Friday, July 27, 2007

How Unfair is Unfair?

There's lots of discussion possible about the subject of fairness in MMORPGs. Some say that since life isn't fair, then neither should a MMORPG depicting life in some form; others will simply refuse to play a game where success is a result of random or arbitrary events that aren't fair to the player's skills or commitment. Of course, everyone will agree that giving a Sword of Doom to a starting character is unfair, but exactly where does a line need to be drawn between keeping the game simple and fun and making it fair for everyone?

Basically, if a monster has one chance in ten to use an ability to instant kills the character, it's unfair. If Warriors can deal ten times the damage mages can, while retaining the best defenses, it's unfair. If Joey gets a red lollipop while I get a blue one, it's unfair. But here's the problem, if you give Karl a red lollipop too, then Joey will complain that he got a smaller piece of the cake last time, and he deserves a redder lollipop for that. Everyone knows it in the MMORPG industry, and they'll repeat it : you can't please everyone. As a corollary, I would like to submit the more people you try to please, the less will be satisfied with the results; those who get the nerfbat feel threatened, and those who were already balanced will feel forgotten.

So, how much unfairness do you need before things get unfair? It depends on who you ask, but I would say, not very much. Older gamers will remember the old days of the original Warcraft and Command and Conquer games, where fairness was mostly attained by making every side basically the same. Games like Warlords Battlecry tried to break the mold, and had various sides, each with their own powers and abilities, and most of them had exploits allowing you to gain quite unfair advantages; those that didn't were considered too weak to play in most cases.

These days, the easiest way to get good balance is to do your best, and then ask the fans to break the game during beta. And break they will, since number crunching, exploit-finding MMORPG players are a dime a dozen during betas; so much so that by the time the game ships, players will already know the shortest route to any point, whether it be some place or some power.

Of course, this doesn't answer the question of how much unfairness you need until things become actually unfair; I don't think anyone could answer that question correctly. It's all a matter of what type of game the player wants to play. In the end, just make sure that the fairness follows the game's philosophy, and it will likely attract people who want to play it.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Randomness in MMORPGs

Once again, Tobold initiates some brainstorming, with his much-touted concept of random cards in an MMORPG; the basic concept is that the actions a player can take at any time aren't fixed, but taken randomly from a pool of all possible actions, similar to Magic: The Gathering or other trading card games.

Now, I'm not completely against randomness in gaming, because always hitting for the same damage gets boring fast, and most people will like some randomness, but the concept of random abilities has quite an important limiting factor. Random abilities mean that even a well-built character can get a bad streak of events, and end up dead through no fault of their own; that's not what a fair MMORPG should do.

It's not to say that such a good concept can't happen, though; you just have to put it into perspective. Random powers beyond with inherently random elements; say, Chaos Magic. A caster of Chaos Magic has a much wider and powerful array of spell at their disposal, but they never know what powers will be available next; kind of like the trading card game example. You can add certain elements, like chances of random events upon casting a spell, but that's outside the scope of this post.

The important part is, random powers could be available, but they shouldn't be forced into the player. Some people like to play the slot machines; others want their own skills to matter in the game.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How Realistic is Too Realistic?

You should know by now that I advocate an MMORPG where realism is given an important part; not to say that magic or science fiction are bad, on the contrary, but it would be nice if they weren't just mysterious elements tossed in to add a few more classes. When you ask for realism, however, it's a good idea to precise when you want to stop.

Take food, for example. It seems it has become the norm in MMORPGs that food is to restore lost hit points, and perhaps give some small buffs. I don't know about you, but I rarely grow back lost limbs with a sandwich, and the only thing that gets better when I eat is my stomach (But hey, if your game has morale, more power to you!). So in a realistic game, regular, every day food shouldn't restore hit points.

