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.


  1. I get where your coming from now. Makes the last several posts make a lot more sense.

    I agree completely that the current design really kills immersion. I think, when you look at replacing it, it sounds like you want something that makes real world sense, and that also makes for good game play. You have chosen to go with OP, DP, and Health.

    Health, I think, makes sense for any game, because ultimately, you need to have a way to decide if a character is alive or dead.

    OP and DP, gameplay wise, I see where you are going, but simulation wise, aren't they just two sides of the same coin? What if you instead combined them? Call it something like Endurance, and make it start high, regen over time, and decrease as you do things and get hit, or call it Exhaustion and start it low, decrease over time, and increase as you do things and take hits. If you do something like that, I think you could have a streamlined system, you could use abilities or stances to modify how offensive or defensive you are being, and the same bar would apply whether you were swinging a sword or casting a spell.

  2. It all makes a lot more sense now. I think that DP and OP have a lot of potential, uncombined, for both gameplay and simulation. Just because a player is in a poor condition to attack doesn't mean they are in a poor condition to defend, so I think keeping them separate could be a good idea.

    From a gameplay perspective, having them would help to set pace and allow for more depth in the interaction, which in turn helps the simulation aspect. It adds necessary interplay between offense and defense as two distinct modes of combat (like in real life). I'm not sure your implementation of that system is ideal (not a fan of it being a be-all-end-all point system for doing things; I think it'd make more sense dealing with the *effectiveness* of things), but I think you are definitely on to something.

  3. It does make some sense that ability to attack and defend would be related or linked in some way. Rather than being a single stat, they could instead have some sort of effect on each other, such as if your defense is very low because you've been getting beaten back, you're probably off-balance and tired, so your attack would suffer as well.

    The general idea of losing a stat before losing defense is a great way to avoid the strangeness of things like in and out of combat regen. If our DP is enough to protect our health, then we don't need health regen ever, and it makes sense for DP to quickly regenerate in and out of combat.

    On the other hand, maybe downtime between fights isn't such a bad idea, but the tendency to have endless repetitive fights is. No one wants to wait a minute after killing a mook, but maybe after killing a dragon (worth a thousand times the XP) it wouldn't be such an annoyance.

  4. @Klepsacovic

    I've been thinking more about it and I think it would be a good idea to have a certain allotted amount of "buffer health", in other words there is always some amount of health that can regenerate. This would keep it so that players can easily recover from minor damage as well as get a second wind when they are getting low on health.

    This makes sense intuitively: recovery from minor intermittent damage. If damage compounds quickly or if the hits are harder then it takes away from the health that does not regenerate. When players lose almost all of their non-regenerating health, the bit of regenerating health that they have allows them to "hang in there".

    If DP and OP are an additional layer to this, adjusting the condition of the player depending on what the player does, then there can be intense combat with an intuitive tactical element to it.

  5. Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but I'd actually prefer a more 'real life' approach to the whole hp story - basically you have 100% health and thats all you get and all you can lose within the same combat. no pots, no other auto-healing or hp regen.

    I do like some marginal healing effect though, simply for tactical reasons: it enriches gameplay aspects. but i'd like to see this work as a special ability or spell that needs to be cast or executed like other moves and it should only be castable while the enemy is crowd controlled or at range or incapacitated you can justify it from that point of view. and of course everyone should have such means, no matter the class.

  6. MMORPGs try not just to be good gameplay, but also a simulation.

    No, that's what YOUR ideal MMORPG would be, but it's certainly not the only valid approach.

  7. @All: Thanks for your comments. It really helps to get a little feedback, even if I don't always write an answer.

    @Edawan: Why all the expensive graphics if the simulation wasn't important for the players?

  8. Well in real life we don't have a set amount of "hp"; it's much more flexible and contextual. We *do* recover, especially from minor things (people can "walk off" injuries and get back to playing in real life).

    It is *not* realistic for players to die as soon as the "hp" is gone, as if attacks and damage cleanly stack up on each-other and there is a clear point when the "hp" reaches zero(if someone takes minor damage repeatedly it doesn't add up to kill them, although it can certainly wear them down).

    Having some amount of regenerating health, I think, not only enhances the gameplay but also replicates the idea that health is actually very flexible. After the initial hit a person is at their worst, but people rebound to some extent shortly after. If a person takes damage repeatedly in a short amount of time, he or she doesn't have time to rebound. If things are spread out, then that person can handle it better.

  9. Gilded, in my opinion we would make a great step forward by using a system that doesn't have a health bar that is not constantly jumping between 'almost dead' and 'perfectly healthy'.

    At this point, I'd use gameplay considerations. Gameplay has to be simple, yet deep. To add small features, like e.g. "you can regain 5% HP if you have over 75% of total HP and it will take time that scales with how healthy you really are and have been over the last 7 days "

    ... something like that may be nice simulation. But it is complicated, prone to bugs, too complicated for most players to understand and ultimately meaningless.

    In other words: I think this would be bad gameplay for a very small gain in simulation.

  10. Is the better alternative to have a health bar that doesn't give any leeway? I'm not so sure about that. I don't think the dynamic has to be complicated: the player has a set amount of health that can regenerate, the rest of the health doesn't regenerate. Some games already do this to an extent and it helps with gameplay by letting players recover a bit directly after being hit.

    The health bar doesn't have to jump between almost dead and perfectly healthy. Buffer health wouldn't restore a players health completely, it would let the player rebound a bit after attacks so that things aren't so black and white (and so dependent on external healing).

    I see what you're saying though and I completely agree that the answer is not to make health a volatile point system. If anything, having some amount of buffer health makes the actual health much more stable.

    Having a black-and-white health system with absolutely no recovery is very limiting (and shallow): it makes it so that the player that does the most damage the fastest wins. There is no tactical element, no rebounds, no dynamic.

  11. Gilded, I'd rather design it in a way that you don't usually suffer HP loss in the first place. Just like you don't usually suffer structure loss in Eve Online, but shield/armor loss is quite intended.

    Using some kind of DP would allow you to never be hit. And if you get hit nontheless, make sure you get some (of the rather rare) healing.

  12. isn't buffer health or a shield in a sense the same thing?

  13. Only when it comes to taking damage. E.g. defense Points can be used for many, many more things without being incompatible with the simulation.

    For example, you could make some sills decrease or increase defensive points. This allows much more interesting gameplay. But it wouldn't really work with health for most themes.

  14. Why all the expensive graphics if the simulation wasn't important for the players?

    I thought we were talking gameplay here...

    Besides, even in graphics realism isn't the only valid approach.

  15. Edawan, the post is about the dualism of simulation and gameplay in MMORPGs.

    Humans have evolved to have quite some fun listinging to stories and thinking about how they would react in a potential future situation. It is how we learn.

    The more you learn by listing to a story (mostly in a passive way), the more fun you have. However, if the story is not relevant enough, fun decreases dramatically.

    What 'relevant enough' means differs from person to person, but the most fun can be had by a story that is just different enough from your current life to learn something, yet relevant enough to not be wasting your time. This is the sweet spot MMORPGs try to hit.