Friday, September 25, 2009

The Infinite Dungeon

Do you know ADOM? You probably don’t. ADOM is the acronym for “Ancient Domains of Mystery” and a brilliant single player game. I played it quite a lot during my studies in England. The big advantage of ADOM is that it runs on every computer.

That’s mostly because of the graphics – or the lack thereof. ADOM is a rogue-like game, which means that the entire graphics are made out of ASCII characters. You play an @. Dragons are represented by a D, rats by an r and so on.

You can click the link above and have a look, but you will most probably not end up playing ADOM. Even if you managed to get used to the graphics there’s some other problem, especially if you are accustomed to playing modern MMOs: ADOM is hardcore!
Not this kind of baby-hardcore Darkfall is, but real hardcore. If you die, you’re dead. Ouch!

Now, why do I blog about ADOM? I don’t. The headline of this post is the infinite dungeon of ADOM. ADOM uses unpredictable dungeons that are created the very second you enter them. And ADOM does have one legendary dungeon: The infinite dungeon.

You can play ADOM the trivial way (considered trivial by ADOM community standards!) and try to safe the world. Alternatively, you can try to kill the evil guy and take his place. To accomplish that you need – among other things – a relic from the infinite dungeon, that isn’t really infinite. It does have 66 levels – one level being a map that is connected to the map above and the map below. At level 66 you will finally get to kill some ugly monster and retrieve the relic. Then you still need to survive the way back up, which is not trivial, since there are no teleporters. I only managed to do this once and the Ragnaros first kill pales in contrast to that.
I always wondered: What is the fascination of ADOM?

It looks ugly, not immersive at all. It always tells exactly the same story; although using different dungeon maps. It does allow you to play some 20 classes or so, which are not balanced at all. Try to play through it as a bard and you’ll realize it is significantly more difficult than to play through it as a mage (although the mage is quite weak at the beginning).

The classes are not meant to be balanced – they are meant to be immersive. There’s the class called tourist. He starts with an unholy amount of cash, but is terrible at everything. His only real advantage is the flash from his camera that can blind creatures. But you better don’t try this at an angry red dragon; it works on giant rats.

ADOM is not twitchy since it is turn based. As long as you do not press a button nothing happens. Therefore ADOM plays like chess at times. You need to think in advance. Is that what I would MMORPGs to play like? No!

But I do think that MMORPGs can learn from rogue-like games. Especially when it comes to immersive dungeon crawls. I would pay quite a lot of money the month to play ADOM with modern MMO graphics and several of my best friends, but I would pay even more for an MMORPG that offers me the chance to play this way in addition to battlegrounds, daily dungeons and raids and all those things we have become used to.
There is a market gap for unpredictable immersive dungeon crawls in modern MMORPGs that can be completed with a party of 4 – 6 players and become more and more difficult the farther you manage to descent.

My suggestion: An MMORPG that contains among other things an infinite, unpredictable dungeon that becomes more and more difficult the lower you manage to descent. If you wipe you end up two levels closer to the surface and all levels are re-created. I’m sure we can come up with an immersive explanation. The lower you manage to get, the better the loot that drops. You can log out whenever you want and log in at that exact position again. Since your party is small the dungeon can be narrow and dark at times and the enemies can be many without you losing the tactical overview.

The most dominant memory I have about the infinite dungeon is this one: In ADOM you will sometimes (rarely) find the altar of a god while you explore the underworld. If you manage to lure a monster on top of that altar you can pray to the god and he will consider this an offer and the monster will be consumed by fire and lightning. That’s a great way to improve your standing with this god - especially if the monster is a powerful one. You can become the gods avatar on earth and gain incredible powers if you do this and other things. It’s probably easier and faster to beat the game without becoming an avatar, but it sure is fun if you manage to do it.

It was at level 64 of the infinite dungeon and once again new monster types that I had never seen before populated the dark places around me. I tried to battle against an Ancient Chaos Moloch who blocked the only passage to the next level. But he was just too resistant against my magic and hit like a monster truck. Fortunately I remembered the altar a few rooms before and, since molochs were quite slow, I managed to lure him on that altar – or so I thought. When there was only one step – that is one ASCII character – left, the moloch moved on top of the altar and he kicked the altar and smashed it, bolts of flame and lightning crashed down on him and I listened to the bloodcurdling screams of a raging god. The Moloch, however, slowly continued to move in my direction. It was that very moment that I started to run for the exit - my life was at stake!

If a rogue-like game can do this to me. Why can’t Anub’Arak?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unpredictable Dungeons

Today’s dungeons are highly predictable. Most dungeons are designed for a specific number of people and, if they are supposed to be challenging, they can only be beaten once they are known. This is a working system, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t build on it and add unpredictable dungeons as well.

