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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

5 Ways MMOs Can Improve Community

Posted by Ortwig Saturday January 24 2015 at 3:43PM
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One of the questions that came up over on Massively recently was “What Do Fantasy MMOs Need?”  That is, what, over and above our typical fantasy tropes, are the core set of features or qualities that would make for a better fantasy MMO?  It got me thinking, not only about the specific MMO genre, but what draws me to the sci-fi/fantasy genre in general, and the answer came back pretty loud and clear: the sharing of ideas and common interest in what could be with others.  With fantasy especially, there’s a nostalgia for home and hearth, somehow threatened that seems to lie at the center of The Hobbit and the early fantasy novels – Wizard of Earthsea, The Black Cauldron, The Sword of Shannara (yeah, I know…) that, if treated ham-fistedly, become cliché pretty quickly.  And yet, that doesn’t negate the attraction of the feeling.  It’s a wish for community combined with a love of the fantastical, and I think that’s what all MMOs are striving for, and never fully succeed in delivering. 

So what are some things that could be done?  Here’s a few ideas, just food for thought.

1. Reward Helping Each Other Out

It’s a pretty simple idea, but hard to execute comprehensively.  Actually, Guild Wars 2 got this one right in its mob-tagging mechanic.  Instead of giving loot rewards to only the first character to attack a creature, it rewards all members of the battle equally.  It’s a small change, but incredibly significant when it comes to player mindset.  Instead of promoting selfishness over loot and annoyance when others jump in on a battle, players are actually happy when others jump in to help out. No need to roll on loot, worry about ninja “needers” you just get rewarded, period.  World of Warcraft has gone this route as well within dungeons by removing the need/greed, and simply handing out loot automatically based on your role in the dungeon.

What are some other things that could be done?  Well, how about an incentive to help new players get oriented to game mechanics by offering rewards to veteran for grouping and training?  Maybe a mechanic that scales your power down to the level of the group, or alternatively a training mode that rewards the veteran for offering tips but allow the players to attempt the content on their own.

2. Create Systems and Content that Allow for Varied Interests and Skill Levels, and then Build Positive Dependencies

One of the biggest points of friction is the grouping of people with widely varying interests together and attempting to succeed at a goal.  Pair a veteran with a newbie, or a “casual” or player with a “hardcore” and watch the sparks fly.  Sure the more mature folks will allow for others who have different interests, and can even help each out, but too often it devolves into bickering, finger-pointing and throwing of expletives.  Maybe it’s an age thing.  But the way MMOs have traditionally handled this is to create as many content types as possible: PvP, RP, PvE, questing, dungeons, raids, crafting, “fluffy” activities such as fishing and cooking.  Guilds were created so that players could sign up with like-minded individuals.  And yet the fighting continues.  Just human nature?  Or is it because each of those groups are still living in their silos?

Well, how about if each of those content types were necessary to the other groups?  What if, when you quested, you could obtain stuff that you couldn’t get just by raiding or PvP, but it was something those players needed?  The questers could offer services for obtaining those items to the PvPers, perhaps selling them on the marketplace, and perhaps the PvPers obtained items that were useful to the questers and raiders.  A Crafter class could specialize in gear repair and improvements, perhaps even custom gear, if other the questers, raiders and PvPers brought them materials.  Sure, everyone would get their own stuff too through drops, but it would create some reaching across interest lines to other groups and perhaps a nose poke into those other worlds in ways that build friendships.  Build in positive dependency and you build community.

3. Create Non-Combat Systems that Generate Mutual In-Game Benefits

So Lord of the Rings Online has a music system.  Not everyone in the game plays music, but each year, they hold a festival event at Weathertop that has players attend from all over the game world.  Sure, not everyone comes, but an entire day of listening to player created compositions is something unique to one MMO.   It builds community, and for those who play that game, it fosters a loyalty to that game, but more importantly a sense of home.  Most games have some set of holiday events that bring players back, especially Halloween and Christmas, but what if those kinds of events were a regular occurrence?  What if attending a concert or listening to a performance rewarded you with bonuses, and the performers as well, maybe with a little extra gold as well?

Star War Galaxies had an Entertainer class, and all characters needed a bit of downtime in the pub or inn.  Entertainers would get experience by performing and the audience would gain rested bonuses for spending a little time off the battlefield.  Once again, positive dependencies.

What if meal preparation was an activity that could benefit large groups of players before they head into a difficult piece of content?  Many games have short-handed this with a quick click of a button, but what if an optional, more involved meal provided significant extras that encouraged slowing down just a bit before heading off to battle? It wouldn’t be mandatory, but those who wished to do it might gain some significant benefits in doing so, and it might foster some in-game chatter and strategy before heading off into hacking and slashing.

4. Make Content a Bit More Difficult and Interesting

Okay, this one’s a little trickier, and it certainly requires a fine balance.  And I’ll be really clear: I am not suggesting forced grouping.  My rule of thumb is that content should be difficult enough that it at least requires a bit of thought before plunging into battle, whether you do it solo or in a group, but not so difficult that it’s discouraging.  If you are doing it solo, it might require a bit of thought and preparation before taking on a senior bad buy.  If you are in a group setting such as a dungeon or raid, it would involve that same preparation as a team. 

This is a tough one for developers, because easier content always means more players, and more money from a business standpoint.  But easier content also promotes fly-by-night players who race through the content and leave the game for another game’s content to chew through.    It actively dis-incentivizes staying in the game.  At the same time, content that is too difficult keeps some players from sticking around as well, not wanting to go through the “work” of overcoming the challenge.  So what can be done to make things challenging, but keep players around?   It’s probably one of the hardest things for any designer to do consistently well: keep things interesting.  It means making your world unique, avoiding tired stereotypes in both the questing and in in-game characters.  It means better, more distinctive story writing and quests, perhaps challenging players in other ways than building up their gear stats.  It means doing something different.

5. Promote Maturity

Difficulty is one of those things can bring out (no guarantees here) kindness in the community.  It can also bring out elite snobs who lord it over the players who aren’t “good enough.”  It can really cut both ways, but I think the differentiator here is maturity.  A mature community understands that it is in their best interest to help out new players and overcome difficulty.  An immature community cares only for personal gain and will walk over the virtual bones of anyone they come into contact with to get it (and then move on to another game).  A mature community understands the group is healthier as a whole, while an immature one revels in “me vs. them.”

Promoting helpfulness in other systems as mentioned before can tend to incentivize the community to pitch in and help new people rather than ostracize them.  If every group interaction – chat systems, grouping systems, economics and trade systems, guild tools – have mechanics that reinforce the benefits of helping, it will tend to lead to better results.  That said, there will always be members of a community who behave immaturely no matter what, and I am a bit ambivalent whether those players should be punished or simply miss out on group benefits.  My sense is, in general, carrot is better than stick.

So what are some other ways to improve maturity?  One method is to reward helpful behavior in some way.  We already talked about Entertainer and Crafter classes, but what about a Trainer class or skill?   Training another player in a system or helping newbies through a dungeon could have tangible in-game benefits such as gold, experience, titles and skills.  Maybe there would be a baseline benefit, plus extras if you were rated highly by the players you helped.

Perhaps there could be some sort of Event Planning reward system where players could set up activities that generate community.  I’m thinking of the Lord of the Rings Online Weathertop event – created purely by players but using the in-game music system.  Ultima Online previously (and still) hosts developer-driven weekend events to bring some variety into city life.  What if some of those tools could be handed to players?

