Thursday, September 27, 2007


Cutscenes are one of those things that even developers can't agree on.

On the one hand, seeing a particularly cool scene rendered (especially if you can then go back and view it any time you like) can be used as a reward for successful gameplay.

On the other hand, interrupting active gameplay with a non-interactive mini-movie disrupts the flow of play. While I'm not a console gamer, even I've heard how Hideo Kojima is infamous for the extended cutscenes in the various Metal Gear games.

This may be a larger concern in more controlled FPS-type games than an MMORPG, but it's still a technical concern in a persistent world: while the cutscene is playing, is the player's avatar still in the world (and thus susceptible to tells or interaction with mobs)? Or do you have to temporarily unplug the avatar from the world, then plug him or her back in when the cutscene is over?

So which of these is more of an issue for a Star Trek Online?

There's also the question of whether cutscenes should be rendered using the in-game engine (as Half-Life did to great effect), or whether they should be pre-rendered to show scenes of quality or content that aren't possible in-game.

Which of these would be more appropriate for a Star Trek MMORPG?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Playing As Borg in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Horizon:
The problem that I see with this idea is that just because a person is playing in "Borg mode" doesn't mean they're not still pursuing the interests of their Starfleet character. If a Borg cube began to threaten a habitable world, players would coordinate through guildchat ("fleetchat"?) and "steer" the cube away into the starry black yonder.

A more serious problem is that Borg cubes would quickly become a staple of inter-guild warfare. This would bypass PE's restriction against galactic PvP.
I think I have the same response to both of these concerns, which boils down to the question of how "Borg space" is implemented.

I get the impression that you're thinking of it as a regular zone/sector, except that there are Borg there. I'm not sure that would work out too well -- something tells me the rules would have to be a little different there.

A Borg zone might have to be more dynamic than a regular zone. In other words, rather than Federation worlds always there that have to be defended, a Borg cube would receive orders, "Proceed to coordinates 1723. 39 and assimilate the lifeforms there," and a world would be spawned there at the time that mission is created.

This would give the Borg something to attack with no need to refuse to attack it. It would also give Federation ships something to defend that wouldn't have an effect on the rest of the game if they fail to do so. Finally, if there's nothing in this zone that another guild/clan/fleet can "own," then players wouldn't get into that "you blasted mine so I'll blast yours" mindset. (Although I'd note that if Borgplay is about taking missions from the Queen, that kind of thing might never happen in the first place.)

So I think a number of the problems described go away if the Borg zone is one dedicated to ad hoc conflicts, rather than one that has any strategic value.

That said, would making it just a PvP battleground be interesting enough? What if that were the only way that Perpetual would consider offering PvP outside of a holodeck? Is there some way that a Borg zone could be made static/persistent so that what happens there has an impact on the rest of the game, but not so much that players start trying to act like Federation officers (or members of a player organization) while playing a Borg drone?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Playing As Borg in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Ereiid:
Do you want this ship to turn left, 37 of 50? (check one)
[ ] Yes
[ ] No
[ ] This question is irrelevant. Parodic polls are irrelevant.
I get the point. :) But I don't think it's all that telling a point.

Why assume such a clunky interface? A "democratic" system doesn't imply "here's a question, now pick one of the supplied options" -- it could as easily be implemented as the game system accumulating what every drone is commanding the cube to do on a real-time basis, whatever those commands might be, and then performing the average (for continuous functions) or plurality decision (for discrete functions).

In other words, while "system asks, everybody answers" is one approach, it doesn't have to be the only one. There could also be "everybody says, system reponds."

Giving up individual power to play as a Borg drone does not automatically translate to just sitting around waiting for the game to ask them poll questions. I think if we choose to look at this question in a constructive way, we can come up with approaches that are a bit more creative than that....

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cheating in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Seth:
I agree that many people can, but let me restate: I don't think a statistically significant number of players would even know what a bot is or how to obtain one, and those who did would have no significant effect on the average player, who, by the way, would be mostly unaware of the botting practice. I think it's a case of a minority faction (anti-botters) complaining about another group of minorities (botters).
Seth, you might be right that only a relatively small number of people would cheat in this way. But I think you may be ignoring the disproportionate impact that even a small number of successful cheaters can have on a game.

It's not just that they unbalance gameplay wherever they go, although that's important. (And at larger scales, it can put a real dent in a game economy.) What is worse is that tolerating cheaters sends a message to every other player: It's OK to break the rules.

