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Building Foundations

The purpose of this blog is to provide an outlet for my perspectives and musings on MMORPGs and the industry.

Author: TJKazmark

As the Weapon Swings - Combat in MMOs

Posted by TJKazmark Thursday February 11 2010 at 1:24PM
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As I have played MMOs over the years, I've come to recognize a few things that bother me about the way combat is handled. In this post I'll talk about four specific aspects, those of twitch-based mechanics, overall speed, collision detection, and friendly fire.

My Index Finger Won't Stop Shaking - Is That Normal?

Having spent a great deal of time in World of Warcraft playing PvE and PvP content, this has been my primary source of observation for this twitch-based gameplay. First though, I'd like to say that I know PvP is not handled the same in every game, but I have also experienced this aspect in Warhammer Online, City of Heroes/Villains, and Age of Conan.

To use a localized example, I'll set myself in a battleground instance which is built for PvP. Usually, I would think, when one army engages another they form a plan, organize, and engage according to said plan; combat would progress and both armies, having sustained damage, would either fall back and recover or press the attack. Instead, I see 15 people on both sides generally saying, "I'll do my own thing," and it takes about 5-10 minutes into the match to see some sort of organization form.

Now, to be fair, this isn't how it always happens. There are teams who plan out and make this part of the game their pinnacle of enjoyment. The point I'm getting at is these games aren't built for true combat; they're environments for aimless destruction by whatever means necessary. No matter your class or skill set, you end up mashing buttons, jumping around and screaming at your cooldowns to go faster. That last part is optional, but the first two are almost unavoidable.

I said that these games aren't built for true combat. You may ask, "How do you know?" and I'll tell you. If you look at these games (take WoW again, for example), you'll see a player using the skills given to them with reckless abandon, generally diregarding any form of strategy beyond the skill rotation. How is it that a player's character can use all of the flashy skills constantly without suffering from so much as being a bit winded? Cooldowns? Debuffs? These mechanics do help, yes, but they do not address the issue at hand. Once the cooldown is done, they use it again immediately. They're too  available.

We never see things such as stamina, or more emphasis on normal swings. Did viking warriors constantly spin around trying to whirlwind their enemies? No, they hacked at their enemy's shield and  splintered their defenses before going in for the kill, often with specialized equipment for doing just that. Okay, yes, MMORPGs are games, not real life, but that doesn't mean this can be used to ignore the foundation of what it means to engage in combat.

Here in a list of my thoughts on what should be implemented for more strategic and effective combat:

  • Limited stamina gauge based on stats (Movement and skills in combat drain it)
  • Allow gear to be damaged in combat and have it affect the flow (e.g. shield breaking)
  • Make personal defense more important (a tank can't just sit there and be wailed on)
  • Make skills more situational (conditions must be right for its intended effectiveness)
  • Place more emphasis on "normal" combat (A normal swing can be lethal)

For this to be effective, I think auto-attacks should be taken out, and control of the swings placed in the hands of the player. Want to fall back and be defensive? Focus your stamina usage on defending yourself. Attacking with certain weapons like, like blunt-types, leaves you open to counter-strikes.With this setup, I think players will be more likely to consider strategies and formations to help take out opposition. It should also lessen the "twitch" factor of games today and help a player focus on what's available to them at the moment.

Okay, Let's Kill These Gu-... Wait, I'm Dead Already?

Has that ever happened to you? Getting ready to take on the enemy and suddenly, in a flash of spell and steel your character falls to the ground and you sigh while you click to release your spirit. Sometimes this is unavoidable. If a giant hits you dead on with his giant club, you're dead, 'nuff said. But when I'm facing down a guy my level, dieing in two seconds does not a satisfying match make. Regardless of which end I'm on, killing a guy with hardly an effort seems, well, hollow. Feeding back into the first section of the post, having layers of defence like shields and armor for an enemy to break through should, in theory, give you at least some time to react and give the other guy a nasty scar before you fall.

