Hail, Bard Triumphant! and some care bestow On us, the Poets Militant Below!

armchair design, melmoth, mmo 13 Comments »

The design of musical classes in several MMOs has often bugged me; I wrote about it back in 2007 with respect to LotRO’s Minstrel, and later I found Rift’s Bard to be of a similar nature.

“[...] The Minstrel, could work very well: I like playing support and healing classes, and this was a strong consideration for a while, but I’ve played healing classes to death in WoW, and the whole Minstrel ‘strumming his instrument in the middle of battle’, if you know what I mean, just seems a bit weird.

“Hey guys, here’s a little number I wrote the other day.”
*strum*
“Die! Die! Die! You Orc bastards!”
*strum*
“Thank you. Thank you. I’ll be here until the end of the battle. Try the salmon it’s delicious.”

This morning my brain peeled open like a xenomorph’s egg, and an idea slowly felt its way out with probing, grasping legs. So I thought I’d release it into the wild, in the hope that it will lay its own eggs within the chest cavity of a suitable host, where the essence of the idea can gestate, and burst forth in gory glory one day.

Google Search tells me that it’s not an entirely original idea. Google Search is an arse. “Oh, you thought you had an original idea, did you? Well, here are 52,300 results that I think you’ll find are of a similar vein. And I found them in but a little over 0.15 seconds. Mweh, mweh, mweh!” Oh shush, you.

Regardless, the simple idea was to have a special sword with which the Bard/Minstrel attacks. The blade of the sword has been masterfully crafted with holes along the length of the blade, as well as a myriad of tiny tubes which run from the hilt down most of the length of the blade. The grip of the sword has keywork similar to a clarinet. As such, the Bard/Minstrel’s weapon ‘sings’ as it is swung through the air, and the art of the class comes from channelling their magical song through carefully practised sword strokes. Thus the class attacks in melee and sings at the same time, accompanied by the music of their weapon. Out of combat buffs, healing and the like, would still come from a natural musical instrument, but I liked the idea of a musical MMO class that could stand in the midst of battle and channel their songs and chants, while not having to whip out a delicate lute and carefully strum ‘I care not for these ladies’ towards a rapidly approaching enormous armoured ogre crotch.

Posted by Melmoth at 7:31 am

Thought for the day.

armchair design, melmoth, mmo, tftd 12 Comments »

I quite like MMOs of a more instanced design, such as Dungeons and Dragons Online, or Guild Wars; I like to be able to interact with other people in public areas, but when I’m off adventuring with a party I like the fact that I won’t have a bunch of loljumping twits training mobs onto our group as we try to fight a boss.

Taking the instanced design as read then, I thought it Quite Interesting to consider having two different game engines depending on the space the player was in. For the adventuring and dungeoneering side, a detailed graphics and game engine could be used that could only handle a party of six or so players due to technical limitations (something like Vindictus which uses the Source engine) allowing environment destruction and very detailed character models which would otherwise be challenging in a highly populated game space. On the public side, a different style of engine could be used, one able to handle hundreds of players in a communal area. Perhaps a different perspective could also be employed here – such as a JRPG/Diablo isometric-like third person – which would demarcate the two areas and avoid a continuity clash in the players’ perception of the world’s detail level. The isometric world would contain dynamic player housing, crafting games, player shops, and other such elements which are more easily employed in such an engine.

There would be plenty of hurdles, obviously: avoiding having to translate between the engines for items and gear would be one, but characters could have casual cosmetic outfits which they wear in public spaces that would differ from their adventuring outfits, for example.

With a strong demarcation it would then be possible to concentrate on the social side of MMOs in the populous isometric world, while allowing the more intense gamer side to be fully expressed in the traditional group-orientated third person instanced areas, but at the same time providing continuity between the two communities (crafters providing equipment for adventurers, for example) and thus hopefully encouraging interaction and migration between them.

Posted by Melmoth at 2:00 pm

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

armchair design, melmoth, mmo 7 Comments »

Dungeons & Dragons Online has a reincarnation system whereby once your character has reached maximum level you can start them again, carrying over some of the power that the character previously attained.

While reading Rohan’s post regarding public quests the following statement rang true with me:

I know that in RIFT, I’d close a rift, then ride by 10 minutes later and see a new rift in the same spot. Rather than wanting to participate again, my thoughts would be more along the lines of, “I’ve already done this, no need to do it again.”

