Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Solo and Group Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Sean Howard has a bunch of interesting gameplay concepts over at Three Hundred Mechanics. (No, it's not the story of the Battle of Thermopylae as told by various car dealerships.)

One of these concepts addresses the way that current MMORPG designers seem to think that just because it's a MMORPG, all players are supposed to want to interact with strangers and must be given special rewards for doing so. In this entry, Sean discusses a way to allow solo (one player), duo (two players), and group (3+ players) challenge levels and rewards to be leveled so that people can play they way they enjoy playing. Basically, he proposes creating character abilities and objects to behave differently depending on whether you use them in solo, duo, or group modes.

It might be interesting to consider how this idea could be applied in Star Trek Online. Anybody want to take a poke at this?

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
what he seems to be proposing is three independent methods of character advancement (I'm a lvl 53 solo player, a 12 duo, and a 26 grouper) and item/equipment enhancement categories (this sword has 20dps solo, 15 dps group). I have to admit... I don't like it. Not nearly as much as I like CoX's solution, to a far degree.
I wouldn't dream of proposing that I should single-handedly be as strong as a group. It makes much more sense to me to balance the challenge of the area/quest to the capability of the player/group (CoX), than to balance the power of one person to many people. In the end, it's a system that will only serve to discourage grouping.
I knew there was something bugging me about the idea of making objects and content "modal" as an across-the-board approach, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. (Other than "it creates a lot more work for developers.") In very limited amounts this might be interesting, but it's hard to see it working well as a general solution.

As a systems-guy, I'm much more inclined toward the approach you describe for CoX -- a dynamically scaling challenge level sounds like a more effective solution. In such a formula-based implementation you've got to very thoroughly test all possible inputs for pathological conditions, but with the proper checks in place a dynamic solution can be a good way to go for everybody, developers and players alike.

Like Sean I'm not personally fond of grouping. Relying on other people is disappointing; having to commit to someone else's schedule just to play a game is frustrating; and the hypercompetitive designs of current MMORPGs all promote the childish "LOL noob!" attitude. Not for me, thanks.

But that's just me -- grouping is obviously something a lot of people enjoy. Furthermore, it's an appropriate use for a "massively multiplayer" environment. So regardless of whether I personally want to do it or not, grouping needs to be actively-supported element of these games.

And yet I (and my fellow non-groupies) ought to be able to enjoy these games, too, shouldn't we? Is our money not as good as anyone else's?

It seems to me that a design that's appealing to both soloers and groupers, that rewards each approach to play without penalizing the other, would be a Good Thing... but it also seems pretty hard to come up with such a design. There doesn't appear to be any one magic bullet feature that'll work here, but there are several things that I can think of that might help:

  • content whose challenge scales dynamically to the number and capabilities of players

  • conscious design of many/deep opportunities for cooperative play (not just competitive)

  • indirect and asynchronous grouping (sort of like the difference between forums and livechat)

  • small (and equal) amount of special content exclusively for soloers, duos, and groups
I'd be interested in hearing what other ways people can think of for helping both soloers and groupers enjoy the same game.

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
On a related note, Flafingers, you asked how group/solo skills might be applied to Star Trek Online, and that did remind me of something I'd proposed in the past - that increasing rank should not be a requirement for rewards, but that increasing rank should skew the player's skills and capabilities towards group bonuses/abilities. In this way, an Admiral would be practically powerless without "subordinates" but a group of Lieutenants wouldn't be helped nearly as much by the addition of another Lieutentant as it would by a Captain.
That depends on whether you're thinking of this in terms of direct responsibility/interaction with subordinates, or as a hierarchy. I see the rank of Captain as the most appropriate place for direct, hands-on group leadership. Admirals would be the strategic "power behind the throne" -- not personally leading groups, but defining the goals that groups then try to achieve.

This extends the tactical -> operational -> strategic model I've yapped about so frequently. Rather than seeing Ensign to Admiral as a progression from solo play to group play, I think of it more as a three-level hierarchy: from hands-on power (Ensign to Lieutenant Commander) to organizational power (Commander to Commodore) to influence power (Admiral). In other words, I guess I'm defining "group" to be collections of 2-150 or so people (the so-called "Dunbar's number" which, as Raph Koster has suggested, is the practical upper limit on the effective size of guilds), and then creating a new category equivalent to "faction" whose departments and sectors would be managed by admirals who obtain and use influence across multiple groups ("fleets" in ST:O).

In a way this is really just a variation on your suggestion, in that admirals would still be group leaders. But it's a significant variation in that admirals would lead groups whose members are themselves leaders of other groups. So rather than directly controlling thousands of officers, admirals would possess a kind of indirect leadership ability that depends more on the influence they can wield than on direct operational power. They'd have to be able to think in large strokes and plan ahead, because nothing would happen immediately; their policies would need time to be converted into operations by captains and then implemented by lieutenants... and that's pretty much the keystone of strategy, isn't it?

Which is what I'd hoped from the start that admirals would do in Star Trek Online.