Monday, June 29, 2009

The real hardcore!

I fired up my computer first thing Saturday morning in the same tradition that I had been doing every Saturday for the last ten years, except this time it felt a little different. I didn't have an MMO to play. Saturday mornings are my only chance to get some quality gaming time in, and I had nothing to play... I checked my Steam friends list and Melf still hadn't come online, so that meant a single player game was in order. I checked The Steam sales, and to my luck 'Plants vs Zombies' was on sale 50% off. Easy sale.

What an awesome little game! I won't do a review as there are already hundreds, but I can tell you that I was impressed for the price I payed. About an hour into PvZ, a Steam message popped up in the bottom right of my monitor:

"Melf is now playing Diablo 2"

WTF? I love that game! I hadn't played it in ages. I got Melf on Vent and jumped in myself. Melf asked if I wanted to join him in creating a 'harcore' character on The catch was that we needed to first complete the game online in 'normal' mode to unlock 'hardcore' mode. The goal was set! I rolled an Amazon, Melf a Sorceress. The character choice was irrelevant because they would be thrown away after hardcore mode was unlocked. We rushed through normal mode in a little under 5 hours. It would have taken longer if not for Melf's ancient D2 knowledge and the help of a few higher level good samaritans.

It was hardcore time! I chose the Sorceress, entered a name and clicked to continue. The usual message appeared warning me that if I died, it was 100% game over. If Blizzard wanted to deter me, they were going about it the wrong way. Melf created a game, and both our characters appeared in the Rogue Encampment. Melf had rolled a Paladin.

The one thing about D2 that's strangely never bored me, is progressing through the first 5 or so levels. Its fun to find a useful weapon and get enough money to buy those essential items. I think the 7th or so Zombie to fall to my firebolt dropped some hard leather armour with +6 to life. Awesome! I scored a pair of boots with 10% faster hit recovery off a shaman. Leet! I love it!

Level progression in hardcore mode is a little slower than normal. You can't take as many risks, and you need to fight with one finger on the 'drink rejuvenation potion' button. Memories of my old school gaming days were flooding back to me and I was having a ball. The thrill, the risk, the challenge! This was the real hardcore and it felt good to be back!

We finished up Sunday night at level 12 and both still alive in Act 2. We have the Horadric scroll, but need the cube... Will we make it to the end? Hell knows, but we intend to try ;)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mixing PvE and PvP

Tobold has asked recently why developers should bother mixing PvE and PvP into the same MMO, because he feels that the design of each conflicts with the other too much, leading to a reduced experience for both.

The simplest answer to this question is because people like to do both.

The next simplest is because making a whole new game would cost much more money. A game that includes PvE with no PvP is a massive waste of resources for a developer. Contrary to the opinions offered by some people, the vast majority of players enjoy PvP in some way - simply not PvP in an MMO. The negative connotations related to PvP in an MMO can be attributed to experiences of being "ganked", i.e. steam-rolled in a fight that you had no chance of winning or may not have even wanted at the time, because

a) the other player(s) was a higher level than you; and/or
b) you were outnumbered; and/or
c) the other player was able to attack you where/when you did not wish to be attacked.

For a), the solution in an MMO is obvious - make the achievement of maximum power something that is within the reach of all players, i.e., make any time investment required moderate (say, the same amount of time it would take in a single player RPG). This has the pleasant by-product of also fixing the retarded soul-sucking grind progression system that is PvE in many modern MMO's.

For an example of how to do this, as in many things, the answer is to look to Guild Wars. In Guild Wars it takes an easily achievable amount of time to reach maximum level. Most of the game happens at maximum level. Instead of arbitrarily increasing your power so that you end up fighting level 40 rats in between every town, you instead unlock new builds to try. Instead of forcing you to grind mobs/quests to obtain powerful enough gear to proceed through the game, you can easily achieve the most powerful gear and it's the good *looking* gear that you can grind for if you choose to. There is still all the e-peen stroking you can shake a stick at as a result, and all the other standard MMO stuff such as exploration, socializing, achievements (titles/emotes), super challenging areas with enhanced rewards (i.e. raids), etc.

Problem b) is another raised by Tobold. This applies to the 'open world' type of PvP, which often is and absolutely should be full of n00bs running around in big groups zerging each other. It is absolutely ok for the war as a whole to be asymmetric, dependent on who has put in the most time, etc, as this is the way that real wars are and let's face it, it's impossible to balance open world PvP any other way.

Two concessions must be made however. The first is that there must be more than 2 sides, as WAR's bleh PvP has shown.

The second is that there should always be tactical options available to players to counteract the movements of the other side. Games are no fun when no action that you could possibly take will effect the outcome. If your side has fewer players, it should be possible to accomplish various tasks to recruit more NPC's into the army (there should also be solid social networking tools, to organise the actual players that you do have more easily). If the other side chooses to zerg, tactics should be possible so that the enemy is forced to either

i) divide; or
ii) deal with the tactic somehow to avoid having to divide; or
iii) lose the battle/war

WAR has none of these factors and so can not possibly be a satisfying PvP experience (other than the thrill of running around with a large group, sieging a castle, etc, which I admit is quite fun the first few times). But these factors really don't get in the way at all of a solid PvE experience, so the good news is that future MMO's can easily adopt them.

