Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Micro events idea

One thing that really bothers me in City of Heroes is the static groups of enemies that stand at certain locations around map. When I first started playing CoX, I was running along in the streets of Paragon City with my level 1 hero and I saw a lady's handbag being stolen by some thugs. I instantly jumped in, defeated the thugs and saved the handbag. The lady thanked me and I went on my way feeling as though I had done a good deed. A short time later, I was running past the same location and I saw exactly the same crime happening again???

This is where the realism dramatically dropped out for me...

I decided to just watch and see what would happen to the lady and her handbag if I stood by and did nothing. Well, the handbag snatching animation continued over and over and over and over...

After that point, I decided not to bother helping the citizens of Paragon City, since it obviously didn't matter.

Now for my idea about micro events. Let just say there are 200 micro events per map. One of them could be the lady and her handbag. The server knows that you haven't completed this event before, and so it auto spawns it slightly ahead of your path. You are running along, and you hear a scream:

"Help me! He stole my handbag!!"

You choose to stop and help by apprehending the criminal and returning the handbag. The lady thanks you, and you get a small reward (an event token or something). The event is classified as complete and you never see it again. If you choose not to help, the criminal gets away and the lady weeps. You receive no reward, but you don't get penalised for not helping. The server remembers that you haven't completed the micro event and thus puts it back into the pool of random events that could occur in your path.

With micro events, the player would essentially be given a new experience in the persistent world each time and in different locations to everyone else. The event would be relative to your level. This would make the gaming world seem as though it belongs to you, but at the same time everyone else. If you are in a group when a micro event triggers, the event difficulty would scale. In the case of our handbag snatcher, he could have a bunch of pals around the corner waiting. The event would be completed for all players that participated.

Although I'm sure such a system would be rather complex to implement in an MMO, I think it would add that extra touch of realism, making the persistent world ever so slightly better. It would also make questing feel more sporadic and less static.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Customized instances

Following the recent discussion on Tesh's blog about bringing the player vs bringing the class, I have an idea.

We've already seen games that are good at scaling the difficulty depending on how many players there are - for example, Diablo 2 and City of Heroes.

What if games customized the types of enemies that you were going to face, or their abilities, based on the combination of classes in your group?

For example, consider a simple trinity-style combat system with 8-person teams and 3 classes to choose from - tank, healer, damage dealer. Let's say a particular team consists of 4 tanks, 4 damage dealers, and 0 healers.

The game could adjust the enemies to keep the challenge level for the encounter at the desired level - there are plenty of tanks, so increase the rate at which DPS generates aggro. There are no healers, so reduce the amount of damage done by the mobs, and/or give the mobs less HP (so that they die faster, and hence don't slaughter the whole team).

This logic can be extended to other combinations of teams. There should be a law of diminishing returns though - for example in a 40 man raid, I would not expect the system to scale to make zero healers acceptable. But if there were only say, two healers, the system should be able to scale *to a large degree* to even out the challenge level of the encounter.

Obviously, it wouldn't be perfect. But, it would be tweaked based on data mining/player feedback, just the same as with current systems, and it would be a lot better than current systems where you if you don't have X amount of various classes, you just have no hope of beating the encounter. The benefit is that players would be much more free to bring whatever class they like, to experience the content that they're interested in. No more being pressured by your guild to level up a tank, even though you secretly hate playing them, etc.

Of course, I'm sure there'll still be the elitist top few % of players who want to compose the perfect team, and that's fine, that's half the fun of the game for them, so let them do it! But for the vast majority of average Joe's, this will let them just play your game to maximize their fun, without having to worry about whether they're going to get into an "end-game" raiding group with their selected build.

Thoughts or suggestions?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Grind is ok when...

For a while, I've been saying that grinding in an MMO is ok if it's just for looks. Don't make people grind for power, but if they want some spiffy looking armor, they have to log up some hours.

But screw that, I have an even better idea, which occurred to me over long hours of brain inactivity while grinding in CoX recently thanks to the wonderful ission Architect XP bugs.

If someone's giving you $15/month, I'd probably say you should just reward them with some fluff, whether they've killed 1,000 foozles or not, whether they even log in or not. Then, if they want to bash their head against your gameplay repeatedly because it's actually fun, then they can feel free to (and if they actually do without you hanging the industry standard carrot over their heads, congratulations, you are not going to designer hell).