What I wondered at that moment was how the game would play-out if that rift had stayed closed, if all the rifts remained closed once they had been sealed by the players. Essentially, the rifts would eventually be beaten back (or the world is overwhelmed) and then a server reset event takes place.

It would be along the lines of A Tale in the Desert’s tellings I expect, but mixed with DDO’s reincarnation, such that players didn’t lose everything upon a reset. The obvious way that this could have been tied-in with the current RIFT game would have been by using the soul system; perhaps instead of the immortal souls of almighty heroes having been handed out like candy based on a simple two minute quest, they could have been gathered as part of the reincarnation process. Thus players would feel even more inclined to hunt down rifts, because they would know that once the rift was closed it would remain so until the next reset event, thus making the land safer to adventure in (I would expect rifts in this version of the game to have a far greater impact than they currently do). At the same time players would be working as a whole towards the server reset in order to gain their next soul and any other benefits.

Understand, however, that I’m not suggesting that RIFT as it currently stands should change, I’m merely using it as an example of how such a system might work, and how it might change the dynamic of such a game. DDO and A Tale in the Desert both have end-level resets built into them, I wonder if a combination of the two could work. It should benefit public quests, since experienced players would be looping back through the content again rather than stagnating at the level cap, with all the dynamic content going to waste at the lower levels due to the inevitable player population tail-off that most MMOs suffer. Mixing it with DDO’s reincarnation would give players reward and reason for playing through the world again. A game like RIFT seems ripe for such a system, with souls tying in nicely with the theme of reincarnation, and the dynamic zone events allowing the developers to make each retelling a different experience for players outside of the basic rifts. Instead of adding content at the end game, it would then behove the developer to add new content throughout the game’s original levels, which benefits reincarnated players and new players alike.

MMO design seems very firmly set in its ways with regards to levelling to a limit and then adding new content on top of that. It’s the spawning salmon method, where the salmon swim upstream in a mass frenzied struggle, only to reach the spawning grounds where they then wither and die in stagnation; fresh water is added every now and again, but it’s not enough to support such a massed population. I think MMOs are missing an opportunity, it’s not for every game, but I think there’s a way for some of them to complete the cycle and have the salmon produce offspring, who then swim out to sea and begin the journey anew.

Posted by Melmoth at 9:45 am

Changes are not predictable; but to deny them is to be an accomplice to one’s own unnecessary vegetation.

armchair design, guild wars 2, melmoth, mmo 5 Comments »

One of the problems I find with a game that has a very imaginative creative team behind it is that I often read articles — such as this one from ArenaNet — detailing one of the NPC races and find myself wanting to be able to play as a member of that race instead of the ones on offer. Don’t get me wrong, I really rather like the choices provided by Guild Wars 2, nothing revolutionary, but compelling nevertheless. The nature of the skritt really sparked my imagination however:

“No one really knows how the skritt hive-like intelligence works. The most likely theory is that the skritt simply communicate so rapidly that, when together, they can vet their ideas and choose the best one within seconds, rather than going with whatever plan each individual first conceived. Certainly, the skritt have exceptionally sharp auditory skills. They can communicate with one another almost instantly if they are within earshot. If you meet one skritt alone, he might not appear particularly intelligent, but if you meet several, they can discuss their surroundings in amazingly swift, almost ultrasonic chirrups and chitters, and are able to process information and make more intelligent decisions. Therefore, the skritt seem less intelligent in small groups and more intelligent when they gather in larger ones”

I read something like that and I can’t help but begin to think of ways of turning this into a playable race. If you’ve seen the gibberlings from Astrum Nival’s Allods Online, it’s easy to picture how much fun such a race could be. Instead of a single character, the player would take control of a pack of creatures, not individually controlled, but moving in unison as a cohesive unit via the standard controls of the MMO. Move forwards and the whole jumbling ramble of skritt would heave, writhe and clamber its way across the landscape, like the proverbial plague of rats.

I think we’ve reached a point in the power of PC technology where developers can start to get a bit more creative with the nature of their games, that the standard rule where ‘you have this single entity that you control, they will have these armour slots, and hold this weapon in this hand’ can be stretched and broken, thus creating new and exciting possibilities in how a player is represented in the game world.