While this occurence in combat relies heavily on the circumstances of the insta-kill, I feel it is something that should be looked into. And, if my ideal factors above are taken to heart, these occurences may be reduced to instances where you well and truly are outmatched.

Should I Be Able to Run Through You?

You see it in many places. The lack of collision detection makes strategic formations moot. If an enemy can just run through my line without slowing, how do you expect to protect your soft squishy guys in the back? Throwing enough dps on them to take them down isn't really the answer. That's a convention of non-collision mechanics. Charging the line is a risky endeavor; that's why mounted knights were used to break them and give the infantry the opportunity to move in and cut them to pieces. If I want to defend a tunnel from encroaching back guys, how can I stop them from passing right through me?

With a collision detection mechanic in place, players would be forced to think about their movements and actions. How can you break your enemy's line? Are there ways to circle around and get behind? Do we have the power to break them? The strategy creates itself when the setting gives ample reason for it.

Although it's not an MMO, Medieval 2: Total War is a good example of what I'l thinking of. When you storm a castle, you have to consider what routes are available to you, how dangerous they are, and how you can disable or circumvent them. Since each unit takes up space, you're required to consider what troops you should use to engage the enemy and who should go in behind them in case they're routed.

Hey, You Shot Me!

You won't like it, but friendly fire has its place in combat, and I think it can make for compelling fights. If an archer line fires a volley into the enemy with your troops engaging them, your guys are going to get hit. The same should be true for MMOs. If I'm firing into melee, I need to make sure my friends aren't in the line of fire. If a mage casts an AoE spell, I want to be out of it. Fiendly fire make people think before they act and take into account not only what damage they're doing, but who they are damaging as well. Yes, you may end up shooting or stabbing your friend, but that's war. People get hurt,and not always by the enemy.

If you ask me, twitch-based combat needs to let up in MMOs. It has its place in games, and I'm not saying it needs to go away completely, but it hampers truly great combat. Factor in more strategic, methodical, and dare I say more true-to-life aspects, and you have what I believe to be a greater atmosphere for meaningful engagements.

This post has been for my personal enjoyment, and I hope it has given some food for thought for all who read this (and apologize for the long-windedness). I wholeheartedly invite you guys to post your comments, thoughts, or opposing views for the betterment of discussion. Until next time!

 

 

Story in an MMO

Posted by TJKazmark Tuesday December 29 2009 at 3:15PM
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Everyone loves a good story. For many gamers, the story is what drew us in to RPGs. For others, the mechanics of the game hooked us; maybe it was the overall presentation. I think I can say with confidence, though, that the story has and always will be the crux of an RPG, especially in the area of MMOs.

Over the years, I've enjoyed engrossing myself in the lore of games. The story, to me, is the focal point, whether I'm following an arc or coming up with my own. The story gives me reason for doing what I do. That being said, I've taken the time to consider how critical the story in to an individual MMO and found that it revolves around several other factors.

The Focus of the MMO

Depending on what the game is designed for, the story may take a back seat in some MMOs, only being used to justify (sometimes weakly, at that) events or mechanics that appear within the game. Sometimes you don't need story to lure the player along. PvP games come to mind when I think of this. When all is said and done, you don't really need much justification to bash someone over the head with a mace aside from base desires (bragging rights, loot, etc.).

Although PvP is one element that can take the place of story as the focal point of the MMO, others can as well; even PvE (instanced raids, for example) can also detract from the story element if given the primary focus. Is this justified? Should others game elements be placed in the forefront to overshadow that upon which it is based? Personally, I say no.

The Story is King

I don't remember the developer who said this, but I'll paraphrase and say that the story is king when it comes to MMOs. The story and lore around it justifies the world in which we play. Everything else, I think, is secondary. Combat (PvE and PvP), crafting, exploration, NPCs, races and cultures, all hinge upon the solidity of the story.

