Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Horrible Ball of Fire

I've been playing EVE for over four months and really enjoying it. Although I only have a couple hours a night to play, I don't think I could handle more time with it. PvP and piracy can be intense, and living in low-security keeps me on edge constantly. It's emotionally draining to just travel around. The environment provides the exact grand emotions I originally sought, yet I admit I occasionally wish for more meditative gameplay (e.g. mindlessly farming mobs).

I've created a more informal journal for my EVE experiences and thoughts: Horrible Ball of Fire. The higher level design articles related to EVE or MMORPGs I will continue to post here on TATI, but any play session that I feel is story-worthy, no matter how inconsequential, I will record on Horrible Ball of Fire. I often video record fights so that I can review them later and identify mistakes, but I also post them on youtube to share.

My favorite article thus far is about my attempt to destroy a battleship with my tiny frigate: So a Wolf and Armageddon walk into an asteroid belt. My heart was racing and my stomach was full of butterflies from the moment I spotted the ship on scanner until the fight was over. It was the most emotionally intense experience I've ever had an in video game.

So if you are interested in reading more frequent and informal stories and analysis, then be sure to check out Horrible Ball of Fire. I try to keep the jargon down, but some times I forget.

Monday, December 26, 2011

World PvP: A Common Model

World PvP comes in many forms, yet there is a simple environment model that gets used over and over again. It can be seen in World of Warcraft, EVE, Darkfall, Dark Age of Camelot, and many other past and future games.
  1. Rewards for engaging in PvP.
  2. Risk associated with entering "PvP" areas.
  3. Non-PvP content/rewards in those areas.
This simple list describes Isle of Quel'Danas, Tol Barad, and world bosses in WoW; low-security space in EVE; dungeons in Darkfall; Passage of Conflict in DAoC; and any resource node or choke point in any MMORPG with PvP capabilities ever.

Rewards include crafting materials, mob access, safe passage, money, abstract currency (Honor), and loot. Note that territory control is not a reward in itself--owning land for the sake of owning land is meaningless and players will not value that "resource" unless it gives them an advantage or creates wealth/value, including vanity (player houses). Territory control is often an objective in competitive multiplayer games, but at the very least players win the game by claiming control--most MMORPGs are not "won". Compare the difference in activity between the Zangarmarsh control points in BC WoW (gaining a +5% experience boost in the zone), to the Spirit Towers around Auchindoun (allowing bosses to drop Spirit Shard currency). [TC rant over...]

Risk is "exposing (someone or something valued) to danger, harm, or loss". Something must be risked to have infectious PvP. It could be as minute as lost time on a corpse run, or as harsh as the entire net progress of your character (permadeath). The severity of the potential loss directly correlates to the emotions conjured during those risky situations. The more the player risks, and thus the greater the consequences, then the more intense the emotions associated with PvP events (fear, thrill, fiero, agony, anger). Adrenaline can be addictive and binds players to the game (or makes them run in terror). "What a rush!"

People are risk adverse and are afraid of losing value. But the beauty of MMORPGs is that none of it matters! It's all make-believe.

Make-believe squid-monster riding giant eagle-horse.

The Non-PvP content in the zone attracts "grazers": players that are not looking for a fight, and will be tackled by a tiger if they don't pay attention. These players serve as content for the hunters (and the hunters provide thrilling experiences for the grazers--hooray symbiosis!). If this hunter/hunted paradigm is used, it is a good idea to include tools that allow players to evade or to truly hunt other players (foot tracks, dead mobs, chat, scanners, etc.).

Do not think that grazers are innocent victims. Players will alternate between hunters and grazers rapidly depending on what their immediate goals are. Also, longer term grazers ("carebears") who engage in risky behavior to amass rewards at an accelerated rate are the ones trying to cut corners. ;)

Assuming players are frequenting zones that follow this model, it is likely that World PvP will foster. The combat itself has to be vaguely interesting in order to motivate players to use it, so dull combat can thwart any attempts to create this environment. World PvP is an emergent dynamic and a powerful aesthetic of combat, aggression rules, and scarce resources. The fundamental mechanics need to be solid first.

Friday, December 23, 2011

World PvP Case Study: EVE Online

During my definition of World PvP, I explained that PvP in an MMORPG is inherently unfair, and World PvP is simply a mindset. It isn't knowing how to attack, but when, and for what purpose. World PvP is less restricted, and involves nudging a situation in your favor.

I expounded on this concept with a look at WoW's history to help illustrate that world PvP is much more of an emergent behavior, sitting on the Dynamics layer. WoW uses rewards in particular to guide players, perhaps accidentally, in one direction or another.

A very different game with very different architects is EVE Online. World PvP in EVE is so encompassing, so defining, that it is difficult to dissect. Put simply: there are safer locations, but nowhere is "safe"; and your ship is forfeit as soon as you undock. The most popular mantra (warning?) of EVE is, "Don't fly what you can't afford to lose."

(It is important to change the way one thinks of "possessions" in MMORPGs when playing EVE: ships, modules, buildings, and commodities are all tools for content. If one becomes attached to these virtual items, it is emotionally difficult to risk and lose them.)

EVE has significant information warfare. Knowing where, what, and how your opponent is flying is paramount to success. Players must capitalize on this knowledge while not showing their own hand. It is a game of buffing, baiting, taunting, misdirection, and downright dirty tactics where players let the enemy think they have the advantage, only to seize it away.

Baiting is the act of letting the enemy think there are fewer ships in the engagement. When the bait is taken, players are prevented from docking or changing solar systems for 60 seconds. In that window, friendly ships undock, enter the system, or warp into the fight.

Solo vessels can also employ bait tactics: if a ship has some form of health repair, they could artificially sit at low health trying to provoke a target into attacking a damaged hull. Once engaged, the ships are prevented from docking/jumping, thus the ship repairs his health and kills the target that preyed on the weak.

Hiding half a fleet, using cloak, and "hot dropping" capital ships are all within the realm of possibilities. Undocking in "High Security" space with an expensive ship or cargo could get you suicide ganked.

A less "honorable" form of PvP is "gate camping", where unsuspecting ships warp to a gate, only to be surrounded by hostile players with fast-locking ships or warp disruption fields. In these situations, as soon as the player made the decision to use the gate, they lost the fight. EVE provides maps and intelligence tools (solar system statistics, directional scanner, and proactive bookmarking). Failure or unwillingness to use these resources is as fatal a mistake as not turning on weapons.

It could even be said that the economy and marketplace of EVE is a form of PvP. Arbitrage, undercutting, speculation, and many inventive scams exemplify a player vs player system where knowledge brings riches and haste is punished.

World PvP in EVE involves significant preparation; many fights are not won on the battlefield. EVE also comes with the expectation of PvP everywhere: assume a fight is around the corner. Pick any Sun Tzu quote, and it applies to EVE.
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Monday, November 21, 2011

World PvP Case Study: WoW

During my definition of World PvP, I explained that PvP in an MMORPG is inherently unfair, and World PvP is simply a mindset. It isn't knowing how to attack, but when, and for what purpose. World PvP is less restricted, and involves nudging a situation in your favor.

While WoW's PvP isn't the cream of the crop, it makes for an interesting case study since the capacity to engage in "world pvp" hasn't changed, yet the popularity of it has. WoW helps illustrate why World PvP is a presumption outside of the game mechanics.

