Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dynamic Assistance

When thinking of ways to let players define for themselves how hard a level is, most folks come up with the idea of a "difficulty slider" or its equivalent. (Pick one: "hard", "normal", "easy".) There's nothing especially wrong with this approach... but what about some other approaches? Has game technology progressed to a point where there are now viable alternatives to a static difficulty system?

How about this: What if the game itself could detect that you were having trouble and respond appropriately with help? What if instead of being balanced for "easy" and made harder by a slider, the game was balanced for "hard" and players were dynamically helped through tough spots?

As an example of how this might work, let's take the big strider battle from Half-Life2 Episode 2.

For those who haven't played this game, this is a big fight sequence between the player as the scientist-protagonist Gordon Freeman and several slow but huge and deadly three-legged "strider" tripods, each with several attendant "hunters," which are fast, agile and aggressive. To counter the striders, which spawn with their hunters every few minutes and all of which must be destroyed before they reach a key location on a large map, the player is given a number of tools: an explosive device that can be launched at and sticks to a strider and which will destroy the strider when hit by fire from one of the player's weapons; several buildings containing stockpiles of various kinds of ammunition for the player's weapons; numerous NPCs who provide minor fire support; and a fast vehicle that includes a simple "radar" showing the location of striders on the local map.

This fight generated a certain amount of controversy on Valve's user forum. While some gamers (typically the self-described hardcore FPS gamers) claimed to have found this section of the game trivially easy, many other gamers reported finding it frustratingly difficult. They reported frequent deaths and reloads, in some cases quitting the game without finishing it. The most common analytical complaint was that the difficulty of this section wasn't just harder than previous sections (an earlier section of the game included a major firefight), but that it was hard in a different way from the rest of the game which "taught" the player that all challenges had at least one relatively simple solution, although you might have to think laterally to realize it. The strider battle, because it had to be solved quickly and often contained multiple challenges (striders plus hunters) which required challenge prioritization, seemed to demand a shift from the leisurely tactical puzzle-solving typical to Half-Life generally to frenetic twitch gameplay.

Shifting the requirements for success from the intelligent use of environmental features to mere speed and accuracy seemed to make this part of the game much harder for many players. Many suggestions thus concerned the perceived difficulty level of this section of the game. By far the most common suggestion for improvement was some variation on "reduce the difficulty." The "slider" approach (already available in HL2 Episode 2) was a popular suggestion.

Instead, what if we turned that around? Rather than maintaining the utility of all the tools given to the player and reducing the difficulty, let's instead consider leaving the high difficulty level where it is but increasing the value of the assistance given by tools.

Imagine two gamers, A and B. A has played some action games before, but mostly enjoys solving problems through planning and creative use of resources. B, meanwhile, is a veteran gamer with great coordination who enjoys the adrenaline rush of solving problems by tackling them head-on with massive firepower and agile movement.

Player B goes through the strider battle, and it plays pretty much like it does for most people who nailed it without breaking a sweat.

Player A then tries it, and the first two hunters kill him immediately; he keeps trying to shoot them and missing most of the time; he doesn't realize he can use his vehicle to ram the hunters; he has trouble getting the explosive device to stick to the strider; and so on. He dies and reloads a lot. He feels frustrated that none of the skills honed by previous parts of the game seem to be helping him here.

Suppose the game notices Player A's many deaths on that level due to the hunters. What if instead of expecting the player to turn a dial to make the game easier somehow (and lose some of the intended fun), the game could give Player A some useful assistance? How about if the game started spawning NPCs who were effective at engaging the hunters? "I'll take care of these hunters, Freeman -- you concentrate on taking down that strider!"

Now suppose you figured out how to ram the hunters but you keep missing the strider with the explosive device. The Half-Life2 game engine could, I think, pretty easily spawn humans who would form a convoy to bring more of these devices to you so that you wouldn't have to keep racing back to the nearest building for a fresh one, thereby losing time against the striders. You'd still have to do the shooting because you've got the only gravity gun, but wouldn't it be helpful if the game itself noticed that you could use some help in this area and offered it to you?

This "dynamic assistance" feature would work for other challenges as well. For example, if some gamers were being killed repeatedly by the antlion guardian in the tunnels, the game could pop up a notice reminding them to use the Shift key to run. If that didn't seem to help, it could start spawning antlions for the guardian to "chase," distracting it long enough to give you a little more time to sprint to the next safe location.

You get the idea. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) static difficulty sliders, today's games should and could be smart enough to notice when a player is having problems and offer some kind of dynamic, in-game, context-appropriate help. Help would be provided only when and where needed, rather than "dumbing down" the entire game through a global difficulty setting.

