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The Lunch Break Blog

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

Author: cmagoun

Not Quite a Post on Decisions

Posted by cmagoun Monday June 29 2009 at 2:01PM
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In my last post, I discussed the philosophy that game development was the act of "making pushing buttons fun" and then used that to segue into a comparison between MMOs and slot matchines. The end result of all that blather? MMOs do a great job of "making pushing buttons fun", but in doing so have become much like slot machines and ultimately, we all lose to "the grind". The answer is that we must elevate games to be more than just pushing buttons; our games must allow players to make meaningful decisions.

So this post was supposed to be about decisions... What do I mean when I say meaningful decision? How can we put meaningful decisions in an MMO design? Why aren't there more decisions in our current crop of MMOs? I spent the better part of the week thinking and writing on this topic and invariably, I would end up in a long, rambling, clunky rant. Ultimately, I deleted about all of what I wrote and ended up with nothing. Ugh... so much for being a prolific blogger.

What I realize is that to me, this is a pretty big topic. I don't play MMOs ONLY to have mindless fun. Mindless is for TV, or XBox Live Arcade. For the rest of my games, I want interaction, socialization, and a bit of challenge. For MMOs, the bar is even higher because I want my MMO to have all that and also feel like I am experiencing life in a persistent world.

Ok, that sounded lame and I understand that some people reading this are warming their keyboards up for the obligatory, "It's just a game, chill out, Loser" comment. When I say I want to experience "life in a persistent world" I don't mean, "Oh look at the loser living in his mom's basement, playing WoW 18 hours a day, peeing in old Moutain Dew bottles while he's on a raid." Though I would like nothing more than to be independently wealthy enough to play WoW for 18 hours each day, my Mom's basement is icky and I am not a big fan of Mountain Dew.

No, when I say "life in a persistent world" I mean "My guild just ended the goblin raids using diplomacy and force of arms. That will open the trade routes through here again which will allow our crafters to resume their work on the seige engines we need to fufil our obligation to our liege guild. My guess is that the we have not heard the last of the goblins, because they are being supported by our enemies, so we should set up some sort of patrolling schedule, or start construction of watch towers along our borders..."

So, most MMOs have interaction, socialization and a bit of challenge. Grab some friends and run a 5-man instance in WoW, and you can have lots of challenging fun with your buddies. However, nothing you do in WoW really ever "sticks." When you complete a quest, the situation is never resolved. The creature camps are always in the same spot no matter how many times the heroes clean them out. The regions are always the same no matter how many Battlegrounds the Horde wins. Now, you might think, "Well, that's because the world is persistent." Well, no. MMOs don't have persistent worlds, as much as they have STATIC worlds. Static means unchanging. Persistent means there is a state that persists between logons (as opposed to say, resetting each week), but that state can change.

This all means that I am looking for an MMO where my actions can change the state of the persistent world. I want to make decisions and I want them to have an impact.

Where do we go from here? Well, I am going to take pieces of the junk I wrote earlier in the week and break it out into separate articles, each one dealing with smaller parts of MMO design, hopefully all following this guiding principle of Meaningful Decisions. In the coming weeks I have a bit on crafting, another on conversations with NPCs, and another on the concept of "gating" content.

So, I apologize for the long delay for what is ultimately, a pretty lame post... took me a week to come to the conclusion, "Maybe a long, vague, ranty post ISN'T the way to go this time..." and never, ever drink any Mountain Dew that has been stored in a basement.

What Do MMOs and Slot Machines Have In Common? (Too Darn Much...)

Posted by cmagoun Tuesday June 23 2009 at 1:52PM
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A friend and I were recently discussing the state of MMOs and sometime during the conversation, he said to me, "It's (computer games) all about making pushing buttons fun." Now, I could have sworn I read something to that effect before. I seem to remember an interview with a game developer where he was quoted as saying game development was giving the act of pushing buttons impact.


I tried to find the exact quote, but I couldn't. Nonetheless, the thought stayed with me for a couple of days and I toyed with it. After all, when deconstructed, playing a computer game is just a series of repetitive button-pushing. How do you make that have impact and be fun? I could be onto some great truth of computer gaming. And since MMOs are arguably the most "button-pushy" types of computer games, I might be close to revolutionizing the MMO industry!!!!! I am about to change the world!!!!!!!


Ok probably not, but you have to admit, “making pushing buttons fun” is one of those clever deconstructions that seems to bring to light some basic truth. So, I figured I would think about it for a bit and see if there was any core game-design concept there that I could use to REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORLD OF MMOs!!!!!!!!!!! (ok, got to calm down)


It was around that time that I realized that someone had already beaten me to the punch. There is an entire multi-billion dollar industry that has perfected the whole button-pushing concept -- Slot Machines. Walk into any casino and you will see hundreds of people repetitively pushing buttons for hours at a time and paying for the privilege... micro-transactions even :) How do they do it?


