Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Do MMORPGs Need Killers?

My idea of a great MMORPG is one where Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers are all consciously given features that are fun for them and that indirectly support the gameplay of players with different playstyles.

But what about the Killers?

They've been called many things -- Killers, Manipulators, Dominators (as well as things I can't print here) -- but the common thread is that they get their kicks by messing with the gameplay of other players. This makes them distinct from the other three main types of gamer in my four-fold model of play styles.

A quick refresher on this model for those who just can't get enough theory:






external freedom



external structure



internal structure



internal freedom

Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers all bring something positive to a game. Killers? Not so much. If there's a "griefer" type, it's the Killer. (That doesn't mean other types can't be griefers; it's just considerably less likely.)

If there's any hope of integrating Killers into a MMOG, it may come from stepping back from gaming and thinking of Killers in terms of their larger personality context. In my model, the Killer is a MMOG-specific subset of the Artisan temperament. Although Artisans can have their problems, there are aspects of this temperament that are valuable to individuals and society. Maybe if games were designed to elicit these positive aspects of the Artisan temperament instead of the negative, we could include all four of the major playstyles.

The reason I prefer to call Killers "Manipulators" is because the latter term does a better job of capturing the spirit of what these folks really enjoy doing: they are the masters of manipulating things and people.

We see them manipulating the developers when they test the boundary conditions of the game world and every thing in that world. And we see them manipulating people in MMOGs because that's what MMOGs are designed to allow. MMOGs that offer 24x7 non-consensual PvP in particular attract the negative type of Manipulator. What if MMOGs catered less to the dark side of human endeavor? What if games found ways to get your adrenaline pumping that didn't involve the wholesale slaughter of living things?
For some possibilities, let's step back and consider the more general case of the Artisan. There are four areas where Artisans excel, and in which we might find something positive around which useful Manipulator gameplay could be designed: manipulating things, manipulating people, taking risks, and taking action.

1. Artisans naturally enjoy manipulating things. Because they are able to perceive the finest details of the physical world, they make extraordinary crafters and users of solid things, real things. Even more so than Guardians (with whom Artisans share a focus on externalities), Artisans are the consummate tool-users. This emphasis on perceiving the real puts them at a disadvantage in a computer game. In the first place, society says computer games are just childish diversions; they aren't "real" at all. And in the second place, there's no tactile information available about things in a game -- it's all just mouse and keyboard and bits on a screen. But if there were a game that was highly realistic in its visual and functional representation in-game objects, and that allowed players with strong perceptiveness of that reality to feel and modify the properties of specific objects, then you might see this more positive side of Manipulators emerge.

(Note: Explorers/Rationals can become good at using tools, too. But there's a big difference between "becoming good at" and "being good at." Artisans are naturally talented; Rationals have to study and practice and study more and practice more. It drives Rationals nuts to see an Artisan pick up a guitar or a miter saw for the first time and do more with it in ten minutes than the Rational has figured out how to do in ten years. But that's just how things are.)

2. The most gifted people in sales or politics are often Artisans; they raise the manipulation of people to an art form. (The same may be said of con men.) Again, it's a matter of perception; in this case, perceiving the reactions of people. Social Artisans get a thrill out of watching other people and figuring out how to persuade them to some end. They're not allowed to kill you, so taking your money or your support -- and making you like it -- is the next best thing. Although Achievers like collecting money and are willing to compete hard for it, the most hardcore merchants with the most money are likely to be Manipulators who are "making a killing" in a different venue. Similarly, although extroverted Socializers can make good politicians, the ones with the most followers (and probably the most rabid, take-no-prisoners followers) are likely to be Manipulators. Their charisma and energy and apparent focus on other people make them natural leaders... but you'd better keep an eye on the family silverware.

3. Although it's not as positive, Artisans are also attracted to risk. Most serious gamblers are Artisans. If a MMOG offers opportunities to take big risks to win big payoffs, Manipulators will be there. (Artisans find it easy to attract people, but can have trouble maintaining relationships. This need for risk is a big reason why.)