For example, take the quote above about the skritt’s ability to gain in intelligence the greater their number. A fun mechanic in itself, and it could also be a rather fun mechanic if turned around and given to the player. Instead of Allod’s purely cosmetic gibberlings, imagine the player with their ‘swarm of skritt’ character: it’s a powerful entity at the start of the fight, but as the fight continues the player’s character doesn’t lose health, it loses skritt. As the player’s character loses skritt the collective intelligence of the PC begins to decline; my thought for the mechanical representation of this was that certain abilities would become greyed-out on the hotbar as the number of skritt declined. There are plenty of examples of a class starting combat weakly and then building in power as the fight continues, but this would be the inverse, where the skritt swarm would start the fight strongly but gradually decline in power the more damage they took. We could look at it as a DPS role where ‘staying out of the fire’ is an imperative because the DPS class itself would be punished for standing there, they would start to lose their power, rather than the all too usual MMO routine of them continuing regardless and then blaming the healer for not keeping them alive. It’s an example of game-play which encourages the player to play well, rather than use other classes as a crutch.

I suppose this idea of a ‘playable skritt’ is really a race and a class in one, but I can’t see that necessarily being a problem for players, and it would certainly make itemisation (both graphical and numerical) a lot less of a burden on the developer. The abilities of the skritt would include the usual self-heals that ArenaNet have explained are core to the game-play of Guild Wars 2; I picture the self-heal being a calling of reinforcements, where X number of little skritt dig their way up out of the ground and join the swarm, and thus possibly reactivating abilities based on the total number of skritt now in play. Then there all the opportunities for fun: a skritt cannon where the player sacrifices some of their power to launch a powerful ranged offensive at an enemy by packing skritt into a cannon and launching them across the battlefield (which was inspired in no small part by getting a great deal of amusement out of the Mogg Cannon card in a Magic: The Gathering game this past weekend at m’colleague’s house). Other more complicated, and thus less feasible, ideas could include the ability to split your skritt swarm into two smaller and less powerful groups that could, nevertheless, take on multiple objectives at the same time, but at greater risk due to their reduced power level. A skritt player could perhaps take on the ‘buffer’ role, assigning their skritt to other players to boost their abilities, picture two jabbering skritt sitting on the shoulders of an exasperated charr while firing their guns at the enemy (think Chewbacca and the ewoks in the cockpit of the AT-ST at the battle of Endor).

In trying to find new features of game-play with which to entertain players, developers shouldn’t ignore the fact that the player’s race and class are also valid areas to innovate, LotRO’s Warden class being an excellent example. I think my primary disappointment with Rift’s soul system was that although it was brilliantly flexible, it didn’t provide the level of variety that I’d hoped for. When you create a warrior, say, you can choose the soul that lets you tank in the standard fashion, with the standard reactives, or you can pick the soul that lets you DPS in the standard fashion, with the standard finishers. And that probably isn’t an issue with Rift at all, it is probably the fact that I’m slowly tiring of the standard way that MMOs do things; my skritt example above is one example of how I believe things could be mixed up a bit and made fresh. If World of Warcraft’s druid population has shown us anything, it’s that players are quite happy to play as a bear or a cat, often to the exclusion of playing as a biped where possible; so what about a tribe of armoured bears as a playable race? Allow the bipedal races to ride on the back of the armoured bear, and have a symbiotic relationship where, if the two players cooperate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; I’ve played plenty of FPS games where someone is happy to drive the vehicle while the other person sits in the turret and shoots, so perhaps it would be a case of making the ‘driving’ more entertaining and challenging within the context of MMOs. It’s one example of a way to encourage the teamwork and camaraderie that we seem so desperate for in our MMOs and yet, if general reports are anything to go by, we rarely achieve outside of static groups and guilds. Instead of making players work together because they have no alternative, invent reasons that players would want to work together, one such example being the provision of interactions between unique and unusual classes which are not only entertaining but often entirely unpredictable.

I think that’s the lesson here. Predictability. Predictability is currently embedded in the nature of MMOs. Players are encouraged to want to know the numbers, the stats, and the details. They provide a framework which is so familiar that players don’t have to discover anything to know most of what the game has to offer, only with a slightly different cosmetic skin to it. Then the players load the spreadsheets, run the simulators, and iron out every peak of individuality, every statistical anomaly, every unexpected occurrence, and every spontaneity.

There’s no joy in predictability, no fantasy in numbers, no enduring epic in certainty; just as there’s no magic or mystery in accounting.

