Thursday, November 29, 2007

Admiral-Level Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

So let's say the heavens part, a miracle occurs, and the developers of Star Trek Online implement my suggestion to allow players of high-ranking characters to assign missions to other characters as a way to earn prestige.

What's to stop players from giving each other as much prestige as they want as rapidly as possible, leading to everybody and his uncle making Admiral by the end of the first week after the game launches?

I've been thinking about this, and while I can't say I've come up with a perfectly satisfactory solution, I've got an idea that might be worth sharing.

First, let's assume we're talking about two characters -- Character A wants to grant some prestige to Character B.

Here are a set of rules I'm thinking might allow this to work while minimizing powerleveling:

1. Prestige from a player mission can only be granted to Character B if Character B successfully completes a mission created by Character A and accepted by Character B.

2. Missions can only be accepted by a character one or more ranks below the rank of the character who created the mission. (Implications: Ensigns can't grant missions to anyone; Admirals cannot accept missions from anyone. More on what this means for admirals in a moment.)

3. Every mission has a base difficulty level that's determined when the mission is created. (I'm honestly not sure yet exactly how this might work. More to come on this, probably....)

4. Mission difficulty levels are named by rank. There would be Ensign-level missions, Commander missions, Captain missions, and so on. (But there would not be Admiral-level missions.) This way players would know in general how tough a mission is before their character accepts it.

Alternately, maybe there should be only three kinds of mission forms -- tactical, operational, and strategic -- and the department level description (e.g., Novice, Veteran, Legendary) would be what determines the general difficulty rating of the mission. A Legendary Tactical mission would be just as hard as a Legendary Strategic mission; the only difference would be the form of the goal to be accomplished.

5. The amount of prestige granted to a character upon successful completion of the accepted mission is automatically set to be proportional to the total mission difficulty. (This is the key rule for preventing powerleveling, since letting the game determine the amount of prestige to be awarded prevents players from granting one another arbitrarily huge quantities of prestige.)

6. The total amount of prestige calculated for a given mission is divided equally among the number of characters in the group that completes the mission. (This compensates for the reduction in mission difficulty due to grouping. There is a solo-vs.-group concern that may need to be addressed here, however.)

7. Prestige is only gained by a character after an accepted mission is successfully completed.

8. If Character B (or Character B's group) fails the mission, or cancels it, no one gains any prestige, but no one loses any prestige. (Penalizing any character for someone failing a mission could lead to griefing by losers who accept missions in order to deliberately fail them.)

And here are some auxiliary rules which occurred to me might really make flag rank mean something in Star Trek Online (instead of being a mere grindable badge as in other MMORPGs):

9. Prestige is not actually taken away from Character A and given to Character B when Character B successfully completes one of Character A's missions. Instead, the full amount of prestige for the mission (again, proportional to the overall difficulty level of the mission, and divided by the number of players in the group that completed the mission) is created out of thin air and given to Character B, while Character A receives 20% of that amount of prestige as a reward.

10. Admirals would be able to create missions and leave them on a "duty station" for any lower-ranked character to accept. (This would free Admiral-rank players from having to be logged in constantly in order to generate missions for other players to take.)

11. And here's the kicker: player missions that are successfully completed are the only way that Admirals can gain prestige. No character with the rank of Admiral can gain any prestige from NPCs.

Personally, I'm loving that Rule 11. Think about what it would do: Captains would be able to score plenty of prestige by racing around the galaxy in their assigned starship, doing various NPC things... but if you choose to accept promotion to Admiral, you trade in your starship for a desk at Starfleet HQ. And once you're an admiral, the only way you can advance any further is by creating missions for other players to perform that are of strategic value to the Federation and -- and this is the important gameplay part -- which will be fun for other lower-ranked players to do.

Promotion to Admiral would very definitely not lead to "more of the same" gameplay! Instead, the admiral-level game would be about organizational influence. The best admirals would be those who can most effectively generate fun gameplay for other players that serves Starfleet's interests.

I'm really liking that idea.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Real Money Transactions in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Jaktar:
you'll never stomp out farming unless there is no currency. And once you have no currency people will just farm items. You can't win. Just learn to use /ignore!
/ignore isn't good enough.

It doesn't matter if I'm ignoring the farmers or not; unless they're prevented from doing so they will affect my gameplay for the worse, and in multiple ways:

  • by acting like bots in a world where player characters are supposed to be real people

  • by artificially depressing the game economy through generating currency that wouldn't otherwise exist

  • by promoting a belief that one can buy one's way to success
Placing meaningful limits on the amount of money and number of items a trial account can possess is more effective at improving the feel of a gameworld than merely relying on /ignore to pretend that the gold sellers are the only problem.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Casual MMORPGs?

Does "casual" really mean "dumbed-down?"

Here's what Wikipedia suggests are the properties of the typical casual game:
  • Extremely simple gameplay, like a puzzle game that can be played entirely using a one-button mouse or cellphone keypad
  • Allowing gameplay in short bursts, during work breaks or, in the case of portable and cell phone games, on public transportation
  • The ability to quickly reach a final stage, or continuous play with no need to save the game
  • 2D, abstract graphics
  • Some variant on a "try before you buy" business model or an advertising-based model

(And to this, I would add "backgrounds or pieces may feature advertising, and short play sessions allow more between-game ads.")

Setting aside for the moment the question of more real-world advertising, would any of the other features listed above be a deal-breaker for an online Star Trek implemented in a more casual way than the typical hardcore MMORPG?

Think of this as a design challenge. How could you take the above constraints and make a game that also offers the depth that some of us enjoy?

Is a "casual MMORPG" a contradiction in terms? If not, what might the general features of such a thing look like?

Map Interfaces in a Star Trek MMORPG

Originally Posted by Crazyfist:
Will we be able to look at starmaps that show position of starbases, planets, nebulas, stars, and most into the question: starships. im wondering if well see the position of starships that starfleet owns and is aware of on the map.
To follow up on some of the suggestions already made, I'd like to see the following kind of hierarchy for things that can be mapped, in decreasing level of detail:

  • energy sources (stars)
  • objects
    • stationary objects
    • mobile objects
      • different sector
      • same sector
      • same system
      • visual range

The galaxy map should show all stars. These things put out so much energy that anyone in the galaxy can observe their location, their stellar class, and their luminosity.

No other objects are so visible, so no other objects should automatically be placed on the maps of all players and NPCs.


It should be possible to know where stationary objects belonging to or known to one's faction are located. Examples of these would be starbases, nebulae, and planets. (No, planets and even starbases aren't really "stationary," but they do occupy regular and predictable positions with respect to stars.) Non-aligned stationary objects, or objects aligned with another faction that have not been mapped by members of one's faction, should require personal investigation.

(Note: There's a gameplay issue here -- should every player be required/able to create their own maps of stationary objects belonging to another faction, such as the Romulans? That wouldn't make a lot of sense in a world where everybody in Starfleet has access to the internal data network, but letting everyone make their own maps might be appropriate as exploration content in an online game.)

Mobile objects should require closer inspection to reveal useful information about them, including their location.


The amount of information you should be able to obtain about another mobile object should generally depend on your distance from that object. (By "mobile object" I mean any physical object that moves around, probably as a result of intelligent intention. So "mobile object" includes both starships and space-dwelling lifeforms.)

If you're in visual range of each other (let's say that's about 500,000 meters for space-based objects, and 5000 meters for ground-based objects), you should be able to use your ship's tactical sensors or tricorder to obtain not only positional information but internal characteristics of the mobile object. (Cloaked objects should not be mappable at all, however.)

If you're in the same star system (roughly 15,000,000,000 km) but not within 500,000 meters of each other, positional information should be obtainable via short-range sensors, but only the basic internal characteristics of the other mobile object (object type, size, general energy output) should be available unless the other mobile object belongs to your faction. Two objects of the same alignment in the same system should be able to share more complete information with each other.

For example, let's say your ship is orbiting Earth, the RSS Sulnar is skimming hydrogen from Jupiter, and the USS Canary is on a routine patrol around Saturn. Even though the Canary is further away from you than the Romulan ship, you should know not only that there's a starship there but also what type of ship it is and that it's named the USS Canary because you and the Canary are of the same faction and therefore share data. Meanwhile the only thing you might know about the Romulan starship is that there's an unknown starship in the area of Jupiter. (Alternately, we might assume that any uncloaked ship in a star system always has an ID transponder active, so you'd know the ship orbiting Jupiter was Romulan and might also know its name.) But if the Sulnar is cloaked, it would never be visible on your system map at all.