A Last Note Regarding Business Models

I’ve deliberately left out business models in this discussion because I wanted to limit the points to in-game features and systems.  There could be a lively debate regarding subscription vs. free-to-play, vs. buy-to-play as ways to promote community loyalty and maturity.    That said, if those other systems aren’t in place, no business model will help.  My sense is that a business model can help get people to the game, and may keep them there, but the game itself is what does the hard work of building community.

What about you?  What are some other things you’ve seen that work well (or backfire) when building an MMORPG community?  I’d love to hear more ideas – it’s something I think that is ironically overlooked when building a game that is ostensibly about bringing together large groups of players.

Our Crazy Pie-in-the-Sky MMORPG Idea

Posted by Ortwig Saturday February 22 2014 at 3:32PM
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So in one of our infamous brainstorm sessions, we were sprouting MMO ideas, and one of them that came out is one that I’ve seen great examples of in other games – Star CitizenEVEThe Repopulation, even Star Trek Online, but none of those quite had the hook we were thinking of.  I thought this week I’d go ahead and just toss the idea open to the ether for someone to run with or ignore (my guess is that there are at least a dozen other people thinking along the same lines who have more programming expertise and, more importantly, money to pay programmers.)  Our thought was something of a Star Trek mixed with Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner - that drive for exploration, but with a real sense of danger in the universe.  Space travel is not safe, but it is necessary. Necessary because earth is dying.


The Year is 3786 AD and the Earth is dying.  War, starvation, global warming, predation of resources are enough to seal our fate.  But, as if to rub it in, scientists just confirmed the sun is slowly and surely expanding.  The expectation is it will not be long before we go extinct – we won’t live to see the Red Giant because we’ll have killed ourselves long before then; the days are numbered for the human species.  But 50 years ago we found something.  Conspiracy theorists whispered of a discovery by Mars 17 that was quickly hushed up along with whispers of alien artifacts.  Shortly after the announcement of the Sun going Red, the Corporation unveiled a fleet of ships “capable of faster- than-light travel” along with a list of the most promising systems that could support human life.  And they are recruiting scouts…


Player characters are scouts for “New Earths” that could support a refugee and colonization effort.  The initial phase for scouting vessels is exploration of these systems and evaluation of the ability to support life.  With Earth’s time limited, even a temporary home might be acceptable, and resources are available to terraform if necessary.  Once a system is made available, players can assist in the construction of initial orbital and terrestrial bases that will house incoming refugees.

Eos is skill-based, level less, system, and “scouts” include many official occupations – Explorer, Surveyor, Pilot, Engineer, Medic, Soldier, Diplomat, Farmer, Merchant, Scientist – as well as many unofficial ones – Smuggler, Mercenary, Spy, Pirate, Terrorist.  Players progress their personal skills through experience or training, and no skill is unavailable within a particular occupation.  But there is also progression in discovering and colonizing livable worlds, earning players additional benefits as part of their faction’s growth.  Players use their skills to build bases of operation, perform additional exploration, and finally cities.  The independent and group work and building players do permanently affects their environment.

Of course, establishing new colonies will not be easy.  Each system presents unique challenges for scouts – bizarre terrain, strange life forms and predators, intelligent species and civilizations, solar and planetary events, odd weather patterns, foreign pathogens – scouting teams will need to analyze, understand and face these challenges in order to maintain a foothold on these new earths.  Many of the systems will be less than ideal places for human life, but can serve as stepping stones to something better.  Everyone speaks of “Eos” as the new Eden, but such a system is elusive…


Players can choose to participate in one of three factions.

The Corporation is the dominant faction on Earth, and they possess 90% of the world’s resources and finance – almost all ships in the game, at least initially, are Corporate-owned.  Corporation scouts can look forward to easy resources and plenty of support in their colonial operations.  The downside is that the Corporation at any time can take ownership of a colony and begin using it to gut a system of resources, much like locusts strip away crops.  The Corporation has contributed much to Earth’s current situation. Corporate-owned planets tend to be short-lived, especially if they are light on resources.

The Edenists are less organized and possess smaller fleets, but are well aware of the greed of the Corporation and are plotting to destroy it.  The Edenists were initially made up of scientists and those dedicated to saving Earth, but have since grown substantially in reaction to the Corporation.  They promote a philosophy of living in harmony with the worlds they come into contact with.  What the Edenists lack in funds, they have made up in population, and more are secretly joining their ranks every day.  Many of the Corporate-owned ships that begin the game will turn to another faction soon after they are out of the Corporation’s influence, no doubt moving to better organization and outright war when the time is right.  Edenist scouts will be the first to see scientific advances and technology, and are often the first to understand technologies uncovered during their explorations.  Edenists are quicker to mobilize than the Corporatists but are not as agile as the Freelancers.

The Freelancers choose to remain independent and work whichever system is in place or nearby.  They are not above stealing a ship, or doing a job for any of the factions, as long as there is pay and they are able to continue doing business.  Pirates, Smugglers and Traders make up the Freelancers.  They rarely cooperate with one another, but they do have the freedom to team up as needed.  Loose connections and on-the-spot alliances keep the freelancers from being easily stamped out, and their stealth is renown.  They have the ability to “obtain” resources and technologies, and sometimes end up with a surprising advantage over the Edenists or Corporation.

One’s faction is not initially obvious to other players and only comes into play in certain circumstances – such as in purchasing goods, or in dealing with official checkpoints, etc.  Some areas will require ID to move within them, but in general, with the exception of soldiers, people are not wearing badges as identifiers, and even if they were it is not too difficult to obtain clothes.  The fighting that takes places between factions tends to be smaller scale subterfuge, spy or terrorist operations, although large space and ground battles can be staged over strategic areas.

Build System

The game would include an extensive build system which would allow players to use resources from their faction as well as resources found on candidate planets to create their own bases, and eventually grow them into full-fledged cities and economies.  These cities are completely player-owned and operated, although they could conceivably purchase merchants and services that would be run by the game, if they so choose.  In PvP systems, the bases and cities would need to be defended against the other factions, as well as game-generated challenges.  In PvE and RP systems, game-generated events and challenges will still need to be overcome as the players work to create new colonies.

Crafting System and Economy

The game will include an extensive crafting system – eventually all systems will need to become self-supporting, so materials on candidate planets and systems will be needed in order for players to improve their characters and communities.  Alien technologies and materials will also come into play as these are discovered.  Factions can also provide needed support in providing crafting formulas and equipment improvements.

All resources gathered in the game can be repurposed for building of bases, spacecraft, cities, and supplies.  Crafting professions in the game are absolutely necessary to supply equip space travel, not to mention medial supplies, food and support structures.  Crafting mechanics can also scale for larger bulk shipments of good as well as small supplies for individuals.

An interstellar trading post helps greatly with shipping of supplies to various locations, but the game would allow for player-run outposts, especially on colony worlds and outposts.

System Events, Missions and Operations

All candidate systems will have certain events that will affect players over the course of the game.  They may be random or regular events, but in each case players will need to rise to the occasion to overcome them.  These events can range from an atmospheric event that requires building suitable defenses for the base, an incursion of alien creatures that must be defended against, to a strange signal far away from the base that needs investigation.  Of course, PvP systems will also need to worry about factional activities.  System Events and “Missions” can range from activities needing a group to solo-missions, and players will have the option to group up on their own or go solo.  System events last for only a limited time and then pass, with consequences based on whether the players met the challenge or not.  Missions can be available permanently, but some will be only available for a limited time, depending on the type (some of these are simply opportunities that players can take advantage of or miss).

