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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

The League of Vaguely Similar Gentlemen (The Pitfalls of Open Character Systems)

Posted by cmagoun Thursday May 26 2011 at 12:03PM
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Last post, I discussed the realization that, even though I like the concept of open character systems with lots of free-form power and skill choices, the reality of those systems often left me cold. I used Champions Online as my main example because it has one of the most wide open systems in the market.

In CO, powers are divided into power frameworks (fire, ice, gadgets, darkness, etc.). However, powers from all powersets are available to you at any time, regardless of what framework you start with. Higher tier powers require you to either have x powers from a certain framework, or x+y total powers (from any framework). This means that specialists will get access to (sometimes) better powers more quickly, but eventually generalists will get access to those powers as well.

On paper, this is a fine system... and it does work OK in practice. However, in my experience, I find the most of my characters, and indeed most characters in the game, have lots of similar powers and a similar playstyle.

Is this sameness endemic to all open models? In a system where players choose their powers and skills, are you always going to see hordes of FOTM tankmages roaming around? Are systems that tie characters to tightly defined roles always going to provide a more interesting play experience than open systems? I don't know. Ultimately, I realize that I want to love CO's character system, but I don't. I want to get into the freedom of leveling up my skills in a game like Darkfall, but know that to be competitive, I should read a guide and level and skip the same skills as everyone else.

Enough questions -- let's take a look at ways an open system might avoid these pitfalls and provide more varied characters.

Meaningful (and non-obvious) Choices

If you are going to give your system choices, take pains to make them meaningful. If you have a dozen blasts (fire blast, ice blast, etc.) and all of them are identical except for their special effects, there is no meaningful choice there. Give each blast different combat stats and secondary effects -- and make sure those effects are big enough so that we can see the difference.

Of course, this brings up a ton of balance issues. If your fire blast has a secondary DoT, your ice blast slows opponents, and your lightning blast does more up-front damage and also has a chance to stun, you had better make sure that each of those powers is desirable in some way. If there is a clear winner, expect players to figure that out and choose it over the others... and then post a guide... and then you have a host of unused powers -- an obvious choice is as bad as no choice.

The answer here is not to make the powers the same, but to make sure that their stats and effects are such that every power is interesting and useful to some subset of characters at some point in their game. For instance, though our fire blast might not do as much instant damage as our lightning, we can make the DoT good enough that it is the best overall damage. The ice blast might do relatively poor damage in comparison, but its slow effect is good enough that it actually helps mitigate damage and control enemies on the battlefield. Thus, a PvE damage dealer might be inclined to choose the fire blast, whereas a tank might use the ice blast and a PvP blaster might lean toward the lightning.

Tradeoffs

In Champions Online, the basic formula for a successful character is to take a single-target, hard-hitting attack, an AoE attack, a passive defense, a shield, an emergency click defense, one or more self-heals, and something that will help you generate energy. In general, this is the blueprint for success. Not all characters follow this blueprint, but most do and thus, you see a lot of characters with this standard set of powers.

The fact that there is a standard build isn't necessarily a problem. What causes the problem is that this blueprint is pretty easy to implement and requires absolutely no tradeoffs be made. In CO, you have access to enough power choices and advantage points so that there is no need to skimp on anything. You can take the best blasts, the best defenses, the best self-heals without having to prioritize any of them. So, all of these wonderful power choices you have are mostly meaningless because you can easily choose all of the powers you need with a few extra powers to spare.

Open systems allow you to have access to all of the powers as they create their characters. Because of this, there has to be some kind of scarcity to force you to make hard choices. If you have the best single-target attack in the game, then something else has to give. One way to force these tradeoffs would be to draw both power picks and the effectiveness of those powers from the same pool of character build points.

Let's take our CO success blueprint, but assume that over the course of his career, every character got 100 build points. A base level power costs 10 points. Ranking up a power cost 5 more points per level, until a top-of-class power cost a total of 25 points.

I could get each of my "blueprint" powers now for a total of 70 points, which leaves me 30 points to rank up a few of my powers. I have every standard power I need to succeed, but I am mediocore in most of them. However, if I want a top-of-the-line single target attack, passive defense and a shield, that will cost me 75 points, meaning I have room for only two more powers and I am going to have to skip something.

Multiple Paths to Success

In tabletop RPGs and single player CRPGs, one way that tradeoffs are created is to include a significant non-combat component in the game. You can choose to be a superb combatant, but to do so, you have to skimp on your stealth or diplomacy skills. Ignoring these non-combat skills will close off possible quest solutions, or even close off some content. Conversely, you might choose to be a great confidence man, but then you are going to have a harder time in combat scenarios.

Of course, this works because most tabletop games and many single player RPGs allow for multiple ways to succeed at the game. If you are a great fighter, you can fight your way through a quest. However, if the enemies are too difficult for you, you may have to use stealth and avoid combat, or talk your way out of dangerous situations.

Having multiple paths to success is critical in allowing the player choices when he is building his character. If you are playing a single player CRPG and you are picking the stealth and diplomacy skills for your character, aren't you are going to be a little annoyed to find that there are no stealthy or diplomatic solutions to the game's quests? Or worse, that all of the stealthy and diplomatic gameplay options just lead to combat anyways?

Of course, if you are designing an MMO, your options are more limited. Most MMOs are combat games and very few of them have many viable options to advance other than fighting. When we balance an MMO, we are balancing the combat system and when we say we need "multiple paths to success", that means there need to be multiple ways to succeed at combat.

Still, there are options. If we break down powers roughly into offense and defense, we still have tons of effects.