Well, for your button-press, a modern slot machine will give you flashing lights, some colorful graphics, an animation or two, various beeps and sounds and maybe if you are lucky, a mini-game which consists of more button-pressing for different animations and sounds. Most importantly though, slot machines make button pressing impactful with the promise of a cookie. Every press gives you the chance that something really cool will happen -- you get a big hit. Most of the times nothing happens, but the game strings you along with small hits and the ever-present promise of another reward. It’s a compelling formula – compelling enough that even though slots are the most boring games in the casino, and they give the worst odds, they are by far the most popular games.


So… if we go with the idea that a good game is one that makes button-pressing fun, we realize that computers games follow a very similar formula to slots machines. For every button press in an MMO, I get some flashy graphics, an animation or two, some sounds, and every so often I get a cookie – a cool item, a bit of story or a level up.


It is inevitable that when you play slots over a long period of time, you will run through your money. Even if you win every so often and even if you are “up” on the house at some point, if you continue to play, you will burn through your bankroll. Slots players call this the “grind”. Hey, where have I heard that term before? Fortunately, in an MMO grind, you don’t run out of money. Instead, you run out of patience with what is essentially a mind-numbing, repetitive exercise in pressing a button in hopes of getting an ephemeral reward.


And I think that is where the button-press deconstruction gets us – the novelty of the new buttons, graphics and sounds wears off and you are playing just to get the cookie. Once that happens, you are in the grind, and just like in slots, once you are in the grind, you are ultimately going to lose.
So, it isn’t JUST about making button-pressing fun. That quote holds a tiny sliver of truth, but it only gets us so far – about as far, it seems, as the current theme park model that plagues mainstream MMOs. Click button, PvE, get reward, click button, PvP, get reward, click button, craft, get reward, click button, quest, get reward…


Click button, engage in drama on forums about the grind, quit game… Which ironically, completes the slots analogy, since the only meaningful choice you have in slots is when to quit.


So, that’s all I have for now. Next time, I would like to take the next step; if games aren’t “just pressing buttons” then what the heck are they all about? (drum roll…)


Games are about making DECISIONS fun.


So, we’ll talk about decisions in games, why more meaningful decisions make games fun, and if they’re so darn cool, why don’t we see more of them in MMOs.
 

Make Them All Public

Posted by cmagoun Wednesday June 17 2009 at 8:58AM
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I have spent the last several posts first complaining about grindy quest systems and then describing the concept of dynamic quests which are closer to WAR's public quests or periodic world events than they are traditional MMO quests.

What I realize is that in my rush to get to the dynamic quest concept, one important point was lost... perhaps the most important point. Namely, I would fix the quest grind by getting rid of traditional quests altogether. I think it is a failed idea that has done little more than replace the grind of spawn farming with the grind of NPC clicking.

To fill the void left by removing traditional quests, I would replace them with public quests... except that the current implementation of PQs is a little less than ideal, and that leads me to a refinement of the PQ concept which ended up as Dynamic Quests... which I have gone on about for way too long.

Anyway... that's it for now. I promise I'll fire off a new concept in the next day or so.

Final Dynamic Quest Examples

Posted by cmagoun Tuesday June 16 2009 at 1:14PM
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Sorry for the delay between posts; there has been a lot going on here. In any case, I would like to finish up with these example dynamic quests before moving on. Here are two more DQs I would love to see in a game.

Tale of Two Cities

Where It Occurs

The Two Cities DQ occurs in a region where there are two settlements within a reasonable walking distance.


How and When It Starts

This DQ would probably only pop every few days.


What Happens

The premise of the Two Cities DQ is that there is some kind of dispute between the towns and that they are poised for war. Scouting parties from the two towns spawn in the wilderness between them. The parties won't be hostile to players, but if two opposing scouting parties meet, they will battle. The towns will close their gates and visitors will have to pay a war tax to enter. Prices for goods rise in both towns.


How Players Get Involved

Players traveling to either of the two towns will be able to join the scenario as members of the hawk or dove factions. NPCs in town would be talking about the pending war and would be able to point players to the various town officials and generals that would provide missions.


What Players Do

Hawks are trying to drive the two cities towards war. They can do this by attacking the opposing city's patrols, or by performing gathering and crafting runs to create armor and weapons.

Doves can try to make peace between the two towns by performing diplomatic missions to the other town. These missions would require the diplomat to carry an item (a gift, or a treaty) to the other city. Fairly tough spawns of assassins would try to stop the player, so he would likely need to be crafty, or bring friends. Games with conversation/diplomacy systems (Vanguard is the only one I know of atm) would be able to use these skills to further their cause.


When Does It End

The server keeps a tally as players complete missions in both towns and at some point, either the hawks will drive the towns to war, or the doves and peace will prevail. If the doves win, then the towns remain at peace and the scenario ends. If the hawks win, then it is war and another DQ chain (described below) is started.