Eos is a serendipitous world in that missions and objectives are both available as assignments as opportunities that can be stumbled upon.  Objects in the game can be picked up and used for any number of purposes – crafting, but also as useful items within missions.  A mission’s goals will be clear, but there will be no obvious markers or hints as to how to accomplish the mission.  So, for example, if the mission were to investigate a strange signal coming from the next quadrant, players would need to travel there without any special in-game directions as to how to proceed, other than the map.  What they find in the quadrant will be clear enough to clue them as what to do next (if they use their heads), but there will be no obvious marker saying “go here” or “do this.”  Players will do well to equip themselves with objects (and group as necessary with appropriately skilled characters) that can help them complete the mission’s goals.

“Operations” will also be available to larger groups, and these would be more epic quests more akin to “dungeons” or “raids” in other games.  These raids would include a series of combat and non-combat challenge, and will require thinking as well as strategy and fast action in combat situations.  Operations can scale from 3 all the way up to 25 characters.

Finally, because Eos is a an occupation-based, leveless system, skills and the ability to think and deduct in the game will become more important than gear, although gear certainly will help in outright combat.  Players of all types will be able to group together and form an effective party, since encounters are based less on outright character power, but on the ability of the group to think and work effectively together.

Political and Espionage System

Also available are political and diplomatic missions and faction challenges.  Players may choose to battle on the political and economic front rather than in outright combat (though that too is an option).  Players may also decide what kind of system they want to create for themselves as they get further established in their colonies – they may choose as they wish within the context of their faction.


Eos is a character-centric game, so skill-based, individual combat options will be available for each character, but systems for vehicle and space combat will also become available.

All combat is skill-based, and overall health does not improve greatly over time, although armor and protective systems can certainly improve.   Occupation and initial stats determine initial health of the character, but many varieties of protective equipment and weapons will become available over the course of the game.  It is always possible, though unlikely, that a less-powerful combat character could defeat a more-powerful character with a lucky shot.  It will require more in-game work for a Scientist to become as good at combat as a Soldier.   There will be, however, missions which will require a mix of occupations in addition to pure-combat types.  PvE combat will scale to the level of the individual or group participating, skewing towards difficult enough for a challenge.  Since all characters have access to the same skillsets, and can improve any skill with effort and training, I’m looking at the possibility of “unbalanced PvP” which simply allows players to try their hand at taking on other players and seeing how they fare.  Another option is to provide both unbalanced and balanced PvP options to the server based on what the owners decide.  Balanced PvP would basically pair up similarly skilled players for the match, but open world PvP would remain basically unbalanced.

Players will also have the ability to infiltrate, sabotage and destroy player-built installations as long as they are willing to enter PvP mode to do so.  Stealth skills will be made available to slip past defenses, but they are not infallible.

Player Generated Content

Tools would be made available for players to create their own scenarios.   User ratings (paired with written reviews) would be posted for all player created content so that the best would float to the top.  Installing player adventures is client-based and completely optional; players who don’t install will not see the content.  Player content will be reviewed before being posted.

Business Model

Server purchasing, which would allow players to “own their own system.”  Basically, system owners could admit other players to their system and make changes to their universe as they progress through the game.


Scary, dark, exploratory, with an emphasis on discovering the unknown.  Terrain and system analysis, decision whether to go for colonization, then establishing and holding bases for refugees, and ultimately building new worlds.

Beyond Battle Magic: Non-Combat Spells

Posted by Ortwig Saturday January 18 2014 at 3:13PM
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One of the things that first got me excited about my first Dungeons & Dragons character—my “magic-user” to use the old fogey term—was not simple combat magic.  Sure, Magic Missiles were pretty darn cool, and you could generally take down an orc or two with them, but some of those early utility spells were pretty great.  I remember reading those early spell descriptions out of the 1st ed. Players Handbook and thinking about creative ways they could be used.  Remember Detect Magic and Knock?  Levitation?  How about Wizard’s Eye, the spell that allows you to see around corners or down the hall?  Sleep was almost more powerful in its way than those early damage spells – you could possibly put a whole group of monsters to bed, and subsequently, death.  Tenser’s Floating Disk for carrying your stuff?  Spider Climb, which allowed you to skitter up walls temporarily, and Tongues, which allowed you to speak another language.

One of the things lost in the translation to video games has been some of this creative use of magic, and while it’s very much due to the emphasis on combat as the primary source of conflict resolution in an MMO, there are a few reasons why I can see them falling by the wayside.  The thing about early class-based RPGs was that those specializations really came into play more often during an adventure.  Thieves had traps and locked stuff in their wheelhouse, clerics, not only their healing but their ability to know and protect from intention(alignment), and the mages the big firepower.  But the magic using classes all had those nifty utility spells that came in so handy when you needed to cross a chasm, or wanted a preview of what was in the next room.  It’s simply due to the fact that tabletop roleplaying adventures have more than pure combat challenges.  There were traps to be uncovered, secret doors to be found, hostile NPCs to be parlayed with, riddles to be solved.   Magic items to be detected, plots to be uncovered, weather, encumbrance and environment to contend with.  “Leveling” was a whole experience, which included tests of wits, creativity, yes combat, and even diplomacy.  A dungeon was more than a series of “trash” monster encounters preceding the boss fight(s).

There have been a few utility spells that came over to Warcraft — Feather Fall (Slow Fall in WoW), which has been the source of a lot of fun — e.g. jumping off the mountain screaming while being chased by 20 mobs…  Used it a number of times to get into hard to reach places as well.

But what are the implications of including more of these types of spells?

Detect Magic would mean that more magical items or effects would be hidden within the world.  So perhaps magical items aren’t revealed until an identifier has been cast on the object.  Maybe magical traps or effects could be revealed with the casting of the spell.  Or a creature’s abilities might be masked until revealed.  Admittedly this is all old-school thinking, and players who prefer the convenience of nothing masked in the interest of speeding things along would balk at such a system.  However, I’ll argue that such a system allows deeper, more mysterious lore, where everything is simply not known until proper investigation is done.  If the game introduced more powerful artifacts or objects, there could more that needs to be uncovered about the object, either through additional research or perhaps additional quests.  An object that requires this much study would need to be suitably powerful to warrant all the work, but the payoff (and satisfaction in figuring out the item) would be worth it.  Instead of the publisher putting out a big treatise on everything in game, the players would uncover it, over time, for themselves.

Detect Traps would actually bring back the whole idea of traps in a game in the first place.  I do believe Neverwinter re-introduced traps, as did The Secret World in its Sabotage missions.  In the early roleplaying games, traps were one of the places where Thieves could shine, and given the minor role Thieves play in combat, I could see some players be happy to see another area where the class could do some good.

But weird little spells like Protection from Cold, Plant Growth, Light, Control Weather, Shatter or Clairvoyance all suggest something else – the interaction of the spellcaster with the environment around them.  In order to need a Light spell, darkness would have to be enough a problem that a Light spell (or a torch) would be required.  It’s the ability to affect the properties of items, or people or elements in the vicinity of the caster.  And for that to happen, developers would need to start assigning properties to these elements in the first place, beyond just the visual treatment.  Is the item breakable?  Can it be moved?  What is the weather in the area, and can it be changed?  What spells are applicable, and which will do nothing?  It’s about assigning properties and qualities to every single object and element in the game.  EverQuest Next’s voxel treatments seem promising in this regard, but who knows if it will translate to greater interactivity between caster and environment, and the requirement for more creativity.

Have we moved beyond this kind of gameplay?  Or is it just too hard to build?  Do we just want to know what the challenge is up front so we can tackle it and be done?  My guess is that because of the way MMOs are played, with thousands of players traversing through an area, that eventually these obstacles will become known and published to a website somewhere, where people simply look up the answer and move on.  But should we remove those obstacles and interactions because people will eventually figure them out?  Is making a more diverse and affectable universe a worthwhile goal?


