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The Lunch Break Blog

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

Author: cmagoun

Non-Choices and Non-Systems (or Why Talisman is not a a Game)

Posted by cmagoun Thursday July 5 2007 at 10:17AM
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There is a pretty famous essay written by Greg Costikyan called "I Have No Words & I Must Design."  You can find it here: It is a great essay on the elements of a game and something that any game designer (or in my case, armchair game designer) should read. In any case, I am not going to go over the article point-for-point, but I point it out to highlight the importance of meaningful choices in games.


Personally, I feel that having meaningful choices is the single most important aspect a game can possibly have. I play games to interact with the system and environment. To interact, I mean that I make choices and that those choices directly affect the outcome of the scenario. When I park my infantry squad on a wooded hill, I expect that they have some advantage -- cover from enemy fire and a better line of sight perhaps. In a roleplaying game, I expect that my choice of a battle axe over a dagger means that I will do more damage, but attack more slowly... whatever, I just want my choice to make a meaningful change in the way the game progresses.


It always bothers me when I see what I call "non-choices" in a game. Take Talisman, for instance. Most of your time in Talisman is spent rolling a die to move and then choosing to move to... say the hills, where you draw a card, or the forest, where you... draw the same card. Not much of a choice really. And there are quite a few of those situations in Talisman. For instance, when you do have a choice, it is often something like, "Do I face the dragon who has a 5/6 chance of killing me, or do I head to Chapel and get healing?"


Now obviously there are choices in Talisman. I just feel that over the course of a game, there aren't that many interesting ones and they are far outweighed by the tedium of the non-choices that exist turn after turn. So, as I attempt to steer this to the realm of MMOs, let's see what constitutes a meaningful choice.


Makes a Noticable Impact on the Outcome -- Heads or Tails!!! Well it hardly matters, does it? My choices have to matter and I have to see that they matter. The silly Talisman example aside, board games are generally pretty good about this. Since they have to be adjudicated by humans, they abstract out choices that have no impact, or only a tiny impact on the game.


Computer games unfortunately, can let the machine handle the math and so you see CoH IO enhancement sets that give a 1.23% reduction in fear duration... huh? So if a fear effect would have lasted 30 seconds, now it only lasts a mere... 29.63 seconds... Beware Evildoers!!!  I am sure we have all seen games that sport pieces of gear that increase stat X by miniscule percentage Y. When you actually calculate the magnatude of such a change, it often does not matter.


Has a Known (or at least knowable) Effect -- If I don't know what the effects of a given choice are, then it is just as bad as having no choice at all, because as a player all I can work with is blind luck or worse, a bad assumption as to how the game mechanics ought to be. This is why I am never a fan of obsfuscating game mechanics in an MMO.


At its release, CoH had largely opaque game mechanics. You had no idea the actual effect of a power, only that it did "minor" damage, or held foes for "a long time". I understand the urge a game developer might have to hide their game mechanics. They don't want to muddy immersion with game numbers and they want to slow down powergamers a little. It doesn't work. All it does is take away the average gamer's ability to make a reasoned choice about what powers to take and how to enhance them.


Obvious Choices Aren't Meaningful -- When I played Shadowbane, I played an Inquisitor. Essentially, an inquisitor is a priestly nuker with the ability to cast fire on his enemies, tap his own health for mana, heal and had a few interesting powers relating to the undead.  Except Shadowbane is a PvP game first and foremost -- moreso than any other game I have played. There is no point to PvE except to farm and level so that you can kill another player. Problem is, all the undead are found in the largely meaningless PvE game. There were a couple of classes that had these sorts of powers... and no one ever took them because they were pointless in the context of the game.


I think you see a lot of "obvious choices" in character build systems and this leads to systems that seem to have lots of choices, but really boil down to a handful of FoTM templates. EQ2 just revamped some of their AA trees because many of the branches were so obviously underpowered that no one bothered.


Choices Imply Limits -- Having a choice implies that you are taking one thing, but giving up another. When you choose an advantage, or a power, there should be some tradeoff -- even if that means giving up another power. Most games have this to a degree... though often the biggest tradeoff you ever make in most MMOs is when you choose your class.


I always thought it might be an interesting twist on the traditional EQ/WoW/EQ2 model if instead of getting powers as you leveled up, you got a choice of two powers each level... but you would have to give up on the other power. So, instead of getting Ice Blast at level 5, you got a choice of Ice Blast or Freeze Ray. You could choose another attack and kill your enemies faster, or you could choose to hold your enemies and be better a kiting and crowd control at the expense of doing more damage.


Choices That Aren't Meaningful Should Be Abstracted -- Not to pick on CoH too much, but I always thought the original enhancement system was an example of a non-system... a system that should have been abstracted because it added nothing to the game. I remember in the early days of CoH, whenever someone would get an enhancement drop, people in the team would sit there and try to trade them. "Anyone need a level 32 tech accuracy?", "No, but I have a 33 natural damage. You want that?"  At some point, everyone realized that selling the enhancements to a vendor and then buying the ones they needed was the sensible way to go. The whole faux economy of dropping, trading, selling, buying of enhancements was a gigantic waste of time.


The designers of CoH could have easily abstracted the entire enhancement system with some kind of point allocation system. When you level up, you can allocate a certain amount of power points to enhance various aspects of your powers. Doing this would have been quicker and would have highlighted the important part of the enhanement system which was choosing what powers to enhance and how to enhance them.


