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The Rift Conundrum

…wherein I ramble on for a good bit and then sort of run out of steam but talk about tanks and surfing.

Wilhelm’s most recent post on Rift hit a note with me.  What got me was:

…, Rift doesn’t do anything about the things I don’t like about MMOs.

Servers for example.

Or shards, which is the term Trion Worlds has chosen.  But servers, shards, realms, or whatever, here is something that only EverQuest II Extended seems to have come close to solving.

There it was, open beta, and Trion already had a long list of shards, all of which were full, something which seems to indicate that the “I want to play with my friends, but they are on a different shard” issue is going to replay the way it always does.

And, of course, there is the whole level thing, the other great separator that keeps people from playing with their friends.

This.

This is not unique to Rift but perhaps its more acute because, frankly, Rift appears to be such an uncharacteristically strong offering in the genre.

It’s polished.  It’s evolutionary. It’s accretive. And, it appears to do nothing to solve the fundamental conflict that has plagued the entire genre of “persistant progression” games– I’m not even calling them MMORPGs.  If there’s a persistancy element to it, and a progression element to it, playing with your friends may be an issue.

Sure, many games have bolted on mechanisms to attempt to deal with this problem– mentoring, sidekicking, server transfers, etc..  A few have attempted to deal with it at the design level.  Eve is one of the few that come to mind where design consideration given to attempt to bridge that, but even with its skill based progression, which is in actuality time-based, it is difficult to mitigate the gap in progression that will inevitably creep in and impact collaborative efforts.  Guildwars certainly also attempted to do this by altering the progression mechanic with a low level cap.

This, my friends, is a tough nut to crack.

Think about all the ways that games prevent us from playing together.  Levels. Gear progression.  Content unlocks.  Separate Servers.

You’d think that a progression-based game was utterly irreconcilable with with idea that I should be able to play with my friends, regardless of disparities in progression, and still have a meaningful game experience.  Not in a charitable-I’m-helping-pimp-a-guildie sort of “meaningful” but a goddamn-we-all-had-a-great-and-rewarding-time-playing-together sort of way.

Eve seems to allow some of this with its purely skill-based approach, though time-based discrepancies inevitably creep in.  A noob tackler or miner may be able to make a meaningful contribution to fleet ops, but eventually the gap becomes unbridgeable.

Consider a very different game for a moment which I’ve been playing obsessively of late.  World of Tanks.  The matchmaking algorithm does a pretty decent job of creating a balanced match of tanks of different tiers on each team.

A brief example.  I had been progressing up the Soviet tree with aT-26 self propelled gun and pursuing the alternate path toward the fabled T-34 medium tank.  For fun, I decided to start working up the German and US trees as well.  Even though I may be reasonably advanced in the Soviet tree, switching to the US tree meant “starting over” in the lowly T-1 Cunningham.  But the matchmaking algorithm (and the game design) end up creating matches which pit a mix of higher and lower powered tanks against each other.

The “noob” or modestly progressed light tanks are lighter, faster and more maneuverable than the big guns.  Artillery is quite powerful, but slow, immobile and quite vulnerable to enemy fire.  The heavy tanks are slow, powerful and hard to kill.  So as a lowbie, I’m quite capable of applying my scissors to the paper of artillery or by spotting the enemy permitting the paper of artillery to cover the rock of the big tanks.  The result?  “weaker” units are in fact actually niche units in the game design and have a consistent and valuable role to play.

Granted, this is PvP and a “battleground” scenario.  Creating the same opportunity for collaborative play seem to particularly difficult to design.  Frankly its easy to call a match and see who shows up then simply divide the teams evenly based on perceived “progression”, “power” or “ability”.

Its much more difficult to do the same for PvE content.  How DOES one design content for the PvE player that is a challenge for both advanced and more novice players that provide the ever so elusive right amount of challenge to both without being susceptible to the problem of being utterly trivial to a group of highly progressed players or impossible to a group of lowbies?  By comparison, letting everyone play on the same server is trivial.

A while back, there was a discussion going on in the blogosphere about the “challenge” level of encounters and the skill of the player base.  What I came away from that discussion with was the idea that challenge was relative and that creating that challenge in a progression based game (whether that progression was fairly linear or wildly exponential is irrelevant) became increasingly difficult.

Once upon a time, I used to body surf and boogie board with a friend of mine in a spot near Half Moon Bay, California.  Nearby is a place a few people may have heard of:  “Mavericks“.  By all accounts, when the conditions are right, Mavericks is probably one of the toughest spots on the planet to surf.  People die there.  You have to be max level to attempt it and even then there is a gearcheck– you have to be towed into the wave by waverunner.

Raid Content

Mavericks is epic, raid quality, heroic level content.  The folks that surfed there were looking for the same thing I was looking for a few miles up the road on my wee 3 foot near beach break waves.  Give me something that is about X% just beyond my ability where I have a decent chance of success and a greater than zero chance of failure and I’ll run that all day long.  I don’t care if I wipe as long as I have a decent chance of success.

Being able to just catch that wave and then just be able to handle it, and occasionally hot dog it, was the essence of the PvE experience.  Progression just means the wave needs to get bigger and the mountain taller.