Some of the best moments of leveling a WoW toon involve situations where players fight other players for access to resources. These resources are almost always quest mobs. A high level character "ganking" lowbies for the perverse thrill of exercising power is not world PvP, and actually leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the inexperienced. But that is a problem with game rules, not world PvP.

A brief history of PvP in WoW:
No honor system. Many people questing. Many people, including lowbies, engaging in open world town raids for the novelty of it. No lasting consequences.

Spontaneous Horde raid on Menethil Harbor.

World bosses introduced. Large scale fights to obtain boss loot. Scouting of enemy faction becomes paramount to knowing when to engage boss.

Old Honor system, but no Battlegrounds. Many fights between Southshore and Tarren Mill. Fighting to mutually gain Honor.

Battlegrounds. Much World PvP stomped out since Honor is easier to get in BGs. Without huge gear discrepancies yet, small pockets of world PvP still seen in Plaguelands. Blackrock Mountain has much PvP fighting over dungeon and raid access.

Blizzard creates "outdoor PvP objectives" in Eastern Plaguelands and Silithus, and iterates on them in Burning Crusade. These largely flop. Massive gear discrepancies and prevalence of BGs shatter world PvP expectation. Minor fighting around raid portals.

End of Vanilla saw bored raiders running 5-man PvP excursions while waiting for Arenas and BC. Ad hoc and arranged group fights while roaming.

Arenas are introduced in Burning Crusade to the lauding of "fair and balanced" PvP folks. Resilience is added as a gear attribute. "PvP" is now an official route of character progression, and thus everyone sits in instances to optimize their gear acquisition. World PvP is a dirty word equated to ganking.

Isle of Quel'Danas is added at the end of Burning Crusade to house Sunwell and a fresh batch of chores. This popularizes World PvP in WoW again. Players form parties for protection and fighting; they expect combat while questing. Isle of Quel'Danas implements a common model for World PvP that I will discuss later.

Achievement system is added; reward to kill world leaders is introduced. Cities are in faction-owned zones, and thus combat is opt-in. These raids are not very disruptive to the empty towns.

Wintergrasp experimentation with zone PvP with raid access reward. Like AV, Wintergrasp is just a larger Battleground. Vault of Archavon predictably and regularly changes hands between Alliance and Horde. World PvP is dead throughout Wrath, but accessibility is through the roof.

Blizzard repeats success of Isle of Quel'Danas with Tol Barad at beginning of Cataclysm. World PvP makes a slight comeback. But people quickly get their reputation rewards and leave.

It is fascinating to see interest in world PvP ebb and flow as Blizzard tweaks PvP progression rewards. WoW is very elder game heavy, and thus all the resource warfare is at max level: quest access, raid access, & tradeskill material access. Cataclysm seems to have eliminated many contested quests for Horde and Alliance, so any PvP experienced while leveling is ganking or in a Battleground instance.

I definitely believe there are players in WoW who enjoy world PvP very much, and they would engage in that type of play more often if the rewards were not stacked against them. In the current game, once players gain all the reputation or gear they need from Tol Barad, there is little reason to go back. No other location in WoW comes with the expectation of PvP, and thus there is no world PvP outside of TB.

Some of the comments on my Definition post called into question "influencing the world". While not necessary for world PvP (illustrated with WoW's world PvP: no one would say they hold influence over that world), it is a strong motivator and part of Risk & Consequences that change the emotions conjured by the game, but not the game itself. I hope to expound this soon.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Defining World PvP

I am a huge fan competition in video games, both direct player vs player and cooperative competition. Competition creates efficiency; it catalyzes and motivates the exploration of a game system. It is through contention that games become e-sports, that dungeon crawls turn into speed runs, and players employ clever uses of game mechanics.

Player vs player conflict can also conjure immense emotions such as fiero and agony, which make lasting impressions in memory.

I consider Go, TF2, and Aion to all contain direct, explicit player competition. PvP is a broad category. However, there is clearly a distinction between Battlefield 3 matches and PvP in EVE. It boils down to fairness. Games of StarCraft begin and end; each player starts at a strategically balanced state; and it is through the game rules that deviations occur in power until one player succumbs and is defeated.

PvP in an MMO, specifically "world PvP", is inherently unfair. One or more players have an objective, quantifiable advantage over others. One side will have higher levels, better gear, or more participants. Any game with persistent character progression will have this imbalance manifest. A fair fight can occur coincidentally, but it is certainly not something to be expected.

MMO PvP happens within a larger context, thus world PvP transforms into more than a simple combat affair between two parties. PvP starts as soon as the player logs in. Events preceding the actual engagement ripple through the world and can affect fights. Actions that happen before, after, and during combat make world PvP an unbounded arena spatially and temporally. Without borders, players scout, hunt, run, hide, and most importantly are vulnerable before and after the actual combat.

A simple analogy: Fair PvP is a cock fight, and world PvP is the African Savannah.

World PvP requires players to be mindful of the environment. Not just navigable terrain, safe spots, and avenues of retreat, but also the entire possibility space of events. Does the enemy have backup? How many? How long until they arrive? What are my chances?

This is clearly an all-encompassing mindset of playing. It is more than action-oriented twitch combat, and more than efficient resource management; it is expecting the unexpected through planning and preparation. World PvP is an expectation in the minds of players.

Different mechanics can be layered on top of that expectation to change the level of risk and consequences, and thus the intensity of emotion the game provides. There are also many forms and implementations of world PvP.

I did a very brief and informal survey--"What is world pvp?". These were some of the answers:
unrestricted warfare
being able to pvp throughout the entire "game world"
you walking around and someone ganks you
using environment to your advantage
unknown, different factors you control, rather than just being fair
no rules
not worth my time
waiting until situation is in your advantage

What is world PvP to you?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

There's Something in the Water

We don’t want level-85 players to have a reasonable shot at level-90 dungeons and raids (or PvP opponents) just because that content is balanced for gear that isn’t much better than what the level-85 players have.

What a truly baffling sentence. Ghostcrawler is reflecting on the exponential attribute power progression in WoW, and I think this sentence says, "We don't want level 85s doing what is designed for level 90 characters." He never goes into the reason this is a design mantra for WoW, but I can't help but think of the movie Idiocracy:

Unquestioning and steadfast in their decisions, the WoW designers make seemingly contradictory choices. Why doesn't GC want level 85's to do higher level content? I could only assume it's so players do the leveling "content" first. Yet they constantly assault the leveling game, "The amount of experience needed to gain levels 71 through 80 has been reduced by approximately 33%." That's a patch note from the recent PTR, and those keeping score will know that they've already reduced that experience curve before.

It's almost as if Ghostcrawler trusts no design of WoW-past, not even his own. Only the current design and content is relevant to Mr. Street.

The article goes on, discussing various methods which could bandage WoW's broken attribute system, and then he unloads this gem: "If your answer is that stat budgets don’t have to grow so much in order for players to still want the gear, our experience says otherwise." Silly plebes with your naive remedies; I have data to dismiss your predictable suggestions!

Ignoring the arrogance, what metrics could they possibly have to discredit this simple solution? They can't use data from PTR, because that has bitten them in the ass before (There are huge discrepancies in motivation between PTR and live realms. Honor item costs had to be adjusted after players were getting them in a few hours on live realms.). They can't compare vanilla raiding to BC raiding because there are way too many variables. The only timeframe that I think they could refer to would be the beginning of the Burning Crusade, when after much bitching by players, they increased the attributes on T5 gear to make them more "worthwhile" than T4. (Aside: People don't know what they want, often desiring the opposite of what they say.)