When it's clear that the developers will tolerate cheating, a non-cheating player has three choices: turn to cheating himself, keep playing the game even though he knows he'll never do very well, or quit the game in disgust that it's not possible to play it as originally designed. Furthermore, if a developer winks at breaking the rules in one part of the game, why shouldn't a player conclude that it's OK to break other rules?

None of these outcomes is desirable. They are, IMO, so undesirable that it's worth the bandwidth hit or packet analysis overhead to detect the cheaters and whack them immediately with the ban stick -- that's a far better message to send to players.

So I don't think we're talking about some petty slapfight here. A consistently enforced anti-cheating policy pays meaningful dividends to every honorable player because it insures a level playing field.

That said, I'm with you 100% concerning macros. A game that's more about thinking before acting (in other words, a Star Trek MMORPG) shouldn't be about who can mash the F2 button the fastest; it ought to be about using the right skills at the right time in the right way, not just spamming them as rapidly as possible. In which case, Star Trek Online doesn't need character-control macros.

Playing As Borg in a Star Trek MMORPG +

I tried pretty hard in my original proposal and subsequent comments to fairly address what I think are two biggest concerns:

1. It's too dangerous to give players the power to control a Borg cube.
2. Playing as Borg means PvP, and non-consensual PvP is unacceptable.

Both these concerns are absolutely worthwhile. If a Borgplay feature doesn't address them, it shouldn't be implemented.

That said, I think they have been addressed:

1. No individual player has control; what a cube does is the average of what every drone (including NPC drones) wants.
2. Borgplay could be restricted to its own special sector, complete with plenty of things to see and do, and the only way to access it is to explicitly opt in.

I do disagree with the theory that the Borg-zone approach would relegate this kind of play to a niche feature. Of all the ideas ever seen in any Star Trek show or film, there is no question that the idea of the Borg has generated the most excitement in fans. To be able to play as -- or fight -- the Borg in ST:O could, IMO, turn out to be one of the most popular parts of the game.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Personality Types and Gameplay Preferences +

Originally Posted by Flatfingers:
[game developers seem to be] focusing monomanically on "competitive accumulation" Achiever content
Originally Posted by Ereiid:
I find the enboldened section particularly interesting.
Maybe so, but be advised that I've run into developers who get a little grumpy with me for saying it. :)

From their perspective, they're just serving their customers. Most MMORPG players seem to be (and probably are) achievement-focused, so it simply makes sense to provide that kind of content. I don't really dispute that; I just don't think it's looking at the bigger or longer-term picture.

For one thing, people are attracted to games based on their features. If you build an Achiever game, you'll attract Achievers... so as you create more features for them, that attracts more Achievers, and so on. It's easy to get locked into that cycle and lose sight of your other kinds of players. In fact, I think that's precisely what happened to SWG, only with harsher effects in that game because it started out less Achiever-focused than other MMORPGs.

For another thing, building an Achiever-focused game makes it a lot harder for me to prove that there are other kinds of gamers out here. Developers point to a successful Achiever-oriented game (i.e., pretty much any marginally profitable MMORPG currently out there) and say, "See? Look, there are all kinds of people enjoying that content! Gamers must all be Achievers!" Well, of course that's what it looks like -- what else is there to do in these games? Even Explorers and Socializers and Manipulators have to play the Achiever game -- and thus look like Achievers -- if they want to play these games at all.

More on that one in a minute.

Originally Posted by Ereiid:
I imagine that too many Devs imagine that the Socializers take care of themselves, which I remain unconvinced of.
I get that same impression. "We don't need to spend time making content for them -- they're roleplayers; they'll make up their own games, or find ways to use our item placement system to decorate their houses, or whatever. Hey, are the particle effects for that new weapon done yet?"

That's being a little unfair. There are some developers who I'm sure would like to add more social content. But how do you sell that to a producer who's being pressured by some suit in Marketing to add content that will tie in to a new line of action figures in time for Christmas?

Originally Posted by Ereiid:
I also imagine that too many Devs conflate the "ganker versus carebear" (I hate those words) problem as being overt antagonism between Killers and Socializers -- which I also remain unconvinced of. It's telling that on so many boards, the gankers are often among the most sociable players. The enduring communities that form around FPSes should be some indication of that.
On this one, I have some reservations. Absolutely Manipulators can be sociable... otherwise how would they find people to manipulate? (PKing is just one aspect of manipulating the gameworld.)

And Socializers are just so darned emotive -- well, who could resist yanking their chains? They're so funny when they get wound up! (Thus thinks the Manipulator.)