Facsimile woosin waves I used to "surf" (I have more hair btw)

But challenge is affirmed only in mastery, and after mastery, additional challenge requires progression and there in lies the rub.  How is the master challenged by the same content as the student?

I don’t have an answer, but the older I get, and the more demands I and my friends have on their time, means that gulf is exceedingly hard to bridge.  Still I refuse to believe that the only choices are to play only with people who have the same skill and/or time budget as you do or to “lower yourself” to playing only games that your time-constrained friends can meaningfully participate in.

As the first gamer generation ages– those that grew up both the PC and PC games– I’m hoping that the grey hairs among us come up with something to solve this fundamental problem.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on February 9, 2011 in Rift

 

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Losing Aggro

Brian “Psychochild” Green has a good new article and related blog posts up about rethinking the trinity of MMO design.

The point he never really addressed was what I think is the biggest issue and significant hurdle to “rethinking” MMO design– aggro.

The TL;DR version of this post: MMOs will not fundamentally change until they lose aggro as we know it as the fundamental combat mechanic.

Through the looking glass

“Aggro” or “threat” or call it what you will is the fundamental fulcrum upon which all DIKU-based combast systems are based. To state the obvious, threat is a mechanic which allows an NPC (or rather its “AI” code) to select who it should be attacking at any given time.  Different player abilities contribute a different amount of threat toward a target. Simplified, the player with the most threat “wins” and gets targeted by the mob. As long as you aren’t #1 on his list, you might as well not exist to the mob.

As a concept, this is… “acceptable”. At least marginally. I can imagine a situation where a reasonably sentient NPC “decides” somewhat rationaly that the burly dude in his face banging on him with a large hammer presents more of an immediate threat to his survival than some frail Mr. Burns-esque creature with a conical hat standing WAAAAY over there making pretty colored lights and waving his hands.

Of course, you only need take small steps away from this scenario to end up through the looking glass into a bizzaro world. How absurd “ordinary” PVE combat must look to the uninitiated– despite the presence of 4 other party members (at least 3 of which are doing hellacious damage to their NPC comrades), all the NPCs continue attacking the tank.

“Why doesn’t that big baddie just go one-shot the clothie?  What a stoop!”

“STFU, noob. You’re breaking my immersion.  More dots.”

All this despite the fact that the tank is likely doing the least damage to the target, has the highest damage mitigation and is actively receiving healing. Make it even more absurd when a mob does change targets and the tank is able to regain aggro by merely making insinuations about the monster’s heritage, physiology or upbringing.

Now consider how the player party slices and dices a multi NPC encounter: Kill the weak first– fragile DPS, healers that prolong the fight, etc.  It doesn’t matter what the monster calls your mother, you stick to the assigned target and follow your order of battle. Lather, rinse, repeat. If you do it right, the mobs will never know the warrior was accompanied by a party. I wonder what goes through a mob’s mind…

“Say Grog, why is that no matter how much we beat on this guy, he just keeps taking it? Do you hear something?  Where are all those fireballs that are hitting Stan coming from anyway?”

“STFU, mob, you’re break..” gurgle dead.

Now consider now how PvP combat works:  Kill the weak.  There is no aggro, there is no taunt.  I’ve yet to see hordes (no pun) of enemy combatants immediately flock to and stick to the warrior while mages nuke them from a safe distance…

Role Play

The “traditional” Trinity– tank, DPS, healing– doesn’t need to be represented in the game as class archetypes or specialized roles, but rather are really just the fundamental aspects of combat: damage mitigation (tanking), damage dealing (dps), and damage remediation(healing). Each of these functions could be present in combination in any class to varying degrees.

Balancing these fundamental aspects of combat typically requires imposition of some kind of “budget” which makes sense i.e., no player gets to be the best at all three. At best, they can be the best at one at the expense of the other two, or some middling combination of all three.

What permits the Trinity as we know it (the ROLES of mitigation specialist, dps specialist and healing specialist) to persist is the convenience of the threat mechanism. It is only because the system permits a tank to “hold aggro” that role specialization as we know it can exist.

It’s just much easier logic wise and computing resource wise to stack the deck with a combat system so that the “tank” will always get the aggro. It makes coding the combat so much more efficient.

Why should sundering armor while doing relatively little dps allow a tank to be perceived as the biggest threat to a mob when 3 others are raining white hot death on them and a fourth is actively frustrating the NPCs attempts to kill the target? Well, the mechanical answer is because each player action has a specified threat generation value associated with it and the deck is stacked so that it will work that way. Five sunders and 1000 dps will prevent 3 other players doing 2000 dps each from “pulling aggro”. [Made up numbers]

Why the hell doesn’t Onyxia just ignore the shiny tank and stomp the DPS in the first minute of the fight and then come back with her Nutcracker of the Black Dragonflight and open up that brazil nut of a warrior for a tasty snack? Seems like something a super intelligent dragon queen broodmother might think of.

Its always been an absurd but convenient and resource friendly way to resolve combat.  To some extent, ten or 15 years ago, it was all that was possible.

Beyond Aggro

So what’s missing?

