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Talk: Men in Tights (BioWare)

Dana Massey Posted:
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AGC Talk: “Moving Beyond Men in Tights”

BioWare Austin Lead Combat Designer Damion Schubert looks forward in this design chat

I wasn’t quite sure what I should expect when I was told to cover an AGC seminar called “Moving Beyond Men in Tights”, but when I got there, I experienced one of the most interesting and frankly logical seminars that I have ever been a part of. As usual, my schedule was packed tightly and I missed the introduction to the session, but Damion Schubert, the Lead Combat Designer for BioWare Austin was there to talk about smart innovation in MMORPGs. I’m going to try to relay everything to you as well as I can.

Working for a news site like this one, I have the opportunity to look at what people are saying about games, both on the side of the players and the developers. One thing that both sides have in common, even if they don’t realize it, is that they are both continually talking about the idea of innovation. Developers and Players alike are asking why we keep churning out so many “WoW clones”, games that simply copy and paste what has worked in the past. Schubert seemed to have a very simple answer. Because it works.

Schubert though, wanted to talk about ways that developers could innovate and still make a game that people wanted to play. The solution is “smart innovation”. Smart innovation, he told us, is “listening to and understanding the needs of your customers”. He says that one of the problems is that he sees far too much of what he called, “Crazy Innovation” which he defined as innovation that confuses people; no one cares about, and costs a lot of money. Another problem he noted was the industry Producer who, when presented with a design problem, says “What would WoW do?” He was quick to point out that while the industry often says that WoW simply was not innovative, they did have one huge innovation. WoW is soloable.

With his introduction out of the way, he went on to looking at five different categories of ideas for innovation that can be used and expanded upon. The first, he put into a question. He asked us “Why is everything about fighting stuff?” There seems to be a focus in our industry on combat. There’s a reason. 1) Combat sells 2) It’s what we know how to make. “Video games,” he said, “are perfect for a visceral experience”. It’s true, and has been proven time and time again that we want to shoot, hack, run over or otherwise maim our opponents in video games. The truth is though, that what players actually want is problem solving. Combat just happens to be a tried and true way to show that. Look at a game like Puzzle Pirates though, where combat is done through puzzles. He also told us that whatever problem solving we create has to be repeatable so that we create what Schubert called “Dynamic Challenges”. He used the scenarios in Civilization as an example. The puzzle, which is repeatable, is constantly changing, making it dynamic. The bottom line for this, he said, was that “If you want to rip combat out of your game, you need something to do.”

The next category was classes, another tried and true staple for most RPGs. “Do all MMOs need to have classes?” he asked. The answer is no, but classes offer a number of advantages in game design. The first is fairness. Designers know how to balance classes so that the game remains fair to all players involved, and if you’re going to replace classes with something like a skill-cased system, you have to account for this. The second is that you run the risk of offering too much choice. Research has shown that people in general have a hard time making decisions with a large number of options. The example he gave was a study that involved jam. The people involved wanted to know if people were more or less likely to buy jam after trying it in the store if they were presented with a large number of options. It turns out that when there are fewer options, people feel more confident in making a solid decision, and bought more jam. Of course this isn’t true of all people, but on the whole, it would seem to be the case. Given too many choices, people will agonize over making a decision, fearing that hey might make a bad choice that is irreversible. The same holds true in games.

He also pointed out that classes have the advantage of having what he called “Tactical Transparency”. That’s the idea that, in a strategy environment (like PvP combat), players should have a rough idea of what their opponents can do. He used chess as an example of this, stating that you always know what options are available to the other player. Not only that, but classes allow players to determine their roles within a group (tank, healer, caster, etc.).

He moved on from classes to talk about something else that players complain about; the grind. “Do we have to use experience points and levels?” What he was really getting at here was a sense of advancement and reward. He said that this might be the hardest thing to replace insofar as game innovation goes. Experience points allow people to know where they are in the pecking order, where they stand within the game. The problem is, more often than not, XP and levels don’t actually reward player skill.

