Sunday, February 27, 2011

What is a Discussion ?

What is a discussion? Contrary to what many people think, a discussion is not just two persons having different opinions and talking about it. That's just talk.

A discussion is talking with the goal of finding the truth. The truth will often be already covered by one of the two opinions. In that case the one person is right and the other one is wrong. Often it turns out that neither has been right and the truth is yet to be discovered; often by discussion as a means of accomplishing this together.

So, the first point I make here is this one:
Don't believe people who tell you that all opinions are equally correct or that somehow everybody is right in his own way. This is wrong. In fact, if that were true we should stop having any discussion right now.

The second point I want to make is that there is exactly one way to have a discussion:
1) Finding common ground
2) Logical reasoning, based on the common ground
3) Determination of the one single element in the chain of predications that is not agreed on
4) Repeatition of the process for that isolated predication until either agreement or a fundamental disagreement is found.

The usual way to work this through is to allow one person to moderate the discussion and present his logical reasoning after a common ground has been found. This is often the step that doesn't work. If both persons try to moderate the discussion (often misunderstood or misused as dominating the discussion), chaos follows. This is especially true if both persons start at step (2), assuming incorrectly that the other one agrees on their "obviously true" assumptions.

As both people try to execute step (2) at the same time, the discussion becomes two people talking to themselves and not talking to each other. They are repeating their own opinions and reasonings, wondering why the other one doesn't understand. But the reason the other one doesn't understand, is that he doesn't listen, as he is busy reasoning himself.
As both persons find themselves un-understood, they keep focusing on the assumptions, that they assume are 'obviously' correct. This leads to the typical repetition of opinions in front of each other. Very boring to watch and even more boring to execute.
A good technique to avoid this is to force yourself to actually listen to your partner by repeating the quintessence of what he just said prior to every of your answers.

The intermediate goal of a discussion is to strip away all those things that you agree on, to find the one point you disagree on. Sometimes this point of disagreement is fundamental. Like for example: "I think humans are selfish" vs. "I think humans are altrusitic".
In such cases only research helps. If research isn't available, an agreement, of a sort, is still possible.
"We agree that if X was true, you were right. And we agree that if X were wrong, I were right".
At that point a discussion is finished. You would need additional information to continue.

Often, however, the process of finding the one point of fundamental disagreement makes one or both persons see where they were wrong. That would be the "happy end" of a discussion. You found the truth - together. Until a third person disagrees.

If you find yourself in the discussion with somebody who does not seem to know the process of discussion, there are two things you can do.

1) Play Socrates. Socrates has become famous for doing discussion by asking questions only. At first, his questions lead to a common ground. After that, the questions lead the discussion partner towards a logical inconsistency in his reasoning. Alternatively, Socrates himself finds out that he actually agrees himself and is convinced.

2) Ask questions until a common ground is found. Start presenting you logical reasoning, forcing it upon the other. Obviously, this is not as elegant as (1) and doesn't work with people who have a low self-confidence.

Lastly let me warn you about trolls. Both deliberate and undeliberate ones. They will sabotage the finding of common ground and logical reasoning by distracting you.

You see, you were just about having the troll to agree on something that could be used as common ground. The troll is about to have to say "I agree", because denying what you just said would be utterly ridiculous even for him. Often he unconsciously interprets this as weakness and instead of agreeing, he starts talking about another aspect of the subject that he knows you disagree with. At that point there is not much you can do. If you give in, you will forever be running circles.

A second way to sabotage a discussion is to put something highly controversial, but unrelated into an answer. If you make the mistake of going into that, you are changing subject yourself. Bottom line is that there is no way to discuss with somebody who doesn't want to find the truth and considers everything, that doesn't help him convince you, unhelpful.

A third way is to have lengthy monologues. I should know, because I tend to do this myself. But it is a mistake. Focus on what you really want to say at a point in time and try to keep it as short as possible. Always allow the other person to interrupt you. He might want to tell you that your last point is exactly what he disagrees on!! If he interrupts you too often and without reason, tell him.
Do not fill your talking time by repeating your opinion or parts of it over and over or by covering several predications with one overarching jump. You are interested in finding out on what predication, exactly, the two of you disagree!