Decent mob AI. Mobs just aren’t very smart. They don’t tend to target the weakest first or take cover or get help when they realize that its 5 v. 1 and they’re the 1. They make a list and whoever is on top of their list they stick to.  AI is hard.  AI is resource intensive.   AI is very situational.
Imagine if player combat skills were designed around much better mob AI. Tactics would trump pure specialization. Crowd control and debuffing would be as important as DPS is today. The basic combat logic:

If

Player health – mob damage + player healing > 0 and
Mob health – player damage + mob healing <=0;

then WIN=true else NOOB

would remain the same, but there would be many more ways to get there than in current MMOs.

If aggro as we currently know it ceased to exist, specialists would likely be at a disadvantage because the dynamics of battle would require more than merely standing in one place spamming frostbolt or taunt or greater heal. At any given moment players might need to snare and kite a target, mesmerize them, debuff their attacks in some way, block them from reaching vulnerable party members, knock them down, trip them, yank them off of someone etc.

Secondlly, and until relatively recently, collision detection. Ironically, the archetypal warrior in plate and shield (or anyone else for that matter) couldn’t physically block any attacks. No one could take a bullet for someone else. No one could pull an attacker off of someone. No one could push someone over a cliff or block a doorway. No body checking please.

Granted, collision detection has got to be a huge resource hog. Constantly figuring out where everyone is, whether they are running into each other dynamically can’t be spectacularly easy. Especially when moving from a tab targeting player=fixed point in space model.  If a character has volume, hits and misses just got a lot more complicated.  How much damage do I take if I’m only 1/2 way in the AE zone?

Likewise, given a certain amount of client sych slop doesn’t make that job easier. Finally, once you have collision detection, you need an entire scheme to decide how to decide whether/if a player can be moved by another player(s). Someone go code up a rubgy scrum routine and get back to me. Oh and figure out a way that plate wearers can immobilize a dragon’s tail swipe by grappling.

But think about it for a second– how cool would it be to see a pile of warriors physically holding back a raid boss or struggling to push them and hold them into a corner while the rest of the raid pummels away? Somehow that seems cooler to me than having a single warrior taunt tow a boss into a corner and basically stand there for the entire fight spamming some aggro generation skill.

Aggro permits these narrow role specialists to exist.  Until we lose aggro-as-we-know-it from these games, nothing is really going to change.

 
14 Comments

Posted by on December 18, 2009 in General

 

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Blizzard announces WoW Premium

Blizzard announced today that along with the upcoming Cataclysm expansion, Blizzard would be offering a World of Warcraft Premium account.  For a monthly fee of $29.99, Premium account holders would get the following benefits:

  • Players may start new characters at any level up to and including level 80 (Death Knights can start between 55-80)
  • New level 80 players begin with:
  • Four 16 slot bags
  • a complete set of custom purple iLevel 200 gear
  • a unique class specific epic ground mount
  • a unique class specific epic flying mount
  • a talisman of translocation (which may be set to teleport the player to any level appropriate meeting stone; 30 min cooldown)
  • Professions.  The first two primary professions and all secondary professions learned will begin at skill level 300.
  • Earn Realm Transfers.  All new characters on premium accounts will earn a free realm transfer every 90 days.
  • Tokens of Redemption.  Every 30 days, premium accounts will earn 10 tokens of redemption which can be used to purchase Bind on Account items from in game vendors. (All BoA gear items will scale to Level 85).
  • Heroic Quests.  Premium accounts will have exclusive access to unique scalable epic storyline quest content designed for solos and small groups.
  • Unique Companion pets.  Premium accounts will receive a choice of two new companion pets– the Zhevra pony or Talbuck fawn.
  • Unique hair styles.  Premium accounts will have access to two new unique race specific hairstyles (e.g., Worgen mullet and Goblin pompadour).

Ghostcrawler had this to say about the announcement:

“As World of Warcraft continues to mature, we are constantly listening to our players to accomodate as many different playstyles as possible.  We want Azeroth to be a place where new players, long time players and returning players can experience the best that WoW has to offer with their friends.

We recognize that WoW is (and should be) many things to many people.  Premium accounts offer one way to give players more choices about how they experience Azeroth, whether they want to explore the world solo, with just a few friends, leap straight into high level progression content, PvP, try out a new class or join old or new friends on a different server.  Premium accounts will give players more choices about how they can experience the Cataclysm.”

Of course, this is a complete fabrication and totally false (as far as I know).  I just made it up.  Completely. Fiction.

But it was inspired by a few recent experiences.  There seems to be a renewed hardcore/casual/who-gets-to-access-content discussion floating around on several blogs.  With WoW’s Cataclysm expansion and its likely gear reset looming in the distance, the discussion inevitably turns toward progression and content gates (i.e. in WoW’s case, iLevel of gear at the level cap).

The second inspiration was my recent experiences with a Death Knight.  I had rolled one initially when the expansion came out but haven’t really played one much.  With our group’s move to a new server and new faction, I was beginning to feel the pain of not having a reasonably high level solo player to collect materials, to PvP and otherwise go about the world and explore in my “off group” time.  So, the DK solved a few of those problems.  Too bad I dislike the TBC content so much.  If DKs got popped out of the intro at 68 instead of 58, I would have played one ages ago.

