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The Quinquennial (or sometimes more often)

Various thoughts on online gaming, often pulled from articles I've written for other sources.

Author: Quizzical

The game didn't change

Posted by Quizzical Friday January 30 2009 at 11:53PM
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It is common in many games to hear people talk about how great a game once was. The players used to be friendlier. The content used to be more challenging. The company used to be more responsive to players. The game has been dumbed down. Usually this is simple nostalgia, and nothing more.

Think back to the most exciting time that you completed some content in an MMORPG. Maybe it was killing some boss, completing a particularly challenging quest, or winning some epic pvp battle. Whatever it was, it was great fun the first time.

So why don’t you do it again? Maybe you did. But why not go kill that same boss a thousand times? The answer is pretty obvious. That sort of grinding gets boring, and fast.

It is human nature to crave novelty. When you first pick up a game and haven’t played anything else like it, it’s very new to you. The mechanics of running around and killing mobs, becoming higher level, and getting better armor can often be quite thrilling the first time. It’s a lot less fun the ten thousandth time.

It’s easy to look back to how fun the game was when you started, and say, why can’t the game still be like that today? But it isn’t the game that changed. You changed. What was once innovative and exciting has become stale and mundane.

Now, certainly, games do change as time passes. But usually they get better, not worse. Content is added, bugs are fixed, glaring imbalances are corrected, and so forth. Occasionally there is a case where one particular patch (or expansion) makes the game instantly and dramatically take a turn for the worse. That’s pretty rare, though. If the game seems to not be as fun as it used to be, and you can’t trace the problems to one particular patch, it’s not the game that changed.

Indeed, even if you can trace our annoyance with the game to one particular patch, it’s still often (but not always) you that changed, not the game. An expansion may add a lot of new content, but knock you back rather far away from the endgame, which will annoy some people. Getting back to the endgame will typically be easier than it was before, because you’re better at the game now, and that will annoy other people. Having your entire build based around exploiting one particular overpowered skill, and then seeing that skill get nerfed, will annoy quite a lot of people--but the change is still vital to good gameplay. Indeed, the implicit complaint that an expansion ruined a game is usually that the game would have been better if the expansion were different in this or that way, not that it would have been better if there were no expansion at all.

It’s not merely that a player changing makes one particular game seem worse with the passing of time. Players changing can make the whole MMORPG industry seem worse.

Suppose that there are two games that are very similar. Both have a lot of features that you’d like in a game, and are pretty well-done games. You pick one of the games and play it for a while, and enjoy it. Eventually you get bored of the game and quit, as happens to all games. Then you go pick up the other game.

Which game are you going to like better? The answer is almost invariably the first one. The odds that you’ll play the second game for very long at all are not very good. If you’re sick of the first game, then you’re very nearly already sick of the second game before you’ve even played it.

The distinguishing factor is not that the first game is better. In our hypothetical example, it isn’t. If you were to play the games in the other order, you’d still prefer whichever game you played first.

Often players express nostalgia for the first MMORPG they played. If the first game you played was so great, then go back and play it now, at least from time to time. Games are rarely taken down entirely. Now, some players do go do exactly this, and I respect that. But quite often the complaint is, why can’t new games create the same dramatic feel that the first MMORPG I played did?

But again, it’s not the industry that has changed. It’s you. In the first online game you played, the very idea of playing a game online was new. Playing with real people without having to round up someone to sit next to you for a console game was new. Having lots of other actual players around doing things was new. Games that come out today can reproduce the same features, but they can’t recreate the novelty of seeing the same thing for the first time.

What is particularly absurd are the claims that it is the player base that has gotten worse. Sure, a larger fraction of the players in the games you play is younger than you today than several years ago. You were younger several years ago than you are today, too. While most players pick up computer games at a relatively young age, those who have been playing for quite a while have aged. I’d be absolutely shocked if the industry average percentage of players over 20, 25, and 30 haven’t risen substantially in the last several years. Again, the difference isn’t the industry; it’s you. People tend to become more bothered by immaturity and youthful hijinks as they age.

Nostalgia is hardly unique to MMORPGs. People often long to return to a golden age that never existed. There are no shortage of people who will insist that music was vastly better a few decades ago, or movies, or sports, or politics. Every generation worries that the next is going to hell in a handbasket.

So what is the point of all of this? Don’t complain that games were so much better years ago unless you’re willing to go back and play the games you played years ago. And please, don’t start acting like a cranky old codger until you are, in fact, old. Otherwise, you’re going to be really scary when you do actually get old.
 

Toward a coherent notion of difficulty

Posted by Quizzical Tuesday January 20 2009 at 1:10AM
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Pick your favorite game with mobs of various levels, and pick an arbitrary level 20 mob in that game. Not a boss or one with something special about it, but just a typical level 20 mob. Is that mob difficult?

The question, of course, doesn’t make a bit of sense. For a level 1 player, the mob will likely be unbeatable, at least solo. For a level 50 player, defeating the same mob would most likely be completely trivial. It thus does not make sense to speak of the mob as being easy or hard, as this varies too wildly by level. All that one can do is to say that the mob is a reasonable challenge to a player of this or that particular level.

There is nothing peculiar about level 20 here. The same could be said of mobs of most other levels. The handful of mobs that are easy to kill solo at level 1 with starter gear could perhaps be said to be easy, period. At the other extreme, mobs that would be difficult to kill even at the level cap with the best possible gear, in a group (or raid) of the maximum size allowed, with the ideal class distribution and all of the rest of the players comparably leveled and equipped could perhaps be said to be hard. That is, if the mob is difficult no matter what you have in your group, then we’ll say that it’s a hard mob.

But hard mobs scarcely exist in MMORPGs. PvE content is meant to be beaten. If something in a game is hard, some players will get stuck on it, and be unable to move on. Those players will most likely quit the game, and hence stop paying the monthly fee. If there is quite a bit of content after the hard mobs, that’s content that the players will never see before they quit, and months of potential monthly fees that will go unpaid. For business reasons, a company cannot allow this.