The Faction Trap

Posted by Ortwig Saturday October 12 2013 at 5:28PM
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One of the givens in an MMORPG is that each player must choose a faction, usually right at character creation.  In Warcraft, you are either part of the Horde or the Alliance.  Alliance players are always human, dwarf or elves, and Horde players are always orcs, trolls, goblins, and so forth.  This, of course, all dates back to Tolkien and a perhaps a dualistic view of the world that was made for a very convincing good guys/bad guys story.  Gollum may have been the one character in those stories pulled in both directions, a study of the light and dark, Jekyll and Hyde.

If George R.R. Martin has done one thing for the fantasy genre in Game of Thrones, he has blown apart the trope­.  The “evil” Lannisters certainly have their more admirable members in Tyrion and Ser Mormont, and the “honorable” Starks certainly have their overly black and white view of the world in Ned, and of course many characters who are somewhere in-between.  It’s a much more complicated world, which in many ways is very realistic and satisfying, but perhaps a bit less comforting.  It’s good to know who the enemy is.

In Game of Thrones, a character cannot really change their House – they are born into it and really can’t defect.  That said, within those houses, there are many personalities, loyalties and betrayals, and there’s no saying that a Lannister who felt his house was in the wrong, might not help out the Starks if the end goal were to steer his own house in the “right” direction, however subjective it might be to that particular character.  Tyrion loves his family, but is willing to do things they assuredly would not agree on in order to see things along a path he feels is the better course.  And in some cases, is willing to outright defy the house if his own life and happiness is threatened.

Of course, one of the main reasons for these hard faction divisions in an MMO is player-vs-player gameplay.  You need those teams to be able to run a battleground, or to designate safe cities for a faction.  If you are playing open world PvP, even faction might not matter – a rich faction member might be a target from a poorer player, no matter what group they are aligned with—but many games use these team designations to build their maps, and having a fixed number (usually 2 or 3) factions limits the strategic points on those maps, and allows for balance.

What if game factions were more a bit more Game of Thrones-like, possessed a few more options than the usual Chinese walls?   Here’s a few possibilities:

Optional Factions

In this model, factions are completely optional and players can remain neutral (factionless) or join a faction at any time.  Here, factions are bit more like guilds or nationalities.  You may be born into a particular nation, but are free to move around and change citizenship should you feel strongly enough to do so.  There may be limits depending on your reputation with a particular faction and you may need to prove yourself in some way in order to join or switch factions.  Changing factions is not easy, but it is not impossible either.  You may have to do undo some things you have done, or go through some kind of ritual, series of quests, or tasks otherwise designed to prove your loyalty.  Faction-hopping might be penalized in some way, but it would not be impossible as long as you proved yourself.  In this style, a player might start out in a faction (they are born in a particular country), but at a certain point they have the option to leave their faction (become neutral or an outlaw), switch factions or perhaps even become a member of multiple factions (dual citizenship), as long as they are not in conflict.

Permeable Factions

What if, for the most part you remained as part of your faction, but there was no specific prohibition against spending time in other faction’s territories or with members of other factions?  You and a member of another faction could group together if you wished, do dungeons.  For purposes of PvP teams, perhaps you could become a neutral mercenary and play for the team paying the best rewards.  You might be penalized in some areas if you had gone against the faction’s agenda in some way.  Maybe there are warrants out, assassins tracking you, or maybe it’s simply being shunned in some businesses, or refusal at the gates of certain territories or cities.  What you have done, and who you are aligned with matters, but the faction choice is yours.   The Secret World follows this style to some extent, but doesn’t allow players to switch factions.

Coalitions Instead of Factions

Here, there are no true hard-edged factions.  Instead there is a system whereby individuals or guilds can create or break alliances, or coalitions.  In the way France, England, the United States and Russia formed the Alliance of World War II, a number of guilds may opt to form alliances.  These coalitions can be temporary and fodder for betrayal and power plays if players aren’t careful, but offer a much more dynamic and ever-changing political landscape.  There may need to be some parameters around these allegiances in order to prevent one coalition from dominating, but it may simply come by way of incentivizing (economically or politically) independent action over coalition action, or disincentives from becoming too big.   In this kind of universe, building strict battlegrounds may be more difficult, since teams could become lopsided, so this is perhaps best in a full sandbox, where factions pick their own time and place to settle conflicts (EVE Online is probably an example of this style of play).

Guilds Only

Even more fragmented might be a world where guilds rule all, and national boundaries matter less than ideologies.  Trade guilds, or religious blocs might form organically, and player might be members of multiple guilds and religions.  Instead of a monolithic faction, each player picks from any number of options and as many as he or she wants.  In this case, we’re almost dealing at an individual level, but the most popular guilds and organizations grow more powerful as they are able to recruit.  This might be especially interesting in a world where there are many pantheons on cults rising up and falling by the wayside.  In this case, it’s almost a situation where the developer creates as many interesting options as possible, and just sits back and lets it grow and take shape of its own accord.

The Race Question

Of course, Game of Thrones has only one race (human), but what about worlds where you have a variety of more diverse and “monstrous” races?  Do the factions simply become each individual race, or is the Warcraft faction example the best way to pair things?  Must it be “ugly” vs. “beautiful?”  How about a more diverse, Star Trek, style universe where racial looks matter less than behavior?  How about a beautiful, yet evil races that multiple races and factions must combat?  How about being a bit more careful about what we define as evil.  I could get very enthusiastic about a monstrous good character in the vein of Beauty and the Beast.

Well, no real system or programming suggestions here, and I realize allowing for this much flexibility makes it difficult on the developer.  But turning some of these fantasy tropes on end can only make for a more rich and diverse gaming experience.  But how to code it?  Is it even possible?  Would love more thoughts on the idea, but it seems that the less control needed over player-vs-player battle grounds, the easier it would be to allow more fluidity in factions.  Which leads to open world pvp vs controlled and designated fighting areas and servers.  Given past history with players abusing pvp, I can understand why it’s a concern, but there must be some middle ground, some place that allows for conflict, but minimizes abuse.  Is it about law enforcement?  A criminal justice system that punishes those who act beyond agreed-upon laws?  And how does that play out?   Maybe look at some ways of managing this in the next column!

Questing Difficulty, Diversity and the Need for Achievement

Posted by Ortwig Saturday September 14 2013 at 1:22PM
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I was trading off playing between Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) this week with a bit of The Secret World (TSW) and recalling many of the frequent comments from players lamenting that MMORPGs had become “too easy” and “too casual.”  It’s an interesting assertion since these two games in particular have a very different feel as far as difficulty is concerned.  LOTRO questing is in many ways similar to the World of Warcraft in that expeditions are on the “easy” side – it’s pretty straightforward taking down the bad guys or collecting relics on the beach or whatever the game asks of you; but the feel of the game is more calm and relaxing.  There’s certainly a nice aspect that; causally exploring the countryside, taking in the view of distant ruins or mountains while hunting boar hides is a mode of questing that can be a nice reprieve, especially after a stressful day, or as a nice way to get rolling in the morning with a cup of java.

Contrast that with a newer game like TSW or Guild Wars 2, where players have many more options for casting spells while moving, active dodging and positioning.  Combat in these games becomes much more console-like and “twitchy” and it becomes important to keep moving and on your toes.  Monsters in TSW are not pushovers; it takes frequently an effort to take down one, and encountering multiple foes unexpectedly can mean finding yourself in hot water fairly quickly.  Taking down a lead monster or boss at the end of a story arc can mean multiple deaths as you find the right combination of abilities, and the right time to dance or dodge out of the way. This type of combat certainly feels more stressful and “difficult,” and I find myself playing shorter sessions of TSW than I do of LOTRO.