Couple the DK model with the complaints about hardcore/casual, progression, lack of tanks and healers for raids, etc. etc. and the solution to many problems became obvious to my work addled and whimsical mind– premium accounts to solve many of the pain points of the current game now getting longer in the tooth.  Level disparity, class deficiency, travel inconvenience, gear/gated content ilevel/disparity, etc.  Of course, in true pseudo-Blizzard fashion, you don’t actually get to play at the level cap with a new character under my fictional account.  You still have to play through the five new levels coming with Cataclysm.

I doubt that WoW would adopt such a model, but if the hurdle keeping people away from the game (or leaving sooner than they otherwise would) was time, and time equals subscription revenue, then why wouldn’t Blizzard make the revenue neutral decision to let people leapfrog progression hurdles in exchange for more money?  I’m I’m Blizzard I should be agnostic whether someone pays $30 and plays two months or they play only one but pay the same.  The cynic in me of course says that most people would pay AND play giving a big revenue win to Blizz.  If its all about fun and player retention, then heck, why not?

If a new player rolled today to play with my already level capped characters, it might be a month or two of casual play for that person to be able to actually join me in a group.  Why not let me pay more to bypass that content if I desire?  If the game “starts” at the cap, then get me there.  If I want to wander Azeroth as a lowbie noob and smell the peacebloom, I still can.  I have more choices.  If that new player quits a month or two in because they can’t catch up to their friends or find someone to group with, Blizz has left money on the table.

Of course, I’m more about the leveling game than the end game as our instance group experiences have shown, but how many of you would opt for a premium account if Blizzard offered one?  Nonetheless, being an altaholic, I’d love to roll up a mid or late level character and play through my favorite parts of the game, or join someone else already leveling up.

I think I’d buy it and I have no real intention of not experiencing at least some leveling content.  Particularly with upcoming old world changes and new races.

If you could basically buy and play only the latest expansion and only play the “real game” that starts at the cap, would you?  If players now are soloing to cap without ever having grouped (i.e. the mythical level 80 warrior who has never used his taunt), would it really be such a detriment?

/popcorn

Dig in.

 
23 Comments

Posted by on December 1, 2009 in World of Warcraft

 

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Removing the World from Virtual Worlds

Been reading the discussion of the WoW 3.3. patch and after being struck with alternating waves of “cool!” and “its about time!”, I was overcome with the feeling that a good portion of the “World” part of “World of Warcraft” just swirled down the drainhole.  To be fair, its been doing that by degrees for quite some time.

I’m truly torn watching these trends.  On the one hand, I greatly enjoy gaming sessions with a regular group of friends.  The socializer and achiever in me loves the efficiency that all of these travel and ancillary changes have wrought over time.  The explorer side of me, however, dies a little with each subsequent patch.
 
As our instance group has proven, even the most casual of players, playing only a scant few hours per week can progress through the game’s instanced content almost exclusively without setting foot on virtual terra firma outside of capital cities.  That of course was never our explicit intent, it was simply a reality due to the lowest common denominator time budget for our group members.
 
We wanted to run all the instances at level and the xp and gear from doing those instances was vastly superior to doing group “open world” content.  As its well known, open world group activity is penalized and seeing as we didn’t intend to play solo (nor was speed leveling the object of our efforts), solo questing wasn’t on the table.

The World Before Us
 
Most of our group had been playing together since December 2004 and had already experienced WoW 1.0 as it then lay before us– a large number of quests and zones to explore punctuated by reasonably challenging instanced content along the progression path to the level cap.  Quest chains led you to and fro across the continents chasing threads of storylines that conveniently intersected with various instances– instances that felt distant, dangerous and exotic. 

In some cases, getting to the instances felt like a bit of an adventure itself.  Scarlet Monestary beckoned well before you were able to purchase your first mount at level 40.  After running all the way from Southshore through Horde Territory, you were rewarded with a dangerous place in a hostile land, far from the nearest Alliance town.  Likewise, before Light’s Hope Chapel was made into a full Alliance quest hub, Stratholme was a dangerous place, far far from the safety and support of an Alliance town.  But to the intrepid went the rewards.  Dire Maul was on the far side of the world for Alliance.

Of course all this open world travel and adventuring took time.  Quite frankly, more time than many people enjoy or can afford.  If all a person can afford is about a two hour block of time to play and the dungeon may take close to that to run, then 45 minutes of inventory management, repairs, preparation and travel (x5 people) acts as an insurmountable gate to that content.
 
Mass Transit
 
Warlocks’ summoning spell was always a great help to get stragglers to the group.  Great if you had a warlock in your group and three members had already arrived to perform the ritual.  While convenient, it hardly shrank the world to a significant degree.  Likewise, Mage portals at best got you to the closest capital city.  Aftewards, you were on your own.

Multiflightpoint taxi travel also took the edge off of travel to far flung destinations, even though you still had to manage any boat travel connections manually.  At least you could bio and microwave your hotpocket while you AFK flew from Darnassus to Feathermoon Stronghold on your way to Dire Maul.

The ever maligned meeting stones were finally repurposed as group summoning stones. Now only two group members needed to be present to summon (though they were level restricted).