Richard Bartle's diagram of the ecological interactions of the four player types (in the Endnotes of "Players Who Suit MUDs") makes this relationship pretty clear -- in fact, it's the strongest ecological relationship in multiplayer online RPGs.

The "solution" thus far has been to take an axe to anything that looks like it might attract Killers. Unfortunately, I think the result of this has been to allow actual Killer types to hide in Achiever clothing (honking up that gameplay), and to eliminate the non-Killer Manipulators entirely. That's a shame, because these highly-kinesthetic folks could add a lot of fun to a game whose features channeled their manipulative skills (of both objects and people) into positive courses. The more mature Manipulators make great Politicians and are the most virtuosic users of tools, but the "Killer" stigma kicks them out of the game where they can't show others how to do that stuff in a positive way.

I've got some design ideas for this....

Originally Posted by Ereiid:
And there are games that at least acknowledge Explorers -- I'm thinking exploration badges in SWG and CoX. But if we don't take the literal meaning of that archetype, that Explorers enjoy engaging novel content -- they might just be the trickiest ones to keep happy. MMOs by their nature consist of finite content. No MMO has managed to provide truly infinite content -- the massive games like WoW, at best, can provide the illusion of infinite content; but ultimately, it is possible to have literally done everything there is to do in these games.
To try to keep this short, I'll just mention something I've pointed out elsewhere, which is that SWG's badges actually took fun away from real Explorers by creating Achiever rewards for exploration. By rewarding Achievers for something Explorers enjoy, SWG insured that there'd be nothing left to explore -- the locust-like Achievers buzzsawed through all of it (and posted it online) already.

I've been pretty consistent in saying that I acknowledge the intent of the SOE/LA folks who designed this part of SWG -- at least they were trying to offer features to appeal to Explorers, which I agree is more than most other developers do. That said, however, the implementation was suboptimal IMO because, in misunderstanding what motivates Explorers, SOE offered the wrong kind of rewards for exploration.

For the Explorer, the pleasure is not in amassing collections of first/most/highest/best; it's in the comprehension of a complex space -- not for concrete profit, or for bragging rights, but because it's satisfying to really grok how and why a system works. The pleasure comes from the satisfaction of having developed a demonstrably accurate model because that's how you know whether you really understand what you're studying.

So I think you're actually on a better track with "infinite content" -- in other words, a construction kit. Not many developers care for that idea: "It's a game, not a simulation." Furthermore, there's the problem of unexpected exploits. When you build a simple and highly constrained system, you have a chance of knowing how it will function in most cases... but when you build a system for building systems, the whole fun of the thing comes from being able to generate surprising content. How the heck do you keep that from being abused?

I don't pretend to have an easy answer for this. All I can say right now is that I think this is possible, and that some developer is going to make out like a bandit among Explorers -- and I don't think we exist in trivial numbers -- by designing a game that gives Explorers the kind of discovery-focused gameplay rewards they crave, instead of treating them like somewhat nerdy Achievers who can be placated with a manufacturing support role imaginatively called "crafting."

Do I have strong opinions on this matter? Oh, yes.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Personality Types and Gameplay Preferences

Originally Posted by Ereiid:
I will eat my shoe if serious academic study doesn't support the notion that certain kinds of player behaviors and preferences co-associate.
If so, I'll be chewing on the other shoe. :)

Interestingly, Chris Bateman gave a talk at AGDC '07 on how temperament theory guides how players figure out gameplay. (Summarized at Gamasutra.)

I've had the pleasure of chatting with Chris; he's both friendly and sharp, and his ideas on how to help players enjoy themselves exhibit both of those qualities. I can happily recommend his blog as well, which describes his "International Hobo" gig as "market-oriented game design and narrative." Good stuff.

Side note: The four names Chris uses for the different kinds of narrative styles are terms that Keirsey uses for his four temperaments, and which I correlate with Bartle's four player types. In a nutshell:

ArtisanTacticalManipulator (Killer)
Originally Posted by Ereiid:
The trick for an MMO is not just to provide a game for each of those archetypes, but also (if not moreso), for the Achiever/Socializers and Killer/Explorer hybrids, that likely make up the vast bulk of the market.
Funny you should look at it that way. Keirsey might agree with you, and there's probably a good point to be made for that kind of grouping with respect to massively multiplayer games.

The first edition of Keirsey's book Please Understand Me just listed four temperaments, but I always thought there were some internal relationships between them. Sure enough, in his second edition of PUM, Keirsey added some grouping... only it wasn't the same grouping I saw.