A rather nice discussion between two people with fundamentally different opinions on a very complex topic can be found here. Unfortunately, they don't have enough time to really follow through. Notice, how Jon Steward tries to find common ground already with his very first sentence.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A MMORPG without Character Power Progression

Now, this is really just some brainstorming I do here. A MMORPG without character power progression (CPP). Is that stupid or brilliant? Let me explain the various reasons, for why I am interested in this.

(1) If you want to make a virtual world, you want players to play together. But CPP disrupts this. It's not much fun to play together with your friends if they are much stronger or much weaker than you.

(2) PvE content is much harder to create when you cannot know the strength of the player.

(3) Just slowing CPP down may be very problematic, as players are used to a wild running (exponential) CPP. In such cases it is for psychological reasons beneficial to make a clear cut.

(4) Good PvP games are way easier to produce without a CPP

(5) All those skill-based vs. class-based problems become much easier or even vanish when you remove CPP.

(6) By removing the CPP you stop distracting the players from the central experience you want to offer: Socializing and exploration.

What speaks against the removal?
(1) The skinner box has proven to be immensely powerful and addicting. Games like Diablo or WoW are unthinkable without CPP. They are all about it!


Look, the game I have in mind here is one with a vast open world, exploration, dangerous areas and less dangerous areas, trade, no fast-travel, item decay...
Just because you have no CPP doesn't mean that you have no character progression. You still have equip (that 'decays') and may be able to find the mystical stick that allows you to wipe out four enemies with one click. But that stick would be gone thereafter! Use it wisely!
You still have gold, your real estate and your social contacts!

The idea is to make an MMORPG that is an experience more than it is an (arcade) game.

By removing CPP, your game becomes very newbie-friendly (accessible). In fact, more so than any other MMORPG on the market. The reason to play this game would be to shape the (virtual) world, not your character. That doesn't mean that there cannot be a lot of solo content. There could and should. But this solo play would always prepare you for group play. Like, you mine iron solo to support your guild and thus gain (real) reputation.

While combat would still be important in such a game, it wouldn't be what you 'naturally do' while playing the game. Exploring a cave with your guild, listening to sounds inside, picking fights, looting treasures and carry them home into your self-built castle to sell them for gold in the nearby town to pay for the next tower of the castle. This is the experience I have in mind.

I fear that removing the distraction that is CPP, is a prerequisite for this kind of experience. What doesn't make any sense at all, in my opinion, is to have some get-to-max_level/max_skillpoints before you can play with your friends.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Learning from Minecraft

Obviously, what makes Minecraft so phenomenal is the possibility to build almost anything. This, however, is not the only thing Minecraft does brilliantly. It also excels at sound.

Minecraft uses sound to inform you about monsters. But it also uses it to frighten you. Have you ever sit in that hole and wondered whether there really is no way in? Because these sounds seem to have come closer ..

I don't think I need to convince anybody about this, actually. It is obvious: A good virtual world uses sound at least as skillfully as Minecraft. One premise to make this work is, of course, dangerous monsters. This might sound trivial, but considering current MMOs it is clearly not: Monsters should be dangerous; at least some of them. Only dangerous monsters can trigger angst. And only sounds that dangerous monsters make can be frightening.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Making Games in 48 Hours

Brenda Brathwaite held this presentation at the Global Game Jam 2011. Those guys (and girls) try to make games in 48 hours. Ridiculous - maybe. But I think any game developer can learn a lot from this. Especially when he has not enough time to actually make the game he wants to make .. and since nobody never has enough time .. ;)

What do you do?

As you know I'd love to play a AAA - virtual world instead of the WoW clones we have today. Things I would absolutely love in a virtual world are no teleports, vast landscapes to explore, meaningful trade, modification of the countryside and all those 'immersive' things. However, to just make a virtual world is not enough.