Anyways, I have to get back to work. I will talk to you all again later when I post on the concept of including non-combat skills our mostly combat-oriented MMOs.

Narrative Questing (or Why are my 100 rabid badgers wearing waterproof tights?)

Posted by cmagoun Monday July 2 2007 at 12:48PM
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I had thought to title this post something clever like "100 Rabid Badgers", or for you CoH lovers, "Why Aren't My Tights Waterproof?"  and then after hooking you with my awesome title, I would start in on some even MORE clever spoof on your standard mmo questing text and then after that, I would start in on a really cool, innovative idea for spicing up mmo quests.


And then the caffeine wore off... and I realized that I had rewritten the clever bits 6 times and they still sounded decidedly UNclever.


In any case, we all know by now that questing is an integral part of most mmos. It gives players short/mid-term goals and provides level-up activities other than repetitive grinding. Personally, I enjoy questing and try to avoid games without a good questing mechanism.


The problem is that questing itself is often repetitive and grindy. You have variations on "Kill 100 Rabid Badgers", "Bring Useless Widget to Stationary and Lifeless NPC", "Kill an Inane Amount of Wildlife Creatures Until You Collect 10 Sinewy Tendons" and so on. This is better than grinding, but let's face it, it isn't that much better.


I have been thinking for some time now about how game designers might bring together static, scripted and random elements together to make crpg (and mmo) quests more story-like. Tell me what you think about this:


So, let's say we are talking to the quest-giving NPC and he asks us to travel into the woods, locate a goblin lair, kill the leader and retrieve his ring. I am pretty sure we all know how this type of quest works in most games. In the Narrative System, the code that creates this quest also breaks it up into a number of "decision points", each representing a possible complication, or twist in the standard formula.


So, when we accept the quest, the engine rolls a die to determine what happens to us while we are traveling to the lair (right now, I am assuming we are playing a game with a lot of instanced dungeons). Most likely, nothing interesting happens. However, some of the results might cause us difficulty on the way:

  1. The goblins know we are coming and set up a large number of nasty traps near the entrance to their lair. The engine spawns a set of trap panels that damage those who walk over them. Certain skills and powers will allow us to see and disarm the traps, or mitigate their effects. Worse still, the goblins inside the dungeon instance will be ready for us and have a greatly increased aggro radius.
  2. Another group wants the goblin's ring and has sent a group of thugs to get it. This group will come upon the players as they approach the entrance to the dungeon. This group could be random, or it could come from one of the player's "history lists" (we'll talk about that a bit later).
  3. The NPC was mistaken as to the whereabouts of the lair. The players will have to search for the lair, or use certain skills/powers (some type of tracking or divination) to find it.
  4. The goblins are not alerted to our presence, but are wary and have posted a watch. A large group of goblin spawns are outside the lair. If we can manage to get past them without being engaged (or without being engaged for a certain length of time), then we have entered the lair stealthily and get some kind of surprise bonus. If we are engaged, the goblins inside will be alerted and have an increased aggro radius.

Once we are inside, we clear our way to the leader. Again, the system rolls a die. Many of the results do nothing to the leader encounter, but some results change it:

  1. The leader is protected by a powerful ogre minion in addition to his normal guard.
  2. The leader's ring makes him immune to certain type of attacks/powers. His immunities would be based on powers the group member have. Once they enter combat, the players would have to quickly assess the situation (messages about his immunities would pop up) and change tactics to survive the encounter.
  3. Once combat is engaged, the leader begs the players for his life (ending the combat and making the goblin host temporarily immune) because:
    1. He wants to offer the players double what they are being paid by the quest NPC to let him live. Players would get bonus cash and experience, but suffer faction changes with the NPCs in question. Of course, they can choose to complete their original contract, in which case the battle starts again.
    2. He no longer has the ring. He can tell the players where to find it if they spare him. The ring has been taken by another NPC group (chosen out of someone's "history") and players will have to get to another instanced dungeon and take out this second group to obtain their prize.
  4. The dungeon is pretty quiet as we motor through, but as we enter the final room, there is a huge battle between the goblins and another NPC faction. Players have to navigate through the mess, fighting continuously (though the enemies would likely be weakened from their ongoing battle), to get to the leader and slay him.

Once we return to the quest NPC, he could give us the reward and send us on our way, or give us another follow-up quest based on the complications of the first quest. So, if an NPC group stole the ring, the players could be sent to exact retribution for the quest NPC. If the goblin leader was protected by an ogre, the group could be sent to hire ogre mercenaries for the quest NPC... and so on.


As for the mysterious "History Lists" mentioned above, I think it would be a neat idea to keep tabs on the various NPCs and factions the players come across on their travels. When it comes time to choose a random enemy for an ambush, this list is consulted. So, when the player takes a quest against the Dark Brotherhood, the game will make it likely that the Brotherhood will show up to harass the player in future quests and events.


The goal is to break up the monotony of repeated questing by throwing these twists in and making each quest more like a mini-story. Instead of "go, kill, rinse, repeat", you get more of "We traveled to the goblin lair, only to find the Dark Brotherhood had gotten there before us. We followed the sounds of battle to the Goblin Chief's lair, only to find a massive battle raging..."


In any case, I have to get back to work. Leave a comment and tell me what you think... thanks.