(Note: An interesting possibility here might be to allow for variable sensor capability. The region of space around Earth, for example, would probably be littered with space-based observation platforms of all kinds, some of which might be powerful enough to see what the commander of the Sulnar had for lunch. Starbases and large "hub" ships might also have superior sensors. Similarly, the short- and long-range sensors of a Nebula-class ship might be able to collect more/better information at longer ranges than another ship. So the question becomes, if some objects are allowed to have extremely capable sensors, should that enhanced sensor data be made available to all faction-aligned ships in the local area?)

If you're in a different star system (or in deep space) but are still in the same sector as another mobile object, you should be able to obtain only the most basic information about it using long-range sensors. If it shares your faction, you should be able to know its type, name and last reported location; if it's a different faction or non-aligned, you should generally not be able to see it at all on a sector map. (Again, remember this is mobile objects we're talking about here -- stationary objects should be easier to locate.)

And mobile objects in a completely different sector should not show up on any map. One possible exception here might be ships belonging to one's own faction, but I think I'd limit even this to reduce clutter.

(Note: A marginally related issue here is communication: Should players be able to communicate at any range with any other player currently in the game? Even if this doesn't make sense with respect to Star Trek, does the availability of VOIP mean that instant communication with anyone, anywhere might as well be made part of the game? This probably deserves its own thread; I just mention it here as falling into the same general category of "information distribution" as mapping.)


So what does all this add up to? I think it means there'll be a need to supply four kinds of map, each of which shows a different level of information:

  • GALAXY MAP (passive sensors, static information)
    • stars
    • important stationary objects of one's faction not orbiting a star
  • SECTOR MAP (long-range sensors, long-term information)
    • stars
    • stationary objects of one's faction
    • stationary objects of any/no faction that have been previously mapped
    • mobile objects of one's faction (type, name, and general location only)
  • SYSTEM MAP (short-range sensors, moderately persistent information)
    • system star(s)
    • uncloaked stationary objects of any faction
    • uncloaked mobile objects of one's faction (detailed information)
    • uncloaked mobile objects of other/no faction (type, name, and position only)
  • TACTICAL MAP (tactical sensors, rapidly-changing information)
    • nearby stars and uncloaked stationary objects
    • nearby uncloaked mobile objects of any faction (internal details)
So how does this look? Too much detail? Not enough?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

1. If one set of goods or services are considered to have a different value from some other set of goods or services, and if it's possible for people to trade goods or services, congratulations -- you have an economy.

It may be grotesquely inefficient (communism); it may be brutally efficient (fascism); it may not stimulate entrepreneurialism (socialism); it may not be perfectly fair (capitalism); but those are all degrees of effectiveness. If people are trading differently-valued things, it's an economy.

2. Barter is hideously inefficient as a means of exchanging wealth-tokens. Any civilization worthy of the name will immediately begin minting coinage in order to use currency in place of goats and chickens.

Of course, if you're a Yap Islander, your coins might not be terribly portable. But it's still easier than swapping goats and chickens.

3. A highly advanced civilization, in which the most valuable asset is imagination (i.e., intellectual property), is incapable of being based on barter -- there simply are not enough goats and chickens to go around. Even more profoundly, the moment your monetary system migrates away from minted coinage to ones and zeros in a computer database, the amount of "money" that an individual or a nation/planet/Federation can control increases exponentially.

In fact, I would guess that a Galaxy-class starship could never be built in a barter economy. Such things (to say nothing of planetary-scale Marshall Plans or similar massive public works) would likely be so expensive that only a financial system based on the abstraction of digital money could afford them.


I've said before that it wouldn't bother me if a Star Trek MMORPG didn't use money, and that's still true. For one thing, whether we like it or not, the whole "we don't use money" thing is canonical; for another, I think not having currency would help Star Trek Online: The Game cut down on gold farmers.

But if we're looking at Star Trek: The Future Human Society as though it were real, then "no money-based economy" is just not viable. For that to happen, either all goods and services would have to be considered to have equal value, or the desire or ability to trade goods and services would have to be eliminated completely.

Either of those things might happen... but we'd no longer be human.

And I don't think even Star Trek goes that far.

Macros in a Star Trek MMORPG

Originally Posted by Bean:
A macro in computer science is a rule or pattern that specifies how a certain input sequence (often a sequence of characters) should be mapped to an output sequence (also often a sequence of characters) according to a defined procedure.
With respect to the Computer Science terminology, you're not wrong. I would say your definition was perhaps slightly too specific, since macros can do other things than translating inputs to outputs. For example, if the macro facility includes looping constructs, macros can serve as counters. There's also the old-school understanding of a macro (from its "macroscopic" behavior) as a one-line statement that is expanded by an assembler or compiler into a sequence of native-language statements. In general, however, you've got the right idea with where macros are usually considered to fit into the overall hierarchy of software system complexity.

But I wasn't speaking in terms of our real-world computer science terminology, where I also usually prefer precision in language -- I was talking about how the word "macro" is used by online gamers. For them, the word "macro" has taken on the special meaning of "ways to automate my gameplay." My concern about even using the word "macro" around Star Trek Online is that calling small programs macros could lead current online gamers to believe that because "automating my gameplay" is what the term means in other MMORPGs, they ought to be able to use anything called a "macro" feature to automate their characters' actions in a Star Trek MMORPG as well.

That would be bad.

I'm strongly opposed to character automation in Star Trek Online. I don't think it even needs to be encouraged by the language of the game. Star Trek Online will not benefit from player characters being turned into bots and used for currency/loot farming. Calling little device-control programs "macros," IMO, would lead to current online gamers becoming loudly upset that macros don't work in ST:O like they do in those other games, and to demand that the system be "fixed" so they can bot themselves in ST:O, too. I'd really, really hate to see that happen (even if it's rationalized as "responsive customer service").

This doesn't mean I'm opposed to player characters being able to write small programs to control in-game devices in Star Trek Online. I not only support such a feature, I think it could be an excellent way to generate gameplay that extracts value from the Star Trek license. I've even suggested this feature myself in my Starship Operations in a Star Trek MMORPG essay. The hierarchy of programmed systems you suggested as an example sounds like a lot of fun to me -- I'm not sure how many other gamers would get into it, but I'm one!

The thing is, in the Star Trek universe terms like "program" and "routine" are used somewhat interchangeably (as we do when speaking loosely about programming). If we need a specific term for the kinds of small bits of control code that players might write, I suggest "subroutines." Not only is this usage found in Star Trek (as in TNG: "The Game" and VOY: "Equinox"), I believe it would fit very nicely into the programming terminology hierarchy that you suggested.

I think being able to write little programs to modify the behavior of devices would be great fun for Engineers and Scientists in Star Trek Online. I support making this a feature of the game.

All I'm asking is that we use some word other than "macros" to describe these programs. I like "subroutine," but I'm open to other suggestions.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lessons of Star Wars Galaxies +

I usually try to be constructive, but every now and then even I need to vent a little bit.

This is one of those times.

A little while ago I fired up my SWG main character and discovered that there'd been a new "chapter." This new content release includes some minor stuff along with two new features: Collections and Heroic Adventures.

"Heroic Adventures" turns out to be raids. Nothing more, nothing less; just raids with a different name. To say I'm not impressed with this is a severe understatement. Did SWG really need a feature like raids? Did it really need to just mindlessly copy WoW (again) to get raids? Was this truly so useful as to deserve the developer time and effort spent on it, rather than on something specific to Star Wars? /shakeHead

But that's as nothing compared to Collections. It's not just that this is basically a Badge Revamp. That would be useless enough. It's not even just that "collections" are a race to see who can be the first to kill a lot of certain types of mobs to get the "Kliknik Killer" or "Graul Mauler" (or whatever) badge on their server, or to kill so many mobs generally that you can get a "Cabinetry" badge of some kind. (Although that actually is pretty lame -- does SWG really not already have enough kill-farming?) Nor is it even that certain locations are obvious as prime spots for certain kinds of collection-item-dropping spawns.

