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.

Paying Attention…

As noted before, doing scenarios in WAR is one of the fastest ways to gain experience while at the same time earning some gold and more importantly, gaining renown which gives you access to renown gear sold from renown gear merchants.

While I’m sure there are plenty of random drops that might be better, etc. (insert your own discussion regarding renown v. influence v. random/quest loot itemization here), the renown gear is at least more certain to come by, affordable and IMHO pretty darned nice over all.

Of course, that only applies when you can actually purchase the gear.  In Nordland where I’ve been playing my tank and healer to help out the understaffed Empire, there are two renown merchants at the Breuer’s Regiment warcamp.  I guess I never really gave it much thought why there were two…

Bountyman Lipschultz and his colleague a few feet away:

I’ve been playing a few different alts through these scenarios which pop pretty frequently on the Order side, so leveling is quick and sometimes there’s hardly any time to turn in the scenario and kill quests nearby.  So when I’ve been hitting the next renown or regular rank, I tend to run down to a nearby carear trainer and the quickly back to pick up the new scenario quest and oh yeah, find the nearest renown merchant to see if I’m up for new gear.

Long story short, I’m fumbling my way through scenarios and realized I’m starting to get undergeared and wondering when that next tier of armor becomes available… Check with Lipschultz and I got nothing.  Nothing even in the near future.  Damn, must be in the next tier then.

So I run around a bit, then I happen upon the Chapter 3 influence rewards which would be a good upgrade.  Ok, I’ll grind that a bit and get my upgrade.  For whatever reason, I had some crap to sell, so I clicked on Cohen, whom I seldom visit because she’s all of two more steps away from her colleague (time is renown, my friends) and woe is me, she has all the damned armor rewards. /facepalm

How I could have overlooked this, I have no idea.  To much back and forth in and out of scenarios not paying attention.  Of course, it would have been a bit easier for dumbshits like myself to simply label the two vendors “Renown Weapons Merchant” and “Renown Armor Merchant” (especially since the one renown vendor in Grimmenhagen sells both…), but ultimately, it was me being a stoop.

Knowledge in hand, now all my alts are appropriately equiped…

Its a Group Thing

Been spending a bit more time in post-cataclysm Norrath of late.  Sony Online Entertainments “Legends of Norrath” promotion got Mrs. P and me sucked back in in large part due to Gaff’s urging.  So far, I can’t say I have any regrets.

As I mentioned before, I had bailed out before when EQ2 was the 3d game for me.  3d game means that’s the one I don’t play.

I like to explore and I like to play with a few select friends.  And, from time to time, I enjoy crafting.  All of these takes a fair amount of time.  Exploration is its own reward.

Group play is its own challenge– time wise its no where near as “efficient” as well-studied solo play or  some kind of Machiavellian minmax group play but its infinitely more rewarding.  Of course with current game design, sharing content and experiences with others requires an almost herculean effort.

In games like EQ2 and City of Heroes/Villains, there are mechanism that allow players of different levels to play together, but lets face it, the higher level player is mostly playing with the lowbie as a charitable act.  Chances are they have already experienced the shared content.

Mrs. P and I have been exploring the evil side of Norrath and generally having a good time.  Gaff has about 87 characters on no less than 34 accounts of all races, genders, classes and levels, and is quite adept at multiboxing so I think he’s hoping we stick with things long enough to plug into one of his multi box groups.  We’re actually looking forward to replicating on a much smaller scale some of our WoW group experiences.

As no doubt Wilhelm will report this week, we had a challenging weekend foray with our WoW group.  As Mrs. P and I retired in the wee hours Saturday/Sunday, I prattled on in my usual Monday morning quarterback fashion about the night’s efforts.

While we were not altogether successful in our primary goals, I was reminded of the extremely rarefied space our little band of adventurers occupies.  Three of us have been playing as a regular group since WoW’s release in December 2004.  Four of us have been playing together since about April or May 2005.   The latest incarnation of our group has been playing together since September 2006.