Posted by Melmoth at 9:44 am

Socialising on the internet is to socialising, what reality TV is to reality.

armchair design, melmoth, mmo 10 Comments »

It’s not so much ’not wanting to play with others’ as much as it is ‘wanting to play with the right sort of others’.

Before introducing NPC party members and reducing the game to solo play, perhaps we could try a less drastic Facebook-style Like/Dislike for other players. A player can anonymously vote on other players that they encounter, giving them a ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs-down’ based on their experience with them. The LFD tool can then match groups of players based on their mutual like of one another.

Perhaps this is a little restrictive in a game with millions of players? What other systems do we know where millions of people can come together and find like-minded individuals who share interests via a network of friends? Thus, based on your own social network within the game – guild mates, friends list, etc. – we could also apply the ‘likeable’ weighting to players you have never played with before, based on whether your friends liked them.

Now take Slashdot’s comment system, where you can browse comments between a level of one and five, where level one will include everything from the common sense and the obvious, all the way down to the racists, trolls and other undesirables, and level five consists of only those comments that have been rated highly by others; looking at Slashdot you might begin to see a system for adjusting the level of ‘likeableness’ you’re willing to accept in your group. Set your acceptance level high and you’ll only get friends, guild mates, and people rated highly by yourself. Set it a little lower and you can open the search to those people who have been rated highly by your friends and guild mates as well.

We don’t need to remove everybody, we simply need to reduce the population down to a subset that is agreeable. At the same time, we need to cast a wider net than the one that pulls in only friends and guild mates.

If MMOs want to insist that they are games where people come together to socialise and play, if they want to justify their requirement of an Internet connection and payment models outside of the box price, then they could do a lot worse than look to the successes of the social networking sites before eliminating multiplayer society from MMOs altogether.

Posted by Melmoth at 11:45 am

Stepping off the conveyor belt.

armchair design, melmoth, mmo 10 Comments »

Next time you’re reading quest text, try to do so in the voice of a terminally bored actor or tour guide delivering the lines in a rote fashion. I find that this helps to highlight the superficial nature of any dramatic event when an NPC is standing motionless in front of you and (in my mind) droning on in a monotone voice

“Oh no. Please help. The <Token Enemy> are invading. We must mobilise our forces. You must go and defeat <Arbitrary Number> of <Token Enemy Minion>. Saves us, [looks at script and rolls eyes] for we cannot save ourselves.”

Now picture all the NPCs standing around having a cigarette break after you leave, before quickly throwing their filters to the floor and putting them out with a twist of a foot, then resuming their usual positions, absent-mindedly flattening down their outfit, and delivering the exact same lines through a face flat of expression and dead of eyes, to the next hero who ventures along.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of MMO players skip quest text. World of Warcraft is trying to enhance its storytelling instead through the use of phasing and cut-scenes, a design which gets in the way of the natural flow of game-play and seemingly restricts the player from doing what MMO players most want to be able to do, namely: group with friends, kill monsters, and gain loot and XP.

I wonder if the public quests in Warhammer Online and Rift have not been taken far enough as a concept; perhaps we should move on from the industry standard NPC who hangs around street corners in a town with a big neon sign hanging above their head declaring them open for business like some sort of prostitute; not a sex worker, a quest worker perhaps? The technology is there: public quests in WAR and Rift, as I mentioned; Lord of the Rings Online has quests that are automatically added to your journal upon entering a dungeon; WAR has its open RvR areas, and WoW has PvP zones such as Wintergrasp; DDO has its exploration zones. Instead of a quest hub that a player runs into, grabs all the quests from (without reading any of the text), and then immediately opens their map to see which areas are marked with quest objectives, why not instead have the quests activated when the player enters the right area in the world, much like public quests.

Your character walks into a forest and a message pops up saying that you’ve noticed a sign pinned to a tree with a reward for killing wolves. A quest is added to your quest log to kill X wolves, and when you complete the requirement your character is rewarded with XP. Coin and loot comes from the mobs that you kill, and perhaps chests guarded by boss mobs. Better items can be bought in towns by trading what you have found in the wild; crafted items are valuable instead of being merely redundant due to better quest and dungeon rewards, either at the time or through mudflation.