No, what shocked me were the comments from one of the developers. (I won't bother linking to it; SOE has a bad habit of deleting large sections of its official website. I'm asking you to trust me that I'm fairly representing what was said there.) First, he indicated light dismay that players would go to third-party websites and forums to find the best spawn sites for various collections. Well, what did he think would happen? Could he really not have known that any system designed to have deterministic outcomes and known spawn locations wouldn't have all its "secrets" posted within a week for Achievers to race through?

Worse yet, he next expressed surprise that people would (as numerous players came right out and said they'd done) spend several hours a day every day for an entire week camping spawns to try to build a collection. Seriously, this is a fairly amazing admission. If you explicitly build a system in which players collect things by killing mobs in a particular location, what kind of behavior do you think you're going to elicit?

I'm both disappointed and baffled by all this. First, the SOE/LA team cranks out yet more Achiever-specific content; then, SWG's developers claim to be surprised when this content get buzzsawed through in a mere couple of weeks by the Achiever locusts who then unsurprisingly (or, if you're an SWG developer, perhaps surprisingly) object that they're now out of content again, and they're bored, and what's next? (I saw no comments by anyone wondering why SOE/LA felt that purely-grindable content was a good idea in the first place, but perhaps all the non-Achievers left SWG once the NGE made it perfectly clear that they were no longer welcome.)

I freely admit that I'm coming to my content-specific objections from an Explorer point of view. SWG used to be reasonably friendly to those of us who enjoy deep, non-violent content options in our MMORPGs, and I miss that. I'll never be one of those people demanding a "rollback server"; what's done is done. Nor was the original SWG any kind of Golden Age; it had plenty of flaws. Even so, I do miss the original SWG that was more welcoming to Explorers and Socializers. So I don't think the latest batch of Achiever-specific features are good ones, but yes, I'm biased on that score.

Having said that, I don't think I'm being unreasonable in questioning how any professional MMORPG developer could truly be so oblivious as to think that content that's designed to appeal to Achievers isn't going to be immediately: a) grinded out by people with lots of free time, and b) described in great detail all over the Web so that everybody else can grind through the content, too.

Why do I mention all this here? Well, like I said, partially just to vent about it. And I didn't want to post any of this on SWG's official site -- the Achievers remaining in this game wouldn't want to hear it, and I don't want to discourage SWG's developers from posting just because some malcontent like me questions their professionalism. At least over here there might be some non-Achievers who will understand and appreciate the serious points about player-centric MMORPG design that I'm trying to make.

But I also admit to hoping that I won't ever hear any similar "what? people grind our grindable content?" comments from whoever develops a Star Trek MMORPG. I'm really hoping they'll understand the likely effects of filling the game with Achiever-specific content, and would never be surprised that a lot of people will be utterly underwhelmed by yet another uninspired iteration on "kill it and take its stuff" gameplay.

There are many Achievers playing MMORPGs, and they deserve content just like anybody else. Some of them enjoy grinding as something to do that generates a benefit but doesn't require active thought, and it's OK to have content like that even in a Star Trek MMORPG. But I'd like to hope that Star Trek Online would never add pure grind content without also offering more thoughtful content that (IMO) better communicates the core Star Trek experience.

No guarantees, of course. But I can hope.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sensors and Star Trek Online +

Some additional thoughts:

Originally Posted by Or'ab Ibo:
If the game could be played by just selecting the button and scanning, then this is best for those that don't wish to take the time to learn the intricacies of such a system.

But if you do wish to take the time, there are plenty of options to allow you to uncover any hidden object as long as you know what you are doing. With this many options you could also very well make things more difficult for yourself also. (really just take longer before finding a solution.)
Or'ab, if I were the lucky developer who got to implement a system based on this stuff, you just described how I'd look at doing it.

Specifically, I'd have "the computer" do the basic interpretation of raw data. It would essentially perform the initial interpretation of the raw sensor data for you (just like a good ship's computer or tricorder should). And the sensor display should then present those initial findings in a way that's easy to understand in terms of "OK, now what do I do with this information?"

As your character gains new abilities related to reading sensor data (e.g., Short-Range Sensors III, or Computer Ops IV, or Data Analysis II, or Sensor Calibration V, etc.) the amount of useful detail that he or she could extract from the data would increase. A real pro should be able to figure out very quickly what kinds of scans work best for particular phenomena, and where the most value lies in the data that's returned from those scans.

The result should be that a raw cadet fresh out of the Academy (i.e., a new player) should be able to turn on the sensors, see objects and energy sources, and be able to tell the ship's captain (if we're talking ship's sensors) or away team commander (if we're talking tricorders) in general what's in the area. The computer would perform the initial work of classifying the raw incoming sensor data. The player (partly using the character's skills, partly using his own wits) would then take that information and analyze it and integrate it with other information to develop knowledge that's useful for the mission.

In other words, a character who is really talented/experienced at sensor ops would be able to use sensors to obtain very detailed information about what's being scanned. The player, however, would still have to figure out how that knowledge helps with whatever situation he or she has gotten his character into... but that's where the fun of being good at riding sensors comes into play, isn't it? :)

Note that in terms of pure gameplay, the information returned from sensors would have to be integrated appropriately into the design of the current mission based on the challenge level of that mission. Basic or moderately difficult missions wouldn't be much fun if having a Legendary sensor operator in your group meant that every puzzle could be solved immediately. For some missions it might be necessary to run into aliens with unscannable technologies, or whose bio-signatures can be masked or spoofed -- that sort of thing.

Have you ever noticed how many people say wonderful things about the crafting system in SWG? Well, I'd bet that most of those people would be equally enthusiastic about a sensor system in Star Trek Online that makes effective use of a high percentage of the information I've collected here.

Whichever developer gets the chance to do the sensor system is going to have an opportunity to become very popular with Explorers.

Complexity +

Originally Posted by Captain Crowl:
"How detailed should hands-on work be?" This not only applies to the medical field, but all branches that players can participate in.
I'd like to suggest that the best answer is, "as detailed as the player wants it to be."

I favor systems that allow the player to determine the complexity as a trade-off between quickness and quality. In other words, you can have it now, or you can have it good, but you can't have both at the same time.

If you don't care to deal with some complex system, you shouldn't have to; you just push a button and you're done. The downside is that the result of your action will be the default output -- no disaster, but no particularly good success, either.

Alternately, if you enjoy trying to understand and master complex systems, then you should be able to choose to get into the details of the system. You'll spend a bunch of time doing it (during which you can't be doing some other potentially useful activity), and by frobbing the switches to try to get a great result you run a slightly increased risk of getting a bad output. But if you're OK with that tradeoff, being willing to work with the guts of a complex system would be the way to generate the best possible results.

This kind of user-centric design does take a bit more effort, as well as some judgment -- not everything needs to be a complex system. But having some systems that are interestingly detailed can be a lot of fun as long as there's a way to generate a quick default result, too.

These games are about trying to deliver entertainment to various kinds of customers, right? So why should we, the customers, be satisfied with "one size fits all" designs?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay +

Some people, perhaps looking to show support for the previous developer’s intentions of making Star Trek Online a typical game-y MMORPG, have lampooned the requests of folks like myself for a more world-y design as demanding and expecting "The Sims Online: Star Trek Edition."

I think this overstates the case just a tad. (1 tad = "a lot")

Nobody's demanding a full and perfect simulation of Star Trek. That's an unfair charge to make because it has nothing to do with the reality of what any reasonable person has suggested.

The reality is that there are some gamers (myself included) who think a massively multiplayer persistent-world game based on the high-tech Star Trek universe needs to include some Simulationist-friendly features (such as puzzle-based minigames and fairly detailed representations of space and certain technologies) to get full value out of this particular license. It won't feel like Star Trek if the whole game is just firing phasers and grinding for XP to level up to Admiral. Instead, we're more interested in the chance to pretend to be Starfleet officers who get to operate neat advanced technological devices and systems in order to explore new places and meet interesting aliens (only some of whom will want to kill us right away). That is the kind of content that will persuade us that this game is worth a monthly subscription fee.

But who ever said that's the only kind of content that Star Trek Online should have? Why does the mere suggestion of including some simulationist content seem so threatening that it needs to be ridiculed as an all-or-nothing demand so that such ideas will be dismissed out of hand?