In a few short months our current group will have been at it nearly two extremely casual years.  In WoW terms, we are finally nearing the current level cap (70).  Until last week when we lifted the self-imposed soft level cap, we had managed to stay within about 1/3 of a level of each other after nearly two years of play with wildly divergent play budgets.  Not too bad I’d say.

As Mrs. P and I were doing the post-instance night post-mortem, it occurred yet again to me what an amazing accomplishment we’ve achieved irrespective of the night’s outcome.  One of us had a baby, four of us moved, one about 800 miles in the same time zone, one about 3000 miles two time zones away, one of us a few dozen miles and one of us twice in that period of time.  One of us lived out of a suitcase for more than a year and still managed to make our Saturday night runs and when they moved to their new permanent abode not miss the Saturday night event after the move.

No thanks to any game mechanic, through heroic efforts of self restraint and self auto regulation, we have shared collectively extraordinary experiences.  Indeed the chronicles of the group that Wilhelm has recorded has created that singular heroic fantastical narrative of shared experience that MMOs should strive to provide for their subscribers.

When I look back on it, we have a single shared narrative which should be the essence of the MMO experience IMHO.  If you read Wil’s amusing and insightful reportage of our collective adventures, you are in fact largely seeing all the data points of the collective narrative.  Except for perhaps crafting, there is no other narrative.  What you see is pretty much our five individual and collective stories in the game universe.

As we’re getting a bit more immersed into the EQ2 scene and frankly a bit bored with everything else currently out there, I’m struck by fundamentally different character of the experience we’ve been having in WoW and Tipa and the Nostalgia the Guild folks have been having back in EQ.  I’m hoping we might replicate at least a shred of the same thing in EQ2.

Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety but I’m not seeing any of the current crop of games make this kind of gameplay easier.  The “all solo” MMO is a function of the reality that we all have different play budgets and asynchronous progression is the new norm.  I can’t help but think that we’ve lost something by turning the dial completely to solo and not to provide mechanisms whereby different folks with different play budgets can still play together and create the shared experiences that are the most rarified that MMOs have to offer.

I’m not sure there’s a eureka moment buried here as its late, but I gotta think the devs might have a few better ideas than mine to facilitate this kind of gameplay.  Capping XP generation would be a start, but many more aspects would also need to be managed in order to accommodate different play styles and still support the unique squad-based objective.  Thats different from a guild, that’s different from “i have friends who also play the game”.

Then again, maybe I’m over thinking it.  Maybe all it takes is a group of people committed to coloring within the lines and being selfless enough to recognize that a greater good comes out of self restraint and “staying with the group” as they adventure through a virtual world.  I sure wish a few devs would bend their brains to make it a bit easier for us though…

3d World, 2D Map, WTF

Mrs. P had to pop over to Darnassus the other day to run some errands (much easier for a mage to just pop over, but don’t get me started) and mentioned what a shame it is that its so underpopulated. Blizz must have spent so much time on it and its so underutilized compared to Stormwind or Ironforge (if you’re alliance that is).

Demonstrating my firm grasp of the obvious, I agreed with her and lamented that “that’s life in a city on the edge of the map.” Demonstrating my virtual multiculturality, I suggested that its really not that different from Thorin’s Halls in LotRO or Ak’Anon back in Everquest. Edge cities. Off the beaten path.

Wait a minute. Edge cities? Edge of what? A 2D map? Don’t we play in 3d fantasy worlds? Why couldn’t the gnomish equivalent of Magellan sail east from Ak’Anon and get to Qeynos?

norrath_final.jpg

I’ll give Thorin’s Halls a pass here (and any other “regional” game like DAOC or PotBS), because LotRO’s world really is only one region of Middle Earth, Eriador, so the concept of the edge of the game world is consistent at least.

eriador.jpg

But why shouldn’t I be able to sail from Booty Bay to Darnassus or the Exodar (or at least Feathermoon)? Or go left from the left, right from the right, up from up or down from down? Of course that probably explains why there are no cities on the east side of the Eastern Kingdoms… Even so, we still persist in reinforcing the hot equator/cold poles paradigm (which again implies a spherical world because of the differing density of solar radiation received).

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Flat worlds are sooooo 13th century. How bout a “next gen” virtual world that is a sphere?

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