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An Ongoing Tribute to my own lameness.....

General random thoughts about gaming, both within and outside of the MMO genre.

Author: Jimmy_Scythe

A Massive Problem

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Thursday September 27 2007 at 5:40PM
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So there seems to be a large cross current of the MMORPG community that believes that the genre sucks. We generally fall into two camps: Those of us who think the genre was once good and has gone bad, and those of us that think the genre has always been crap. Regardless of what side you fall on, you can produce all kinds of reasons why you think MMORPGs should be killed with fire. Things like grind and.... well.... mostly grind, lead us in a chorus of complaint. But then again, what is it that you expect from this genre? It isn't like this sort of thing has been done before.

Yes, I realize the UO came out in '98 and that we've had MUDs since the late '70s. However, the idea of a game that goes on 24/7 and involves thousands of players that join the game at different points in the progress thereof is something that has never been possible before. Sure, many of us have played a game of Killers at conventions, or been involved in large LARP and paintball / airsoft events, but these games had definite beginnings and endings with all players starting and stopping at the same time. Likewise, I could do a bastardized version of PBEM Diplomacy that used a custom hex map and had thousands of players, but eventually the game would end with a clear winner. Also players of the Diplomacy variant would not be able to drop in and play at any time or for as long as they wanted. MMORPGs are meant to go on forever, with the players coming and going at random times, for random session lengths, without winners. WTF?!

Let's break this down a little bit. First, MMO is a technology and RPG is a type of game. The first MUD that was ever made was more of a social space meant to emulate adventure games like Zork. The first version of MUD didn't even include combat. The idea was to make a big chat room. Consider that you can only have about forty people in a Yahoo chat room. Now consider the fact that the average MMORPG server has a population of about 3k players and global chat. That's a pretty impressive step up. Now consider that RPGs began as tabletop games for 3 to 10 players. Hmm....

When you look at the concept of the MMORPG in this perspective, you see how completely grab-ass the entire design concept is. While MUDs stayed fairly true to the spirit of pen and paper RPGs by designing for small parties (8 or less) and heavily relying on GMs, MMORPGs are designed for forty man raids and are just too damn big to make providing a staff of full time GMs feasible. What's more, the idea that there are no winners or losers in an RPG is undermined by the stress on levels and tiered gear. To be completely honest, UO was just throwing a couple thousand people into Ultima 7 and seeing what came out. Is it any wonder that the genre turned out this way?

Inversely, MMO games shine when they are designed with their nature in mind. It's no accident that most popular web-based MMOs are either purely social or strategy in nature. Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin, and Second Life are big, big hits because they play up to the social possibilities of MMO technology. Games like Battle Dawn and Pardus work because they are specifically designed with hundreds or even thousands of gamers at a time in mind. There are even a few regular MMOs that “get it.” Eve Online works because it's basically a business sim at its heart. Starport works for much the same reason, and because it has regular server resets with clear winners and losers. If MMOs would take more sim-like approach to design, there's a very real possibility that the quality of the games would improve.

Right now, developers are just kind of stumbling through the dark. This worked in the beginning of video game history because games could be made in 3 to 6 months and a session could be played in fifteen minutes or less. That won't work in an industry that takes 5 years to make a game and several months for a player to complete said games content. Trial and error is entirely too slow, and building on what worked last fiscal quarter is beyond stupid when you consider that most gamers didn't even play the majority of the most popular MMORPGs content in that time period. Add the fact that few of these games are really designed as MMOGs and following in the footsteps of a more popular games is a shakier idea yet. The catch-.22 here is that even if you design for a massively multiplayer environment, it could still be several years before you can accurately point to what worked and what didn't. If you'll ever be able to do that at all.

Let's be honest for a minute, WoW doesn't have to be an MMO. You could offer everything, EVERYTHING that WoW offers as a dedicated online RPG. Auction houses, instanced dungeons, forty man raids, all of it. The difference would be that you would have to take the Guild Wars route of hub towns so that players could meet and greet. Other than that, WoW wouldn't change one little bit. In fact, you could actually disguise the hub towns by making it so that the towns were streamed seemlessly  into the over-world map. You wouldn't see players that you didn't bring with you when traveling between towns, but you wouldn't notice the transition when you entered or exited towns either. With a little clever coding, you could even allow people to who leave town at roughly the same time to play in the same over-world instance, thus providing the illusion that the world was actually persistent. With this in mind, why make MMORPGs in the same mold as EQ and WoW?