Any designer knows that you have to give players a powerful reason not to leave the game. What fun is a game that people want to leave after an hour of play, and how well would that game actually do on the market? Rewards mean that players will enjoy themselves more, and as a result, continue with the game. It’s a win-win for both the player and the game company. Classes and experience, while not rewarding player skill, are certainly rewarding to everyone as you can track your progress, and it always feels good to finally get that next level you’ve been working toward. The example that he gave of an alternate system was use-based. By that I mean, the more you use an ability, the better you get at it. The problem is that this system has shown to make players do really odd things like allowing themselves to be hit over and over again in order to build up their defenses. The benefit of a use-based system is supposed to be that it’s the most like “real life”, the more you work at something, the better you get. However, when you have players reacting that way, the results are anything but realistic.

Next, he moved us on to the title of the panel “Men in Tights”. By “Men in Tights”, he is referring to the fantasy genre as a whole. Many of our readers here at MMORPG.com have expressed a dislike of the constant rush of fantasy games that seem to flood the market. There are, however, a number of reasons for this. First, it’s “resonance”. You need to choose a setting that people know. People know what fantasy games are. We’ve all been playing them for quite some time, so it’s comfortable for us as players to figure out what’s going on. We know what a wizard’s role is, we know what a cleric does. He was also quick to point out that it’s something that the industry knows as well. Let’s face it, the industry knows how to make fantasy games.

He also pointed out that games need to appeal to more than one audience. Fantasy (though things like The Lord of the Rings movies) have proven to have cross-market appeal. He called this Double Coating. “If you’re going to do a non-fantasy game, make sure it’s double-coated”.

The game world also needs to be somehow inviting. Players are going to be spending a lot of time in the world, so it should be a place that they want to be. That’s not to say that all games need to be smiles and sunshine, but if it’s unappealing, people won’t play.

Fantasy games also provide what Schubert called an “heroic arc”. Even in Massively Multiplayer games, people want to feel as though their characters are “the best” and “special”. Fantasy not only provides that, but also provides the opportunity for big “badass bad-guys.” Like he said, “Epic heroes need epic villains”.

One of the most interesting points he made in this category was that designers should “have a vision, and deliver on that vision..”

He ended the seminar by wrapping up the Men in Tights category with a few examples of well-known non-fantasy franchises that have flaws built into them that must be overcome before they will make good MMORPGs:

The first was Stargate. He said that Stargate seems to be built to be an MMORPG with instanced, squad-based combat. The problem that he immediately recognized is that in the movie and series, there is a character running around who is an archaeologist. For all intents and purposes useless in combat, getting captured all the time, and being defended by the rest of the team. In order to make a Stargate MMO and “deliver on that vision”, all of the above factors have to be considered. For example, what puzzles will engage that character if combat doesn’t do the trick?

Then there was Highlander. Highlander is a well-known license and also have huge “geek appeal” (double coating), but there is an inherent flaw in the franchise. Perma-death. Highlander is built around the concept that “there can be only one”. How do you make that fun and engaging for everyone?

The final example that he gave was Star Trek. Star Trek (if you use Next Gen as the benchmark), is not as much about fighting as it is about politics and diplomacy and combat is seen as a last resort. That’s an issue that designers will have to deal with.

All in all, the seminar might have been my favorite. For me, it gave me a better idea of some of the challenges that exist for game designers. It also answered some of my questions about why the same ideas seem to be used over and over in today’s MMORPGs. Is the non-standard MMO something that can’t be attained? Absolutely not, innovation is certainly possible. There are, however, a number of factors and challenges that pop up when talking about smart innovation. It involves a whole new way of thinking for developers, and let’s face it, a bit of a risk for whomever is funding the game. Let’s hope that some of this (which, granted, are the opinions of just one speaker) resonates within the industry, and we see more and more of the innovations that will keep our genre fun and interesting into the next generation of games.

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Dana Massey