But even this event isn't in a vacuum. Let's assume that after T5 attributes were increased, Blizzard saw a huge swell of players entering T5 raids. Ghostcrawler would like to say this was caused by an increase in reward value. What if players simply finished the T4 content and moved on the T5? What if players had every intention of doing T5 for the marginal rewards, obliged to work their way there slowly by using T4 as a stepping stone? With the margins highly increased, raid leaders rightly assumed T4 was useless and skipped it. Blizzard is in the business of making content obsolete as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Get your Story out of my MMO

With all the WoW and SWTOR news, something just hit me. I knew this was true, but it didn't really set in until now. It's been seven years since WoW released, and SWTOR is about to launch as the same exact game!

The same black and white, two-faction faux war with safe and "contested" zones; the same action combat with the same pace, hotbars, and skills; the same solo quest grind with the occasional dungeon run; the same poo-pooed crafting system that has little consequence to players; the same "hyrbid" classes which really aren't hybrids at all, but rather 3 min-maxed role specializations that are the Holy Trinity through and through.

And then, as if lack of innovation isn't enough, Bioware is going to completely eradicate players stories. The "fourth pillar" already existed in MMORPGs: there wouldn't be countless blogs devoted to retelling events that players experienced if "story" didn't exist (and unsurprisingly, Eve has the most numerous and varied story blogs I've ever read).

Let's assume Bioware is the leader in crafting video game stories. They create the most compelling canned stories anyone has ever written for a video game. They are still Bioware's stories! They are not player stories. Stories are born from extraordinary events. What would a SWTOR story blog look like? "Last night I had this really humorous and emotional dialog scene with these NPCs. I chose this light side option that resulted in an awesome cutscene!" The comments will read: "me too". What is worth telling if everyone experiences the same thing?

By the way, developer story has been done numerous times before; Bioware isn't doing anything new. Speaking from experience, FFXI had fun in-game cutscenes with your character in them and told some really amazing stories. But contrary to SWTOR, FFXI also put players in challenging situations and let extraordinary events transpire that morphed into player tales.

Developer stories, like graphics, are a selling point, but not important once the playbrain takes over. Games are systems. Choices are identified, outcomes are weighed, predictions are made, and then the brain gets a little shot of endorphins if it guessed correctly. MMORPGs are immensely layered and complex systems with an added layer of socialization. The interaction with other, irrational human beings spices the systems to the point of addiction. Humans crave knowledge and social interaction. Developer stories are an initial motivator, a driving force, an excuse to start down the path of playing a game, but they are not an ends of a game.

That's a lot of tall talk, but look at the numbers: "Only 10% of avid gamers completed the final mission, according to Raptr, which tracks more than 23 million gaming sessions." As expected, once the game system is mastered, the vast majority of players don't care about the "story" and see little reason to continue playing.

If SWTOR has the same systems we've all mastered seven years ago, and everyone is trapped in instances not experiencing extraordinary events around which to socialize, what is the point of playing? This seems like a way to charge $15 per month for KOTOR 3.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mojang up, Minecraft down.

The success of Minecraft severely damaged its development. When minecraft went viral and became a cash-cow, Notch decided to make Mojang into an honest-to-goodness software company. Mojang would make less money from rapidly improving Minecraft than from creating new products and selling them to new markets--markets which are augmented by the existing Minecraft fanbase.

The community would've done Notch's work for him if he let them. He could have started shifting the development of Minecraft to a model where the base game is a sandbox into which content makers can plug in different kinds of mechanics. But Notch didn't do this, he implemented a few nice, bigger features (like biomes) and a lot of piddly stuff (like more flowers, dyes, and such). Contrast Minecraft's content level with Terraria's: Terraria has been public a small fraction of the time, yet is continually adding new content and significant outstrips Minecraft in most meaningful measures of content.

Here's an example of where business gets in the way of game design and fun when it could have just as easily stayed out of the way. Here's where what is short-sightedly best for a company is not what's best for a game.

It also highlights the fading "games as platforms" trend. Notch could've turned Minecraft into a great platform for mods, but instead he has spent a significant amount of time implementing features that could've been designed and implemented better through the work of the modding community. The Minecraft community is large and the number of modders doing great work suiting the game towards different playstyles continues to grow. People have done all this work before Minecraft even had a real modding suite--these people had no sanctioned tools for modding, yet they did work of higher design quality and with fewer bugs and issues than the new content implemented by Notch himself. Imagine what they could do if they were given the full support of development tools and APIs specifically for their use. Minecraft would be a platform for a myriad of amazing games. Now people are doing that anyway, but the progress is significantly slower and Mojang actively impedes this progress through implementing more features that only a fraction of the community care about.

Minecraft passed up on the long-term business decision of becoming a platform upon which hundreds of good and fun games rely and instead opted for the short-term route of continuing Minecraft development conventionally and deallocating resources from it to work on other projects. The damage this does to Minecraft's future is palpable and frustrates me every time I play.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bethesda Copyright Nonsense

This Bethesda v. Mojang "Scrolls" lawsuit is completely ridiculous. I didn't know Oblivion was actually titled The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion until this nonsense started to appear on Notch's tumblr.

Not related to the lawsuit, but I also didn't know that Modern Warfare is actually titled Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare until a week ago. I always thought that they were two separate games.

Granted I don't play any of these games, but this still seems quite frivolous.

I wonder if is going to get a knock on the door from Blizzard...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

TF2 Screenshot of the Year

Posted from our server, I don't think I've ever seen a more majestic screen shot. It captures the essence of TF2: one man with deer antlers wielding a pickaxe sailing towards another man wearing a samurai Kabuto and a pickaxe of his own--their destiny yet to be determined.

Credit goes to Tai.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Biting the Bullet

This weekend was wholly uneventful in EVE which is 100% my own fault. EVE requires players to actively engage it, and that's what I did tonight. I convinced myself to pick a fight (and most likely lose it). There is no use sitting on all this ISK if I'm not going to spend it.

There are a few systems known for their PvP. One of which is Amamake. I hopped into my Tech-2 fit Rifter and charted a route.

The last time I was in lowsec, I found myself dying in a Gate Camp. This time I was extra cautious--I inspected the systems for kills on the Star Map and even warped to nearby celestials so that I could scan the gate before approaching it. This is how things are learned in EVE: you die in a horrible ball of fire and then try to minimize that occurrence.

I got to Amamake without incident, warped to a bookmark I had in the middle of nowhere, and started to chat up local. I like playing the Mildly Naive Optimist: it's a nice foil for all the Internet Tough-Guys.

After a few minutes of banter, I warped to an asteroid belt to see who would bite. Eventually a Vexor shows up on scanner. I know it's a Cruiser, but I do a quick Google search to make sure; yep, a Cruiser. "Ok," I think, "I know I can beat Cruisers with this Rifter." The Vexor lands, and I begin approaching using a manual orbiting technique like a pro. My heart is pounding throughout all 150 KMs.

We get in range of each other and start the dance. Lock, scram, Confirm this Dangerous Act (take a standing hit), web, orbit, guns. My 150mm Light Autocannon IIs are eating through her shields like butter.

I bet a lot of EVE vets can guess what happens next.

Five Hobgoblin II drones appear. They begin attacking me. I turn on damage control, but it is just too much. I don't even have drones on my overview; I'm trying to manually target them, but no luck. I pretty much smile and concede defeat at that point. I last a few more seconds; pop.

