Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Holistic MMORPG Design

Consider the health bar. From a pure gameplay point of view it is just an interval of numbers that can be used to influence other peoples’ numbers and vice versa. That's really it. However, MMORPGs are not Tetris. MMORPGs try not just to be good gameplay, but also a simulation. And thus, the game designers of old started to think about the interpretation of that interval of numbers. Eventually they called it health bar and it would indicate how healthy somebody was.

Whether they started with the simulation-aspect or with the gameplay-aspect is a good question. My guess is that they started with the simulation-aspect and tried to find an answer to the question:
How can we simulate combat in a way that it is a fun game? Because, clearly, a mouse and a keyboard are terrible tools to simulate real combat completely!

Once they had nailed down the gameplay concept and had given it a meaning within the simulation-aspect, they started to iterate on the gameplay.

For years everything went well. But with time people came up with ever more interesting gameplay:
"Long downtimes after your health bar is down is bad gameplay"
"Let’s make it fill up faster, then!"

From a pure gameplay PoV this makes perfect sense; I'd support it! But the simulation-aspect suffers; and so does immersion. What actually happens in the simulation when you fill up your health bar within 3 seconds? And why doesn't it work during combat?

"To make combat more challenging, healers should have to do split-second decisions!"
"Great, so let's make the boss hit for 70% of the tank's health"

Has anybody ever tried to imagine what that kind of combat would look like, if the tank's health bar was really an indicator of his health?

"In arena a healer should not die, because three players focus him."
"OK, make him heal himself for 80% of his health every 2 seconds!"

"Characters shouldn't just die when they .. die."
"Great - let them respawn after 30 seconds"

The list continues for a very long time. Teleports, instances, boss fights, ...

The designers seem to have decided to simply copy/paste the simulation-aspect and develop the gameplay. What they don't realize is that they are still bound by the simulation. It takes years to make the step from the way Everquest refilled your health bar after combat, to how WoW:Cataclysm does it. Years that are wasted on conditioning players to accept immersion-breaking gameplay rules!

There is a better solution: Instead of copy/pasting a simulation-aspect that doesn’t fit your gameplay, just choose a simulation-aspect that is better suited to your needs. My last post was such an example. But there are others.

Can you take a healing potion from your backpack while you fight with shield and sword against a skeleton? Can you open it, and swallow it while blocking attacks and breathing heavily? Why don’t we replace the healing potion with magical stones attached to your sword? Same gameplay, better simulation.

Game designers nowadays spend too much thought on how to bypass the restrictions of the simulation-aspect and not on how to use it to their advantage. There is no need to copy/paste old simulation-aspects, like healing potions and health bars. They had their time. Nowadays gameplay isn't anymore compatible with those archaic interpretations of the numbers.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

To Fight Legends, II

Last post I introduced an alternative fighting system for MMORPGs. This post I want to introduce another one.

Every combatant has a health bar and an energy bar. The energy bar always starts at 100/100.
Every second you gain 5 energy. All your moves consume energy and have an effect on the health or energy of your opponent or your own health. Since death is such an unpleasant thing in a MMOROPG, you don't die instantly when you are low at health, but rather take soul damage. You die when your soul reaches zero. Would that system be revolutionary?

Hardly. But, you might notice that it is almost identical to the system I presented in the last post. The gameplay is almost exactly the same. Everybody has three bars. One refills itself and they influence each other. But add auto-attack and remove the soul damage and you have the WoW-rogue system.

DP = Health
OP = Energy
Health = Soul

Did I trick you ? .. no. The system that was introduced in the last post is quite new. But that 'newness' is not in the gameplay. It is in the simulation-aspect! And, as you see, that difference matters a lot.

In fact, in this case, it frees the game designer from limitations. Does it make sense that moving forward reduces your health/DP? Within the old system: No. Within the new system: Yes.
Does it make sense that you can be healed from the brink of death (2 broken legs, one open head wound, left arm destroyed) several times during a fight? No. Does it make sense that a friend can motivate you with a battle cry and instill new hope and resilience ? Yes.

This is a classic example on how gameplay can profit by overhauling the simulation-aspect. The new system allows a lot more freedom, because OP and DP can easily jump back and forth during a fight. It makes sense that a rogue has ways to strengthen his defense. It doesn't make much sense that he can heal himself.
In the last decade, instead of changing the paradigm, MMORPG developers rather decided to ignore the simulation-aspect! Thus, warriors in WoW and Rift can suddenly heal themselves.

To Fight Legends

For decades now the dominant combat minigame in RPGs and MMORPGs is to reduce an enemy's bar to zero before he reduces one’s own to zero. To do that one uses skills, either to reduce the enemy's bar directly, or to prevent him from reducing one’s own bar.

To give the whole thing some immersive meaning, the bar was painted red and called health bar. It was meant to indicate how healthy somebody was. One broken rip: -10% health, a broken leg and one liter blood loss: -60% health.
Also, the designer doesn't want the player to visit a hospital after every fight. So along with one gameplay trick came another: the health bars would fill up at incredible speed after every fight. The race to the bottom was at full speed, when they added healers that would rescue the tank from deaths grip once every cooldown.

For a very long time I was scared. This gameplay mechanic was literally old when I was born! How can you even question something that old? How dare you?

Now, I admit that age is a viable argument here. Something that old is usually good - or at least better than the alternatives. And I am certainly not the first to think about how to change it for the better. But too much respect is a bad adviser and so I decided to set out and think about alternatives. One thing I came up with was this.

Every combatant has three stats of which the first two start out at a standard value at the beginning of each fight:
·         Offensive points (OP, 25/100)
·         Defensive points (DP, 50/100)
·         Health points (HP, ?/100)

Every second each combatant gains 5 OP. As long as the combatants don’t use skills, they just parry and dodge each other. Nothing else happens. To have an effect on the enemy, you have to use skills. Skills consume and/or grant any of these points to you, or to your opponent.

