Sunday, April 29, 2007

On the Uses of Friends Lists

MMORPGs, by their massiveness, and their role-playingness, are close to social networks. There is still plenty to be done, however, to come close to social networks in terms of interactivity. One step in the right direction would be the addition of friends/enemies lists.

You can tell a lot about someone by who their friends are, and the same should apply to MMORPGs. If you have a griefer, content in disrupting other people's fun, they will get lots of enemies, which might be a good way for game masters to find them. On the other hand, someone who gets lots of friends is probably someone you want to group with, since he's proven many times that he's friendly, reliable, or maybe just knows how to write.

But that can't be the end of things, otherwise groups of griefers would call each other friends and get themselves good reviews. You also have to watch who someone hangs with; if someone only ever gets good reviews from people inside a small clique, who all get bad reviews from outsiders, then you can tell people that they are unlikely to want to befriend these people.

Going further, you will realize not all nice people want to associate with other nice people. Role-players will want to associate with role-players, achievers with achievers; casual players will hang with their kin, as will hardcore ones; and people with a basic grasp of grammar will want to listen to people who can likewise spell correctly, while that kind of behavior would be infuriating to Internet-spellers.

So a high friendliness rating would tell you that a person is likely to be like-minded to you, while a lower one might indicate that they are either griefers, or simply different-minded.

Of course, as always, I leave to the programming team the task of designing such a feature. Us designers can't be bothered with details such as 'feasibility'.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Role of Non-Player Characters

Friendly NPCs in MMORPGs nowadays are usually one of two things: either they're super-humans who send the player on quests they can't be bothered to complete themselves, or, more commonly, they're there to perform repetitive tasks that explicitly serve the players.

The problem with that is that NPCs don't have a purpose, a reason for doing what they do. That NPC vendor will buy any crap you send their way, no matter how useless it might be, and with only indication of price the level of the creature which dropped it. That is wrong on many, many levels.

Non-player characters should have their own purpose, which serves their own interest. They will not buy items that the players don't want, because they can only do what players can do.
NPC vendors should not be used as trash cans for players to dump their unwanted loot to. They don't need bear gallbladder. They need iron, wood, cloth, sugar and herbs, for which they will compete with the players. Should players run NPCs out of business, they will attempt to start over again, perhaps in another city, or they might offer their services for more menial tasks (Such as vendors for lazy players).

NPCs should follow the same rules that dictate the actions of players; they should have the same skill system, stats, equipment, and be governed by the same rules that govern players; NPCs simply don't pay monthly fees, so they don't mind being used for menial tasks.

When that mentality of NPCs-like-players is achieved, we can see a MMORPG that achieves a reasonable amount of immersiveness.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

On the Edge of Gameplay

I know I said I wouldn't talk too much about myself, but there is one particular bit of game experience which clings forever in my memory, and I think it is particularly meaningful in explaining the type of game I would like a MMORPG to be.

The setting is World of Warcraft, the Deadmines (Low-level party instance). The party is sub-optimal, consisting of a paladin as the only healer, the only one capable of casting resurrection AND the only one being above minimum level for this instance; the rest of the party was made of tanks and damage dealers (Did I ever mention how opposed to gnome warriors I am?). I was playing a rogue; this is important.

Needless to say, this was a hard win, but we progressed onward anyway, despite a large number of near-wipes. Once, the whole party, minus the paladin, was killed; the paladin saved his own life by jumping down in the water, a feat NPCs aren't smart enough to accomplish. This allowed him to climb back up and resurrect the rest of us.

Now, we cleared most of the instance, but the final boss would have been a problem. Simple tactics working best, we decided to target the boss only to get credits, ignoring its friends. The fight went on, and after much damage taken, the boss dropped; our own party did soon after. Now, the rest of the party all did their looting, taking one head of the boss each (Yes, each got one head of the human boss. That's MMORPG rules for you), except myself; so into the fight was I, that I forgot to do it. Everyone being dead, and having finished their quests, it was decided that we wouldn't be fighting through all the respawns again just so that dumb little rogue could get his quest done. Then it dawned to me that as a rogue, I could use stealth to go right through all the respawns to get to the boss.

The party disbanded (I think the paladin stayed in the party, curious to know how I did; he didn't help in the sneaking part, unfortunately), and I returned again to the instance entrance. I sneaked past the encounters, feeling the adrenaline rush through, as if a single one of them saw me, it would undoubtedly be the end of me.

Long sneaking quest made short, I managed to go through the whole instance in stealth mode, all alone, and reached the boss' corpse, only to see that it had de-spawned in the mean time.