Even if ST:O's designers could be persuaded that some people actually find understanding and operating complex systems to be an enjoyable form of play, in no way would that lead to turning the whole game into a perfect Star Trek sim. Even if such a thing were possible, it would be dumb because then it wouldn't appeal to the many gamers who obviously enjoy the very game-y nature of current MMORPGs.

Based on developer comments thus far, I think it's safe to assume that the vast majority of Star Trek Online will be comfortably familiar to anyone who likes those other MMORPGs. Whether that will be enough to satisfy Explorers, Socializers, ex-SWG players, and Star Trek fans, all of whom are more interested in immersing themselves in a richly detailed world than in following a collection of arbitrary rules for killing things and taking their stuff, is debatable.

A Star Trek MMORPG doesn't need to be a pure sim, but I don't think it'll win if it's as much about rules-based gameplay as WoW is, either.

Character Skills in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Bean:
The ability to also repair specific systems with specific tools x specific classes would also be neat. You can't repair a deflector array because it needs the ability to use a level 9 tool, and you are a level 6. (for example)
I agree. I really dislike the concept of being gated completely out of doing something that one should be able to do even at a minimal level of capability.

Getting a message like "You must be a Level 43 Doctor to use the Autolytic Sequencer" is not going to make me determined to spend more time in that game grinding XP to level up to 43. All it's going to do is irritate me that I'm being rather obviously manipulated by greedy developers who want more of my subscription fees while I grind, grind, grind for no other reason than to be permitted to use some object that can't possibly be worth all that effort. Enough of that kind of nonsense and I'm gone.

I'd much rather see a "percentage of success" system where the more skills and the better tools you have that are appropriate for a given task, the better your odds of success. Anybody should have at least a minimal (say, 2-5%) chance of succeeding at most tasks, but having the right training and tools can significantly increase one's chances of success. Critical failures and successes might be fun, too -- a character who has high levels of all the skills that are applicable to a particular task, and who's got high-quality tools appropriate to that task, ought to have a chance of extraordinary success.

A game with that more welcoming "fuzzy" approach to content accessibility (rather than the binary "you can/can't do it") could keep me playing for a long time.

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.

Monday, November 19, 2007

How Many Characters Per Server? +

Just to get this out of the way, the counterargument "I want Feature X in the game -- if you don't like it, don't use it" never carries much weight in serious design discussions because it ignores the reality that if some feature is in the game, many people will use it.

In the first place, expecting people to voluntarily gimp themselves is just not going to happen in a competitive game. And in the second place, these are massively multiplayer games we're talking about. When a bunch of people use some feature, it can affect everybody in the game, including those who choose not to use that feature. It doesn't matter if I use Feature X or not; I'm still affected by it if it's in the game I'm playing with other people.

A persuasive argument for some feature in a game lays out specific, positive reasons why it would be good for that game. "Just don't use it" doesn't pass that test; it doesn't explain anything.

Now, that said, let me try to approach the characters-per-server question from this angle: What I'm trying to get at is not how a game should be played, but how it should be designed.

No one is talking about changing a game that's already launched (such as WoW) to reduce the number of alts allowed -- SWG already showed us what a bad idea big changes can be. The question here (as I understand it) is about what's best for games (such as Star Trek Online) that are still in development. It's not "how many alts can players have," but "how many alts should players have" that's of interest.

And for me, yes, it does come down to "alts unbalance a game's challenge level." If some game were designed so that every player's level of challenge was dynamically calculated based on how many alts they use and how frequently they swap stuff between those alts, I'd see no problem with that game allowing two or five or ten alts since the number of alts would be factored into maintaining an even playing field for all players. Likewise if a game defined its challenge level by assuming that most players would use all available alts.

(That would be a pretty strange design, BTW -- if the game's designed to be played with multiple alts, why not just design main characters to be more powerful/effective? The one way a multi-alt game might make sense would be if all alts were mutually exclusive in their abilities, so that "playing the game" actually requires swapping back and forth between alts. This has actually been done, though not in a multiplayer game. In the Infocom game "Suspended" you played as a cryogenically frozen mind who must control multiple robots -- each with very different capabilities -- to repair a planetary weather control system. It worked pretty brilliantly as a single-player game, but to my knowledge it's never been attempted as a multiplayer game.)

Most games don't dynamically calculate challenges based on alt usage, however. They hard-code a challenge level into hostile mobs, create zones containing mobs with challenge levels in a specific range, then expect players to decide which zones to visit. In that kind of game design, the challenge level is a static one-to-one comparison of the mob's level versus the (current) character's level... which means that using multiple alts makes every alt stronger than the individual character that the game's mobs were designed against. And the more alts available, the greater the imbalance.

So yes, it does seem clear to me that for a conventionally-designed MMORPG (one with mobs with static, character-based challenge levels), the obvious need is to minimize the number of alts. That's not the only solution; the game could also be designed to deliberately require the use of multiple alts, or to dynamically calculate challenge levels of mobs based on how many alts one operates.

Frankly, I'd find both those two latter types of games much more interesting than yet another conventional zone/level-based design. But it's unlikely that any major MMORPG will do follow either of those design paths. So for a conventionally-designed game, limiting the number of alts -- in order to keep everybody's level of challenge in line with the static difficulty level of mobs -- is the most effective option for that kind of game.

The fact that most MMORPGs allow alts despite being designed around static challenge systems doesn't mean those designs are "right," or that they're the best possible approaches to allowing players to experience more of a game's content.

Good designers -- of any kind of system -- don't allow themselves to be blinded to what might be created by seeing only what currently exists.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

How Many Characters Per Server? +

The difference of opinion I have with some gamers on the subject of multiple characters per server probably comes down to this:

Originally Posted by [a fan]:
with my 8 alts that I have, I share items and gold between them frequently, because I simply do not have the space to keep all the things I need.
I believe this gamer, like many others, is confusing "need" with "want."

An apparently stronger argument in favor of multiple alts is this one:

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
This reminds me of another wrench I was going to throw in but forgot to, and it's not really directed at anyone specifically.
My point is, you say using alts in a way is getting around game design, but there's a solid case to be made that using alts in that way is the game design, because it's permissible by the game [which allows alts]
Not aimed at anyone specifically, huh? :)

Actually, that's a point I was expecting someone to make. I've been trying to think of a way to bring it up myself, but have left it alone until now because I don't think it's as strong a counterargument to the idea of limiting alts as it may appear to be.

If the decision is made for a game to allow N possible alts per server, then sure, the developers would be dumb not to assume that many players will use all those alts as a kind of single ubercharacter, in which case you'd expect developers to balance the challenge level of the game accordingly. Providing alternate characters is tacit acceptance of that kind of "I contain multitudes" gameplay, especially if trading items between alts is accepted or even encouraged with gameplay features supporting it.

But that's not really what we're talking about here, which is not "how many of a game's allowable alts should a player be able to use," but "how many alts should be allowed in a MMORPG." That's a different question.

With respect to the latter question of how many alts are right for most MMORPGs, I'm not trying to pound the table and insist, "No! There can be only one!" Allowing only a main character might be right for Game X, but two or eight or fifty might be better for Game Y. All I'm hoping to do with my comments in this thread is show that it's OK to question the popular assumption that multiple alts are always desirable or necessary, because allowing alts creates a gameplay challenge level issue that has to be addressed.

Do some gamers want many alts? Sure.

Do they need many alts, at the same time, on the same server?

Making NPC Behaviors More Plausible +

Originally Posted by Ereiid:
I have to admit, I'm a little confused now. AI is still predictable. There seems to come a point in the learning curve of most games where a player will learn to recognize and anticipate even diverse NPC enemies. With the GTAs, you figure out at some point that the Colombians are fond of their semi-automatics, whereas the Cosa Nostra have a penchant for particularly nasty shotguns. Announced intentions certainly assuage early-learning curve problems adapting to game mechanics -- but I'm unclear how they address the recurring problem of the predictability of stereotyped AI coding.
My point (such as it was) was that it's not necessary to have any stereotyped NPC behaviors (unless one wants them, of course). Again, this goes back to my original suggestion that "real AI" isn't necessary for a game; all that's needed is the perception of plausibility. The beauty of signaling intentions is that once you've done that, the natural human reaction is to try to find some way to relate the subsequent behaviors to the stated intentions. As long as the two things -- the statement and the action -- are roughly consonant, people will perceive intelligence on the part of the actor.