4. Finally, Artisans love motion, movement, action. Fighter jet pilots, test pilots, race car drivers, speedboat racers -- if it flies high or goes fast, they're interested. Artisans love these activities and excel at them because their perceptions are so complete and so fast. This aspect also includes some risk, which is why someone who enjoys jumping out of a perfectly good airplane is likely to be an Artisan. A MMOG that offers heart-pumping, real-time action in conjunction with some form of manipulating people or things in the game world is highly likely to attract Manipulators.

Overall, I believe there might be ways to safely attract Manipulators to a MMOG and retain them without driving off all your other players. The question is whether it would be worth the design, coding, and testing effort to do so.

I'm inclined to think "yes" because I know that there are worthwhile things Artisans offer to the rest of us. But I don't think it will be easy. As long as MMOGs insist that "people will only pay to play combat-focused games," and content is mostly about exterminating every form of life in the game, those games will attract mainly the sociopathic Killers.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

SWG: The History of SWG and Non-Combat Gameplay

For you folks who feel as strongly as I do about the value of non-combat content: Why be surprised at an apparent disinterest from SWG producers in non-combat gameplay? This is not by any stretch of the imagination some new approach on SOE's part.

a. If non-combat gameplay mattered, the NGE would not have eliminated so many non-combat professions, nor would the new non-combat classes have been treated so differently compared to the combat classes. Nobody asked for classes and levels like Every Other Game, but non-combatants didn't even get that -- if when you respec'ed you knew one non-com skill, you got 'em all. It's as though the feeling was, "if it's not a combat skill, it's not worth asking people to earn it."

The NGE changes were just a continuation of the long-standing attitude toward non-combatants: minimal attention is all that's required to retain those odd people who aren't into 24x7 combat gameplay.

b. When Helios_SOE was asked at the CU-related Stratics chat back in April of 2005 how non-combatants could survive a game world filled with much nastier mobs, his response was, "If you wish to gather resources in dangerous areas, you should either get a PSG or you could also hire some other players to protect you in the wilds."

c. I twice put together a spreadsheet that examined every single documented change made since SWG launched -- in the second version, all the way up to publish 23.04 (Sept. 15, 2005). In it, I categorized every change on multiple aspects, such as whether it was a new feature, a change or a bugfix; on whether it was about combat, crafting, entertaining, etc.; on which gameplay features were affected (houses, PAs, travel, space, etc.); and on which professions were most affected.

Analyzing this data confirmed what I'd long believed, which was that since SWG launched, the vast majority of significant new features were combat-specific, while the superb crafting system with which SWG originally launched was allowed to languish with virtually no major new content.

Note that adding new schematics from time to time does not constitute "major new content" -- not when compared against things like the Force Village or the Combat Upgrade.

d. To see this in an anecdotal way, consider a series of questions I have repeatedly asked:

Where is grouping for crafters? Where's the equivalent of a Hermit Quest for entertainers? Where's anything like Jabba's themepark or Nym's themepark or the Imperial or Rebel themeparks for merchants? Where's a Nightsister or Geonosian Cave for medics? When will non-combatants get any content even remotely resembling the scope of the Corellian Corvette, or the Deathwatch Bunker, or the entire planet of Kashyyyk?

I've never gotten an answer to these questions.

It would be nice to get answers now, but I don't believe there's any reason for us to expect that.


Now, all this said -- I'm not a pessimist. So for all of us who long for deep virtual worlds with richly interactive gameplay, let me offer this tiny glimmer of hope.

Nancy MacIntyre, LucasArts senior director for SWG, has suggested that a SWG2 might be in the works for a 2008/2009 release. From the Hollywood Reporter story (concerning SOE's upcoming games using a pay-per-item revenue model) from December 14, 2005:

"Not all games are set up around the buying and selling of items, which would make it very difficult to take a game like 'Star Wars Galaxies' and make that transition," she says. But, she adds, when "Star Wars Galaxies 2" is developed -- perhaps in 2008 or 2009 -- things will be different. "If we were starting to build 'Star Wars Galaxies' today, we would absolutely consider building it from the ground up with premium services."
OK, that's extremely tentative in all counts; might not happen at all.