In Keirsey's view (with which I agree), the single most important difference between people is whether they tend to be concerned with internals or externals -- abstract vs. concrete, theoretical vs. practical. Most people are the latter; they put more faith in what their senses tell them than in what their hearts or their heads say (which are what drive the Idealists and Rationals respectively). So I would say that by far the most important grouping of Bartle types (assuming that they're congruent with the four Keirsey temperaments as I think they are) is Socializer/Explorer and Manipulator/Achiever. The first group are what I see as the world-y types, the ones who want to "live in" a MMORPG, while the second group are the game-y types who want primarily to "play in" a MMORPG. As the online-game context for the Sensing/iNutiting distinction of Myers-Briggs and the related internal/external distinction of Keirsey's temperaments, I see Explorers and Socializers understanding each other far better than either understands (or appreciates) Achievers and Manipulators... and most definitely vice versa.

At the same time, Keirsey also sees a similarity between Idealists and Guardians, and the opposite similarity between Artisans and Rationals -- namely, that the first two tend to be Cooperators, while the second two tend to be Utilitarians. In Bartle terms, that suggests that the Socializers and Achievers would tend to put a premium on success through organization and relationships, while the Explorers and Manipulators would tend to think more in terms of how to most efficiently understand or use (I won't say "exploit") gameworld systems.

While I think that's a useful way of looking at the four types, I'm not sure that the Cooperative/Utilitarian distinction is the next most important difference between innate styles after a person's most fundamental motivation (Internals vs. Externals). To my mind, the next most common difference is actually the person's need for Freedom vs. Structure.

By that measure, I see Idealists/Socializers as more closely related to the Artisans/Manipulators in their shared need to be free to do their own thing, while I see the Rationals/Explorers as comprehensible to the Guardians/Achievers in the need both these types have to find the structural rules of or impose rules on their world. In my model, the four types look like this:

Artisan/ManipulatorExternal Freedom (power through manipulative sensation)
Guardian/AchieverExternal Structure (security through competitive accumulation)
Rational/ExplorerInternal Structure (knowledge through logical discovery)
Idealist/SocializerInternal Freedom (self-becoming through emotional expression)

All of which is why I answer the original question of "how to create a successful MMO" in this way: In addition to the other requirements -- quantity and quality of content -- you improve your chances of success by recognizing these four strong innate motivations in people, and then deliberately and consciously building forms of content that are specifically enjoyable by each of these types. Because to do otherwise -- which is exactly what most developers do by focusing monomanically on "competitive accumulation" Achiever content -- is to unnecessarily exclude potential subscribers.

No, of course no game can possibly be all things to all people.

But can't there be at least a few games that try to offer a little bit more to some other kinds of gamers?

The Secret of World of Warcraft's Success

A lot of people have been guessing at why Blizzard's World of Warcraft has achieved such fantastic commercial success compared to other MMORPGs. Many seem to think that the gameplay of WoW had something to do with its success, which leads them to believe that if they can just figure out the key gameplay elements, they can copy those elements into their own MMORPG and achieve similar levels of income.

I disagree. I don't think the gameplay is a sufficient explanation for the crazy success of WoW.

My own theory as to WoW's success has five parts:

1. Lots of content. (There's always something new to do.)

2. Second-mover advantage. (Take the individual bits others have gotten right and integrate them into a single coherent product.)

3. Polish, polish, polish. (Never give the customer a specific excuse to leave.)

4. Built-in audience. (The successful Warcraft RTS guaranteed an initial subscriber base.)

5. And the biggest reason: The Hula Hoop Effect. (Popularity breeds more popularity regardless of anything else.)
With the first four of these things going for it, WoW was in a great position to do well. But it was the friend-tells-a-friend Hula Hoop Effect (which I discussed in "Post-Launch Subscription Curves for Online Games" back on July 14, 2007) that pushed WoW over the top, and that's not something anyone can count on happening for their own product. Which means that WoW's gameplay is absolutely not the only -- or even the main -- reason for its runaway success among conventional MMORPGs.

In other words, if we want to understand business success, we need to look at the business drivers, not just the technical or game design drivers. Those matter, but they don't tell the whole story of a smash hit like WoW.

So copying any of WoW's gameplay elements is nothing more than an exercise in cargo-cult design. It won't work, and developers shouldn't waste time and effort on it. If they really want ten million subscribers, their only hope is to come up with a game that does the basics well and then -- somehow -- gets its own Hula Hoop Effect.