Sadly, this means there's not much call for the development of behaviorist AI methods. As a software guy with a longtime interest in AI, that's a little disappointing to me -- who wouldn't love to get the assignment to build real AI into NPCs? :)

On the other hand, given the complexity of a MMORPG and the limited development resources, a "fake" (i.e., perception of plausibility) solution that generated something like 50% plausibility that was relatively simple to code and maintain would have an enormous practical advantage over a 90% solution that can't be understood by anyone but the PhD who wrote it. A 50%-plausible NPC algorithm would be such an improvement over what we have now (NPCs as quest-dispensers and loot-bags) that it would be worth having even if it "cheated" by being more like ELIZA than a truly intelligent system.

Does this come anywhere close to answering your question? Basically I'm saying that it's not necessary to have predictable behavior for classes of NPCs; I think players would be OK as long as when an NPC signals some intention, the actions that the NPC takes make sense relative to the prior communication. As long as word and deed are in alignment, there shouldn't be any need for classes of NPCs to share the same predictable behaviors.

Again, though, even if my suggestion were followed there's nothing stopping a developer from giving groups of NPCs similar behaviors if it's felt there's some value in doing so. All I'm suggesting is that it may not be necessary to blindly copy that approach to NPC behavioral design.

Tanks, Nukers, and Healers in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by Ereiid:
I would offer that class systems exist predominantly for balance purposes, the tradeoff is in player diversification and freedom. I can only surmise from the precedent of other games that class-based systems are substantially less difficult to adaptively balance, in contrast to skill or profession-based systems. Their prevalence in MMOs is a conceit of the developers' and designers' desire to make their own jobs as easy as possible.
That is precisely my feeling as well.

I'm sensitive to the practical necessities of meeting budget limits and schedule milestones. Making a triple-A MMORPG is such a vast undertaking that I absolutely can understand the desire to simplify a core system like character abilities.

But it's the fact that character abilities are a core system -- possibly the core system in any RPG -- that makes me think it's critical for this part of the game to be designed with the player in mind, not the developer. I think players of a Star Trek RPG are going to want more freedom to define their characters than allowed by the restrictive class-based ability model of conventional fantasy MMORPGs. If that means a character ability system that's somewhat harder to balance than a simple class system that stuffs every player into the round holes of the usual combat roles, then so be it -- if this part of the code is somewhat harder to write and maintain, that is a price worth paying to get a character ability system that makes every other gameplay design decision more consistent with the license.

Finally, I'd point out that nowhere is it written than developers can't offer both individual skills for the players who like creative freedom and preconstructed templates of skill clusters for those players who prefer the simplicity of filling a specific role. If a lot of players choose the templates, that makes it easier for developers to balance character abilities while still allowing other players to create the unique characters that are important for their gameplay satisfaction.

Finally, I'd ask developers to think about something: What does "balance" mean for non-combat grouped content, anyway?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lessons of Star Wars Galaxies +

Originally Posted by Random Redshirt:
they better not pull off a "paladin" type class that gets continually beat down with the nerf bat.
There's a general rule of MMORPG design (if any such thing can be said to exist) that's worth highlighting here: Start your game with character abilities that are weak overall.

Most gamers won't mind if you make "their" preferred character stronger by improving abilities. But they are unforgiving in the extreme when you must balance a game by weakening any character ability.

As for nerfage and SWG... it really wasn't that bad. Being the kind of guy I am, some time back I developed a spreadsheet that categorized every single documented change to the game, ranging from the first update on June 29, 2003, to the final pre-NGE Publish 23.04 on September 9, 2005. (The Combat Upgrade was Publish 15.)

Based on what the developers themselves said about each change, I categorized changes as major new content additions (ADD), player enhancements (ENHP), world enhancements (ENHW), general modifications (MOD), nerfs (NERF), and bugfixes (BUG). (I made a lot of other categorizations as well; this is just the key categorization of "type of change.")

Out of the 3520 individual changes that I tracked, here's how those changes broke down by raw numbers and percentages of the total:

ADD     ENHP     ENHW      MOD     NERF      BUG
116 254 672 1010 106 1362
3% 7% 19% 29% 3% 39%

To some degree this is a little misleading. For example, although there weren't many major content additions, those that were made produced significant changes in gameplay. (These were things like vehicles, the various "dungeons," and major story arcs.) Likewise, although the absolute number of nerfs turns out to have been extremely low, it's possible that some players might have felt that one nerf or another "destroyed" the game they felt entitled to play.

That said, a spot check of the things I marked as nerfs shows that most of them were pretty trivial, such as decreasing the duration of effect for vehicle customization kits in Publish 11.5. Without looking in detail at all 106 items, the harshest nerfs I could find were the dismantling of the Force Ranking System in Publish 15 and making all Elite and Boss creature pets non-Elite in Publish 23. Far more nerfs were much less meaningful than those. Overall, I have to say that SWG's players were injured considerably less by nerfage than public sentiment might lead one to believe.

Of course, then came the New Game Experience, which might reasonably be considered the most overwhelming nerf in the history of MMORPGs so far.

That's not in my spreadsheet. :(

Optimism and the Future of Humanity +

I've heard the opinion expressed that optimism is incompatible with objectivity. In other words, anyone who questions the current "sky is falling" pessimism is clearly blinded by subjectivity and can therefore be ignored safely.

I would say that optimism and pessimism are only problems when they come first, when they determine what facts one will accept or reject. If the facts demonstrate a trend of improvement (as I have argued is the case for humanity generally), then to be optimistic is not some kind of flaw in one's reasoning; it is to be happy as a member of the human race that one's species has a chance to endure and thrive.

Objectivity is a good thing in analyzing something important. But it's neither necessary nor appropriate when the results are positive -- human beings are allowed to be happy when they get good news. On that basis, I'll willingly accept being called "optimistic" regarding the results of analyzing human history.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Global Warming and Science +

To follow up on my earlier comments, a few additional thoughts on how "global warming" has become a religion, rather than a well-formed scientific theory.

As a religion, Global Warming has its prophets (the "Goracle"), its doctrines and articles of faith (the planet is heating up; it's all the fault of developed countries and/or capitalism; and we have the wisdom, the responsibility and the right to save other people from themselves), and its heretics (Bjørn Lomborg among others). Anyone who questions the gospel is lucky to get off just being called ignorant, stupid, or evil -- the unlucky get compared to Holocaust deniers.

So I don't intend to do any kind of back-and-forth in this blog -- there's no point in trying to have a rational conversation with true believers -- but there is a point worth making once here for the record.

I believe that increasing global air pollution, through its effect on the reflectivity of the earth, is currently dominant and is responsible for the temperature decline of the past decade or two. (Reid Bryson, "Environmental Roulette," Global Ecology: Readings Toward a Rational Strategy for Man, John P. Holdren and Paul R. Ehrlich, eds., 1971)
At this point, the world's climatologists are agreed. ... Once the freeze starts, it will be too late. (Douglas Colligan, "Brace Yourself for Another Ice Age," Science Digest, February 1973)
The facts have emerged, in recent years and months, from research into past ice ages. They imply that the threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind. (Nigel Calder, former editor of New Scientist and producer of scientific television documentaries, "In the Grip of a New Ice Age," International Wildlife, July 1975)
The cooling has already killed hundreds of thousands of people in poor nations. It has already made food and fuel more precious, thus increasing the price of everything we buy. If it continues, and no strong measures are taken to deal with it, the cooling will cause world famine, world chaos, and probably world war, and this could all come by the year 2000. (Lowell Ponte, The Cooling, 1976)
The demonstrated falsity of these and other end-of-days predictions from thirty years ago does not mean that the planet's not heating up, or won't heat up, or (if it is heating up) that it's not somehow our fault. What comments like these tell us is that a healthy skepticism of today's "we're killing the planet!" claims is completely justifiable, and that it is entirely correct to question the need for and value of making radical socio-economic changes today as yesterday's proponents of "global cooling" once similarly demanded.

We have been down this road before. I'd like to think we're capable of not letting the professional doomsayers drive us over a cliff this time, either.