Finally, problem c) above. There are many ways around this. The RvR 'lakes' in WAR were actually a good way to do this, and I hope future games adopt a similar solution.

Bear in mind that none of these problems are present in the more 'arena-based', e-sports style of PvP such as is found in Guild Wars. However for a long time, there were still balance issues where a skill that needed to be nerfed in PvP ruined popular use of PvE skills, or vice versa, making both camps generally unhappy whenever nerfs rolled around. This is another potential area of conflict between PvE and PvP game design.

However, again, Guild Wars eventually got around this - there are now simply skills that have an altered function when engaging in PvP. There are also skills that can only be used in PvE. This allows for fun gameplay in both areas, and for balance changes for one not to affect the other. Of course this has the down side of making the game more complex than necessary (and preventing people from smoothly transitioning to try out their less-preferred game type), but has the up-side of keeping a lot of people happy.

So in summary - PvE and PvP can and should be mixed into the same game, to provide a better experience for players and an efficient way to ensure game longevity and broader appeal. A little bit of common sense drawing from what's worked and what hasn't in previous titles is all that is necessary.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MMOs have made me bitter

I look forward to reading posts that are a little off topic these days, because the usual MMO stuff is starting to sound like a broken record. I'd like to think that I'm experiencing another MMO burnout, but this feels different. I'm not burnt out, I'm angry at the industry for being so arrogant and stupid. They always claim to have a 'new experience', or some buzz feature, but it always turns out to be the same old shit with a different stink. I get the feeling as though no one with any influence in the industry is actually listening or even cares. MMO games are now all about how much grind they can squeeze in for the least amount of development cost.

Gamers aren't treated like loyal paying customers. These days your account can be banned for 'suspicious activity' with no warning or care from the company you had been giving money to for the last 4 years. It's also rare that any MMO games company will take responsibility for an exploit or a bug in their game. Instead they just swing the banhammer around and around and around. It seems to always be the paying customer's fault...

Gamers are made to chew the addictive paddocks of grindville, while the fat cats work out how to make the grass taste better so they can get a little fatter. I am yet to see a single MMO games company actually care about the health or life of the batteries powering their organisations...

MMO companies need to learn to divorce their business model from their game design so that the design is driven by user experience rather than by money. When I play an MMO these days, I don't see a land of fantasy or sci-fi. I see clever design strategies to keep players addicted. I see grind in all it's disguises. Worst of all; I have some idea in my head of what makes a good MMO, and all I see are dribbling excuses that feel more like cloned cash grabs than games. It's like my own analytical brain has doomed me to never again enjoy an MMO world...

Why is that MMO designers make the same mistakes over and over and over? When a new game comes out, it often follows the same flawed path as it's predecessors. Full of bugs, game plays the same as something else but with a buzz feature. The design barely works because it was put together like a picture puzzle with pieces from 10+ other puzzles. Is it because of the size and complexity of the project? Is it because of the financial risk? I'm sick of playing with mangled puzzles, I want a complete picture, and one that I haven't seen before. Is it too much to ask?

So what now? I still enjoy playing video games. I'd much rather play video games than watch TV. I'm going to be steering away from the MMOs for a while and instead target indie type games, where success or failure rests on quality design and clever game play. I want to be able to play a game and respect it's designers for being intuitive and creative rather than loath them for unorginality and repetitive blunders.

There are still some MMOs that I want to take a look at though: Jumpgate, Aion, SW:TOR and Guild Wars 2. I know that they will probably just increase my bitterness, but I haven't given up on the genre just yet. I'd be impressed now if any MMO could hold my attention for more than 3 months. If it did, you'd know about it.

So all in all, apologies if you catch me ranting about fail MMO design decisions in the comments of your blog. It will take a while and some quality gaming to wash the bitterness away. I'm playing Team Fortress 2 at the moment which seems to be helping. I love my RPGs, but it seems that MMORPGs are still a long way off winning me back.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Would you care about that in a non-MMO game?

It seems like everywhere I look these days there is somebody spewing out some nonsense about how nobody will do anything in a game if it is not allotted a sufficient "reward", where reward is some shiny trinket that your character can keep.

In one form or another, the human race has been playing games for thousands of years. Despite the astronomical salaries attached to some pro sports stars, most people are perfectly content to play games completely for the fun of the game itself. When you checkmate the king in chess you don't look around expectantly waiting for his treasure chest to materialize in front of you, you set up another game and set to thinking about how you're going to take down your opponent this time.

