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.