Portals in Shatrath and Dalaran (and in each capital city to the Dark Portal) eliminated the vast majority of the travel tax for most players.  Add some additional mage portal destinations and long distance taxi travel is all but eliminated.
 
Hearthstone cooldowns were reduced making them much more of a travel strategy rather than a one time “done for the night” utility.  Especially in conjuction with the city portals.

Once upon a time, you had to visit a battlemaster in a city or actually travel to Warsong Gulch, Arathi Basin or Alterac Valley to join a battleground instance (Do the other BGs other than Wintergrasp even have a world presence?).  Through successive patches, all that is now required is a wee click on the pvp button to queue for a battleground and be magically whisked into the disambiguated battleground instance, promptly to be returned whence you came upon the battle’s conclusion.

Patch 3.3 is effectively accomplishing the same thing with the sweeping changes to the LFG tool and the implementation of cross server instance groups.  As Nils reported a response in the comment’s to Tobold’s recent post: “YES!  I will never have to leave Dalaran again!”  Indeed.

The Incredible Shrinking MMO
 
I’m reminded of the recent success/failure of Warhammer’s disparate approach to the same problem.  Early on, the insta queue anywhere battlegrounds were the most efficient means of gaining xp and the most reliable way to find pvp which was lacking in a pvp oriented game.  There was something of a world out there, but for many it simply didn’t exist in any meaningful way.  Log in, queue, BG pops, go done, repeat until cap.

I’m also reminded of DDO which I’ve been revisiting a bit of late.  In many ways its the ultimate session play environment.  In DDO (like Guildwars), there is essentially no massive multiplayer world outside of the instances which are spawned as needed for a solo or group players.  In DDO, all progress comes from completing these instanced challenges too, so walking the earth like Caine and grinding on what you find there is pretty much nonexistent. 

All of these “improvements” increase social interaction but at the expense of the sense of a virtual world.  Maybe that’s what most people want.  Heck, I was lobbying for our group to pick up Guildwars or DDO as a follow on to our WoW instance efforts because of these features that would allow all of us to quickly and easily get into the group content we enjoy without all these hassles.

Can the mass market support a virtual world or are we relegated to a shiny 3d chat room with a right click adventure menu?  Yes, of course, with WoW, one can always choose to run, ride, fly or even walk to experience the virtual world.  That’s not the point here.  The question is, what will future massive games hold for us?

Will Blizzard’s next gen MMO adopt most of the grouping/travel paradigms that are evolving in WoW?  I recall reading somewhere about wormhole travel for the upcoming STO and I’m cautiously pessimistic.  Likewise for SW:TOR.  Game functionality tends to evolve convergently.  Functional solutions and popular features from earlier games tend to end up represented in subsequent games of the same genre.  Part of this is meeting consumer expectations and part of it is simply addressing a gameplay need for the player base. 
 
As much fun as group content can be, I can’t help feeling we are losing the world from our virtual worlds.  The increasing focus on the “endgame” only exacerbates the problem as the virtual world is reduced to a series of repeatable instance pinatas, all of which must be run and rerun to fuel the gear progression game.

 
12 Comments

Posted by on October 29, 2009 in World of Warcraft

 

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Welcome to New Azeroth, Part I

As I’ve had Eve on the brain for the last few months (while our WoW group took a break), I keep finding things about Eve’s design that I like better than about 95% of MMOs out there.  So I asked myself, what would WoW look like if CCP made it?  I’ll admit, my first impression was probably a cross between Breathtaking Dogfights and Bambi Meets Godzilla, but after I stopped laughing, I thought, “Hey, I’d play that game…”

This sort of post has been percolating for a while and every time I come back to it, its gotten longer, so I’ve chopped it up into a few more easily digestible chunks.  So, on with the thought experiment.  Today, Part I.

The Map, Security, PvP and Everything

At its core, WoW is a PvE game and Eve is a PvP game but that’s too simple a characterization.  Each have huge areas of the game of relative safety and security where PvP is almost entirely consensual.  Each also have zones or regions that are effectively PvP free fire zones.

The largely symbolic WoW zone control monikers of Alliance, Horde, or Contested would be replaced by something similar to Eve’s 0.0 to 1.0 security system.  Eve’s security system is faction agnostic and based on PvP aggression, so with factions being such a key part of the WoW canon, some slight modifications are in order.  First of all, PvP wouldn’t be consensual anymore.  The solace is that in high security zones, retribution would be swift and devastating.

Two ways to go here in my view.  Either adopt Eve’s concept of Concord to punish aggression in high security zones (perhaps a bit immersion breaking despite the whole Burning Crusade thing) or my preference would be to modify it so that security becomes factional and runs a continuum from -1.0 to 1.0 with either end representing either Alliance controlled or Horde controlled zones.

To go full Eve would permit all players versus all players (i.e. Alliance on Alliance pk-ing).  Interesting, but I think you lose most of the Horde/Alliance dynamic which although seldom at play in reality nowadays provides the fundamental underpinning to the lore.

A Horde in an Alliance zone would become a free fire target for all alliance players in the “Empire” equivalent zone of 1.0 or -1.0.  NPC guards etc. would be present and vigorously assist in defense of the zones.  Remember those blissful days in Southshore/Tarren Mill circa 2005?