Non-Combat Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Originally Posted by YYC:
It's still an MMORPG. Non-combat side fluff is fun and important to have in the game, but I think combat is still going to be the main thrust. Beverly Crusher may not have spent most of her time phasering down bad guys, but I doubt you're going to be spending most of your time sitting in the Sick Bay, pointing a tricorder at scraped knees.
For what it's worth, not everyone considers non-combat content to be "fluff."

Think about it in Star Trek terms for a moment. Suppose that, as a character who's chosen a Medical specialization, you have the opportunity to figure out how to cure a plague that's infecting your whole crew or the population of an entire planet. Would the people you just cured consider what you did to be "fluff?"

Or suppose you're the Chief Engineer on the only vessel around when a strange and enormous alien craft -- which appears to be a malfunctioning weapon of some kind -- is found to be headed toward Earth. By figuring out the mechanisms of the ship, you're able to repair it, saving potentially millions of lives. To that Engineer, and to the people saved, do those engineering actions really seem like "fluff?"

It's certainly true that most current MMORPGs are heavily tilted toward competitive-acquisition gameplay -- killing things and taking their stuff. Clearly there's a good market for that kind of game... but where is it written that that's the only market we're permitted to consider? More specifically, where's the evidence or reasoning to support a view that a MMORPG based on Star Trek does the most/best business by being another game catering to the competitive-combat/loot-accumulation market?

This isn't an anti-combat rant. Most MMORPGs offer "kill it and take its stuff" gameplay because some people like that kind of thing and because it's relatively easy to imagine and implement. So it's to be expected that Star Trek Online will also be designed to appeal in some measure to those players. The question is, what's the right proportion of combat content versus exploration content versus social content for this particular game?

Pretend for a second that you could classify every bit of content in ST:O as Combat or Non-Combat -- what percentage of the game's active gameplay content should be specifically about combat?

20 percent?

33 percent?

50 percent?

80 percent?


Making NPC Behaviors More Plausible +

If we're talking AI as the main issue to be addressed, then the real goal is not an NPC who can pass the Turing Test (which would be massive overkill) but simply one that creates the perception of plausibility within a combat context -- call it the Eliza Effect.

In this model, the goal is not for every NPC's every action to be correct, but merely to seem sufficiently correct for the situation. Which means we have to think about apparent intentionality -- what the NPC does has to appear to be aimed at satisfying what the NPC wants.

And how do we know what an NPC wants? She tells us! If I say, "Man, I'm thirsty," you won't be surprised when I go to the fridge and get something to drink. Your expectations of what I will/should do are conditioned by what I tell you about my needs and desires.

NPCs can benefit from this same effect. Just as people were conditioned to think that Eliza was a real psychologist, and then read into the program's comments what they expected a psychologist would ask them, players will be more likely to perceive as appropriate some NPC action that fits into what they've previously learned about who that NPC is and what he wants. So it seems to me that, from an AI perspective, developers can stack the deck by creating high-bandwidth channels for communicating information about an NPC to players before players interact directly with that NPC.

The masters of this kind of thing were the folks at the late Looking Glass, Ion Storm, and Irrational Games, and they used a very simple tool: vocalizations. NPCs would wander around, apparently following internal goals, and talking about those goals (or just mumbling out loud). When a player would get their attention, they'd produce some intermediate vocalization ("Hmm? Was that someone?"). And if the player then came clearly into their attention, they'd produce a definitive vocalization based on their level of hostility to the player ("Ah-ha! I've got you now, taffer!")

These vocalizations were brilliant (and nowhere more so than in the "Thief" games) because they communicated to the player something about the internal "motivation" of the NPC. So when the NPC then followed through with some action, it seemed appropriate because the player was already conditioned to expect that kind of behavior based on the information transmitted. Additionally, the clothes and gear of an NPC are also forms of information that are transmitted to a player that say something about who an NPC is, what their primary role is, and what they want.

So why can't MMORPGs do something like this? If an NPC looks up and yells, "Hey! Are you a medic? I hate medics!", then starts toward the group's healer, that accomplishes two things: it gives the group warning and lets its members react appropriately, and it reduces or even eliminates any surprise that the NPC goes after the healer of the group exclusively.

If all intelligent mobs (NPCs) are programmed with intentions, and are able to communicate those intentions through various visual and auditory channels, why again does that MMORPG need to copy the notion of "aggro" from other MMORPGs with a less well-developed system of perceived AI?

Tanks, Nukers and Healers in a Star Trek MMORPG +

Regarding designing character classes (if we must restrict ourselves to thinking in terms of "classes" -- sigh) around roles, the bottom line for me with respect to a Star Trek MMORPG is that those roles do not need to be and should not be combat-specific roles. That, IMO, would be dead wrong for a Star Trek Online.

The simplest, easiest approach would be to conceive of ST:O as another combat-focused game, designing Tactical, Engineering, and Science as mere classes optimized for killing stuff, perhaps with specializations to serve in the usual "combat support" functions. Crafting would merely be implemented as a few "tradeskills" that anyone could level up in.

Does this really sound like the right way to go for a MMORPG based on Star Trek? It doesn't to me.

So, if we simply must have classes, I see the more reasonable alternative as letting Tactical/Security and Engineering and Science/Medical be their own roles around which class-appropriate skills can be designed. It simply is not necessary for these roles to align perfectly with tank/nuker/healer -- as long as there are clear roles, so that those kinds of players who like knowing what they're supposed to do can have that information, I think most gamers will have zero difficulty with those roles not being the conventional combat roles.

Let Star Trek Online be its own game. As long as it's internally consistent, deep, and polished, it will have a fair chance to succeed.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Optimism and the Future of Humanity

I like humanity's chances for a future that's better than today.

Without ignoring the many ways we've discovered to kill, wound, oppress, terrorize, and otherwise harm each other (and we have definitely been very good at such invention), we have also found ways to beat those swords into plowshares many times over, and discovered uncountable ways to support, strengthen, heal, and nurture each other as well. For all the real suffering caused by humans, there have been good acts as well.

To see only the evil men do, as Mark Antony claims to do when mocking Brutus, is to willfully close one eye to the whole picture. No forecast of humanity's future can hope for accuracy that doesn't also factor into its equation the decency and optimism and creativity and love of which we're also capable.

The ability of the human race so far to solve all the problems it has caused itself, examined fairly, is astonishing. There is no obvious reason to conclude that we as a species have somehow suddenly become incapable of fixing the messes we get ourselves into. If for example enough of us see sufficient hard evidence that CO2 is as much a problem as some currently claim it is, then we can and we will take steps to solve that problem. If "global warming" (which I place in quotes to give it weight equal to the "global cooling" science abuse of the '70s) really is or becomes a human-caused problem, we can fix it and we will, and we'll do so while making lots of other things better as well.

Perfect? No. Humans are finite and fallible; living in perfect harmony as human beings is not in the works. We'll always be screwups. Like Scott Adams, I don't really think our future will be like Star Trek (especially on the political/economic side).

But that doesn't mean there's any good reason to conclude that a dystopian hell of self-inflicted conquest, famine, war, and death is our only possible future. Our existence here today demonstrates that improvements in human well-being enjoy a kind of ratcheting effect: as liberal democracy -- the single greatest force for good in all of human history -- has spread over the years, it takes two steps forward and one step back. The one step back is real... but so are those two steps forward. (The late Julian Simon has also done yeoman's work in this area, repeatedly demonstrating the errors of the often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt Paul Ehrlichs and Lester Browns of the world. I wish Simon were still here to comment on the rhetorical excesses of the Goracle and his cultists.)

Anyone who believes that we as a species will voluntarily strangle ourselves holds that belief because he chooses to do so in spite of the facts -- not because of them. The steady climb of human history points in the other direction, suggesting that we may reasonably hope that our descendants will inherit a happier and more prosperous Kardashev Type I civilization. Their future appears on track to be a world in which basic human needs are met across the entire planet and perhaps other planets as well.

That doesn't mean we're guaranteed immortality as a species, of course. The Big One (of whatever origin) could take out Earth tomorrow. But that won't be our fault. I'm only rejecting the various claims that we're slowly committing mass suicide, because the evidence of human history does not support any such conclusion -- just the opposite, in fact.