I warp off to a station (and immediately pray that the station won't fire at me since I was the aggressor. Thankful it did not). We talk a little in local; I'm her first kill :) Apparently I'm not the only newbie in EVE.

I consult the notes I took from the Rifter Guide, and lo and behold the #1 ship listed under "RUN AWAY" is Vexor. Primarily because of their drone capabilities. Horrible ball of fire. Minimize occurrences. Thus I won't trying to fight Vexors next time ;D

What a rush! It was unbelievably exhilarating, and I cannot wait to load up a few more Rifters and head back. These ships cost about 5 million ISK, and I can easily steal that in 15 mins. Every time I think I'm drifting away from EVE, I do something incredibly risky and end up loving it again.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Back in the EVE Saddle

A month ago I began my third trial of EVE Online after reading a convincing article (part 2, part 3). I decided to jump in the deep end and stir up trouble. Previously, I had fallen into pitfalls or made up reasons why I discontinued playing. Friends of mine will cite the same excuses for not playing, so I decided to enumerate and debunk them.

"I can't fly the ship how I want."

Players often expect avatar control to be transferable across games. WASD is the de facto control scheme for any game in which the player assumes a character. Players expect familiar interfaces. How a planar movement model would work with three dimensional space is an unaddressed question. If not WASD, players expect something akin to a flight simulator or Tie Fighter.

The issue really stems from the simplification of the controls. In EVE a destination is selected, and then the Approach/Orbit/Warp button is pressed. Manual flight is as simple as double-clicking anywhere in space. Players' ship controls are abstracted to the point where player agency feels stifled. Fumbling over controls to move from A to B can be frustrating.

This awkwardness can be overcome, but it feels like relearning to walk. While the tutorial does have content to help the player move about in space, it takes several sessions to get accustomed to it. It becomes second nature eventually.

I should also point out that EVE is not a space flight simulator nor a shooter--don't expect the game to meet those genre criteria. The game must be approached with an open mind; it is unlike anything else.

"I have no idea where I am."

This attitude also derives from the control abstraction. Players move about with what seems like lists of planets, stations, and warp gates. How all these objects relate to each other spatially can be a mystery.

There are two tools in game that I think can be helpful: the Map and the Mapbrowser. The map (F10) defaults to the Star Map of the whole galaxy and can be confusing. In the World Map Control, there is a button labeled "Solar System Map". This is a navigable view of the current solar system. It displays all the planets, stations, and warp gates in positions such that players can understand where these objects are.

Additionally there is a Mapbrowser (F11) which displays 4 panes on the side of the player's screen (Universe, Region, Constellation, and Solar System). Only the bottom, Solar System pane is useful: it displays a flat representation of the system as well as a white cone showing the direction the player camera is currently facing. It helps to put celestial objects in perspective.

The maps at Dotlan are also very helpful.

"Combat is boring."

I agree that solo combat against mission NPCs is boring, which is why I don't do missions. But EVE is not really a fast-paced action game. It is slower and tactical. Where, when, and how to approach a target is paramount. Knowing when to activate, "pulse", and overheat modules assures victory against smarter or better-armed opponents.

It is also worth noting that there is no such thing as a fair fight in EVE. PvP in MMORPGs is about exploiting advantages, cheating, using every trick up your sleeve to win the day. This is what "world PvP" is, and exactly what Battlegrounds and Arena are not. An unwritten rule of EVE is "always assume your target has friends". Kill him before they arrive :) When I want a fair fight, I play TF2 or a board game.

PvP is emotionally charged. This is the sole reason I gave EVE another chance--the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat after my heart races and my mind defends that which could be lost. I can analyze and read literature explaining the exact effects and chemicals that I am experiencing, but adrenalin and fear of loss are visceral, and I want to be swept away by my animal instincts.

"I can't be competitive."

Since training is all time-based in EVE, players assume that they cannot catch up to the veterans. While they may never catch up in raw Skill Points, they could catch up in a singular role. EVE is very wide, and veterans can fly a variety of ships, but only one at a time. As long as players set their sights on a single ship and fit, they get get there quickly and be competitive. And skills are often prerequisites and stepping stones for more powerful modules and ships.

To give you some numbers (for PvP):
  • Within a week, you can fly a throw-away Cruiser.
  • In a week and a half, you can fly throw-away Battlecruisers.
  • Within 2 weeks, you can fly a tech 2 fitted Frigate.
  • In 5 weeks, you can fly a tech 2 fitted Interceptor or Assault Frigate.
  • In a month an a half, that Cruiser and Battlecruiser can have tech 2 modules.
  • In 3 months, you could be sitting in a very formidable tech 2 Cruiser (AKA Heavy Assault Cruiser).

Cruisers and Battlecruisers are staples of small gang PvP. Even though newbies won't be packing much heat without tech 2 guns, they are still an asset to the fleet. These ships can get really cheap, too, which helps when players are learning the ropes. I calculated that the Rupture cruiser I bought cost me 8,836,500 ISK. Insurance pays out 6,875,000 ISK, meaning the total loss would only be 2,360,500 ISK. That is practically free. (I would equate 1 million ISK to 1 WoW Gold.)

Players can easily earn more money than they can spend if they leave the beaten path and try things other than missions. Within a few hours and in cheap frigates, a fresh character can make 40 million ISK an hour from ninja salvaging and hacking. Or you could scam your way to trillions.

"I don't have the time."

Some players think that they need to invest vast amounts of time or know everything about EVE in order to play. Null-sec territory wars might require players to log in for 6 hours at a time while a station is being attacked, but small gang PvP can be very spontaneous and take only an hour block.

If long sessions are few and far between, there is plenty to do solo in and out of game. I spend half my EVE time reading about EVE. That includes fits and modules, planning training, how wormholes work, can I fight a ship belonging to a certain class, and miracle stories of raid fights. EVE is as much a context for my learning about EVE as it is a game. I am enjoying the whole package.

EVE really is about finding the fun. The game will not deliver fun-cakes to you, but instead give you ingredients to bake your own, or a machine gun to steal someone else's. Other players are my content, and I am content for other players. Players who are willing to learn and are open minded about the game will find it to be a treasure trove.

Within a month: I've roamed around lowsec looking for fights that never happened; stole millions of ISK from players running missions; lost ~10 frigates; was podded in a gate camp; joined a player corporation which received a Declaration of War a week later; and prepared for war that ended in 2 days. And all of it was really fun.

Plus all my ship names come from the Space Mutiny episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Congratulations on the insurance on your ship. A very wise choice indeed. This letter is to confirm that we have issued an insurance contract for your ship, Stump Beefgnaw (Rupture) at a level of 100.0%.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

You Don't Talk about FF14

Final Fantasy XIV has been undoing many changes over the last year. It is slowly letting itself become... *dramatic pause* Tyler Durden FFXI.

Most recently in development has been an official Job System, with unlock quests and everything. It has moved away from the convoluted Physical Level and Job Rank nonsense into a more traditional Level and Experience system. It's added Chocobos and Air Ships (albeit not unique to FFXI). They've removed the poorly designed Stamina combat system and replaced it with a more traditional cooldown and autoattack system.

Something unique they are working on is a Materia System (related to FF7's Materia only nominally). Use weapons, convert 'experienced' weapons to Materia, socket Materia on to new weapons.