Examples would be:
·         “Disrupt”
Consumes 10 OP and reduces the enemies DP by 10.
·         “Block”
Consumes 20 OP. For 3 seconds any skill the enemy uses on you that decreases your DP, will decrease his DP instead.
·         “Defend”
You actively try to defend yourself and gain 5 DP. Consumes 10 OP.
·         “Charge”
Consumes 40 OP and cuts the enemies DP in half. If the enemy has less than 40 DP, he takes one HP damage for every OP you have in excess of 40.
·         “Retaliate”
Consumes 20 DP and hits the enemy for 5 DP. You gain 10 OP.
·         “Backstab”
Consumes 10 OP. If an opponent has less than 75 DP and you are behind him this skill deals 10 HP damage to him. Otherwise it reduces his DP by 5.
·         “Finish it”
Requires that you have 50 more OP than the enemy has DP. Consumes all your OP and deals 40 health damage to the enemy.
·         “Trip him up”
If you have more DP than your enemy has OP and another enemy moves beside you, you trip him up. No cost.
·         Strafing (via WASD) consumes 1 OP per second
·         Going backwards (WASD) consumes 5 OP per second, increases your DP by 5 per second and also increases the enemies OP by 1 per second.
·         Moving forward (WASD) consumes 2 DP per second and increases your OP by 10 for every skill you use that deals HP damage to the enemy.
·         “Band together”
Consumes 20 OP. Use on a friendly player within 5 meters. All OP/DP points are added and shared between the two of you as long as you remain within 5 meter. If your common DP fall below 20, “band together” ends and cannot be used again by either of you for 10 seconds.

You get the idea. The system works quite well if more than one enemy attacks you. It makes health valuable. In 90% of all fights you would hope to never ever come close to losing health. And in the few cases there are, you would need to visit a healer. The system is not annoying, because you are happy to have survived in these cases.

The simulation-aspect behind it is clear, I hope. When fighting an opponent, you constantly have to guess and re-guess how offensive you can risk to be. You need to attack to beat him, but every attack makes you open to counter attack.

The problem I face writing this is that I actually need a proto type and lots of iterations to make it work. But, I think, a few things can be said despite this limitation:

Firstly, the UI would need to show the OP/DP of you and of your opponent right in front of your eyes; maybe in the center of the screen. It might be useful to show a little slider inside the enemies DP bar that indicates how many OP you have. Your skill icons might have an overlay that tells you how much OP/DP are still needed before you can use the skill. UI would be a very major factor in making this work.

Secondly, the duration between key-presses would have to be reasonably long. The system is not as trivial as hit-and-do-damage on a one-dimensional scale. The visualization can still be rather fast, as the combatants fight, even if they don’t use skills. Thus, combat can look very engaging while allowing for more depth.

Thirdly, this system would need some additional thought for magic users and ranged combat.

Fourthly, please don’t tell me the numbers above need some more balancing. I came up with this example in about 10 minutes brainstorming. I feel there is a lot of potential tactical depth by using two bars (OP, DP) instead of only one (HP). It also is a lot more immersive than the status quo. 

Do you think this system can be used to design fun and engaging combat?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What Health Care and Skill Systems have in Common

Assume you are a doctor. Assume you live in capitalism and are rewarded for healing people. If they need healing they come to you on their own, so to make a lot of money all you need to do is make certain that they need healing. …

Now imagine you want to play a healer in a skill-based game. You are rewarded for healing people by skill gains. So to raise your skill, the only thing you need to do is make certain that they need healing. ...
For example by asking them to jump from rooftops or by not properly defending against a monster.

And just like in real life, this problem is a really difficult nut to crack. In one way you want to make certain that people gain skill by using their skill-related abilities. On the other hand, this creates an incentive.

The first problem
In general, all skill-based progression mechanics have this problem. There always is
  • the way the system reacts to the player and
  • the way the player reacts to the system.
And they clash all the time!

If you have a very immersive and common sense way that the system responds to the player, it will often encourage the player to behave in a way that is not immersive or common sense at all; like taking extra damage so that he can train his healing skill. Or searching for mobs that are especially hard to kill, so that he doesn't have to walk so much while training his sword skill. There's no end to examples and most of them are not only an immersion problem, but a real gameplay problem. They encourage players to do unfun and boring things.

The second problem
For a system, a good way to respond to player actions requires three steps
  1. the system needs to know what the player is doing
  2. the system needs to know how well the player performs
  3. the system needs to reward the player accordingly
(1) is manageable; (3) is easy. But (2) is extremely difficult.

You can see the problems outside of skill systems, too. Warhammer Online and Rift have 'public quests'. That means that players meet and fight together against an enemy without any communication being necessary. Afterwards, players are rewarded for their participation. But how?
Did the healer, who seemed afk 50% of the time, save mana to heal the group when necessary; or was he semi-afk? Or was healing not necessary, because other players performed really well? Is it reasonable to penalize the healer, because other players performed well?

Or look at WoW battlegrounds. Players participate in battlegrounds and are rewarded for what the group achieves. Makes sense as long as players actively participate. But once players realize that their influence is small, they start thinking about leeching. That is, they play semi-afk or even completely afk. In instanced content this is especially bad, because not only do the players behave in a way that is probably not even fun for themselves, let alone non-immersive. They also disrupt the fun experience of other players and possibly motivate them to do the same.

And in a skill-based system, how does the system know by how much which skill of the healer to increase? How does the system differentiate between really hard content that required a lot of healing and players that played deliberately bad to allow for a lot of healing?

What kind of solutions are there?

1) You can simply ignore the problem. Yeah – doesn't sound like much of a solution, but you would be surprised how many designers do this! They argue that players are stupid if they game the system, reduce their own fun and therefore shouldn't do it.
I don't consider this a valid argument, because it works with no game. With casual games it doesn't work, because players don't put as much thought into the game. And with hardcore games, like Darkfall, it doesn't work, because these games usually attract the most dedicated min/maxers. It may work with tabletop games; but even there it is a problem.

2) You can employ sophisticated methods to rate how well the player performs at doing what and reward him accordingly without offering ways to be gamed. That is the brute-force approach. And, I fear, it is going to fail with today's computer AI.

3a) You can make players actively help the system, by supplying it with information.
This is what Blizzard did with battlegrounds. Players can flag other players afk. Next, the flagged player needs to perform some actions you would assume only a human can. It is immersion-breaking for sure, but it's not like there were many alternatives.
Applying this to a skill-based system, other players could give you points for how well you performed at what.

3b) You can make the players passively help the system, by supplying it with information.
For example, the system can reward a trader with trade-related skills depending on how challenging a trade route is. To estimate the challenge level it can use statistics, like the ratio of player deaths between location A and B during the last two weeks and the value of the traded goods according to the regional average price.