But players would have to go out and wander the land looking for quests! They… they’d have to explore! It might take…t-t-time! I know, wonderful, isn’t it? A structured MMO, but one where you also have to explore and discover and adventure. An MMO where your group of friends can find an area with a quest and you all have it in your log instantly at the same stage, and you can work through it together. An MMO where the economy of the world is not built on the foundation of NPC characters with an infinite number of Unique Swords of Legendary Power to give out to any passing PC who is willing to kill ten rats for them.

I wonder if the quest hub isn’t a large part of the problem with MMOs, and whether the nature of having to speak to an NPC to get a quest, and then subsequently return to that NPC for a reward, is an outdated mode of a time before we had the technology for public quests, open instancing and phasing. I think there may be a better way to allow for quest-based structured MMOs to exist, without them being the drab uniform conveyor belt that drags players slowly and inexorably towards raid content, which most players have discovered can be quickly skipped if they decide to run along its length.

Posted by Melmoth at 10:45 am

All that we should see in the world is You and I.

armchair design, melmoth, mmo 6 Comments »

I thought I’d expound a little on the thought experiment of moving UI elements into the game world, which as we know is not a new idea in gaming as Hirvox rightly points out in a comment, but is perhaps less common in MMOs. Zubon has already taken the health bar idea a step further, with consideration given to colour blind players, a concern that Tesh highlights in a comment as well.

The next logical step was to move the yin to the health bar’s yang: the mana bar. A few obvious ideas sprang immediately to mind: the wizard’s staff, for example, is a prime candidate for being turned into a mana gauge; a Steampunk world could have staves as a metal rod with pipes and wires, and valves hissing open and shut, and running the length of the rod would be a thin window that shows the level of fuel left, a bubbling agitated blue liquid that slowly drains away as the Vapourmancer performs their half-scientific half-mystical art. Sticking with the Dead Space inspired influences, another option could be a belt of phials strapped around the back of the magic user’s waist which slowly drain as they cast spells. We can improve on this further perhaps by having the avatar grab a phial and drink it down prior to casting a spell, this gives us several benefits: firstly it draws the player’s attention in to their character and thus the game world because that’s where they can observe their mana levels, a Good Thing in my opinion – I’ve always wondered at the reason for having tremendously pretty 3D worlds and then making the players spend a vast amount of time staring at 2D two colour bar charts (health, mana, rage, experience, aggro, etc.) and pie charts (cool-downs). Secondly, we can use the animation to eliminate another of the 2D bar charts, the cast bar. The avatar draws out a phial from their belt and takes a swig and puts it back and then throws their spell, the cast bar is now a visual animation in the world (drawing the player’s focus into the game again) rather than a gauge on an interface to a game. Finally, it’s just much more immersive, rather than constantly breaking out of the game world to check gauges, the player’s character has a (comparatively) more realistic way to show the same information.

Games have developed in leaps and bounds in recent years, in graphics and audio quality, in scope, and in the maturity of the content presented therein. One of the major items that really lags behind, however, is the UI. There are efforts being made in certain areas to make a breakthrough, games such as the aforementioned Dead Space, and others such as Gears of War and Heavy Rain, with varying levels of success. It’s not an un-researched topic, but in the MMO space it seems to be regarded in terms of COTS technology, that is ‘Slap some bar charts on the screen (make it a big red circle if you’re feeling innovative), put some buttons at the bottom of the screen and fill them with ticking pie charts and numbers for cool-downs, a mini map and have a text box with quest objectives in it’. If you’re feeling particularly generous add-in LUA scripting so that players can create HUDs so complex they’d make an aircraft HUD developer have a seizure.

One of the things I liked in one of the Guild Wars 2 game-play demonstrations was the way the world map was brought into view, it sort of faded in as the camera zoomed out from the player’s avatar, giving the player the sense of their place in the world in a geographical sense. The curious thing to me is that, although that is a lovely and slightly less jarring way to introduce the world map, I wonder why they didn’t have the avatar pull out a map and then zoom down over their shoulder and into the map that way, which to me would give the impression of reading a map, rather than calling up a geosynchronous LEO satellite image, which the zooming out impression gives, and again it would draw the player down and in to the game, rather than pulling them up and out.