The combat system chances are on-going, and it will take at least 2 more patches until things are "balanced". So maybe the game will be worth playing right when SWTOR arrives on the scene to steal its thunder.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Time, Money, and the Journey

A discussion of the Diablo 3 $AH took place on our TF2 forums, and someone commented:
it all just seems silly to me.. why play the game if you're going to buy your way to the end result? I've spent $4 on tf2.. and I still look at it as a waste.. items will come and go, and there is always trading.. same goes with diablo3, why pay for pixels that you can obtain yourself and they're obviously going to continue releasing bigger and better weapons that you're going to replace said weapon with, and I see it happen in WoW all the time.. people pay for gold, buy the new shiny off the auction house, and the next day they win a drop in a raid thats better.. $20 down for a days' virtual satisfaction. Its all fickle to me lol
The following was my response.

Diablo, like other action-focused computer RPGs, is designed to be very Achievement oriented. The heavy Goal-Oriented-Play coupled with high-accessibility (and very few set backs, i.e. punishment) fosters an environment where the ends of playing the game are the achievements themselves. For many Achievers, there is no longer any fun in the journey--they want as many vacuous trophies as quickly as possible. There is nothing wrong with getting your jollies from virtual shinies, but here is where the contention lies.

Traditionalist gamers have been, I believe, vaccinated from these psychological lures. They have seen leaderboards and Skinner boxes for decades. If they play a game, they enjoy learning the system, assuming that system is complex enough to hold their interest. If they play strategy games, they enjoy complex resource management. If they play RPGs, they like the journey. They are OK with gating content, with stratifying players into Haves and Have-Nots.

They have been trained to believe that Time and Skill equates to Power. To Traditionalists, games are a great equalizer. The Real World does not leak into their synthetic worlds, and each player's reputation (and Power) are built via in-game means only. This is a fallacy.

The person playing the game has a certain amount of real world resources and real world dexterity. Resources come in the form of Time and Money. Dexterity is both Mental and Physical. Different game genres tap these 4 attributes differently. MMORPGs typically require Time. TF2 takes Physical and Mental dexterity, as well as practice Time. What we are seeing in the Game Industry is the incorporation of Money resources.

This transformation is occurring because many Traditionalists are opting for other responsibilities: jobs and families. They no longer have 10 hours a day to throw at Everquest or StarCraft. They can't wait around for 2 hours to get a game started; they need high-accessibility games. Lowering the barrier to entry is also allowing brand new players to enter the scene. This is the explosion of Casual and Social gaming. These players have Money, but no Time. And quite a few of them are willing to trade their Money for Power. Believe it or not, there are markets that enjoy Paying to Win. This makes Traditionalists exclaim, "WTF ARE YOU DOING?!"

The Time-rich no longer have the upper hand, and that makes the status quo feel as if their time isn't as valuable. And they are correct: with the inclusion of Money, it inflates the resource supply. Buying characters, power leveling, and gold was and still is seen as cheating in various online games primarily because it devalues the achievements (i.e. Time) of players.

To more directly answer your question, "why would someone drop $20 for such an ephemeral trophy?" we really have to answer why humans trade resources for ANY status-signalling good. Fashion, competition, self-worth, belonging to a group: all of these are deeply rooted social instincts. The next time you do a farming run for a piece of loot, ask yourself why are you trading your time for these synthetic goods. And then ask if you'd rather trade money instead. If the goal is the trophy, it really doesn't matter how you got it. If you value the story attached to the trophy, then hopefully the journey is worth taking--and that is something money can't buy.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Farmville's merits as a game do not matter.

What of heroin's merits as a drug? Does it do a great job of expanding people's minds and letting them see mundane experiences in new and interesting ways? Does it bring people together to help one another? Can it help people who have legitimate medical problems by reducing their suffering?

People don't do heroine because of its abstract, broader merits as a drug. They do heroin because it feels good and because doing heroine makes you want to do more heroin. We don't analyze heroin in the hopes of discovering how to make commercial drug products more addictive and deride heroin for being "not a drug."

Farmville is an effective social parasite and advertising mechanism. The game is designed directly to extract money from players. Analyzing it as only a game is pointless, because its manifestation as a game is just the very blunt tip of a sprawling iceberg. Analyze it as a business. Compare it to direct mailing, viral videos, and banner ads.

Farmville is the ultimate sign of the commoditization (not really the traditional sense of the word--the mass marketization is more what I mean) of gaming. The games industry is maturing. "Make games we want to make and hope we get paid for it" has been replaced by "make games that we will get paid to make." The same happened to the music industry--and will happen to any art-based industry as it matures. The business model now drives, not the content. The cascade of free-to-play games and nickle-and-diming DLC are the first steps large steps down this long road. Sequelitis is merely a symptom. We can't go back to the good old days (if they even existed), we must recognize the shape of this beast and confront it directly.

This is another reason why I have stopped playing MMOs.

[EDIT: Made some corrections thanks to an anonymous commenter who apparently deleted his comment...]

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Investment Hurdle

I stopped playing Vanguard the day I wrote my previous blog post. I chose to partake in some other activities, and by the time my friends and I had an evening together to play, none of us cared anymore. Not even off newbie island, I didn't feel like investing more time into the game.

I always seem to reflect back and compare MMORPGs to FFXI. That game requires even more investment than Vanguard, and I've always warned people that the first 10 levels are the worst, since they are soloed. (With the addition of solo kill quests, I'm sure the first 20 levels are now awfully boring.) I played with friends, and the majority quit before level 5. Why did I put up FFXI? Was I naive? Did I illogically try to recuperate the sunk cost of the retail box?

Even World of Warcraft sucked me in, but later instantiations of it (AoC, LotRO, WAR, Aion) had no draw, no power over me. I paid for boxes for some of those games, yet didn't want to invest in them any further.

Do MMORPGs need to be shockingly different for me to want to play them? If that were the case, I would have fallen in love with EVE or Darkfall.

Maybe I need long-term goals. I remember wanting to be a Summoner/Dragoon in FFXI (which is completely ridiculous, but drove me to get over the investment hurdle). I was in love with Infernals ever since WarCraft 3--I played Undead for that very reason--and I played a Warlock in WoW just to have that ability.

I am curious if you remember your first long-term goal in your MMORPGs of choice. Was it a story arc, an ability, a feature? Do you find yourself running into brick walls after a few hours with a new MMORPG? Would seeing a cool looking sword or amazing spell effect persuade you to continue?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Measuring Micromanagement In Design

I have been struggling with how to actually quantify micromanagement in strategy game design. Which designs lead to more required micro and which kinds eschew micro for broader strategic manipulation and planning?

I still hold to the concept that strategy games should be about testing your planning capabilities against an opponent's. There are games in the "strategy" genre that focus on execution more than planning, astute observers usually refer to these games as "Tactical."

This post will summarize a number of factors involved in determining how much micromanagement a game design will require of its players.

Mechanical Scope

The scope of a game acts as a multiplier for individual unit micromanagement requirements. A game like Company of Heroes has a severely limited scope. You have perhaps ten manipulable units on the field at the height of an average game. Note that we don't care about the literal soldiers on the battlefield here, we care about manipulable units. What the manipulable unit consists of doesn't matter--all that matters is that when you issue orders, you must give them to the entire unit.