High sec (0.5-0.9 or -0.5 to -0.9) would be under the control of the appropriate faction, but as the security rating approached 0.4, the level of faction support would decrease.  Roving faction guards, etc. would assist in keeping defending the zone, with fewer present as security decreased.

In Low Sec (0.1 to 0.4 or -0.1 to -0.4) there would be no official presence other than at select points (similar to sentry guns on warp gates).  The closer the security rating to zero, the less vigorous the guards would react.  Think the guards at The Great Lift to Thousand Needles back in the old days.  An Alliance character could evade them and use the lift without too much trouble.

0.0 would represent true no man’s land.  No guards, free fire PvP.

A few examples:

Typical Empire Zone:
Dun Morogh, Elwynn Forest (1.0)
Tirisfal Glade, Durotar (-1.0)

Typical High Sec Zone:
The Barrens (-0.9)
Loch Moden (0.9)

Typical Low Sec Zone:
Duskwallow (0.4)
Desolace (-0.4)

Typical Null Sec Zone:
Eastern Plaguelands
Burning Steppes

The size of Azeroth might be a bit of a problem, but if CCP had designed WoW, it would have been much bigger with plenty of 0.0 wilderness in which to eke out an existence and engage in empire building.  With a creative distribution of necessary resources, this would create many opportunities for guilds and alliances to attempt to control portions of the map, vital trade routes etc.

Eve’s “endgame” if there is one, revolves around territorial conquest, so allowing portions of the map to be colonized and controlled by player groups would be key.  To that end, players would have to be able to build towns in the hinterlands of 0.0.

Like Player Owned Structures (Starbases) in Eve, guilds could establish keeps and build towns in the wilds with all the services they would need.  Of course, they would be destructible and capturable and require tending and maintenance to remain operational.

Progression

Say it with me: time-based, skill-based progression.  XP and levels (as we know them) are dead.  Ok, maybe not Eve’s I-can-finally-fly-a-titan-after-a-year’s-exclusive-training geologic time scale, but something similar would suffice.

Skills points would form the basis of progression.  Unlike the you-can-do-anything-if-you-train-it approach to Eve, fantasy archetypes should be maintained but with skill based progression within them.  Each class would be able to train and progress different class specific skills via real time training.  Like Eve, skill books could be purchased or collected as drops while others could become available from various trainers throughout the world or as rewards for epic missions.  Questing would remain, but rather than XP, items, skill books, faction and gold would be the reward much like Eve’s mission system.

Rather than levels, in Eve, the ships you are able to pilot are sometimes viewed as a sort of proxy for overall progression and status (yes, total skill points matter, but stick with me).  Your combat proficiency is a function of both the skills you’ve trained and your proficiency in using them.  As in Eve, PvP and PvE are very different games.

The closest analogy in WoW would be gear.  To use epic gear would require epic skills.  To use increasingly powerful gear would require having trained a set of skills to higher levels.  And like Eve, increasingly powerful gear has both strengths and weaknesses.  Doesn’t it just make sense that uber armor while offering enourmous defense comes at the cost of agility?  Shouldn’t an army of lowbie rogues in leather be able to give a highbie protection warrior a run for his money?

Want to use that uber 1337 shield?  Better have Level V shield skills trained.  Mount?  Buy one and get trained.  Wanna ride faster? Train to a higher level or train secondary skills (e.g., Steeplechase IV anyone?).  Want to gem that armor piece?  Not until you’ve trained it up.  The more you train, the better the effect.

Likewise, all other aspects of the game such as gathering, crafting, fishing, first aid, etc. would follow the same progression.  You would engage in these activities because you wanted to, i.e. you needed or wanted the output from the activity rather than mindlessly performing the same task for a skill up.  Since the output of these non-combat activities wasn’t necessary for progression, they might actually be useful for one of my favorite activities in MMOs…

The Economy

In Eve, destruction and loss provide the demand that drives the economy.  Things get blown up.  Stuff gets stolen.  As a result, things need to be repaired and replaced.  Since players manufacture nearly everything in the game.  Supply rises to meet demand, isk is made pews are pewed and all is good.

Everything in the economy needs to have some use.  No more vendor trash.  At least in the way we think of it in most MMOs.  In Eve, “useless” drops can be reprocessed into their constituent minerals which form the building blocks for the manufacture of all items in the game.  The closest analogy in WoW has been disenchanting and that’s really not very close since those components are only for augmentation rather than base manufacture.  Either expanding disenchanting or creating the functional equivalent of Eve’s reprocessing plant would turn all that vendor trash into commodities for the production of gear.  I’ve always wondered why a blacksmith could assemble armor, but never take it apart…Crafters rejoice.

In Eve, a ship might last you forever so long as you don’t get blown up.  And, as long as you don’t suffer too much damage, you don’t even need to pay for repairs.  If you are blown up however, buh bye.  Certain items may be utterly destroyed, others blasted into their constituent parts or perhaps damaged requiring significant repair.  While you would be rezzed, the dreaded corpse run returns in order to salvage your blasted bits.

Eve’s basic economy is the envy of most MMOs.  A key part of that are buy orders.  Add them.  At a glance, buy orders and sell orders accurately depict time and location shifted supply and demand.  Wait, location shifted?