4) You can make players have a stake in that other players play reasonably and give them a way to penalize them when they don't.
An example would be peer-pressure. For example, by forcing players to first form a group and then join an instanced battleground together, Blizzard tries to use other players to keep you from going afk or fighting half-heartedly.

5) The basic idea is to reward players only for activities that the designer knows cannot be gamed – like successfully fighting an NPC mob or completing a quest. Or being subscribed (Eve Online).
The information as to what skills should be gained can be attained in different ways.

5a) You can assign players roles. For example by using a class system or by using the gear selection, see recent posts. If a player does anything the system considers meaningful, he gets better at the role. This means that e.g. a healer can become better at healing just by participating in a fight, during which he did not heal at all. But, since players have no incentive at all to assume roles that are not needed in a fight, the hope is that this doesn't happen often.
This can often feel a bit boring, as the player has no influence as to how his character improves, except for selecting his role. To make it more fun, these systems often allow the player some latitude in deciding how exactly he wants to get better at his role. This would be the classic experience-based solution.

This is an interesting approach as it solves the problem by turning it upside-down. It allows a potentially unimmersive system reaction to a player action, but provides an incentive to behave in an immersive way. The hope is that by focusing on the incentives, players won't gain benefits by doing something unimmersive, because they have no reason to do so, in the first place. Thus, the system can have a good guess as to what the player does and reward him.
It is similar to how I manage comments on this blog. Off-topic or insulting comments are deleted completely, without any trace of them being left. The hope is that by reacting in such an excessive and inappropriate way the problem doesn't occur often, in the first place.

5b) You can give out specific skill gains for tasks that are well known to the game designer and certain to not be gamed. An example would be giving skill increases only for completing specific quests.
Another example is any WoW-like crafting, as the system knows exactly what you do and how well you perform.

5c) You can allow players to choose rewards themselves.
Eve Online does it this way in combination with progress by simply being subscribed. I can't say I am especially fond of this. But, well, it solves the problem, deals with some other issues, and within the right background story it can even be immersive. But it is bad gameplay, in my opinion.
Also, it can be gamed by buying a second account you don't actively play. You use this one only to create your dream-character while playing another account, or not at all. For the developer this kind of 'exploit' has some advantages, obviously.

6) For specific skills you can design around the problem. For example, healing during a fight could be made impossible and irrelevant by declaring that anybody dies within a few hits that he doesn't deflect/block/evade. Whether he is able to do this is indicated by a green bar that needs to be kept at 100% as much as possible during the combat-minigame. After combat everybody could heal by using a skill that is not subject to character progression.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Last post was about the possible implementations of a "siege mechanic" in a MMORPG. The preliminary conclusion was that a MMORPG, that doesn't aim at the pure hardcore market, cannot make it's players meet and fight it out.

Players that log in every second day between 5pm and 8pm cannot be forced to log in at 3pm at a specific day, just because the enemy lives in a different time zone. They might be at work or, during Saturday, they might want to have a walk with their family. It is certainly not easy to accept: But every good "siege mechanic" for a mainstream game needs to work with factions that potentially never meet in grand scale; while still allowing them to meet and fight it out.

Instead of a NPC-heavy implementation, I suggested to use the economy to create such a non-synchronous gameplay in way that is compatible with the simulation aspect. And by doing so, I needed to assume some characteristics about the economy. Among other things, I needed to assume that something like trade routes exist and that these can be blocked.

So, let's assume that we have a working buy/sell order system. Let's also assume that goods can be stored and sold safely at player-owned shops by player-employed merchants. Considering this environment and keeping in mind that there are no teleports of anything, but information, what should trade look like ?

For trade to happen it must, on average, be beneficial for the trader. This may be obvious, but it is overlooked by many developers who tend to look at trade as an aspect of the bandit gameplay. And while I consider bandit gameplay to be a valuable addition to any game, I must point out that it is the wrong way to look at it.

There cannot be any bandits if there are no players willing to trade. And since the majority of players rather plays bandit compared to the more boring trader, anyway, a developer needs to assume a trader's point of view first, and a bandit's point of view second.

Luckily, this whole topic can be put in quite simple mathematics which are very helpful for the designer.
Let p1 be the price at location 1, p2 the price at location 2, c the amount traded, M the profit the trader demands for the whole thing being worth his time. What is the highest probability of being robbed q, that doesn't put the trader out of business?

(1-q)∙(p2-p1)∙c-q∙p1∙c>M => q<1-p1/p2-M/(c∙p2)

To make things more simple, assume either M=0 or c=∞. It follows


So, if the price is p1=20 gold at location 1 and p2=21 gold at location 2, it follows that q<5%. This is the absolute maximum probability for a successful bandit attack any trader can bear without going broke! Also, if the probability is higher, the prices will turn out to differ more


So if q=20%, it turns out that p2>25 gold!

Realistically, traders don't want to break even, but make a profit M. Otherwise, the trade were pretty pointless. If M is not 0, like above, the amount traded c, becomes important. This c is a rather interesting thing to look at, because if it is very large, the term becomes less important. However, the risk for the trader also becomes higher.

That is, because a real trader only has a limited amount of money. To lose it all due to a very high c, is a real problem! It becomes much easier if he has access to insurance. But, unfortunately, insurance is a real problem in a MMORPG. I haven't found a way to introduce it in a way that works well, yet.

The above term M/(c∙p2) can be guessed, though. The denominator is the revenue and, thus, the term is the fraction of the revenue the trader aspires to make on average with each run. It is also called the operating margin per trade run. If we assume that this is about 2%, we can, finally, conclude that


Thus, we have to subtract 2% from each q. The above example turns from q<5% to q<3% and the calculation of p2 turns to

=>p2>p1/(1-q-2%) = p1/(98%-q)

So, if q=20%, it turns out that p2>25,64 gold!

I am pretty sure I lost almost every one by now. And it is probably not very important to remember these calculations. What is important is that a developer can set a price deviation to determine the required probability of successful robbery.
So, if you consider a well oiled-economy to have no higher price fluctuations than some percentage, you can now calculate the required probability of successful robbery.

The other way round, you can determine the price fluctionations that will come to be, due to a certain probability of being robbed.