Good luck on that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Star Trek Online -- The Baby Boomer MMORPG?

Here's something actually worth reading from the New York Times: investors are showing interest in online services aimed more at older computer users than 20-somethings.

Some of the key quotes from the NYT article:

Technology investors and entrepreneurs, long obsessed with connecting to teenagers and 20-somethings, are starting a host of new social networking sites aimed at baby boomers and graying computer users. The sites have names like Eons, Rezoom, Multiply, Maya’s Mom, Boomj, and Boomertown. They look like Facebook -- with wrinkles.

"Teens are tire kickers -- they hang around, cost you money and then leave," said Paul Kedrosky, a venture capitalist and author of the blog "Infectious Greed." Where Friendster was once the hot spot, Facebook and MySpace now draw the crowds of young people online.

"The older demographic has a bunch of interesting characteristics," Mr. Kedrosky added, "not the least of which is that they hang around."

This prospective and relative stickiness is helping drive a wave of new investment into boomer and older-oriented social networking sites that offer like-minded (and like-aged) individuals discussion and dating forums, photo-sharing, news and commentary, and chatter about diet, fitness and health care.

Social networking has so far focused mainly on businesspeople and young people because they are tech-savvy and are treasured by Madison Avenue. But there are 78 million boomers -- roughly three times the number of teenagers -- and most of them are Internet users who learned computer skills in the workplace. Indeed, the number of Internet users who are older than 55 is roughly the same as those who are aged 18 to 34, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a market research firm. [emphasis mine]

Peter Pezaris, president and chief executive of Inc., based in Boca Raton, Fla., said he believed that older customers were stickier than younger ones, but said the evidence so far was anecdotal. He said 96 percent of the company’s active users returned each month, a statistic that he said impressed the venture capitalists who considered investing in the site.

Ms. Ayers said that the investors are learning that social networks aimed at older users are a big draw for investors, consumer products and services companies. "Not only do we have a lot more money, we pay a lot more attention to advertisers," she said. The advertisers on Eons include Humana health care insurance, Fidelity Investments and the pharmacy chain CVS.
So what does this have to do with a Star Trek MMORPG?

First, consider that one of the key aspects of a MMORPG is that it is a persistent world -- it shares some of the characteristics of a service.

If you were running a service-driven business, wouldn't you be interested in attracting the more "sticky" customers -- the people who, once they've signed up with a particular service, tend to keep sending their money to that service? (Can you say, "consistent revenue stream?")

Now consider that the people who grew up with the original Star Trek are now the very people in their 40s and 50s who are considered more reliable customers.

So, bearing in mind that not all online service users are gamers, should Star Trek Online's features, which will determine the kinds of people who are attracted to this online game world, be driven in any way by this kind of information about the numbers and "stickiness" of older online service users?

Leeroy Jenkins in Star Trek Online

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
If [individual players could affect Federation policy], ST:O would be a constant war. There will always be a dude to put this virtual galaxy in trouble. It is appealing to dream of this global consequences for your deeds. But small scale consequences are enough I think. And they have the advantage, that the one who makes a stupid decision, that causes his away team to end on sickbay, will be known to be guilty. While in a big scale consequence, no one knows whom to blame.
Originally Posted by Speck of Sand:
I have to say, I nearly died laughing when I read this. I couldn't get the image of a galactic 'Leeroy Jenkins' disrupting the peace of the Universe every five days.
Hmmmmm. I wonder, what might that be like...?


Adjutant: "Sir..."

Admiral: "Yes, Captain?"

Adjutant: "Um..."

Admiral: "Well, spit it out, man, what is it?"

Adjutant: "Sir, it's... Lieutenant Jenkins, sir. Again."

Admiral: [groans] "Right, what's he done this time?"

Adjutant: "Well, sir, it seems there was a slip-up over in Fleet Command, and Lieutenant Jenkins was mistakenly reassigned from Plasma Injector Maintenance to... er... command of the Federation flagship leading the delegation to Romulus."

Admiral: "Oh, well, that's all right, then. Obviously I've gone mad; this can't possibly be real."

Adjutant: "I'm afraid it is, Admiral. Would you like to see the casualty list now?"

Admiral: "... no. Just tell me, Captain: How bad is it, really?"

Adjutant: "Praetor Shinzek is here to discuss the terms of the Federation's surrender with you, sir. Would you like me to set that up in Briefing Room 3?"

Admiral: "LEEEEROYYY!!!"