One of the very most important questions a designer of a virtual world should be able to answer is: "What do the players actually do in the game?".
Answers like: "You can do PvP, explore and craft" are nice, but not sufficient. As a designer you need to be able to answer this question as precisely as possible.

Make no mistake, emergent gameplay is great. But by it's very nature it is unpredictable and thus unreliable. You cannot make a virtual world and hope for emergent gameplay to solve your problems. Nor can you hope that the awesomeness of the world alone keeps subscribers subscribed. Just like love is great, but doesn't replace bread, so is a rich virtual world great, but useless without things to do.

That doesn't automatically mean that you need to incorporate separated minigames, like instanced dungeon runs with strangers combined with a convenience-teleport. But if you fail to understand the appeal of this to some people (as well as the shortcomings!) you should really look for another job.

Moreover, your answer should describe activities that are fun if done in chunks of
- 30 minutes,
- 2 hours and
- 4 hours.

To only offer 30 minute distractions doesn't cut it. Not even for WoW, that still has raiding. To only offer 4 hour activities, however, doesn't cut it, either. The potential players of a meaningful virtual world are mostly adults. Often 30 years and older. They have jobs, families, responsibilities. They certainly love to do that 4 hour forced march + battle to support their allies fighting off the enemy faction. But only during weekends. On a workday they might want to log in for 30 minutes and if there are no meaningful activities for this time frame, they might still love your game, but decide that it is just not for them.

The quintessence is:
If you create a virtual world full of awesome things, you still need to describe exactly what the players can do in it. And you need to offer meaningful activities that take 30 minutes, as well as meaningful activities that take two and four hours.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Working Skill System ?

Back to MMORPGs ...
Over the last few days, when I wasn't watching Al Jazeera, I was cudgeling my brain to find a working skill based system. You can come up with some extremely complicated stuff here. Like logarithmically diminishing returns combined with skill decay and experience gain combined with sink-in time. But I think I found a system that looks like a skill-based system and works. There are probably a lot more out there, but let's stick to this one for now.

1) Skill levels 0 <= x <= 100
2) Everybody can have every single skill and max it
3) You can find/learn/buy/... perks
4) To activate a gained perk you require a specified amount of skill points in associated skills
5) A maximum of 3 perks can be active at any given time
6) You can unlearn any perk in two days real time.

-) Slow, linear character power progression! No zones for a specific power level. A virtual world.
-) Characters don't gain much power when progressing, but gain 'flavour' and 'style'.
-) For example: Sword skill 100 does 50% more damage with swords than sword skill 0.

The skills are really only a foundation for the game. You learn how to repair your stuff on a basic level, how to fight skillfully, how to craft basic tools etc. If you want to master any of this, you need perks. You find perks by adventuring and exploring. Mmh .. careful with information curse here !

Do anything, get better at it. You are encouraged to do everything in the game to get to know it better. Great incentive !! Eventually you max all your skills - have a well rounded character. Long time motivation for playing, but you are already useful if you have only some perks and some skills.

Now, about those perks. Examples:
- Your healing spells can heal other people
- You can learn spells from ancient books
- You can select spell X,Y, or Z to make AoE damage
- You can wear plate mail, but cannot cast anything while wearing it
- You can craft magic items
- You can enchant stuff permanantly (instead of only temporary)
- You pay 50% less fees when doing trade
- ...

In some way these are classes. Every possible combination of perks needs to be thought through by the designers. That's still a hell of a lot of work, but better than a pure skill system. What's great is how flexible the system is. The perks can be arbitrary from the designer's point of view. You think that perk X and Y shouldn't be combined? Don't allow it!

Most importantly, people can explore the game world free at first. They feel encouraged to play every single aspect of it before they decide on what to do later on. When they, finally, can select perks they already know the game rather well.

Now, this system is not perfect. Going through every possible combination of perks can become a hell of a lot of work for the designers. But it is managable. For example 40 perks with 3 possible active ones mean Binomial(40,3)=9880 possible combinations. Split this among 10 people. Means 1000 combinations to see through for each. Most of them will be absurd. Within a day's time you're finished.