Now, some of you may disagree with me for different reasons. I realize that others prefer more direct styles of game play, not caring or unwilling to endure lines of justifying text that fill out the context of the game world. To this I say that all other aspects of an MMO are important, especially to fulfill those short-term needs and desires you have when playing a game of this magnitude. The story though, if you haven't already guessed from my writing, holds a place that transcends game mechanics. It encompasses everything and fills in the spaces between game mechanics and gives them the fluffiness they need.

To give an analogy, think of a multi-layer cake. Each layer is solid and represents a polished aspect of the game. Combat, content, crafting, economy, exploration, housing, and many other layers comprise this cake, but these layers are just cake; there's no icing. The story of an MMO is like the icing. It's everywhere, filling in the space between the layers, containing different flavors according to where it is, and even giving that fancy filigree on top that makes you look at the entire thing and go, "Mmm, that's one good-looking cake."

Now that analogy isn't perfect, but I think it expresses how I feel about MMO story. Without the icing, you just have dry pieces of cake. To go one step further, you could say the icing holds the moisture inside the cake, keeping it fresh. I could go on and on, but you should have the idea.

Read Between the Layers

Some games out there have really cool features. Some have good PvP, others PvE, etc... After you engage in these nifty areas for a bit, the same content gets old. This is where story plays a second role just as important as the first. After laying down the groundwork and lore for the player to justify their role in the world, changes in the story give rise to the development of new content. It breaths new life into old areas, and gives the player the effect of being in a changing world.

This effect, in fact, is something I find as being a barrier that many MMO companies face. From what I have seen, most expansions simply add new areas and content that spreads out and away from the original world, leaving it to stagnate for the most part. If any readers could fill me in on MMOs that don't follow this trend, please let me know. The one obvious MMO breaking this mold is WoW with its Cataclysm expansion that claims will remake the old world. We'll see if the story matches up to the level of change it brings.

Originality in MMOs

Posted by TJKazmark Monday December 7 2009 at 10:55AM
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Over the years of playing MMOs, I've come to wonder just how original some of these games are. I come from a beginning and background of pen & paper RPGs, so my focus primarily lies in the fantasy domain. I am not very experienced when it comes to the sci-fi genre, so I'll leave that to someone more experienced.

Coming from the imagination-dominant setting of D&D, I have noticed many MMO games in the fantasy setting running together. Dragons and iconic figures of the genre are largely unavoidable, and I like seeing them in each game, but does it have to be, "a dragon is a dragon is a dragon?" The same can be said of buildings, which I feel are often made as more of a pretty feature instead of something functional. Other aspects pop up on the list as well. In this post, however, I'll primarily cover the variety of monsters and NPCs I've come across in games, how I have seen them handled, and what I think about them in terms of the originality of their presentation. 

Let's start at the beginning. Quest types and game mechanics aside (which are a totally unique area of discusson), your first encounters with monsters or hostiles is pretty generic. My first impression with some games have been, "Wait, I just created a character who is supposed to become a great hero; why am I fighting rats?" The "rats" may be the pesky rodents, or represent something different and equally generic/awkward; small walking mushrooms, for exmple, or spiders.

I know that, as a new character, you are supposed to start off small, but how small, and with what degree of projected difficulty? I am not a fan of killing creatures that could be considered household pets in order to reach that next legendary level, so killing that wandering myconid presents little to no reward for my ego. What games do well with this, then?

Since I have most of my MMO experience in the World of Warcraft universe, I'll start off here. Having played in every race's starting ground, I can say with considence that there is already an imbalance here. My favorite starting ground has been in Dun Morogh, the place where dwarf and gnome players begin. The valley in which they enter is filled with wolves, troggs, and ice trolls, but therein lies a problem. At a glance, I logically see the field of play and think, "Wow, with this many enemies out here, these dwarves should have been overrun a long time ago." The scale, I feel is off. Sure, you have to have a healthy number of creatures around to present an opportunity to gain experience proportionate to the average number of players in the area over a period of time, but there are just too many.

