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On game features from a student game developer

As a second year bachelor student of game programming and development, there is nothing that interests me more than exploring game features, and discussing the effect they have on games and gamers.

Author: Dreamstrider

Level based gameplay, do we really need it?

Posted by Dreamstrider Wednesday September 10 2008 at 3:25PM
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Hello again, it's been a while since I last had the time to write a blog entry here.
School is taking up pretty much all my wake time, and the little I have left is usually spent prodding some of the new games coming out these days.

An imensly interesting topic, and very popular around these parts. The level based system has been used in pretty much any Massive Online game since they were first released. The level system was another part of the MMORPG genre taken directly from it's pen and paper counterparts, which made a lot of sense at the time, considering that it was the Dungeons and Dragons crowd the games were aimed at. Even though many years have passed since the first Massively Multiplayer Game was released, levels are still the norm, and no one seems to be interested in this tested, and proven setup. Is this really the way to progress forward though?

There are many reasons why one would want to have a level based system in place in your game:

Leves limit the content the player has access to at game startup. You might find this to be a very strange positive, but the truth is, that no one would enjoy a game where they could jump right in and slay the arch demon of badness rfrom the very start. The truth is that by limiting the players access to content you can tailor his gameplay experience with more detail. This is very helpfull when it comes to storytelling, itemization and so on.

Levels are great for player motivation. There is nothing just like finally hitting that next level and being rewarded with new powers, stats and even titles. Players need goals, both the easy to reach, and those far in the horizon, to keep them going. There is very little point in playing a game if you don't feel like you are getting anything back from it.

Levels are a great way for players to judge their own strength. This might be listed as both a pro and a con. Comparing your level to that of a monster is a very good way for a new player to see if it is possible to beat or not. 

These are some of the positive features about levels. It is very important to note that these are very good reasons to stick with this system, and not just things that are "nice" but actually are a "must". There are probably many other reasons why one would include levels in their games, but I hope that I have covered the most important ones above. If I have forgotten an important reason to have levels in a game, please feel free to remind me by a comment below.

Now, from what you read above, it might seem to you that I am saying there is no way around the level solution. This is far from the case. It is my firm belief that removing the need for a skill based system has to do with proper game design. I believe that using levels to track character progression is a well proven solution, but it is also the "easy way out". 

Games like Planetside and Starwars Galaxies proved well that you do not need a level based power system, even though one might argue that both had levels to some extent, it is still far from the systems used by games such as World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, Vanguard and most other MMOGs. I believe that levels are a great solution for some games, but that they should in no way be the solution used for all the games out there.

Why should players be constantly pushed through content he is still enjoying because he has "outleveled the zone" ? Why should I not be able to play with my friend because he has been playing for longer than me? Does it make sense that a naked high level player should be able to easely defeat a player wearing proper armor at a lower level?

I say no. I believe that we need to find a game solution that allows players to feel that they are progressing, without having to represent this by an artificial bar slowly ticking away towards the next level.
What do you think? Do you have an idea to how this could be solved? Please post a comment below.
Once again, thank you for your time.

-The Dreamstrider.

Gold farmers, and a reflection on currency.

Posted by Dreamstrider Tuesday August 19 2008 at 1:07PM
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Gold farmers are a big problem in most massive online games. These autonomus players who spend their entire day killing the same critters over and over again, to sell the loot for real money, has long been one of the most anoying additions to the gaming community, and a thorn in the side for any developer trying to run a proper in game economy. In this blog entry I give you my view on where I think the problem is actually coming from. As always, any input or idea is greatly appriciated.

When looking at the current in game economies of games like WoW, EvE, Everquest and so on, The main feature I see in all of them is that they are filled to the bursting point with repetetive tasks that bring the players little joy in themselves. These actions are largely known as Grind, and for most players it's the reason why they stop playing in the end. Gold farmers exist because there is a market for it. The reason why there is a market for it is because people don't find it enjoyable to get this money themselves, or they simply do not have the time needed to do so. It is my opinion that both are solved by solving the first. By solving the problem of tedious grind, you also solve the problem of time; not directly, but indirectly by making it enjoyable to get the money, they will no longer feel that they are wasting their time.

So, the main problem with the current sitiuation is that the grind is tedious, which I would assume does not come as a big surprise to anyone. So how does one make grinding fun? Well, one can look at what players enjoy doing, and then make that the grind. Obviously this is a lot easier said than done, however there are a few ideas that I can think of that would help incorporate this:

Increase the loot dropped from raid bosses:
This is, in my opinion, one of the most important features that should be changed when it comes to standard MMOs like WoW and Everquest. It is my opinion that raiders should fuel their raiding by raiding, and not by going through lots of mindnumbing grind to be allowed to raid.

Players should be able to make money by playing versus each other. When a player kills another, he should be allowed to loot money. If that is by taking money from the other, or by being awarded, would be up to the individual game. Also introducing bounties that would automatically set on players killing other players inside cities would be a good way to police said areas as well as give players an additional income.