You should be. In a typical skill based system you cannot even count the possible combinations! Sometimes you cannot even calculate their number anymore! What is the amount of work when you add an new perk later in this system? That is Binomial(40,3-1)=780 for the 41th perk. And don't ask me which combinations of 6 perks in a two player group would be unbalanced! ...

Of course, within a months' time there will perk databases on the internet and people will be told which perks to get to fulfill which role. I don't think any skill system can prevent this from happening, really. People want to fulfill roles. They don't want to just play and get better at what they do. They want to deal ranged damage with magic or they want to kite stuff to death or they want to be a trader .. or a crafter .. and they work towards it. The only thing you can do is to make that 'work towards it' fun.

Mmh. Actually I am not convinced that this system would be any good. It is just too vulnerable .. Perhaps the easiest way would be to allow classes when you fulfill some skill requirements. Would still be a skill-based system, wouldn't it ? :)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Egyption Revolution 2011

[This post is not on MMOs]

For the last week I couldn't really switch off Al Jazeera. They are obviously biased, not always very reflected, don't have the best english speakers. But in contrast to any other TV station on earth, they have the courage to cover one of the most significant events of our time.
Occasionally, I was moved to tears, listening and watching people risking everything they ever had and ever will have to make a difference. I also found this very remarkable video.

In some way I am not certain that it isn't distasteful or even crude to use those most magnificient events for 'entertainment purposes'. After thinking about it for some time and watching this Extra Credits episode, however, I now think that it is not only the right thing to do, but really has to be done.

While following the unfolding events I almost assembled a whole TV series in my head. The only thing I needed to do was imagine protagonists. And even they were partly already on my screen. The events I was watching were better than any invented story, anyway. So, why is there no series? I mean, we have trivial things like 'Heroes' or 'Lost'. Why is there no serious series about the people fighting for their rights? Is there any more emotional theme in our time? Did I miss something?

Perhaps Babylon 5 got near it. I remembered on of my most favourite quotes yesterday. But Babylon 5 is in space and there is no need to go so far away. The drama is here on earth. The dilemma is there. There are good and evil guys, but then again, who is really evil? There seem to be easy solutions at first. Make the first two seasons about it. And later on you find out that there never are easy solutions.

You find out that you have to compromise on that which is most dear to you. You find out that tolerating parts of the regime for too long can easily cost you your life; tortured to death. But it may still be the right thing to do!
You find out that the antagonist has reasons, too. Not the best, no, he is not a good guy. But then .. who is? Perhaps you should wish to never have so much power.

Don't misunderstand me. Humans Rights are universal. Who suppresses them without a really good reason deserves death. There I said it. But reality is more complex, less fair and still never without hope. Reality is the best story; just put some protagonists in there. And watch the sparks flying to places far, far away.

My best wishes to the Egyptian people. And .. yes, I am a bit embarrased of the western governments. But only a bit. This is YOUR revolution; and unfortunately, it is not complete, yet.

Skill-Based Games

Two weeks ago Eldergame published an arcticle headlined Classes vs. Open Skill Systems. It quickly got a lot of attention in the blogosphere. I commented that I agree with his conclusion that typical skill-based systems are generally inferior to class-based systems.

Elder game listed these reasons:
- Lack of diversity: there is usually one or two perceived “ideal” setups and most people choose them. This makes it quite difficult to create grouping scenarios with divergent roles.

- Inability to predict power levels: creating fun content is already quite difficult. Adding in the notion that people of the same “level” might be wildly different in their ability levels makes it even harder.

- Difficulty adding new verbs: it is tricky to add new open-ended skills to a system without sending everybody into a tizzy.

- Difficulty balancing: the lack of granularity makes it very hard to fix overpowered skill combinations. The already-hard problem of balancing becomes much harder.

- Poor expectation management: it is quite hard to teach players what they will end up doing later in the game.