There are perhaps a small handful of genuinely hard mobs here and there. These generally don’t gate off content beyond them. Sometimes they’re meant not to be beaten, such as the Black Ship from Puzzle Pirates. But these are necessarily scarce enough to not add up to a difficult game.

Let’s try another question. Is it harder to kill ten furbolgs, or to kill a thousand furbolgs?

The obvious answer to that is that it is harder to kill a thousand. Indeed, this entails killing ten, so it certainly cannot be easier.

That is not quite right, either. How many players are there who can kill ten furbolgs, but could not kill a thousand if so inclined? A player who has killed ten furbolgs has repeatedly demonstrated that he can kill furbolgs. There is rarely any reason why he could not repeat this enough times to kill a thousand if he cared to. Indeed, since he may level in the process of killing furbolgs, and certainly learns something about their spawn locations and AI, the last ten furbolgs are probably easier to kill than the first ten.

Someone who would claim that it is harder to kill a thousand furbolgs than to kill ten probably meant that it takes longer. And so it does. But to say that something takes a long time is a very poor substitute for difficulty. That would be to argue that anything that takes a long time is difficult, a conclusion which is completely absurd.

For example, in Guild Wars, is it difficult to be awarded a third birthday present by the game? It does, after all, take three years, and there is no way to speed up the process. Surely it cannot be considered difficult to do something that consists only of creating a character and then waiting three years.

Single player games don’t have this problem. If there are ten levels in a game and you get stuck on the seventh, the company doesn’t particularly care that you never see the last three. You’re not paying subscription fees, anyway. Not that many players ever beat Who Framed Roger Rabbit because Judge Doom was so hard, but from a company’s perspective, that was just fine.

Still, if an MMORPG wishes to make a game challenging, they have to create ways to get around the challenge. If the ways to get around the challenge are too easy, players will just use them most of the time and skip the challenge--that is, players will skip most of the game. See, for example, how commonly some players like to tag along while much higher levels kill everything, or take larger groups than intended.

The key is to make it so that taking on the challenge in the proper manner levels you a lot faster than trying to avoid the challenge somehow. For example, if you’re level 31 and try the level 31 content and beat it in the intended manner, that makes you level 32 immediately. If a good player takes an hour to beat the content, and someone else could have spent an hour grinding mobs to get from level 31 to level 32, then a lot of players will do that and skip the challenge.

If grinding mobs without attempting the challenge makes it take ten hours to get from level 31 to 32, then that would push players to try the challenge in the intended manner. Still, that would provide a way out so that people don’t get absolutely stuck in one area forever. Try a dungeon, get reasonably far into it, and then fail, and you still get some experience. Do that a dozen times and you get the level without having to beat the dungeon, so that you can move on if you wish.

The common exploits of bringing a high level player or more players than intended would also have to be shut down, to avoid letting players level fast by these methods. I don’t know of a way to cap the number of players apart from instancing, but that has been used in a lot of games and works pretty well. The automatic level could be awarded only if your group doesn’t have anyone over the intended level for the content. A sidekick system somewhat comparable to what City of Heroes uses could allow higher level players to help their lower level friends without making the content completely trivial.

Thus, it would be possible to make PvE content in an MMORPG that is genuinely challenging. Stupid hassles like grinding timesinks are a poor substitute for a genuine challenge.

Is that worth it?

Posted by Quizzical Saturday January 17 2009 at 11:54PM
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Far too often, I’ve seen people ask whether a quest or dungeon or whatever is "worth it". Well, worth what? Worth half a sack of rice and two Argentine pesos? It is sometimes enough to make one want to grab the poser of the question firmly by the shoulders, shake him vigorously, and ask, what is wrong with you? Why are you playing this game if you don't like doing the content?

What they mean, of course, is to ask whether the reward given at the end of the quest is enough to make doing the quest worthwhile. That is, there is an implicit assumption that they won’t to do the quest if it gives no in-game rewards, but if doing the quest is the way to earn something they want, they will.

That is completely preposterous. You "earn" things by doing something you don't want to do, in order to get something you want. If you aren't fortunate enough to have a job you love, then your job may still be worth doing in order to get enough money to buy an online game subscription--and not starve. For things that need to be done, such exchanges to make doing work worthwhile are quite useful.

That should not be so in online game that is played only for entertainment. If there are people starving in the world, it's not because you took too long to reach the level cap and get a bunch of epics. The content along the way, and in particular, the means by which levels and gear are obtained, ought to be fun in itself. To make yourself miserable in order to get epics in a game that you fundamentally hate cannot be "worth it" in any sane sense.

All too often, players try to compound this problem. They’ll pick up on something stupid that takes a long time to do, and then say that it should give big rewards because it takes so long. This is completely absurd. If you got a thousand characters to level 5, would you expect epics for that? Emphasizing time spent over skill leads to mind-numbingly repetitive content, which is exactly what should be avoided.

Indeed, many players are aware that what they’re asking for big rewards for is a complete nuisance. They implicitly admit it when they claim that if there aren’t big rewards for going on some raid, then players won’t do it. That is, they’re admitting that it’s not fun in itself. And that is precisely why it should not give such big rewards.

The most important reward for having accomplished something is that you have done it. If anything more than this is required in order for the accomplishment to be “worth it”, then the answer is, no, it’s not worth it.
 

The proper use of gold farmers

Posted by Quizzical Thursday January 15 2009 at 10:54PM
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Suppose that you’re looking to try a new MMORPG to play. Obviously you want to pick a game that you’ll like. You look through several games that are potentially interesting and compare features, reviews, and so forth.

One of the important characteristics of a game is how much grinding there is. This is something that you can’t pick up just by playing the game for a few hours. A lot of games have minimal grinding for the first several hours (or sometimes the first several dozen hours), but eventually degenerate into very painful grinding.

