Wednesday, January 31, 2007

NPC Creatures Populations

Monster NPC creatures in MMORPGs are typically statically located, and respawn out of thin air, for the camper's greater delight. What is rarely considered is that perhaps it would be possible to have a realistic monster population in a MMORPG.

Realistic monsters, be they rabbits, goblins or dragons, would have purposes on their own. Rabbits need to survive, and to do that, they only
need to eat, avoid predators and reproduce. If the rabbit population goes up too much, however, food starts getting scarce, and the rabbits get more daring; they go eat near potential predators, namely human settlements. What happens then? You get a good old-fashioned quest. Farmers, or authorities who have been contacted by them, will pay adventurers, typically very meagerly, to take out some of the rabbits that are ravaging their vegetable crops. For rangers, this is good news, since it means they get something extra for hunting rabbits - plus, the rabbits are plentiful.

Another thing that might happen if the rabbit population goes up is that other predators will become more plentiful as well. Big bad wolves, who require fresh meat to live, will become more common, and while they don't typically attack humans, they can be a problem to livestock and hapless travellers. The result? More questing. Wolves tend to defend themselves better than rabbits, but they also have better furs, and more meat, for those who aren't afraid of uncommon food sources. No lucky rabbit foot, though.

So right here and now, we have an equilibrium. Rabbits can't get too common without encouraging wolf population growth, which need rabbits to live, otherwise their population will go back down; and if it doesn't, a hundred adventurers are ready to reason with them and make them see the errors of their way, usually in a rather permanent way.

Now, having balanced populations isn't everything, monsters need to come from somewhere. For rabbits, this is not too difficult; you add a hole in the ground, call it a burrow and make rabbits pop out of it; if you want extra fancies, you can have rabbits hide back in it when they sense danger. In this way, the rabbit population can never go lower than the number of rabbits left in the burrow. Rabbits will always exist.

When it comes to wolves, however, things might be different. While wolves will typically lodge within caves and other natural nice places, those locations are rarely inaccessible to adventurers, who can go in and try to fight the whole wolf pack; if they succeed, they have one less pack of wolves to care about. However, if too many adventurers hunt wolves, they might become scarce, and unless some lawmaker is ready to take some time away from destroying demons to declare them an endangered species, you might see the total destruction of all wolves within a certain area. Wolves can migrate from other parts, but for a while, rabbits might become a problem.

Now, most animals are easy to understand, but when sentient creatures are involved, things get more complicated. Goblins usually have their own agenda, and when they are not solely preoccupied with survival, they will start to get organized. If they are evil little goblins, they will raid settlements in hope of finding sustenance in the form of rations, or perhaps loot, to quell their hunger for shininess. If that happens, then you have goblins with actual loot; goblins that adventurers will want to kill; and goblins which will fight back much more fiercely, since they are both large enough to have raided in the first place, and made stronger from the weapons, armors and trinkets they acquired; we are to presume goblins cannot make such things on their own. Goblins which aren't technically evil might simply decide to defend themselves against invaders, in which case it is the players' role to play the evil part and exterminate helpless populations.

This presents a lot of story opportunities. Adventurers can venture in the goblin outlands and raid some villages. They can do so to protect their homelands, or simply because they like killing goblins. Similarly, if they go after goblins who pillaged a town, they might want to keep all this nice loot for themselves, or give it back to their rightful owners. But adventurers can also venture further in, and try to exterminate bigger goblin populations; and that causes dilemmas. Is it alright to kill young goblins, knowing they would most likely become raiders? The game doesn't offer the answer, it only presents the question. Players make their own stories, and set their own rules.

What about creatures which aren't technically part of populations? Dragons are rarely seen in groups, since they usually don't mingle very well. If a dragon enters an area, it will have to not only claim it for itself, but also exterminate would-be predators, acquire their shinies and find reliable sources of food. They also offer a much stronger challenge to adventurers, and typically a larger loot as well. Since they work alone, or in small groups (For example, a dragon, its mate and its youngs), defeating a dragon leaves the area unoccupied. Migrating creatures may want to seize the land, or perhaps retake it if the dragon took it from them in the first place. Dragons themselves have to come from somewhere. If you don't want your dragon population being exterminated by the players, that location must be either inaccessible to the players, or so suicidal a place that even large raids of seasoned adventurers could not hope to last long in such a location. In either case, you simply control the dragon population by having extra dragons migrate out of the place and seize a suitable lair, possibly away from another dragon (If your players are too lazy to do the dragon-slaying themselves).

