Friday, March 31, 2006

Text in MMORPGs

"There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. ... We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an opportunity to be a part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves." -- Nancy MacIntyre, senior director of SWG for LucasArts. (New York Times article)
Despite Ms. MacIntyre's position, I'd also like to see more writing in graphical MMORPGs -- in fact, I believe there should be more opportunity for writing in MMORPGs generally.

I can easily imagine many kinds of writing:

  • "atmosphere" stuff just to add depth to the world

  • quest starters

  • lore information scattered over many places... but not completely at random

  • chronicles of player or guild exploits written by players

  • guides to places/quests/gameplay written by players

  • extended fiction inspired by the game world
These are just some possibilities for more and better writing in MMORPGs. The important point to make here is that while most players shouldn't have to read a lot to play successfully, there are plenty of people -- albeit mostly Socializers and Explorers -- who would enjoy having opportunities to read and write in a game. As worlds, MMORPGs are places where verbal expression can contribute to play; as art forms, MMORPGs are another opportunity for literary development.

In addition to straight literary value, these MMORPG things have the unique feature of interactivity to play with as well. Why shy away from exploiting that new opportunity?

Words shouldn't be mandatory in graphical games, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't exist at all.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Card Games in MMOGs

The idea of offering a card game as a minigame within a larger MMOG is one that seems popular. Some general questions to consider when thinking about how to implement a card game in a MMOG include:

1. How many people can play?

Is a match between two players? Or can more than two people play a match at a time, in which case what should the upper limit be?

2. What's the interface?

Are cards displayed publicly somehow (on the ground or a table)? Or does each player get a special pop-up interface GUI with some shared display area so that other players can see any public cards, as well as a private area so that only they can see their private cards?

3. Can spectators watch?

It might be nice if there were an option to allow spectators to watch a game somehow. If both/all players of a session agree, spectators would get their own interface allowing them to see the public cards played in a hand.

4. Should players be allowed to wager on the outcomes of matches?

If so, should there be an upper limit on wagers?

Note: This item and the next one are dicey (so to speak) in that there may be state/regional, federal/national, or international laws regarding "gambling" that might potentially be applicable to games of chance even set solely within virtual worlds. In other words, there are possible legal issues above and beyond any technical/design aspects of wagering on card-based minigames inside a MMOG.

5. Should spectators be able to wager on the outcomes of matches?

If so, does there need to be an interface insuring that wagers are guaranteed? (Sort of like the Secure Trade Window, except that the transfer doesn't happen until the match is decided.) Or should spectators be on the honor system?

6. How are cards obtained?

Does everybody get a deck for free? Or are there special cards that can only be obtained as individual items? If so, which of the following ways of obtaining cards should be offered:

  • dropped as loot

  • quest reward

  • crafted or produced by magic

  • given as mark of divine favor

  • purchased from public market

  • traded/purchased directed from other players

  • found through exploration of new/hidden places
7. How are cards stored?

This could be dependent on the rules of the game, but it's worth considering. Are all cards necessary to play the game stored individually in a player's inventory? Or are all cards stored as a full deck in every player's inventory? Or are there standard cards that aren't actually stored anywhere; they're just assumed to exist and get pulled out of nowhere when a game starts?

8. Can the game only be played in certain locations or at certain times?

Is a special "table" required to play the game? Or can two people meet up out in the wilderness and fire up a game?

9. Is tournament play possible?

To ask this question another way, should the results of matches be public information?

The idea is that players would be able to agree that the results of their games would be tracked globally (across a shard, at any rate). Basically there'd be a leader board for whoever wanted to participate.

The best players each real-time month (whether "best" is defined as # of games won, or percentage of games won, or -- my preference -- amount of money won) would then be invited at regular intervals to participate in a monthly tournament, with nice items or possibly even a few months of prepaid HJ game time as a reward for winning the tournament.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Features of the Winning MMORPG

I do a certain amount of critiquing here of the game designs that others have worked on. What about the plus side? What's on my short list of "things that would keep me playing a MMORPG for years?"