Moving on from the scale of creatures available to an actual encounter between the player and enemy, there very little challenge. Again, this falls into overall game play and mechanics, and that is another topic in itself, but I still consider this an issue. If I'm fighting a wolf with nothing but a hand axe, shouldn't I at least have some danger of getting my throat torn out? As it turns out, not really. A few swipes with my axe vs. an equal number of "ferocious" bites from my opponent and "boom," I come out on top with a minimal loss of health. Does that really conjur the feeling of triumphing over a ferocious animal? To me, no.

Now the game ramps up in difficulty as you go along; I get that. The starting area is there to help ease you into the game, but is it meant to be that easy? What do I learn about survival in a game that leads me by the hand for the first ten levels? Woah, getting off topic...

Moving on with the WoW example, I come across various types of wolves in the game, and aside from coloration changes, they largely look the same. I will grant, however, that they did have a different model of wolf that looked shaggier. In later exansions, they added a ghost wolf model that was a transparent form of one of the original models. Woo. Then there are the riding wolves, but those are mounts. Looking at the hours spent grinding away at these mobs, and those few variations (which you don't see at once,) get very stale. But it isn't just wolves I'm talking about, but other wild creatures like giant spiders, bears, and so on. The experience of fighting these things feels the same, no matter what model you face.

The same thing can be said with more unique models, such as dragons. Again, referencing in World of Warcraft, I don't see much model variation, and they largely fight the same way. Ho-hum. The only real appreciable differences I have seen in these epic mythological creatures has been in the WotLK expansion, and to see that makes me happy (or at least happier.)

Now how do these things stack up on the NPC side? Wth the ability of a player to customize their equipment, shouldn't NPCs also have their unique style of dress (where applicable?) I actually don't have many complaints in this area. In the games I have played, the visual presentation of NPCs has been pretty smooth. I will however, say that their personalities need some real work. Interacting with different contacts seem largely generic, and the fact that I usually zip through quest dialogue says something pretty big to me. How many of you do the same, and how do you feel about it? There is actually a lot to be covered on NPCs, so I'll leave this subject to be explored in its own post on a later date.

Getting back to monsters, I have been disappointed over time at the lack of variation in the enemies I have faced. It does seem to hold that many popular MMO games think along the lines of , "a dragon is a dragon is a dragon." So what could be changed to increase the unique features of these otherwise generic creatures? Some ideas do come to mind...

1.   Have a random unique trait generator. Let's go back to the wolf for this example. You see a pack of wolves running around through the woods. Instead of having them all look the same, have the same base model, but add different traits to make their appearance more unique. They can have scars in multiple places, be missing patches of fur, be bloody from a previous encounter, have blunted/elongated fangs, or different clor or glowing eyes. These small things may seem insignificant, but I feel they would add to the experience of fighting them.

2.   Re-scale the difficulty. You don't usually see 20-30 of the same creature milling about the forest in a small space, so why do we see them in MMOs? Again, I realize players need to get their kill count, but this just doesn't feel right. Instead of killing 20 bears, why not just fight 2-3 big, challenging bears that (gasp) might kill you and have more of an experience that way? Make encounters more significant, thus (I think) taking away from the "grind" aspect and giving more to the player.

3.   Add some more/variable AI! This is something I have seen largely ignored in games. Do all hostile creatures just charge in and fight to the death? Come on now, there's a lot that can be done here. Back to the wolves! If you encounter a pack of these things, have them spawned with different UI. Some may be more cautious, others reckless. Let them work as a team against the player with that pack metality. Some try to weaken you, while others look for an opportunity to get a strong hit in. If injured, why not have them run away. Even if you don't kill them, you could still get experience for the encounter, and have a more unique experience for it.

4.   Range/Status of motion. If you injure something, shouldn't it limp, stagger, or otherwise? If my character is near death, I don't expect to be able to run around as if I were fresh out of the inn. Adding a more immersive element to battle in that you do get fatigued and affected by your wounds makes battle more strategic and good for group play. Even when soloing, it adds that greater element of danger and tactics to how you fight.

Now, I will admit, these things would take a great amount of time to develop, test, and implement, but why hasn't anyone (that I have seen) tried this out in MMOs? If I could learn the skills necessary, I would gladly spend the time to create these features, as I feel they would make valuable additions to gameplay.