Removing currency alltogether:
Is this really an option? I believe so, either by creating a system where you do not need money at all, or by having another trade solution that requires more cooperation to get a hold of the items viable for trading, making it less profitable for Gold Farmers. This is a very tricky solution, but in my opinion a truly viable one, if incorporated correctly. In the future I might write a blog entry on this subject.

These are a few of my ideas, but instead of making this entry into a design document, I would rather hear what you all have to say. How do you think we can change how the game economy works for the better?
Can you think of a solution to rid us of the economy destroyer that is the gold farmer?
As always, all feedback is appriciated. Thank you for reading.

-The Dreamstrider.

Cutting the feature list, defining the core of the game before the fluff.

Posted by Dreamstrider Monday August 11 2008 at 4:05PM
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Who would have thought I would get two hundred views on my first blog post here? I surely did not!
I would like to thank everyone who read and posted comments. For one who is hoping to enter the game industry, getting the feeling on where gamers are at is one of the most important things I can imagine. I wasn't really going to make another post this fast, but I just returned from a meeting and my head is full of thoughts and ideas, making it hard to do anything constructive! Anyway, here goes:

It seems clear to me that one of the biggest flaws in new games; be they single player fps games or massive online ones, is that they keep on trying to have everything that everyone else has, and more. I am confused by this. It is my opinion that if you believe you have a good concept, you don't need to also add all the content of other games to make it count for something. What you need to do is to make your concept really stick out of the massive crowd.  When I look at games like Warhammer online and Age of Conan, I see massive feature lists, that both contain the same things as games before them, but also their own little twist on things. Now sure this is great, but just like you guys, I have realised long ago that the more things you try to do in the same timeframe, the less dept you will have on each of these features.

Now the problem here, I think, is lack of community / developer integration. Meaning that developers and people from the community don't spend enough time together. But that's a topic for another entry. It is my firm belief that if a game developer instead of trying to do everything at once; made sure that what made their game special would really work as expected. In WAR thats Realm versus Realm, in Conan it's keep battles and the combat system, in planetside it was base combat, and so on.

In the end, what I would like to ask you guys is this:
How important is the feature list to you?
If you want to find a new MMO, does it need to have ALL the features of your previous one, or would you be more than happy with just some of the old features, and some new and really interesting ones working from day one?

Once again, thank you for your time and input.

-The Dreamstrider

On the hate towards instancing in MMOs, and the potential of the feature.

Posted by Dreamstrider Sunday August 10 2008 at 1:03PM
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Quite a pompus title I must admit, but it was the best I could think of while my thoughts are still fresh in my head.

First a small introduction is in order I think:
I am a second year bachelor student at the Norwegian University Of Information Technology (NITH)
Where I study game programming and design.  My biggest dream is to be the lead designer of an MMO, and I work (almost to death according to friends and family) every day to get closer to that goal. One of the most important things to do if you want to make a game, in my opinion, is that you know what the audience / customerbase is actually looking for. And thus I spend a lot of time hanging out in forums such as this, and discussing with players in game, about the features they enjoy, and don't enjoy in massive online games.

Anyway on to the actuall topic of my blog:

I have read lots and lots (and lots) of threads on the forums here about peoples' hate for instancing in MMOs. They claim it ruins immerision (which I must agree with to some extent) and more importantly, that it is a real stick in the wheels for social interaction. When everything is instanced for just a few players, how are you supposed to meet anyone else? This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest drawbacks to the instancing used today. Today instancing is generally thought of as a solution to put a few players into a zone with just them and the scripted path it will take them through. However these are not the only functions of instancing.

By instancing a zone you allow the zone to be rerendered every time a new group of players join it. This allows you to actually change the zone layout while it's active on the server. This would be impossible in a non instanced world because there is no way to make sure no players are in the zone, except by taking it down. If  you instance, you can close down that part of the game world and change it, while the rest of the game world is active.

Instancing can remove traveltime. This is, in my opinion, a very important feature that can be implemented through instancing. Why should the player waste time on walking to the location of the battle, or the event, if all he has to do is step through the portal and be instantly moved? Maybe not the most immersive solution, but it gets you there without wasting your time. And what is more important than having time?

Now imagine if you will, part of a game: You are standing on a massive space station, around you are fifty, maybe a hundred other players, chatting, forming groups and preparing for the actions that is to come. The space station is completely cut off from the rest of the game world, you can't actually move in real time from here to anywhere else. Yet, from here, you can through shuttles be moved instantly to any part of the game world. Each instance can holds a few hundred players, and are quite massive in size. Imagine striking down on such a battlefield, just created randomly by the server, populated by enemies working in a fashion you have never encountered before in the game, using a fortress layout also generated randomly.

Would this be a type of instancing acceptable to you as a player? Or would the instance in itself serve to annoy you, because of the loadingscreen, and the cutoff from the rest of the game world? It would be great if you could post your opinion below!

Thank you for your time!
-The Dreamstrider.