[2008/05/16: Or perhaps that is exactly what's happening, given the product development agreement signed by LucasArts and BioWare when we know that BioWare Austin is working on a major MMORPG.]

But what if it is happening?

[2011/09/20: Which it is. Say hello, Star Wars: The Old Republic.]

Suppose production of a SWG2 really is part of the LucasArts business plan. Perhaps the intention is to transmogrify SWG into something for a "broader audience" (i.e., console players), while SWG2 is being designed (perhaps by a band of Rebels in a hidden base) as the rich and challenging Star Wars Galaxies the rest of us dream of.

And maybe this time, it won't needlessly exclude those paying customers who actually do enjoy playing as Uncle Owen.

Just a thought.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Better Storytelling Through Player-Developed Quests

One area of MMORPGs that is currently rich with opportunity for designers is quest design.

A problem I've had with quest design lately is that individual quests (missions, whatever you want to call them) seem to be created in a vacuum. They may come from characters in the game world, and they may tell a little story, but ultimately they're just self-contained pellet dispensers -- pull the lever, do what you're told, get a reward pellet. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yawn.

In other words, I see quests being used almost exclusively as a time sink. They're just quickie content tossed into the game to give the player something to do, or to provide a reward pellet. Wouldn't quests would be a lot more fun if they offered "gameplay" beyond just another collectible reward for Achievers? What if they had more literary/dramatic value?

There are two suggestions I'd like to offer for achieving this.

1. At least some quests should relate to each other to tell parts of higher-scale stories, and should all be part of a few stories with epic sweep.

The developers need to set the fundamental story rules by thinking about the past, present, and future history of the game world. Then all existing content should be keyed to telling some part of the unfolding story.

Instead of quest content being disconnected (because it's viewed as nothing more than a way to supply reward pellets), many NPC-directed player activities ought to be written as isolated glimpses into a larger story. And these stories themselves should be written as simultaneous events related to a few epic-level sagas, each of which reveals some major aspect of the lore of the game world in its current setting.

In this conception of quest design, it's OK if early/easy quests seem to be unconnected. New characters should see only the most local effects of their actions.

But as characters advance in power, they should begin to realize that what appeared to be unconnected requests were really individual parts of something much larger going on. Participating in these quests would let the player feel more a part of the larger story.

For example, several small quests to kill off bandits in a particular area could turn out to be tasks requested by an NPC whose larger goal is to establishing a secret base secure from prying eyes. A player who realizes this should be encouraged to wonder whether his character would support that NPC's goals or not... and that's the beginning of interactive storytelling.

These realizations that players have about the local meaning of what they've been doing should eventually begin to open up larger-scale quests -- let's call them adventures. Adventures should be riskier than than the initial quests, and should require the player to make more intense choices -- do you help those who need it even when it could injure you or your friends? Or do you put your personal desires above everything, even if it means abandoning the larger effort to the "bad guys?" The more adventures you take, the more you learn about the grand storyline in which those adventures are related, and the more you learn, the better your odds of putting the pieces together to succeed at those adventures.

These quests, if successful, should lead to the third and highest level of mission, the saga, which would be a major story set within the mythos of the game. Taking on a saga means you have entered the part of the story that reveals the global challenge behind all the local stories. Succeeding in a saga should not be about what gear a player has -- it should depend on his or her choices when confronted by hard decisions. Success, in fact, should not necessarily mean living or dying -- maybe it's about realizing who your character really is. As in all great literature, the outer struggle should mirror the inner journey.

Integrating quests like this would help players feel that they're not just grinding (even if you still give them rewards for completing quests), but that what they do is part of the big picture, that they're helping to reveal the game world's reality.

In short, integrated storytelling through quests/adventures/sagas helps players feel that what they do means something within the game world, even if they don’t bear on the main storyline. I've yet to hear any players say they don't want that.