One last thing. If you are tempted to argue that players do not do these calculations, you are probably right. However, they will behave according to them, because whether trading feels 'pointless' or 'great' is determined by them.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Conquering Castles

Conquering castles is an obvious feature for any MMORPG. It has been tried on a regular basis over the years and except from a few very gamey exceptions it has failed. So, is it possible ?

I, at least, hope it is. From a simulation-aspect point of view it is way too good to forget about it. But how can it be implemented in a way that is gameplay-wise not only tolerable, but actually fun? And what general characteristics of MMORPGs support it?

To answer the first question, we should look at the actual gameplay-problem of conquering castles.
The obvious way to implement 'conquering castles' is to allow players to 'attack' a castle whenever they want and conquer it within about 30 minutes, if they are 'successful'. The probability of 'success' would be determined by the kind of resistance put up by the defenders.
Now, this may be the obvious way, but it is complete unacceptable from a gameplay point of view. It encourages attacks at 3:00 am in morning. It puts the defenders at a massive disadvantage and it doesn't feel epic to conquer a castle in 30 minutes, in the first place.

Games like Warhammer Online have done it like this. It led to castles being conquered back and forth several times a day. How meaningless, how absurd! If the process of conquering is encouraged by gamey rewards, it can even lead to win-trading. How embarrassing for a game designer to be defeated by the prisoner's dilemma!

The central gameplay-challenge seems to be to make defenders and attackers meet and do the battle. But how? 

One rather obvious way is to force attackers and defenders to agree on a time at which they fight it out; the same way cowboys do. So you enable attackers to declare an attack on a specific date/time and allow defenders to agree or disagree. .. What if they disagree? How often are they allowed to disagree? Does forcing them to make a counter-proposal any sense? And is it actually any good from the simulation-aspect point of view, in the first place?

Also, players aren't available all the time! They have structured days with jobs, family, or at least university and parties. Should you even try to encourage them to log in at a specific time? They might stop playing your game, because it requires too much time. What if you have a real-life African community fighting against a real-life Asian community, with a 12 hours time delay?

So, once again, this may be an obvious way to solve the problem, and it is certainly better than the simple-minded implementation. But I still don't think it is good enough.
Another idea would be this: Castles cannot just be conquered, but need to be run out of supplies over days or weeks. Without supplies the attackers can move in and take the castle in a final battle.

How is this any better? Well, as a game designer you need to accept that your attackers and defenders might not necessarily be online at the same time; ever. So you should allow them to do PvP without being online at the same time. There is only one kind of PvP that allows this: the economic game! If you make conquering a castle an economic game, you enable attackers and defenders to do all kinds of stuff to each other.

So the first part of the answer to the second question I asked is: You need a working player-run in-game economy. The second part is: You must not have teleports of goods, of people, or even of gold. It must be possible to isolate areas, to economically exsiccate them! 

If you want to disrupt the enemy's trade routes and they are never online when you are, you can hire other players to do the job. By doing so, you will force your enemy to do something; for example to hire players to disrupt your trade in return! To finance these actions, both sides need to 'work'; for example by offering their services to a third party. And if the players want to log in at a specific time and fight it out, they still can! But it is their choice, as it should be.

No 'conquering castles' feature is ever going to work (with casual players anyway), if it forces players to meet at a specific time. Accepting this as a game designer is the first step towards the solution.

More abstract
What is most important is that you can use features that seem to be justified only by the simulation-aspect and turn them into weapons to win the battle over the gameplay-aspect. One reason traditional MMORPGs have such a hard time to implement immersive simulation-aspects is that they have so little of them!

Drifting too far away from the simulation aspect can turn into a race to the bottom. Just like Star Trek needed to invent ever more absurd problems to deal with the already existing absurd solutions to prior absurd problems, allowing players to e.g. teleport is such a powerful solution to all kinds of problems, that you need to create especially absurd problems to keep the game interesting.
And in the end, the less immersion you have, the less you can have. That doesn't mean that the focus on gameplay is inherently inferior to focus on the simulation-aspect. It is not. Having a fun gameplay is still the final goal of any game! It just means that the simulation aspect is a powerful tool in the fight for better gameplay.

If Warhammer had had no teleports, it could have had a good economy. If it had had a good economy it could have had reasonable sieges. If it had had reasonable sieges, players would have developed an emotional bond with their community and the game had been a success. And once again I point to Eve Online.

I added another one to the Really Good Links on the right:
Achievements Considered Harmful?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Follow Up

Since last post was damned to be dominated by the background information, this post will once again concentrate on the character power progression (CPP) itself. I think there is some merit to write it down once again. And I am honestly interested in what you don't like about it; simulation- or gameplay-related.

The simulation-aspect idea behind the system is that the role your character plays is defined by the equipment he wields. The gameplay idea behind this is that this allows one to copy Eve Online CPP and paste it into a 2D fantasy MMORPG; with just a few changes.
The only major property I do not want to copy/paste is the CPP while being offline. You should get better at your role while doing fun things while wearing the role-defining equipment.

But what makes an Eve Online-like CPP so desireable in the first place?
Answer: It allows a brilliant mix of vertical and horizontal progression! See below

  • offers almost endless character power progression,
  • while keeping the players within a small intervall of power,
  • while allowing meaningful progress with every play session, 
  • while making characters competetive within a short time (high accessability)
  • while allowing a non-mandatory(!) long grind to create elite characters (=slightly better than competetive),
  • while always encouraging exploration of another role,
  • while keeping characters in specific situations quite different from each other,
  • while preventing boredom better than any locked-in class or skill system,
  • while being more compatible with the simulation-aspect than other class or skill systems,
  • while being very flexible when it comes to group content that requires a specific role combination,
  • while being less vulnerable to balance problems than even a locked-in class system,
  • while cutting down on the number of (required) twinks; thus cutting down on anonymity and other disadvantages of twinks (e.g. they weaken the emotional bond with the main character).
  • And it is very easy to expand later on by the devopler.

Do you agree on that? Should I elaborate on some points? What disadvantages do you see that I overlooked?

    Monday, March 21, 2011

    A Proposal

    Since my first post this year, I have been writing a lot about Character Power Progression (CPP), Holy Trinities, Skill Systems, Class Systems and I'd like to come to a preliminary conclusion; a Proposal.