It’s one of those curious tropes in MMOs, for me, that these beautiful worlds are crafted by fantastic minds and amazing artists, are always the first thing to be shown-off in promotional videos with dramatic fly-bys of prominent landmarks, and then the game itself is layered on top of this world in such a way that you are constantly being pulled out of it, or at the very least viewing it all through an immersion breaking HUD of varying levels of complexity. The most important thing when engineering the software for aircraft HUDs, and even more importantly now with the development of real-time tracked helmet HUDs, is to make the HUD invisibly visible to the pilot, which sounds a bit like marketing speak, but is the easiest way I can describe it. The pilot is never conscious that they’re looking at a HUD, they’re looking at the real world, always, because in many situations they’re travelling too fast to not be looking where they’re going, they look at the world and they know information about what they’re looking at without having to draw themselves out of the world they’re looking at. Now admittedly other tricks are used too, such as focussing the display at infinity so that the pilot doesn’t need to change their focus to read the display, but as much as possible the aim is to minimise the effort required on the pilot’s part to have to absorb that information, it becomes more like a sixth sense than an information panel.

The reason I raise this issue is that I see MMO developers creating more extravagant worlds with every new release, and yet often we see the same old UI pasted on top of it, and as long as you do that, as long as you continue to draw the player out of the world to look at a spreadsheets worth of information every fight, it seems like such a waste. As a final disclaimer, this is all context dependant of course, a game such as EVE which is set in a futuristic society of space-faring combatants is obviously ripe for tactical overlays and systems monitors and the like, and although the game has undeniably beautiful vistas in the void, they are far less important in the context of that game than the raw data.

Now I’m off to buy my lunch, just as soon as I’ve checked my mini-map for where the shop is, examined my bag inventory for space, made sure my stamina bar is full enough to make the journey, and have set the lunch objectives in my quest tracker.

Posted by Melmoth at 10:18 am

Slow down and examine the mysterious bits of fluff in our lives.

armchair design, melmoth, mmo 2 Comments »

The age old question of character definition continues to wend its way around the hills and vales of Blogland, asking whether ’tis better to suffer the confines and restrictions of fixed character classes, or to take the concept of class away and give players the freedom to create munchkins and gimps in equal measure. Rather than skill points, Champions Online attempts to kowtow to those who fancy freedom by providing pools of skills from which the player can choose, reigning in advancement by placing a prerequisite of a number of basic skills on the more powerful abilities; favour is given to those who stick with one pool of powers, opening up the most powerful abilities sooner by requiring a smaller number of basic powers from that pool to unlock the powerful ability, as opposed to a larger number of basic powers from random other pools. Still, despite the incentive of the power frameworks, as they are known, it is quite easy to create a character which is nigh-on unplayable, the cost of undoing such a mistake… prohibitive.

This is the fundamental design issue with non-class-based systems (skill points as used in EVE are one such system, but not the only non-class system, as evidenced by the Champions Online example previously), with freedom comes great opportunity to gimp your character, with it also comes the power to munchkin a character so hideous in design that the developers, arms across their eyes, reel from it in horror as if the very concept of it burns their eyes and threatens to corrupt their soul. When a game such as Champions Online includes PvP, the need for balance quickly makes the freedom of creativity awarded to the players a rod for the developer’s back. Even EVE Online, which has taken the skill system and implemented it fantastically well, has encountered issues where the developers have had to adjust the game in order to counter very specific character builds which exploit certain skill and ship combinations to create something far more powerful than the developers ever envisioned. Yet EVE has shown us that skill systems can work, and work well. It’s still quite possible to create a gimped character in EVE, but the odds are against it, especially with the certificate system in place that allows an inexperienced player to see easily what basic skills they should be working on when aiming for a certain career path.

My thought is thus: why not have a mix of the two systems? I would suggest that the primary desire for non-class systems is the freedom to create a character that the player wants, admittedly in a large number of cases this would be a dual-wielding melee maniac who can shoot fireballs from their forehead and heal themselves at will, but a lot of the time players just want a bit more flexibility in customising their character and making them unique. Taking World of Warcraft as an example – a game which has tried with its talent point system to provide some limited flexibility within the scope of each of its classes – what would a dual character development system look like?

