Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Lord of the Rings Online

I tried the Lord of the Rings Online beta, but I'm not going to give you a review; you can get those at Tobold's, MMO Musing or maybe Kill Ten Rats. What I'll talk about, however, is an instance of the Mini games rule: the possibility to play real music in-game.

From what I could see, each class gets an instrument type they can play (Minstrels can learn all instrument types at level 20). From there, you just equip your harp, lute, flute or whatnot, and press number keys to play (Control for a flat, shift for an octave higher. Control + shift doesn't seem to work, however). You can impress everyone with your musical talents, or annoy everyone in the main square with your lack of; the only problem seems to be that music suffers from lag, and notes may get delayed different amounts, which leads to off-beat songs.

I think that concept is, to put it simply, awesome. Players can have fun with simple musical instruments, and perhaps entertain players in the main places for tips (Now if they could only find a way to make the lag between notes even, it would be perfect). And with a G15 keyboard, making songs would probably be quite simple. So yes, I think Turbine got it right with the /music.

I think if developers spent a little more time finding simple and fun things to entertain players, MMORPGs would have a longer time-to-boredom. We can only hope that they will find other such great ideas, and that their example will be widely followed.

Friday, February 23, 2007

On Character Customization

I want to customize my character. I want to choose my look down to the smallest possible detail. Give me size and weight customization. Give me a hundred colors for my hair, skin, eyes and toenails. Those are lacking in today's MMORPGs, and indeed seem to have regressed in the past years.

The game can load a haircut per player, why not two or three? I think hairstyles should be add-ons by the player, so that the hair elements can be added separately. Choose a flat hair style, add a ponytail, add braids or buns as desired. Place a ponytail on each side for a different effect. And heck, go to a hair stylist to change it as needed; Ultima Online had that, and it was great.

I want to customize my body appearance. If I want to be tall and slim, let me be tall and slim; and if I want to be short and fat, by the devs, you will let me be short and fat! And none of those pre-made faces. I want my own head, forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, ears, the deal. I want people to recognize me by my face, not by the name that hovers over my head.

And please, please, please, don't go telling me a facial expression and pre-defined hair style is all you need. Simple characters are only good for munchkins, and if they don't want to customize their own character, let them hit the random button and be done with it. I don't want to look bland just because some guy somewhere is too lazy to spend a few minutes selecting his character's looks.

That's all I wanted to say. Character customization has always been a favorite of mine, as it is for many people who would agree with what I write in this humble weblog, I presume. I just wish the developers wouldn't just say it's too hard to do and actually get around to doing it...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

New Teaching System

I've previously touched the concept of teaching in a MMORPG, but after some time, I realized that system was quite troublesome. Suffice it to say that I had to think of a new system to replace the broken system; and what better way, of course, than as a mini game?

Without defining exactly what the game would be, I envision that it is something that should involve both the teacher and the student(s). Students have to listen or practice what is being taught and, should they fail, it would be the teacher's job to bring them back in line. The teacher has to both watch students and teach his class, so that a good teacher would teach the same class faster (and possibly charge more) than a beginner one.

So teaching becomes in line with other trade skills, having its own mini game; it's simply that the game must involve more than one person. I think this is much better than having a system where you don't know if the teacher will be present the whole time you're away...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Out Of Ideas

After talking at length about the game I would like to play, I've finally reached the point where my short-term inspiration has failed me. I could probably talk some more about crafting skills, melee combat or the benefits of hippopotamus leather for waterproof boots, but I think by this point the idea has been passed. So unless someone can provide me with good ideas to write about, you can expect the posts here to be more sporadic, as inspiration strikes, instead of every other day or so.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Circumventing Item Binding

World of Warcraft introduced the concept of item binding to MMORPGs, where more powerful items are 'bound' to their owner when picked up or equipped, which has the effect of making them completely non-tradable; this is presumably to keep the holy sinks in the game, preventing people from reselling them after usage, or farming them for other people.