Monday, September 10, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay +

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
I'm willing to say that, but perhaps that comes from just not being willing to agree that there is such an incredible divide between the Trek fan and the MMO fan. I think the notion badly, badly belies the facts. I can't help but think of the long, long list of MMOs and common MMO experience our members have, spanning a whole range of different games of different types. I'm thinking of all the people in the poll which asked whether respondents are Trek fans or MMO fans, who complained that "Both" wasn't a choice. I'm thinking of all the people who left Star Wars: Galaxies because the social and community aspects which they loved so much were stripped from the game.

I think the assumption that such a divide exists relies on a stereotype of the MMO player and a glorified vision of the Trek fan. Having had a vastly greater deal of experience with (and being) the latter, I think it's relies in a very narrow definition of who a Star Trek fan is, and who is not. The Star Trek fanbase is far more diverse, for better or for ill, than we see presented here. By all means it's your view to have, but I don't think it's the foundation of a game.
Having spent some time thinking about this, it's a pretty darn reasonable statement of an alternative perspective. As it happens, I don't disagree at all with the belief that there are some people who are interested in both Star Trek and MMORPGs to a nearly equal degree -- heck, I'm one of them. The question is, how many folks like us are there across the total population of people who might be willing to play a Star Trek MMORPG? Are we the norm?

My experiences in studying people generally and MMORPG players and Star Trek fans specifically leads me to continue to see significant differences in the people likely to identify with these two groups. Most people will be more interested in Star Trek than they are in MMORPGs, or vice versa. Of course many of them will say "both" if asked... but that tells us nothing about which is more important to them. What the typical MMORPG player will want from a Star Trek MMORPG is likely to be very different from what the typical Star Trek fan will want, even if there are some people with one foot in both worlds.

That doesn't mean I think a Star Trek MMORPG should be designed to be all things to all people. I don't think that's possible; some things are mutually exclusive. And that is, in fact, an argument for a two-worlds-in-one design -- it's a way to give the people who prefer a particular kind of gameplay more (not all, but more) of what they want, rather than trying to smush everything together into a single environment where everyone winds up losing too many features they consider critical.

I'm sure MMORPG players and Star Trek fans have some gameplay feature interests in common. But yes, when it comes to online games I am persuaded by what I have observed and by the thinking and modeling I've done that their interests are more different than similar. On balance, I think the MMORPG players have a Gamist/Experientialist outlook, while Star Trek fans have a Narrativist or Simulationist worldview. And I think that translates pretty directly into what these folks say they want Star Trek Online to look like, and that when (if!) ST:O launches they'll prove it with their pocketbooks.

My hope is that a Star Trek MMORPG will be constructed to offer enough to both of these audiences to attract and retain many of them, and in so doing will also appeal to those of us who enjoy both forms of entertainment. I hope we can at least agree that that would be a Good Thing, even if we disagree on what's necessary to get there.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Skill-Based Ability Design in Early Star Wars Galaxies

Here's the condensed version of how character advancement worked in the original SWG.

(For the discussion that follows, you might want to glance at the Pre-CU Character Builder over at Galaxies Reborn. It's an interactive tool that shows you exactly how the professions and their skills were organized.)

Instead of the current nine "iconic classes," of which you can have one and only one, there were some 34 professions. Each profession consisted of 18 "skillboxes" -- four trees of four skillboxes each, plus a Novice and a Master skillbox.

Everybody had 250 "skill points," which could be spent on individual skillboxes. The Novice skillbox in the six starting professions (seven, once player cities were enabled and the Politician profession was added) required 15 skill points, and all the other skillboxes required 2, 3, 4, 5, or (for the Master skillbox) 6 points. (The costs were different for an elite or hybrid profession -- more on them in a few moments.) So if you mastered an entire starting profession, you'd be out 77 skill points.

And that meant that if you wanted to, you could completely master three entirely unrelated starting professions plus learn some skills from another profession. With so many professions to choose from, if you imagine that this meant that players could create nearly-unique characters, you'd be correct.

There were actually several requirements to gain a new skillbox:

  • sufficient skill points (out of the 250)
  • sufficient XP of the right type
  • all of the required prerequisite skillboxes or professions
If you met all the requirements for a particular skill, there were two ways to learn that skill. You could go to a Trainer NPC of the correct type and pay some number of credits (in addition to the XP and skillpoints). Or you could find another player who had that skill and was willing to teach it to you, in which case you only expended the XP and skillpoints.