Yup.  Eliminate gear mail.  In order to make the economy work and to foster emergent gameplay, travel, transport and risk are key.  Economics has been described as the study of the allocation of scarce goods.  Risk and geography are key to the pricing of scarce goods.  Time has value, risk mitigation has value.  Transport of goods would open up a whole new aspect of game play and opportunities for itemization.  High capacity pack mules or caravans anyone?  How about courier contracts?

Consider WoW’s lowly copper ore versus Eve’s tritanium.  Copper in WoW is relatively abundant and easy to obtain but is essentially useless unless you’re leveling an alt’s tradeskills and only then for a short time.  Tritanium is also relatively abundant and easy to obtain, but it also serves as the base manufacturing input for most items in Eve.  As a result, tritanium remains one of the most consistently lucrative minerals to seek out and constantly in demand.

Low risk, low yield in high sec, but higher risk higher yield is more dangerous locales…  Where demand exceeds supply and vice versa is opportunity for all manner of game play…Consider the possibilities.

Stay tuned for Part II.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on May 5, 2009 in Eve Online, World of Warcraft

 

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Can RvR Ever Work?

Been reading a few of the “Woe is WAR” posts floating around like Keen’s and on The Greenskin.  I’m reminded of similar discussions around Pirates of the Burning Sea (technical issues aside) as the struggle for the soul of the game evolved.

I’m left with the question in my brain of whether a primarily Realm versus Realm MMO can really have any chance of succeeding, or whether the MMO genre is really just too poorly suited to this kind of gameplay.

A persistent world with persistent characters comes with a price that may have some inherent limitations or conflicts when brought into contact with most MMO character progression models.  I didn’t play DAOC in its heyday, so forgive the lack of insight there.

I wonder what discussions roiled around the conference room tables when the Mythics and Flying Labs of the world discussed designing a faction oriented pvp game.  Without being exhaustive, I’d think they have to have pretty good answers to questions like these, and more importantly, the answers to any of them can’t conflict with answers to others.  No small task indeed.

What happens if:

  • one side is more popular than another?
  • one class is more popular than others?
  • there are not enough people to overcome PvE objectives?
  • there are not enough pople to overcome RvR objectives?
  • the population is spread across a number of regions?
  • the population is spread across a range of experience?
  • one faction dominates RvR objectives?
  • no one engages in RvR?
  • if RvR objectives are only undertaken when there are no likely defenders?
  • if there are players that don’t want to engage in RvR?
  • if a faction is “victorious”?
  • if a faction is “defeated”?
  • players only have a 2-hour block of time to play?
  • if players are unable to coordinate with each other?

and on and on.  I’m beginning to think that as soon as you replace factional progression with individual advancement, you’ve lost the RvR game.  Likewise, the opposite seems true too– as soon as you replace individual advancement with RvR progression, you lose the MMO game.

A game about “us” seems incompatible with a game about “me” and vice versa.  I’m hoping someone proves me wrong.

Just to avoid any confusion, PvP /= RvR and doesn’t suffer the same conflicts.  “Warfare” in a PvP game like Eve, for example, is an extrapolation of a one v. one conflict to a many v. many conflict.  Though complicated conflicts require specialization and coordination (just like PvE games), Eve remains an individual experience, whether or not you are part of a big corporation, whether or not you are Gallente, Caldari, Minmatar or Amarr.

Ultimately the rewards of the corporate warrior or the doughty miner inure to the individual, and any collective effort via corps and alliances, etc. are at their core still motivated by that individual advancement mechanic.  In Eve, thats mostly pecuniary.  ISK is King, and all good things come from ISK.  In PvE games, that’s levels and loot.

Self selective collaborative group effort is still built on an individual achievement model, just like PvE MMOs.  We run the instance to get the loot for ourselves and for our group mates’ “selves” but not for any conceptualized “us”.

My individual interests may have been aligned with those of Varian Wrynn from time to time, but if the King of Stormwind said “Go slay 1,000 scourge”, the first thing that comes to mind is “What’s in it for me?”  PvP and PvE allow us to keep individual score.  An RvR game has yet to crack that nut.

So can it be done or are we all doomed to me first MMOs?

 
13 Comments

Posted by on November 17, 2008 in Eve Online, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft

 

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A Map Makes a World

I’ve forever been mesmerized by maps. You map people out there are already nodding your heads. Its the E gene in my Bartle EASK personality.

I know I spent more time studying the maps in the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion than I ever did reveling in Tolkien’s, ahem, poetry or songs… In my table top days (modules, blech), when I was GM, the world always started with a map– a world of mystery in which to reveal adventure. Dark and wild forests, high frozen wastes, searing deserts, storm tossed seas, windswept isles and perilous journeys in between…

The geography creates half the story. Consider the Caradhras Pass and Moria.

One of the things that grabbed me on day one about EQ’s Norrath was the map. As a wee noob, I could make the death defying run from Ak-Anon to Qeynos and see first hand the wide and dangerous world. Simply, the world was a place and that place was subdivided into wonderfully diverse and mysterious zones, all interconnected (zoning or no zoning, it still had the feel of being one world).

The map created that sense of space on Day One.