The only thing that works like MMOG, in real life human experience, is real life. Unfortunately, when you design a game this way it demands too much of the player. Part of the reason why business and political sims work as web games is because everything is condensed into a few far-reaching decisions. You can put everything into order in just a few minutes per session and check in periodically throughout the day. Aside from a few emails to in-game allies and adversaries, the game doesn't monopolize your time. This is why Eve players are always talking about how the game can be played casually. Once you get some starting capital going in Eve, it plays like a business sim that you can use to fund your occasional piracy / bounty hunting habit. Question: Why can't a similar model be adopted for ground-based fantasy and sci-fi settings?

I think the best answer to that question comes from the way that we approach those settings. Eve Online takes its cues from Elite. EQ and all of it's clones are taking their cues from Wizardry and Rogue. In Fantasy CRPGs, the setting is just a prop for dungeon crawling and thats it. With games like Elite or The Sims, The interacting with the game world is an integral part of the game. Playing the markets and finding trade routes in Elite was just as important as dogfighting. In any of the AD&D “Gold Box Games,” the gameplay was confined to hitting plot points in the main story arch and crawling dungeons. In fact, I can't think of a single RPG that had a dynamic world economy or any way to make money outside of quests that usually involved killing the big baddie at the bottom of a dungeon and / or retrieving something. Once you step away from this model, you end up in sim territory with games like Europa 1400: The Guild 2. Inside the traditional CRPG model, you're working with a tree structure where the player controls the flow of narrative through branches at the plot points.

The only way you can make the Traditional CRPG tree structure into an MMORPG is if you have diametrically opposed plot trees. That is, if one faction passes point A in their tree then it shifts point B for a different faction. This can all be done, but talk about complicated and prone to bugs! It only gets worse as you add factions to the game. Don't get me wrong, you could probably generate the tree itself algorithmically and fill in the lore details by hand, but that would still be one major pain in the ass.

Now before you begin thinking that I'm advocating a “sandbox” approach, I'd like to point out the Asian factor here. The basic Korean grinder is just a large map with several control points (castles or wot not) that exists for the sole purpose of large scale battles. While this is a MMOG design, it's still kind of half ass'd. I personally love the idea of large scale warfare, but I have a problem with using the RPG format to achieve it. If you're going to make a game with large scale PvP as the focus, then make it a pure player killing game. That means no monsters and combat XP being awarded on PvP alone. I guess you could allow players to gather simple materials to craft items from, but that's about it. Personally, I would prefer that a game like this resemble an online version of Dynasty Warriors or Mount & Blade, but we don't exactly have the technology for that kind of thing yet. We do have the technology for FPS and flight sim games like Planetside, WWII Online, and Aces High 2. So bring on the MMO version of Battlefield! Several MMO players have voiced a desire for this over the last several years. Deliver it and the cash will flow...

In the end, devs shouldn't be making games with MMO technology if it isn't essential to the game design. If you're an indie developer and you're thinking of starting a small MMORPG, please take a lesson from the big boys mistakes and don't make your game into an MMORPG if it can be done in some other way. We need to let the technology fit the game rather than just stamp a game onto the technology.

Wait For It...

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday September 23 2007 at 5:34PM
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So you run out and drop $50 on the newest MMORPG release. You hand over your credit card info so they can automatically charge  you $15 a month and start playing. You go all limp and creamy over the new graphics and feel refreshed by the change of setting as you proceed to knock down quests and level your character. Then, about a week into it, you realize something. This game is boring as hell.

I'm going to stop this example here and explain that this probably isn't true for first time MMORPG players. For those of us who have been around the block a time or two however, we tend to get a sense of deja vu fairly quickly. Of course, if you're a veteran MMORPG player, you'll know the off the cuff answer to your boredom: "The game really doesn't start until you hit the endgame." WTF?!