First, let me list the advantages of predictable dungeon design:

- Since a predictable dungeon is created by humans and tested many times before it is released it does have a very high quality. Therefore it looks visually stunning and has a number of additional advantages:

- A predictable dungeon contains no locations where the camera angle is a problem. You always have a good view at your character. This is especially important for 3rd person perspectives that most MMORPGs use nowadays. (It turned out to be a good compromise between character-immersion and tactical overview).

- The dungeon is ‘balanced’. No encounter in the dungeon is too hard for a targeted group. This is important for small and large groups alike. A dungeon for a small group needs to take into account that not every class the game offers is part of the group. Some abilities may just not be available and thus must not be necessary to complete the dungeon. Therefore, challenging dungeons need to be designed for large groups and, due to the challenge, balance is even more important.

- You have the control! It’s a rather general advantage, but shouldn’t be overlooked. The issues that can arise in a randomly-created dungeon are manifold. People falling through the ground or becoming stuck somewhere are just two examples. There are probably a lot of other things you never thought about before that can go wrong. A predictable dungeon can be tested for all of them very easily. Consider these the unknown unknown in contrast to the known unknown.

Predictable dungeons, however, also have some disadvantages:

- Since you know everything about the dungeon, abilities like sneaking, scouting, tracking, clairvoyance, monster expertise or even smelling become meaningless. This is a difference between PvE and PvP and therefore creates additional balance problems. It also hurts immersion.

- To make every class equally valuable, every predictable dungeon has to require every class(ability) in some way. That severely limits the design options. If the dungeon were unpredictable, you wanted every class(ability) to be present just to be prepared. (Ironically, we were prepared, because we have been here before, Illidan!). Predictable dungeons thus create even more balance problems that might even need to be countered with equalizing every class; something that is not desireable at all under normal circumstances.

- To develop a strategy to beat an encounter is a lot of fun. Predictable dungeons don't allow this, because they lead to strategy guides available all over the internet. The challenge to beat the dungeon is transformed into a challenge to follow a script. Although this can be fun, a game that focuses on predictable dungeons alone, ignores the potential fun players could have by developing a strategy on their own.

- Predictable dungeons become a race-through for groups who need to go there although they already know the dungeon. The challenge is no longer beating the dungeon, but beating it as fast as possible, which is not very immersive at all. You would expect adventurers to move forward carefully in a dungeon.

- Predictable dungeons make players require other players to ‘know’ the dungeon if they want to join them. Even if you manage to get into a group that knows the dungeon, while you do not, they tend to race through it much too fast for your liking. Many players never had the time to actually look at the dungeon, let alone read a book in the dungeon. Nor had they the time to listen to the story that is presented. That's why it is so much fun to be the first at max level in MMORPGs. You actually can take the time to look at the dungeon and listen to the lore. It's new and interesting for everybody.

- Predictable dungeons become boring very quickly. You know exactly what is behind the next corner. They offer little replay value. The only way to get players to replay them are carrots, like loot or badges.

- 'Trash mobs' in a predictable dungeon are just not fun to fight. Historically some 'respawn timers' have been heavily critizised in MMORPGs. A predictable dungeon design tends to contain more and more 'boss fights' and less and less 'trash mobs'. The original idea of a dungeon that you explore, transforms into a succession of massively scripted arcade-like fights. These can be fun, but to focus on them alone drastically diminishes credibility and variety. It's also a lot of work for the designers.

- Depending on the exact implementation of unpredictable dungeons, they may need only a fraction of the time of a predictable dungeon to produce, once the dungeon-generator mechanism is developed.

- Unless the lore supports it, unpredictable dungeons are, of course, not much more credible than predictable dungeons. In a predictable dungeon only the mobs respawn; in an unpredictable dungeon also the dungeon itself changes every time you visit it. Given the right lore, however, unpredictable dungeons can solve both dilemmas and become more credible.

Unpredictable dungeons require more communication between the players. This can be seen as an advantage and a disadvantage.

I mentioned that there are reasons to assume that unpredictable dungeons are harder to balance. However, I also listed several reasons why they are actually easier to balance.
The balance problem can also be adressed by changing the goal of the party in a dungeon. Today’s MMORPGs usually demand the players to 'kill everything that moves' – at least the ‘bosses’. It’s a kill-mission. More immersive, however, and less susceptible to balance problems is a get-through or exploration mission. The role of a treasure hunter.

If the mission is to get through the dungeon alive while gathering as much loot as possible, you can allow large groups of monsters and require the players to judge themselves, whether they are able to deal with them or should circumvent them. This is an aspect that is missing completely from nowadays MMORPGs. Already mentioned abilities like sneaking, scouting, tracking, clairvoyance, monster expertise and, yes, even smelling, can become important. You might take along a character that is not as good at fighting, but is very good at telling you whether it is worth the risk to attack a group of enemies. This adds to immersion once again.