Professional reviewers won’t play until the point at which the game is mostly grinding, so they can’t warn you. The same applies to new player reviews. You can ask more established players, but different people often have radically different views on how much grinding is too much. Some players even like extremely large amounts of grinding, so they’re not going to warn you to avoid such games. Indeed, grindfests are likely to have many such players, and they’ll tell you that the grinding isn’t a problem.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were an objective source you could go to that would say, this is how much grinding the game has? Or more to the point, this game has a lot more grinding than that one, with comparisons of a lot of different games. If the comparisons include a couple of games that you’re familiar with, then you’re set.

Such sources that rate the amount of grinding in games do exist. They’re called powerleveling services. They could loosely be called gold farmers. Although powerleveling isn’t the same as gold farming, they tend to be the same people working for the same companies.

Suppose, for example, that a powerleveling service in Lineage II charges $2000 to get you to the level cap. Meanwhile, they charge $500 to do the same in EverQuest II, $300 in Final Fantasy XI, $200 in World of Warcraft, and $50 in Guild Wars. Which game do you think involves the most grinding to get to the level cap? What do you think the company selling the powerleveling thinks?

The real experts on how much leveling a game entails are the people who do it a lot. Few do so more than those who do it for a full time job. Furthermore, random players don’t have as strong of incentives to get the comparison right as companies offering to actually level accounts for a particular price. Charge too much and you get no customers; too little and you make no profit from the customers you do get.

Furthermore, since they offer to level you part of the way, that gives you a good idea of what the leveling curve looks like. A company will charge more to level you from 79 to 80 in Lineage II than to go all the way from 1 to 60. In comparison, the cost of going from 79 to 80 in EverQuest II or World of Warcraft isn’t enough to pay a company to level you from 1 to 20. The cost to get to renown rank 70 in WAR is many times the cost to merely get to level 40. All of that gives important information on the leveling curves in the various games.

There is, of course, more to the amount of grinding a game has than merely how long it takes to get to the level cap. In some games, when you reach the level cap, it’s basically game over. Others abruptly transition to painful grinding the moment you hit the level cap. Even this sort of information can often be learned from gold sellers. If a company charges $200 to powerlevel you to the level cap in WoW, but $2000 for the full set of the top epic armor set of your class, guess which of the two takes more grinding.

Before reaching this paragraph, a lot of people would probably say, but gold farmers are bad! I’d agree with that. So does the idiot who will reply to this post to denounce it as favoring gold sellers without reading it. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not advocating actually buying anything from the gold sellers. To the contrary, I’d strongly advocate not doing so. If inclined to buy something from gold sellers, go play an item mall game instead and buy directly from the company.

I’m well aware of the problems with gold farmers. I don’t like getting spam messages from them. I don’t like having certain areas of the game world overcrowded with them. I don’t like the credit card fraud and stolen accounts that they perpetrate. I don’t like having company resources diverted to having to deal with gold farmers, instead of being put to productive uses like bug fixes, tech support, or new content. While their impact on the game economy is usually overstated, I don’t like that consequence of gold sellers, either.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t bring a silver lining. You don’t have to pay a dime to check their prices. Don’t discard the useful information they provide just because gold sellers are bad. 

All of the players are above average

Posted by Quizzical Tuesday January 13 2009 at 8:23PM
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Players generally like to win more than they like to lose. That makes it so that one of the main attractions of pve is that you can usually win. In many games, a player can win over 98% of his battles if not inclined to try something unduly hard.

The problem with this is that the reason why the player usually wins is that it is easy, often to the degree of being boring. Start a battle, leave the room to go get a drink, and come back to find that your deft use of auto-attack has obliterated the enemy mob.

The antidote for this sort of predictability is pvp. You fight someone who really is trying to beat you, and if you’re too predictable or not paying attention, he can adapt to what you’re doing and then you die.

The problem with this is that if one side wins, the other side loses. Players still like to win, and winning half of the time may not be as fun as winning 98% of the time.

Some games will let players get around this by having uneven numbers. If a battle is 4 on 1 and the 4 win, then 80% of the players just won. Getting ganked like that isn’t fun for the one, however--even compared to losing a fairer fight. Even for the four, if you want a free kill with a preordained result, why not just go pve? Mobs won’t even insult you for ganking them.

So in a pvp battle with even numbers on both sides, 50% of the players lose. If there are more than two sides in the battle, then perhaps most of the players lose.

It’s actually worse than that: some players are better at the game than others, and will thus win more often. The common quote is that 20% of the players win 80% of the time and vice versa. That’s usually cited in contexts far enough removed from the original one to be part of the 73% of statistics that are made up on the spot.

Still, the general point is a tautology: players who win a lot tend to win more than players who don’t win very much. That works out fine for the relative handful of players who win a lot. That doesn’t work so well for the other players who mostly lose.

Some games try to get around this by making it into a contest of leveling. Whoever is higher level usually wins, just because he’s higher level. The implicit promise is that, while you’re going to lose a lot at first because you’re low level, someday you’ll be the high level dominating pvp.

For most players, it never works out that way. When you get high level, other players have had more time and are higher level still (or have better gear or whatever). Companies add ever more grinding to let the top players become ever stronger, and most of the players are always behind.

The trick is to make it so that most of the players can win what seem a priori to be fair fights most of the time. What I would propose is to combine pvp and pve. Let mobs take a large fraction of the deaths while players fight both mobs and other players simultaneously.

Start by dividing players into separate areas by level, as WAR does. Next, add a bunch of NPCs allied with one player faction or the other. Give them a lot of different AI routines, so as to be unpredictable. Make their strength mostly toward the low end of the level range, so that they tend to die to players, but with some exceptions for the sake of unpredictability.

The key here is to prevent players from knowing whether they’re fighting mobs or other players. Prevent cross-faction communication. Make the AI allies look indistinguishable from players. It might be enough to simply pick random characters from the character generator, along with random armor skins (but not necessarily stats) from the appropriate level range. If this tends to pick clashing choices that real players would generally avoid, then one could give mobs the appearance of randomly chosen players who happen to be offline at the time.

If an average player wins half the time when fighting other players, but 80% of the time when fighting AI characters, then perhaps he can win 2/3 of the time or so. Thus, most of the players can win more often than not.