How Players Are Rewarded

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, players are rewarded in gold and xp as they complete missions for their faction.

 

War! (PvP)

Where It Occurs

The War! DQ occurs in a region where there are two settlements within a reasonable walking distance.


How and When It Starts

The War! DQ occurs after the hawks win Tale of Two Cities.


What Happens

Periodically, both warring cities spawn war parties that head to the opposing town via roads and paths that connect them. If a war party reaches the enemy town, it attacks the gates (which are defended by guards and static defenses), trying to enter the town and possess the town's flag.

Without player intervention, this is very unlikely to occur, because when the groups meet, they battle. Typically, the war parties are very evenly matched such that a battle between them leaves only a few very injured soldiers from the winning side. The survivors are in lousy shape and are thus chewed up by the town guards and towers. Left alone, the war parties clash and ultimately kill themselves against the enemy's walls.


How Players Get Involved

Many players will already be involved due to their participation in the previous DQ. However, new players are drawn into the conflict by enlisting in one of the two towns. Doing so will make them kill on sight to all of the enemy town's NPCs and players.


What Players Do

Crafters and gatherers can help the war effort by gathering needed materials and crafting weapons, armor, seige weapons and towers. Crafting weapons and armor causes the city to create upgraded war parties, or create more of them. The more numerous and better equipped warriors will eventually overwhelm their opponents and be able to inflict damage on the enemy town.

Crafting seige engines produces slow moving weapons which travel with a group of soldiers. The weapon can be easily destroyed if the soldiers guarding it are killed. However, if the seige engine reaches town, it can do serious damage to towers and walls.

Crafting towers helps upgrade the defense of the town, or repairs the defenses that have already taken damage.

More adventurous types can patrol the roads and kill groups of enemy soldiers (and likely players). This not only reduces possible damage to their own town, but makes their own soldiers more likely to be able to assault the enemy in numbers. They can help attack the town (though the number of guards and static defenses should make that dangerous without numbers). They can issue basic orders to nearby soldiers, telling them to follow, attack, fall back, etc. Players can also take control of seige engines, allowing them to target specific defenses.

The idea is that, without players, the war continues without any progress being made by either side. Players tip the balance and determine the course of the war.


When Does It End

The war ends when one side breaches the other's town and destroys that town's flag. Alternately, the war could end after a certain number of hours have passed.


How Players Are Rewarded

Players are rewarded both for joining the war effort and for their contribution to the war effort. A small bonus is given to the side that wins the war, but a larger bonus is afforded to those who joined the side that was outnumbered, with the bonus being in proportion to how bad the odds are when they joined.

More Dynamic Quest Examples

Posted by cmagoun Monday June 8 2009 at 1:02PM
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The past few posts, I have been exploring the concept of non-grindy "Dynamic Quests". Though the posts have not garnered much attention, I am pretty happy with the idea and will explore it a little more in the next few days. Here are three more examples of what these quests might look like.

Plague Town

Where It Occurs

The Plague Town DQ can occur in any town in the game world.


How and When It Starts

Plague Town is spawned randomly on a pretty low chance checked every few hours or days. In theory, a player might never see a plague town, but it is likely he will deal with 2 or 3 as he levels -- more if he seeks them out.


What Happens

Some shops close, others increase their prices dramatically. The town is littered with plague victim spawns begging for help. Spawns of street thugs, anarchists, cultists, and insane plague victims appear every so often. The entire town is affected such that any regular recuperative properties of being in town are negated. In fact, any players in the town will slowly be drained of health and energy and be checked periodically to determine if they have caught the plague (which would be a fairly debilatating debuff).


How Players Get Involved

Players will stumble into this DQ as they return from their adventures.


What Players Do

The goal of this DQ is to generate enough relief for the town. Players can generate relief by curing victims, or by escorting victims to a hospital or temple. Crafters and gatherers can contribute by collecting various plant and animal reagents and crafting them into disease cures. Ruffians in the streets can be dealt with to help bring order to the town.


When Does It End

Once enough relief is generated, the plague ends. If this does not happen, the server will end the plague after a number of days.


How Players Are Rewarded

Players who contribute to the relief effort are given payment in the form of cash and possibly an item based on how they contributed. They also receive a temporary, but long-lasting disease resistance.


Possible Variation

Once enough relief is generated, the players learn that their efforts are doing no good because the plague is the result of a cult ritual. Players must find the dungeon entrance somewhere in town, enter the lair and defeat the cultists. Defeating so many of the cultists results in the spawn of a High Priest of the Dark Gods. Several groups will have to band together and attack this evil-doer. Once the priest is defeated, the plague ends.

-----

The Bounty Hunters (PvP)

Where It Occurs

The Bounty Hunters DQ can occur anywhere in the world, but each time it occurs, it is limited in scope to a single region.