I'd like to add two:

- People like improving in one flash more than getting better continuously. It may seem unimmersive, but it is more fun. That is why in several table top RPGs and skill-based games you need to rest before the gained experiences improve your character.

- Sometimes people want to get better at X, but they don't want to do X. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it is no rare thing to encounter.

Imagine you want to become a master weaponsmith, but the only way is making weapons. Now, while that is quite credible, it also considerably limits the player. It encourages him to optimize the fun out of the game, by training. And half a day later he quits your game, because it wasn't fun. Or he uses a macro to reach his goal and you need to ban him. You, the desperate developer, might want to tell him to go explore for a change or do some trade or build a house, but the player will insist that he wanted to make a master weaponsmith and becoming a master weaponsmith wasn't fun.

You can complain that the player is irrational, but it doesn't help. The problem is that players don't enter your game untainted. They have played other games before (not necessarily Ultima Online). They have read fantasy novels before. They watched movies before. Most of them want to build a specific character. And if the process of building that character is repetitive, boring and grindy, it turns out to be a major problem.

This is especially so, if your maximum number of skill points is limited. In that case the player might not want to do anything else, because it increases other skills. And that means that you either have to delete these skill points (what a waste), never gain them in the first place or 'lock' the skill points. Either way, this is a mess. And it is at least as non-immersive as classes. Moreover, you cannot actively encourage your players to not experience your game without 'insolvency' written all over your forehead.

Not limiting the number of skill points doesn't work, either. One way out is to separate different classes of skills. So you can gain a maximum of skill points in skill-class-1 as well as in skill-class-2. A popular example is to separate crafting skills from combat skills. But the more you separate the skills, the more the original idea loses it's appeal. If everybody can put the same amount of points into several classes of skills, the characters become very similar to each other. It is certainly possible to hit a golden middle ground, but more often than not you end up with a number of classes that are hidden in the 'separate skill classes'-system.

Add this to the problems listed and explained by Elder Game. And add the ever-same experience from all games that tried skill-based systems in the past. You always end up with one revelation: Skill based systems fail, unless they end up being a hidden class system (e.g. Eve Online).

The most funny thing about the people who want to design skill-based systems, regardless of all those points, is that they despise WoW-clones. They argue (rightfully) that developers do multi-million-dollar games without understanding the features they clone. So, yeah, sure, a skill-based system arguably worked in Ultima Online. But do you know why?

I am honestly interested in an example of a skill-based game that didn't turn out to have less than 30 favourite 'speccs'. Thirty, because that is the number the class-based system of WoW offers.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thank you, MMO Data Net

I want to thank Ibe Van Geel for his ongoing work at MMO Data Net. This page is an incredible source of information about the MMO market and I often feel it doesn't get the publicity it deserves.

If you are even a bit interested in the MMO market, I suggest you have a look. It doesn't cost you anything. If you can add some good information, he will even list you as a contributor. Contributors receive the latest version of his Excel sheets.

Thanks, Ibe.

Friday, February 4, 2011

On Complicated Priority Systems

This is a simplified dps priority system for feral druids in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm.

Feral Charge if you're not in melee range
Keep Tiger's Fury on cooldown (30 s)
Mangle if the 4T11 buff is about to run out (30 s)
Keep the Mangle debuff up on your target (60 s)
Ravage if Stampede is about to run out (10 s)
Keep 3xFaerie Fire up on your target (5 min)
Keep Berserk on cooldown (180 s)
Ferocious Bite to refresh Rip when the boss is below 25%
Keep a 5 combo point Rip up (22 s)
Keep Rake up (15 s)
Shred on Clearcasting
Keep Savage Roar up (duration depends on combo points used)
Ferocious Bite at 5 CP, if there's enough time left on Rip and SR
Ravage if Tiger's Fury is up
Shred to generate combo points and extend Rip by 3s (max 6s).

Is it fun?
Now, I play a feral druid, so I should be qualified to answer that question (and write down the system in the first place). My answer is: It's not too bad.