This is actually similar to EVE's system, in that you accrue stuff with real-world time spent, not game-time. Of course the difference here is that you don't make the older players more powerful... you just make them look awesome. The most flashy stuff in the game can take a few months to get, that way your veterans can still distinguish themselves, and new players are lured to keep subscribing.... but nobody has to grind. Unless they really want to.

This can only be win-win to me... thoughts?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Faux gameplay - losing control

The goal of any game is to provide entertainment. Games are a diverse medium and can provide entertainment in a number of ways. I think you can break down the various ways to be entertained in a game into two main categories: gameplay and non-gameplay.

Non-gameplay aspects of a game are aspects that the player can not interact with in order to "win" at the game. This could include the quality of graphics, pretty scenery, the music, the art direction, the atmosphere, chatting with other people, etc. It also includes being able to do "cool" things in the game - anything that evokes a sense of wonder in the player.

Gameplay aspects are those factors that depend on player input to decide whether they will "win" at the game. From tricky fast-paced arcade timing of moves and abilities, to strategising on the best way to solve a puzzle, this stuff is what we mean when we talk about gameplay.

In good games, the same feature of the game features both aspects. For example, in Super Mario Bros 3 I can obtain the Raccoon Suit. The Raccoon Suit is powerful. It lets me fly for short bursts, slows my descent when I fall, and lets me hit enemies that I couldn't kill by jumping on. The Raccoon Suit is also awesome. It gives me little ears, my tail waggles, it makes cute sound effects. I'm also not used to flying around in a game and defying gravity and ninja-hitting people with my tail, so I am left with a distinct cool impression resulting from the unusual gameplay.

This is a fantastic marriage of the various ways in which I can enjoy a game.

Then we slide down the spectrum of well-designed games to, oh let's say, WoW. WoW features a lot of good non-gameplay aspects. Cool looking characters and powers, giant world in which to interact with people and cool looking places to explore. But what about the gameplay aspects? Tobold gives a nice run-down of these

Basically encounters boil down to: having good gear, prior knowledge/experience of the encounter, the right preparation (knowing build and skill rotations), 'arcade-style' reflexes, and tactical use of skills.

So what's the problem? Lots of gameplay there right? Well... let's face it. Players are lazy. They look up which gear to get, and then they grind until they have it. They youtube the encounter, or read some guides, and then use rote memory to get through. The build is also obtained from some website, along with the best skill rotations. Even players that don't look this stuff up on a website will have it forced on them by other players in their guild that do, as the other players expect them to contribute optimally.

Ok, so we're left with the arcade-style gameplay and the tactical use of skills as possible avenues by which the player can actually affect the outcome of the fight. The problem: WoW uses a GCD system, and so everything happens really, really slowly. Anybody can push the buttons in time. I don't care how old Tobold is or how advanced his arthritis is, he will always push the buttons in time - if he knows which buttons to push.

So the problem is reduced to, knowing which buttons to push at the appropriate time. I'm not talking about 'optimal skill rotations' here - I'm talking about what needs to be done at particular times to respond to a dynamic situation.

For a new player or for someone who doesn't read the forums, performance on this aspect can be pretty sub-par. This is due to the massive amount of information required for the player to know - they have to understand all of the game mechanics and the functions of many other skills and classes in order to make the correct decision.

But once this information is learnt, a game like WoW doesn't require much further tactical knowledge. Encounters don't change. Aggro operates by easily predictable rules. Sometimes you may have to decide who to heal if people mess up the aggro, or perhaps move out of some glowy stuff on the ground. There's no pressure vs spike considerations and there's little in the way of protection skills, meaning that you rarely even have to watch the gameplay to decide what to do next.

In short, it's pretty hard to mess it up once you've pre-learnt the little bits of information necessary for success.

Don't get me wrong, it's still an entertaining game, what with the shiny pixels and everything. It's just not really an interactive game. Tobold is quite correct in that the design approach makes it as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. But without really being challenged to interact with the game in *some* way to be able to beat it, I just can't seem to make myself enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mission Architect woes

I'd been really looking forward to the release of the City of Heroes/Villains mission architect update, but since it's release I've started to get a bit worried. Two days ago I joined a mission team with my hero defender and the leader took us through a mission he had designed specifically for one purpose, farming XP. It didn't take me long to figure what was going on, as the mission had no plot or story line and the enemy groups were designed to be practically useless. It took less than 15 minutes to complete the mission with a team of 8 and in that time I gained three levels with my level 27 character (granted I was on double XP). Now if I had of been doing non MA missions, it would have taken 2-4 hours to get those three levels.