That said, I appreciate both these games for what they offer.  Finally taking down that boss in TSW after dying 10 or 15 times feels really good.  The dangerous atmosphere keeps me watching what my opponent does with each death;  I’ll be checking out the combat log, note what’s eating my health so quickly, look up the reasons why my abilities don’t seem to have any effect at certain points, see what happens when I keep moving and dodging (or running away) at a critical juncture.  Yeah, it’s a bit of work, a puzzle to be solved, but that final moment when he drops with my health bar at 5%, the sense of victory and achievement is that much sweeter.

LOTRO has a longer, simpler kind of questing satisfaction.  There, it’s more a sense of accomplishment for having finished a group or quests in an area, or having slowly gathered up materials and crafting something interesting.  It’s seeing how a storyline unfolds over the course of several short quests, enjoying the view along the way. I suppose it could be compared to reading or knitting or painting.

Sure, both games have their more difficult content – all games do.  Run a dungeon or a skirmish or lair with a group, and both games amp up the challenge, as would be expected for groups.  But many games today, World of Warcraft included, have been accused of “dumbing down” the questing to the point where it’s not even necessary to pay attention to the storylines.  Many players rush through the solo content without ever reading the quest text or understanding why they are doing the quest in the first place.  I do remember when I first started playing WoW that it was possible to try to take on higher difficulty (orange or red) quests for greater experience and gear rewards.  More recently, these challenges have quietly vanished from the game in favor of more standardized quest difficulty.

But is that the fault of the developers, or is that what players really want?  On the forums, the more vocal players certainly complain about “facerolling” content (so easy you can roll your face on the keyboard and still emerge victorious), and a rush to “endgame” without any consideration for the journey there.  But is there a silent majority who prefer to quietly plug along with that easy content, happy that the challenges are minimal, a pleasant diversion from life’s material hardships?  Do we need a bit of easy challenge to offset the real challenges of life?

Ultimately, the answer may be “both.”  We need those difficult quests, too, the ones we remember and are proud to have survived.  Bragging rights are nice from time to time, and we like to be able to tell our stories.  Because they are MMORPGs, we ask developers to create all kinds of content for all kinds of moods; an entire world demands variety.  Different games have tried different approaches to diversity  – introducing different types of quests and levels of difficulty – For group activities, WoW uses scenarios, dungeons and raids at varying levels of difficulty, along with player-vs-player battlegrounds.  TSW is trying a new scenario format in its upcoming Issues that has basic objectives for the group, but introduces “random” variable events in the middle of the scenario that make the experience different with each play-through.

These are all great ways of tackling homogenization, but these are limited to group play.  How can single-player questing be made more interesting? My guess is that it’s the struggle between building a solo experience (granted you’re one of the people who can accept solo play within a multiplayer game) that can be played multiple times by many, many players and an experience that is excellent that first time through, but then becomes less interesting over time.  In an effort to build in replayability, however, we may have inadvertently moved into creating quests that are too generic and “boring.”  That is, singularly easy or monotonously difficult quests.

The real problem with people passing over the quests may not be actually be ease, but rather how the quest is presented, how unique the story is, how engaging the storyline.  In my early tabletop roleplaying days, we always remembered those quests that started up very simply (the farmer had his pig stolen, or something similarly mundane), but then as we rolled along, discovered something bigger was going on (all the livestock in the area was missing.)  It’s that little bit of hook that aims above “killing 10 rats” (or anything that requires all combat all the time) that draws the player in and keeps them with the game.  TSW introduced investigation and sabotage quests that require thinking on the player’s part and some amount of skill in infiltration and stealth.  Could more quest types be the answer?  Guild Wars 2 added jumping puzzles, TSW added Lore hunting, which also requires some dexterity on the keyboard, WoW has its achievement system which asks players to do seemingly unrelated activities outside the standard leveling and questing paths.  Ultimately, I believe what players are asking for are more ways to engage the game and use our brains. How about political systems, or spying missions.  Intrigue?  Romance?

What about you?  Are the more things than merely house building or crafting that can add another layer of depth?  What else would offer that sense of achievement and unique story to your play?

Will EverQuest Next Save Us All?

Posted by Ortwig Saturday August 17 2013 at 12:46PM
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It’s been fun watching the EverQuest Next news and reactions at SOE this year; after several development reboots, Sony finally showed off the latest direction of the venerable MMO title.  Sony has been working on this new version for awhile now, and last year they announced they were going back to the drawing board with the game, with SOE president John Smedley basically saying it was too much of the “same old, same old.”  Sony wanted to do something revolutionary with the next version ofEverQuest, not a simply polish of old engines and ideas.

The race was on to differentiate itself from the admittedly large MMO-crowd, especially from the “WoW-clones” that had sprung up in recent years, and the word “sandbox” started to appear regularly whenEQNext was mentioned.  John Smedley talked smack about how so many MMOs are basically “movie-sets” with static cardboard characters and set pieces that never changed or evolved.  EQNextwould be different – the world would come alive; it would change.  So what was the outcome of all that talk?

Well, it appears the developers have stayed true to at least the vision of an evolving world, though whether it will become The One True Sandbox is still open to debate.  The feature that caused the most chatter was the idea of “world destructibility;” that is, every object, every building, every tree, every mountain, is in fact destructible.  It is possible to blow up bridges and create holes in the ground in EQNext.  This is all based on all game “matter” being built on voxels, or “volumetric pixel elements” that can be broken apart or pieced together to destroy or create objects.  This simple change adds quite a dimension to the game, and also lends itself to all kinds of building ideas.  People have compared EQNext to Minecraft even though the technologies are not exactly the same; the idea of construction and destruction plays a heavy part in that popular game, and some of the player creations in Minecraft are simply amazing.  This plays into the idea of real change in the game world, though the developers have stated that the world will heal itself after a period of time to prevent it from being crumpled into a moon-like dust heap in a few hours as players rampage through.

The second leg of a changeable world is being introduced to EQNext by a company called storybricks, which brings some intelligence to the NPCs and monsters in the world.  Instead of walking back and forth along the same path ad inifinitum, animals, monsters and NPCs can actually migrate, move around the world based on internal and external forces.  A group of bandits may repeatedly be attacked by adventurers or city guards, to the point where they may move their hideout to a more favorable area.  Deer and wolves might move based on the season and on the food supply.  An NPC might travel between several cities on various personal errands rather than stay put in one place for all time.  Developers have also stated that there will be no “punctuation” above NPCs heads indicating quests to be obtained.  Either NPCs will walk up and talk directly to characters, or player characters will actually need to go talk to people to find up what they know.  The storybrooks AI will be used in combat, too.  Developers have boldly stated there will be new dynamics to fights and that the “trinity” (warrior/tank, healer, and mage/dps) will no longer be necessary.  We’ll see on that one, but it’s interesting to note that EQNext will sport over 40 classes.

The final element of world changeability is the idea that different servers will have different states of building and destruction, as well as animal and monster migration, so that the game world will be quite different based on where you are playing.

Other Interesting Notes

Sony is releasing an early version of the world called EverQuest Landmark that will allow players to craft items and build homes that can be later ported into EQNext via crafting instructions.  The materials will still need to be gathered and constructed within EQNext, but it’s an interesting way of getting some early experience with the building system.