I think such a list might look a little something like this:

1. Balance.

I'd like to see a game developed in which all the systems were explicitly designed to fit together smoothly. More specifically, I'd like to see a game in which there is a conscious, deliberate determination on the part of the developers to create and maintain balances all through the game.

1a. Playstyle balance.

Combat should not be the only focus of development -- catering to today's hardcore gamers will not bring in the many, many more potential gamers out there. Combat is an important feature to provide, because today's gamers do matter; it's just not a good long-term strategy to focus on current gamers exclusively.

So I'd like to see a game in which combat gameplay is effectively balanced with the other major gameplay styles: commerce/crafting, exploration, and social. Treat these other in-game abilities as equally worthy of respect when providing new game content. If combat gets some major new content, so should the other playstyles -- maybe not in the same release, but overall.

1b. Game vs. world balance.

MMORPGs are games, so gameplay matters. But MMORPGs are also worlds, so immersiveness matters, too. Both of these aspects of MMORPGs ought to be balanced with respect to each other -- the gameplay should deepen the lore and appearance and emotional depth of the game world, and most world enhancements should try to sharpen and make more exciting the gameplay.

In particular, this means not imposing out-of-context gameplay. If it's felt that some common gameplay feature "has" to be provided, find a way to provide it that fits within and enhances all the other parts of the game and world.

And don't be afraid to add some world features just for fun. Some of the most memorable parts of games are the offhanded bits that didn't have to exist, that had no gameplay functionality or value, but that fleshed out an NPC or a location in a believable or fun way.

1c. Skill balance.

Skills -- especially at higher power levels -- need to come with a balance of strengths and weaknesses. For every benefit, there should be some appropriate cost.

That cost could be a cost to use the ability, or a weakening of some other ability, or a susceptibility to negative effects, or some similar consequence of choosing to use the high-end ability, but it needs to exist. A powerful and useful ability with only positive consequences winds up being something every player wants, and the result is templating and cookie-cutter characters. Balancing ability strengths with weaknesses helps insure that players will choose different skills, helping each character define his or her unique identity.

2. Crafting as a process that's fun in itself, not just as a means to a predetermined result.

For various reasons, too many designers have treated crafting as a mere support function for supplying combatants with gear. The focus is placed on the outputs because those outputs are what non-crafters care about.

But if crafting were primarily about being fun for crafters, and secondarily about supplying gear to other players, the focus would shift from the results of crafting to the process of crafting itself.

To make the process of crafting fun for crafters means allowing for surprise. If I follow the same recipe and get the same output every time, there's no surprise -- in fact, there's no crafting; what I'm doing is mere production, a purely result-oriented system. A fun crafting system would focus on making the process of crafting fun.

The process of crafting should be consistent enough to be experimentable, but deep and nonlinear enough to allow the results of experimentation to be surprising. By "experimentable" I mean that if the inputs could be held exactly the same between two crafting sessions, the outputs would be the same. This allows for science -- the forming of a hypothesis about how a process works, testing to evaluate the hypothesis, and reevaluation of the hypothesis. And by "deep and nonlinear" I mean that there are generally a lot of inputs to producing any item, and it's really, really hard to perfectly control all the inputs; there's some variation in inputs between runs. This helps lead to results that aren't totally surprising (you'll always get a sword if you use sword-making inputs), but that aren't totally predictable, either (each sword will have slightly different qualities).

To accomplish this, a crafting system needs two specific features. One is that the attributes of the inputs should be reflected in the qualities of the outputs. If I have a recipe for making candy that calls for some liquid as an input, using pure water should generate a different kind of candy than using grain alcohol. When I make a sword blade, that blade should have different qualities depending on whether I used bronze or steel or meteoric iron, on the amount and type of carbon I added from my fire, on the temperature of my fire, and on the liquid (water? olive oil? blood?) in which I quenched the blade to temper it.

This should also mean that whatever strengths and weaknesses an input has, both are transmitted to the final product in proportion to the amount of those inputs. A particular type of iron could be both very strong but very brittle, leading to a sword made with that iron having those properties as well. The corollary to this is that every input should have both strengths and weaknesses. This will insure that it's really, really hard to come up with a "perfect" object... or, worse, a perfect formula for making perfect objects.