I'm not a big fan of grinding, so I often look for the easy path, but only so far as it doesn't ruin the gaming experience for myself or others. This definitely seems like an exploit to me.

For a long time now I've been asking for tools to allow MMO gamers to build their own content, but the reality doesn't seem to be quiet what I had in mind. Mission Architect has a few fundamental flaws. Players can easily build 'XP farm' type missions. If their mission gets taken down (reported for content), they can build another one in minutes. Also now that there is an easy way to get missions, why would players actually leave the mission architect complex? What happens to the rest of the game content and story arc? Surely the game designers/devs saw this coming...

History has taught us that MMO players will always abuse any power they are given. It seems odd that NCSoft would overlook such an obvious exploit. Either way, update 14 was meant to enhance the CoX gaming experience, but I fear it may be doing the opposite.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

When the business model effects the game design

MMO games need to be designed for two reasons: entertainment and money. The need to keep the player entertained, as well as make a profit. If the game does well in one area but not the other, or if it does measly in both, it often fails. Therefore game designers need to be vigilant when designing their games, so that they keep both boxes ticked at all times. This is where you say: "hey wait a minute, the business model has nothing to do with game design!?!?!"... if only that were true.

The design of the MMO must play to the business model and vice versa. An excellent example of this is Wizard 101. The game is designed so that certain areas of the fantasy world are 'locked' and you need to buy in-game tokens in order to unlock them. I know it sounds stupidly simple (and it is), but if the game map hadn't been designed into 'lockable areas', they would of had issues with their business model. In the case of Wizard 101, the alterations to their game design to incorporate the business model were rather minimal. The player's experience is impacted in a very small way.

Lets now take a more extreme example, where the business model greatly impacts on the game design. Since I'm not a big fan of WoW, it seems only fair that I pick on it. WoW unfairly gets a lot of attention on this blog when talking about bad game design. Apologies to the WoW readers.

WoW uses a subscription based model, and therefore makes it's money by enticing players to 'hang around' as long as possible. The game employs multiple techniques to achieve this goal, but the end result is the same. The player must spend a large amount of time to gain a very small step in progress. This could be in the form of grinding to gain a level, an item or an achievement. In the time it takes a casual player to get from level 1 to level 80, Blizzard has just made 4-8 months worth of subscription fees off them. In the time it takes to deck a character out with all the most awesomely powerful items, another 2-4 months. You get the idea... Essentially the game design plays to the business model, and it does an excellent job of it.

Where the problem lies, is what happens if all you want to do is skip the formalities and get to the endgame? You might want to only play WoW so that you can do raids with your mates. Unfortunately incorporating such a design change would conflict heavily with the business model. Blizzard would no longer make the 4-8 months worth of sub fees off you. Such a design change would be considered infeasible and bad for business. What does that mean for the gamer? It means you have to pay the money and put the time in or tough luck.

This brings me to my next question. Which business model has the least impact on the game design?

I haven't fully done my research on all available MMO business models, but I know from experience that the Guild Wars 'pay upfront' model has very little impact on the game design. ArenaNet could change what ever they liked about the game as long as the entertainment value stayed the same or increased. Their designers have one less thing to worry about when taking your entertainment interests into account. Ultimately the gamer benefits.

I know there have been many discussions about what business model works best, and this post is not about reigniting them. I just wanted to provide something else to think about when choosing an MMO :P

Friday, April 3, 2009

I don't get it

So, everyone is up in arms about Time Warner declaring tiered broadband pricing in Austin, Texas. Apparently.

Some interesting facts:

1) In Australia, pretty much every single ISP charges this way. I had to re-read the press release a couple times to make sure I wasn't missing anything.

2) Nobody cares, because it makes sense - you get what you pay for.

3) The mainstream companies give you jack shit bandwidth per month. The lesser known companies give much more. Some of those companies give good service, others don't.