Better yet, some other benefits important to RvR combat drop out of this system for free. One is that you can balance numbers, so that both sides have a roughly equal chance of winning. If one side has 50 players in a zone and the other side has 20, it’s not hard to predict that the 20 will mostly get ganked by the 50. Add 20 AI characters to the first side and 60 to the latter, so that the second side outnumbers the former a bit, but with weaker characters on average (because the AI characters tend to be weaker than players) and it’s now a fair fight.

The number and strength of AI characters that spawn could depend both on the number and strength (level and gear) of the players on each side, with more and slightly stronger AI characters spawning when a side has fewer players.

This also fixes time of day dependence. If a zone is designed to hold 50 players on each side, then during peak times, most of those could be real players. During the middle of the night, when only 10 players on each side are there, AI characters could fill in the slack, to let those players have some good battles, too. That might not be as good as fighting actual players, but it sure beats wandering around in a dead game. 

MMOSPG: Massively Multiplayer Online Single Player Game

Posted by Quizzical Monday January 12 2009 at 1:57AM
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A lot of the players who play MMORPGs don’t want to group. This can be for a variety of reasons. Some players are fine with grouping sometimes, but don’t want to group all of the time. Some are fine with grouping in theory, but don’t like the hassle of it in practice. Some are fine with good groups, but hate grouping with idiots. Some just prefer to play solo and would even if all of the common objections to grouping could be fixed.

A number of game developers have noticed this, and tried to make their game accessible to soloers. Some make it so that you can solo some of the time, but also have to group sometimes. This works for the people who only want to solo sometimes, but not for the die-hard soloers. Some take the approach that some of the content will be doable solo, so that you can get far into the game, and possibly even all the way to the max level, without ever grouping. This may entertain a soloer for a while, but eventually he has to quit or be at a huge disadvantage compared to those who are willing to group (or worse, raid). Some make content doable solo, but easier in a group, which means that people who wish to group are just going through the motions of doing something stupid and trivial.

In all of those cases, games that try to appeal to soloers usually also try to appeal to those who prefer to group. This generally just makes a mess, and a game that isn’t especially good for soloers or for groupers. (Incidentally, a grouper is a fish. Calling them “groupies” doesn’t seem quite right, either, though.)

Why not make a game optimized to cater to soloers? Scrap any benefits to fighting in a group entirely. There are more than enough soloers in MMORPGs to make a game that does this very well extremely successful.

There is an obvious answer to that: if you want to play solo, why not play a single player game? There are several advantages to online games over single-player games, however. One is the possibility of considerable depth in the game economy. No single player game can come remotely near the challenge of economic competition against other players who can adjust their actions as the market changes. Another is having people around to chat with, whether in public or private chat channels. A third advantage is that having other players around rather than mere NPCs can make a world feel more alive and real. Finally, there simply isn’t any possibility of pvp in a single player game.

There are some advantages to single player games over MMORPGs, too. Some, such as the ability to play without an Internet connection, simply can’t be brought to an online game. Many things that are normally thought of as advantages of single player games could be done in an MMORPG that caters to soloers, however.

There are a lot of different directions that such a game could take, some of which would be better as single player games. In the remainder of this post, I’ll outline one that necessarily must be an MMORPG to work properly, but would never leave soloers at any disadvantage.

“Bob the Really Big Dragon is powerful and evil! We have to stop him before he conquers and/or destroys the entire known universe! And probably most of the unknown universe, too, except that we don’t know that,” the quest NPC bellows. “You are our only hope! Slay the dragon or we are all doomed! Doomed, I say!”

You’re the 293rd adventurer to whom the NPC has made exactly the same plea today alone. Of those, 182 have already brought back the “Head of Bob” quest item, and more will probably do so as the day goes along. Even after you slay Bob, the world will look exactly the same as before, and be in exactly as much peril. Don’t you feel special and heroic?

One of the advantages of single player games is that you can change the world. A typical MMORPG loses this, as one player cannot meaningfully change the world for everyone else. If everyone could each make a big difference, the world would be a chaotic mess.

I’m not going to give much detail on the storyline for the game. What would be interesting, however, is for completing certain major missions to make a large impact on the game world. This or that major threat would be defeated and gone. In their place would be other new (and often stronger) mobs, for whatever reasons the storyline details.

That’s easy to do in a single player game. In an MMORPG, it could still be done by making one map of the world as it is in 1243, and a separate map of the world as it is in 1244. The geography would be mostly the same, as mountains and oceans generally don’t move. Mob spawns and NPCs could change dramatically over the course of a year, and towns could be founded, expand, or be destroyed in some cases. When you complete whatever your main objectives in 1243 are, the game takes you to the 1244 map.

Just for fun, let’s allow time travel, but only to the past. That is, once you reach 1244, you can warp back in time to 1243, and then back to 1244. You cannot use the time machine to warp to a particular time until you’ve completed everything in the storyline up to that time. The time machine could be located in a particular place in a major town, and would be the only way to warp from one time to another. This could be the only loading screen that the game has, with the world otherwise nearly seamless, except for some tiny solo instances as described later.

One of the things that always bothered me about most MMORPGs (and some other games where you level, too) is the absurdity of leveling making such a huge difference. Yes, you get better at something by practicing. But how much better of a soldier is someone with two years of training than someone with only one year? Better, perhaps, but by enough to win 1 on 3 against three people with only half as much training? If so, the difference isn’t in the training.

One way that getting so dramatically stronger does make sense is via technological advancements. Any of the significant countries in World War II could have handily destroyed the armies of Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Alexander, or any of the other great commanders of antiquity. Grinding mobs doesn’t make technological process come faster, however.

As such, the game’s concept of level is that when you advance to the next time period, you’ve essentially moved up in level. You can use stronger gear because the technological advances in the time that passed allow for the creation of stronger gear. If you get stronger gear and then go back in time, the stats on your gear temporarily scale down to what was available earlier, to avoid making farming unduly easy.