The other desirable feature is a "construction kit" approach to crafting. Making a thing -- especially a new kind of thing -- should be a product of combining numerous components in many possible ways, and of altering components and groups of components through many different possible processes. The fun of crafting comes from playing (in the best sense of that word) with different inputs and processes to see what comes out at the end. Ultimately it should be possible to build large-scale and highly complex objects with reasonable but somewhat surprising behaviors, as long as the crafter is willing to take the pains necessary to make each individual piece work and put all the pieces together properly.

Real crafters like trial and error! Other types of people (*cough*Achievers*cough* ;-) can't stand this approach because they're so strongly result-oriented that all they see is the error. A focus on minimizing costs in a production process leads to a style of play in which unpredictability isn't fun.

But Explorers love this kind of crafting because they perceive every "failure" as an addition to their sum of knowledge about materials and processes. A certain amount of surprise in a production process is enjoyable to those whose focus is on maximizing results (rather than minimizing costs) because it offers opportunities for creativity and improvement.

I'd happily play a game whose crafting system was designed by someone who actually understands and appreciates crafting as a playful and creative process, rather than the kind so common in today's MMORPG, most of which seem to be designed by a developer who grudgingly cranks out a crafting system as a game-necessary manufacturing function.


There's more, but to sum up: Give me crafting as a creative process, and take pains that it and exploring and socializing are always balanced with combat when it comes to active content, and I'll be playing that game (and talking it up to other gamers) until they pull the plug.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Special Moves in MMORPG Combat

Auto-attack -- as in, click the button and your character starts swinging the old battleaxe until either he or the target is toast -- doesn't bother me in a MMORPG.

In a first-person shooter or a MMOFPS, in a game that was designed to be all about combat, yes, just clicking to resolve combat would bug me. But in an RPG? Not so much. I can handle that level of abstraction.

1. In a role-playing game, we're already abstracting capabilities we (the players) don't personally possess into an in-game character. We (the players) aren't really bards or thieves; we probably don't actually know how to play a lute or pick a lock; and we definitely don't live in a world where magic works. And it's not likely that we're all master duellists, either.

So if we're willing to accept the abstraction of magical abilities in a game ("I cast my Heal spell") as things our characters can do that we can't, why not also accept the abstraction of combat as click-to-attack? In terms of plausibility versus our real-world capabilities, one's about as good as the other.

2. On the other hand, making combat more complex than clicking an "attack-until-dead" button doesn't bother me, either. I prefer complex systems; they're more interesting.

That said, however, I do object to building complexity into combat simply by implementing special moves. Here's why.

A. It's not "tactical." Tactics isn't just about spamming special attacks faster than the other guy. Tactical superiority comes from having a better perception of the features of the local environment (including your opponent's capabilities), from planning that makes effective use of those environmental features, and from being able to adapt quickly to changes in the environment.

A game that really wanted to offer fun combat would go there, rather than implementing an artificial, Mortal Kombat-like "special moves" system.

B. When games implement special combat moves, they send the message that what combat is about is one-on-one dueling, rather than squad-level action. If dueling is the conscious, deliberate choice of the game's developers, then OK, but if the designers would prefer combat to be about group action, then implementing special (individual) moves probably will not achieve that goal.

C. Going beyond auto-attack in combat can wind up getting very complicated very quickly as developers have to exhaustively test all potential combinations of attacks and defenses. (Otherwise some player is likely to find a "win button" and *poof*, there goes all the fun out of your combat gameplay.) This can create systems that are hard to maintain and time-consuming to test.

D. Designing, implementing, enhancing and maintaining a particularly complex system of special attack and defense moves reduces parity between combat and non-combat gameplay. When a developer spends a lot of time on a complex combat system, and as a result has little time available to spend on a similarly complex crafting or economic or magic system, the game can become too unbalanced.

Even accepting that a game should have more combat than non-combat features (a proposition I don't accept for a mass-market MMOG, but let that pass), the examples of other MMOGs suggest that trying to keep a system of complex attack/defense moves properly balanced winds up becoming a huge time sink. It really does seem to prevent much useful time being spent on serious non-combat content. Eventually that imbalance will drive away the non-combat players a MMOG needs for maintaining long-lasting communities.

