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Cream of the Crap

Tearing apart MMOs to find what really makes them fun.

Author: coolcoder

Progress Update #1

Posted by coolcoder Monday June 22 2009 at 9:31PM
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So, as some (or perhaps none) may have noticed, I haven't updated in days. Turns out I don't have the motivation to write while I'm sick. But, I'm better now, and I'm back. Today, instead of beginning on Puzzle Pirates, I'm going to make my first post about the game I've been developing, because frankly, it's more fun to write.



(Click for full size.)


Here you see the title screen of Online Game, which is the working title of my project. I thought it would be rather humorous to hear people say they play 'Online Game' so i decided to use it until I came up with something better. This screen took about a day total to code. Since this is my first major project in Java, finding a suitable network connections package and graphics package took a while. Then I had to lay the framework for the various interactables on screen, coding and debugging the StaticImage, TypeableTextbox and Button objects took about two hours total.

[Note: Here begins technical mumbojumbo. If you don't care, I recommend skipping the next paragraph.]

Also behind the scenes, my two server programs run flawlessly, and the client (the program players use, as seen above) can connect properly and send and receive information. Currently, I'm using two server programs, one for handling incoming connections, the Login Server, and one for handling player interactions as well as controlling the NPCs, the World Server. I already know of a few problems with this setup that I will have to tackle eventually. One problem is that the Login Server can only accept one incoming connection at a time, so if two players attempt to log in at the same time, one will be told that the server is busy. For the time being, this is not an issue, as both servers are running on my modest PC, rather than a true server machine. I can probably only support ~30 players, maybe less, so I don't think simultaneous logins will be an issue in the near future.

It may not seem like I have much done, but really, nearly all of the grunt work has been finished, and next time the coding bug bites me, I can start programming actual game content. That, plus my small mountain of design notes means that from here on actual progress should be rather rapid. It's an exiting time to be involved with my project.

Speaking of content, next on the slate (besides some housekeeping immediately after login that I need to code) is PvP. Why PvP? Because it's easy. No, I'm not claiming balancing PvP is easy, but rather that one of the first things I'm going to do is get player controls working. You know, moving around the map, not wlking through walls, swinging your weapon, etc. Then I'll want to get combat working. So, I can either make a working NPC monster and write a rudimentary AI for it, or I can use what I already have and just do PvP. So that's what I'm doing. Next status update will probably be some crappily drawn stick figures walking across a grid, and then the week after that it'll probably bee the same stick figures beating the crap out of eachother with wireframe swords.

Now for something a bit more interesting, my design ideas! Contrary to what the above paragraph may suggest, I'm not a huge fan of PvP in an MMO. I do believe it has a place, but that place is not the core, but rather a supporting role, kind of like trade skills. (Speaking of which, You All Just Got Pwnd has a great video on the subject.) So what am I building my game around? Well, from my previous articles, you know that I hate grinds, and think the endgame is important. Now here's something you may not know. I'm a semi-hardcore raider in WoW (or at least, I was.)

I'm building my game around challenging PvE. Difficult 5-man dungeons will be the requirement for my game's equivalent of a level up, with an extra difficult Master Boss as an option for challenge seeking players that will yield loot appropriate for fighting the next Master Boss. Since I'm opposed to grinds in any form, all boss loot will be on a 100% drop, except for items with random stats, in which case you'll only get one of the possible types. Ideally I'll have every boss drop 1-2 Bind-on-Pickup items for every build that I recognise, and a few with some odd stats for players with more original builds than whatever I imagine. I also plan to have the engine examine group composition at the time of a kill, so that in case of duplicate class/build combos in a group the server can drop some extra items of those types and they will not need to split their build's loot.

Raiding is likely going to be something mostly reserved for noninstanced locations in my game, since I probably won't have enough playtesters or server capacity to properly test a raid during development. Such are the woes of being an indy dev, I guess. That said, I do plan to have a raid dungeon as a hard mode alternative when players reach levels 5 or 10 for their class change dungeon.