How and When It Starts

The server will periodically spawn this event. It is possible that other DQs which put players in the position of outlaws could trigger this DQ. So, for instance, if there were a "Robbery" DQ that had a thief burglarize a shop, this DQ could be spawned soon afterward, with the thief character as the hunted.


What Happens

One of the civilized game regions is chosen and a random individual from that region is marked a "criminal". A bounty is placed on his head at all of the Bounty Offices in the region. The player marked a criminal is given a system message to that effect. Would-be hunters can pick up the bounty notice at the Office. Once they do this, they will be given the name of the criminal, and will be marked as kill-on-sight to the criminal regardless of other faction affiliations.


How Players Get Involved

The criminal will know immediately that this DQ has started and that he is involved. Potential hunters will hear rumors in town about the "notorious criminal" that has escaped justice. The local Bounty Office will have a "Help Wanted" sign posted on its door.


What Players Do

The hunters go into the countryside and try to find and kill the criminal. The criminal tries to evade detection and escape or kill his hunters if found.


When Does It End

This DQ ends once the hunted criminal has been killed by the hunters. Alternately, after some time passes, the hunted player is given notice that he has evidence of his innocence and needs to bring it to the local Bounty Office. If he manages to do this, he "wins" and ends the DQ. Once the DQ ends, all PvP statuses are reset.


How Players Are Rewarded

The criminal is awarded for how long he can stay in the region and remain alive. This award is scaled based on the number of hunters there are. If the criminal can ultimately prove his innocence, the reward is even better. The hunter (or party of hunters) that kills the criminal is paid the bounty in items and experience. Hunters that aren't in on the kill get nothing.


Possible Variation

One possible variation puts all hunters as kill on sight to each other as well as to the hunted.

-----

Cartography

Where It Occurs

The Cartography DQ happens in a remote, uncivilized region of the game world, far from any city or town. Ideally, this is a woods, a swamp or a hard to traverse mountain.


How and When It Starts

Periodically, the server will choose a region and a town (of similar expected character levels) and start the DQ.


What Happens

Once the server chooses the region, a number of "Exploration Flags" are spawned at predetermined points. Each region that is eligible to be a target for this quest has about 200 or so possible points for a flag. Only 40 or so flags will spawn each DQ so that even if a player has explored this region before, some searching around will be necessary to get the flags.


How Players Get Involved

Players wandering the wilderness can stumble onto the explorations flags. If they pick one up, they will be told where to turn them in. Players in town will hear rumors of a mission bankrolled by the Cartography Office.


What Players Do

Players collect the exploration flags and turn them in. Flags are placed so that some are easy to get, others are very difficult to get to. Some might require jumping, or swimming to reach. Others might be dangerously close to monster spawns.


When Does It End

This DQ ends once all the flags have been collected, or after a set amount of time has passed.


How Players Are Rewarded

Players get xp and gold for each flag returned to the Cartography Office. Item bonuses might be awarded for getting a particularly high number of flags.


Possible Variation

Though it does not make a lot of gameworld sense, it might be fun to have every registered exploration party marked kill on sight to all other parties and give them a display of each team's number of flags. Everyone is rewarded for flags, but the team with the most flags at the end of the DQ gets a special bonus.
 

Two Example Dynamic Quests (Incursion and Fire!)

Posted by cmagoun Friday June 5 2009 at 2:46PM
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Last post I described the basic ideas behind a system of Dynamic Quests that would hopefully take the grind out of the quests we see in current MMO offerings. I am firing off a quick post now to give you two simple examples of what these DQs would look like. Hopefully, these will give you enough to judge the idea. There will be more to come in later posts.

Goblin Incursion

Where It Occurs

The Goblin Incursion DQ occurs in the newbie zone and should scale for the characters there. Similar DQs could run in higher level zones, but with different antagonists appropriate to more powerful players.


How and When It Starts

The Incursion DQ is started by the server on a random timer, but on average it occurs once every 1-4 hours. I think ideally, I would want any new character coming into the game to experience this at least once, if not multiple times while he is in the newbie zone. Alternately, the timer could be tied to the killing of a particular boss somewhere else in the game. So once Boss X is killed, a timer starts and within 30-90 minutes, the DQ is activated.


What Happens

The game spawns multiple goblin "war camps" in the newbie region (with random locations). These war camps consist of a number of tents, campfires, supplies, and possibly a treasure chest. The camps periodically spawn war parties of goblins that patrol the area around the camp, and occassionally head toward the closest village to terrorize anyone there. War parties vary in size -- some are soloable, others require a party or a very careful soloer (who can pick off enemies and run, perhaps) to defeat. War camps are defended similarly, in that a few are small enough to be managed by a lone player, but others would be amazingly dangerous to handle without a group. In fact, some camps might require multiple groups working together to destroy (a mini-raid).