Why in the hell do I have to wait for the space of three months to a year (depending on time invested per week) to have fun? This idea is doubly retarded when you consider that these games charge a flat monthly fee and don't get any extra money for the length of any given session. There is no reward for the devs or the players to demand XXX amount of hours before they can settle down and have fun.

Now I know how some of you are going to react to all of this. Some of you are going to say that I'm an "instant gratification, freeloading carbear" that wants everything handed to me. Two responses to that:

  1. If the only fun you receive from a game is the reward then you might as well be "playing" a slot machine.
  2. We play games to alleviate boredom or break up the monotony of our daily lives. wasting our precious free time on boring grind defeats the purpose of playing a game in the first place!

With that out of the way, I want to break this problem down a little bit in order to zero in on some possible solutions. I'm going to try to keep an eye out for ideas that either haven't been tried yet, or haven't shown up on the forums. I may not find any new ideas, but it's possible that we can put a new enough spin on well worn ideas to put all of this in a new light.

The first major problem that contributes to boredom is the focus on killing mobs as the only way to advance. Some games give you a paltry amount of XP for going into an area that you've never been before, but these games generally revolves around killing and crafting. The former is about as exciting as watching a ten second boxing clip loop for two hours and the latter is as much fun as doing your taxes. Question: Don't the people of <insert fantasy / sci-fi universe here> do anything for fun? Another question: What do the people of <insert fantasy / sci-fi universe here> do for a living?

The reason I ask this is because almost all of the MMORPGs that I've played haven't really shown the things that the "natives" of said game world would do in their off time. Every game has a pub, but there really isn't anything to do there but chat. Have you been to your local bar lately? Not only do they serve drinks, but many of them have pool tables, dart boards, a juke box, and I don't think I've ever been in a RL tavern that didn't have a TV hanging over the bar and turned on. Yet for some reason, the inhabitants of Norath and Azeroth don't even play cards, dice, or primitive board games. Even in the Middle Ages, people bet on dice! And wouldn't it be cool if your character started showing the physical signs of being drunk after a few too many? You would kind of stumble around, things that are too far away would get blurry, every time you typed a message, it would be filtered so that it read like drunken slurr, etc. But apparently no one does any of these things in the worlds of most MMORPGs. Hell, they don't even play sports! Phantasy Star Online Episode 2 offered a basic soccer game in the lobbies, but no other MMORPG even acknowledges that there might be other things to do in the game world than kill monsters and get "PHAT L00TZ." Strange when you consider that these games are supposed to be sold on their social aspect.

Ultima Online was probably the only game to answer the question of what the people of Britainia did for a living. It also got blasted by critics for requiring players to make millions of skull caps in order to get the money for gear before they could kill so much as a rabbit. Or as was more often the case, before they survive a rabbit attack. In spite of this, UO had one of the best crafting systems of any MMORPG. It also forced players to pick a "civilian" occupation before moving on to be and adventurer. This actually fits with heroic fiction in popular culture. Luke Skywalker was a farmer before he went on a quest to become a Jedi. Bilbo Baggins was a well-to-do homebody before being whisked away by Gandolf and a gaggle of dwarves. Peter Parker was a bookish high school nerd before he became Spider Man. Dedicated warriors and states men are rare, even in this day and age. While you will find people working as soldiers or policemen, you'll probably feel compelled to ask them why they chose that particular profession in private conversation. In times past, this was even more true since most soldiers were conscripts or wealthy landowners that could afford their own weapons. With the exceptions of rogues and wizards, everyone else should have a "day job." I guess rangers would be an exception too since their "day job" is living in the woods away from civilization.

Giving the player something else to do is only a partial solution though. A more robust solution would straighten out the leveling curve to a great degree. This can be done in several ways, but I personally like the skill system over the leveling system. A skill system, if done right, makes it impossible for everyone to cover all of the bases. While you may be awesome at dual wielded axes, someone else is outstanding at sneaking and backstabbing. While yet another person is profoundly perceptive and magically inclined. No one can dominate in every situation at all times. With levels, you get railroaded into formula solutions to problems and that is the very essence of boredom. You can still get around this by making the power gaps between levels less pronounced and eliminating gear bonuses on non-exclusive items. In short, there should be only a small number of +20 Sporks of Doom to be had and the class that can wield such a weapon should have an achilles heal or two. However, after so much of a difference in levels, the same old problems of exclusion step in.