So where does this leave solo players and/or people without enough time to form a group? Well, I do intend to have 3-7 solo dungeons for every 5man dungeon I create. A solo dungeon won't allow someone to level up, so a player that never groups will be stuck at level 1, but they will instead grant new class abilities. So if a player is having excessive trouble with the regular levelup boss, the party can disband for a while and meet back up after some solo dungeoneering with a new bag of tricks to try out. Since solo dungeons are meant to be the refuge of players that are having trouble completing the levelup dungeons, the majority of them are likely to be easier than the 5mans. However, I'll be sure to have at least one each of a challenging and a seriously difficult solo dungeon at some point.

As far as class skills go, I intend for most skills to be relevant all the way to max level. The way I have designed the current abilities, almost all of them are speciallized for specific uses, and mechanically they tend to use %modifiers and 'absolute' debuffs that are not going to be dwarfed by weapon damage as players gain better gear. (By 'absolute' debuffs, I mean full effects like immobility, blindness, etc.; these effects don't have any linear or even geometric components, they simply change an entire mechanic.) I'll need to edit the magic abilities a bit, since currently most of them have a listed damage and magic gear tends to mod them by a %. I could just keep damage more-or-less constant across current and future spells, but that restricts my design too much, and will complicate balancing magic equipment versus physical combat equipment.




So, that's that. Hopefully I'll get a post up within 1-2 days this time, and it'll be back on my usual topic.




For now, I'd like feedback on your thoughts regarding my design choices. Leave a comment and let me know what you like or hate in the above, and what you think may be impossible to pull off.

Also, I have a bit of a poll I'd like to conduct. I've been considering potential revenue structures for my game, and the two I'm looking at are either subscription-based for all content past some level, and/or microtransaction for cosmetic/convenience items. Which do you prefer in a game and why? One of my specific concerns is whether or not people feel that microtransaction cheapens a game. I'd be thankful if people could comment on the topic.

I'll probably take both of these questions to the forums as well, but I wanted to ask here since people who have read the article will be more informed of the specific circumstances.

RuneScape: why it sucks, and what we can learn from it

Posted by coolcoder Wednesday June 17 2009 at 4:48PM
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Last time, I reviewed RuneScape's merits, today, I'm going to remind us all why I left the game and consider what game developers can learn from the experience.


See below: why RuneScape sucks this.

When I join a game, many things contribute to whether or not I enjoy playing it, but really, anything but the gameplay is just cosmetic. And RuneScape's gameplay was tedious, boring, repetitive and noninteractive. What do I mean? Skill training (which composed the bulk of one's time) was accomplished by repeatedly doing the same task anywhere from tens to millions of times in a row.


This is either funny or sad.

The combat system was the same way. Players would click and enemy once (or sometimes twice! *gasps*) to autoattack it to death. After which they would maybe loot the drops and then repeat, hundreds and then thousands of times. A single level in the Strength skill, which determined how much damage your attacks could deal, required killing 2767 Fire Giants, a popular training monster.

Another thing that eventually led me to quit was the deterioration of the game's community. In the beginning there were few enough players that most people knew eachother, and were careful to preserve their good reputation because they would be unable to find groups if they were known to be a pain in the ass. Now, the game is flooded with 10 year olds treating the game world as a dating sim. Commonly in major towns you can find a small crowd of n00bs spamming things along the lines of "lf gf, must be h0t" or "lf bf, must be rich". Through the cloud of leetspeak, trade offers, requests to "cyb3r", and plain spam, it became almost impossible to tolerate the free servers.


Ah, the Internet! Where the men are men, the women are men, and children are the FBI.

Back on the subject of gameplay concerns, the game had next to no endgame. The paltry 100-200 quests the game has were not nearly enough to keep me occupied, and once I stopped caring about getting every skill to maximum level there was little to fill my time. True, there were around 10 extremely high level boss monsters that players could challenge in small (or large) groups, but due to the strong death penalty, designers were pigeonholed into creating encounters with little chance of failure and instead chose to limit the supply of their powerful item drops by, as usual, making them rare and requiring endless farming of these boss monsters to gain the items. Like everything else in the game, the endgame was a grindfest.