E. No matter how much time you put into a system of special combat moves, there'll always be some players howling that "their" class needs more love in the form of special moves. It's a no-win situation.

F. Implementing combat as special moves is an invitation to players to use macros and third-party hacks. Simple combat keeps the playing field more level.

In summary, I'd rather combat was about group action than one-on-one dueling; I'd rather it was about environmental perception and exploitation than about spamming special moves; and I'd rather it didn't come to dominate a MMOG that was intended for a mass market.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Character Advancement in MMORPGs +

As I've observed previously, I don't accept the assumption (and that's all it is so far) that players only like character advancement games. Maybe it is true, but how do we know? Where are the alternative games that would give us some evidence as to whether this assumption is correct or not?

In fact, I think there are reasons to believe that character advancement games have some innate flaws, and thus that alternatives could prove to be fun, too.

Designing a game to have character advancement automatically means that players spend the first part of their in-game lives levelling up just so they can get to the end game which, theoretically, is where the real fun of a game is. Instead of playing the fun part of the game, players spend weeks or months training to get to the fun. Instead of implementing the fun content, developers spend weeks and months implementing character advancement content that players feel they have to grind through.

Why do we accept this state of affairs as "what players really want?"

Here's a concept I've been working on. Let players choose from among a large number of skills when they create their character... and that's it. When you're done creating your character, you're ready to play the game. No leveling, no grinding, no "low-level" content -- it's all end game from the moment you exit character creation.

This does not imply that "everyone can do everything." Because there are skills, because different skills favor different gameplay styles and thus appeal to different kinds of players, and because not everyone will choose the same skills, some characters will be better than others at performing certain tasks. A character with a lot of combat skills won't be as good at building houses as a character with crafting skills; a crafter won't be as good at making money as a character who learned financial skills; and so on.

Furthermore, content doesn't have to be graded by level. It can also vary according to how hard it is to reach through travel, or by how many players (and how many unique skills) are typically needed to complete that content. Again, a game without character advancement does not imply that every character can take on all content. It just means you don't have to spend time trying to open up the content that's already been designed for you.

Not having skill-based character advancement also doesn't mean it's impossible to improve a character over time. For combat players, there are all kinds of rewards that don't vastly increase the power of veteran players over new players: perks like rank, badges, leader boards. For the other type of competitive player -- economic players -- there's the other big form of improvement: money. Even if there aren't crazy things to buy, players will still collect money as a form of keeping score.

Finally, it's possible to have skill advancement even in a non-advancement game... but the only way to make this work is if each improvement comes with additional responsibility for helping other players have fun. When the rewards for collecting XP are nothing but more power (as in current character advancement games), everybody goes for advancement. When a reward is all benefit and no cost, everyone will try to take that benefit. Why not? Except that this leads to a game full of cookie-cutter characters.

Instead, I believe every reward should come with strings attached. In particular, advancing in some level such as rank should impose new and larger responsibilities. This means treating tactical gameplay as distinct from operational gameplay, and operational gameplay as different from strategic gameplay. Each higher level should require more abstract thinking and more time spent coordinating the gameplay of other players instead of just being concerned with one's own immediate gratification.

This requires one additional feature: players must be free to choose not to advance. If you like pedal-to-the-metal, full-tilt-boogie combat action, there's no reason why a game should force you to stop playing at that tactical level game just because you "have to" advance in level. If you're willing to take on the logistical and long-range planning headaches that go with strategic-level gameplay, then you're free to advance to seek those challenges, but if you like being a sergeant, you ought to be able to stay a sergeant.

In summary, yes, character advancement is a familiar model, and players do like to feel that their characters are becoming more powerful. But character advancement also imposes some effects that aren't much fun, like having to spend weeks grinding to level up before you can start enjoying the deepest content. On balance, I believe a game that lets you create a complete character has at least an equal chance of success as character advancement games, and I look forward to some enterprising developer giving this idea a shot.