    Unfortunately, features in MMORPGs can never be analyzed without context. That's why I will first describe the game the proposal is meant for. I try to keep it short.
    • Little teleport
      • No character teleport
      • No item teleport
      • No currency teleport
      • But limited information teleport
    • No instances
    • No predetermined factions
    • Character housing
    • Group housing (read castles)
    • Control zones (borders)
    • Sieges that take weeks
    • Crafting
    • Item decay
    • 99% player-run economy built on buy and sell orders
    • Trade
    • Cultivation of wild lands
    • No Holy Trinity, but GW2-like PVE
    • No boss monster encounters that need to be trained or can be trained
    • Collision control instead of threat
    • Full PvP, but strong guards where reasonable. Some areas are very secure
    • All player vs player combat takes at least 2 minutes
    • Items are necessary to stand a chance in combat, but the difference between good and phenomenal items is not that big
    • Full Looting
    • Credible weight limitations on inventory
    • Bounty system
    • It requires roughly 4 new players in basic equipment who know what they are doing to beat the best-equipped/skilled player on the realm
    • Very diverse PvE content. Some areas in the world inhabit very powerful mobs, some inhabit really weak mobs. Mobs mostly look according to their power
    • Design focus on creation, but destruction by players/mobs is a possibility
    • Design focus on group content. Very strong incentives for groups to recruit and contact new players
    • Possible goals
      • Defending together against monsters
      • Defending together against other players
      • Attacking monsters to gain items/gold
      • Attacking other players to gain fame and influence
      • Creating a skilled character
      • Becoming rich by trading
      • Creating an army of players, conquering the world
      • Being a shop keeper
      • Offering transportation services
      • Playing bandit
      • Bounty hunting
    • You could also say: 70% Eve Online on the ground.

    What is missing, obviously, is the CPP. And that is what the Proposal is about. Adding to last post, I suggest this system:
    • A skill system (OMG!)
    • Every skill has associated actions. Exercising these actions improve the skill. Some more, some less
    • Every action has associated skills. Exercising the action improves those skills. Some more, some less
    • Skills only apply if the correct equipment is used. The equipment you wear defines your role
    • Efficiency at increasing a skill is influenced by other skills you have
      • Some skills cannot be trained unless other skills have been trained enough (skill trees)
      • Some skills make learning another skill faster
    • After some amount of skill gain (equivalent of about 2 hours) your character becomes tired and starts to gain skills ever more slowly until rested (logged off) for at least 8 hours
    • To become 80% effective at a role requires about 50 hours /played if you focus on it. To become perfect requires 1000 hours of focused play
    • Gaining some points in some groups of skills reduces other skills in some other groups

    Defeating somebody with a sword (action) makes you better at 'melee combat' and also better at 'combat with swords'. Defeating somebody with a mace also increases 'melee combat'. But it doesn't make you better at 'combat with swords'. Thus, fighting any melee combat, you become better at general melee combat, but to become a master swordsman you need to be more than just good at 'melee combat'.
    If you become good enough at skills you gain new 'moves'. A move is something like a 'whirlwind attack' or a 'fireball'.

    The higher your swords skill, the harder it is to become better at melee combat by fighting with swords. Therefore, you have an incentive to also train maces and daggers a bit.

    Obviously, all pure swords-related skills are useless if you don't use a sword. Some skills require a sword and a specific kind of armor to take effect. Some skills require a very specific equipment (assassin skills). Some skills require a very expensive equipment (remember item decay).

    Starting to use magic draws on your physical capabilities and makes you a worse warrior. And vice versa.

    What do you think?
    One thing: Before you tell me this system is incredibly hard to balance: Since players are locked in their equipment that allows only a small subset of usable skills, this needs not be true.

    Now, please don't tell me you like it. I know you do. Please tell why this might be a terrible mistake. Critical minds welcome. I need criticism! But please concentrate on the proposal, not on the game I want to embed it in. That's just necessary background information.

    Sunday, March 20, 2011

    Character Power Progression Systems

    These are the four things a CPP should do:
    1. Characters should grow to be diverse
    2. Characters should progress for a long time
    3. Characters should progress with a meaningful speed
    4. Characters should stay within a reasonable interval of power
    With purely vertical CPP these properties obviously contradict each other. If characters progressed for two years at a meaningful per-evening speed, the resulting interval of power were immense.

    The solution are horizontal CPP. There are two ways to create a horizontal CPP:
    • Players progress in completely different directions, like crafting, trade, combat, ...
    • Players can progress in the same direction
    The first way is quite limited and often feels less meaningful. After having been back-stabbed, it is little comfort that you are better at crafting.

    The second way is superior, but requires a trick. A trick that Eve Online applies for quite some time by now: In every single situation a character can only access a subset of his abilities (depending on the starship he commands).
    Rift applies the same trick, although it comes from the opposing direction and Rift does it for other reasons: A player can switch between up to four different ways of playing his character to make the holy trinity more flexible. What is important to see is that Eve Online, as well as Rift, as well as WoW with dual specc, move in the same direction here!

    A game that applies this kind of CPP to its full potential could actually achieve amazing things! Imagine a game where the most powerful characters are only about 4x as strong as the weakest. While at the same time you can progress your character for years on end. While at the same time every evening you spend feels like moving your character forward. While at the same time all characters are very diverse and play very differently!

    To make it work together with the simulation aspect, you either need a complicated soul background like Rift, star ships like EVE Online, or simply give players access to different skills / skill trees depending on the equipment they wield (Guild Wars 2).

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    Once More Unto The Breach Dear Friends

    Thanks to Hugmenot, Max, Sthenno and Syl for the very good comments to the last post. Instead of answering with a comment myself I decided to make new post about it.

    In some way, I feel like removing the Trinity is like making chess more realistic by adding dice rolls.. . It must be said that the Trinity allows for a very good game. But it requires that the game-aspect dominates the simulation-aspect. If it is possible to have the same level of enjoyable gameplay with better immersion, you should always go for it. But in this case this is just not easy.

    Actually, it is really, really hard. The fact that the Trinity dominates even despite all the gameplay problems it creates (see last post) and the fact that it even dominates single player games today, proves that its benefits (as compared to its alternatives) are significant. The one who thinks that he could somehow rip the Trinity out of a WoW-like game and replace it with something better, is either a genius the kind the world has rarely seen, or an idiot.

    However, there are many multiplayer online games that allow character customization (=RP for MMOs) and could easily be made massive; at least as 'massive' as WoW. And these games don't have a Trinity.