Another thing the designers did poorly was balance. When I left the game, melee combat was massively more effective than archery or magic for PvE content, and was rivaled only by archery for PvP combat. Magic was greatly underpowered in the endgame, and was expensive to use and train to boot. Also poorly balanced, the devs failed to keep defensive abilities in line with offensive abilities as updates were added, and it eventually got to the point that a skilled archer could deal 94% of even the toughest and best armored player's health in a single attack. With players routinely being one- and two-shot, PvP (and in some boss fights, PvE) degenerated into a game of chance.

Perhaps the Devs should have given this a thought?


So, in summary:

  1. Grinding sucks.
  2. Fail combat engine is fail.
  3. "How I mine for fish??" does not constitute intelligent conversation.
  4. No endgame = end of game.
  5. Mages get the short end of the staff.

So, as game developers, we need to make sure to avoid these pitfalls.

Yes, you could convince some people to keep paying subscription fees by making tens of thousands of hours worth of grinding, but if you found a way to fill their time with fun, nonrepetitive action instead those players will stay, and tell all their friends.

Likewise, although creating a robust combat engine can take some work, the rewards are worth it. Especially if you can manage to create a system that rewards attentiveness and quick thinking, both of which will keep players involved, rather than watching a movie on the side while their avatar slays dragons.

Sometimes it can mean loss of immediate profit, but finding a way to prevent utter morons from thronging into your community may extend the life of your game, and allow you to retain the older (and more able to pay your price) players that contribute to your game voluntarily.

Many people (myself included) see the endgame as the real beginning of the game. That stuff you did on the way up? Nothing more than a rite of passage. Keep the level grind short, or better, fun. The endgame is the real content. As Ferrel said, if you wouldn't do it in a D&D game, don't do it in your MMO; say no to level treadmills.

And lastly, if you are going to make a class, at least bother to balance it against the other classes. If it's so broken as to be next to unusable, why bother putting the time into developing it in the first place?


That's all for today. Tomorrow, I have a D&D game to run, so probably no post. Next time, I'll begin tearing up a new game.

RuneScape: What I once Loved

Posted by coolcoder Tuesday June 16 2009 at 1:16PM
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When I joined RuneScape, it was a new world, small and mostly empty of the hordes of other players that permeate it now. There is something to be said for a game with a small enough player base relative to the size of the game world such that guides, maps and help sites do not exist for it. Since no player had access to such forbidden knowledge, no one felt that they were falling behind if they didn't use them. I could go do whichever quests I felt like, and figure them out on my own, without feeling like by doing so I was wasting my own time, or worse, unneccessarily risking the game's steep death penalty (originally a player lost all but their 3 best items when killed, the penalty has been lessened thrice since then). Likewise, with no maps it really felt like discovery when I stumbled upon some new dungeon or other training area.

One of the few hidden areas that still isn't overrun by other players.

Levelling quickly in the beginning, I was rapidly rewarded with new features. While training smithing, I usually learned to make a new weapon or piece of armor every few minutes, and even when I had already found something better for that particular equipment slot, the new item still allowed me a larger profit when it came time to sell my wares. I liked the fact that nearly every item in the game could be made through the various trade skills, and indeed, in many cases it was either the only way to get a particular item, or the players hadn't yet discovered the alternate source.

As the game grew, more features were added. I spent a lot of time playing Castle Wars (a team-vs-team safe PvP area). The cooperative nature of the minigame combined with the zero-risk of safe PvP made it a fun and relaxing diversion. New quests were a common update, and for quite a while I had every quest complete, repeatedly awaiting the next addition only to complete it the day it was released. The quests were far superior to anything I have yet encountered in any other MMO to this day. (Players looking for an MMO with a strong story element should try the RuneScape members' quests. The free ones still suck, and the pay-to-play ones are still amazing. A warning though, the good ones will require a good deal of time investment in the game to reach the required skill levels.) In RuneScape, the quests themselves were fun to complete, and typically required a certain amount of XP to start. I saw them as the end I was working towards, rather than a means to an end like in most games.


Next time I'll delve into what drove me away from the game.

[And I'm sorry about the lack of screenshots, but that's likely to be a trend. I only really have screenies from my time in WoW. This one was actually taken today.]

