camping right near where you just whooped his ass a minute ago.

Overall Impression So Far

I would give BFBC2 a mediocre review. It does nothing particularly well, but could be reliably enjoyable if I could see well enough to be effective in combat. 2.5/5.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Innovation and the Gaming Habit

People don’t buy games because solely because they are innovative, they buy games because they think the games will be fun to play. People do not try to reference some objective and authoritative “fun” when they decide if they will buy a game. They see the game in relation to their interests and what they’ve played in the past—based on this, they’ll decide if they want to try the game out. Perhaps they’ll have read a review before hand, but, most likely, players are buying games almost blindly. People who enjoy games will do more research before they purchase, but there still is thought of objective “fun.”

Fun is relative and subjective. So is novelty. We call novel game ideas “innovative”. We do this on a wide scale, taking into account all the games we can remember playing and some we’ve only read about or watched others play. There is no objective novelty to which we refer when we tag some mechanic or game as “innovative.” Our perception depends solely on our past experience. I may perceive a game as innovative, but you would be right to note that, for instance, three obscure games made by a Finnish game developer in 2001 already did that before, therefore the game isn’t innovative. All that matters, though, is that I find the game new, fun, and fresh. Discussions about true objective innovation are academic affairs.

Or maybe I’m looking for a game that will be more of the same in a genre I love, in which case I want to be comfortable and not jarred by unwanted novelty, unnecessary innovation.

If you follow how people spend their money, you’ll notice that they may claim to want something novel, but they most often buy more of the same. Note the painfully slow progress of the FPS genre, in particular.

Gamers clamor for innovation when they grow bored with kinds of games that they used to love and want to play more. Different people perceive the patterns in games at different levels of abstraction. The higher-level the patterns, the more games you’ll get bored of and the more you’ll clamor for innovation. When patterns become familiar and gameplay in those patterns is no longer fun, players will want innovation. This happens one player at a time—the community will not collectively make this leap, because each individual player needs to see the patterns and grow bored with them separately and on their own terms. When others point out the patterns the process may speed up, but boredom must develop from actually playing the games.

Over the past several years, gaming has grown in leaps and bounds. So many new players are seeing these hackneyed patterns for the first time that innovation seems unnecessary to industry participants. Game developers can borrow heavily from the past, sometimes outright cloning old games, and the new generation of gamers will pick up the rehash and experience it as if they were playing a brand new game. No need to innovate in an environment such as this—and this pattern of rehashing games to capitalize on new players shows no sign of reaching its end.

To most players, innovation would just be a nuisance. They’re busy playing games that were conceived thirty years ago and enjoying them just as their parents did in those days when the gaming industry was barely an industry. Players take a while to catch up to the modern days of gaming—many never do. But anyone who enjoys games and plays enough of them to develop a discerning taste will find that innovation and fun are noticeably correlated.

Innovation will never be chosen because it brings popularity. As the number of jaded gamers grows, though, innovative games will service niches that can comfortably host many profitable ventures.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Defining Massivity

I am so sick of people calling various online games "virtual worlds", or worse yet, "massively multiplayer online (games)". I hope to make a few distinctions, namely the difference between a virtual world and a virtual environment, and when a multiplayer online game actually qualifies as massive.

Damion Schubert noted the selling point of MMOGs compared to regular online games. That difference is "massivity", the potential for hundreds of users to interact in a virtual environment. Since Schubert's comment was in passing during his presentation, he doesn't seem to provide a formal definition of massivity, and I don't know him personally, so I cannot ask him for one.

Ultimately what an MMOG design hopes to achieve is a feeling of massivity. This is an aesthetic experience which cannot be easily quantified nor defined, but I will attempt to do so. Massivity is the feeling that the user is part of a large world which changes without her being there. It is the potential for hundreds of players to interact in some virtual space, all perhaps with different goals.

We can have games without massivity. But we cannot have massivity without a virtual environment, specifically a virtual world.

I like to use a layered definition when talking about MMOGs: virtual world + game = MMOG. Most people can identify a game or at least hazily understand that there are game systems at work when they experience them. But everyone from bloggers to journalists to game designers seem to forget what a virtual world is.