With different creatures come different rules, and if you change one's rules, it might affect another's; this is called holism, which basically means that changing one part of a system, particularly one in equilibrium, might change other parts of the system. For more information on holistic MMORPG development, I recommend checking the lengthy but interesting read at

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Melee Fighter

After having established the role of a tank, realistic combat and real stealth, all that is left is to explain how a fighter manages the different aspects of fighting in melee. What I envision here is a concept, perhaps somewhat complex, of emphasizing certain aspects of combat to best suit the situation.

Available to melee fighters would be some scrollers allowing them to choose how much of any action to allocate to the fight. Those scrollers would let them choose the power of attacks, the amount of defence, the zone of control for defending spell casters and such, as well as the speed of attacks. Choosing a high attack and good speed, with no defence or zone of control, would be equivalent to fighting as a berserker. High defence and zone of control means you expect the spell casters, ranged attackers and the rest of the melee fighters to deal the damage. Other scrollers could become available with skills, for example feints, taunts, controlling allies or casting melee-based spells.

With the use of those scrollers come specializations in melee fighting. Tanks would be those who are good at maintaining zones of control, defending themselves and others, and perhaps using taunts. Rogues use stealth and quick, weak attacks. Versatile fighters can be decent at everything, as long as they know how to set their scrollers for optimal performances.

So now, after seeing custom spells, you have custom melee fighting. Stances are good, but they're better when you get to make your own, aren't they?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Stats Model

Even though you don't have stat counters and right-click -> inspect in Real Life, you can get a pretty good idea of a person's statistics simply by looking at them. For example, you know that that 2-meters-tall guy, weighting a hundred kilograms, without any fat in sight, has more strength than you do; and you know that, without really being a body builder, there's a good chance you could have beaten Albert Einstein in arm wrestling. It's simply about making sense of what you see, and games like Fable took that concept in and made your looks based on your capacities.

So I'm thinking, how come you can decide on your appearance at character creation, and that appearance has very little to do with your actual stats? World of Warcraft comes to mind here, with a gnome warrior having only marginally less strength and and hit points than a tauren warrior (Who is easily three times bigger than the gnome). Worse, a gnome warrior is very much stronger than, say, a tauren druid of the same level, yet you wouldn't expect a tauren to lose in arms wrestling or weight lifting against a gnome, no matter how warriorish he is.

Now, if the game only features one race, you would expect all members of that race (Unless significant sub-races are present) to have the same kind of growth potential; starting appearances would have little to do with potential stats. In a game featuring vastly different races, however, what you are should affect what you can be. A player making a character of a strong race and a magic-using character would play differently than one of an intelligent race for the same magic-using character. So what I think is, appearances count, and your stats should affect your appearances; at least, the physical stats would, those typically being strength, constitution and dexterity.

Again, this is simply an effort to make the game look more in line with reality. After all, you're not getting any stronger reading this.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Real Stealth

Why is it that MMORPG rogues are able to hide in plain daylight as well as during the night? Why is it that games artificially boost a rogue's stealth ability? I think that the ability of a sneaky person to get past others should be based on them not being noticeable, so passing behind guards is a must or, if impossible, at least using shadows to conceal oneself.

That being said, it would introduce into the game something that developers seem to dislike, that of using the player's skills for something. To enjoy a fully functional stealth system, you would need to have the player decide on where to go, unless you decide to use some fuzzy path finding technology that technomagically makes the character decide on the best path to take. Not only that, but you would need players to actually be paying attention to what is happening around them, as well as prevent third-party scripts from automatically detecting invisible stuff.

So, without artificially boosting a rogue's invisibility, the stealthy players will have to find environments in which they can meld, typically shadows (unless they buy points in invisibility spells, of course, but let's not get there); and players would have to pay attention to their surrounding to avoid being ambushed. So, in essence, it just gives player a more realistic experience of fantasy warfare, instead of relying on random number generators to do all the job. I don't think that's all bad; it's just different from what the hardcore gamers are used to, and these people are pretty vocal in their disapprobation, so we might not see realistic stealth in a MMORPG any time soon. At least it's fun to dream, isn't it?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The One-Man Army

With the possibility to create golems, to tame animals and to summon undeads, demons and elementals, one has to wonder what are the limits as to what one can order. While it is possible to control more than one type of creature, there are some things to take into consideration before attempting to invade presumably evil creatures with an ill-assorted army of followers.