It should be noted that this is not the same thing as a "dynamic difficulty adjustment" system. Such approaches (like the automatically scaling opponents in Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) have been criticized for not allowing players to experience very difficult challenges early on in a game. A dynamic assistance feature would allow such challenges to be designed hard and remain hard; the difference is that gamers who persist in trying to take on these challenges would eventually get a little game-supplied help in doing so. Anyone who didn't want the help could simply move on to some other challenge, then come back later when they're more powerful. This combines the advantage of having hard content to come back to with a way to help more persistent gamers not to feel frustrated and discouraged at being unable to progress.

Finally, not only would a dynamic assistance feature improve the playability of challenge-based games for more people, it would be a great way to get even more value out of a developer's investment in NPC AI, since NPCs can be a particularly valuable tool for helping players in that they also help contribute to a game's story.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Technology Levels in a Star Trek MMORPG +

With development on Star Trek Online progressing over at Cryptic, I'd like to take another look at the notion of "technology levels" as a gameplay feature.

As we fly through the galaxy in our mighty starships, we're likely to encounter civilizations at differing stages of technological development. Some will be less advanced than our faction (Federation and Klingon to start), while some are likely to be more advanced.

Should being able to classify the technology levels of the different civilizations we know and discover be part of the gameplay of Star Trek Online?

Classification systems are not foreign to Star Trek. For example, there's the well-known (in the Trekiverse) system for planetary classification that describes the habitability of planets, in which planets like Earth are described as "Minshara-class" or just "M-class." So why not offer something similar for classifying the level of technological sophistication of the inhabitants of a planet?

Let's say the answer is a tentative "maybe" and consider some possible ways to classify the level of technology of both known and alien civilizations in the Star Trek universe.


The first and most obvious classification (from the Federation point of view, anyway) is whether or not a civilization has made its first faster-than-light journey. In fact, distinguishing between pre-warp and warp-capable civilizations is considered so important to Starfleet that it forms the basis of their Prime Directive. So if the Prime Directive is part of the gameplay of Star Trek Online, then being able to classify a civilization according to the following scheme:

0. Pre-warp
1. Warp-capable
is a minimum requirement.

We could, however, be a bit more creative than that. If exploration is to be a meaningful part of this game, then it's not unreasonable that players ought to be able to study new civilizations in order to properly classify them. Doing so might even provide in-game rewards. (I'd be careful not to take that too far. however. Not every gamer is an Achiever, and not every gamer wants the kinds of accumulable in-game rewards that are valued by Achievers.)

For that to work as interesting gameplay, a more detailed classification system is probably in order. Players would need to spend some time (and perhaps, through their characters, use some kind of Survey skill) to determine the most likely technology level classification code for a newly-encountered civilization.


The usual way of doing this is to identify key technologies whose widespread adoption within a civilization signals a critical point in that civilization's progress. (Note: Some people dispute whether the development of increasingly advanced technology should always be considered "progress." That's not an unfair concern, but it's outside the scope of this thread which is intended to be a relatively simple look at possible gameplay in an MMORPG. I'm not against exploring the notion of other ways of defining "progress," but I'd prefer to wait on that until we've considered the simple version of this question first.)

So here's a starter suggestion for a short list of technological advances that could serve to define the level of development of civilizations in Star Trek Online:

0. pre-civilization (no sentient lifeforms)
1. simple hand tools
2. machine tools
3. nuclear power
4. networked computers
5. warp drive
6. matter/energy conversion
7. subspace power
8. intergalactic travel
9. non-corporeal sentience
For purposes of MMORPG gameplay, we might even want to consider a more detailed classification system:

0. pre-civilization (no sentient lifeforms)
1. fire/wheel
2. roads
3. printing press
4. combustion engine
5. nuclear power
6. networked computers
7. fusion power
8. warp drive
9. antimatter power
A. matter/energy conversion
B. sentient programs (incl. androids)
C. subspace power
D. Dyson spheres
E. intergalactic travel
F. non-corporeal sentience
Some notes on these suggested technologies: first, they're all applied technologies; they don't include theoretical/intellectual advances such as mathematics, Newton's laws of gravity, or the general theory of relativity. Those things absolutely are important, but they're harder to see when you're assessing some alien civilization than a practically applied technology like a hammer or a nuclear power plant. (The same holds for other kinds of civilizational advancement, but I'll get to that in the "Non-Technological Scales" section below.)

Also, while I've tried to stay true to what's been seen in Star Trek, there seems to be a gap between the technology of A.D. 2400 and the tech level needed to build something as monumental as a Dyson sphere. So I've tried to suggest a couple of "new" technologies that seem to fit into the Star Trek universe, such as "subspace power" and "intergalactic travel." Also, there seem to be a lot of lifeforms based on energy in the Star Trek universe, some of which definitely evolved from "lower" life forms... so that seems like a natural end-point for technological progress.