4) The better companies don't charge you for going over the limit, they just reduce your bandwidth for the rest of the month (with the option to buy more in small increments). Scott claimed that $1 per GB is 'ridiculously punitive'. Excuse me while I Lol. How is paying 33 cents per episode of a torrented TV show more than you can afford? God, some people will whine about anything.

5) Many downloads are un-metered. I'm with "Internode" in Australia, and as long as the Internode servers are available for Steam to use, my hefty Steam downloads are not metered at all. Many companies also feature "off-peak" downloads, where if you download after midnight it doesn't count (i.e. you set your download manager to go after a certain time).

So, worried about other companies following Time Warner's example? Well, they will. And some of them will be dicks who charge $40 a month for a 2 GB download limit, while others won't and will undercut the market. Shop around.

When I read Scott say "the end of the Internet as a content delivery system", all I could think of was "the sky is falling". This guy needs to harden up just a little bit.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anything but the meme...

I tried to hide, I tried to run, but the meme found me... aaaaaarrrrrhhhhhh....

Ah, who I am I kidding, I love being meme'd. Thanks Ysharros ;P

The Honest Scrap Awards

This award is bestowed upon a fellow blogger whose blog content or design is, in the giver’s opinion, brilliant.

Apparently the rules are as follows:
  1. When accepting this auspicious award, you must write a post bragging about it, including the name of the misguided soul who thinks you deserve such acclaim, and link back to the said person so everyone knows she/he is real.
  2. Choose a minimum of seven (7) blogs that you find brilliant in content or design. Or improvise by including bloggers who have no idea who you are because you don’t have seven friends. Show the seven random victims’ names and links and leave a harassing comment informing them that they were prized with Honest Weblog. Well, there’s no prize, but they can keep the nifty icon.
  3. List at least ten (10) honest things about yourself. Then pass it on!

Seven blogs I love to read (not including the ones that have already been meme'd):

Chappo Corner: Another Aussie with a fetish for MMORPGs. Most of my game design ideas are a direct result of of his blabbering. I probably should pay him some money one day :P

A Ding World: Sente has very similar tastes in MMOs to what I do, so his posts are always a pleasure to read. He also often posts info about upcoming MMOs or updates long before anyone else (and includes plenty of pics). Definitely worth a spot in the old RSS feeder.

Life is a Mind Bending Puzzle: Only by reading mbp's blog will you unravel the MMO mysteries which are the mind bending puzzles.

Ixobelle: As far as writing style goes, you cannot beat this guy. Every single post is entertaining to read and often makes me laugh. Ix doesn't beat around the bush when game design is concerned. Who knows, he may even be a game designer for Blizzard one day. Probably best to suck up now ;P

Dichotomy of the Gamers Blogosphere: When Openedge takes a break from blogging, he still churns out 3 posts a day. He has a passion for blogging and gaming that I don't think I could ever match.

Kill Ten Rats: An MMO blog run by a group of really talented authors. I won't pick favorites (/cough Ravious) :P This blog has everything except player housing... when will they learn??

Thallian and Anton's MMO and Random Rambles Blog: I like to think of these guys as Megaman (Thallian) and the main character form the Secret of Mana (Anton). They are building a game together, which I've already signed up for the closed beta. Hopefully I'll get a beta key ;P

10 honest things about me:
  1. I play basketball 3 nights of the week for 3 different teams. Tuesday's for 'B' grade, Wednesdays for 'D' grade, Thursdays for 'C' grade. I like to mix it up.
  2. I have two favorite movies (aside form SW and LotR) and they are both Manga: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and Nausicaa Valley of the Wind
  3. I didn't read a novel outside of school until I was 21 years old and my girlfriend purchased it for me. I now read a novel a week (or so). I've got approximately 80 Forgotten Realms books on my shelf to prove it. Funnily enough my girlfriend has a degree in Literature.
  4. I almost failed English at school, but graduated second highest in Mathematics. It was evident that I was going to become an engineer...
  5. I have a Software Engineering Degree with honours (yeah, yeah... show off). My major was in digital electronics, but I've never used that area of my education since I left Uni. I'm just a humble software programmer :)
  6. The very first game I ever purchased was Metroid on the NES. I still have it kept away, although the box has seen better days.
  7. My favourite games company is ArenaNet and I hope to one day work for them as a games designer.
  8. I grew up in the country and moved to the city (Melbourne, Australia) when I was about 15 years old.
  9. I learnt to drive at the age of 10. At the age of 14 I accidentally drove the farm truck into the dam. Strangely I pulled the handbrake on before swimming for it. Made my Dad's job 10 times harder when towing it out with the tractor. I got in so much trouble...
  10. I am 6 foot 1 inch tall and can make my goose bumps stand on end with a thought. It's a cool party trick ;)