    The point is that these 'shooters' come from a different tradition of games. And while many people have tried to make a MMOFPS, none has come near the (financial) sucess of MMORPGs.
    Let me say that I am in no way a fan of MMOFPS. However, I do think that one can learn from these games, how to overcome the Trinity. They teach us that while we cannot just rip the Trinity out of WoW and replace it with something better, what we can do, is change the environment the whole system is embedded in.

    This leads us to boss fights. Would a counter-strike boss fight be fun? Is a multiplayer FPS boss fight fun? Exactly.

    Firstly, it is always hard to make immersive boss fights, because the idea that a brave knight kills a dragon, usually stops with him drawing his sword .. and then what? All those fantasy pictures and stories you might have in mind .. how does the brave knight actually kill the dragon? Answer: Either it is not explained how, or he uses some trick that should be impossible to perform with plate armor. It's more like a rogue trick. What knights never do is fight the dragon with sword and shield - and for good reason.
    Unfortunately, the community has become used to something that makes so little sense. And now we feel like we have to add it to every game. In fact, many people who share my verve when it comes to the simulation-aspect of games, also aren't becoming tired of repeating how much they love boss fights.

    Leaving the simulation-aspect behind and looking at the gameplay, I see no way to remove the Trinity and still have really good boss fights. What I do see, however, is the possibility to make a game that does not concentrate on boss fights, but on the 'usual' PvE and PvP. Imbue this PvE/PvP with meaning, for example by allowing players to design and build and fight over their own castles, and you can have a great game without the Trinity; and without grand boss fights.

    And how fun are future boss fights going to be, anyway? Haven't we seen them all by now? If Blizzard excelled at anything during the last few years it was at technically implementing every thinkable script combination that makes a bossfight.
    (Side note: my very first post on this blog was on the topic of boss fights)

    In the last post I mentioned all basic ways to control and support:
    stunning, kiting, collision control, thrusting and (de)buffing
    Point is: Almost none of these can work on bosses for gameplay reasons.

    In some way the Trinity was an answer to the desire for better boss fights. It has to be extremely gamey, because the desire itself already defies the simulation aspect. And to allow for as many different boss fights as possible, you need to have a gameplay mechanism that creates a very static fight; so that you can enhance it with any number and combination of scripted dance moves.

    Concluding this post, I'd like to ask for your opinion on how GW2 is going to handle epic boss fights and whether you think they are going to aim for them in the first place?

    Monday, March 14, 2011

    Overcoming the (Un)holy Trinity

    Syl has a really nice article about this online. Check it out.

    You didn't, did you? Well, the basic point is that, while the holy trinity (tank, healer, dd) has its uses, it also has its restrictions. The wider point is that the entire character customization of current MMORPGs is debatable.

    The Holy Trinity consists of at least two debatable parts: healing and tanking with threat. The dd part is alright; nothing to fix here. Let's collect a few strange facts:

    - Healers can fix broken limbs with spells, while the guy in question is still continuing to fight. Bad enough that we have health bars, but from an immersion PoV, healing is absurd.
    - Healers cannot be allowed to do anything else well - otherwise they are overpowered compared to other roles.
    - Healers change every PvP battle 100%. Ever had the luck to play some battleground or warfront without healers, or against too many healers? It is pointless.
    - Healers spend all their time looking at little green bars, instead of the action. The fact that getting out of the fire is hard is actually a game design problem; that Blizzard made it a symbol for skillful play is quite ironic!

    - from an immersion PoV, tanking and aggro are absurd. Full Stop.
    - Tanks cannot be allowed to do anything else well - otherwise they are overpowered compared to other roles.
    - Tanks are often useless in PvP. If they are useful at all, then for specific tasks that only require a specific amount of tanks.
    - Tanks spend all their time looking at one or more toes of their enemies.

    The Holy Trinity
    - Creating a group inside a game that is built with tanks and healers in mind can be an absolute pain. You either have too many or not enough tanks/healers. Talking about accessibility: Way before you tune the challenge level of your game down, think about this!

    And what good comes out of it? Now, this is interesting!
    - Assuming proper scripting, a very interesting encounter can be created with the help of the stability that is created by threat mechanic and healing from afar.

    To understand this, you need to consider a MMORPG without any threat and without any healing! If you just scrap it, the monster will attack people randomly or, if it is smart, always the guy that does most and can sustain the least damage. If the monster takes into account distance, a rather unpredictable fight emerges. Without healing, the fight will also end in death for a lot of players or be a pushover; possibly both. Can this really be a design intent?

    In some way the holy trinity, in combination with the threat mechanic, allows the designer to go wild with scripting. A pure tank and spank encounter is so trivial and static, that the designers do not have to fear any emergent behavior. They know exactly what the situation is like after whatever scripting event they implement. This alone can allow for a great game, like WoW has certainly been.

    Bottom line is: There is a really good reason for the threat mechanic and healers. Even though there are so many bad side effects!

    The solution?
    There are two ways to solve this. One really tries to solve it, while the other one tries to circumvent it.

    1) To solve it, it is useful to replace 'tanking/threat' with 'control' (not only for the player, but also for the game designer!) and 'healing' with 'support'. Assuming enough time to polish the game, it could be possible to pace it in a way that stunning, kiting, collision control, thrusting and (de)buffing can provide enough control and support. The problem really is the polish here. To make such a game would require absurd amounts of iterations. Make the game too fast and the whole thing doesn't work. Make it too slow and people become bored. Moreover, the perceived speed of a game is heavily influenced by the number of combatants. And to make diverse encounters you want this number to vary drastically.

    2) However, there is another way: And that is to embed combat in a more meaningful game. In a game with non-instanced PvP/PvE, for example, the individual skill isn't as important as the pure number of players. Combine that with an activity, like venturing into a dungeon to find treasure to buy special stones in the player-driven economy to reinforce your castle and thus prepare for war against your classmates. You can embed combat into so much meaning that the combat itself doesn't necessarily needs to be as deep and challenging as today. The resulting game might be much more fun than four bars full of skills or pre-determined dance scripts.

    An easy example are some facebook games. Even a simple, obviously absurd and utterly boring activity can become a billion dollar game, if it is embedded in a context that imbues it with meaning.

    Japan, DA2, Rift

    Firstly, I'd like to express my condolences to the Japanese people. Secondly, I'd like to put some things straight. There are three calamities right now in Japan: Tsunami, earthquake, nuclear meltdowns. In that order.