First and foremost, there are limits to the numbers one can raise in every category, and these limits also overlay between categories. For example, one cannot summon demons unless they have the willpower to control them, and no one can summon elementals unless they have the power to keep them active. As for undeads, they may require both; the willpower to keep them enslaved, and the magical power to keep them active. Golems will require both the technical know-how of how to keep them up, and sometimes the magical power to keep them active. As for animal companions, the master needs to have the magnetism to keep them charmed, which translates into skills of animal taming and leadership.

But there are other considerations as well; you cannot simply have the maximum amount of everything and hope they work well together. Animals, for example, could be scared to death of mechanical golems, undeads, demons, and perhaps fire elementals, while being relatively accepting of magical creatures that do not seem immediately destructive, like magical golems and nicer elementals. Golems, if not trained properly, could interpret other companions as threats, and treat them accordingly. And you don't want to know the effect of placing dried-up corpses near mountains of pure thermal energy.

So while, yes, it is possible to mix many types of followers and slaves, it's not possible to use nearly all of one's capacities in every domain at once; and the choices you make at any time will reflect the things you can do with your commanding capacities. Choose the undeads and demons, and you'll have a hard time against Holy magic. Animals aren't too good against metal-kind, while magical golems and elementals are susceptible to dispelling.

So yes, it's possible to know lots of way to have followers, but in the end, as with everything else, you're better to pick a speciality and stick to it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

On Taunts

Some time ago, when thinking of the problems inherent to the implementation of the warrior's Taunt skill in World of Warcraft (namely, that it doesn't work on player characters), I had an epiphany of sort. I thought, what if the taunt was modified to not force a player to attack the taunter, but instead to be a special case of a debuff?

The envisioned taunt would have the same effect on PCs and NPCs alike: it would give penalties to the taunted, with decreased chances to hit with melee and ranged attack, chances to fizzle spells and the like, unless the target is attacking the person who is taunting (easily identified by their flashing in red). So, against an NPC, the taunt would have sensibly the same effect of forcing the NPC to attack the target, with the added bonus of debuffing if they decide not to. The taunt, however, now becomes useful in PvP, as a way to save a friend from certain death (or just annoying the enemy with another debuff).

The debuff way also adds some sense or realism to the game, since losing concentration is the result you expect to see from being taunted. And of course, for our healing friends, there are ways to protect oneself from taunting; a good, disciplined character (imagine a monk) wouldn't be fazed by such cheap tricks, so it's another game dynamic to consider.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

On Set Items

One concept that has been used times and times again in recent fantasy games is that of the set items; that is, items that are better if worn with other items of the same set, so your helm of Bob would give more defence if worn with your gauntlets of Bob, and maybe give resistance to curses if you also have the sword of Bob. Set items, however, are usually drops, not craftable items, so in essence, it just gives craftable items another layer of uselessness.

How do you reconcile set items and freely craftable items, then? By inventing the concept of item resonance (Seriously, you should have guessed that one. Sheesh). Item resonance happens when items are crafted with similar goal in mind. So, for example, a plate helm is a lot more efficient if worn with a plate armor, plate gauntlets and plate greaves. Similarly, an item enchanted to resist curses will be more efficient if worn with an item to resist necromancy or another which reduces demon attacks. Wielding a dagger will not be very useful if you're wearing heavy, cumbersome armor, but it becomes quite deadly if you have boots of speed and gloves of agility.

So now, players can make their own sets, reinforcing their desired fighting style precisely the way they want it; no longer will they be forced to rely on developer-enforced sets that might be close to what they had in mind.

Friday, January 19, 2007

On Subskills

It's very mighty fine that you just got one more point in your Fishing skill, but what does it do, exactly?

Of course, increasing any skill increases your efficiency when using that skill, so you'll be able to catch bigger fishes with less efforts, use better lures and all those whatnots. But, more importantly, it gives you access to some subskills. Subskills are special talents you can learn that are related to their respective skill. To buy those skills, you must expend the skill points you earned earlier (Don't worry, your total skill won't go down) and, in some cases, seek training from a master or other sources of information. So with a few points in fishing, you could learn to throw your line further, or maybe how to set up the lure better. You could opt to learn a line trick to make the lure look more alive, or you could take the skill you unlocked after taking that other skill a moment ago.

There are lots of possibilities; but, as you progress, you'll realize that some of the skills become redundant. Perhaps the magery Lightning Bolt spell is similar to the elementalist Lightning Strike, or the nature magic Summon Lightning. Maybe you're not too enthusiastic about learning a hundredth way of healing someone. What's the point of mastering every skill, then?