CC in PvP

Saylah over at Mystic Worlds has a post up about CC in PvP, generally lol-ing about the fact that Blizzard can't seem to figure out that people don't like it. She raises a good point - nobody likes to lose control of their character by being stunned, rooted, feared, or whatever else the flavour of the month happens to be.

One way to get around the debilitating effects of CC is to never truly let people be powerless. For example in Left 4 Dead, when you are incapacitated you can still shoot. You are limited to using only pistols, you can not move, and your accuracy is impaired, but it's infinitely better than not being able to do anything at all. Further, should you die as either a Human or Infected, you are able to enter a free-roaming mode where you can travel very quickly around the map, spinning the camera around, passing through walls etc. You can scout ahead for your team this way, or simply watch the cinematics unfold from a pretty vantage point, or watch another player from their point of view (always entertaining). It's not as good as if you were still playing, but it's fun, and it passes the time until you can join the team again.

Another way is to have the CC be a heap of fun both for the person dishing it out, and the person taking it. The only example of this I can think of has to be knock-backs. In WAR I never cared when someone used a knock-back on me, even when it sent me hurtling off a cliff, as I was always too busy chuckling to be frustrated.

If approaches similar to the above are not possible, there are still plenty of ways to make CC a fun and balanced part of PvP. But it is important to realize that, by definition, class-based games are never balanced on a 1 vs 1 scale. If they were, it would mean that every class does effectively the same thing, which would then mean that it's not a class-based game at all.

No, in class-based games, balance needs to be considered on the team scale. As long as someone else on your team can easily counteract the effect, balance is preserved, and your fun isn't ruined. But, this is where most MMO's get it wrong.

For example, WAR. In WAR, there is a tiny icon that appears underneath your character portrait on the party member UI that denotes the effect that is on you. Your team mates can see this icon. However, there is a different icon for just about every skill in the fricking game, they are not easily distinguishable from one another, and the whole thing is a mess. On top of this, removal of debilitating effects is often not spammable due to cooldown and/or being in an undesirable spec. What you're left with is terrible gameplay for the person suffering from the effect, because nobody is going to help them out. I'll assume this all works the same in WoW, but I can't distinguish it from WAR in my head, due to WAR's blatant ripping off of... everything about WoW.

Anyway, let's now consider a game like Guild Wars. The differences are:

- All debilitating effects are characterized as either conditions, or hexes. A grey icon appears on the health bar for conditions, and a pink icon for hexes.
- Many effects can cause the same condition. For example, you could have the "Crippled" condition applied to you through one of several different melee or ranged attacks or spells, but they will all result in the same icon appearing on your UI, and the same magnitude of effect (in this case 50% slow-down).
- The fact that the icon is right on the health bar, that the icon is large, and that it doesn't have to be differentiated from a hundred other icons, makes it much more likely that a team mate will have the inclination to help you out.
- There is a little more specific information available for many conditions, eg changes in the color of the bar. But in general it may not always be apparent what conditions are on a person.
- This is supplemented with the ability to control-click the icon of the de-buff in your UI. This sends a message to team chat, e.g. "I am suffering from the Blind condition!"
- Condition and hex removal are spammable, and are effective even with minimal points in the particular attribute that they are linked to (many of them being linked to no attribute, i.e. require no stat point investment to get the full effect). Although you can "cover" important ones with lesser ones, in general it is easier to remove the effects than it is to apply them.

What we end up with is a system full of some really debilitating debuffs, but it's not broken because they can and will be removed easily. This forces people to select their targets and their timing more carefully instead of mashing skills on recharge like in most other MMO's.

Of course, there will be people who will recount some story of how they got jumped by a Rogue on some PvP server while they were farming Foozle eggs, and never had a chance. Boo-hoo. That's not "PvP", it's a retarded gank-fest. Class-based games can and should only be balanced for team play, never for 1 vs 1. If ganking is a problem in the game, fine, change the game design so as to make ganking not a problem.