There will be no level-based progression in the game, but individual skills can be progressed through a tier system.  The number of active skills will be limited to 8.  Similar to The Secret World or Guild Wars 2, the game will have many available skills, but only a limited number that can be equipped at a time.  Finally, players can pull from many class skill sets so that a warrior/mage is quite possible to create.

So is it a sandbox?

It’s really still an open question.  There’s more to be discussed regarding player-vs-player in EQNext; will there be open world PvP with consequences, or will it be limited to battlegrounds or designated areas within the game?

Are there multiple paths of progression in the game, and will linear story paths be shunned?  Little has been said regarding questing, so this is a big missing puzzle piece; my recommendation, as always, is to leave the adventure threads hidden with NPCs and objects, but easily discoverable.  Give us clues to possible adventures and let us decide whether or not to follow them.  Make us work a little bit to find those adventures – give us an in-game notepad, and let us discover the story rather than have it told to us.

Finally, can we create our own adventures?  Build our own scenarios?

Are We Saved?

There’s a lot to be excited about, but too many questions this early to call EQNext our MMO savior.  Old Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Onlinefans are playing close attention, but much remains to be seen.  I’m optimistic about the prospects for the new Norrath; most of what I am seeing and hearing is sounding like the developers have taken a hard turn from the traditional themepark game, but are finding ways to make the world and systems interesting enough that it’s not a pure sandpark.  It’s the closest to anything I’ve seen to a hybrid, or sandpark, but the questing system and PvP will reveal much, when we find out more.

What about you?  Are you excited, or is EQNext just another in a long line of the same old stuff?

Can the Cash Shop Be Perfected?

Posted by Ortwig Saturday August 3 2013 at 11:20AM
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With World of Warcraft adding an in-game store, or cash shop, one of last bastions of pure subscription MMORPGs is yielding to market forces and testing the micro-transaction model.  There’s no indication that the WoW subscription is going away completely, but it seems today that the line between using in-game money and real money to purchase virtual items (cosmetics, potions, mounts) is becoming increasingly blurred.  Purists complain that adding an in-game store breaks immersion in the game world, with filthy real-world lucre polluting and destabilizing the in-game marketplace not to mention adding dollars or pounds to silver or gold piece in-game currencies.  But can the in-game store be made palatable, or even “immersive?”

The hardest thing for many old-school players to reconcile is the idea of real money being used to purchase in-game items.  The term “pay-to-win” describes the fear that any newbie player can just come in and purchase a stack of high level gear or items and never learn to actually play the game.  Early subscription games simply gave you access to the world, and hard “work” was required to advance within the game world.  The most dedicated players would, having logged many hours in the game, would be the experts, and also be the ones who were decked out in the best gear or equipment. They “earned” those rewards through dedication and hard work.

Enter the Gold Farmer: companies literally sprang up (around WoW especially) founded on the objective of gathering in-game gold to sell to players who were looking to find faster ways to advance in the game.  This is a multi-million dollar industry, which the creators or WoW, no doubt, discouraged heavily.  Even so, it has never been completely eliminated.

Fast forward to 2013, where many players today have competing obligations and cannot log the hours they could when they were younger.  Many players today have family or work or school obligations, so play time is scheduled and regulated.  In a way, this has actually created divisions between the gaming groups – those who have plenty of time to game, and those who do not – many a spirited debate on the forums is launched on the basis of the convenience/casual player vs. the dedicated “hard work” gamer.

Even so, newer games that could not compete with WoW’s loyal subscriber-base started looking for ways to make it easy to try a game without the commitment of a subscription, yet still earn enough money to continue development and enhancements.  Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) was one of the larger games to convert to a “free-to-play” model with a microtransaction store.  Players could start a new character at any time, free of charge, and even progress through most of the game without paying a dime.  That said, they certainly offered lots of little incentives to buy shortcuts – coins that allow you to teleport back to the quest giver, expansion packs, many convenience items, like extra bags or potions.  Many players left the game due to the “nickel and diming” and intrusiveness of the “buy now” prompts, but many more came to the game, and LOTRO lives on now, and arguably would have gone under if it had stuck with a pure subscription model.

Since LOTRO’s success, many more games have moved over to the cash shop model, and indeed, there are few games without a cash shop these days.  The biggest complaints, however, are still immersion, “pay-to-win” and disruption of the in-game marketplace.  How could those concerns be addressed?

Integrating the Cash Shop

What if instead of lots of immersion breaking pop-ups or prompts, the cash shop actually was a real location within the game world?  Instead of a virtual window that can op-up anyplace and anytime, the cash shop could be integrated in to the game’s lore.  Perhaps it is located in the underground, sort of a shady back-alley sort of place where deals can be made to “skirt the system?”  It could even be something like visiting a loan shark – in exchange for the head start, your reputation with the underworld grew the more you used the back alley?  Maybe you could make enemies of certain factions by using it, which would restrict your involvement with them unless you worked your way back into their good graces?  What if the cash shop were a wealthy benefactor that expected some in-game quests be done in return for the advantage.  Or more simply, what if wealth were factored in as part of your starting character?  If you used the cash shop, your background would reflect a wealthy upbringing and again reputation increases and penalties based on where you start.  I think the cash shop could make sense within the lore if (1) the cash shop(s) held physical locations and unique lore-inspired characteristics, (2) there were in-game repercussions of making use of the shop, and (3) explained the influx of wealth from “outside sources.”

Reducing the Impact of "Pay to Win"

This is a big one for many players, especially in the west – culturally, eastern players seem to have less of an issue with it.  Using the multiple cash shop locations model, within specific lore-inspired characteristics for each, wouldn’t it be easier to tailor the items in the shop to the overall level or experience of the character?  A level 1 character might be able to purchase Level 80 armor, but would he or she actually be able to equip and use it?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to offer items that would serve the player well at their current level?   Sure, there might be common XP potions that everyone could buy at any time, but that would only boost XP for the level the character is currently at.  And the cash shop in the level 1-10 zone would be a lot different than the one in the big city.  The trick here is to offer items that can help a character through the current zone and levels, without giving them complete shortcuts.

And would buying a character starting at Level 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 or 80 being that bad a thing?  You start the character in a higher-level zone, along with the starter equipment appropriate to their level, and let them get on to playing with their friends who are already there.  The WoW Death Knight is a little bit of an example here – that character starts at Level 60 and has its own backstory within the world (you need a level 55 or higher character to be eligible to roll one).  It’s simply a higher-level character that is starting in a later zone – players can make up their own backstory if they want, and they still need to learn to play the character well.

As long as potions or equipment do not completely negate the need to learn to play the character, I think “pay to win” can be averted.  Purchased equipment should never be better than the equipment that can be obtained by simply playing the game, either through exploring, doing dungeons or crafting.  Another suggestion was that a purchased piece of gear would get a different look and title than the one obtained through play.  Ideally, purchased equipment should be good enough to allow a player to group in a dungeon or raid with friends, but would be quickly replaced by better equipment found by simply playing.

Keep the In-Game Marketplace Stable

One of the disadvantages of completely separating real-game money from in-game money is the opportunity offered to 3rd party gold farmers.  Game companies must hire or program algorithms to police the world and then ban the gold farmer.  By allowing purchase of gold in-game, that money actually stays with the game developer and can go to creating new features or content.  There’s also less control over the marketplace when gold is flooding in unexpectedly.  Blizzard took a step toward addressing this with the real-money auction house in Diablo 3, but there were problems in the implementation there; instead of playing the game to obtain items, players would simply purchase the best items through the AH.  The other problem with introducing purchased gold into the market – even if it is sold by the game developer rather than gold farmers – is that it essentially devalues gold and consequently all items in the game.