The truth is, there might not be a point. As you progress in different skills, you will notice that there are many ways to obtain the same result, which is good for character diversification, but bad for specialists who have mastered much of their skill and don't want to start learning new ones. The thing is, however, that learning enough of every skill that anything new would become redundant would take an enormous amount of time; forget about mastering the game in a month, it will take years to be good at everything, and by then you will realize that it was a big waste of time, since you only need to excel at your own profession to succeed. But at least you don't need to share the loot, right?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Webcomic Characters

People who know me know that I'm a webcomic freak. So I thought, why not mix this with the MMORPG fanaticism? I know you all wonder what your (read: my) favorite webcomic characters would be like in the game, so here's what I think.

From 8-bit theater:

(Characters are post-upgrade)
Slashing, Piercing, Blocking
Athletics, Dodge, Mounting, Engineering, 2 unknowns (The guy doesn't do much besides fight, it seems).

Red Mage
Slashing, Magery, Healing
Elementalism, Blocking, Leadership, Tactics, Mounting, Arcane Lore
(As well as whatever strikes his fancy)

Thief (aka ninja)
Sneak, Dodge, Throwing
Pick Locks, Acrobatics, Blocking, Piercing, Unarmed, Mounting

Black Mage
Magery, Sorcery, Arcane Lore
Elementalism, Necromancy, Demonology, Demolition, Piercing, Illusionism

White Mage
Healing, Holy, Blunt
First Aid, Biology, Arcane Lore,
Protection, Defence, Teaching

The now twice defunct Black Belt
Unarmed, Blocking, Blunt
Dodge, Acrobatics, Athletics, 2 unknowns

What about Dominic Deegan?

Illusionism, Arcane Lore, Magery
Sorcery, Healing, Teaching, Scroll Writing, Enchanting, Alchemy, Fishing

Sorcery, Magery, Arcane Lore
Healing, Holy, Illusionism, Teaching, Protection, Cooking

Holy, Healing, Protection
Defence, Arcane Lore, Biology, Nature Magic, 2 unknowns

Sneak, Acrobatics, Fishing
Dodge, Piercing, Exploration, Demolition, Dancing, Sleeping

Perhaps Bruno the Bandit?

Slashing, Athletics, Sneak
Dodge, Blocking, Piercing, Trapping, Mounting, Dancing

Ho, and why not The Gods of Arr-Kelaan?

Chemistry, Cooking, Holy
Tactics, Leadership, Magery, Biology, Sorcery, Illusionism

Everyone's favorite Girl Genius

A Spark (none in particular)
Engineering, Smithing, Golem Crafting
Chemistry, 5 depending on the person

The Order of the Stick!

Slashing, Blunt, Blocking
Athletics, Unarmed, Smithing, Dodge, Mounting, Animal Taming

Sneak, Archery, Pick Locks
Dodge, Acrobatics, Dancing, Trapping, Piercing, Tactics

Music, Piercing, Illusionism
Sorcery, Dancing, Blocking, Dodge, Acrobatics, Sneak

Holy, Blunt, Blocking
Healing, Mining, Smithing, Protection, Defence, Dodge

Magery, Arcane Lore, Elementalism
Sorcery, Illusionism, Alchemy, Scroll Writing, Golem Crafting, Enchanting

Piercing, Sneak, Dodge
Acrobatics, Throwing, Bone Carving, Tactics, Exploration, Cooking
(And a total absence of any tracking skills)


Holy, Healing, Leadership
Tactics, Teaching, Throwing, Piercing, Protection, Biology

Big Ears
Slashing, Defence, Blocking
Protection, Piercing, Holy, Dodge, Blunt, Athletics

Slashing, Dodge, Acrobatics
Blocking, Athletics, Sneak, Tactics, Leadership, Unarmed

Senor Vorpal Kickass'o (aka Fumbles)
All skills, with minimum knowledge in all
(That was the easiest one by far)

Complains of Names
Slashing, Athletics, Blocking
Dodge, Acrobatics, Cooking, Tracking, Herbalism, Biology

And finally, I can't forget Dungeons and Denizens

Blunt, Athletics, Slashing
Smithing, Stone Carving, Wood Crafting, First Aid, Cooking, Tactics