In the end, the only real solution to this problem is to design these games as social spaces first and games second. Currently, we're designing these as games first, last, and always. Is it any wonder that people rush to the level cap, get bored and leave?


Browser based MMOs

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Tuesday September 18 2007 at 12:55AM
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So I've been really busy lately and the only games that I've been able to shoehorn into my schedule have been browser based MMOs. The Problem is, most of them suck. So in the public interest, I want to talk about what works and what doesn't work within the context of the browser based medium and why these games could be so much more than what they currently are. Since just about everyone here has the resources to make a passable web game, my bitching may actually accomplish something for a change.

For those of you that don't know, there is a rather large niche for casual browser based games. Most of these games are strategy or sports games like Pardus or Hattrick. More niche still are the RPG style games cast in the mold of the old BBS game Legend of The Red Dragon. The modern incarnation of LORD being Legend of The Green Dragon. While this game was good for the BBSs of olde, they don't quite utilize the full potential of the web. Normally, the only interaction that players have in these newer browser MMORPGs are the ability to chat or do one on one duels with each other. I personally feel that these could be done better.

Let's start with the things are done right.

1) Random encounters - LORD had a number of random things that could happen to the player while out hunting monsters in the woods. This gave the game a sense of immersion that is often times missing in AAA titles of the current generation. More of these would be nice, and create break from the insanely dry grind that constitutes much of the gameplay in browser MMOs.

2) Limited turns - I know that many people will disagree with me on this one, but I feel that limiting how much the player can actually do over a given amount of time helps keep the field level, reduces the cost of bandwidth, and allows players to actually play other games. Time sinks have never made any sense to me. You aren't getting anymore money for hours played, so why force players to play constantly. Even though many of these games operate on advertising and / or donations, keeping the player for more than an hour a day just isn't a very good idea.

3) Server resets - This actually only applies to strict LORD clones. In LORD, the goal is to be the first to level up and defeat the Red Dragon. Since everyone has the same amount of turns, it's all about who uses their time the most efficiently. Once the Red Dragon is defeated, the server gets reset and the player who won gets to start with a slight bonus for the next round. Clearly designed long term goals are a good thing in casual games. Giving players something to shoot for besides just being uber is one of those things that I think all MMORPGs should adopt.

4) Character tweaking - You set the stats. You restat. You are basically in complete control. Autoleveling does not happen in most of these games. These are games of pure statistics and they don't hide that fact. This is also a major problem and we're about to get to that.

Now lets move on to  the things that should be killed with fire.

1) Spreadsheet combat - I realize that most of these games are text, but come the fuck on!!! Why does it take me over five turns to kill a lvl 1 rat?! Fuck!! It doesn't even take that long to kill a slime in the beginning of Dragon Warrior for the NES!!! I just can't get excited about clicking on links that give me options to automatically take one, five or ten turns at a time. The very practice is nothing more than a reminder that I'm playing a fantasy based slot machine! I can understand boss fights and high level mob fights taking more than a few turns, but low level monsters shouldn't devour truckloads of turns and thus character actions. Furthermore, it wouldn't be that difficult to at least add some graphics for the monster you're fighting. Some games, like Legacy, actually do this but the combat still feels incredibly bland due to the unnecessarily long combat. A few graphics and sounds aren't that hard to fit into a web page and would add a great deal to most of these games.

2) Lack of exploration - Everything in these games is a link. This isn't all that bad, but it definitely makes the level grind way more pronounced. Your turns are spent on combat and most of the time you even choose what critter you're fighting against. How hard would it be to implement a simple grid that the player could move through and encounter monsters randomly. Uban Dead and the One Hundred Room Dungeon of Dragon Fable are about the only browser games that I know of that have any kind of exploration and random encounters at all. Yes, I know that talking to NPCs will open up "quests" (usually killing  a specific monster) and new "towns," but that isn't exactly the same as dungeon crawling. There's no reason why a browser game can't resemble something like Wizard's Crown or Akalabeth.