How far do you push realism, however? You want there to be food in your game, because real people eat, but how important is food? In Ultima Online, not eating gave you penalties to your actions, but couldn't kill you directly. But you could make starvation kill, or at least make you take damage; just as you could have players require water, which they have to drink manually every hours to avoid dehydration. You could do these things, but they would just be tedious, especially for newbies, who might end up dying every few hours because they don't know how to get food or water. You want realism, but you also want fun.

Just as magically healing food is unrealistic, so is being able to run all the time; yet I don't see, nor do I want, an MMORPG where running gets you actually tired, because realistic walking speed is boring; walking is for stealthers.

What about sleep? You can't stay up a week playing the game, and neither should your characters be able to stay up for days with their plate mail on, bashing goblins. The sensible thing to do is to give penalties to players who stay up too long (Blizzard tried that, and they got angry explosive letters; so they changed the tiredness penalty to a well-rested bonus, and the fanboys shut up); staying up for days will result in your characters gaining next to no experience, and having heavy penalties on actions. The problem arises when the game world has different time sets than the real world; if your days last only a few hours, then you cannot expect a player to stay up more than a few hours at a time, which will discourage many, and not just the hardcore players. Many players enjoy playing for hours on week-ends without having to worry that their character is tiring. Magic and alts can allow you to game longer, but eventually you'll have to get some rest yourself.

So in short, getting a good balance of realism is hard; you have to decide where to draw the line, and make sure it's before the fun ends. In the end, you just have to make sure you alienate as few people with your decisions.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Elemental Damage

It's one of my pet peeves, something that always irks me when playing fantasy video games; that casting a big rock at the enemy deals earth damage. Or piercing the enemy with an icicle is ice damage. Or that you put some fire on your sword and suddenly it starts healing the fire elemental.

You don't see it that much in MMORPGs, but it's still there. There is no such thing as earth damage. That big rock deals blunt damage. And that icicle? Yeah, it's cold and all, but the cold won't kill the opponent; the piercing will.

Please, developers, stop thinking in numbers once in a while, and see the logic behind reasonable damage types.

That is all.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Create Your Own Dungeon

Yet again, Tobold steals the scoop on an idea that's been in my head for a while now : that of player-created dungeons. But unlike sir Tobold's idea, my player-created dungeons are less about players setting spawn points and more about what happens when mines get too deep.

Dungeons in The Dream MMORPG aren't little instance doors that sparkle or flash in the world, which you can cross to get somewhere where level-appropriate monsters get killed; dungeons are what happens when people don't or can't use their caves or structures anymore.

Just imagine; Little Town #42 needs iron, starts mining iron. When they don't need iron from the mine anymore, either because they've secured a better supply, or their need has diminished, they abandon the mine; it's only a matter of time until some baddies take it as a lair, no?

Or how about this... Littletownians start mining the iron, and soon discover a precious mithril deposit. If the word gets out that there is mithril in Little Town's mine, they might get in trouble; they will need to hire guards to protect the precious metal, or risk some evil overlord taking over the mine for his own needs; then they would have an overlord with mithril to fight, which is significantly harder.

So yeah, player-created dungeons aren't really create, they just happen. Think carefully next time you start a mine, it might get taken over someday.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Skills of a Leader

So the game lets you create characters with pretty much any skill combination you want. That's good; but what about people who's skills aren't character-based? Take a leader, for example; a king or a general. Their skills, of maintaining a kingdom and leading troops, are mostly that of the players, not the characters.

What skills does a general have to take to be considered a general? In truth, not much. You would want the Leadership skill, of course, and a few skills like Tracking and Siege Weapons could be of use, but beyond that, it's all about character development. You could take Mounting and Holy and make a Paladin; you could take theoretical skills and be a scholar; or you could take Necromancy and Curses, and lead your troops simply by their fear of you.

That of course leads to the facts that a leader doesn't have to be a high-roller. Pretty much anyone with a tactical mind and strategy skills can be a leader; they don't even need actual game experience, they're just there for their sparkly mind.

Of course, a leader without fighting skills wouldn't last long in case of defeat; I guess there is a point to taking fighting skills, then...