Those I didn't mention, from lack of space:
8-bit theater: Sarda, Princess Sara, the Dark Warriors
Dominic Deegan: Gregory, Miranda, as well as a large cast of Villains
The Order of the Stick: The linear guild, Xykon, Red Cloak, Miko, Lord Shojo, and probably a few others
The Gods of Arr-Kelaan: A large number of gods, and perhaps a few mortals of some importance
Goblins: Minmax, Forgath, The fortune teller, Dies horribly

While I know most of you skipped over all the boring details, I hope at least I showed you a few webcomics you'll remember to bookmark.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How Guilds Work

There are lots of things wrong with guilds right now, not the least of which is that they're mostly devoid of any kind of subdivision. Other than the the guild leader and his lieutenants, there are no way to differentiate one guild member from another. This often leads to a practical limit to the size of guilds, above which people start not knowing each other and the guild ceases to function as a guild.

I think a better guild system would be one that allows subdivisions, both in hierarchy and classification. You could have sub-guilds within a guild, for whatever purpose you might require. For example, a merchant's guild could have a division for cooks, another for blacksmiths, woodworkers, engineers and maybe golem crafters, with a superdivision for those who have a large number of trades. Or you could have a guild divided by rank, with less privilege given to lower members, including perhaps restricted access to the guild house.

But perhaps more importantly, this would allow guild members to have access to a smaller group of guildmates, so that, while help is available outside of the small group which shares the player's interests, the number of people one has to know is not overwhelming. This way, a guild does not implode from its own gravitational force, and perhaps guild leaders could save some time deferring the management of subdivisions to local leaders.

Monday, January 15, 2007

More Skills

Only minor changes; I added the Nature magic and Exploration skills.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Downtime

Downtime, not the server one, but the in-game one, is a factor that has a large influence on an MMORPG's success (Although server downtime is also important, World of Warcraft is a good proof that it does not preclude success). I have discussed previously of World of Warcraft's convenience in every aspect of the game; rarely is a minute wasted in World of Warcraft because of a bad game design, or to force the player to slow down. If we look at other MMORPGs, like the Everquest or Lineage families, you can see that downtime is often prevalent in any combat activity: players have to sit for several minute between each fight just to recover their lost hit points and magic power. This is often a common cause for grief for players who wish the game was faster.

But really, what purpose does downtime server? The obvious answer is, to decrease the amount of cash and experience the player acquires, thus ensuring that they don't become rich or attain the maximum level too fast. World of Warcraft has little to no downtime most of the times, with the effect that the maximum level of 60 (70 after the expansion) is easy to achieve, and players have to deal with money sinks left and right, often having to farm their own money, or buy it from a third party source, just to be able to join in that twentieth dungeon raid.

What, then, can be done to reduce downtime, without damaging the quality of the game? One reasonable way is to make downtime a player's choice. A fighter who fights as a berserker will dispatch enemies faster, but might need more time to recover after the fight. It's the player's choice whether they endorse this tactic or not. One should be careful not to fall in the trap of having choices affecting a wider range of players; magic-users sometimes have downtime imposed on them, due to magic having to be replenished. If this trend is imposed too widely, it could incur a dissatisfaction with the magic-using classes, leading to players leaving their mages and healers for 'better' classes, i.e. those without the extra added downtime.

Another important concept within the idea of downtime is the ability to travel at great speeds. Whether there be mounts (horses, machines or golems), inter-city travel (teleporters, mass transit or pre-defined mount paths) or any other concept, these have to be balanced to offer the maximum convenience at a reasonable price (whether that price be cash or something else). New concepts, however, can be developed to improve travel experiences. Nature players like rangers and druids could be given skills which improve their walking speed in nature, or decreases the penalty in places that might slow it, like swamps or snow. Roads would become more than mere decorations if they offer players a possibility for faster travel. Mass transit could be defined as Ed offering rides on the back of his chariot as he rides back to his farm, or maybe Frank selling room on his teleportation spell to reduce his own costs.

What about hit points, magic powers and whatnot, can those reasonably be recovered without unbalancing the game? Blizzard offers the players the possibility to eat and drink to recover lost powers, but those are simply their way of enforcing another money sink so that players never amass too many riches at once. Cooking helps, as it should in a game that's about actual fun, but there can be more steps taken. Ultima Online had a meditation skill to recover lost mana points, and bandages (re-usable after washing) to recover hit points, mostly between fights.