3) Lack of player interaction - Some games have actually tried to make up for this with deeper PvP. Carnage Blender being the first game that pops into mind since it revolves around players controlling parties of characters in PvP. Dragon Fable allows players to bring a couple of friends along in combat and Urban Dead is about as close to a web based MUD as you can probably get. All these games have email and guilds and wot not, but none of them really have any reason for using these tools except to PvP with people that you know. While some games do have auction houses, this is hardly standard.

4) Painfully linear gear progression - I find it really odd that tweaking character stats is so robust in these games but the gear is a straight progression without any deviation at all. There's also a pronounced absence of crafting in most of these games. The shops are normally selling one set of armor and weapons for a given level milestone, usually earmarked by price. There's really no incentive to buy anything other than the weapon with the highest damage and accuracy. While this all seems pretty par for the course, it actually has a kind of domino effect on combat in general. Since there are no tactical considerations outside of what skills you'll be using, you generally stay away from less accurate weapons and skills. In a game where you could occupy the back line of a party formation, or instance, ranged weapons with less accuracy could make sense. Since you're always solo and everything is done Dragon Warrior style, there's no need to be anything but conservative.

So now that I have that out of the way, I'd like to talk about three things that could actually make these games an order of magnitude better. I've already touched on these things in the previous two lists, but I want to go a little bit more in depth. Don't worry, I'm not going to do another list ;-)

Let's start at the heart. Even with the standard model of turn-based combat, there's room for improvement. For starters, why all the missing? I dug out a few of my olde skool 8-bit RPGs from back in the day and gave them a run for comparison. Phantasy Star, Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy (the original), In all three of these titles, character and monsters rarely missed. This is actually a no brainer when you consider that players want to feel in control. Excessive missing just makes the player feel powerless and reiterates the fact that it's all just dice rolls and number crunching. Furthermore, the implementation of missing is just plain lazy. You're trying to artificially create an air of tension when you could be just as exciting by actually adjusting the rates of attrition. Completely missing should be very rare. Instead, just have the character inflict less damage. This results in combat being faster and the player feeling as though they have more control over what is going on.

Hold on though, cause I'm not done with combat by a long shot. Why not have a more miniatures feel to combat. There's no reason why combat couldn't be done in the style of the old AD&D Gold Box games or XCOM. Truth be told, this wouldn't require any more bandwidth than you're already using for your game. It requires some artwork, but you can always make some uber low-rez stuff and claim that you're going for a retro feel. What's more, this kind of turn based combat could add some real depth to PvP if done right. It might even open the door to the unthinkable: PvP involving more than two people!! More shocking still: Parties of players doing PvE!!!

Of course, you could still do parties of players, both PvP and PvE, with the DW combat style, but you have to add a few things to the mix. The first being a party cap since no one wants to sit around and wait for his / her turn. I'm thinking about eight players max ought to do it. Next up is front line and back line positions. Tanks up front, healers and nukers in the back. And finally, a system of initiative that dynamically allocates the order of play every turn just to mix things up. Seriously, either of these styles can be easily implemented in a browser MMO and would go a long way toward making your game actually fun.

Exploration seems to be a tougher nut to crack though. This is mainly due to the allocation of turns. I'm thinking that you would have a general overland map and then specific maps for more explorable areas. Basically, you would have the towns and shops set up as they currently are but then have quests that involve dungeons that would would be explorable through either an overhead map (Rogue-like) or a first person perspective in the same manner as the early Wizardry games. The tricky part is whether you take actions for each step and combat in the dungeon, or just take actions for going into the dungeon. Both are fine choices, but they require careful consideration of how you're going to dole out actions and take them away. Another prickly point is how this will work when players are in a party. Do they all designate a leader and just go where he goes, or do they explore on their own, share a map of explored areas and just automatically get included in combat when one of them gets into a random encounter? Do they have to manually click for each step or each room? I personally think that the FastCrawl exploration system is perfectly suited to browser MMOs, but it's certainly not the only way. At any rate, dungeon crawling is doable and would add some much needed depth to these rather dry lists of statistics.

That's all that I really have time for right now. If you are thinking about making a browser MMO (and why wouldn't you considering that the overhead can be less than $20 a month) please keep these issues in mind. The world doesn't need another Marcoland.

Lock On and a Lack of Exploration.