A few weeks later, Blizzard increased the de-spawn time of bosses.



So little Hexedian the gnomish rogue might not have been the best at sneaking part guards, but one thing hits me when I recall this story. I've played a character to level 50, and a couple more to mid-level; I've done Shadowfang Keep, Gnomeregan, The Scarlet Monastery, Uldaman and even ZulFarrak; I have tried a wide range of content in the game; and yet, despite all this, the one bit of gameplay that always comes to mind when I think of World of Warcraft is a failed instance run I did with a secondary character. The game I played wasn't even part of World of Warcraft's intended gameplay; the quest to sneak past all the guards didn't exist, yet it might be the most enjoyable moment of all my WoW history.

I think MMORPGs should have more Hex the rogue moments, where the events that happen are what players make of them, not what was scripted to happen. Gameplay will emerge by itself if you let it do so, and do not constrain the game with artificial limitations.

I hope my story, while not the most interesting one around, at least managed to entertain you, and give some kind of idea as to what I envision of a game.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Ethics

While ethics are not typically elements of a classic MMORPG, we can't forget the influence of virtues in Ultima Online. Ethics, however, are typically presented in a simplified manner, offering the player with the choice of being good, or getting a bigger reward. Never have ethics been about who to save when you can't save everyone, or whether or not two wrongs will make a right.

I believe that ethics, that is, the theory of good and evil, have the potential of creating a classic of gaming that would transcend gaming and become part of history. For that to happen, however, a great deal of attention would have to be placed on making ethics part of the game itself; simply making it an afterthought would, like many other features, only serve to weaken the general game experience.

For ethics to play a major role, two things need to happen. First and foremost, ethics have to influence the game world. That means players and NPCs should have a way to know another player or NPC's ethics, be it magic, psychology, reputation or stats display (I wouldn't recommend the last one; breaks the game immersion). Based on someone's ethics, players can decide whether they will befriend them or not; they will decide if they want to hunt them down, or maybe just ask vendors to charge more to them. This does not only apply to being Good, of course; player-run bandit cities wouldn't accept no goody-two-shoes paladin or law enforcers.

Before a system to make ethics worthwhile can be useful, you will need a way to influence ethics. PKs and griefers will go down fast, while charities and evil-slayers will be praised world-wide; even small things, like over-using a bargaining position, could influence ethics in small ways. Reputation could also be influenced by whom the player hangs with; a player performing Good acts to infiltrate an enemy organization, but who is often seen in the company of openly evil people, would have a hard time keeping his notoriety up; and don't even think of infiltrating evil cities when you can't even kick a beggar.

With that being said, it is important not to fall into easy traps of ethics; players should be able to interact with other players of widely different ethics, without there being penalties to anything but reputation (Unless the laws of the lands are specific about such dealings). There cannot be an easy way to influence ethics too much, such as making large donations, otherwise it might be easily exploitable (Unless you want to have exploitable reputation changes; donations to churches have been known throughout western history to erase all of a noble's evil deeds). Similarly, few things short of killing large numbers of innocents without a good reason would make a player look evil enough in a short amount of time.

If you have accessible ways to enable people to see other people's ethics, you could have a way to hide one's ethics. If you have magic detection, you can have magical hiding or forgery. With psychology, you have reverse-psychological poker-face feigning. Reputation can be altered with well-placed bribes or blackmail.

If ethics are to have a central role in a MMORPG, they could easily become multi-layered, letting players choose their own paths of virtues. Players could be asked to choose between the mutually exclusive loyalty, justice, freedom and happiness, with neither being the true Good choice, but still sparking conflicts within defenders of different virtues. Evil players could likewise decide to take the route of the murderer, blackmailer, burglar or public streaker. Thief guilds could instill a limit to the number of murders members can have within time periods, which would both serve to insure relative anonymity and reasonable member skills (Good thieves don't get caught).

When all is said and done, that players have chosen their factions and are waging war, you start reaping the benefits of your choices. Good players have a greater affinity to Holy magic and empathic skills, while evil ones will take their picks of a greater selection of demons and curses to unleash on their opponents. Even the balanced or undecided players could benefit, with access to both, and greater powers with certain non-aligned arts and mercantile skills.

In the end, the incorporation of a well-thought ethics system, by itself, wouldn't be enough to create a classic out of a mediocre game; taken in coordination with a well-polished game, however, it could pave the way to an era of games challenging both the minds and spirits of gamers - pave it with solid gold.