Other methods can be applied as well, with careful consideration. Downtime should be reduced as much as it is necessary to improve the fun the game provides, but never to the detriment of game balance.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Realistic Everything

I have given some thought on the interest of making things realistic. I'll share with you some of those thoughts, with a glimmer of hope that some may feel the same enthusiasm at these ideas than I do.

I'm thinking that first, combat, in all its forms, should be made more realistic.

Take the melee fights. In a traditional MMORPG, it will be mostly about people getting in front of each other and hitting the opponent over and over until their hit points are depleted. Now, I won't argue against the concept of hit points, even though I realise it is far from realistic as far as combat is concerned, but why do battles have to be so monotonous? Just waiting for the battle to end is certainly boring, but at the same time, you don't want to involve the players directly into the fight, lest your game gains too much of a 'twitch' attribute that certain roleplayers seem to despite. Fortunately, you don't have to involve a player's reflexes and aim to make the combat interesting; simply involve players in the tactics used in the fight.

A swords fight, for example, is won with different tactics, which you want to hide from your opponent. You can feign weakness, and hope your opponent will fall for it; or you can establish a strong defence, and pray that your opponent would be reckless. You can fight recklessly, and hope to overcome your opponent's defences, or you can taunt him, to make him lose concentration. Each fight should be different, and the players need only have to play their own strenghts, and their opponent's weaknesses, to obtain victory.

In ranged fighting, unless you are part of a great army, you will not simply shoot as fast as you can in the hope of out-damaging your opponent. If stealth is on your side, you will aim carefully before shooting. I can envision a player being presented with various probabilities regarding the shot to be taken, and choosing more or less precisely when to take it; take the shot quickly, take it or take it comfortably. It all depends on the evolving circumstances. When faced with an opponent who is aware of your presence, things get more complicated. The player would have to balance the probabilities of the missile being deflected, or simply missing, while the opponent is more or less distracted by things around him; a good team could work dynamics by which the ranged fighters would be safe from assailants and still get good shots at them at opportune moments.

When you get into magical combat, of course, things get more complicated. Some people could develop casting spells while defending themselves into an art, taking unsuspecting opponents by surprise, while others opt for safer routes of using defensive spells, meat shields, or simply running faster than the opponent. Of particular notice is the possibility for fighting players do develop anti-magic techniques, which could be devastating if applied properly. Once again, a player tries to play his strenghts to his opponent's weakness, and may the best win.

But the fun doesn't have to come exclusively to the fighters. Crafting doesn't have to be the tedious task that some MMORPGs make it seem to be. I have previously discussed
ways to make crafting more interesting, so I think my opinions and ideas are pretty clear now, but I think one aspect which still requires attention is the ability for low-level crafters to be of use to the community. A lot of games will force players to spends hours upon hours, as well as a large quantity of resources, into gaining points in their crafting skills before they can make anything that anyone would want, with the effect that there is virtually no one making anything but the most skill-efficient items until they have reached the maximum level of crafting. What would be efficient to make items from players with less skills more desirable would be to have the costs of increased quality be higher, with little regard to skill levels. That way, a simple item made by a low-level player would have sensibly the same qualities as one made by an higher-level player, with the exception that making said item would be more enticing to lower-skilled players, due their limited capabilities and the increased probabilities of leveling off it.

So now there really isn't any reason to think that realism cannot be fun too. With more realistic situations, not only do games become more enticing, but greater emphasis can be placed in individual tactics, making players finally have a need for all those great strategies developed over the years.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Is the Game Too Difficult?

For a new player, just starting on his first day of World of QuestQuest Online II, is the game too difficult? Is the sheer complexity of understanding simply the basic rules going to drive him to throw his mouse on the wall in anger? Today, I will attempt to imagine what a beginner's first login in WoQQO2 would look like.

First, after a seamless install and no patching needed at all (After all, the game WAS perfect from the release day, wasn't it?), the prospecting player is presented with a character creation page. He then chooses his race, if appropriate, character gender and then appearance. Then comes the first road bump, the choosing or building of a class.

If he is new to the game, he will not attempt to create his own class. Classes that are already defined cover a wide variety of play styles, and contain various degrees of definition to help the player choose a class that he thinks he will like, based on his skills and prior experiences. This is no easy feat, of course, since just about every class looks so darn fun, but the player finally eenie meenie minie moes his way through and can enter the final character creation step and choose his (perhaps temporary) hometown. Various settlements have basic description, but of course he will forgo them and join the town his friends told him to join.

