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?


  1. You might want to take a look at Darkfall siege mechanics. Aventurine have dealt with quite a few of the problems you have noticed, and sieges in Darkfall are both epic, and one of the highlights of the game.

    Some useful info on Darkfall siege mechanics can be found here:

  2. Dàchéng, thanks for the link!

    Unfortunately, it is rather old (2007). Do you have an idea where a full description of Darkfalls current system can be found, without playing the game for half a year oneself?

  3. I quickly tried to find something more comprehensive and more recent, but failed. Ironically, my search for siege mechanics

    threw up this chestnut: "We all know how it works currently so I will spare that detail."

  4. I've searched a bit myself and it seems Darkfall tries the way #2. They try to make attackers and defenders log in at the same time and fight it out.

    I guess with a hardcore game like Darkfall this is still a possibility. With more casual-oriented games, however, I consider it impossible.

    Have a look at this Darkfall forum comment from 2009.

    [..] Current mechanics require players to stay online for 6 hours in order to 'induce' a conflict. 6 hours is not enough time for cities to react to the massive alliance styled assaults happening today. [..]

  5. Dammit posted huge post and blogger ate it . Well gonna post it later on my blog ... hint hint.. shameless plug - I have a blog now

  6. Great! I'm looking forward to your posts, Max!

    (blogger eats my own posts on a regular basis .. I try to copy/paste before I post, but sometimes I forget it. ahh!)