Todays dungeons are linear, because players follow a mindset that makes it very boring to walk back some of the way they just 'cleared'. Following an exploration mindset, however, a dungeon does not need to be linear. It can be a labyrinth without frustrating the players, but adding to the atmosphere, instead.

Building on the prior thread I suggest to reduce the importance of 'bosses' and 'boss fights'. A well scripted boss cannot be created randomly and a predictable boss should not be implemented often in an unpredictable dungeon. The fascination of an unpredictable dungeon does not stem from the brilliantly scripted boss fights, but from the curiosity and tension of exploration. It can be self-balancing as players themselves judge what fights to start.

In my opinion a good MMORPG should offer predictable and unpredictable dungeons. Predictable dungeons are great for a short 30 minutes distraction after work. Unpredictable dungeons are better suited for several successive hours of gameplay and tend to be more challenging due to the required communication between the group members.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Boss Fights

A typical boss fight is often not very credible. Especially if the boss is actually supposed to be a human being like your character. A boss should be slightly stronger than his followers, perhaps he uses them to protect him in some way, but he shoudn't have 10 million hit points. There are exceptions, like dragons, gods and other entities, but most of the time I'd like to reduce boss fights to fights between a group of players and the boss, supported by his followers.

You run into a lot of problems, if you implement very powerful bosses that are fought by a whole group. They need to be almost immune to stun effects, for example. If they are melee, they need to be immune to snare effects, and if they are casters they cannot be silenceable or interruptable. Removing snares, stuns, silences and interrupts will necessarily corrode any class balance. This difference between single player PvE, PvP and boss fights easily rips the game in two halves. To balance the two halves each and against each other can easily turn out to be a developers nightmare.
Looking at these problems, it is almost funny that most MMORPGs offer single-boss fights with no or only trivial 'adds'. Why do most MMORPGs do it, though?

- It's a classic. Really! Doom had boss fights and people just expect them.
- 30 players are already hard enough to follow on your screen. If you add some 30 enemies instead of one boss, you turn the fight into a very complex and unpredictable encounter, which is undesirable in itself and causes a problem:
- The more complex a situation, the more effective are easy strategies, like e.g. AE effects.

You can see this kind of effect in the WoW arena. 2:2 is very popular, because it is not too complex. 3:3 is already very complex, but 5:5 is very unpopular, because it is so complex that the most effective strategies are those that work no matter what the enemy does. This makes the whole fight boring and predictable, because you need to use simple and predictable strategies to counter the unpredictable nature of the fight.
Crowd vs. crowd battles, like those in WAR are so complex that you find yourself using the same abilities all the time. It's ironic, but after a certain point of complexity the most effective counterstrategy is the least complex one. Something good generals learnt early in the art of war. The most important attribute of a strategy is that it works.

We have seen that both approaches have problems. I would like to stick to boss fights that do not contain a single 10mio HP boss, but a boss and his followers. There are three points that need to be considered.

AE effects cannot be allowed to be extremely powerful. However, to make a devastating firestorm deal some tiny amount of damage is not very credible and not fun (WoW Colloseum PvP encounter). Thus, we will have to make it difficult to use effectively, but very powerful if used correctly. There are many creative ways to make an AE skill/spell difficult to use.
It can be channeled, easily interruptable, damage the user itself or need some power-up time. It could exhaust the user for a time or just have a large cooldown. Friendly fire is also a great way to make AE effects less powerful, without reducing their credibility, but brings along a whole lot of other problems. I will write about this soon.

We need to use an interface that gives the player a good overview over the situation. That is especially difficult if you don't want an isometric view, but a first or third person view. Due to the camera angle you need to make all dungeons incredibly large. That large, indeed, that you really run into credibility problems, like why would goblins dig a cave that has a ceiling height of 50 meters? It's also very hard if not impossible, to create the impression of sneaking through a narrow dungeon this way, which is a pity.

In a turn based game, the time per turn automatically scales with the number of actions you want to take. In a real time MMORPG, however, this is not possible. Therefore the more complex the situation the less time you have to think about each action. Unless you want to create a turn based MMORPG, you need to find a pace that allows the players to use tactics in a complex fight without being boring in a simple fight. One solution is to add a global cooldown (GCD) that is comparatively large. This also helps with latency, which is a real advantage in an MMORPG. Dynamic mechanisms that increase the GCD the more enemies you fight, are not an option, as they are not fun and feel strange.
One way to partly solve the problem is to make the enemies behave very predictable, like all being 'tanked'. I don't like this solution and will go into that in a future post. I have to acknowledge, however, that this is an effective way to partly solve the problem of increasing complexity the more enemies attack you.

My main conclusion, however, is to use small groups - especially for PvE.
Small groups do have problems on their own. The most prominent one being that it is very hard to balance an encounter for e.g. 4 players, if the number of available classes is larger than 4. But this weakness can be countered by dungeon and encounter design. I will go into that in one of my next posts.