This has touched on my feelings about creatures represented in the fantasy MMO genre. I know this post insn't exactly comprehensive, or in any way representative of every MMO out there, but they do represent a large portion of my experience in this game type. As always, please feel free to post comments and constructive criticisms to add to the topic and my understanding of the industry.

The Function and Utility of Mechanics in MMOs - Part 1, The UI

Posted by TJKazmark Monday December 7 2009 at 9:53AM
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New MMOs are coming into the world every day, from various locations of the world. Some of their content is largely unique, but as a player of 6+ years in the MMO genre, I have seen a lot of overlap. Many of these features have become 'standards' and appear in places such as the surface-level UI, or can exist deep in the core mechanics of game play. The purpose of this series of posts is to explore what features have become commonplace in MMOs, their significance, and if they should (or shouldn't) receive some love and innovation. Ultimately, I will post a comprehensive note on the subject of game mechanics in MMOs based on the material covered. Keep in mind that this will not be a completely objective article; I'll mix in my personal thoughts/perspectives while also adding an element of empirical research. I also fully welcome comments and contributions from the community to help fill in gaps I may have missed. Also, personal opinions and thoughts on the subject are always appreciated.

I'm not completely sure I can start somewhere that could be considered the 'basics', so I'll start at a point that everyone should be familiar with: the UI (User Interface), otherwise known as the HUD (Heads-Up Display). Across the board, several aspects of the UI can be commonly found in MMOs. Take the mini-map, for example. This has become a staple in online games, providing a relatively simple and easy reference as we navigate from place to place. Depending on the quality of design put into this feature, it can be a great help. In some games, it can just be an unpolished mechanic that simply shows the player, "You are here."

So what is the main purpose of the mini-map, and what features of it make the mechanic stand out? The mini-map, as many of you can guess, is at its core a reference tool. It is a convenience for the player so they will not have to pull up that big old map to see where they are. That's it; simple. Early on in MMOs, this is the singular purpose it served. However, a number of additions and contributions have been made to this piece of the game that has turned it into an encyclopedia of local knowledge. Take a look at World of Warcraft and its minimap. It fulfills the standard function of showing the player where they are, and has the function of zooming in or out to show more/less of the surrounding area. Cool addition, no? On top of that, they added the functionality of highlighting specific points of interest such as class trainers and gathering points to help the player find their way around. Again, nifty. Add in the community contributions and you have a tool that can almost serve as a comprehensive GPS navigation tool; the only thing missing is the auto-pilot. Oh wait, that exists too.

Next on the UI list is the skill bar, or the area of the UI where you can store specific action icons or macros (user-created functions that often string together a sequence of commends for the ease of the user). This can be considered a quintessential function of game play in a world that is based on user-activated skills. Consider Age of Conan, World of Warcraft, Saga of Ryzom, or (an assumed estimation of) 95% of other MMOs out there. With this feature, you can (relatively) easily place your handy little icons in an organized fashion on your game screen, or you can place every single action you can do all around the edges of the screen, depending on the mods available.

A third and also vital part of the UI is the personal status indicator. This is the portion of the UI dedicated to gauging your (or your pets/party member's/enemy) health and mana/stamina/energy, or whatever the class mechanic uses. This, I feel, is the most core piece of the user interface. The player, I assume, always wants to know just how many vital resources a character has left in order to determine what they need to do next. But again, this can be considered a luxury. Though we take it for granted, consider if a game didn't have this function. How would this change the game play? Consider this food for thought.

The fourth mechanic of the UI I'll cover is the chat/combat log window. Since MMOs are the massive multiplayer worlds they are, chatting with friends and enemies is a core part of the game, and we need a way to do that comfortably. Different games a various levels of functionality within the chat window. As stated previously, it can function as a combat log to show us what the enemy is doing to our character and (textually) how much we're doing in return. The chat room function also gives us the means of talking with players across the game world, or those in our immediate area, depending on the need. We also have private channels to speak one-on-one with players, or with specific group of players (guilds.)

