Saturday, July 28, 2012

Stagnant MMOs

This is a response for a discussion in the comments on Spinks' post Bring on the clones.

I find that both the ways in which players interact and the game systems (not necessarily just Combat) of the MMO space have been mostly stagnant for the last 8 years. There have been minor attempts to mix it up (e.g. AoC's melee combat, Aion's jet packs, Public Quests, Dungeon Finder), but the developers still copy "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" (link).

I play very few games. I find one that has enough complexity and depth (often requires multiplayer in order to uncover that depth) such that I stick with it for years until I've exhausted its playability. I love First-Person Shooters, but I only really love 3 of them: Goldeneye/Perfect Dark, Counter-Strike, and Team Fortress 2. These are all vastly different games. They all play differently; they have distinct strategies, resources, tactical considerations, objectives, moods, etc. To highlight a variation, Counter-Strike is about concealment and weapon accuracy/bullet spread; TF2 is about evasion, keeping or closing distance, and reloading. Never mind that a shotgun in both games is the same; the situations and tactics for using it are very different (and must be learned).

I've played very few MMOs as well: FFXI, WoW, and now Eve. I have purchased or trialed many others (EQ2, LotRO, WAR, Guild Wars, AoC, Chronicles of Spellborn, Tabula Rasa, Global Agenda, Champions Online, Ryzom, Aion, Rift, Vanguard, Dawntide, Darkfall, FF14, and The Secret World). FFXI, WoW, and Eve have drastically dissimilar game systems.
  • FFXI is about cooperation: working with players to level up, complete challenging quests, or make money. Crafting was a motivator for me to expand my character's available classes and gain more levels. It has an extremely friendly community and many group activities: slower-paced, group-oriented combat, XP groups, epically long quests, arena-style fights to earn money, raids, PvP, and group crafting.
  • Eve is deceit and information warfare. It is a struggle between knowing that you need friends to move up in the world and not knowing whom to trust. Its community has an outward appearance of borderline psychotic, but within Corporations, players are friendly to each other and willing to do activities together. Eve is a sandbox and has the most content of any MMORPG ever, and thus newer players have a monstrous time just getting their barrings. Nothing in Eve is simple, and there are many ways to enjoy the game.
  • WoW offers convenience and satisfying gameplay. It has extremely snappy and fast-paced combat, and very little in terms of a virtual world. It is about using people as briefly as possible to acquire the next achievement. WoW is two distinct games: the leveling game, and the game at level cap. Hop in for a few minutes, do a quest or two by yourself, and log out without interacting with anyone. Or if you're at level cap, you do chores by yourself, queue up for a dungeon without speaking, or maybe you have a scheduled raid where you recite a dance that has no transferable knowledge or skills (to another raid).

Most of the games I listed in parentheses above are very similar to WoW. While the classes might look different, or the spells be named something unfamiliar, or the setting be changed, they all follow the same template.
  1. A solo leveling game with a dungeon/raid-heavy "end" game produces the same community as I experienced in WoW. 
  2. Since everyone must be capable of soloing mobs, the combat abilities can't vary too wildly between classes. 
  3. If combat is fast-paced, players have enough time to launch two, maybe three attacks before moving on to the next mob; this necessitates that combat be wholly uninteresting since you only need to use 3 abilities. 
  4. Typically the mobs are not varied enough to require players to consider a different set of 3 skills, because that would be too disruptive and slow down the pace of leveling.

When developers describe a system akin to Public Quests, they are talking about an exception. I can read between the lines: combat is normally performed by yourself, but then the game has these exceptions scattered about where you work with other players. The sad part is that very little coordination is required during the PQ, and people rarely converse. Playing alone together at its finest.

If I can look at a list of game features, and envision my entire career with the game (solo quest grind, occasional dungeon, switch class, solo to max, chase after gear and reputation), then I've already played it in another form, and thus I'm not interested in playing it again.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Uncapped PvE Content and Prestige

Spinks pointed out the irony of WoW's 10-man raids: namely that the raids are too small to sustain a guild around a 10-man raid team. Raids were reduced in player count because of logistics and accessibility concerns. Now they are so small that they cause logistics and accessibility issues. /ironic

This reminded me about uncapped PvE content. WoW used to have uncapped encounters in the form of world bosses, and it will be getting some new ones in Mists. Rifts are uncapped, as well as other forms of Public Quests. PvE content in Eve has no player count limit. Many of the original raids in EQ and FFXI were also uncapped.

It's important to note that there are no "balance scaling" mechanics in these systems. Mobs don't receive extra HP with every player at the fight. Nor does more money or gear drop depending on the raid size.

There are some advantages to unrestricted PvE encounters:
  • Bring as many friends as you want. No one has to be second string or on the bench.
  • Bring as few friends as online. You don't need to cancel the raid if one player doesn't show up, because the encounter is not necessarily attuned for X number of players.
  • Risk and Reward are inherently balanced. Larger the party, the less risk involved, but fewer payouts per person.
  • Challenge is self-ordained. Make the fight as easy or hard as you want.
  • Pick-up-groups could do any content. ++Accessibility
I see four reasons that players raid:
  1. Story/Content
  2. Power (e.g. character progression, money, gear)
  3. Challenge
  4. Prestige
Players interested in fulfilling the needs of Story, Power, and Challenge will have their needs met by the uncapped system. Players can easily experience any content they wish; they simply need to bring enough bodies. They can toy with risk and reward to modify the power payouts. And they can adjust the difficulty by inviting a different number of raiders.

Those seeking Prestige, however, will not be happy with an uncapped raid. If the encounter were a signal of prestige, and because of its challenge or accessibility, predicates that the access or completion of the content is rare, then Prestige players would want as few people in that elite club as possible. The scarcer the resource, then the more valuable it is deemed. The rarer the achievement, then the more distinction it bears. 

Some times there is confusion regarding the difference between Prestige and Challenge. Prestige certainly can and often does derive from Challenge. If a task is difficult, then fewer people are capable of completing it, thus making the success rarer. But Prestige can come from a time commitment: e.g. level 99 in Diablo 2. If everyone were dedicated enough to reach level 99, it would not be prestigious (like level 85 in WoW).

The Achievements you unlock, the gear you wear, and the stories you tell are trophies that signal your prestige. The more people with those trophies, then the less special they are. But the players seeking content, money, and challenge will all be having fun.

From a development and design perspective, less time needs to be allocated to meticulously balance and rebalance fights. Obviously the encounter payouts need to be in line with other content so that players have an actual choice. But there is no need for a scheduled nerfing or complex algorithms that adjust the difficulty based on the number of players. Let us decide our level of risk, reward, and challenge.