There is another way to keep people from getting cheap and easy twinks, without enforcing large sinks, and with the added bonus of preserving realism: you make clothing and armor items be fit for their owner. This only makes sense: a full plate armor has to be custom-made for the owner. Trying to wear an armor that isn't custom-made for you is like trying to run with shoes not your size; sure, it might work, and if you're lucky, you might even be able to get back home to decide you never want to do it again, but chances are you'll want to put that armor on your mule or in your bag of holding until you get to a competent blacksmith who can resize it for you. Forget about doing cartwheels in an armor belonging to someone else, you'll be lucky if you don't break a bone in the way.

In a MMORPG, though, you don't want to force players to go visit a blacksmith, get measures taken, and then wait a week or two for the armor to be resized. The process should be streamlined via the skill auctioning system, to find a blacksmith, tailor, or maybe a bone crafter, allowing for best efficiency for the new armor owner.

So this way, you can have a small fee for transferring items to a new owner, and even a small fee for acquiring someone else's armor, allowing the diminishing of other sinks; unfortunately, this mostly only works for armors. Weapons aren't typically custom-made (Though it could be possible), so weapons are just as easy to transfer to new owners, though it's a good thing you don't need a dozen different weapons. Bind on Pickup, anyone?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

On Spell Customization

Saga of Ryzom had an interesting spell customization system, in which spells could be created to cost more or less mana depending on range, power, area of effect and others. While the idea is noble, it had serious flaws in it, not the least of which being that you could have a mana-restoring spell which costs less mana than it gives back, making it essentially a free mana heal spell. In large groups, people didn't have much use for spell diversity, instead relying on the much-praised casting of the heal-health-and-mana-on-a-large-area bomb spell, so that after a few seconds, everyone was effectively ready for battle, at absolutely no cost.

While the implementation is arguably flawed (Though I'm sure there is no lack of players who would argue otherwise), the idea is a practical implementation of the concept of spell customization, which had been asked for numerous times before. Fix the flaw in the healing system (If you can hide long enough for fanboys to let you call it a flaw) and you actually have a quite decent magic system.

Regular role-playing games usually offer spells that are simply more powerful version of a previous spell - for example, the Final Fantasy series has Cure spell from 1 to 3 or 4. This could be worked into a spell customization system; spells have a base effect, say, heal, fire, poison, sleep, whatnot, on which is applied a power ("Fire 3", or perhaps "Greater Whatnot"), an area of effect ("Greater Fireball" or "Long Firebolt") and possibly modifiers (Damage over time burning, longer cast time for greater power, shorter cast time for higher mana cost, perhaps a bouncing ability or pierce-through effect). With careful consideration, you could have your Magery and Healing skills become quite customizable; and you can always decide to only apply customization to certain skills, so that perhaps Elementalism, Holy and Nature Magic would have only fixed spell effects.

As I seem to often say, there's nothing bad with giving players more freedom; they will often surprise you with ingenuity, if you simply let them use their full potential.

Friday, February 09, 2007

More On Crafting Mini Games

My previous attempts at defining trade skills mini games were, in my opinion, rather limited, so I've taken the liberty of inflicting yet another post to unsuspecting readers. This one will talk about the skills involved in playing the trade skills' mini games; of course, it means that the developers are willing to let people use their own skills once in a while, but that shouldn't be too hard to sell to the big boss.

The mini games associated with trade skills should ideally be easy to understand, hard to master and impossible to automate. This is to keep players interested in playing the game from day one to the end of times. There could be more than one game associated with each trade skills; for example, the smithing skill mini game for weapon smithing could be different than the one for armor smithing. There could be overlapping between different skills as well; wood crafting and stone carving should have similar tasks that can use the same game, with different visual sets.

That being said, it's easy to understand how hard it would be to make every trade skill have one or more mini game, even with overlapping. To keep the games interesting, they should be related to the skill they represent; for example, alchemy and chemistry could have you weighting different substances. However, some skills, say, herbalism or jewel crafting, do not have activities that would obviously be fun as a mini game; finding games for those skills would be quite a challenge to developers.