There would be an open world with lots of players running around fighting. You could see other players fight, as with many MMORPGs. Combat would be strictly solo, with no notion of grouping. In order to get credit for killing a mob, you must have landed the first hit, as well as a majority of the total damage. Thus, while players kind of could work together to kill some mobs, it would be less efficient than if each fights solo.

In order to prevent players from forming de facto groups to make things easier, the hardest fights (mainly selected bosses) would be in small solo instances. That way, you really do have to be competent to beat a boss in order to get credit, rather than just getting some high level to do everything for you.

In order to provide a challenge, the hardest of the solo bosses would be non-essential to the storyline. That is, you can clear an area and move on to the next year without having beaten the hardest bosses. Beating these challenging bosses would still give some nice rewards, but they would quickly become technologically obsolete as time passes. If you couldn’t kill some of them, you wouldn’t forever be stuck at that point in the game.

Next, let’s add an economy. If you complete the main storyline in the year 1243, and that warps you to the year 1244, what does your character do in the intervening year? Why, his day job, of course! That is, some crafting profession.

The economy would be based around getting materials either as mob drops or quest rewards, and then refining or combining them via various crafting professions. The end result would be making armor and weapons that you use to make your character stronger.

Labor gained from clearing an area could be saved until the player wishes to use it. Labor would also be tagged with the year it is from, so that that you cannot save labor from 1243 to make an item using technology discovered in 1247. A player at a given time might thus have 60 days of labor from 1244, 93 days of labor from 1245, 80 days of labor from 1247, and 250 days of labor from 1248 available. Any particular item he crafts should use the oldest labor available that is still late enough to have access to the necessary technologies.

Labor should be scarce enough that there isn’t enough to fully upgrade every character every single time he moves on to a new year. It should be plentiful enough that there is enough to give every character max level gear. The amount of labor needed to produce a full set of gear upgrades to the best possible gear for a particular year should increase as the years increase. Some (but not all) components that go into gear of a particular level could be made entirely from technology available in earlier years, allowing higher level players to effectively buy labor from lower level players.

There would be a number of crafting professions in the game, and to learn how to make one item in a profession, you must learn to make all of the previous ones. The cost of learning a profession is that the first of each item you make uses the labor and materials, but the item breaks, so you don’t get the completed item. For a player who specializes in only one profession, this should be a pretty trivial cost. Switching professions or adding a second profession would still be quite affordable. A player who wishes to learn all professions on a single character would use up most of his labor to do so.

After beating the game, the world would be mostly cleared, without innumerable mobs plaguing the countryside. After all that work to save the world, the world really should look like it has been saved. There would still be a handful of challenging quests (mainly in the solo instances) that max level players could do to gain additional labor. Several additional years of labor could be gained on a character this way. A player who manages to afford max gear without doing all of the quests (or perhaps without doing any of them) would not be gimped for the inability to complete all of the quests.

The end game should also have some pvp system, whether 1 on 1 sparring, larger survival matches with every player for himself, grouped matches or whatever. Pvp would be entirely consensual, and reasonably balanced with every player able to get perfect gear. (Note that there need not be one particular “best” set of gear, but could be several options available only at max level with it debatable which is the best.)

I’ve long thought that lower level pvp doesn’t really make sense unless different players are enemies of each other for storyline reasons. Otherwise, it’s as if to say, yeah, the world is going to be destroyed unless we do something about it, but we’re too busy fighting each other to bother.

The game should have an auction house, to make it easy for players to buy items crafted by others, whether raw materials, intermediate components or finished items. Players from a given year would not be able to see or purchase items that require technology from a later year. This would be mainly to make storyline sense, but also to prevent auction house manipulation by low level alts.

Having a variety of classes could be useful for replay value. All classes would have to be built to solo well, of course, so there could be no support classes as are common in some games. Sending money and materials between alts should be free and easy, with the restriction that a player cannot send an alt items that require technology above his level.

There would be guilds, but they would basically just be chat channels. Guild officers could kick people out of the chat channels, so while a guild could have many players, it wouldn’t be entirely a public chat channel. Furthermore, with guilds not having vital roles that demand player loyalty, one player could freely join many guilds. This would make it easy to find many other players to chat with, without having the “Barrens chat” effect of public chat channels not being able to exclude random idiots, except by every single player independently putting each one on ignore.

Obviously, I haven’t filled in a lot of details, such as how combat would work. Still, this outline demonstrates the possibility of creating a solo-friendly game that takes advantage of the things that can be done with the Internet, as outlined earlier in this entry.
 

Developers listening to which players?

Posted by Quizzical Friday January 9 2009 at 3:30AM
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It is commonly said that game developers should listen to their players. Fair enough. It is taken as a corollary that developers should do what their players want in game design. That is often absurd.

Suppose that some players in a game wish to be able to attack other players whenever and wherever they want without restrictions. Other players in the same game want to never be attacked by other players except when they’re willing to pvp. For some of these other players, that would be never. One could argue that the developers should listen to both types of players, but they cannot simultaneously do what both wish.

Some games have separate servers with different rule sets for this type of thing. That can only go so far, however; there could easily be hundreds of separate issues that divide the playerbase. Separate servers for each combination of what various players want would result in giving everyone his own server. That itself would be highly objectionable to many players.

Going with a majority doesn’t work, either. The majority of the players in many online games will want about the same things. If developers in each of those games do what the majority of their players want, they’ll end up making effectively identical games. As a developer from Chain of Command memorably put it, if he simply went with what a majority of the players wanted, he’d turn the game into a poor clone of Red Alert. There’s nothing wrong with having some games that cater to the lowest common denominator of what many players want. But for every game to try to appeal to exactly the same subset of their potential players would be folly.

It actually gets worse than that. Going with a simple majority could easily result in stripping out the features that are the game’s very reason to exist. Imagine a lot of players picking up Darkfall without knowing much about the game, objecting to the free for all pvp, and convincing the company to take it out of the game. Imagine the same players picking up The Chronicles of Spellborn, and insisting that the company remove the skilldeck and not make players aim.