These four mechanics make up what I think is the core of the UI, and every game has extras that make it unique (or not.) Here are some of my personal feelings about them, which are up for discussion.


 

The Mini-Map - How important is the mini-map to the MMO? Honestly, I feel it's a luxury item. Though it has a very practical and comprehensive use, the more it does, the less you have to do. To me, it takes away from the immersion factor of looking around for the next creature I need to hunt, or the mining node I need to excavate. However, in regards to the game in which it is placed,I think it depends on the way the game is crafted/presented that determines the importance of the mini-map.

The Skill Bar - Considering the amount of MMOs out there that are skill-based, having the skill bar makes for some pretty simplified game play. Great empasis has been placed on the skill bar(s), but is it as important as we make it out to be? Is having a massive array of abilities that may or may not be available to use at the time on your screen a good thing, or are we getting carried away? Considering the room for customization given to the user by the game developer, the answer to this question is largely determined by the user themself.

The Status Indicator - As I said in the post, this, I feel, is the key element of the UI. I do think though there is room for experimentation. Is it necessary to always see our health? How would the game change if it were gone? How would game developers adapt to this change if they decided to take the convenience out of thie game? I think it is something to be explored, for certain. If implemented well, it could add a whole new level of immersion to the game, and change the mechanics of the game itself. How do you all feel about this?

The Chat Window - As far as the chat window is concerned, I think it is a useful tool that gets taken overboard often enough. Global channels, though nice in function, often get overtaken with advertisers or people looking to draw attention. What is nice is that you can turn it off, but then you're limiting yourself in function to avoid the hassles it entails. Having logs of what is said is an appreciated feature, especially in long conversations between multiple people. I think it has been developed to a nice point, but now it comes down to quality control.

In coming posts I'll talk about deeper portions of MMO game mechanics, from combat to world interaction to transportation. As always, I encourage the community to post their comments and constructive criticisms to help me gain a greater perspective and experience on the topics I care about. Post away!

WoW and Its Base For Success

Posted by TJKazmark Wednesday December 2 2009 at 9:12AM
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 There's no arguing that World of Warcraft is one of, if not the most, successful MMORPGs out there to date. With its subscription base in the millions, it has received a great deal of criticism and praise by both reviewers and players. Having played various MMORPGs for the past 6+ years, I've taken a look into what makes WoW so successful while others have failed, and have come up with the following reasons.

 The number one reason that I have found for WoW's success it its foundation. Yes, that's the title for my blog; fitting first post then, huh? What I mean by this is the Warcraft universe isn't based on the MMO title alone. It has a rich background previous RTS titles that have taken the liberty of providing the setting, lore, races, classes, enemies, etc... Not only that, but those titles also created a dedicated following, many of which migrated to WoW at its release. To my recollection, I have not come across another MMO with this track record.

 The second reason why I believe WoW success is so pervasive is due to Blizzard Entertainment's philosophy. Love it or hate it, the policy of releasing "when it's done" has done wonders for their game(s). I realize that being able to take their time on games to make them polished before release is a luxury not every company can afford, but part of this is from Blizzard's monetary success with their non-MMO titles.

 With these thoughts in mind, why don't other developers follow suit and come up with a series of non-MMO games to build up a potential support base? Sure, you won't be able to jump on the MMO cash cow right away, but it would give the chance to see if ideas would work and the potential for user feedback on game aspects in regards to lore and setting. Plus, if an idea was successful, the companies could start gathering a following before releasing le grande MMO (if that's what they decide to do in the end.)

 I don't see WoW going away any time soon. I do foresee a lot of other MMOs coming and going. Granted, there are MMO titles out there that have been successful without the history of predecessors in the same universe, but look at the numbers and there's still a big gap between subscriptions in games.

 Will companies start following Blizzard's patterns of success before the advent of WoW and follow suit? I can't say, but I think the greater potential for success lies along that route.

 

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