One of the things I’m missing a bit from Warhammer is the same feeling of one giant world. I’m told (though I haven’t tried) you can run from the noob zone to a capital city. I’ve no doubt it can be done with a certain amount of dying. Part of that feeling comes less from the way the game is designed (3 factions with four tiers of progression, each with matched pair zones) and more from simply the way the world is presented in the map.

The Warhammer map is kind of a chopped up affair. Somewhat sensibly, the default view is your zone view. But there are three relevant viewpoints for Warhammer maps– zone, “Campaign” or “pairing” and world. Unfortunately, switching between these views is a bit clunky, only marginally useful and frankly very unworld like despite the fact that the zones are contiguous. To go from viewing the Empire starting area, you need to either select a different campaign pairing from a menu selection in the upper right or select world or pairing view from buttons below the zone map.

In a Google maps world, I would hazard a guess that most users have some expectation to be able to zoom in and zoom out by simple left and right clicking. In a post-WoW world, I’d hazard a guess that MMO players would expect to be able to left click to zoom in and right click to zoom out to shift their frame of reference. Its not trivial whats lost in the translation.

The WoW world map is made up of actual clickable zones. Even if all the landmass isn’t accessible within them, each zone butts up against all the others (and is depicted as such) or is separated by some immersion consistent barrier (i.e. the ocean). Zone, right click, continent, right click, world, left click, other continent, etc. Like nested dolls, they all fit together. Ditto for LoTRO. Ditto for EQ2.

WARs zones are depicted as merely boxes on a world map underlay or they’re circles connected by dotted lines on the pairing map. Quite frankly, I feel like I’m living in boxes despite the fact that the world is quite broad and interconnected and the main roads (mostly) “line up” between them. Even though the world is much more WoW or EQ2 like (contigous zones) the map makes it feel like Age of Conan’s world in boxes! The truth is, Norsca connects directly with Troll Lands, so why the dotted line of mystery?

When you flip perspectives, you lose the sense of interconnectedness of the zones. Within a zone map, I’d like to be able to click to go to the immediately adjacent zone without going “back out” and “back in”. This is particularly cumbersome in the RvR lakes where the lake and objectives are spread across zone boundaries (separate discussion about whether having a battleground span a zone boundary is a good idea…).

A perfect example is the Tier 2 Empire/Chaos pairing of Troll Country and Ostland. In the RvR lake there, there is a battlefield objective (Monestary of Morr) and a keep (Stone Troll Keep) in Troll Country and another battle field objective (Crypt of Weapons) and a keep (Mandred’s Hold) in the adjacent Ostland zone. Mandred, the Crypt and the Monastery and the warcamps are a very short distance from each other.

Each faction has a warcamp conveniently located nearby and battles often zerg from one objective or keep to another depending on where the attackers and defenders might be tied up. Its quite a pain to see if a battle is happening just down the road which is technically in another zone by opening your map, selecting the pairing map, selecting the next zone and then clicking into that to see if there are any RvR battles going on, ooops shanked by a Witch Elf, gurgle dead.

Question whether it would have been a better design decision to make RvR lakes an indepdent zone between each of the pairing zones… Discuss.

Then there’s the mysterious criss cross between Tier 2 and Tier 3 in Empire/Chaos. Not being Tier 3 yet, I can’t verify what’s going on, but I’m getting a real EQ/Boat on the Ocean of Tears feeling about those zones…

Another aspect of the disjointed clunkiness of the map is the loss of navigational sense. Here, I’m mostly thinking of Saylah’s post regarding the defense of Altdorf. Altdorf is, ahem, a challenging city to navigate. That’s made more difficult by the fact that the Altdorf map, even if discovered, offers no labels for major landmarks, let alone zone access points.

Case in point. I’m a noob, Destro is making their move on Altdorf, I’m in Altdorf, and even if I’m aware of the attack and that I’m supposed to go to defend the Reikwald or the Reikland, where do I go? The Altdorf map offers no clue. Had I not happened across a swirly when I was looking for the entrance to the Sewers, I wouldn’t have been aware of it. Apparently, I’m not alone.

All of the activity in Altdorf revolves around market square, the flight master, the auction house and bank, etc. Even the noob “Tour of Altdorf” quest doesn’t take you near the War Quarters which are gigantic and largely deserted. A better depiction of Altdorf and its physical placement in the world answers that basic navigational issue. Where the hell is the gate to the city?

Its an irony of an RvR game that a faction’s capital city is entirely unaccessible to the low level player EXCEPT by flying in. Just like when we fly to a city we’ve never been to, we have no real sense of geographical place in our minds. Airports, taxis, buildings, traffic, hotels, but what lies beyond?

Consider EQ2 or WoW where all noob roads eventually lead to the big city and its sense of awe and wonder. No wonder all those peasants stay inside the walls, its a dangerous world out there! Goldshire it ain’t.

So that’s my rambling directionless Friday rant on WAR maps. Anybody else get the same feeling? The maps shape my virtual world view and my worldview feels like a bunch of boxes even though I know its not the case. I’d love to see some tweaks to the map to “bring the world together” a bit and make RvR FEEL like there’s a real R there.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on October 17, 2008 in Everquest 2, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft

 

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