Scope can be confusing to think about, because Company of Heroes and Men of War share the same metaphorical scope--that being less than ten squads of infantry and less than five vehicles. If you examine mechanical scope by thinking about then number of manipulable units, you'll see that Men of War has a wider mechanical scope because each individual soldier in each squad can be manipulated, whereas you can never subdivide squads in Company of Heroes.

Orders per Unit

Once you have figured out how many units players handle when they play the game, you then have to examine what each of those units can do. In turn-based games, this is easy because you can look at possible orders per unit per turn. In real-time games the calculus becomes a bit more difficult because you must look at the number of orders that can be given to units as well as the number of units that may demand attention at once. (I'll address the issue of unit count variance throughout matches at some later time.)

How many kinds of orders can you give to units on a given turn? In Tactics Ogre, you can move, attack, and turn each of your units in each turn. Silent Storm, in comparison, allows you to do any combination of moves, attacks, turns, pose changes, and aiming actions in a turn. Clearly units in Silent Storm require more micro-management. In a turn-based game this affects how fast the game can be played. Games with a lot of micromanagement should have battles resolved in a relatively low number of turns, lest the player tire of the endless manipulation of his units.

We can also look at the number of kinds of unit actions in an RTS as well. In Men of War, you can give your units a wide variety of orders--there are easily over ten kinds of orders (ex. attack, attack-move, move, change stance, reload, change ammo, lay sandbags, lay barbed wire, lay mines, rotate, change weapon, manage inventory, etc.) Men of War has a wider mechanical scope than Company of Heroes, and Company of heroes has fewer than half the number of kinds of orders. Generally a unit in CoH will be able to attack, attack-move, move, change firing mode, and use one or two special abilities. We can therefore categorically say that CoH requires less micro to play effectively than Men of War does.

Complexity of terrain also plays a role. If terrain is very complex, like in Men of War where each wall, building, and piece of debris can be used as cover from any side, the fine-positioning of units matters which causes the player to have to move units more often and with more precision.

Analyzing individual orders

Playing a strategy game consists elementarily of multiple players (some of them may be AIs) giving orders to units. We've examined the nuances of order volume and how it effects micro-management, but we must also examine how the game designer defines the game world and how orders interact with it. We must examine the nature of orders and note how much attention they demand and how much physical precision on the part of the player they require.

In Men of War, you have to take line of sight and line of fire into account whenever you position a unit. You need to make sure there isn't some small rise in the terrain between your unit and what you want it to shoot at.This means that you have to minutely tweak the movement of individual squad members so that they will stand in a optimal-enough position. The difference between a decisive victory and a terrible defeat can be as small as a machine gunner standing slightly out of cover or being in the wrong stance and not having line of sight on an area. There's a lot of micro required when even issuing individual orders in Men of War.

In Company of Heroes, you move an entire unit and its members decide where to stand. Line of sight and line of fire are pretty easy to intuit based on what the map looks like. Rarely are there small hills that will maddeningly block your line of fire without being immediately noticeable. You also know that the simulation isn't terribly precise in Company of Heroes, so if one guy is standing out of cover but you still have the green shield next to your unit's icon, the unit is OK and you don't have to make more adjustments. When giving movement orders in Company of Heroes, you need to do less work--there's less micro--than when giving movement orders in Men of War.

As we've seen, strict simulation can lead to a signficant increase in micromanagement requirements.

The amount of tweaking you have to do to each unit also is greatly effected by the interface. Men of War gives you no particularly good way to check the line of sight and line of fire of your units, so you have to press a number of keys to check to see if your machine gunner can fire over this overturned crate or if they'll just stand there staring dumbly at it as the enemy mops up the rest of his squad.

Too dumb to leave alone?

In RTSes micromanagement requirements also stem from poor or non-existant AI. If you have to constantly babysit your units in order for them to survive, as you do in Men of War, the micro-requirement balloons. RUSE has a lower requirement for micro, though, because units will make attempts to kite enemies who have shorter range and generally try to fire at the most important targets first.

What else?

Please leave a comment if you think I've missed something. I'm sure I haven't touched on all the factors--I've primarily focused on combat.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Game Criticism That I Care About.

Too much "game criticism" comes in the guise of art criticism. The critic rips merrily into the hermeneutics of a game, discussing how broad social issues like race or gender are portrayed. The critic makes grand pronouncements about deeper meaning and what affect these portrayals have on the player's psychology.

"What is this game Telling us?" seems to be the central question. "Telling" has a capital "T" because the critic aggrandizes it through writing gravely and intensely. Everything's meaning is exaggerated in order to match up to the stature of other arts that the critic thinks are deserving of respect. "We need to discuss these points in order to be taken seriously" you may hear--but seriously in what regard?

Games aren't paintings or novels or books of poetry. They aren't static entities set in print or pastels. Games are dynamic. Games are an interactive medium in the strictest sense. Games are participatory event in themselves--we need look no further than sports to see this proven.

Games have plenty of static content, but what makes them different and worth caring about is not that static content, it's the act of play. You don't go to a movie because the act of focusing your eyes on a screen captivates you. Games may be composed of static art in part, but their whole is greater by far.

Game criticism can contain the criticism of the static art the game presents to the player--I do not challenge the validity of such criticism. I find such criticism wanting, though, because the real meat of what makes games interesting is not that they can show us art just as a movie can, but because we can actually play them--we can generate novel experiences that themselves generate novel experiences. These experiences are unique to each individual in a way more profound than the unique experiences different people may get out of the same painting or movie. Games allow their content to be molded to the player and her behavior; we should examine this molding deeply because it is what makes games worth playing. Games are not just a cheap substitute for a movie or album or painting. The more that we treat them as if they are nothing more (and confine ourselves to criticizing them in the same way), the harder it will be to show people that games are worth analysis and study. Why study inferior wanna-be movies?

I'm interested in analysis of game mechanics and other elements with an eye towards their effect on the experience of actually playing the game. I hope I can provide (and have provided) that on this blog.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Vanguard: Wait What?

Even though Evizaer is a fuddy-duddy, and even I took a long break from MMORPGs, I am back at it! And of all things, I am playing Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. I'll tell you why:

  • Classes and the adventure game at large are designed around groups. While it is possible to solo your way to level cap (some classes are more proficient at this than others), large parts of the game will be skipped.
  • There are no instances. (Ok, SOE added a raid instance, but that's the only one.) Dungeons you happen across will be filled with terrible things you cannot possibly solo and other players! I might actually have to talk to someone and group up with them to explore something!
  • Crafting-centric economy with complexity akin to Star Wars Galaxies. You can build a house. In the non-instanced world. And let everyone (or some or none) inside.
  • There is a unique "sphere" of gameplay called Diplomacy. It's not the most deep nor complex turn-based strategy game, but I enjoy playing it. I also love it as a vehicle for story/dialogue as I find myself actually reading the NPC text (which is wholly irrelevant to the strategy game itself).
  • Adventuring is dangerous. If the inference wasn't clear from the dungeon/group points above, mobs will kill you. People die at level 4 and 5. You don't start losing XP until level 10.
  • I am missing quests because I am not talking to NPCs. WoW and her children have trained me to just look for Quest indicators on tops of NPC heads (which do exist in Vanguard). But some quests only become available after you talk to NPCs.
  • The factions are not Us vs Them. At level 3 Diplomacy, I've already experienced a more nuanced and grey story than anything I've ever seen in a Blizzard product.
  • It is very difficult if not impossible to min/max your character. Attributes are too complex. Here is a quote from a TenTonHammer guide:
The attributes in Vanguard are also complicated, making pretty hard to limit yourself to 3. Try being a tank who chooses to min INT. You'll have a hard time telling who has aggro from that add. For once, it looks like we have a game that tries to discourage the min/max build approach.