How Players Get Involved

Players familiar with the game will stumble upon the "organized" goblin patrols, or the war camps and understand what is happening. New players will likely be in a village or a town and will be alerted to the situation by the alarm bells, or the cries of the city watch. Talking to any of the NPCs in town will point the players to a town guard, and any guard will tell the players that the region is under attack and that they must help the war effort by destroying the goblin war camps.


What Players Do

The goal of this DQ is to destroy the goblin patrols and ultimately, the heavily guarded war camps that have spawned throughout the region. Travelers through the region, gatherers and crafters will have to be vigilant, as there will be many nasty patrols wandering the area. Characters shopping in a village might be pressed into service when a goblin patrol charges into town and starts killing NPCs. Characters capable of tracking would be a great help to their groups as they could reduce the searching required to find patrols and camps. Characters capable of stealth could approach a camp and possibly steal its treasure without retribution.


When Does It End

This DQ ends once all goblin camps are wiped out.


How Players Are Rewarded

During the Incursion, towns would offer small bounties on goblin teeth. Powerful goblin lieutenants would carry some decent loot, as would the treasure chests in every war camp. Killing goblins and camps would earn players points and at the successful conclusion of the DQ, groups with high scores would gain some reward -- either an item, or a temporary buff.


Possible Variation

When patrols reach a village, players in the region have to get there in a certain amount of time, or the village is raided. If the goblins successfully raid a village, more camps will spawn, or players in the region will suffer a small debuff for the duration of the DQ. Fighting off a raid will give those participating a boost in score and a temporary buff.

 

Fire!

Where It Occurs

This DQ occurs in any town, engulfing a building that has a walkable interior.


How and When It Starts

The server starts the Fire! DQ on a random, long-spawning timer. Generally, a player will not see a fire when he is visiting a town. However, if he visits the town a dozen times, he should probably experience this DQ at least once there.


What Happens

The server spawns dozens of Flames in the building interior, as well as various victim and bystander NPCs. The flames are non-moving regions that cause a small amount of AoE damage, but quite a bit more if a player walks into them. Victims wander around asking for help, yelling, etc. Victims don't take damage from the flames' AoE, but will take damage from entering a flame region and will only do so if following a player. Flames can be damaged and thus "put out" by water and ice effects (as well as other effects as per the designer's ideas). They can also (on a random chance) spread, spawning a new flame next to themselves. Occassionally, rubble spawns from the ceiling, damaging characters standing under and creating a debris pile that blocks movement. Debris can be destroyed by normal attacks to clear the path.


How Players Get Involved

Players in town will see the burning building and possibly hear cries for help.


What Player Do

The goal of the Fire! DQ is to rescue the trapped citizens. Talking to a trapped citizen causes them to follow the player who will then have to lead the citizen to safety. The citizen can take damage from walking through fire and so the player must be careful in how they lead the NPC, or need access to healing magic. While in the burning building, players will take continual low-level damage from fire AoE, as well as walking through fire. Healers and buffers will likely be positioned outside the building to help.


When Does It End

The fire burns itself out some time after it starts (20-30 minutes?), or when all citizens are rescued.


How Players Are Rewarded

Players get a small number of points for each flame doused, each pile of debris cleared. More points are awarded for each citizen rescued. Top scorers are given a reward which they can collect in the Town Hall, a temporary shop discout in that town, and possibly a title.


Possible Variation

Every so often, the normal flame regions would be replaced by "Raging Fires". In this case, the fire will not burn itself out over time, but will continue to spawn new Raging Fires until so many exist and the building collapses, killing all inside (players included). Players can successfully end the quest only by dousing all of the fires inside (or by the collapse of the building). If the building collapses, it is unusable for a day and all of the NPCs and functions that were housed inside are unavailable.
 

Dynamic Quest System (or Life Without !?!?!?!?)

Posted by cmagoun Friday June 5 2009 at 12:16PM
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So last post I basically griped about MMO quest systems and outlined problems I think turn questing into a horrible grind in almost all modern MMOs. I think MMO developers are in a rut because they see quests as part of their game's progression system -- something a player does to level and get gear. I think if you have the mindset that the reason to have quests is to provide an alternative to repetitive hunting, you are pretty much bound to the idea of repetitive, easy questing.

"Hmm... what do I do today? Fight 10 boars for a reward, or collect 10 pies for a reward? I know, I'll do both!!!"  Ugh...

So what's the goal here? The rest of the article will outline a questing system where quests are more than a proxy for spawn camping. Our system will provide excitement by giving the player a fresh experience each time he logs into the game. We will tie the character's actions to events in the game world and he will see the results of his actions as it affects NPCs, game locations and even his fellow players (albeit only temporarily). Instead of dryly telling the game's backstory in flavor text, our quests will give the player a story to tell each session of play.

Sounds great, but where do we find this awesome questing system?

Well, for our basic inspiration, we are going to look to Warhammer Online and its public quests. In short, a public quest is an event that spawns regularly at a certain location. Anyone can join in and contribute to the quest, which usually has players killing monster spawns so that more powerful monster spawns show up. Once the big baddie is killed, players are rewarded based on their calculated contribution (modified by random roll).

