Daily Archives: July 9, 2007

March me away to the station

Another busy weekend meant little gaming (apart from a bit of the now-obligatory Guitar Hero). While out and about, I did manage to catch up with the most recent Virgin Worlds MMORPG News podcast, which covered Pirates of the Burning Sea being published by SOE. Not having bought any rootkit infested CDs, or been a Star Wars Galaxies player, I don’t have particularly strong feelings one way or the other towards Sony and hadn’t paid much attention to the original announcement, but Brent on Virgin Worlds mentioned the inclusion of PotBS and The Agency, a fun sounding (as much as all games sound fun long before they launch) espionage-type shooter, in Station Access.

Station Access, I’m vaguely aware, is some sort of package subscription deal for SOE games, but I didn’t know any specifics. Unfortunately the logical place to look, the Station Access site itself, is blocked at work for its games-related content, so I trundled off to my favourite not-blocked information source, Wikipedia. Some people get rather snippy about Wikipedia, pointing out that it covers something like Doctor Who in as much depth as the Spanish Civil War. That’s patently nonsense; obviously Doctor Who is covered in much greater depth than the Spanish Civil War, but even so there clearly isn’t enough emphasis on ephemera/”geek stuff” as I couldn’t find anything about Station Access there. I could wait a few hours, and investigate properly at home, but where’s the fun in that? From what I can divine, at the moment Station Access covers Everquest, Everquest II, Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside, The Matrix Online and Vanguard, all titles that I’ve vaguely considered trying at one time or another. SWG, The Matrix and Vanguard haven’t exactly enjoyed the unqualified success that might tempt me to start now, though, and although the general EQ2 “vibe” is very positive, I’m not sure I really fancy another fairly traditional fantasy MMO at the moment. Adding Pirates of the Burning Sea to the list is good, but probably not enough to warrant full Station Access subscription over just PotBS. Chuck in The Agency too, though (if it turns out to be half decent) and that’s a really rather tempting package (presuming it’s available to UK subscribers, they don’t shove the price up again several times in a year, yada yada).

Combinatorial, my dear Watson.

Priest: “There’s the Ogre lord, attack in the name of the king! And his foxy daughter!”

Warrior: “Raaaaarghhh!”

Ogre Lord: “Puny fleshpods, me smish you!”

Warrior: <Holds up a finger> “Oh, hang on a second, I’m not sure if this is the right weapon to be fighting ogres with.”

Priest: “What?!”

Ogre Lord: “Guards! Hit oomans wit yer hurt makers!”

Warrior: <Rummages through backpack and pulls out an abacus> “No, that’s not the right one, that’s for orcs.” <Rummages some more, littering the floor with abacuses> “Ah ha, here’s the ogre one! Right, I just need to calculate my DPS average and then we can perform a reverse linear interpolation based on his percentage health to determine overall hit points!”

Priest: <Surrounded by four angry ogre guards> “Mother.”

Warrior: <Takes a swing at the ogre lord> “A hit. A most palpable hit! How are you feeling now? Would you say that you’re feeling ninety five percent healthy? Or perhaps it’s more like ninety two percent?”

Ogre Lord: “Ow, yoo make my not-left-arm bleed! Raaaagghh!”

Warrior: “Hmmm, right arm is bleeding and he’s pretty steaming angry, we’ll call that eighty nine percent.” <flicks some beads on the abacus> “Good news, I think we can defeat him in another ten rounds of combat!”

Ogre Lord: “Yoo never stop me, I are in der vincey ball!”

Priest: <Dodges another ogre guard attack> “Just kill him already!”

Warrior: “Your crown will be mine in a mere ten hits, and then the king’s daughter will be rewarding us tonight in ways that are illegal in four other virtual worlds!”

Ogre Lord: “Actually old chap, I fear you’ve made a slight miscalculation. You see, I’m actually a mountain ogre, whereas you’ve been using the spreadsheet, sorry abacus, for standard ogres. We’re an entirely different phylum, and quite unique in our general power and ability”.

Warrior: “Really?”

Priest: “For the love of all stereotypically, misogynistically portrayed horny king’s daughters, stab him and then help me!”

Ogre Lord: “Indubitably my dear boy. Look, here’s the correct abacus, just take a quick gander”.

Warrior: <whistles in admiration> “Impressive! Says here that you guys can hit for anywhere between one hundred and two hundred hit points!”