Once the members of your civilization can turn at will into amorphous blobs of glowiness that can go anywhere and become anything, you're pretty much done with conventional measures of technological progress....


Another way of classifying the technology level of a society was proposed by the Russian cosmologist Nikolai Kardashev.

This Kardashev scale, while probably not based directly on the ideas of anthropologist Leslie White, does expand on White's notion that a culture's technological capability is directly proportional to the amount of energy it consumes.

Kardashev proposed three tiers of civilizations -- Types I, II, and III -- each of which uses about 1010 (ten to the tenth power) more power than the previous tier. Others who followed Kardashev added Type 0 and Type IV classifications, leading to a system as follows:

Type 0 can harness only some of the power available on a planet (about a megawatt)
Type I can harness all the power available on a planet (about 1016 watts)
Type II can harness all the power available from a star (about 1026 W)
Type III can harness all the power available from a galaxy (about 1036 W)
Type IV can harness all the power available throughout a universe (roughly 1046 W)
To give you an idea of how this energy-technology scale might be applied, Carl Sagan once calculated that the most advanced portions of humanity (as of about 1980) were about seven-tenths of the way toward becoming a Type I civilization.

Warp capability probably occurs about a third of the way past attaining Type I status. So the major races of the Star Trek universe might be said to be just a couple of clicks before entering the Type II tech level.

Type III civilizations, Type IV, and beyond are essentially beyond our speculative comprehension. It's impossible to know with any certainty what a human could do -- or become -- with so much power.

Join the Q continuum, maybe...?


Finally, it needs to be acknowledged that technology is not the only -- or best -- measure of the degree of "advancement" of a civilization.

The late Georgetown University historian Carroll Quigley, in his excellent book The Evolution of Civilizations (about which I've written more here in a Star Trek Online context), discussed how different civilizations might be distinguished from one another. Quigley, while noting that any division of characteristic high-level qualities is arbitrary and imperfect, suggested six key qualities against which the development of civilizations could be measured: Intellectual, Religious, Social, Economic, Political, and Military.

For various reasons, I actually prefer to extend this classification system to span eight characteristic qualities, ranging from the most abstract to the most concrete:

Intellectual: The need for comprehension
Technological: The need for control of the physical world
Ethical: The need for control of human motives
Religious: The need for psychological security
Social: The need for community
Economic: The need for material security
Political: The need to organize power relationships
Military: The need for group security
Just as I broke down the Technology quality into numerous key artifacts, we could do the same with each of the seven other qualities listed above. For the Economic quality, for example, we might identify concepts and organizational inventions like currency, capitalism, fractional-reserve banking and the public corporation as key markers of progress within that quality.

Through gameplay in which our characters can observe these qualities in each new civilization we discover, we could build up a reasonably effective picture of how every civilization stacks up against our own factional civilization. It wouldn't tell us everything directly -- for example, are the people in this alien civilization I just encountered typically friendly to strangers, or are they as xenophobic as the Malcorians in the TNG episode "First Contact"? So there could be other factors worth noting about new civilizations than these eight qualities.

That said, using this multi-frequency kind of cultural assessment model in a Star Trek MMORPG, whether it's the eight qualities suggested above or not, is preferable to a purely technological metric. It's not only a more adequate measure of "progress," in a way it's better for Star Trek Online because it creates more opportunities for gameplay for those who enjoy exploration. Clandestine observation of new cultures to assess their qualities played a role in numerous Star Trek TV episodes and at least one movie. So having several different kinds of qualities that can be monitored and recorded by an exploration-oriented character in a Survey role could turn out to be a lot of fun. (It could also be useful in generating appropriate qualities for bridge NPCs adopted from newly-discovered worlds.)


A system like this obviously has some edge cases and things that might change over the course of gameplay. That raises several questions:

1. Should civilizations be classified with just one tech level? Or should a general tech level be calculated as an average of a culture's level of advancement in various specific technologies, such as transportation, communication, energy production, computers, military hardware, and so on? What about as an average of a civilization's progress across several different kinds of scales (as noted above), including technological, social, economic and other bands?

2. How should the tech level be determined for a Balkanized planet on which exist multiple civilizations at different tech levels? Should the tech level of the civilization with the highest tech level be used (especially if they're close to their first warp 1 flight)? Or should an average tech level be calculated? Or is there some other approach to defining a specific tech level that would be more fun?

3. Should civilizations at a particular tech level be able to increase their tech level during the course of Star Trek Online's lifespan? Wouldn't it be interesting if a pre-warp culture were to make their initial warp 1 flight and suddenly become a new candidate for a First Contact mission, or even -- after suitable diplomacy -- for admission to the Federation or a competing faction?

4. Cryptic has said that in their version of Star Trek Online we may be able to "adopt" as characters in our NPC bridge crew some members of cultures on new worlds we discover. Should those characters come only from worlds that are warp-capable?