See, I have been thinking about this topic for a very long time. And the question of whether those systems are fun is a hard question. On the one hand side, I perfectly understand why Blizzard introduced the system. It is about "easy to learn, hard to master". Most ways that you can deviate from the system don't significantly lower your performance.

Generally, I agree with this design guideline. Games need to be accessible, but deep. Easy to learn, hard to master. They need to attract new players without overwhelming them, but must not be boring for the expert. It is the property of all great games. From Soccer to Chess. In some way Blizzard's priority system achieves that.

But at what price?
Back in Molten Core I played an Ice Mage. There was exactly one thing an ice mage did in classic WoW raids: Pushing the 'frostbolt' button. Was it fun? Yes.
That is a definite "Yes". Not a "It's not too bad". I know it was fun, because I did it for many, many months and at no point in time I considered raiding as a whole boring. How is that possible?

Well, the activity itself was boring. Of course. But the activity was embedded in a context. 39 other people did something, a giant enemy was fought. Things could go wrong at any time. Now, you could argue that the fact that I didn't consider raiding boring at that time, was because I had just started and in some way that is true. But on the other hand, I was a 24 years old physics student who had already raided like this for many months. If the activity as a whole was, indeed, that boring, wouldn't you assume that I had been bored by the 10th or 20th raid?

See, if a single player game would make me spam a frostbolt button for hours on end I'd call it trash. But firstly there is a middle ground and secondly, MMORPGs are different. The context is different. Doing something in an epic endavour is different from running alone through a Diablo dungeon spamming one button.

There was Teamspeak going on, whisper channels, healers would discuss whom to heal and if they could afford it, tanks would claim that more aggro is impossible. Someone would have to leave early and needed to be replaced. Someone needed to repair their equipment, some were talking about the numbers they produced on their screens.
There was no boredom.

Has there been complaining on the forums? Sure, some complaining is always going on. Some players certainly asserted that raiding was without challenge and the individual influence and responsibility was too small. But even heroic-difficulty complaining in the Cataclysm age is more dominant than any complaining that raiding was too 'easy' in classic.

After thinking about it for many weeks I tend to say that complicated rotations or priority systems are a mistake in a MMORPG. That is, because the advantage over more simple systems is questionable at best, and there are several disadvantages.

Firstly, these systems are much, much harder to balance. Don't try such a system without an entire group of game designers who do nothing else.

Secondly, players love to actually play their characters as good as they can and also like to see what is happening around them. You could argue that this ability is what makes elite players stand out in Cataclysm. But fact is that all players want to do that and to miss to use the interrupt, because you wanted to follow your complicated priority system isn't fun. Neither is it fun to deviate from your priority system to use an interrupt or move out of the fire. Before entering my latest WoW break, I was really wishing for a 'tank and spank' boss, because I just wanted to see how much dps my character is really capable of. This is also a mistake on the 'damage meter front', of course.

Thirdly, you feel constrained all the time. You would love to make your cat jump over there and wreak havoc, but you cannot. It will lower your dps. It is inefficient. The ghost of inefficiency is another evil that is molesting World of Warcraft, but point is that you feel as if in chains. Spontaneous decision making is disencouraged. Charging and stunning a mob that is attacking a healer? You're already busy with looking out for interrupts and your priority system! Moreover, absolutely nobody would exspect you to do that. There is so little emergent gameplay in Cataclysm raid encounters that the interesting decision whether to do something different never appears in all but world-first raids.

Fourthly, a good casual player knows what to do, he is just unable to do it, because he didn't spent enough time engraving the priority system into his muscle memory. This is not satisfying. This is not fun.

Lastly, in the case of a feral druid I am unable to achive a high performance in short fights or fights with fast changing targets. Most of my damage comes from bleed effects. And these take at least 30 seconds to build up and be useful. While this is a specific concern for feral druids in WoW:Cataclysm, it also shows the problems you can run into by using a complicated priority system. You could argue that the real problem here is the one-dimensional scale of performance measuring (dps) in this case. And I agree that it is a combination of both.