    It is a bit sad the western media, especially the German one, dramatizes the nuclear meltdowns. The power plants were built to withstand an earthquake of strength 8.0. That was a political decision about five decades ago! The quake hit 9.0 and it is to be expected that the plants experience major problems in that case. It is quite possible to build nuclear power plants that withstand 9.0.
    In any case, the meltdown of such a plant is not at all comparable with Tschernobyl. Radioactive emissions at the site are gone after a few 100 meters and that is only the gamma emissions. The more dangerous alpha and beta emissions travel a maximum of a few meters!

    The only really big problem is radioactive particles that get carried away with the wind. They find their way into peoples' bodies by breathing and eating. They also sediment on the skin. At this distance to your body-cells they can become really dangerous!
    But as long as there is no super-hot fire, the worst that can happen is some hydrogen explosion. At Tschernobyl we had a graphite fire that burned for a very long time and is - well - hotter than your usual fire. This is impossible at the Japanese plants, because they don't use a thing like graphite. The biggest problem caused by the nuclear plants is the power outage right now. The second biggest is that they will be really hard to 'repair'.
    But the most severe problem is still the Tsunami.

    Dragon Age 2:
    Yeah, I know... This is a MMORPG blog, but I won't make three posts today. So it has to be all in one.
    The first thing that crossed my mind after playing Dragon Age 2 for several hours on Sunday was: "This is not a videogame, but a gamevideo."

    Honestly, what did Bioware think? The cut scenes are nice, very artistic. I don't think that they fit, but kudos for the creativity and the courage. I didn't play long enough to really judge the story. Having said that, so far it feels rather bad; even badly told!

    When I started DA2, I went to gameplay options and chose 'hard', as I always do. However, already the very first escape scene is almost impossible at hard. Now, you will probably set out to tell me to not play at hard, unless I mean it, but here's a bigger problem at the roots.
    The process of micro-managing your party was massively annoying! The whole movement/camera feels un-polished! The combat seems like on steroids! Much too fast; and your spells have a cooldown of 20s or 30s! 90% of the time I have to pause and order my group around because the AI is not especially good at reacting fast to anything!

    End result being: This game is not made for tactics! The whole gameplay stops being fun if you try to pause the game repeatedly. Now, this already was a problem with DA1, but there it was still ok.

    Everything in DA2 says: Console! And so I succumbed, changed the difficulty to 'casual', pretended to watch my TV-screen while laying flat on the sofa, and had my party take care of the enemies with super speed, without breaks - and without much help from me. Fun? No. Could I please see the next cut scene? Damn, a dialogue! And my guy constantly says things I didn't tell him to say! Not that it matters. The dialogue partner doesn't really seem to care.
    I might finish DA2 eventually, but it will be on casual and just for the story. Stay away from DA2, unless you're a die-hard fan of the series!

    Finally, Rift. I like Rift. Not as an MMORPG, but as a single player game with some multiplayer action. I leveled several mages and clerics on all sides during the weekend, trying to make up my mind about what character on what side on what server I want.

    Most 'classes' feel polished and finished. The story is nice and the atmosphere stunning. A very big part has the music here. The moment you come back 20 years later as a Guardian has phenomenal music! Also, the stories of Guardians, as well as of the Defiants are interesting and rather well told for a MMORPG. The whole setting is innovative, and interesting. You need to force yourself to read most of the text, however.

    Sunday evening I finally ended up with a Guardian Fire Mage on a PvP-RP server. And then it happened: I was level 10 and the Lord of Fire descended through the Rifts to overtake the forest! We had a huge raid going on; easily some 80 players or more. I was churning out fireballs, chain-closing rifts and reaping rewards out of thin air. Unfortunately, my level was too low. The enemies were lvl 15-18, so I missed with 90% of my spells. The rest was 75% resisted. OH MY GOD!

    I know I asked that question before, but do we really need this character power progression (CPP) and enemies that are invulnerable, due to level? - In a game like Rift?

    Anyway, didn't I say that I enjoy Rift not as an MMORPG? Now, this truly was massive multiplayer! And later, when I am alone I can do a little CPP, which is to some degree RP. (Yeah, I know, some people would kill me on sight for that statement). It's just that there is a disconnect between these two games, somehow.

    Make no mistake; I think that Rift has moved the genre forward. They innovated with character 'classes' and they innovated with world PvE. Both experiments are a success, in my opinion. Not groundbreaking, but a success. The game works this way, it is fun to play. I won't renew my WoW sub anytime soon.

    However, ask yourself this question:
    How much do you care about your numbers? Because, I don't; they are too small and too many to watch them fly by. And if you don't care about your numbers, you don't need CPP - at least no exponential CPP! After all, the enemies gain HP exponentially, too, and your relative power stays the same. It's just that all opponents, that are not within your level range, either feel like a joke or are invincible! What's the good in that?
    How much fun could a game like Rift be, if the world truly felt like one? If the CPP worked by gaining skills alone, not by doing exponentially more damage with your existing skills?

    Have my gear scale my power up very slowly - I'd still be happy to find new gear! And within a world that is not inhabited with enemies that scale with my gear, it might even feel like meaning something to have good gear during the 'learn all your skills'-phase. (***)

    My hypothesis: Exponential character power progression (CPP) is holding Rift back! It keeps me from playing with friends, it keeps me from immersing myself into the world, it keeps me from enjoying the world-PvE events called rifts! Gaining skills is enough! Having these skills become exponentially more powerful is harmful for the game!

    From a game design point of view, the advantage of equipping ever better items, gaining new skill ranks and gaining attributes when gaining a level is overshadowed by its many, many disadvantages. Especially so, because the "illusion of power progression" that is provided, does not trick the main audience of Rift: former WoW players.

    (***) Alternatively, make items decay and thus create a meaningful economy.

    Friday, March 11, 2011

    Rift is the better WoW ...

    That is called a contentious statement :)

    But there is some truth to it. I played Rift for two more evenings and have a level 11 dwarfen priest at this point. I did a few smaller rifts, died in a big one and otherwise slaugthered a few hundred moving things.