More importantly, however, each mini game, or set of mini games, associated with a trade skill, should be completely unique, so that two trade skills will never play the same. With this in mind, players can decide on the mini game or mini games they like the most, and pick up that trade skill. In this way, the trade skills would become a very real extension of the game itself, and players would be more likely to appreciate the game to its full extent. Because, really, if you're not making a game to entertain the players in some way, then why are you even bothering?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

On Death Penalties

Sure, death is very annoying, what with having to go back to where you died to resume the fight, but the really annoying part of being dead is the accompanying penalties. Equipment damage is common, as well as a debuff, often called resurrection sickness, which makes adventuring next to impossible. Past that point, it all depends on the game.

Everquest had become (in)famous for its harsh death penalties; namely, if you died, you had to walk back to your corpse or risk losing everything you had.
Dungeons in Everquest were notorious for being quite empty, since dying in a dungeon pretty much meant that you lost everything you had. Nowadays, kids get a corpse summoner service, which, according to some players, takes all the fun out of it.

Before that, Ultima Online had an even harsher penalty; namely, your items were left on your body (except those which were newbied, the ones you started the game with), but other people were able to loot them as well (though they would become criminals by doing so, if you are a law-abiding citizen). Ultima Online was violent, with player killers pretty much running every tile outside of protected areas; and of course, when Origin decided to create a non-PvP server, the player killers complained that they no longer had victims to slaughter and insult.

Nowadays, it's impossible to not compare any MMORPG to World of Warcraft. WoW has a very nice death system, where, upon death, you get the choice of waiting or reappearing at the nearest graveyard, as a ghost. If you decide to run to your corpse as a ghost, or a friend resurrects you, you take no penalty besides the equipment durability loss from death. Alternatively, you can talk to the spirit at the graveyard, who will resurrect you for a higher equipment penalty and up to ten minutes of resurrection sickness (Just long enough to check the city and go back into action, it seems).

As with most everything that doesn't have to do with the core game play, I think Blizzard got it about right with the death penalty. A few things could be done better, though. For one, death adds emphasis to the two resources in World of Warcraft, namely time and money, in that it makes you lose some of both (time in running back to your corpse, and money for the repairs). This means that you don't lose anything important or permanently upon death, which actually makes it a trivial matter; not that low death penalties are bad, but this simply adds another reason to the already large list to farm lower-level monsters instead of finding challenging enemies.

Had the previously-mentioned greater rest experience system be implemented, it would be logical to think that players could lose some daily rest upon death. Even further, were they out of rest bonus, they could become tired more easily, so the death penalty would mean less time to hunt during the day, whether the player is casual or addicted.

But no matter what the death penalties are, they should follow the game's philosophy. If you want a hard game, high death penalties are fine, while more casual games will want low penalties. Besides difficulty, developers should remember that anything they do can and will change other parts of the game. If you have high death penalties, players will be less likely to try to explore, especially if they have to run naked to their corpse upon death. In a game that is about PvP, that's fine, since it means players can't run back into the game after death; but if the game is about exploring or socializing, harsh death penalties may tend to push your desired player base away from the game. So the important part is not to decide what you want as death penalties, but rather to decide what you want as a game; then the death penalties will mold themselves around the game.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Character Rest

Yes, we've all heard it: MMORPGs are addictive and dangerous. World of Warcraft has tried to cut down on the addictive factor somewhat, by rewarding casual players with extra experience. That effort is made completely useless by the fact that addicted players don't care about a few extra experience points, and the fact that the high-level game forces players to invest large amounts of time in order to be competitive.

The concept of rest experience could be taken further, however. In World of Warcraft, the first one-and-a-half level worth of experience, when fully rested, is doubled. You get fully rested by being offline or inside an inn for a full week, so it's not really useful for the hardcore player base. Rest experience could be improved by making it based on two different timers; the first part of the rest experience is the one earned every day; you get about an hour or so of extra skill points earned
(statistically), as long as you rested at least 8 hours during the night (or day). When that rest bonus is expended, you get to the long-time rest experience, the one that accumulates over weeks and months. If you don't play during the week, but play many hours during the week-end, your non-play week time will be working for you. Same if you go away for some time or, devs forbid, decide to play another game for a few weeks.

To this can be added tiredness; characters that fight evil creatures or smash the anvil all day do get tired, and it can alter their skill learning, if not their whole effectiveness. Tiredness is, of course, dispelled by resting; more accurately, if you've rested long enough to get rest experience, then you're not tired anymore.