A lot of the fun in MMORPGs comes from the massive size, the social activities and the simulation aspect of the game. Improving gameplay in itself is always good, but if it comes at the cost of the other factors it needs to be reconsidered twice.

To treat the combat system as an isolated activity and try to maximize it's fun is not enough. Maybe it is no coincidence that a big company, that can sustain individual groups of 'balance designers', ran into this trap.
Fun is not an inherent property of an isolated activity. After analysing your MMORPG you must not fail to synthesize it again.

In closing I want to say that I understand that Blizzard innovated (drastically) when they started to implement these systems. And I congratulate them for their courage. In my opinion it didn't turn out the way you could have hoped it would. That's ok. We are still learning how to make great MMORPGs.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Beneath the Giants' Feet

You know that game developer is a very specific kind of job. But you decided to take the risk anyway and finally convinced some investors. A few million dollars, perhaps even a 8-digit number. What do you do now?

Well, you should know that there are two giants out there who want to crush you. The first one obviously is Activision Blizzard. How much money do they invest into their next-generation MMORPG? Have look at this and this to get an idea of how much money they could afford to invest.

Currently World of Warcraft creates a revenue of about one billion $ a year. That is a quite conservative assumption. So, if they exspect the market to grow, if for no other reason than due to globalization, they could easily invest some $500mio. Is it even possible to invest so much money in one single MMO? Good question; up to now nobody has tried.

Secondly there is Bioware. According to this unconfirmed leak, Bioware has already invested some $300 Mio in their new Star Wars MMO.

These are the big guys who control the playground right now or risk a lot to get into control. Failure is not an option for them. For these guys the projects are too big to fail. They are in a position that forces them to go all-in.
(Failure may still happen, but not if money could have prevented it).

What's even worse for you is that the MMO market shares a property with the music industry. You see, there are about 21 mio potential subscribers right now. The vast majority of them only plays one (non-free) MMO at a time. These games aren't designed to be played just for a month. You either play one or none. And that is why in this market, just like in the music industry, the winner takes it all.

So, you are about to create a MMO at about one 1/10 the costs. Can you compete? No. Add experience and existing infrastructure to the equation and the answer is "Hell no!". Should you give up? No, of course not. There is a solution to your problem: Just don't attack from the front.

Blizzard, as well as Bioware follow a very specific approach: They look at an MMO as if it were an improved single player game. For Bioware that is not even surprising. With Dragon Age and Mass Effect they control the market for single player role playing games.

If you aim for a different kind of consumer, you could well profit from the publicity of MMORPGs without actually competing with the giants. A company that does exactly this for about a decade now is CCP with EVE Online (about 300k subscribers). But EVE Online is old and it is in space. See where I am going ?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Removing Allied Targeting

I wanted to write about meaningless challenges today. Saying that when people ask for challenge they actually ask for meaning and challenge without meaning is annoying.

But then I stumbled accross this.

There are many interesting things here, not only for Guild Wars fans, but anybody interested in MMO combat. Perhaps the most interesting is this one.

No allied targeting
This is one of the big ones. There are no skills that specifically target allies. Everything must be done using positioning, ground targeting or other unconventional methods. This keeps every profession focused on their allies in the world, which adds a tactical complexity to the combat. Instead of watching red bars, we want you to watch your allies in the world. Making sure you are dropping ground-targeted spells effectively and moving into position to block attacks on allies is how we want players to defend each other.

I congratulate ArenaNet. Although I am still sceptical about GW2, there certainly are very skilled game designers over there who can think outside the box without losing touch to the realities of game design.

Removing allied targeting in some way or another is necessary if you want to make healers and supporters look at the action instead of the unit frames. Perhaps, in some years, we will look back at WoW and make jokes about how you needed to look at unit frames instead of what was actually happening. This sometimes made people 'stand in the fire', ridiculous, eh?

However, removing allied targeting is not without risk. The biggest risk certainly is that removing allied targeting requires the pace of combat to be slow. You don't want your players to loose orientation in battle. That is why I am sceptical. How slow can you make combat until players complain about 'not enough action'? What tools can you add that allow players to keep track of the action without looking exclusively at the tool?