2. Players should be given tools that allow them to tell their own game world-relevant stories.

I'm not looking for developers to do everything for me -- online games are an active entertainment medium, not a passive medium like TV. Accordingly, MMORPGs should require active player participation in the storytelling process.

So in addition to developer-created quests, the game should be designed to allow players to use developer-created tools for creating their own multi-player stories within this greater storyline. It would take some thought to minimize abuse, but letting players place, minimally control, and script dialog for NPCs would be an enormous asset in allowing players to help tell stories in the online game world.

Online games are currently the only mass entertainment medium that is capable of achieving this kind of mass collaborative storytelling. Wouldn't it be interesting to see that potential realized in a MMORPG?

[2011/09/20: Five years later, we may actually be getting something like this thanks to Namaste and their Storybricks system.]


I conclude by noting that I'm not proposing all this stuff just to have "good storytelling." Dramatic expression is nice, but gameplay matters, too. (And probably matters more.)

I'm suggesting these features because I believe that offering emotionally engaging gameplay through collaborative storytelling can make a MMOG more viable financially. A player who suddenly comes to understand the role she is playing in a larger world has the chance to become more connected to that world... and connectedness helps retain paying customers.

Monday, February 6, 2006

MOBs as Cellular Automata

The greatest weakness of "mobile objects" (mobs) such as creatures and NPCs these days seems to be the depth of their behaviors -- that is, the lack of depth. So for a developer whose goal is increasing the dynamism of a game world through its actors, mob AI is probably the point of greatest payoff for effort invested.

Maybe looking at some of the details would shed some light on the scope of such an effort. (Is such an effort worth making? Separate question, addressed later. ;-)

First of all, mobs in the current batch of MMOGs already seem to be implemented as simple state machines. They just don't have many states:

  • critter mob behaviors: move, fight, flight (and maybe stalk)
  • NPC mob behaviors: move, fight, converse, give quest/reward, trade
To generate more interesting behavior, it would probably be necessary to expand internal states (and transitions between states), available behaviors, and interactions among groups of mobs. It might also be interesting to allow social mobs to have roles.

Here are some possibilities for the behaviors of orcs in an orc camp:

  • internal states: curious, expansive, normal, alerted, panicked, defensive-group, defensive-self, enraged, losing, terrified
  • behaviors: explore, build, fiddle-with, fortify, broadcast-alert, defend-friend, defend-self, attack-nearest-enemy, lay-traps-and-retreat, flee
  • interactions: send orc runners to other allied orc camps ("we're being attacked!"), mass for counterattack, counterattack nearest non-allied (orc or other enemy) population center
  • roles: warrior, maintainer, builder, communicator, leader
There are tools that could help design behavioral mechanics (I can't bring myself to call that AI, either, even if I tag it as such here), such as Deterministic Finite Automata graphs. I suppose these are already being used by some developers.

Even with such tools, however, implementing more complex mob behavior still carries some risks:

  • feedback loops -- positive feedback (in the technical sense) can be destructive
  • player metagaming of complex systems
  • potentially large storage requirements for retaining "state" for many mobs
  • potentially significant processing power required for detecting state change conditions for many mobs
Deciding whether to have more dynamic mob behavior has to take those potential costs into account as well. In particular, detecting state change conditions for many mobs could get really nasty. If your conditions aren't well-defined events on which triggers can be applied, then you have to poll for condition changes. That's usually bad news for performance.

Systems-level thinking is the only hope for making something like this work. I can't imagine successfully approaching it as an isolated game feature.

Finally, there's that pesky question of whether the current very Achiever-oriented population of gamers actually wants a more dynamic world in their game. "Unwanted outcomes" look good to Explorer-types like me, but someone whose satisfaction depends on having a controlled gameplay experience is not likely to agree.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Copy Protection of Games 1

Copy protection of games is a tough call.