I define a virtual world to be a globally-accessible simulated, persistent environment in which users interact through an avatar proxy. A virtual world is a virtual environment with the following constraints:
  • The environment must contain the concept of location. It must be able to relate entities in the environment to the user with positional information. A chat room is not a virtual world.
  • The environment must persist between play sessions. It must convey the notion of a "living world" which advances while the user is not engaged with it. Any instanced encounter with an end is not a virtual world.
  • The environment must be globally-accessible and consistent, meaning all agents in the environment could potentially congregate at a location. This is technically impossible, but the impossibility must be hidden to the user. Any user understands that as long as he is a part of the virtual world, he can meet (intentionally or by happenstance) any other user in the world.
Channeling is a solution to a technical problem which diminishes the feeling of massivity because the game replicates the same environment, breaking the consistency of the world, and no longer are the technical limitations of the environment concealed from the user. I am not saying that channeled zones are not virtual worlds; they simply break "immersion". As an aside, has anyone ever experienced a channeling system which wasn't annoying or confusing?

Studios are releasing many online games which are breaking molds. They call it a "hybridization"; I call it exploitation of the buzz surrounding MMORPGs. Facebook labels games like Farmville and Restaurant City as virtual worlds. Debates ensue on whether or not anything with character persistence (e.g. TF2) is enough to qualify the game as an MMOG. I find this talk very dangerous because it dilutes the definition of virtual worlds and MMORPGs.

Is Diablo 2 an MMORPG? By Farmville or Global Agenda standards, it would appear to qualify. It has privately instanced virtual environments, character persistence, and public chat rooms serving as lobbies. But there is no global environment where any one user could accidentally interact with someone else. The world does not evolve and move without the user present. Sure items are traded and bands of players do quests together, but is there really a persistent world anywhere?

Any of the recent shooters with character and item persistence, whether or not trading is implemented, still reside in game spaces, not virtual worlds. Games are played on maps which have a beginning and end. They are highly structured games with limited participants. There is no central gathering place where players can interact and put their mark on the world by simply standing around. Character persistence is not world persistence.

MAG or even a hypothetical game with more than 128 v 128 battles are no more an MMOFPS than TF2, i.e. they are not MMOFPSs. If a player logs off in the middle of a battle, his team may lose the match. But the buck stops there. There are no repercussions in the larger game world, because there is no larger game world! His guild doesn't lose land nor is his skeleton a terrain decal for the next week; the players lick their wounds or bask in victory, and they start a new game. Once again, character persistence is not world persistence.

Using today's weak definition, we could classify any online multiplayer game as an MMOG. That would defeat the point of creating genres at all, and we would be back where we started: what is the difference between Everquest and Dungeon Siege? Massivity.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Experience-oriented vs. Competition-oriented Design

When analyzing game design, I note that some games aim to give as many players as possible a certain set of experiences and go no further than that, while other games aim to provide ways for players to compare themselves against other players. These two styles of design can be intermingled in a single game, but often the game will clearly point towards one of the two styles.

We can draw a distinction between two different kinds of design: the experience-oriented and the competition-oriented.

Experience-oriented Design

Most games are experience-oriented. They present you with a set of challenges that they expect you to overcome and areas that you’re supposed to explore. After you’ve explored and completed the challenges, you have experienced the game. You understand what’s going on—the mechanics are usually simple and act as a goad to keep a baseline of interest—you don’t have much need to play it again. Usually these games have a linear (or multi-linear) storyline that you would play through once; maybe you’d play through a second time if you really liked the game.

These games need to focus on immersing the player in an interesting environment. These games should be relatively easy. Or they can provide facilities for changing the difficulty setting to suit any skill-level.

Experience-oriented games may have sections of gameplay where skill matters, but usually these sections will be tests of efficiency where being better at the game grants you a minor advantage—experience-oriented games shouldn’t have skill tests that provide high barriers to content, because experiencing the game’s content is the focus of an experience-oriented game.

Experience-oriented games include the vast majority of JRPGs and single-player RPGs, and single-player games like Grand Theft Auto 4 and Metal Gear Solid. Themepark MMORPGs and some sandboxes fall primarily into this category of design.

Competition-oriented Design

A competition-oriented game discriminates among players based on their skill. Experience-oriented games generally do not—they ask for no more than a time investment and a base level of ability.

Gaming itself started with competitive games where friends would play against one another at games of strategy like chess and go, as well as various card games and sports. Videogaming started with competitive games—but in these games players generally competed against the environment for high scores, only indirectly competing against one another through comparing scores. Arcade games were naturally competitive games based on sufficiency skill tests, because arcade games that let players play for a long time on each credit make less money and will be removed in favor of more profitable machines. From arcade gaming grew consoles and PC games as we know them today. As gaming became more popular, there was more financial incentive for games to be open to more people. Designers lowered skill barriers and games focused on the player’s experience instead of challenge.