Public quests are great, but I think we can take the idea one step further. Let's call our new concept Dynamic Quests. Here are the guiding ideas behind Dynamic Quests:

Doing Instead of Getting: A friend of mine once said "RPGs are about doing cool things and getting cool stuff."  I agree. I also think that MMOs have the "getting cool stuff" part down pat. We're here to work on the "doing cool things" part. For that reason, I am not focusing on the reward aspects of the system just yet. Of course quests will have rewards, but the focus is on what the players do as opposed to what they get.

Dynamic Quests Occur Out In The World: Just like WAR's public quests, DQs appear out in the world. They are game world events that are shared among the players in the region.

Everyone Can Play (Together): Again, like WAR's PQs, DQs will be available to all players who are nearby when the event occurs. Players might come in late, or be involved from the beginning, but they can all contribute. DQs should encourage interaction, cooperation and possibly competition.

Locations and Spawn Times are Randomized: This is a big departure from WAR. PQs are static and spawn on a pretty short timer. This leads to people grinding PQs and feels very artificial. DQs are meant to feel more like events happening in the game world as opposed to a themepark attraction. For that reason, DQs will have longer spawn timers and will appear more randomly throughout the world. The goal is to get players working a little to find their next quest... not so much that they have to wander for an hour with nothing to do, but just enough so they are encouraged to explore the world, talk to NPCs in towns, or ask their fellow players what is currently going on.

Quest Flow Is Not Set: Another departure from PQs. With Dynamic Quests we should have the option to change the results based on the actions of the players. A quest designer could base the flow of the DQ on the success or failure of the players involved, or he might have the progression based on what levels of characters participate, or even change the quest flow randomly so that players who experience the quest more than once don't know what to expect.

Quests Have Natural Mechanisms For Getting People Involved: So, instead of quest icons and arrows leading players by the nose, DQs will have to find ways in the game world of getting players to the action. Alarm bells might sound because of an impending goblin invasion. Players might be stopped by a crying street urchin. A gigantic fire and plume of smoke might alert players of something amiss in a nearby village. Players that talk to town NPCs will be rewarded with rumors about nearby DQs. Heck, we could even go as far as to have conversation skills players could train (much like gathering and crafting skills found in other games) that made this process easier.

Quests Have an Impact on the Game World (for a while anyways): Based on the results of the DQ, the game world will change. If a village is razed because players could not stop the dragon... the village is razed for an hour or so. If the players save the village, they are lauded as heroes and can expect gifts from the villagers, or lower shop prices for a similar period of time.

So, if you've read to this point, you are either thinking that this idea sounds awesome, or that I am full of crap... or both. In any case, we have laid the groundwork for the next step. Hopefully, I have you thinking a little bit. Next article, we will apply these principles and create a set of example DQs.

The Quest Grind (or A Horror Story Told In !?!?!?!)

Posted by cmagoun Thursday June 4 2009 at 11:22AM
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The wise, old sage looked straight at me and said, "Kill 10 Randy Badgers and bring my their Steaming Entrails."

To which I cleverly answered, "Huh?"

"You heard me, Adventurer. The nearby woods is overrun with badgers and I hate the dirty buggers." The sage look a bit annoyed. "Now get out there and play Whack A Badger!"

I sighed, "I don't know. I am a little tired of the whole 'killing 10' thing. The last sage I talked to needed 10 Obnoxious Fox Nostrils for some nefarious purpose. The sage before that had a hankering for a parts of Endowed Beavers that I am not willing to discuss."

"Oh yeah, those guys are my cousins. How are they doing?"

"What is it with you people and small mammals?"

The sage shrugged, "So do we have a deal? Just hand over your Quest Log and I'll sign you right up."

"Can't you give this assignment to someone else?"

"Just did. See those three over there?" He pointed to a ragtag band of mercenaries dressed in the Tattered Armor common to all amnesiacs who were found washed up on Newbie Island. "Now those guys know how to hunt some badger. Come, talk, accept, kill, return, BOOM, job done. Didn't even bother to whine about the flavor text, unlike someone else I know." The sage scowled, "Look, we going to do this? There is a queue forming behind you."

I waffled, "I don't know. I am so bored...."

"I'll throw in this nice belt: +1 strength, +3 haggis resistance."

"Ooooh, a belt. I'm in."

Ok, I may be embellishing a bit, but I think I have just described the lowbie experience for the vast majority of MMOs on the market. What's worse, I have described the mid-level experience and a heck of a lot of the high-level experience as well.

When people think of "grind", they typically think of hunting a spawn of mobs over and over. Quests were designed to alleviate that grind and they have succeeded. I rarely have to spawn camp and hunt mobs anymore. Instead, I bounce from static NPC to static NPC, following quest arrows and glowing ? and ! icons mindlessly to gather and turn-in quests. My quests logs in WoW and EQ2 typically had 20+ quests in them at any given time. My quest log in Runes of Magic currently has 17. The devs of each game have done a wonderful job making sure I always know where to go, that I always have something to do and that when it is time to move on to a new zone, I am led there by a level-appropriate task.