On the one hand, as someone who's been paid for his writing, I'm a strong supporter of copyright. And not just the letter of the laws and international conventions, but the spirit of the rule that says you don't appropriate someone else's property. In the first place, that's rude. In the second place, those who create works for publication depend on the revenues of publication as incentives to create. A culture that starts thinking it's OK to steal (to duplicate copyrighted material without authorization) is a culture that's going to become less creative, and that's bad for everyone.

On the other hand, I have to agree that some of the actual measures taken to protect works that are published in binary format are excessive.

Take Steam, for example. (Please.) I suffered through Steam's nearly FOUR HOUR installation/update process in order to play Half-Life 2. (Steam also forced another online update -- again, this is to a game that's played completely offline -- two weeks later.) It was barely worth it. HL2 was a superb game, in every way a great sequel to the wonderful original, but Steam is such an abomination that it nearly outweighed the value of HL2. I consider Steam to be invasive and intrusive; my impression is it treats consumers like criminals. If Steam is a requirement to run some game then I will not buy that game, period. (Pirates of the Burning Sea was crossed off my "try-it" list until they dumped Steam and went with SOE as a distributor/updater.)

I'm sorry some jerk stole the source code to Half-Life 2 partway through the development process, but punishing the many innocent gamers by imposing Steam's heavy-handed copy protection monitoring on everyone is abusive. Bad developer! Bad!

And Steam is just a recent example. I'm old enough to remember the "burn a hole in the floppy disk" copy protection scheme that frustrated valid purchasers of software more than it defeated crackers. It was rude, too.

So I'm stuck in the middle. I can see the motive behind creating a DVD technology that formats and reads disks differently based on zones in order to reduce piracy, but I can also see how this adds cost without being very effective.

Similarly, I can appreciate that game developers who've had to raise millions of dollars in financing want to be reasonably confident that they'll earn back that money through sales of their product, rather than losing income they deserve because some people shared unauthorized copies of software. But I also resent very intrusive copy protection technologies that treat everyone as guilty.

Eventually the most common content distribution model changed from floppies to CDs. After we got through the first wave of publisher attempts to copy-protect CDs, most game developers went to the model where you could install the code on a CD on multiple machines, but required you to register the unique code for your CD if you wanted support.

That worked acceptably well for single-player games (although there was still some digital shrinkage). Then came online, persistent-world games that offered frequent content updates. Sending a CD every week or three would be too expensive, so a digital download (since you're already online) made sense... and there's the opportunity to do copy-protection again.

This sort of makes sense for online games. You might as well do online authentication for online games when you already require digital downloading of new content. I'm not happy about the sick download requirements for modem users, but I recognize the inevitability of piggybacking authentication onto digital downloading.

My question is, why try to retrofit this technology to single-player games (like Half-Life2)? [Edit 2008/04/11: Take-Two's "two installs and you're done" DRM controls on BioShock are yet another sorry example.] "Because we can" is not good enough. Steam and others of its ilk are not appropriate for single-player games; they impose requirements without offering value. They are abusive.

So here's my suggestion for a constructive alternative: unlockable content.

The game as shipped would need to be completely playable, and you could put it on as many machines as you like (although you shouldn't). But if you're willing to pay a little extra, you can go online and register your unique copy of the game, and in return you'll get special downloadable content. New levels, new monsters, new gear, new skins, enhanced textures -- any or all of these could be made available to people who authenticate their copy of the game as unique.

There's a question of how you'd reregister if you buy a new computer and reinstall the game on it. There would also be complaints of the "You didn't sell me the whole game!" variety. But IMO these complaints would not prevent this model from general acceptance by publishers and gamers.

After all, it works in the online game world when it's called an "expansion," isn't it?

Getting the behavior you want by rewarding the law-abiding makes a lot more sense than treating everyone like a criminal.

[Edit 2008/04/11: For the record, I'm a PC gamer; I own no consoles... but I see that my idea for unlockable content has been adopted even by PC game developers as "achievements" such as those implemented in some console games. I still despise the thuggish customer-control tactics of DRM implementations, but praise where praise is merited to the game distributors who are finally starting to provide some additional content to the gamers who are forced to endure online validation of offline games.]