Then he can finally enter the game and, with his luck, his friends haren't online yet (In his friends' defence, it IS 10 AM on a Sunday morning, and they were up all night raiding Onyxia in WoW). The new player then does the wise thing and decides to go adventuring on his own (He picked an adventuring class, of course).

Readying his weapon of choice, he goes on in Newbie Woods and spots a rabbit, but is all surprised when the rabbit runs away instead of fighting back with teeth and, huh, feet. Rabbits flee, another player informs him; if he wants to kill one, he has to use ranged weapons and sneak on it, and no, I will not give you gold.

Disapointed with what he thought was an easy first kill, our beginner player spots and attacks a rat which, much to mister beginner's satisfaction, fights back, with its tiny-but-sharp teeth and total absence of intelligence. Not knowing any scavenging skill, and not knowing what 'loot' is anyway, our now proud beginner hurriedly jumps to the next rat. Then the next. And so on, until he fails to notice his rapidly dropping hit points. So the seventh rat gets the better of him, and he is defeated. At least he learned to watch his hit points, right?

Well, after a few moments of contemplating his mistakes, mister beginner's character gets back up; what happened? Well, a rat being a rather weak and stupid creature, it didn't quite as much killed him as just knocked him down, so now he's getting back up with his slowly increasing one hit point. Fortunately for him, someone hears his numerously repeated pleas and comes to heal him, so he is back in the game.

Knowing that rats are weak creatures, mister begginer jumps to the next target and attacks a giant rat. Not having any subtlety skills, he fails to have any sort of a plan. So what had to happen happens, and the giant rat kills him. For good, this time. At least, he learned a little, and his next character will do bett...

With a flash of light, or maybe the screen turning black-and-white or looking like limbo or something, the player becomes a ghost. A pop-over explains the basic steps to be taken to come back to life, which mister beginner proceeds to take. He is then back alive again, with only minimal hit points and a temporary debuff which makes him quite useless at the moment. Again, the player asks for healing...

"Why don't you read the manual?", asks another player.
Manuals are for wussies, of course.
"Well, at least wussies get to do the beginner quests.

Ho... Beginner quests... Those things that explain new players how to play the game. Of course, those, he knew, he was just, huh, exploring. Yeah, he's a great explorer alright.

So mister beginner picks the manual and starts playing the game correctly.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Casual Players

Playing MMORPGs these days, one would rightly wonder what chances one has to have actual fun in it if they can't spend 20 hours a week on it. Games that do not require a high level of grinding to gain levels will require it to get other stuff. World of Warcraft, in particular, is notorious for having a great lots of content only accessible once you have attained the highest level (60); that content also more often than not require that you spend hours on end on it, along with fourty other members of your guild, which makes playing the game when you got spare time quite difficult. Where's a casual's room in all that?

Why can't casual players play casually and still be useful? Why does power have to scale exponentially with levels, and why are there so few games that are centered around people playing together, no matter their level?

In my Vision (TM), a game can be shared by anyone, no matter how many hours they spend on it. This is achieved by having a more progressive acquisition of power; players of higher power are usually more useful to a group, but not so much so that casual players cannot contribute a meaningful effort to adventuring and whatnot.

Is this so hard to do? Am I missing something bigger here, or am I simply a minority that game designers are not eager to please?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

On Inventory Space

Are we back in the time of Rogue? Why do MMORPGs these days insist on having inventory space? Even ultima Online and Diablo has some decent inventory management (The former using item weight on a free sorted inventory and the latter having items occupying different space depending on their size). Playing MMORPGs these days, one would be inclined to believe that armors and rings have the same size (Ring mails have thousands of rings in them, shouldn't they occupy thousands of inventory spaces?).

Let's try to find out why inventories are set as they are today. Technologically, it is easier to manage an inventory that has a fixed number of tiles, but not so much that it has to be the de-facto choice. It is much easier for players to manage items in a fixed-tile system, of course, but it also affords less room for players using a lot of small items (potions, trinkets and one-use items).

Ultima Online has a very loose inventory system, giving players maximum flexibility; duping exploits aside, it is much closer to real life inventory management. It's harder on new players, of course, but not so much that it counterbalanced the added advantages. If Origin managed to do it back in 1997, why can't Blizzard, SOE and NCSoft do it again nearly a decade later?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Armor and Equipment Penalties

I mentioned in my initial post about skills, and again when talking about weapons and equipment, that it is foolish to let players run in full plate armor while slinging spells of greater power at whatever happens to be standing next to them. At the same time, artificially limiting the equipment users can use means they are limited to static classes.