The example for this came to me recently when I had cause to play my Paladin briefly: I needed to travel across a large expanse of Ye Olde Azeroth on foot, and the Paladin’s Crusader Aura, in combination with an epic mount, just makes this a lot less effort, and there’s something compelling about watching your mount’s character model animate slightly faster than the developers originally intended, it conveys that extra sense of speed and simulates well enough the wind rushing through your character’s hair. Of course this caused me to rue the fact that I didn’t have such an ability on the Shaman that I’m currently levelling, who has a nice travel form which is all but redundant now that mounts are available from level twenty, except for a few special cases where I might be able to use it to escape from enemies, and of course it still has its uses in PvP. I thought to myself that I’d gladly give up my travel form for a Crusader Aura on my Shaman. I’m sure most people would, other than the PvPers and maybe a few Furry role-players. So that’s probably an easy exchange, what else would I give up? Well, my Shaman has several other fluff utilities – Water Breathing and Water Walking to name but a few – would I give those up too? My answer was still yes, because I like Crusader Aura that much; I’d give-up my travel form and the various fluff water-based abilities too. What about Astral Recall? Astral Recall is a spell which emulates the character’s hearthstone, allowing the Shaman to return to their bind point more often than other characters. It’s pretty useful when you need to whip from one side of the world to the other and back again, and it certainly made my levelling life a lot easier. That one would certainly be a more difficult choice for me.

There are many fluff abilities granted to classes in WoW, things that are there to make life a little easier, or to entertain and amuse, none of which affect the fundamental operation of the class. In a redesign of the game I think it would be viable to keep the core skills and spells of the class, and yet provide a more flexible non-class skill system outside of these core class abilities, a pool of skills and spells that players could dip into as they advance, made-up of those fluff abilities which are fun to have and often make life easier, but which would not gimp or overpower a character upon their application. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of MMO players like fluff items, one only has to look at the clamour and furore caused by various mounts, non-combat pets and housing items, to see that this is the case. Players also – and I honestly don’t know why developers, in general, seem to have such a problem realising this in their games – like to have the freedom to express themselves through their character, although this partly ties in to the fluff items again: given a restrictive class-based system, players attempt to express themselves in other ways. To see such an example of this one only has to look at the costume customisation options in games such as Everquest II or Lord of the Rings Online to see the creativity that many players put into expressing themselves, or for a more extreme example: City of Heroes, where creating costumes and character concepts is often more of a game to the players than the levelling game proper.

Giving players freedom of expression when it comes to the way their character operates at a fundamental level is a difficult thing to do, few MMOs have attempted it, and fewer still have achieved it with any success. Perhaps, though, there is a way to give players some freedom of expression, a way to customise the abilities of their character to their own taste whilst at the same time maintaining a tighter control on the balance of combat encounters with a class-based development system.

Posted by Melmoth at 10:14 am

We even picked up a preacher for some reason, and a bona fide companion.

armchair design, melmoth, mmo, waffle 3 Comments »

Have you noticed a change in the people who you play MMOs with? It could be the close friends who you play with on a regular basis, or the random people with whom you group to complete that rare quest; rare in an MMO these days at least, because it isn’t soloable whilst your character is naked with one arm tied behind their back. And blindfolded. And unconscious.

It’s perhaps a subtle change at first, that one person of the group who is always late, you know the one, they always keep you waiting around outside an instance, and when they finally get there and are invited into the group they have to go and have their dinner and will ‘be back in 5 mins’. Which is actually code for ‘be back in about half an hour, or when at least two other members of the group have quit out of boredom and frustration, whichever comes first’. That person suddenly starts showing up on time, as soon as you form your party, bam, there they are, geared-up and ready to go. Next to change is the whiner, the person in the group who finds fault in every little thing, from the way the game plays to the way party members play the game. They don’t so much grind XP as grind down the good intentions and will to live of every other member of their party. All of a sudden though you’re noticing that they’re not whining much – at all, in fact – instead, they offer a chipper little greeting and then start merrily crawling their way through the dungeon with nary a grumble. You start to get a funny feeling that something is not quite right when the whiner starts making light banter with you, offering witty one-liners and quipping ‘take that’s and ‘have at you’s and generally seeming to enjoy the whole experience as much as anyone else. Enjoying it perhaps a little too much.