No matter which way it turns out in the end. Guild Wars 2 is a AAA-MMORPG that tries to break with more conventions than your usual WoW clone. This alone raises hope.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Minecraft Random Thoughts

Why is Minecraft fun? And how can we use this in MMORPGs? Some random thoughts.

First, what I don't like.
1) I don't like the crafting. Trying arbitraty combinations of items in the crafting window to eventually find something useful is the kind of exploration I don't really enjoy. (Un)Fortunately, there is the internet. So I can look up all of these combinations. I don't agree with this game design. Not at all. Due to internet and an always open Wiki in the background it works for me. But this feels wrong and if you transfer this kind of mechanic into a MMORPG, nobody would not have opened the Wiki in the background. In my opinion this game mechanic is superfluous and should be replaced. E.g. "A Tale in the Desert" (smithing)!

2) I don't like the combat, but then, this is not a strong point of Minecraft, anyway :).

3) I wish monsters would have more tools to enter my fortress. So that having a thick and high wall made of stone, instead of dirt, makes sense.

What do I like?
1) I love building, creating, anything. From a small farm outside my home to a private tree inside my cavern.

2) I like redirecting a river to flow through some hole into my castle and make my wheat inside grow faster.

3) I like trapping monsters. At night they fall into my moat and are pushed into the sunlight by the masses of water. In the morning I can loot them without swinging my sword once.

4) I like exploring underground, discovering caverns and searching for iron, gold and diamonds.

5) I like the surprisingly smart mobs!

How can we put the fun spects into an MMORPG virtual world ?
1) Firstly that is not trivial. Part of Minecraft's fun is the speed. The speed of the daylight cycle, the speed of digging. In an MMORPG you cannot allow people to dig that fast. They would have removed the entire world within a few weeks. Digging would need to be slowed down considerably. Different digging speeds in different situations are a possibility.

2) You cannot make the cubes that big. It makes the game look terrible no matter how great your artists are. They need to be smaller. You could have some 'skills' affect more than one (smaller) cube.

3) Your graphics/programmer team might come up with a way to smooth a surface once it is 'finished'. Thus allowing players to enjoy the advantages of great graphics within a perfect sandbox. A very distinct style, I guess ;)

4) You cannot have another player just digging through your home while you are offline. So you need borders that regulate what one can do. Many different systems are possible. You can 'tax' payers (or communities) for every m² they thouch. Thus, rich and big communities can influence more of the world. They also will try to use as few m² as possible to create what they want to create. Thus you create a meaningful choice. In combination with some limitations to the height and depth of buildings people woudl come up with wonderful things. A guild might create a secret tunnel towards another place and flee with supplies through that tunnel when they lose their fortress in some (controlled!) PvP. Guilds can build machines that pound the surface to make tunnels break down. Endless gameplay options are suddenly in our grasp. I know, ideas are cheap, but suddenly some of them are technically feasible.
You can give players rights to change cubes. So some players can dig through your cubes, and others cannot. You can make these rights the carrot of (limited, controlled!)  PvP.

5) Don't pay graphic guys to make stuff. Empower your players to build that fortress; a thousand times and always different.

6) Don't copy/paste whole Minecraft. What can be copy/pasted is the idea to make a world of cubes and to treat everything inside as a cube. This easily allows a developer to have breakable things, like a fortress wall. But not such an arachic system like in Wintergrast. Use cubes! The big question is, how the size of cubes effects the game. Could you cut the size in half - what would happen? Since current Minecraft runs in a browser window on java, I guess graphical limitations don't apply that fast ;)

What did Minecraft teach us:
1) Having a real sandbox is technically feasible if you are willing to make some compromises elsewehere. How far can we push this concept?
2) Building itself is fun !!
3) The real world is to games what it is to science: Endless inspiration.
4) Never say never.
5) Games can sell over a million times even though there is no skinner box at all.