I know that some are going to think this is overkill, that defining every faction/civilization in terms of specific levels within eight different qualities will take way too much development time for not enough benefit.

In particular I know it'll seem strangely excessive to the more combat-oriented players. But I think it's safe to guess that Star Trek Online will be designed to offer plenty of the kill-it-and-take-its-stuff content that the Acheivers among us typically enjoy. The kind of richly-detailed world features I'm talking about here are for the Explorers, who -- in this particular game, with its particular license -- require an equivalent amount of content that's as enjoyable to them as competition/acquisition is to the Achievers.

So my goal here is to describe some different ways of implementing one core gamplay idea: allow player characters to assess the level of advancement of newly-discovered alien civilizations. We've been told that exploration will be an important part of the game that Cryptic is making -- well, designing the many civilizations in this game to have unique cultural qualities is one way of helping to create plenty of solid, enjoyable exploration content to enjoy.

I'm looking forward (though not without some reservations born of experience) to seeing just how deep Cryptic's verbal commitment to "exploration" as an important part of Star Trek Online actually goes. Tech levels won't necessarily be a part of that design, but it might help if they were.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Saving Games from Game Designers

David Sirlin offered a great essay at Gamasutra on September 1, 2008. His thesis this time around was that game developers need to stop trying to impose their vision on gamers of when they think players should be permitted to save their games.

As he put it: "Saving should be treated as one of the player's natural rights, not an earned privilege or a game mechanic around which to make strategic decisions."

For the first part of that statement, I agree whole-heartedly. I don't like the "we know what's best for you" attitude when it comes from the usual political social engineers; even less do I need or want it from the designers of the games I play.

As a diehard save-gamer, I was extremely unhappy when I discovered in playing the original Far Cry (for PC) that there was no quicksave/quickload feature. Save and load were implemented; they just weren't made available to the player because the developer had the "we know better than you how you're supposed to play this game" attitude. Fortunately there was a console hack that allowed a quicksave/quickload key-bind or that game would have been dumpstered on the spot... but why should such a gross hack have been necessary in the first place?

Furthermore, as a dedicated PC gamer, the (from my perspective) misbegotten choice being made more often these days to design first for consoles and only later -- if ever -- for the PC means that more games are following the Far Cry no-save-option model. As a result, my gaming experiences are becoming worse, not better. I'm buying fewer games. Isn't that the opposite of what game publishers should be wanting?

Having said this, however, I have to acknowledge I'm not closed to all no-save-option designs. I recently decided to give Call of Duty 4 a try. (Again, this is the PC version.) When I realized that there was no way to save when I wanted to save, I growled something about "Far Cry all over again!" and nearly quit. But out of curiosity I kept playing a little longer... and discovered that the checkpoint system in CoD4 actually worked pretty well. The number and location of the checkpoints was usually close enough to where I would have saved so that I was willing to accept the game's handling of that for me. I still didn't like it, but I could live with it.

So this approach can work, even for someone like me who absolutely hates having a developer's theory about when I "should" be able to save my gameplay experience imposed on me.

It's worth noting, however, that this may not work for all kinds of games. CoD4 and BioShock, for example, are very different kinds of games. A linear shooter intended to be a high-adrenaline experience might be able to justify a checkpoint system rather than a save/load option that could supposedly "interrupt" the visceral experience. (I'm not sure save/reload is any more interruptive than dying and magically restarting at a checkpoint, but let that go for now.) I could accept not being able to save in CoD4 because the pace of gameplay in that particular game made a checkpoint system feel reasonably natural.

But in a slower-paced, more thoughtful and more exploratory game like BioShock, I and, I suspect, most other players want to be able to do what Doug Hofstadter once called "subjunctive replays" -- we want to be able to explore one path, then reload and see what would have happened had we taken a different path. RPGs with branching dialog trees generate a similar desire in players to try all the options to see all of the possible content. Games like these need to reward players who try to explore that content, not punish them for their curiosity.

One approach for accomplishing this would be to provide the traditional save/load feature so that players can -- without having to replay the entire game or level -- see everything the designers spent time making (and for which publishers want $60). Alternately, designers could design games with some kind of explicit subjunctive replay feature that allows the player to scratch that "what would happen if I...?" itch. Why not design exploratory games so that the act of saving and reloading (which a game can easily be programmed to detect) is an active and perhaps even necessary feature of the gameplay? What if reloading wasn't thought of as a punitive "ha! got you!" but as a "hey, if you think that was cool, go back and try it again!"

It might be OK to treat saving as a game mechanic around which to make tactical decisions... if game designers can break out of thinking of saving only as an enemy to be destroyed and start thinking of it as a feature that, for the right kind of game, could be fun to explore and play with.