This new bribery of sorts is a thing pertaining specifically to MMO's. Single player RPG's rewarded people with trinkets all the time, but it never became an issue because the games didn't involve "grind". Everything you did was moving you closer towards completion of the story, and very few encounters were the same as any others. Therefore you actually enjoyed what you were doing, and so did not need to be "motivated" to play through the game.

Most MMO's, on the other hand, are painful. Everything you do is the same as everything else you've already done, and so players actually have to be goaded, much like cattle, into going down a particular path.

The worst part is, there are some people who seem to accept this as par for the course, and play games only if the progression of juicy "rewards" fits their expectations.

These people are what are referred to, in general, as "Loot Whores". Don't get me wrong, we all love loot to a certain degree, but most of us can appreciate the fun or lack-thereof of the gameplay in some way or another. But the loot whore is a beast who has eschewed all forms of gameplay in favor of pure, pathological desire to obtain more loot.

Loot Whores come in two distinct flavours. The first is probably the most obnoxious, because they pretend to be "hardcore" in their appreciation for particular elements of gameplay. In actual fact, all species of Loot Whore care only about loot, but these "hardcore" beasts require their loot in a given context. Some players require that the loot only be acquired in the presence of at least 20 other people, or perhaps that the loot is not able to be obtained by at least 90% of the other people playing the game. The most obnoxious kind require the loot to be taken from other players.

The less "hardcore" flavour of loot whore is less bothersome, in that they will take their loot however they can get it. However, make no mistake - they are still a parasite on the soul of the video game industry, swaying the game developers towards removing all vestiges of gameplay from their games until all we're left with are glorified slot machines with a chat window.

What can you say to the Loot Whore to lead them back to the path of the righteous? I suspect that there is precious little, it is probably already too late for most. Perhaps the direct approach is the best. Sit them down, look them in the eye, and ask to them to please explain why they would give two shits about whatever they're complaining about if the game wasn't an MMO.

Doesn't look that smart to me...

Wolfram Alpha

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Let us eat cake

Ryan Shwayder of Nerfbat has an interesting note up on his blog that I've been meaning to comment on for the last few days about Risk vs Reward in MMO's. Basically, he says that in order for the reward to feel rewarding, it has to come with a significant risk of failure.

I want to point out that there are different types of 'fun', i.e. reward, that someone can have in a game. For now, let's talk about just the two examples implied as the reward in Ryan's post. I will define these as:

"Nintendo" fun - the player continually tries and tries to beat something and then feels a rush when they finally manage to do it

"Shiny" fun - the less gameplay-linked aspect of "achievement" fun. i.e., getting new shiny items/levels/powers. I like to also call this "loot whore" fun, mainly to annoy people that I consider to be "loot whores".

Now, some people prefer the 'loot whore' form of fun. These people will be annoyed if an obstacle is too hard, because they are less likely to get their loot. Others prefer the 'Nintendo' form of fun. These people will be annoyed if an obstacle is too easy, because they like challenges. In reality, everybody falls in to both categories to varying degrees, and so will generally be pissed off in some way at some thing or another.

I think the standard MMO design tactic to circumvent this seeming paradox is to create the illusion of challenge. It's challenging to flip tails five times in a row on a coin toss, however there's precious little you can do to affect the outcome of the coin toss. Similarly it's challenging to beat a mob a few levels above you in WoW, but your actual actions in the game don't really matter much. I like to refer to this as 'faux gameplay'.

So, everyone feels challenged (but they actually aren't), and everyone gets loot. But, everyone is left feeling kind of a bit hollow (or maybe it's just me...)

Maybe a better way would be to actually divorce the 'Nintendo' aspect from the 'loot whore' aspect. Give players loot regardless of whether they succeed. Give the feedback for the 'Nintendo' typed players in the traditional form of high scores, ranking charts, harder difficulty levels, optional more challenging areas, etc.

Now, the reduced number of players QQ-ing on the forums may be offset slightly by the increased number QQ-ing about how all the 'n00bz' are getting the epic lewtz and how their e-peen is feeling dangerously under-nourished as a result. However, this is a small price to pay in my book, as this way we could have MMO's with actual gameplay that retain their addictive 'loot whore' nature.

In other words, we could have our cake and eat it too.

Valve announce Left 4 Dead 2

Talk about rapid development

Surely sales of the first Left 4 Dead would still be going well only a year after release? It seems like Valve are shooting themselves in the foot a bit with this - or are they?

Actually, I think this must have been their plan all along. Think about it, they had a bunch of experimental stuff they wanted to test:

- Mass market appeal of zombie apocalypse
- AI director algorithms
- Co-op gameplay where any one person gets completely disabled without their team mates
- PvP where the 2 teams are completely different and have different objectives
- Level of interest for mini updates i.e. new maps/achievements/survival mode

So they make a relatively cheap game (only a few maps, no real story, they already had the engine developed) to test this stuff out. Now that they know it all works well, they can give us a 'bigger game' as they describe it with all these ideas fleshed out.

In summary: Valve's idea-test games are better than everybody else's *actual* games.