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Monday September 3 2007 at 6:03PM
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So I've been dividing my time between the original Metroid Prime and Etrian Odyssey. I never owned a Gamecube so I totally missed out on Metroid Prime 1 and 2, and I've wanted to play Etrian Odyssey ever since it came out. Both of these games contain an element that is sorely lacking from most MMOs: exploration.

Before I go into that however, I want to briefly touch on the lock on feature in Metroid Prime. What's interesting here is that you would think that an FPS would be totally ruined with the inclusion of lock on, but that doesn't seem to be the case in Prime. The overall feel of the combat is similar to Zelda in the sense that you strafe around the opponent or object that you're locked onto, taking the focus away from aiming and placing it on dodging and maneuvering for position. It's not uncommon to be locked onto an enemy and not damage them because you are attacking from the wrong angle, using the wrong weapon / visor, or because they moved behind an object. In the case of Metroid Prime, lock on provides a middle of the road approach between strategy and twitch that keeps you on your toes without demanding that you work solely with your brain stem. This kind of leaves me scratching my head as to why we haven't seen something like this show up in MMORPGs.

Games like Planetside and WWII online have shown that we've been able to do very basic real-time combat, complete with collision detection, on a massive scale for several years now. Why hasn't anyone else tried more than the tic based, skill spamming that all MMORPG combat is based on? Lock on isn't the problem. The problem is the fact that  you lock on, stand in one place and hit the same damn buttons, in the same damn sequence for every battle and your entire time playing revolves around battles. A little extra emphasis on "stick work" probably wouldn't hurt anyone....

Back on the subject of exploration, it seems that modern MMOs don't have it. Sure, you still get XP for going to an area that you've never been before, but when is the last time you actually had to make a map? part of the allure of Etrian Odyssey is that  you have to draw your own map. There is no automapping and objectives are NEVER marked. Given EO was deliberately designed to be olde skool, but that doesn't change the fact that actually exploring the game world and mapping it out can be entertaining in it's own right. In fact, early CRPGs were built on a foundation of exploration and logistics. It was all about seeing how far you could push ahead on limited resources. This aspect of RPGs has disappeared almost completely in recent times.

Even with automapping though, exploration can be a major part of a game's experience. Metroid Prime automaps and it still requires a considerable amount of exploration. The difference here is that Prime doesn't just give you access to the entire map like most MMORPGs do. You have to either find a map of the area you are in or explore every space in said area. MMORPGs give you a nicely completed minimap with a friendly waypoint indicator so you never have to wonder where you are or where you're going. Is it any wonder that players feel like they're on rails at some amusement park ride? Here's something to try in your favorite MMO sometime, turn off the minimap and try finding which direction is north. And no, doing this in a 2D game doesn't count since north is always up. In a 3D game you probably won't e able to do this since the devs didn't really give you any clues like a path for the sun and moon to travel along or constellations. Seriously, how hard would that be to implement?

Of course, exploration isn't just about geography. There is also the practice of exploring the game mechanics and the means with which the player can interact with the game world. It's in this department that MMORPGs (and single player CRPGs) are weakest. While MMORPGs have a large number of skills, items, and monsters, most of these things can be broken down to a series of numbers and their interactions reduced to equations, tables and charts. That's all great if you're a math geek, but not so great for the rest of us. Is is so much to ask that there be some kind of physics or non-combative obstacles in the game that can help or hinder us in way we can feel rather obligatorily calculate? Let me give you a couple of examples....

In Metroid Prime, there are half pipes carved into the landscape at various places that you can use while in morph ball to get to areas you wouldn't normally be able to jump to. You do this by using the boost ball ability to gain momentum that will propel you to the platform you're trying to reach.

In Zelda: Ocarina of Time, there were things that you could set on fire using the Diku stick and carefully placed torches.

The list goes on and on, but I think you get the idea. The more ways that the player can interact with the environment, as opposed to mobs, NPCs and other players, the more the player will experiment and the longer it will take before the player becomes bored. It's for this reason that many of the olde skool RPGs were technically perfect in their design. They gave you almost nothing and let you figure the rest out on your own. That's a far cry from the "Not-So-Thrilling Thrill rides" that clog the MMORPG genre today. Maybe it's long past the time to get back to basics.....

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