Competition-oriented games are built to be played repeatedly. Players play the game through multiple unique times to learn how the game mechanics work and evolve progressively more effective strategies through trial and error. In order for a game to be competitive, its core gameplay must measure player skill in some way. The easiest way to do that is to pit two players against one another with even, usually symmetrical, starting conditions and similar mechanics.

Games like chess, go, stratego, othello, poker, backgammon, Counterstrike, Call of Duty 4, Modern Warfare 2, the Halo games, bullet-hell games, and competitive RTS games like Starcraft, Company of Heroes, and Command and Conquer 3 are among competition-oriented games.

The Tension

MMORPGs, because they rely on massive populations, naturally orient towards experience design. When people start playing MMORPGs, though, they aren’t sensitive to the fact that they are playing an experience-oriented game. The tickling they receive for spending time in the game seems like the tickling they’d receive for being of high skill and succeeding at a skill-oriented game. The distinction between a timesink-based game and a skill growth-based game is not readily visible to the everyday player, so they’ll continue playing the game under the impression that they are a good player because they’re continually rewarded as if they were one. The player will eventually thirst for a real skill test—they’ll want to show off their skill at this game they’ve invested so much time into. In this way a tension develops between experience-oriented and competition-oriented gameplay and design.

Competition-oriented design must discriminate among players—players are measured against one another and players can view that measurement. Good competition-oriented games make this measurement easy to read, though it may only be on a discrete “I won” vs. “I lost” scale. A game can’t discriminate and fail to discriminate at the same time. For this reason, a mechanic cannot be both designed in an experience-oriented fashion and a competition-oriented fashion.

Mechanics of the experience-oriented and competition-oriented varieties can be mixed within the same game, though, and often are. Themepark MMORPGs (and some sandboxes, as well) don’t discriminate until the very top of the time investment reward chain has been reached. This is how such games resolve the experience and competition tension inherent in an experience-oriented game design.

A themepark MMORPG based on skill doesn’t make sense. A game based on content exploration and letting all players have access to as much content as possible cannot be a game based on skill discrimination that uses content as a board and pieces are used in chess. This does not preclude themepark MMORPGs from having competitive elements. On the other side of the same coin, we can say that competition-oriented games will only be weakened by adding experience-oriented design ideas—if  a game is to be based on competition, clouding that competition with timesinks can only weaken the core of the game.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

“Maximizing Fun”

All game design should intuitively should rely on the following maxim: Games should maximize fun.

But where? and how? What is more fun and for whom? Who do you care about? When given a decision between making something fun for one kind of player or another, which kind do you choose?

One of the first questions asked when trying to design a game: why are we making a game? Or, more precisely, why will we make design decisions?

You can’t always make design decisions that appeal to the largest number of people because you don’t know what the largest number of people actually want. Game designers probably do not think of why they’re making design decisions in a broader sense—they might say “because this will be fun” or “because this will make money” but they won’t be able to answer much further if pressed. Game design is guided very much by intuition. Designers primarily refit concepts they’ve seen in other games into the context of their game—genres are in this way perpetuated by endless clones with slight variations. Without a more objective criteria for design decisions, “that which I think will be most popular” or “that which I’ve seen and liked before” are the main justifications for design on a broader level—as long as those justifications rule, clones are the order of the day.

When I approach analyzing a game’s design and judging the quality of certain design decisions, I open myself up to the patterns the game reveals to me. How do I play the game? Where are the developers trying to focus my attention? I start from a holistic view of how the game is put together and then look at more specific aspects to see if rough edges show themselves. I try to see what design decisions fit and do not fit with the patterns I noticed when looking at the game as a whole.

From here I can derive the “consistency” of the game design. A consistent design directs the player naturally towards what the game does best and doesn’t distract her with divergent quirks and mechanical dead-ends. Generally, games that have consistent designs are better games. Judging the consistency of a game is one way to get a feel for design quality while avoiding the multifaceted and ever-changing subjective nature of fun that gets in the while of “maximizing fun”. Consistency is still very subjective, but it is at least one step away from blind traditionalism and appeals to popularity to which so much game design seems to fall victim.