Yay! We have replaced the hunt-grind with a quest-grind. Welcome to the MMO Themepark... please keep your hands on the WASD keys at all times and try not to fall asleep.

In theory, I like quests. They give decent rewards, they provide a sense of progression through the game and they tell the game's story. Unfortunately, the way all current MMOs (that I have played) have implemented quests is just terrible. Before we construct possible solutions, let's take a deeper look at the problems with quests. Those of you that don't like ranty lists (or listy rants), please turn away.

Kill and Deliver: One of the main problems with quests is that too many of them follow the same 2 formulas: kill quests or delivery quests. If you are lucky, you might a quest that has you killing and delivering all at the same time. If you are unlucky, you end up returning to an NPC after a kill quest, only to have him give you another kill quest... for creatures one spawn over from the last. Overall, it's a horrible situation. I can see where it might be tough to conceive of more quest templates -- a lot of the ideas I have come up with fall roughly under the categories of kill and deliver. Nonetheless, we need more formulas, or better ways to dress up the old ones.

Too Darn Easy: I understand that the trend in MMOs is towards easy, accessable content, but if I get a quest to kill 10 creatures and I can run out, get my kills, and turn-in, all in the space of a few minutes, what is the point? If there is no risk of dying at all, why bother giving me this task? Now, not every quest should be forcing you to face creatures that outlevel you and can kill you with a blink, but on the other hand, if the quest situation entails no risk, then I am just grinding. Any situation that warrants a special reward should entail some level of risk -- meaning if I screw up, I am going to have to recover, run or die. If I have to take care and use a little thought, then I am not grinding, I am questing.

Enough with the ?!?!?! Aready: Again, I understand the themepark concept of a stream of easily gained "progress", but game designers should really consider cutting the level of handholding that is rampant in MMOs. Get rid of all the icons, arrows and auto-run features and instead, give us a reason to talk to NPCs and explore the world. Give us good hints in the quest text. Have NPCs give us hints when we talk to them. Pepper your landscape with noticable landmarks to help us find our way. Make us rely on the kindness of others... It's ok to have to spend time to search for something.

The Progression Is Always The Same: If I have played a game a bit, and then start a new character, I am almost certain to have a painfully similar experience to my last character's. Talk to NPC A and get his quests, then NPC B... then finish the quest in the cave for C and he will send you to D which is in the next town. There you can pick up quests E, F and G and H if you go to the tent city. Ugh... I expect some similarity from one playthrough to the next, but without fail, the quest progression for a given region is 95% the same for every character, every time.

Am I Playing A Single-Player Game?: Another flaw of many (not all) quest systems is that they turn the MMO experience into something a lot closer to a single-player game. Soloable quests become trivial and boring when you add party members to the mix. Two players on different stages of the same quest have to catch one player up, or repeat sections of the quest. Players that don't have the same quests slow each other down by having to kill different creatures, and run to different sections of the zone to turn-in. Ideally, questing should allow soloing, but encourage grouping. As it stands, most games' quests, allow grouping, but encourage soloing, except in the case of big boss monsters, where you are forced to group -- and some games allow you to hire NPCs to party with you obviating even that need.

All For Naught: Perhaps the thing I have come to loathe the most about quests is the fact that ultimately, they are meaningless to the game world. I can collect badger parts all day, kill evil wizards and rescue countless princes and the game world doesn't change one bit... not even temporarily. Ideally, a completed (or failed) quest would have some impact on the game world. Perhaps saving a merchant lowers prices in town for an hour, or killing a dragon causes something else to move into his cave for a day.

Because nothing I do in your world makes any difference, I focus on where I can make a difference, which is my character and his stuff. Quests become treadmills for experience, gold and gear and nothing more. I don't care about your story, or your world anymore... I just want to kill and collect. How many people even read quest text anymore? A few do... but most don't. Why bother? If I wanted to read a story over which I have no influence, I would read a novel. Instead, I chose to play a game. When I am playing a game, I expect to interact which means my actions matter.

What Next? There are probably a couple more items I missed or glossed over, but the rant has run its course for the time being. Yes, questing is crap, so now what? Well, I would like to spend the next post imagining a system that addresses these issues and makes quests a more interesting and engaging part of the game world.

What do you have for me? Is there anything about quests systems that annoys you? Are there games that do quests particularly well? What are the best and worst quest lines you have ever been on?

No Really, I Hate My Gaming Group

Posted by cmagoun Tuesday June 2 2009 at 12:06PM
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I am fortunate in that I have a regular stable of people with which I play online games. It isn't really a large enough crowd to be a guild or clan, but anywhere between 3-6 guys/women get on Teamspeak several nights a week and we get together and share our latest game... which is great. The only problem is that in the past several months, I have come to realize that I hate my gaming group.