    The crafting seems as little fun as in WoW, so I learnt three gatherer professions. The texts .. sorry I don't read them. There are too many, too long names and if I wanted to read all texts and understand the lore I'd be level 3 or 4 at this point. Also, a game shouldn't be an exercise in reading.
    Problem is: Once you stopped reading it's even harder to start reading again. There is no way to go back and read the quest texts again, after all. A bit of core-story telling shouldn't be too hard. Look at Bioware. Not 100% of a story has to be presented by walls of text!

    Judging Rift for what it is, it is a really good game. Comparing it to WoW, I like the fact that itemlevels are not visible. I like the fact that I am free to quest and explore and kill rifts as I like. No silly Cataclysm stories told by streamlined quests. The open grouping is a success in my opinion.
    Most importantly, it feels new, unexplored, less serious. Rift is a game for casuals and I enjoy playing it casually at this point. It was worth my money.

    But it's not my dream MMORPG. It doesn't have trade, doesn't have meaningful PvP, has silly crafting, badly implemented lore, etc. But that's all WoW-like. Judging Rift for what it is: It is WoW, just better; while leveling.

    Now, the long term success will be determined by the endgame. Especially so, since there are so few starting 'zones' that twinking is less fun compared to WoW.

    I'm sure Rift will make a profit and I am sure it will have influence on the industry. On the one hand side it might encourage Blizzard to spend more of their $900 mio annual operating profit ($1200 mio annual revenue!) on their MMORPG(s). Competition is good for business, as they say.
    On the other hand, however, it has proven that you can really make a profit with WoW clones. God help us all.

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011

    Finally Got Rift

    There I was yesterday. First time pushing the Rift DVD in my drive and anxiously awaiting the world champion of WoW clones to enthuse me. Having so much experience with MMORPGs, my take on such a thing is, of course, tainted. I tend to look at the whole thing like a game designer, which is good in one way and bad if you want to immerse yourself in the world.

    You see, I keep pointing out how important the attitude of a player is when one starts a game and here I am, allowing myself such an attitude when starting Rift. Ironic.
    So .. did I like it? Yes and no.

    Rift passed the first tests.
    1) Mouse moves as exspected
    2) Controls are 100% responsive, too
    3) Character creation. Woah! Nice!
    4) Good fps, nice graphics
    5) Tooltips everywhere
    6) Everything looks fluid and polished

    Honestly, if I ever make an MMO in my life, I'd be happy if I could say these things at launch! But they aren't everything. Here 's what I didn't like:

    The tutorial is too text-heavy in my opinion. I, also, was overwhelmed by the number of buttons in the UI! Why do you think WoW doesn't show you your talent trees until level 10? Exactly. If a WoW veteran, like me, is feeling overwhelmed when starting Rift, how do you think somebody who never played a computer game, let alone a MMORPG or WoW feels? I just don't feel comfortable. Many games, especially single player games, do this much better.

    There is no need to show me several complex talent trees at the very start! Am I supposed to spend the next few hours pondering what the best way to skill is? I want to grow and learn with the game. Here's a great article about that and Angry Birds.

    Also, you see from the start that Rift wants you to get a quest, move, kill, click, complete the quest. I can't say that I look forward to this kind of gameplay. I did that for the last 6 years, damnit!

    What could possibly spice that up enough to do it a 7th year? Story? Yeah - but the first hour didn't present an engaging story. I was created in some kind of production facility. I felt like a mass-produced thing. At the same time the story would always only talk about me - while, obviously, many other like me were created.

    And finally I didn't like the combat animations. I just wasn't casting a big fireball. I am all for scaled-down graphic effects. But some of my spell effects were only visible if I made an effort to see them. Strange.

    What else could spice it up? Something different form World of Warcraft .. rifts? Mmh .. problem is I never saw a rift. I stopped playing after the 5th quest. I just did Alt-F4 and spent the rest of the evening playing Minecraft.

    I'll probably have another look this weekend. I'm not saying Rift is bad. If it actually has a reasonable endgame they will keep quite some subscribers. It's just that running quests for a non-engaging story line? That was fun 6 years ago. Just like simply being pushed into a graphical virtual world with little game was fun 15 years ago. Nowadays it's just not enough.

    In a few months we know more.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    The Central Game

    This post is partly encouraged by Tobold's posts on the distinction of end-game and leveling-game.

    I want to discuss the 'central game' inside a MMORPG.

    A long time ago, when MMORPGs first used graphical representations, the selling point was to have a technically working virtual world. Not much thought was spent on the central game inside that world. This worked well - until the next generation of MMORPGs appeared. These had a central game.

    In WoW you have several central games. During leveling this is the exploration game. You explore the world, the quests and the possibilities of your progressing character. During endgame the central game becomes an itemlevel hunt for most and an organisation challenge for some. The itemlevel hunt manifests itself in raiding and dungeon running. Sometimes in doing professions. WoW also has a second, mostly seperated, endgame that is PvP. PvP is loosely connected in battlegrounds and arenas. Some people also play a very simple economics simulation.

    The 'central game' is the answer to the question: "What does the player actually want?" or "What motivates him to do what he does?".
    Sidenote: "What does the player actually do?" would be wrong! In chess you move pieces, in soccer you run around and kick a ball, but these are not the central game. They are just what you do while playing the game.

    The central game(s) is a defining characteristic for any MMORPG. The character power progression, for example, is usually just a feature of the central game. In the case of WoW's endgame, however, it has become the central game for most players. And if I had to guess, that's one of the reasons WoW is having problems right now.

    Most importantly, however, there are a lot of central games out there that can be used to make MMORPGs. Most can be found inside the simulation aspect of the MMORPG. Warhammer and Age of Conan tried to implement different central games: players fighing over castles. One reason this didn't work as well, was that these games lacked focus.

    If you make an MMORPG you need to know your central games and focus on them. What you must not do is clutter your MMORPG with many different minigames and no focus. Even one central game can be enough for a great MMORPG. More than a handful will usually be impossible to sustain without isolating them from each other (see WoW: PvE / PvP or leveling game / endgame).

    Some central games in MMORPGs that I would like to see in the future:
    - trying to defend a vast land against a PvE enemy
    - competing for resources against other players
    - trying to explore an endless dungeon
    - trying to create a perfect dungeon
    - trying to gain fame in piracy (on earth or in space)
    - trying to build great fortresses / palaces
    - trying to move up the ranks in a military (star)ship
    - trying to survive in a PvE environment
    - trying to survive in a PvP environment
    - ...