Rather, when designing a game, the developers must have some vision of what the game is supposed to be. Certain fundamental decisions about game mechanics must be set in stone, even if a majority of the players disagree. Players who don’t like the choices the company made can simply go play some other game instead.

It is critical that these decisions be made very early on. After release, it’s too late. Indeed, during beta is probably too late. If you design your game to appeal to players who hate grinding, and then a year after release add a ton of grinding, you alienate your existing playerbase. If you design your game to make pvp completely consensual, and then a year after release, make it so players can attack other players without consent in most places, you likewise alienate your existing playerbase. The same would happen for many other such seismic shifts—and also for the reverse of any of those decisions.

One could ask why the critical importance on some game mechanics being unchangeable. Three words: New Game Experience. There are players who like the “New Game Experience” of Star Wars Galaxies. Likewise, there are players who like the item mall in EverQuest II. Had those game design decisions been in place and public knowledge at the start of open beta, they wouldn’t be a problem. In contrast, to make such radical changes years after release is a slap in the face to players who put so much time and money into the games precisely because they wanted a game not to have those things.

That is not to say that developers should never make changes that players request. The best case is players suggesting little touches that make gameplay a little smoother or more convenient. Players can also provide valuable feedback on the relative difficulty of various content, or other play balancing issues. This doesn’t necessarily even have to be as the players intend: if there are class forums, and the forum for one class doesn’t have quite a few posts decrying the class as woefully underpowered, then that class is probably massively overpowered, and needs to be nerfed, and hard.

Player feedback can be great for bigger decisions, too, provided that they don’t fundamentally alter the game. If there are several reasonable possibilities for where to add new content in a game, a developer could do much worse than to pick the one that most of the players want. The key is a clear, public delineation of what is fundamental to the game and will never be changed, as compared to what is open to discussion.
 

Outsourcing the AI

Posted by Quizzical Tuesday January 6 2009 at 9:48PM
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In a lot of games, mobs are theoretically trying to kill you. In many of them, it doesn’t really feel like they’re trying to kill you. Often, it seems more like they’re going through the motions of pretending to put up a fight before they die, and trying to be manipulated into doing something stupid.

There are reasons for this, of course. PvE content is generally meant to be beaten. But mobs often die in such stupid and predictable ways that it seems that they’re not taking their job seriously.

Perhaps the biggest attraction of PvP is that it feels like the other players really are trying to kill you. That is, of course, because they are. Other players are often smart enough to learn from mistakes and vary their tactics.

The answer, of course, is smarter and less predictable AI. It’s not easy to randomly conjure up better AI, however. The question isn’t whether to improve the AI, but how.

My answer is to let the players design the AI. At first glance, that probably sounds absurdly impractical. I’ll concede that it would be difficult to pull off. Let me explain how I think it can be done.

Each mob in a typical MMORPG has some AI associated with it. This controls how the mobs react. This can include what makes them decide to attack, what makes them give up and leave, which attacks they use, when they use each attack, how they choose which player to target, and a variety of other factors.

A company presumably has some internal tools to set up the parameters for each mob or linked group of mobs. What the company could do is to allow a huge number of AI parameters, and then allow players to fill in particular values for various mobs or groups of mobs. Each mob could have not just a fixed set of skills, but several skills available from which players could pick which few particular skills the mob will actually have available.

Let players set parameters and then try a sample fight against the mobs in a separate before submitting the parameters. That’s essential in letting players figure out which parameters do what, and learning how to give the mobs AI that works reasonably well.

Make it so that there is a considerable cost (in the in-game currency, henceforth “gold”) to submitting an AI for mobs. That will prevent players from randomly submitting a bunch of stupid AI parameters to make mobs ridiculously dumb.

Conversely, reward players for writing successful AI. Each time a mob kills a player, give a small amount of gold the player who wrote the AI that that particular mob used. Make it enough that the amount of money paid out for each particular type of mob is the same as the amount players paid in to create the AI. (This may require dynamically adjusting both the cost of submitting an AI and the payout for killing players with it, both of which would vary from one mob to another, but I won’t bore you with particular formulas.)

The AIs that mobs use in a particular period of time should be the ones that were relatively successful in the previous period of time, as well as any new ones created in that time. Thus, a player who finds ways to make the mobs fight effectively could have his AI stay around for a long time. One that only leads to mobs dying and never killing anything could quickly be removed from the system. Not only would players be rewarded for building a smart AI, but the mobs that players in the game fight would mostly use the better AI parameters that players had come up with.

There are two different reasons to take this approach. The first has already been discussed: smarter and more varied AI. If, when you approach a mob, it has 20 different AIs written and you don’t know which it will use, that makes the mob far less predictable. Players wouldn’t know whether mobs will chase them, hold their ground, or even try to kite the player. Neither would they know which particular skills the mob has, nor the timing with which it will use which skills. For group content, players wouldn’t know which group member(s) the mobs will target. Even after fighting mobs, all of those parameters could be totally different the next time the player fights identical looking mobs. Having to react on the fly to mobs doing unexpected things would give more of a PvP feel to PvE content.

The other reason is that writing AI would itself be an interesting subgame to certain players. Most players would lack the aptitude to write intelligent AI, of course. Many of those that remain would lack the interest. Still, trying to kill players as mobs would be a challenge rather different from anything else on the market. If done right, there would be a relative handful of players who really liked it. That is all it takes to write more AI than the game needs.
 

A company's first game is its best

Posted by Quizzical Sunday January 4 2009 at 2:43AM
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Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a game very similar to WoW, except with less content, fewer features, more bugs, and a smaller playerbase? You’d play that, wouldn’t you? We should make such a game!

While the particular reasons depend on what sort of games you like, the appropriate answer to the above questions is almost surely “no”. Someone who doesn’t like WoW isn’t going to like a mediocre clone of it. Someone who does like WoW would have no reason to abandon that game for something so clearly inferior to it.