As a reference, this is all of what Intellect does:
Spell Damage: Intelligence adds to the damage of all spells. The number revealed by the tool tip for INT is a percentage relative to 100% (the normal power of your spell), and casters will almost certainly want to take advantage of this statistic

Identify/Recognize: INT increases your chance to identify what spell a mob is casting and to recognize the tactics applicable to the battle. The tool tip does not provide a numerical value for this effect. The sooner a player can identify that a spell is being cast, the sooner she can attempt to counter it. This will help casters and healers. Recognizing tactics permits a player to take advantage of a mob's weaknesses. This helps all classes.

Detect/Perceive: INT raises your chance to detect opponents under stealth or invisibility and to perceive what opponents are doing during combat. This will be tied to skills measured on maximum potential versus a mob of an even level. Detecting stealthed or invisible mobs is critical for everyone. Perception reveals who has aggro, a crucial effect for tanks and healers.

Counter: INT heps your chances to counter a spell. This will be tied to your counter skill measured on maximum potential versus a mob of an even level. Casters and Blood Mages can counter spells.

Resist Counter: INT ensures that a player's spells will more difficult to counter by mobs. This is essential for casters.
  • Even though the newbie island is very much On-Rails, I am told that the world really opens up after you leave (at level 10).
  • The world is huge, but there are waypoint/teleporters to help people get around. Different grades of ground mounts. Flying mounts can be rented. Players claim that the game has years of content.

Just to air the laundry, I will paraphrase the development history of Vanguard. Developed by original Everquest devs under the guise of Sigil Games, Microsoft poured a lot of money into the company, and eventually Sigil brought SoE on board as co-publisher. VG launched in 2007 right as the Burning Crusade did. The game was massively hyped with features that just were not complete at release, and there were stability issues. SoE bought all the rights to the game after the failed launched, patched up the bugs, added some newbie/accessibility features, and then shelved the game. There hasn't been a content update nor patch to the game in over a year. Vanguard directly competes with EQ2, so it makes sense for SoE to let it rot.

I've been playing this past week with two (soon to be three) friends. We are still on the trial/newbie island. I am playing a Cleric (with plate, Ferrel :P). I definitely think there is cool stuff in store, and I can't wait to journal it here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Why I have moved on from MMOs.

I've given up on MMOs for the near future, especially free-to-play ones. Here's why.

1. MMORPGs are community-focused. Community is the real problem, and communities for popular games are always poor. MMORPGs are based around having large communities that are too large to effective self-police. This problem is unsolvable.

2. MMOs are bad strategy games at their heart. Execution of strategies is trivial. The content is so easy 90% of the time that developing strategies is unnecessary or trivial. The only part of the game that isn't trivial is PvP, which is often trivialized by loot differentials caused almost exclusively by differences in time played. Raids are trivialized by guides that players are expected to know before doing the content.

3. Maintaining a guild in an MMO is more challenging than actually playing the game. The community is bad. Maintaining a guild is outside the scope of game design, though a game can have some features that help with this. When the most difficult problems presented to the player by a game have nothing to do with the game, I lose interest.

4. MMOs are most likely to be unhealthy games to play. They require time commitments that are pretty ludicrous if you want to see any remotely challenging content without making actions artificially induce difficulty.

5. MMOs tend to be bad for the rest of gaming because they consume all of players' gaming time and some of their personal time. Players play MMOs instead of any other game.

6. MMO business models tend to reward developers for producing very addictive content at the expense of everything else. A big selling point for spending money on free-to-play games is that the game is made less bad by paying. This is not the kind of business model I want to endorse.

There are a lot of other games to play--I can't spend time playing these games that offer me so little actual fun but stand to ask for a lot of time.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

RUSE: The Positives

I’ve played over 200 RUSE matches since the game was released last September. RUSE is definitely my favorite RTS. The game does some very important things right. In this post, I’m going to walk you through a few of the highlights. I’ll assemble a list of criticisms over the next week or two.

(I lost a few posts in a hard drive failure a couple of weeks ago, that’s why I haven’t put out much more than a post a week, and it’s also why I haven’t put out the first real part to my series on the fundamentals of games.)

Low APM requirement

I believe that RTS games should be about comparing your planning, perception, and prediction skills against your opponent's. Great RTSes make the act of implementing plans as intuitive and easy as possible--why get caught up in implementing a plan when the real fun is it actually testing it against your opponent? RUSE does this right: you don't need to have more than 20 APM to play the game well. This shows that RUSE is about planning, not about clicking around constantly in a struggle with the interface to make your units behave reasonably. I could write an entire post on how this is accomplished and how great it is, so I'll leave further elaboration for the future.

Active Counters

Spamming isn't an effective strategy in RUSE unless you've already won the game through resource supremacy. If you spam a unit, your opponent can recognize this and build fractional amounts of counters to effectively deal with the threat. The game's score is based on units killing a higher value in opposing units before they die, so the cost effectiveness of counters causes your opponent to suffer a severe setback by throwing countered units at you. Because the tech tree is flat, these counters are easy to build if you recognize the strategic situation is ripe--you can also be forced to counter the wrong thing through use of ruses and unorthodox strategies, which adds depth to what might otherwise be a simple "build counters to win" game.

A Broad Strategy-space

Some strategy games have a few narrow strategies. Such strategies are sequences of optimal actions understood by the community to be optimal. If you stray from these paths, you are playing poorly--you may win a couple of times by surprising an inferior opponent, but going outside narrow strategies won't get you much farther than that.

Contrast this with a broad, but flatter strategy space. You have a large number of options at any one time and many of them will get you an acceptable distance towards your strategic goals. The optimal choice becomes so dependent on the currently game state that you can't accurately deduce optimal strategies. This lends the game a certain dynamism: only a minimal amount of mechanical logic can be generalized from match to match, you must build each strategy fro the particular situation as it arises.

Short Matches

RUSE boasts large battlefields with sufficient room to maneuver, yet matches can be played competitively in 30 minutes or less on average. The scoring mechanism allows timed games to work well--players can make decisions based on the amount of time remaining, which leads to a further blossoming of possibilities. Though units are generally "slow" in the context of the whole map, unit production is fast. This allows players to produce units for decisive battles without it taking too much time. The relatively slow unit move speeds are balanced by the ability to produce units quickly, which leads to the game being paced properly for an enjoyable 20 minute 1v1 match or 30 minute 2v2 match.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why Global Agenda’s Loot System Fails

Like character advancement, the advancement engendered by loot can be seen as vertical or horizontal. An item that vertically advances your character has flat-out better stats than your previous item, but does nothing that the previous item didn't do. Horizontal loot advancement comes from new abilities granted by items, or different kinds of damage dealt, absorbed, mitigated, etc.

Vertical loot is only exciting if it represents a big gain. Horizontal loot can be more exciting more often without necessarily advancing the character, because it can afford the player more interesting options to try out as long as the metagame is not in a moribund state.