Offensive Effects: Direct damage, dots, damage auras, damage reflection, pets, delayed (or conditional) damage (a power that damages an enemy when he moves or blocks), buffs, debuffs, confusion (where mobs attack each other), knockback (falling damage), traps, area of effect damage

Defensive Effects: Avoidance, resistance, pets, knockback, buffs, debuffs, stuns, roots, snares, confusion, direct heals, heals over time, reactive heals, damage shields, active blocks

If you allow all of these different types of effects to be powerful, then you can see how a character specializing in pets and traps, would play differently than a character who focused on direct damage and avoidance... and how both of those characters would be different than one that had a little bit of each of those effects.

If you omit or marginalize most of these effects, then you end up with too few ways to succeed and thus no tradeoffs and thus monotonous builds. 

There is more to discuss... but I think this post has lingered long enough. Hopefully, it will give you some food for thought and prompt a discussion or two about your favorite game.

The Tyranny of Choice (or The Darkside of Open)

Posted by cmagoun Friday May 13 2011 at 7:53AM
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One way to classify character development systems in rpgs is how open or closed they are. An open character development system allows the player to choose his character's abilities and skills. A closed system determines a character's abilities based on some pre-determined role -- usually the class picked at character creation.

Now, I don't know of too many systems that fall on the extremes of the open/closed scale. Most open systems have some restrictions on your power choices and most closed systems allow some degree of choice. Games tend to fall somewhere along a continuum. For instance, I would consider Champions Online (gold) and Darkfall to have two of the most open character development systems ever seen in MMOs. By comparison, City of Heroes (where about 80% or more of your powers are determined at character creation, just not the order or how developed those powers will end up) is mostly a closed system. Modern WoW falls heavily on the closed end of the scale, with players having little choice in how they develop as they level up. Though it casts characters in a specific calling at character creation, Rift allows such variation within those callings, that I would have to consider it an amazingly open system.

In theory, when it comes to character development, I am a big fan of open systems that allow lots of choices. I like to pour over long lists of powers, looking for just the right blend of synergies that will make my character powerful. I also like playing concept builds -- self-buffing melee mages, drain tanks, characters whose sole purpose is to produce hideous amounts of knockback -- the more variety, choices and permutations, the better.

So, it would stand to reason that I would enjoy Champions' character development more than City of Heroes'. Champions offers a huge number of power combinations and permutations. CoH offers a ton of different types of characters to play, but once you pick, you pretty much know your build.

And I do sorta like CO's character development. I have about 8 characters in Champs and play a couple of them on a semi-regular basis. But, after a hard look at all of my characters, I realized a sad fact: all of my Champions Online characters were built the same.

Not exactly the same, mind you. Just mostly the same. Every character has an area attack to deal with henchmen. Every character has a hard-hitting single target attack. Nearly all of the characters have the force shield with the Energy Sheath (for energy regen). Most characters have a defensive passive. Self-heals: Check! Emergency click power: Check! Damage enhancer: Check! The specific powers may be different, but in general, the builds are alike. They have similar types of powers and more importantly, they play alike.

(I had a similar experience in Darkfall -- in a game where you can have any skill you want, why was everyone leveling two-handed swords, swimming and fire magic?)

In contrast, my dozen or so CoH characters are all wildly different from one another. I suppose I expect that from CoH since essentially, that game has something close to 300+ classes from which to choose. But take a game with much less variation... Nowadays, WoW has perhaps one of the least interesting character building systems on the market, but of course, my WoW ranger and warlock are nothing alike.

So, my question is, why with all of these wonderful choices, do I end up with the same result over and over? Is this inherent to all open systems, or is this just a flaw in the current designs out there? Should game developers even waste their time with open character systems, when more restrictive systems seem to offer a better game experience?

Personally, I still like the idea of open systems, but I do admit that I have had more fun in games with more restrictive systems. Still, I am not yet willing to throw in the towel. Next post, I am going to try to answer some of the questions posed above.

Back to the Grind

Posted by cmagoun Wednesday May 11 2011 at 2:25PM
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So, after a brief stint posting at another quality MMO site, and then getting burned out on MMOs altogether, I have recently gotten that itch that I am sure is familiar to many of us.

No... the other itch. And ewwwww...

You know, that itch when you hear your buddies talking about their favorite builds over a cup of coffee, hear idle water cooler chat about last night's dungeon run, or read an article about the ideal itemization in some heretofor uncreated ideal game. It's the same itch that makes salmon swim miles upstream to spawn and the same itch that makes Granny sit for hours in a dark, smoke-filled room, pumping away your inheritance into a slot machine one nickle at a time.

THAT itch.

I am sure you all know the drill by now. You burn out, and then after a few months, the desire to play an MMO returns and you start looking to resub your games. I started out slowly, putzing around on my Champions Online account, curious as to how the free-to-play move went for them. Then my friends convinced me to resub to CoX for issues 19-20 to see the new Incarnate content.

That all went well. Both CO and CoX are fun enough... but at this point, neither of them are novel and neither held my interest very long. For a while, I thought about subbing to SOE's DC Universe Online, but Sony managed to convince me to hold off for a bit... and change my bank account numbers.

It looked bleak -- certainly, this was the shortest re-love affair with MMOs to date! Fortunately, another friend of mine shot me a trial key to Rift and though much of Rift strikes me as MMO deja vu, it had just enough going for it to get me onto the bandwagon.

Of course, with the desire to play MMOs comes the desire to read and write about them. And so that is why I am back here and back to this blog. Hopefully, in the next few days, we will find something interesting to talk about concerning Rift, Champions, CoX, and MMOs and design in general.