A better option might be to allow players to sell “second hand” cash-shop purchased equipment through the standard auction house, or even some character-bound equipment.  Players wanting cash-shop gear could get it at a discount, while players who purchased gear get an influx of in-game gold.  Sure there’s the intermediary step of buying the gear then selling it, but it gets around directly flooding the market with purchased gold.  You could even apply a “used” look and title to some of the gear sold this way for fun: “Marco’s Gently Used Staff of the Magi.”  Maybe the maximum repair level of the item could be lowered a bit.

What it really comes down to is finding some sort of translation of game-time/effort to money.  How much is the effort in a dungeon to obtain the great Staff of the Magi worth?  Instead of making that decision as a company, why not let the market decide?  The complaint will be that people who did not do the work will have access to the item, but the counterargument is that those users will need to spend actual dollars in order to obtain it.

The change that all these suggestions bring is a blurring of the line between those who choose to work to advance within the game, and those who wish to buy their way to higher levels and challenges (pay to win).  At the end of the day, is it more important that players be able to play the game the way they like, and with the friends they want, or that everyone go through the “work” of advancement?

Extreme Variety and Imbalance in an MMORPG

Posted by Ortwig Saturday June 15 2013 at 11:37AM
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Well, I think I’m going to go completely off the rails this week and talk about ways to completely unbalance a game.  A big part of an MMOs development team’s time seems to be taken up with balancing each of the classes in an MMO.  The reasoning behind this is pretty obvious – if one class is “the most powerful,” most players will pick it, and nobody will play those weaker classes.  A good example of this might be the Jedi class in the now closed Star Wars Galaxies.  It was so head and shoulders above the rest of those classes, that Jedi populations skyrocketed. 

Partially due to the effort to balance classes, there typically are limits on the number of races and classes made available in a game.  The more races and classes available, the harder it is to keep on those classes in sync and on par with one another.

But what if both those constraints were removed?  What if there were so many possible varieties of race and class that imbalance was simply less of a factor?  What if variety were the primary concern?  Two tabletop roleplaying games embraced rather than rejected variety – Talislanta and RuneQuest.  In Talislanta, there were a dizzying variety of races, and in RuneQuest the number of religions, or cults, numbered in the hundreds, and each of those cults had unique magics.  Divine magics, spirit magic and sorcery all used different systems, and had effects that varied widely in power.  Of course RuneQuest used a skill-based rather than a class-system and so there was a common template for creating a character, but the ranges of occupation and magic and skills were huge.  As a result, each character felt unique and the world felt large, mysterious and dangerous.

The way the game accomplished this was to create an extensible magic and skill system.  POW (or Power) was used by all three magic systems, but in different ways.  Divine magic used raw POW to call on the gods and bring down earth-shaking events.  Spirit magic was “smaller” but more prevalent and common; everybody used a little spirit magic to sharpen their blade or light a way in a dark cavern.  Sorcery required study and blood but had the potential to rival and even exceed divine magic in power.  But all three systems used the POW stat, just in different ways.  So at its base, the underlying fundamentals of the system were the same – what RuneQuest did was take those fundamentals and view them through different lenses and employ different mechanics.

Couldn’t the same be accomplished in an MMO?  What if players could select from a hundred different religions and races and unique magics all tightly tied to the lore and culture and mythology?  What if the fundamental system were so flexible that it could allow for extreme variety and accommodate new abilities and specialties?

And what are the side effects of such a system?  Do we end up with a bunch of Jedi’s running around and nothing else?  Does the game become so diffuse that it collapses?  You might argue that in the case of Talislanta, though in RuneQuest it held up remarkably well.  Each character had a sense of self, and a belonging to a particular culture and set of beliefs. 

You also end up with a very different set of characters with a lot of unique abilities and spells.  I suppose these would end up being classified into the trinity (tank, dps, healing) and being analyzed and optimized like any other game.  Is it even possible to break out of that mold?  Is it even desirable?   Is there even room for more specialty-style abilities?  It would take an approach to quest and scenario and dungeon building that provided opportunities to use those specialties.  I guess what I am looking for is more talk and cooperation and strategy between different adventuring parties that are a bit more than tank does X, dps does Y, and healer does Z.  Maybe you have a chance with this kind of variety, for someone to call on Jehosovatz the Sartorian Monk to call on his god and receive a vision that would help them in the next room.  Or for the mage to cause a distracting hallucination that would allow the party to attack from behind.  Abilities tend to have a common thread of damage, protection or healing – isn’t there room for some stranger things in the mix?

Okay, now that I have given a headache to all the developers out there, tell me why I am crazy!  Let me know of ways we can have more variety and provide more that is unique?  Is it possible without throwing it out of whack, and is it okay if we do?  Let me know your thoughts!

The “Catch Up” Mentality

Posted by Ortwig Saturday May 18 2013 at 11:00AM
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Was listening to a podcast today, and the subject came up regarding “catching up” to other players in an MMO, and questioning whether it was worth playing the game since everyone else had gone on to the higher levels.  I believe the quote was something like “the game had passed them by” and so they would probably not give the game a try.  I remember this same feeling as a latecomer to World of Warcraft; the game had been out for years – two expansions were already out, and I was just figuring out the game at first level.  Thankfully, my brother, a longtime gamer took pity on me and rolled up a low-level character to show me the ropes.  Over the following days, I realized how much patience he had to have to come to those early stages of the game; I was learning everything – how to play my toon, to the trinity, to how dungeons worked, grinding.  It was fun at first, but over time, I could see he wanted to get back to his primary toon, and eventually, I ended up leveling my character on my own.

At the same time, I must admit I am not very crazy about being “walked through” content by a higher level player.  In fact, I hate it.  I’m not crazy about hand-me-down donated gear either; I want to earn my keep.  I feel that as I progress through a game, that the content should be challenging, and yes even difficult.  So when I do actually overcome whatever the obstacle may be, there is a sense of accomplishment, and the reward should come with that success.  I’d hope that a more experienced player grouping up with me would actually have fun with the lower-level challenge as well, but I do understand why someone who has already experienced that content may not want it to be difficult the 3rd or 5th or 20th time through the game. 

MMOs are strange beasts: players who roll “alts” (new characters) are looking for a new experience with that character.  Some of that new experience is taken care of with new abilities and races – playing a warrior is much different than playing a healer, and starting as a dwarf is different questing path than starting a human, since you being the game in a different part of the world.  In a game like Warcraft, which has many different  races and starting zones, allows a different starting experience at least if you start in a different place on the map.  Eventually, as you progress, all the different quest paths start to flow into a single route as you reach the mid-levels, and everyone finds themselves doing the same quests.

Fast forward to 2012, and Guild Wars 2 introduces a sidekicking system, which allows higher level characters to bump down to lower levels so that they can play with starting characters and still be rewarded experience.  This is a great feature, especially in a genre where friends don’t always start in the game at the same time, and where there are so many MMOs that it’s not necessarily easy for everyone to be in a game at the same level at the same time.  That said, it’s a bit strange when you have been taking on demons or dragons or high difficulty baddies for awhile, and suddenly you find yourself being challenged by wild boars.

The “level-free” The Secret World handles this a little differently in that your character’s base health never really changes, but equipping better gear increases health and a host of other stats.  This way, there’s no need to roll a new character at all; to pair up with friends just starting out is just a matter of swapping out and equipping a lower quality gear set.  Since rewards are in standard skill points and ability points that can be used on a common pool at any stage of the game, veteran players are not penalized by playing in a starter zone.