The real question is: What effects can an item have? The more you restrict this, the more boring the system will be. If you go too far, you risk imbalancing the game due to the slot machine taking over and player skill being no more than a secondary factor in gameplay. This isn't a problem in most MMOs because such games are no more than social environments with slot machines that require mostly-thought-free manual effort to pull the lever by killing mobs, opening chests, and completing quests. In a(n ostensibly) skill-based game like GA, a prevalent slot machine turns what otherwise is a fun PvP system into an awkward environment where time-based play and skill-based play clash.

The universe of possible useful pieces of loot in GA is too small. It's exacerbated by the fact that the sole way of progression available, vertical progression to higher bonuses, caps out at 21% with an exponentially lower chance of getting loot of higher qualities once you get above the base 10%-ish. Boring, linear vertical progression with no horizontal opportunities is not fun. If I know what I want and feel like I'm just waiting for the random number generator to swing my way, I'm having less fun than if there is a reasonable chance I may find something cool that I hadn't considered.

The number of useful pieces of loot that you can possibly find starts out small and only gets smaller. Because GA is skill-based, players set their skill specs in stone and know exactly what they want to make it work optimally. Because gear is primarily vertical in variety, the player knows exactly what he needs at any given time for his spec if he has even a minimal knowledge of how the game works. there is no chance of a serendipitous drop--only for drops that either give the player a "finally" feeling, or drops that are useless to the player.

You only get loot in GA when you win missions or PvP matches. In PvP, particularly, your chance of victory is largely dependent on the skill level of the rest of your team. Only the top 5% (or less) of players can carry any team to victory—and even they can’t successfully do it every game they’d like to.

Global Agenda’s loot system is a boring, naked time-sink. The best that can be said of it is that it provides an object lesson in how not to design a loot system.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Games From the Ground Up: Introduction

(In this series, I plan on writing a series of short posts about what I believe to be the basic features and motivations of videogames. Why do we play? Why are we looked down upon by many for playing? I’m going to try from the ground up to describe my theories of the basics of gaming. I look forward to hearing your reactions and discussing these topics further.)

When you play a game and enjoy it, you are allowing yourself to be fooled. You let the game hook itself into those basic parts of what makes you human. Games are pattern-recognition porn, pretty/shiny pictures, and reward addiction mechanisms.

Games draw you in with interesting metaphors. For the typical gamer market (18-30 year-old males), this usually involves war in some form. The metaphor drags you into a set of game mechanics that the tool-maker/tool-user in you inherently finds appealing. You quickly feel your way around this new world through whatever interface available to you much the way a newborn feels out the confines of his new body and the world around her. This innocent, real consequance-free learning is rarely afforded to adults and older children, so you immediately immerse yourself in the opportunity to indulge in pretense and leave real-world cares at the door.

Games work well when they allow you to fully buy into a self-contained system that seems meaningless on the outside. Most play in children is mimicry of the future roles they'll take on as adults. The pretense of play dissolves as the child grows older and actually has to engage in the behaviors they've been play-acting. Likewise, adults view playing most games, be they video or otherwise, as childish activities--playacting for behaviors that appear, on the surface, to be useless.

But we live in a world of useless. Most gamers live in a world of relative luxury where survival is nigh guaranteed. Entertainment, instead of being a marginal aspect of life, has graduated to a state of constant presence. Even when at work, many people spend much of their time seeking or reading about entertainment on the internet. Instead of watching television, reading, looking at pictures of your friend’s cat farm on facebook or otherwise “uselessly” passing your time, you play games instead. The interactive medium allows you to do so many interesting things that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, so why not engage with it?

In order to keep the player hooked into a closed system of pretense, games use the feedback loops of tool development and learning. Games are tricks—they hijack parts of your brain that commonly were applied for other survival-related purposes but now sit underused most of the time.

Next: Pattern recognition porn.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I played Torchlight for six or seven hours before I realized that the game is nothing but polish. The graphics are reasonable and consistant, the sound is good enough, the gameplay is quite smooth and appealing, but when scrutinized the mechanics are subpar. The problem I have with Torchlight isn’t that it is derivative; my problem is that the individual game systems are middle-of-the-road, uninteresting, and do little to cover the flawed reward-chain it is at its heart.

Action RPGs are interesting to me because they combine loot and character advancement along with a progression of different enemies with odd abilities that cause you to vary your tactics. I do not play action RPGs to be intellectual stimulated, but keeping these systems interesting for as long as possible lies at the core of the action RPG experience. The combat itself is often trivial—the real game lies in picking between loot and getting that little shot of dopamine when you find an awesome item or acquire that next game-changing ability.


Torchlight’s loot system was boring. Few items, if any, had unique and interesting effects on gameplay. Items presented a bland optimization problem instead of leading to interesting decisions where the player has to choose between two very appealing, distinct mechanics to harness. These kinds of decisions are what made Diablo II such a great game in the genre. A chance of casting Frozen Orb weighed against life leach and improved attack speed is a much more interesting decision than +20 fire damage vs. +15 Ice damage and +5 Poison damage. Torchlight does allow items to carry spell effects, but the game’s abilities are generally as uninteresting and lack innovation as well.


The character advancement system was boring. Skill trees are small compared to Diablo II. A disproportionate number of skills are passive or are reskinned buffed versions of other skills.


You could play well using trivial strategies that were no fun. As a summoner, you should have no trouble butchering your way through the game unless you play at a high difficulty. You don’t even have to worry about mana much, because you can simply dual wield wands and do constant, credible damage to augment the punishment your pets provide.

What makes an action RPG exciting for me are abilities that I have to choose between depending on the situation. The decision has to be non-trivial. If I’m doing no more than maintaining some summons and shift-rich clicking to cast wand spells, the game rapidly bores me. If an action RPG can’t pace loot and advancement along with enemy power, it has failed at a basic level and there’s little reason to continue playing it.

In Summary

There was just enough polish that the game didn’t immediately give offense to my game design sensibilities.

Torchlight was an ego-tickling reward treadmill that gave just enough stimulation to players to keep them blithely clicking and button mashing their way to inevitable victory. A game doesn’t need to be hard to avoid this fate, but it does have to present the player with a variety of interesting decisions, not just the same kinds of decisions with bigger numbers attached to them.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Chokepoint Hell: A Strategy Game Staple

Everyone loves chokepoints! They vastly simplify the decision-making in an RTS and often lead to epic-looking battles. The average player who does not want to micro and does not want to think gobbles up chokepoint maps. Most players want to expend no more than this meager amount of effort so every strategy game that makes any mainstream attempt will include a chokepoint-hell map.

These are not good maps. They severely limit strategic possibilities with ground units. This is worse in Company of Heroes than in RUSE, and matters even less in Supreme Commander games, because of the availability of air transport for ground units. The more units you can transport with ease, the less the layout of the terrain matters, so the restriction of available land routes has less of a constricting effect on the shape of the strategic space on the map.

To some extent, simplicity is preferable over complexity—but only if the complexity provides false difficulty. It’s preferable to have 10 units per faction and have 8 be viable than to have 50 per faction and have 9 viable. In the former case, the number of viable combinations of units is only slightly smaller than in the latter case, but the player is forced to trudge through a lot more information to decide which of the fifty unit types he wants to build, whereas when most of the units are viable the player has to wade through much less noise to develop sound strategies.

Chokepoint-hell maps do not simplify to eliminate false difficulty; they dumb-down gameplay and limit depth. This is fine if you’re designing maps for the early stages of a campaign, but in competitive play these maps are simply inferior.


On the left: “Vire River” from Company of Heroes.

On the right: “Above the River” from RUSE. (h/t BattleStrats)