What can be done, then, to allow as much freedom to players as possible, while still limiting the type of equipment they can effectively use? The answer is simply to make the equipment self-balancing. For example, heavy plate gloves would decrease the speed of spell casting, from the decreased flexibility of the fingers inside the gloves. Armor would scale in efficiency depending on the strenght and stamina of the user, so a character that is weak physically would move slower when wearing a full plate armor.

Other examples include metal armor decreasing the capacity for players to move silently, inflexible leggings and boots would decrease a character's movement speed, while a heavy weapon would decrease the capacity to cast spells, as it is harder to put it away while casting spells.

Other effects could be found as well, that are not directly related to classes. For example, a wool shirt would give some resistance to cold-based attacks, while increasing the effects of dehydratation when walking in warm areas like a desert. Potions that are set to the belt for quicker use could be destroyed by a well-placed attack, while scrolls in a similar location could be burned by a fire spell.

All-in-all, this would allow the players to make choices that have real impacts on their characters. I'm not saying this system is perfect, but it would certainly be a step forward from either allowing players to use whatever they want, or limiting them according to their class.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

On Money Sinks

Resource sinks, the much debated way for developers to insure that players never have too much of a resource at hand, have always been contested by players wanting to keep their hard-earned money. The best known type of resource sink is the equipment decay, which forces players to go to town when their items have been used for a while, so they can talk to a blacksmith to have them repaired (let alone the fact that player blacksmiths more often than not cannot repair items themselves).

Players do not like the feeling of wasting money on sinks. What can be done, then, to prevent the need for money sinks? Item wear could be removed, decreased or prevented; the latter would give players the choice between extra power or item indestructibility. The need for one-shot items (potions and the like) is only necessary as long as there is no alternative; give the players a reliable healing spell or good re-usable healing items (like bandages), for example, and you greatly reduce the need to buy healing potions on your trip to the nearest city.

Another potential solution, albeit a weaker one, is, of course, to decrease the amount of money that enters the game. Make money-dropping creatures (usually humanoids, unless giant spiders happen to have a liking for shiny coins) rare, and non-money-dropping creatures (typically animals) drop resources that are only useful once harvested and properly crafted (not everyone can get the leather, tusks and meat from a boar, so killing one is only really useful for those who do have some or all of these skills). Decreasing the amount of sentient creatures also solves the problem of overkilling; you don't want your players to kill actual people all day and you don't want your players to get more money than the economy can sustain.

These solutions, however, fail to address the main problem of resource sinks, that is, the need to reduce inflation or deflation. With too much money entering the game world, items tend to become more expensive as players can afford to pay more and more for a single item. On the other hand, if resources enter the market too quickly, crafters will be able to make more items than the market can sustain, and their price will drop. Those two problems have to be carefully balanced in the game, which makes me wonder why no game developer has yet hired a market analyst to help them develop their in-game economy.

Monday, January 01, 2007

On Tradeskills

Trade skills are often tedious and boring in MMORPGs. Players are forced to wait for a progress bar to fill up, possibly more than once per item, while being unable to as much as move from their current position. This doesn't have to be the case. Various MMORPGs have implemented minigames, with usually a pretty good response from players. You only need to think of Puzzle Pirates to know one example of such successful minigame implementation.

Crafting minigames can have a variety of effects, from increasing the quality of the item to decreasing the time it takes to craft; in the latter case, the minigame could be optional, so players who don't want to play tetris with armor parts can skip it entirely.

If minigames are not implemented, there are other ways to make crafting less boring. One of these would be to make the actual crafting taking place while the player decides what to craft (via an elaborate crafting system, making deciding on the item to create longer). Players wouldn't lose time choosing what to make, since the actual crafting time is done while the item is choosen; waiting only happens if the choosing time is shorter than the crafting time.

Players short on materials could also decide to scrap them from old, no longer needed items. Smelting swords or disenchanting magical items could yield some of the materials from the crafted items, allowing old or unwanted items to be of some use besides vendor fodder.

Finally, finding buyers and sellers for items, especially items of such complexity as those in the suggested crafting system, can also be made easier, via a skill auctioning system; a player enters the marketplace and posts a want-ad for a certain item which they can't make themselves; a crafter comes later, sees the want-ad and decides to make the item. This is a lot more convenient for both the buyer and the seller, making the game more fun for both of them. Because players do not like to sit in front of their monitors, waiting for an item to be finished before starting the process over on the next item.