See, recently things have not been so smooth for my gaming crowd. There have been moves, new jobs, family engagements -- the normal comings and goings of 30-40 somethings that interfere with gaming. No big deal there... we are all pretty busy, everyone has a reasonably demanding job, two of the guys are family men and those that aren't have active social schedules. I get it: real life >> gaming life.

What bugs me is this: Every so often the stars align and everyone puts the kids to bed/ditches the wife/takes the evening off or otherwise clears their schedule, grabs a drink, dons the headphones and fires up their computer. This might happen once a week or so and when it does...

We don't play together.

Have you ever "gone to lunch" with a group of friends only to find that it is 1:30pm and the only conclusion you have reached is that there are 13 restaurants within driving distance and someone in the car can find a reason to dislike every single one of them? Our Teamspeak sessions are THAT car.

L: "Let's play CoH. We all still have CoH accounts and I have another Fire/Kin I am dying to level."

C: "Umm... I let my CoH account expire."

L: "Aw.. why'd you do that?"

C: "Well, we have played CoH for years now. It's boring. And anyways, you guys have essentially beaten the game right. I don't really want to tag along while you four-box your team of plant/storm controllers. It's not fun anymore."

L: "I only three-box."

C: "Nonetheless... let's do something else. What about WoW? I would love to dust off my WoW account and actually level my warlock."

L: "I could do that."

J: "Ugh... I HATE WoW!! The graphics suck!! Literally, they make me nauseous."

C: "Dude, who cares about the graphics? The gameplay is what counts."

J: "The art style is so cartoony... I can't stand it."

C: "That art style is deliberately designed to look like a Warcraft game. Haven't you ever played Warcraft?"

J: "And those hideous Popeye forearms... ugh... I just threw up a little in my mouth."

C: "Ok, ok... no WoW. What then?"

S: "LORTO just came out with a new expansion... I could show you guys around."

B: "How can you like that game? It feels nothing like Middle Earth."

S: "Yeah, but it's a good PvE game. Don't think of it as Middle Earth. Think of it as an MMO without shoes."

J: "I suppose the graphics are ok on that one."

B: "If you'd have read the copy of the Silmarillion I lent you..."

C: "Ok... no LORTO!!!"

S: "Huh, why not?"

C: "I have a rule: once someone mentions the Silmarillion, the argument is over... It's a lot like Hitler that way."

D: "How about EQ2? I used to have an account there."

C: "Oh I don't know. I played EQ2 at launch and frankly it was a little dull. The crafting was a pain and you had to grind 10 levels before you could even play an interesting class."

D: "Yeah, but I've played more recently than that. A lot of that crap has changed. They have really improved the game these past years."

L: "Please,  'Come back and play... the devs have really improooved the game with patch 80398-B'... If I had a quarter for every time I'd heard that..."

C: "You still wouldn't have enough to pay the monthly fee for all of your CoX accounts."

L: "Good point."

S: "Isn't EQ2 a Sony game?"

D: "How about Vanguard then?"

S: "Sony game."

B: "Are you still on about Sony and SWG?"

S: "I WILL NEVER FORGIVE THEM FOR WHAT THEY DID TO MY BEAST TAMER!!!"

(uncomfortable silence)

C: "Well... how about we try some free to plays? No risk there... just download and play."

L: "Yuck... You have fun with your Korean grind-fests. I am going to run through some player-created content on CoX."

C: "Would that be RitkiFarm#341 or CouncilSlaughter#418?"

L: "No way, my new farm is called StatesmanIsMyBitchNow. The XP flows like..."

C: "Lube?"

L: "I was going to say 'butter', but whatever."

D: "I don't even think Statesman is with CoX anymore. Isn't that guy off making Champions Online?"

(All in unision.. and with awe): "Oooooh, Champions Online."

S: "I'm really excited for Champions Online."

C: "Me too."

D: "Comes out soon, I think."

J: "I am looking at the website now. Look at those awesome graphics -- just like it was straight out of a cartoon!"

C: "Umm... what is the difference between 'cartoony' and 'straight out of a cartoon?'"

J: "Huh?"

C: "Forget it."

B: "I hope it comes out on XBox."

C: "What? Why?"

B: "My computer won't run Champs Online... no way. So they better release this thing on XBox or else Statesman will have nerfed me again."

C: "Dude..."

B: "What?"

C: "I don't think they are guaranteeing cross-platform gaming. So, even if Champs Online is the only game we can all agree on, and we all go buy it together... you STILL might not be able to play with us. You should go out and buy a new computer."

B: "No way I am buying a machine just to run a stupid game!"

C: "You just bought an XBox."

J: (obviously changing the subject) "Why don't we all try the trial for DDO?"

(laughter ensues and we all log off for the night)