Interesting choices

A theme has been circulating around the blogosphere of late, several posts for which its too late and I’m too lazy to link back to (apologies), that have been commenting on aspects of gameplay that can be loosely categorized as requiring (or at least permitting) the player to make “interesting choices”.  I’ve been somewhat busy and remiss in commenting on them, but ultimately think they are on to something…

In some games like Rift with its multivariate soul system, that means that players get to make interesting choices about character development and differentiation.  Likewise those choices in theory permit a player to choose how to configure one’s character for a given play scenario– instanced dungeon, rifting, solo pve, solo pvp, etc.

Gordon at We Fly Spitfires and Wil at The Ancient Gaming Noob both touched on a few aspects of class design that highlighted another aspect of player choice or the (merits of the) limits thereof.  Likewise, Keen had a few good thoughts on old EQ which resonated.

My own recent experiences on the progression server in EQ which were initially borne of nostalgia and perhaps a bit of a masochistic streak have been validated well beyond the mere “lets go see how bad it was and we can blog about it” angle.

I’m having a good time on Fippy Darkpaw.  Its not easy.  There is no definitive path.  Death is my copilot.  Travel can take both time and luck…  My druid may know two dozen spells, some of dubious value, but can only equip eight at a time.  Choices.  I can’t cast them all, only the ones I’ve memorized.  A load out.

Once out of the pure noob zone, our progression has been fueled by a desire to “see the world”.  There is no definitive path.  We’ve zigged and zagged across Antonica and now to Faydwer to serve a our own goal or to build our own story.  Not a narrative that came out of a team meeting and was preordained by the only progression mechanic permitted but rather one of our own making.

There’s an interesting tension in reading about the seemingly extreme flexibility of Rift’s design paradigm and the rather rigid structure of old EQ, however both are based on creative player choice.  I wonder what problem they are truly trying to solve.

In the case of Rift, players have what appear to be myriad choices and are thus capable of adapting their characters to emergent gameplay situations.  In old EQ, its more like chess.  Or even Rock, Paper, Scissors.  Each piece(class) has certain attributes and to be effective, a player has to learn, analyze and make creative choices to be effective.  In essence, rigidity creates unique opportunity for making interesting choices and emergent gameplay.  Players are forced to solve problems with the tools they are given.  This is a good thing.

Encounters aren’t so finely tuned that there is, in essence, only one solution of player classes and actions that permits success, but rather, the opposite– multivariate solutions permit success and thus create a dynamic choice environment for players.  Iteration and innovation in situational tactics permit success on many levels.

That sounds like a bit of a high falutin’ way to describe that I tend to enjoy games that emphasize creative problem solving (given a relatively limited set of resources) more than those that restrict the “solution set” and rely merely on execution– Dance Dance Revolution writ large.  One successful strategy, one optimum group composition, etc.

More problematic, IMHO, is the fact that mainstream games like WoW have trivialized the leveling game completely removing any meaningful player choice.  Likewise, raiding (I’m not a raider) and for that matter current instanced dungeon content, only requires execution rather than tactics and strategy.  Regardless of your class choice, the optimal solution requires X effective dps, Y effective hp of the tank, and Y effective mana of the healer.

I’m probably in the minority, but I’m certainly more interested in the journey rather than the destination.  Currently, I’m enjoying the journey involved in a twelve year old game over everything offered in the current crop of MMOs.  It will be interesting to see whether the convergent trend to in essence no free will or player choice trump more open systems in the next few major releases.

I suspect I’ll be playing GW2 more than SW:TOR.

 

Around the virtual world, again

Haven’t had much to say of late, because, well, I haven’t had much to say.  Seems most of the sentient universe is spending some time in Rift.  As I noted before, I’ve decided to pass on Rift for now, though I’m not getting into the Rift/Not-Rift flame wars.

I beta-ed Rift and like it quite a bit.  But for some reason, it just didn’t quite grab me though I have nothing but good things to say about its production quality.  Given what we’ve seen in recent years, it restores my hope that the industry can actually produce a game that is worth buying on day one.  Unfortunately, that is saying a lot.

Likewise, after an initial bout of new MMO expansion enthusiasm, the obvious flaws of Cataclysm have left me little enthusiasm to spend much time there.  I got my non-instance group “solo” character to the cap in the middle of Twilight Highlands and stalled.  The linearity and the excessive phasing sucked out any enthusiasm I had for feeding my alt-itis.

I like to explore.  I like to explore the game world, I like to explore what other classes play like and I like to explore how virtual economies work, etc., etc.  Gating off parts of the world behind quest phase walls is the antithesis of a virtual world to me.  If there is a far off, dangerous and exotic place to visit, I want to be able to make my adventure getting there whether I’m a level one noob, level capped or anywhere in between.  Playing with friends or guildies, even in the same zone, is nearly impossible.

Returning to EQ on the time locked Fippy Darkpaw progression server has been a breath of 12 year old fresh air.  Experiment has turned into a bit of an obsession as Wilhelm and I have re-immersed ourselves into the EQ of old.  As a concession to our play budgets and the game mechanics, we are both dual boxing the game which adds its own new experiences.

Its a worldly world.  It takes time to progress.  Combat is slow enough and unpredictable enough to require you to make interesting choices.  Including the choice to run like hell to the zone line.  Death hurts and fear is a powerful motivator.  While on Fippy Darkpaw the death penalty is not the 1999 naked corpse run version, loss of XP and respawning at your bind point makes you more thoughtful.

There are dozens of places I can go to explore and go hunting.  The general freedom from quest driven content has actually been liberating.  Its been a while, but I’m finally beginning to understand what folks like Saylah and Tipa and others have been talking about for the past few years.  Group experiences are still fun, tactics matter and you get to see and experience the world as a living place– with your friends.

A number of explorer types are reporting good experiences with Rift, especially at the higher levels, but I’m still curious whether that will hold up longer than the three-month windows folks have been discussing in the blogosphere.

I hope so, because at this point, there is very little in the MMO space that looks like it can offer the kind of experience I’ve been craving.   I’ve got high hopes for Guildwars 2 and am cautiously pessimistic about SW:TOR since it will likely be fourth-pilloried on its story heavy construction.  But for now, I feel like I’ve been all the way around the MMO-sphere and ended up right where I started 12 years ago.

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.