But maybe Ray Kurzweil's "singularity" will get here first. In which case, I saw a bumper sticker on my way to work this morning: "If the singularity comes, an AI will be driving this car". :)

How Many Characters Per Server? +

While I'm not in favor of content that's too easy, that doesn't mean I think every aspect of every game has to be hardcore, either.

I come at MMORPGs from (among other places) a psychological direction. I assume that the player base will be composed of people with what in some areas are radically different desires, and in some areas with the same kinds of innate desires. Although I think there are certain high-level similarities of interests, different people find different things to be "fun."

So when it comes to pure game design, what I favor is a system whose result provides the most fun for the most people most of the time. Done in a slapdash kind of way, that would probably produce a big bag of mush, but I think a focused design could lead to a product that feels like a richly diverse but internally consistent world.

OK, so how to define a game's challenge level to help achieve that goal when there are thousands of people with different notions of how much challenge they want?

The usual approach is to implement the old character level design model, then make the challenge level of each bit of content static and defined by location. This allows players to decide the difficulty level of the content they want, but as characters rise in level this makes some places off-limits and some places no longer worth visiting. Most MMORPGs take this approach.

Another way to define the challenge level of content is to dynamically scale it to the player's or group's capability (however defined). This is usually criticized for eliminating the pleasure of defeating enemies that were once too hard to beat. On the other hand, it has the advantages of getting rid of the need for the odd and arbitrary notion of "zones," and of insuring that content that's neither too easy nor too difficult is always easy to find.

I think each of these approaches alone has too many weaknesses. I'm trying to figure out some alternate approach that typically exposes the character to content that's difficult but beatable, while still allowing players to find some things to do that are especially easy or especially risky.

I don't have an answer to this yet, but yes, it does seem to me that too much freedom in this area is bad news for a game. Offer too much content that's too easy, and you get bottomfeeding for cheap XP -- i.e., grinding. Too much content that's too hard, and you get people doing things that lead to them dying over and over and over again -- basically behaving as though foolishly risky behavior was acceptable (a bad lesson to impart, even in a game).

Which (finally!) brings me back to alts, to limits on the number of characters per server per account. The more characters, and the easier it is to treat them as aspects of one ubercharacter, the more that a game's challenge is skewed to the "too easy" side of the ledger. That doesn't mean I'm trying to make these games "too hard"; it means I'm trying to keep them games.

If there's too little challenge, too little risk, it's no longer a game -- it's a software toy. I happen to really enjoy the software toys that Will Wright has created (I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to Spore), but that's not what we're talking about designing here -- we're talking about games, where there must be some reasonable level of challenge.

So I'd like to see some game (perhaps a Star Trek MMORPG?) designed to insure that most players, most of the time, are exposed to content that's appropriate for their capabilities, but that lets them try really hard stuff every now and then, and lets them take a break every so often with returning to something that's become easy to beat. I'm not sure how to do that, but it does seem to me like a good idea from both entertainment and business perspectives if it can be done, because it maximizes fun for the most people most of the time.

And just to complete this little mini-manifesto, I'm also completely in favor (as I've noted in another thread) of offering plenty of content that's non-confrontational, or even that's purely social, that isn't about win/lose gameplay at all.

For a gameworld, game is important... but so is world.

Getting both of those in balance and keeping them that way appears to be very, very hard to do.

Questions for a Star Trek MMORPG DevLog

[The following suggestions were made for things I would have liked to have seen discussed by Perpetual Entertainment, the previous developer of Star Trek Online. But I think they'd be interesting subjects for devlogs from any developer of a Star Trek MMORPG.]

Originally Posted by Perpetual_MikeS:
What topics related to the development of STO would you like to see covered in future DevLogs?
Some semi-random items from my personal wishlist, ranked in rough order of importance:

0. Competitive advantage: How will Star Trek Online differ from other current and imminent MMORPGs? What will make it more appealing to more online gamers than other current or announced online games?

1. Star Treky-ness: What features of Star Trek are considered the most crucial for implementation in Star Trek Online to maximize the value of the Star Trek license?

2. Worldiness: How much attention will be given to features that support the desire of some to "live in" the Star Trek universe, versus features that implement Star Trek-themed gameplay?

3. Exploration: What percentage of ST:O's gameplay will be directly about exploration? What forms will this exploration take?

4. Crafting: What form will "crafting" take in Star Trek Online? Is it being imagined primarily as a creative (exploratory) activity, or as manufacturing/sales gameplay?

5. Socializing: What features will exist to allow players to enjoy purely social experiences in the world of Star Trek Online?

6. Project management: What tools and processes are being used to manage ST:O's software development? What roles and authorities exist to control code changes now and after ST:O launches?

7. Storyline: What's the overarching storyline of Star Trek Online? How will that big story be experienced by players? What will prevent Star Trek Online from being just a collection of unconnected missions and random spawns?

9. Economy: What kinds of object trading and/or currency will be implemented? To what degree will in-game items or money determine effectiveness within the game? What steps (at any level from software rules to legal action) will be taken to prevent item/currency farming and external sales?

9. Soloing vs. grouping: What features will support both gameplay preferences? What is the primary intended form of gameplay experience?

10. Command: How will the traditional Starfleet rank structure affect gameplay?

11. Environments 1: How many of the particles and energies mentioned in Star Trek episodes will devices in Star Trek Online be able to detect and manipulate?

12. Environments 2: How "realistic" will planets and space be? Will different planets have different gravity/atmosphere/hydrography/rotation rates/orbital periods? Will space have lots of phenomena that can affect starships?

13. Music: Who's writing it? How much will there be? How early in the game's design should composition begin?

14. Physics: Will Havok or other physics-simulation middleware be licensed? Will some gameplay benefit from Ageia's PhysX coprocessor or a similar hardware-based physics accelerator?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How Many Characters Per Server +

Resource sharing, while it always looks wonderful from the player's immediate perspective, is a problem for developers because it makes the game as designed too easy over the long term. And that reduces the overall fun of the game whether players choose to believe it or not.

As for the desire of some players to different characters to explore all the possible variations within a game world, I'm sympathetic to that desire, I really am. As an Explorer-type gamer myself, that's actually how I play most single-player games -- I want to see all the content.

But I have to ask those players: Why do you want ten or more characters available at any moment in time on one server? If your goal truly is to explore a gameworld's content, why do you require having all those characters available at one time, on one server? Wouldn't you be nearly as well-served by having many characters on separate servers, or by running characters serially (one after the other) rather than in parallel? You'd still be able to fully explore the gameworld that way, but without opening the door to massive muling... so is there some reason why that's not acceptable to you?

As a practical compromise, I see value in offering a couple of alts in a class-based game. It's an attempt to strike a balance between allowing players like us to explore multiple ways of playing the game, while still respecting the need to apply appropriate limits to individual characters so that they can't be turned into an ubercharacter for whom game challenges are too easy.

Again: wearing our Player hat, it's easy to just focus on what we personally want in a game. Trying on a Developer hat means having to stop thinking in terms of what we want for "our" character right now, and start thinking in terms of what maximizes fun for all of a game's players over the entire course of that game's lifespan.

Sometimes -- often -- that means limits. I believe good designers try to make those limits appropriate for the game they're building, and that's the question I'm trying to get at here: What number of characters per server per account is appropriate when exploring much of a game's content is desirable but resource sharing among characters can make gameplay too easy?

I make no claims to being a professional game designer myself, but I believe it's fair to say that anyone who thinks it's easy to make a MMORPG that can satisfy thousands of gamers should try it.

How Many Characters Per Server? +

To jump back into this for a moment, I totally understand the "altaholic" point of view. Of course from the player's perspective it's desirable to have as many slots for alts as one might ever want. There's an advantage here to the developer as well in that having multiple characters exposes more of the game's content, potentially keeping the player subscribing longer.

So sure, we'd all like to have plenty of alts. But I don't think we can come to a good understanding of what a developer should offer without also giving equal consideration to the problems that are generated by letting players have lots of alts.

Which brings me back to the crucial point of how the overall game experience is designed. If the individual player's experience is based on what a single character can do (even if that character is part of a group), and all the game's challenges and character progression content are scaled to the individual character, then having lots of alts significantly reduces the level of challenge. As I said, when you can play as an ubercharacter with more capabilities than any single character is allowed to have, you're no longer playing the game as its designers intended it to be played.