These systems, however, still don’t address the source of the problem, though; there’s still little incentive to return to a starter zone other than to “help out” a new player or friend.  You’ve already done the quests, so even though you’ll be getting suitable rewards for doing them, you are still repeating content.  The new player may or may not feel like a burden to the veteran player, and will still feel pressure to “catch up” with the rest of the gang, possibly speeding through content he or she might actually enjoy, especially if they are new to the game.  Or worse, foregoing the game altogether, since everyone has “passed them by.”  Since MMORPGs are supposed to be group experiences, the game has failed to promote grouping, actually building in disincentives to pair newbies with veterans, and perhaps even play the game.

So what’s to be done? 

My thought is that we need stop designating zones as starter, middle tier, and high level, and instead thought of in multiple stacked layers.  So within a single zone, there are multiple layers of difficulty, and multiple layers of content.  Instead of a starter zone having a single quest chain, there are multiple quest chains available depending on your level or where you are in the game.  You might even be able to select starting level quests that differ on the 2nd or 3rd time through, or even allow players to select which chain to go through.  So a player joining his friend could agree to follow go through a different chain so that both the veteran and the newbie get new content together.  This kind of design would also allow veteran players to return to zones and experience high difficulty content.   I love the idea of the nostalgia of returning to zones you loved in the early days of the game, but having new challenges that only veteran players can take on.  The Secret World is doing a bit of this as well, by including high difficulty farming and lair content in all the zones (new players occasionally wander in and get squished, wondering what the heck happened).

This design also allows games to be built for longevity; while it’s always great to have new zones and explorable areas added to a game, preventing older zones from becoming obsolete to veteran players is a huge win.  Added to that, the ability for more people to group and form community might make the difference between a game being passed by and living on for years.

Other thoughts?  What other ways are there to overcome the catch up mentality?

The Problem with PUGs

Posted by Ortwig Saturday April 20 2013 at 2:44PM
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Some of the most fun times I’ve had playing WoW have been running dungeons with our guild.  My brother and I and several friends would group up and tackle a few of them every Sunday morning, and it truly was an event.  I’d grab my coffee and don the Ventrilo and we’d be off, joking as we made our way through the trash mobs on our way to the bosses.  The camaraderie was a big part of the session but a big part of the fun, for me at least, was tackling the dungeons in the area we were already adventuring in.  I had already finished up the questing in a number of the surrounding zones, knew the story and background of the area, and finishing the dungeons was a nice way to wrap up those storylines, as the bosses frequently were the final bad guys in those quest chains.  The dungeons were the culminations of those tales.  The trouble for me started when we began doing two things: random dungeons and pick-up-groups, or PUGs.

In WoW, one of the ways to be rewarded with Valor or Justice points (which can be spent for gear and other items) is to complete “random dungeons.”  That is, queue into the Dungeon Finder tool, be teleported and paired with other random players, complete the dungeon, then reap the benefits.  For me, the whole idea of being teleported to a random dungeon in the world threw me out of the context of the area I was adventuring in, and I saw little reason, within the context of story, to be participating. 

The different reasons people play MMORPGs could not be starker. 

Some folks, perhaps those with D&D or other tabletop roleplaying backgrounds, are looking for an alternative world in which to explore, group with friends, evolve a character, and pursue a persistent storyline within the world.  Others view MMORPGs simply as console games and care little for context or story, focusing more on achievement.  To those folks, MMORPGs are not much different than Super Mario Bros, and play through the game more for the accomplishment, the points earned, and the goals of getting their character better reputation or equipment.  “Winning” an MMORPG makes perfect sense to an achievement-oriented player.

People playing for story and people playing for achievement often do not see eye-to-eye.  The story- oriented player asks why everyone is in such a rush to finish the dungeon, and wants to slow down and experience what’s going on.  The achievement-oriented player is looking to complete as many dungeons as possible to “maximize” their playing time and get as many points/gear, etc. as possible before they need to log off.  Neither of these points of view is necessarily right or wrong, but it does make for a great deal of frustration for both types if they are paired with people of the other play style.

Enter the Dungeon Finder and pick-up-group, or PUG.  With these tools, players of all play styles are thrown together with other strangers and teleported to a dungeon.  For achievement-oriented players, these tools are a godsend, as they allow them to quickly get in multiple dungeon runs in a short period.  These runs are almost always done very quickly with as little interaction as possible for maximum efficiency.  For story-oriented players, the idea of a dungeon finder and PUG is almost anathema right off the bat.  Justifying the teleportation is a stretch within the context of the storyline, and then as far as continuity goes, why are you suddenly needed in some random dungeon on the other side of the planet?  Oh, sure some rationalization can occur here for it, but if one is playing according to one set of (admittedly fictional) rules or used to a certain context or framework, and suddenly those rules change, it tends to cause dismay. 

Before I had grouped up with my brother and we had formed our guild, I almost exclusively relied on PUGs for dungeons.  I would carefully pick the exact dungeon I wanted to run based on the area I was in, and never queued for random dungeons.  Even though it was with a group of strangers, at least this way, I was doing the dungeons that made sense within the storyline.  I did this for my first character almost exclusively up through max level.  Of approximately 20 dungeons, I can point to exactly one instance where any of the players actually spoke to each other during the run, and that happened to be the most fun I’ve ever had in a PUG.  All the other instances were speed runs, with an occasional berating of a player for not keeping their damage up to snuff.  I recall one instance where I had a couple quest goals to complete within the dungeon, but with the relentless push forward, I had to wait until we had downed the final boss and everyone had left the group before I could walk back (alone) and complete the quest goal – I remember being quite happy that the mobs didn’t respawn in that particular instance.

Our guild had much more of a continuity bent, and as we leveled through areas as a team, we made sure to visit the dungeons (the actual entrances!) with our group and complete them as we encountered them.  It was amazing to experience the difference of adventuring with a group of friends.  Ventrilo made a huge difference as well, and being able to talk instead of type was simply the difference between night and day. 

One day, we were short on players for our regular guild and we decided to use the dungeon finder to try and complete a dungeon I’d wanted to visit.  First thing out of one of the newcomer’s chat was “I hope you can play better than you are geared.”  Fact is, I have never been overly focused on gear, and every dungeon we had done in our guild we’d rolled through with relative ease.  But here, of course, was a highly achievement-oriented player being mixed in with story-oriented folks.  We rolled our eyes and continued doing the dungeon just fine until that same person dropped out of the group and we had to end the run.  We did the run with the guild shortly after and completed it in no time, and without all the drama.

This isn’t to say that all PUGs are terrible and that all random groups are bad.  It’s just that the tendency for those groups to be less than ideal is greater if you are not on the same page.  And the tendency for dungeon finders to cater to and produce achievement-oriented players is also greater; a story-oriented player will almost always be in the minority using these tools. 

Some will say that it’s good to get new blood and new perspectives, and I agree; meeting new folks can be great, and new ideas that improve things for everyone are always worth having.  But having diametric views on the goals for your gameplay is a recipe for frustration. 

Is there a way that allows for meeting of new players while still preserving your preferred style of play?  Sure.  Get out there and talk to people about their preferences before inviting folks to join your guild.  You can talk with people in chat, and get to know them before going on a dungeon run.  Be sociable.  But all of these take time, which is in short supply for many these days. 

I’ve argued in the past for matchmaking tools that allow you to select what types of runs and playstyles you are looking for in the guild boards and dungeonfinder tools.  Until those kinds of things are added to these games, it comes down to a choice between whether to spend time socializing, using those random dungeon selection tools, or to just play it safe and group with friends who you know well.  Here’s hoping the developers start paying attention to the need for matchmaking in these games; I’m surprised at how, for game genre that is based on online community, these tools continue to be overlooked.