Of course, this would do little to dissuade real addicts, but unless you're willing to force players who play too much out of the game, chances are you'll only meet limited success in stopping addicts.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why You Can't Have Your Cake And Eat It

At the end of the NPC Creatures Populations post, I linked to an interesting read about MMORPGs; most importantly, it talked about holistic design in MMORPGs. Holistic design is one in which the developers realise that anything they change within the world will affect other parts of the world; and they try to design it so it will still work even after changing parts that could be broken.

The reason you're trying to keep your cake and eat it is because you're trying to satisfy two urges: the urge to eat that delicious source of dessertness, and the urge to keep the cake for later. MMORPGs
face a similar dilemma, in that they can't satisfy all the players; indeed, sometimes they can't satisfy some of the players, no matter what they do, because the players ask for contradicting things. On the one hand, players will want more money for themselves; they will ask for better drops, more item resale value and less money sinks. On the other hand, they don't want item price inflation, they don't want to have to farm their resources for long periods, and they certainly don't want the other players to have all this same, easy cash.

In a holistic MMORPG design, the developers would typically try to balance item drop and money sinks so that the players will like the drops they get, and still not acquire ridiculous amounts of cash. Holistic design is important to more than just money transfers, though. You want to balance realism in combat and balanced combat classes, otherwise you'll have cookie-cutter characters, who see no reason to differentiate themselves from the other pastries around them. But you will also want to balance realism and fun, because the market for players who want to immerse themselves in a true medieval experience, with the long hours, high taxes and constant hardships, isn't exactly flourishing.

Every feature should be well thought out before even getting a maybe at the meeting, to be completely certain that it will not go against previous decisions or other parts of the big system. Implementation of great concepts, in particular, shouldn't be thrown in because of their own merit, because they can have unexpected results on other parts of the system. For example, if you decide to implement monster migration, you'll want to make sure that your quest team won't assign players to kill creatures that have migrated away for the season; you'll want path finding for both short and long distances (your programmers will love you for that), and you'll want to make sure that the AI doesn't get stuck because there's unexpected elements in the way. There's tons of problems that could pop up if you don't consider the idea carefully.

The more a MMORPG tries to include a complex, living world, the more the players and developers realise that living organisms are actually quite weak things. Small mistakes, sometimes invisible to the naked eye, can cause long diseases and, in extreme cases, even death of an otherwise quite healthy game. Forget the arsenal of competitors, or even the sharp tongues of fanboyish detractors; your MMORPG is more likely to die because of small things attacking their health than because of bigger, visible threats to its longevity. And often, it's almost impossible to detect those threats before they're out of control, and any but the most well-thought attempts to fix the mistakes will remind you of the first rule of holistic design; anything you change can and will affect other parts of your world. So keep your wits about you, and think ahead as far as your collective intelligence scores will allow, because any mistake in wisdom can result in irreparable damage strong enough to even the most dexterous developers might not be able to dodge.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Mini Games

What really spices up a good game is sometimes the things you don't suspect; for example, mini games, which you can play when you're not out adventuring. I'm not talking about chess and poker, though those can add a nice touch as well, but rather lesser tasks to which you can give some attention, and which offer small rewards for small risks. Single-player RPGs are notorious for having things you can do, which basically only offer some fun-factor, and I think it's high time that this concept is included in MMORPGs as well.

Just imagine a game of tag in a dark room, with stealthy rogues and teleporting, illusion-weaving mages. Or maybe hide-and-seek, or a game of finding hidden treasures. Games which offer a decent challenge, can be played by more than one person and are simply fun aren't that hard to create, and with a good attention given to preventing cheating, it would help greatly in overcoming the stress of the adventuring life (and give something else to do when in town than just checking the auction house again =P ).

With mini games to spice up meaty adventuring and, huh, vegetably crafting, a MMORPG would be able to retain a large portion of otherwise uninterested gamers, all for the working time of some bored programmers and artists. If they really cared about the players, they'd give us our capture-the-flag and hide-and-seek!

One can hope...