So who would be likely to state the original paragraph, or perhaps a less satirical version of it? Certainly not random computer game players, who wouldn’t be interested in playing such a game. Nor would such people seriously consider trying to actually make such a game. People who run an established company that dream of copying WoW’s profits, more so than about any particular game mechanics, might find the game far more appealing.

People outside the gaming industry who want to make a game typically want to make a game that they think they would like, but one that doesn’t already exist. Most such dreams of making a game never really go very far, but some do have the talent, ambition, persistence, and naivete to take a serious shot at making their game into a reality.

Sometimes they even succeed. Often the games don’t work the way they were supposed to, run rather inefficiently, or have way too many bugs. Games built on a shoestring budget usually look and feel that way, and lack the polish of a big-budget game. But that doesn’t mean that they never end up being pretty good games.

Indeed, some such games can be quite good, and different enough from the usual standard fare to be worth playing. They may lack the polish and the advertising budget to draw huge subscriber numbers, but a low-budget game doesn’t need to bring in $50 million to be a success.

But what happens once the company is more established? Want to spend $50 million to develop some unproven concept that may not bring in 10% of that in revenue? Not if that would risk putting an otherwise stable company out of business entirely. Rather, an established company usually prefers to take a safer route that will reliably make a profit, or at least not really lose too badly. That leads to mimicking games that have already made solid profits. And that, in turn, leads to players complaining that too many games are too similar.

So which is better, a genuinely new and different game, or a warmed-over rehash of some other game (or perhaps many other games) that you’ve already played? That’s not a trick question, and I’d typically at least give the former a chance to prove itself.

But what if the latter game is a rehash of various other games with which you aren’t familiar? Then it doesn’t matter how many other similar games there are. Indeed, this is the situation that a lot of the big-budget games hope for. And that is how companies end up making games that have less of a point than other games they’ve previously released.

Going back to the title of this post, one could probably come up with a number of exceptions. Still, consider that if a company’s first game is garbage, it is likely to also be the company’s last game. Then again, some of the early games developed by EA were astonishingly awful, but the company is still with us today.
 

Game reviews and the futility of ratings

Posted by Quizzical Friday January 2 2009 at 4:21AM
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Suppose that I tell you that I’ve played some particular game, and I rate it a 9 out of 10. How much information does that give you? Does it tell you anything about whether you would like the game? If you’re already familiar with the game, it tells you something about the sort of games that I like, but then you don’t need a review to tell you if you like a game you’ve already played. Besides, there’s no real reason why you should care what sort of games I like. If you’re not familiar with the game, my rating doesn’t even tell you that much.

A mere numerical rating as a way to express my opinion on a game simply doesn’t give you any useful information. So what about game ratings that feature an average of the opinions of many players, as this site does? Those don’t tell you the opinions of an average gamer. They tell you mainly which game has people the most motivated to come to this site and rate that particular game highly.

That can be a case of a lot of people liking a game. It can also be a case of a game company encouraging people to come to this particular site to rate their game highly, and perhaps even offering some in-game rewards for those who do (or claim to have done so). Indeed, that is the main point of the rating system here and on some other sites: to get free advertising for the site from various game companies.

The uselessness of ratings still applies if I’m a professional game reviewer. That’s not to say that game reviews are useless, but only that a rating isn’t a useful part of the review. If I tell you that a game has a brief free trial, followed by a monthly fee, but no item mall, that gives you useful information. It’s also useful if I tell you that a game is extensively instanced. The same applies if I tell you that all content assumes that the player has a group, and is undoable solo. Or if I explain that the combat proceeds at a slow pace, with extensive strategy involved, and outline how it works.

All of those descriptions simultaneously tell some players that the game might interest them, and other players that they should move on and look elsewhere, because they won’t like the particular game I’m reviewing. Sticking a number on a game can’t do that. Indeed, it is essential that a review tell at least some players that they won’t like the game, because it simply isn’t possible to make a single game that everyone will like. Different players have too divergent of tastes.

The best reviews are written by players who have played a game for months. They can highlight the various features that make a game unique. They can lay out how a game changes as you become higher level, and how the endgame works in practice. They can tell you how the player density varies from one area to another, how hard it is to find some semblance of balanced pvp, and how often you’ll have to resort to purely grinding in order to level. That is, they can tell you how the game actually works in practice, and not merely how the developers intended that the game eventually play.

More pointedly, a professional game reviewer cannot do this. They simply don’t play the game long enough to have the necessary perspective before they have to file a review and move on to the next game. That’s why professional game reviewers spill so much ink fawning over a game’s graphics and sound. You don’t need a month to tell if a game’s graphics look sharp. You don’t even need an hour. Much can be said about a game’s graphics simply by looking at screenshots.

In order to know how a game experience will change over the course of several months, you have to play the game for several months. Indeed, no one has the proper perspective until a game has been out for a good while. By then, many players will have already tried or rejected a game, and a subsequent review will be too late.

(Note: The above blog post is rated 8/10 by the Association of People Who Give Pointless Ratings to Blog Posts.)
 

Either have a crafting system or else don't

Posted by Quizzical Thursday January 1 2009 at 2:11AM
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The title may look like a contestant for dumbest tautology, so perhaps I should explain.

I do not like crafting systems that are little more than something to grind levels in. You want to craft something, but need crafting level 83 in some crafting profession. To get to level 83, you have to craft a zillion lower level things that you don’t want. And you can’t just craft them and sell them to someone else who does want them, either. There is already a massive glut of the lower level crafted items on the market, because people have to craft them to level their crafting profession. So in order to craft items that anyone wants, you have to waste a lot of money and resources to level your crafting profession. This is a major nuisance.

If you don’t grind levels in a crafting profession but still want the items, you’ll have to buy them from someone else. That means you’ll have to track down someone who has and buy the completed item from him. This way, you’re not really seeing anything vaguely resembling content at all, but still have to put up with the nuisance. That’s not a system for crafting goods; that’s a system for harassing players.