A brief history of Gaming

Posted by coolcoder Monday June 15 2009 at 8:28PM
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So, the purpose of my blog: learn from my past mistakes to prevent future ones. Like just now. Frigging browser killed this article. I won't let that happen again.


So, welcome to my blog. I decided I'll begin by summarizing my gaming history to help guide my future articles. I'll be dedicating an entry apeice to why I loved, and hated each game. Occasionally I may post about the progress of the game I'm developing, as the whole purpose of dissecting other games is to help me improve mine.

So, 2001 (not a space oddyssey), I joined RuneScape. The game captivated me for years, and to this day remains the game with my longest /played. I levelled as a mage/miner and reached the top of the pile by a large margin, I was so far above the average level that in Castle Wars (when it was finally added) I could typically march into the opposing castle, kill whoever I wanted, and not die for entire games. I loved the small, close-knit community of the game, and relished exploring a world with virtually no information available about its workings. Fansites had not yet been made, the Knowledge Base didn't exist, and I had no experienced friends to tell me everything about it. But as the game grew, the unknown within it shrank, and eventually, I left for greener pastures.

This is me. Vetran RS-C players will remember that there was no penalty to magic for using melee armor and weapons, and that you could fight with both magic and a sword simultaneously. This has changed.

So, I joined MapleStory. The tutorial almost convinced me to quit and look elsewhere before I had even tried it properly, but once I left the tutorial and got out into noob island, I fell in love with the gameplay. I had come expecting more of the same, click to move, click to kill, autoattack anything to death. What I found was a Multiplayer/Coop Platformer with some cRPG elements on the side. Levelling quickly, I soon left the starter area and set out to become a Bowman (note: this is a bad choice, the other classes are much more effective). Anyone who has tried MapleStory can probably guess what led me to quit.

Next, I went to WoW. I was wary, the game had stolen away many of my online friends. I rolled a Human Warrior (Dimonorra, Area 52) on a random server. That night I played until the sun came up, so thrilled I was with the quality of the combat system and the graphics. Then I found out you couldn't switch servers whenever you wanted. This led me to reroll onto my friends' server. Triessa, Windrunner, was my first character to level 70, but I hit max level just before WotLK and thus never got to try the endgame due to lack of interest from the rest of the population.

Since endgame WoW had been a bust, I wandered between Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates and Flyff for a few weeks. Flyff was awful, combining everything I hated about every game I'd ever played into one. Y!PP was a good deal more fun, but grew stale once I had tried everything. As "incredible" as I was at sailing, it simply wasn't fun.

So I drifted back to WoW a month late for the expansion. This was a blessing in disguise. Initially, I was annoyed that, yet again, my friends were all endgame raiding, and I was stuck killing 30 boars. But really, I was lucky, I missed the mad scramble for mobs to kill that had followed the level cap increasing to 80. Still, I became fed up with the glacial (no pun intended) pace of levelling through Northrend, and rerolled a Death Knight (Desmentia, Windrunner). I blazed to level 80 in two weeks, gearing as a tank along the way. Since then I've raided all the current content, clearing Naxx, VoA (both bosses), EoE, OS+2, and most of Ulduar.

Warriors used to tank without pants. Just be glad I'm not an Orc Warrior.

[Editor's note: here begins shameless bragging about a game you may not even play. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph.] I eventually maxxed my rogue as well, and proved to an astounded guild that gear is certainly not necessary for raiding. I joined a Naxx25 raid when my rogue was 79, and ding'd as I got my summon. In only quest greens, I proceeded to push 2.3k DPS (this is a good 10% above what we would usually require for a recruit) on the complex fights, and ~3k DPS on Patchy. All without dying once. Further amazing my cohorts, I led a PuG raid on Ulduar and topped the charts with a 'whopping' 1.6k DPS... and yet we cleared 6 bosses, which was more than the guild had done at the time.

At any rate, I've now quit WoW until I can find a server to transfer to, since nearly all the major raiding guilds on Windrunner have disbanded or regressed to the point that they struggle in Naxx. If anyone has a server to recommend, preferrably with guilds raiding at all tiers of level 80 content, the comments are open.


So, next post I'll begin my analysis of games past with RuneScape: what I once loved.