(In the early days of SWG, teaching other players new skills was rewarded with Apprentice XP, which was a special form of XP that was required to purchase any Master skillbox. Although intended to promote social interaction, this was one of the earliest features of the character skill system to get the axe. Once the game was mostly veteran players, they started having too much trouble finding other players to teach skills to.)

The last important point about skills in SWG was that in addition to the starting professions, there were elite and hybrid professions. These required learning all of one tree within a profession, or in some cases, actually mastering an entire starting profession plus other skills.


  • To open up the Merchant elite profession required learning all four skillboxes in the Business tree (of four vertical skillboxes) in the Artisan starting profession.
  • To open up the Bio-Engineer hybrid profession required learning all four skillboxes in the Hunting tree in the Scout starting profession plus all four skillboxes in the Organic Chemistry tree in the Medic starting profession.
  • To open up the Doctor elite profession required mastering the Medic starting profession.
  • To open up the Bounty Hunter hybrid/elite profession required mastering the Marksman starting profession plus learning all four skillboxes in the Exploration tree in the Scout starting profession.
And then there was the Jedi profession. (Don't ask.)

What this meant was that if you wanted, you could master a few professions and be really, really good at a couple of things. Or, if you preferred, you could master one profession (or none!) and be reasonably effective at a very wide variety of things.

I actually chose the latter path. For a long time I was a Master Artisan and Master Merchant, and had multiple skills in Medic, Scout, Pistoleer, and Creature Handler. The downside of this variety of abilities was that I could never enjoy the elite content -- I never saw the inside of the Corellian Corvette or the Deathwatch Bunker; I never got to do the Hero Quest on Tatooine. On the other hand, I could go pretty much anywhere and do all kinds of things that a specialist couldn't. In other words, in addition to being especially good at making and selling vehicles (Artisan + Merchant), I was a jack-of-all-trades, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

All this probably sounds complicated, but it didn't feel that way once you used the system. Even so, there were complaints that having such an amazing amount of flexibility made it hard to figure out roles when grouping for combat. Who was the tank? Who did the most DPS?

Eventually these complaints led to the Combat Upgrade, and thence to the New Game Experience. To satisfy the desires of some combat-oriented players for their characters to fit neatly into simple-to-understand combat roles, everybody (including the many players who only wanted a few combat skills) had their uniquely varied skills eliminated in favor of the hardcoded set of skills that were deemed appropriate for their new iconic class.

I hope this gives readers an idea of why the NGE, years later, still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of gamers who liked the original SWG.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Abstaining from Beta Testing

Originally Posted by Hal:
I can't imagine anyone who would not want to participate in beta. Most of us are starved for a Star Trek online game.
Well, now you know one person. :) And I have what I feel are three good reasons for not signing up.

First of all, while I'm looking forward to Star Trek Online as much as anyone, participating in beta testing isn't about pure entertainment -- it's about testing what the developers need tested. Someone who just shows up to get a jump on gameplay is not someone who needs to be a beta tester.

Following that belief, I'd only sign up to be a beta tester if I thought I had enough free time to consistently dedicate to testing to do a good job of it. As I don't think I have enough such free time, I don't think it would be right for me to try to get into the beta.

My second reason is that participation in beta testing nearly always requires signing a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). I have no problem with NDAs in general -- for other people. For myself, I don't want to have my ability to talk about a particular game constricted because I agreed to be a beta tester.

Not having facts to talk about is better by far than having facts and not being able to talk about them!

Finally, this is just a personal viewpoint, not a criticism of anyone else, but I don't want to have my independence compromised by being associated in any official way with a game over which I had no design control. Choosing not to be a beta tester means I don't get advance knowledge of a game's features. But it also means that when I say something positive about a game, those comments are clearly not because I got anything in return for my positive comments or out of fear that my Special Status will be revoked if I criticize the product -- it's unquestionably because it's what I really think.

I've had the pleasure of being invited to be a beta tester for several MMORPGs. I always appreciate such offers, but I always turn them down -- my independence means too much to me.

So there are, I think, good reasons to choose not to participate in beta testing. I won't say they're right for everybody, but I do think they're valid for some folks, including me.

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by DougQB:
I would be concerned about levels and departments, that sounds like the traditional Class and Level design.
Doesn't it, though?

I object to this when it's designed as the sole way to play the game, when leveling up is just another kind of Achiever-focused accumulation that everybody has to follow because character advancement is an assumption that got turned into core gameplay. Why should those gamers who aren't Achievers, whose interests run more toward knowledge discovery and personal interaction, get stuck with yet another game whose most fundamental assumption about gamers is that they're all driven by a desire to achieve security through collecting as much stuff (including character/department levels) as possible?