If all that crafting is going to be is a nuisance, then why bother to have it at all? Such games would be better off scrapping crafting entirely and letting players buy what would have been crafted items from NPCs, whether for money only or for money plus materials. That’s not content, but neither is it obnoxious, which makes it better than a system that exists primarily to annoy players.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not against crafting entirely. A well-done crafting system can add quite a lot to a game. But it’s essential that the crafting system consist of something other than grinding levels. There are at least two ways to go about this, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

One way is to make the process of crafting something that is interesting in its own right, and not only done for the sake of the completed item. Click a button to craft an item is not interesting content. Perform well in some minigame to craft an item can be, depending on whether the minigame is any good. This can be a case of you complete the item or fail, or it can be a case of, the better you play the minigame, the better the item you get.

A Tale in the Desert has both systems in a number of places. Both have their drawbacks, however. If crafting only takes beating some particular threshold, there are problems no matter where the threshold is placed. Set a high threshold and many players won’t be able to reach it, which can lead to great frustration. Set a low threshold and the threshold is barely there at all, if virtually every attempt is guaranteed to succeed. For example, in the third telling, crafting a thermometer required at least 3000 quality or so. For someone who knew how to craft thermometers, a good run might get you 8000 quality, and a bad one 6000 quality. Falling below 3000 pretty much required an enormous lag spike, and a contest of avoiding lag spikes is not terribly interesting.

If better performance leads to better items, the problem is that some players will simply be better at the minigame than others. If one percent of the players on the server craft an item a lot and get really good at it, most of the playerbase may take much practice and many wasted materials in order to finally get something about as good as an average run from one of the top crafters. Crafting is thus reduced to a tiny handful of players crafting an item a lot, while everyone else on the server buys from them. This is what happened in A Tale in the Desert with hatchets, shovels, wine glasses, and some other items.

While having to be good at a crafting puzzle is certainly better than merely click a button to craft an item, the end effect on the economy is about the same here: a few players can craft an item, and everyone else has to buy from them. That may be great content for the few, but spending a lot of time designing content that most players can never properly access is not a good use of game development time.

Another alternative is having only a few discrete thresholds of the quality of the completed product. This only combines the drawbacks of the previous approaches. Players who can’t reach the top threshold have to buy from someone else, while players who get really good at the puzzle and can reliably beat the top threshold effectively have it not matter how good a particular run was.

The other way to give a crafting system some depth is via a deep economy. If players craft items to sell them, and selling those items is interesting in its own right, that can constitute an interesting crafting system even if the way things are crafted is not.

In order to have some economic depth here, it is vital to restrict the amount that one player can craft and sell. If lots of players on a server want a particular item and several can craft it simply by clicking a button, then the value of the crafted item will essentially be that of the materials that went into making it. That’s not an interesting system.

Some players may protest, but can’t the crafters charge a fee to assemble the item? Not if everyone and his neighbor’s dog can craft the item. Why should I pay you to assemble the item if I can do it for free myself?

Even if it’s only a small fraction of the playerbase that can craft an item, a crafter cannot charge a large fee. If he did, someone else on the server could slightly undercut him and take all of his business. Someone would, because getting paid quite a bit to click a button is tremendously profitable. Why pay a large fee to one person to craft an item if you can get an identical item from someone else for less?

The cost of the crafted item thus cannot exceed the cost of the materials plus a payment for the hassle of crafting small enough that most crafters don’t think it’s worthwhile. The assembling cost must then be minimal unless the actual process of building the item is a major pain.

All of this is avoided if players are sharply restricted in how much they can make. Pirates of the Burning Sea did this by giving each player a fixed labor pool from which they could craft items. Run out of labor and you can’t craft anything else without waiting quite a while. This means that one person cannot fill an entire server’s demand for a good, unless it’s a good for which there is only infinitesimal demand.

This has the benefit of making labor valuable, since it is scarce. If the total amount of labor that people would like to use exceeds the amount of labor that people actually can use, then labor is valuable. Even if you can make something yourself, it may still be worthwhile to buy it from someone else in order to get more than you can build yourself.

Puzzle Pirates takes this principle a step farther by letting players directly sell their labor. Rather than having to build shops, procure materials, craft items, and sell the finished goods in order to get the value out of your labor, someone in Puzzle Pirates can simply go to someone else’s shop (or stall), sign up to work there, and have his labor used by the shop, in return for whatever wages the shopkeeper offered when he took the job.

This lets shopkeepers compete with each other for labor, which adds some economic depth on that side. It also lets players opt out of the economic side of the game, without sacrificing the value of their labor. Indeed, the labor system works as an essentially passive source of income, and can provide considerable income to new players.

There are two big problems with this system, however. One is that new players often don’t realize that their labor is valuable. Veteran players can prey on newbies by telling them to work at a particular stall and saying they get free money for it, while not mentioning that the stall offers only a small fraction of competitive market wages. Sometimes this is packaged as, you need to do this to help the crew (guild), which is an especially despicable way to rip off newbies. Still, once a player learns that his labor really is valuable, he can immediately go get proper value for his future labor if so inclined, so this isn’t really game-breaking.

The other problem is that an average online game player isn’t a terribly good accountant. Many veteran players don’t catch on that their own labor has value, even if they figure out that there are costs to buying someone else’s labor. In pricing goods, they count their own labor as “free”, and so they think they are profitable, but after subtracting out the market value of their own labor, are losing money.

This leads to players crafting items and then selling them on the open market for below the market value of crafting them. And it’s not just a few players doing this; for many goods, this happens enough that the equilibrium market value of buying a completed item is less than the equilibrium market value of the materials and labor that went into creating the item. This perversely turns the crafting system into a way to lose money, rather than a way to make money.

I’ve spent a lot of time outlining the problems with various crafting systems, rather than the benefits. I don’t see a way to simultaneously avoid all of the problems. Even so, a crafting system where either the crafting process itself is interesting or else there is some economic depth to selling the completed item can be worthwhile in spite of the problems. Surely either approach (or a system that combined both) is vastly better than the systems that are nothing more than something to grind levels in, as so many games feature.