Ogre Lord: “Most certainly, but you’re using that abacus with the armour bead over to the left which indicates a plate wearer such as your good self. If you move that bead over to the right…”

Warrior: <Flicks a few beads and calculates> “Good grief, it says that even a standard mountain ogre guard can hit a cloth wearer for anywhere up to one thousand hit points in a single shot!”

<Ogre guard hits Priest for nine hundred and ninety nine hit points of damage. Priest dies>

Ogre Lord: “You’ll also see that in the notes section there’s a calculation which shows that an ogre lord generally has a retinue of two ogre guards.”

Warrior: <Looks up from his abacus to see four angry ogre guards surrounding him> “Waiiiit, that’s not two guards!”

Ogre Lord: “My dear fellow, it is a fallacy to rely on the exactitude of numbers.”

Warrior: “…”

Ogre Lord: “Bash im in der noggin boyz!”

Numbers, numbers, numbers. Can we do without all the numbers? Would it be possible to remove the numbers from the fore of MMORPGs, and would it make for a better game?

In current MMORPGs, everything seems to come down to spreadsheet crunching: this weapon is better because it does 0.2 DPS more in an offhand which has a swing timer that is 1.5 times that of the main hand; this spec is better because it allows an extra 20 mana regen per second whilst achieving a mana efficiency rating of 35% return on investment over a period of ten years at an amortisation schedule of three monthly intervals (terms and conditions apply).

In combat you already have the con system. You have the enemy’s health bar. Why do you need to see how much damage you’re doing to the exact hit point? Sure, have flashy effects in the game for critical hits and the like, because these are exciting things that should feel powerful and meaningful, but don’t show every little numerical detail of how the combat is resolved.

If you break it down to the raw numbers, show the roots that feed the trunk of your game, you remove a large chance for immersion, magic and mystery.

There are a many examples of games where you aren’t presented with the raw numbers, yet the games are fun and involving. I was playing Resident Evil 4 on the Nintendo Wii again the other day, and you don’t even have enemy health bars in that game. You know what? It actually adds to the tension and enjoyment of combat: have I put enough shots into that guy to take him down? Is he going to get back up? Should I waste some ammo making sure? Do you think he’d mind if I took his jacket? At a basic level of abstraction, if you need to show that the ogre lord is really rather tough you can reflect it in the health bar, make the size of the bars relative such that a warrior facing off against an ogre that has twice as many hit points will see that the ogre’s health bar is twice as big as his, he’ll get an idea of how much effort it will take to defeat the enemy but it won’t be an exact science involving slide rules and logarithmic charts.

The developers will still have the numbers in order to balance things and, you know, be able to create a working computer game, but abstracting these things away from the players seems like a way to make the game more than just Logistical Spreadsheet Combat Simulator IV. A sword which gives +Str and +Stam, could instead simply ‘con’ green to a warrior, and red to a mage. You could further adapt the ‘con’ of an item based on what the character currently has equipped. If the sword mentioned earlier gave less benefit to a warrior over his currently equipped sword, it would con orange or red to him, indicating that it wasn’t an upgrade. Would the lack of focus on stats ruin it? Is it about making the power of an item tangible, evident to others so that you can show it off or work out exactly how many Pico seconds less it will take to kill a given mob? Could the fact that it’s the most powerful weapon you’ve discovered on your adventures so far be enough?

Numbers allow people to min/max which is a form of enjoyment to some, but they also allow people to discriminate against those who don’t min/max. Removing the numbers could be used as an attempt to remove a level of elitism from these games, when such elitism is so unwarranted.

Pen and paper games use dice rolls to simulate whether lady luck is smiling on the character, and stats are used to represent a characters abilities, because that is the way that seems to work best when you have to perform combat calculations yourself. But now we have these computers, and they can do all these complicated calculations of hit rolls and bonuses and skill point adjustments for us, so we should be able to sit back and enjoy a good game; except that the tradition of PnP was brought over wholesale, without perhaps considering the nature of the medium that they’re being brought to, and thus computer based RPGs are heavily reliant on presenting the player with numbers when they could be put to better use in obfuscating the numbers and presenting us with a game that does all the hard work of calculating if another +1 to Charisma is really going to make the pot-belly dwarf barbarian succeed in seducing The Countess Snootington.

For the curious the answer is no, the seduction still failed. It might have been something to do with the fact that he was twiddling his nipple piercing whilst attempting the seduction. Hey, it works in the local tavern, how was I to know that it was considered bad form at the royal court?