If Star Trek Online were already out, the usual response of "Well, if you don't like that kind of gameplay, then don't play" would be valid. But it hasn't launched yet. It's still being developed. [Maybe.] If -- and of course I have to stress "if" so I don't get clobbered with the "you don't know what the developer has decided to do" stick -- the assumption is being made that everybody who's likely to play a Star Trek MMORPG enjoys leveling up and wants to spend their game time doing it, there may still be time to rethink that assumption so that the game that actually ships is more appealing to more gamers.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to jump on my horse, grab a lance, and go after that windmill one more time....

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG +

I don't mind increasing competence in some individual skill being tracked with a "level" number for that skill. But in general, I think numeric "character levels" are a weird abstraction we can do without.

A modern RPG (whether tabletop, CRPG, or MMORPG) should IMO avoid this strange concept that by accumulating some arbitrary number of magic beans, you-the-character suddenly gain one or more new abilities... just like everybody else that gathers the exact same number of magic beans. That's just bizarre.

Ranks are OK, though, as long as they're not just character levels by another name.

Character levels will probably wind up somehow in Star Trek Online. ("It has to look like a MMORPG or gamers won't play it" seems to be the prevailing theory among game designers.) Perpetual Entertainment's version of ST:O, for example, showed sectors on their Sector Map as explicitly designed around character levels.

Another possible design for gating content (as I've mentioned in earlier posts on this subject) is based on ranks plus a magic level number within a department. For example, Player A could be a Level 12 Engineering Lieutenant, while Player B is a Level 48 Tactical Captain.

I like that a lot less than skill levels. It's just moving the character level abstraction down to a department scope. Still, even if rank + department is just two character level systems stuck together, it's better than just a single character level.

But not much so, because the more a game's design is wrapped around character advancement, the more mindless grinding behavior is promoted. ("Just 48,320 more magic beans -- I mean, experience points -- and I'll be a level 29! Now, where are the 160 Klingons I need to kill?")

I hope that Star Trek Online will be designed less about such grinding to gain levels and more about experiencing interesting Star Trek content, but we'll see. Ranks plus department levels might work out better than I'm imagining. If nothing else, it would be far better than if every character has one overall level number. /shudder

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Crafting in a Star Trek MMORPG

One of the areas where a Star Trek MMORPG could distinguish itself from its competition is in offering more cooperative-social gameplay. And one feature that would support this effort would be in a "crafting" system that allows the crew of a ship to work together on building things.

Suppose that each department has a kind of crafting it can do:

Engineering/Opsmodification/enhancement of existing tools/devices
Science/Medicalcreation of new tools/devices/weapons from discovery of new principles
Tactical/Securitymodification/enhancement of existing weapons
Command/Helm??? (organization crafting? diplomatic protocols? evasive patterns?)
Would this be fun/interesting? Would it become fun/interesting if the kinds of crafting available to each department could be combined somehow with the crafting that characters in other branches can do?

Or would it be better to make crafting more generalized so that anyone can do any kind of crafting, just with some department-based specializations or bonuses? Maybe anybody should be able to make ship system improvements, create new objects, and write new holodeck programs....

Originally Posted by Botanybay:
But that would be a thing, that expires over the time. It should, to make crafting needed on a regular basis. So everything newly invented would need maintenance. Once, the crafter who "invented" it is gone, the new item or technology looses effectivity, after a certain period of time.
This makes sense to me for several reasons:

  • It creates a plausible reason to always need players who are good at crafting.

  • It creates opportunities for gameplay.

  • It's not as strange as magically removing ship improvements when the crafter steps off the ship.
And yet, I'd hate to see really interesting/useful ideas get limited to their creator's ship -- doesn't that injure the power of ideas to improve one's society, which is a big piece of what Star Trek is about?

What if there were a way for the best ideas to filter out to other players? You might want to have some limits or else everybody would simply copy everybody else's ideas, but perhaps there could be a lottery where every three months one idea from the top 50 (however determined) is judged to be Starfleet-worthy and becomes available to every crafter. Alternately, perhaps the top admiral(s) from each department that offers crafting can pick one new crafting improvement every few months to disseminate to all the players in that department.

Maybe some other approach would be better than these, but I think it would be nice to see the best ideas embraced by Starfleet and made available to everyone (with proper credit, of course).