The bottom line is that playing as an ubercharacter means you're cheating yourself. You're not getting the maximum amount of fun that's possible in the game.

Why should designers allow players to cheat themselves in this way?

The objection I know some will want to make here is, "Oh, but I don't feel like I'm cheating myself -- I'm just playing smart to get around a dumb/arbitrary restriction."

Originally Posted by Avery:
One of the numerous benefits to having alts is the ability to trade items, etc. to other characters that you own on the same server to serve as a BANK. Very Important, seeing as how there is always a limitation to how much junk you can carry around with you.
You're exactly right, this is precisely one of the benefits of having alts who can be allowed to share inventory slots.

And it's exactly the kind of problem I mean when I talk about "ubercharacters." Yes, one character has a certain limit on inventory space... because that's how the developers designed the game to be played. That limit, along with all the other limits, are set the way they're set in order to produce a specific gameplay experience. Good designers spend an enormous amount of time balancing those limits to try to maximize the actual fun that players can have over the long term. That's part of the art of game design.

To put it another way, limitations on character capabilities exist to create opportunities for what Sid Meier called "interesting choices," which are the decision points that make something a game instead of a book or a TV show. When a player can bypass those limits on what a single character can do (by being able to swap easily among multiple characters), the limits that make choices interesting are lightened or even removed completely.

I know this will be tough for a lot of people to accept. And it's even harder to justify when there are so many examples of limits that are obviously arbitrary, that developers only imposed to slow down advancement or make some trivial challenge into a difficult one. (Limiting most gameplay to killing mobs and taking their stuff doesn't exactly help maximize the fun potential of a gameworld, either.)

But limits are still necessary, even if no developer gets all these decisions right throughout a game, because without limits there's no need to make interesting choices. So even if some limits seem annoying -- like a maximum number of objects you can have in your house or your bank vault -- they're there for a reason. Even if it's possible to bypass these limits by running a bunch of alts because that increases your fun now, that doesn't mean that doing so will make the game more fun for you over the long term.

And designers have to account for that... at least, they do if they want people to stay interested in playing their game. This is what I meant when I said that "sometimes what gamers want is not what they should get." For a world to be fun -- for it to be a game -- there have to be some limits to what we as players can have.

So, with respect to alts, if we're talking about a class-based character advancement design, having a couple of alts (who can't trade with each other or exist in the game world simultaneously) helps to increase long-term gameplay because it allows players to enjoy a reasonably large chunk of the available content, one character at a time. But more than a couple of alts (especially if they can interact) would usually not be a good design decision because players will use those alts to bypass the limits on what individual characters can do, cheapening the intended gameplay experience over the long run.

And the value of alts is even lower if we're talking about a skills-based game in which characters can drop one skill to learn another, since changing a character's abilities over time is a core component of the game.

In short, alts are a kind of MMORPG crack: they're fun now, but you pay later.

Players, IMO, should just say no. And game designers should help them do so by minimizing the number of alts and their allowable interactions.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tanks, Nukers and Healers in a Star Trek MMORPG +

My feeling is that while damage-dealing and healing do go back to pre-computer RPG designs, the notion of a "tank" role is something unique to computer-based RPGs.

Tanking is a gameplay concept that flows from an earlier design choice not to implement collision detection between NPCs and PCs. Once you've made that decision, NPCs are easily able to attack the characters playing the typically weak healer and caster roles. And once they're down, a total party wipe usually follows. Not fun. So as a quick-and-dirty "solution" to that problem, MMORPG developers came up with the notion of "aggro"... and poof, the tank role was born.

The point here is that collision detection is purely a problem for computer RPGs. In a non-computer roleplaying game (e.g., tabletop or LARP) where the live players are expected to know and follow the rules of play, you can simply say, "I attack Darg the Evil with my broadsword," or plop down a die-cast figure on a scale map of a dungeon, and that's that -- you get to soak up damage. Any physical damage-dealer is also automatically a "tank," so no one ever thinks of them primarily as fulfilling that combat role.

Explicitly designing character classes to satisfy a perceived need for a tank role thus shows up only in computer-based RPGs -- specifically, in MMORPGs where the rules which tell attacking NPCs what they can and cannot do physically must be implemented in code, and where one of those coded rules is that characters can pass through each other without colliding. (This may actually be a result of the developers choosing not to implement collision detection -- same result.)

If there's no need to code an "aggro" workaround because physically tougher player characters can physically get between attackers and weaker player characters, then there's no need to design player character classes around a tank role for attracting and holding aggro. More broadly, designing Tactical and Science and Engineering department-based abilities around tank/nuker/healer roles -- for no other reason than because other MMORPGs decided to implement those roles -- would be to embrace precisely the kind of foolish consistency that Emerson warned us against.

Aligning character abilities to certain preconceived gameplay roles isn't wrong in and of itself. It's only wrong if those roles are adopted as conventions, if they're merely copied from other games without asking whether they help communicate the overall conception of this game set in this unique universe.

Which returns me to my overall point, which is that if the action in Star Trek Online should be something more than non-stop destruction, why design character abilities around purely combat roles at all?

There will be more than enough challenge in balancing character abilities specifically designed to support Tactical/Security and Science/Medical and Engineering (and Command) gameplay without also having to try to shoehorn them into the tank/nuker/healer roles copied by other MMORPGs.

How Many Characters Per Server?

A question that comes up occasionally in designing massively multiplayer online games is how many characters a player should be able to control on the same game server.

It's an interesting question because it gets into aspects of both business and gameplay design. Fewer characters allowed per server could increase the number of subscriptions purchased, but at the cost of some unhappy players. Some players like to run multiple characters in order to explore different ways of experiencing the gameworld.

On the other hand, if you try to satisfy the Explorers by allowing multiple characters per server, the Achievers will use this feature as well... but they'll use all their other characters (their "alts") to extend the capabilities and possessions of one of their characters (their "main") beyond what that one character alone could normally do or obtain. This reduces the level of challenge intended for the individual player, which is usually balanced for one person playing one character.

So which approach is generally preferable? One character per server? Or many?

I think the answer needs to depend mostly on how easy it is to change an individual character's abilities.

The easier it is for a character to change abilities, the more appropriate it becomes to offer/allow only a single character per server. If today I can be a good crafter, and a few weeks from now I can change into an equally competent fighter, then allowing multiple characters is unnecessary. The bad (unbalancing) effects start to outweigh the positive (exploratory) features.

Alternatively, if character abilities can never be lost, and if characters belonging to the same account can't trade among themselves, then allowing up to three characters (a main and two alts) seems reasonable. The pros and cons balance out.

But some players will insist that three characters are not enough, that six or ten or even more characters per server are necessary to support their preferred playstyle. This might be so; the problem is that what you permit for one player needs to be allowed for every player, and many players will not have any reservations about using multiple characters as robots that subsidize one main character. The more characters per server you allow, the more these utilitarian players will unbalance your game that's balanced around a single character.

Muling is just one aspect of the problem; the complete problem is really that the easier it is for one player to play multiple characters per server, the easier the game becomes.

Allowing many characters, or allowing multiple characters if it's possible to change skills with relative ease, creates the problem of a player being able to play the game as a kind of single ubercharacter. Being able to easily swap between multiple characters with different ability sets is equivalent to having a single character who possesses nearly every ability in the game, and that completely honks up the game's level of challenge which is designed to scale to a single character.

A game that's too easy -- because it's not being played as its designers intended -- becomes boring, and that's one of the many kiss-of-death scenarios possible in these game things. So if anyone asked, I'd counsel a measured approach to the "how many characters per server" question. When forced to choose, I come down on the side of offering as few characters per server as possible.

For a very skill-based game, I'd say one character per server is sufficient. For a very class-based game, I'd suggest allowing up to three, but I'd also make most items no-trade. Furthermore, I'd consider adding code that checks a user's account when trying to log in a character to make sure they don't already have another character active on that server. This will prevent the multiboxers from cheapening their gameplay experience (whether they think that's what would happen or not) by letting it be too easy because they're using their multiple characters as one ubercharacter.

Sometimes what gamers want is not what they should get. And yes, that probably applies to some of the things I've asked for, too.