Gradually, slowly, inexorably, your fellow MMO players change, one by one. Generally for the better. They become less whiney, more helpful; less greedy, more cooperative; less emotional and more amenable. And then it hits you one day, as your party forms up on time, all geared-up and ready to go, with the correct skill sets for the dungeon you’re going to delve into, and all their equipment repaired and in tip-top condition; nobody needing anything from the bank: they’ve all got the key to the dungeon door; everyone has the same set of quests, all at the same point, all requiring the same dungeon that you are all now formed-up in front of, after having been online and in-game for all of forty five seconds or so. It’s perfect. The perfect MMO group experience. Too perfect, it feels… wrong somehow. Where are the laggards who always make the efficient people wait around outside the entrance to the dungeon for half an hour? The sort of delay that leads the waiting players to have some light banter while they wait, where they get to know each other a bit better; discuss how their days went outside of the game; maybe discuss the news for a bit; discover that sexy Selina the elf is really Alan the construction worker in real life. Where is the conflict resolution? The fights over loot where we discover that the Warrior likes to roll on every sword, even the ones clearly meant for a Rogue; the fights over strategy where we find that the Mage clearly thinks that they’re a better tank than the Warrior since they seem to constantly be buried under a pile of angry enemies. These are the real fights in an MMO, the ones that develop not the player character but the character of the player.

And that’s when the realisation comes crashing down on top of you. These aren’t other people that you’re playing with. Like some nerdy virtual online recreation of the Stepford Wives you find that all of your friends and fellows are gone, replaced with artificial constructs designed to mimic them in every way except one: these new companions are perfect. No flaws. No tardiness, no complaints, no huge hairy fifty year olds pretending to be jailbait prostitutes with pointy ears. No arguments, no ninja looting, no drama. But also, ironically, these companions also can’t offer the one thing that comes from dealing with real people, and the problems that come with real people: companionship.

Guild Wars has offered companions for some time. You can play the game – outside of its PvP element (and possibly you can even play PvP with companions if the match is set to allow it) – entirely without dealing with another player. However, there is no pretence that this is anything but a mechanic to let you play the game when you can’t find enough people to form a full party. These aren’t simulacrums of real players, they are artificial constructs attempting to fill a defined and well recognised role in your party: tank, healer, dps, cc, etc. These aren’t companions so much as mindless slaves, drafted in to your party where they perform their role unquestioningly and, AI weirdness excepted, unerringly. Lord of the Rings Online has hinted that it will be adding a similar feature to its comprehensive list of ‘everything every other MMO can do, we can do too’ features, and these soldiers will be trainable and customisable, such that you could almost begin to treat them like slightly more than pixelated slaves, perhaps considering them more like a loyal guard dog or other faithful pet. It’s still far from the idea that these characters are companions and not just party fillers, much like those flying saucer sweets that parents used to pack by the fistful into the little plastic bags that kids take home from a birthday party, mainly because they were cheap and took up a lot of space while constituting ninety percent air.

Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic claim to offer a new take on companions, the next generation of companions if you will. TOR in particular, with their claims of compelling player character story and development, leads us to believe that companions in that game will offer us story hooks with chances to help companions or alienate them. To discuss your story with them and find out their background story. Fight alongside them. Fight with them. Love them?

Hey, it would be a fine way to make an alt, it being the offspring of your main character and some fox/hunk (delete as applicable, no foxy hunks allowed unless they’re Nathan Fillion). Although perhaps we’re veering slightly too much towards the Firefly definition of companion here.

The danger that I see here is that in trying to fulfil that oft lauded idea of character story in an MMO, of feeling a part of a world and of having an effect upon it, developers are potentially sacrificing the one thing that should always be the fundamental part of any MMO and which should never be sacrificed: other people. If TOR is playable without the intervention of other players, if the story of the game is interwoven tightly around companion characters that you meet on your adventures, and if you need not require anyone but these companions in order to make your way through the game, then what are you playing other than a single player game with a monthly subscription fee? I’m sure that there are people out there who don’t think that this would be a bad idea, who think that a version of Knights of the Old Republic where you can meet and chat with friends in the cantina on Bespin’s Cloud City before going on adventures with your perfectly formed group of perfectly formed companions, all perfectly on time, perfectly polite and perfectly functional, would be heaven compared to the hideous pain that is involved in actually playing alongside real people who are, by Nature’s design, flawed and imperfect. So with all your companions performing their roles correctly and without question – no Wookies chasing after enemy droids in order to pull their arms off, or Jedi trying to tank everything using only a blaster – the game is really all about you: failure or success is down to you. The twists and turns that the story takes are down to you. You are the hero of the game. Story and ‘being the hero’ then, if true, means they’ve got the two biggest desires for MMO players sorted out right there. Haven’t they? Not really, it is smoke and mirrors, they’re trying to convince you that what you’re playing is an MMO, when in actual fact you’re playing a single player RPG with some online connectivity. Sure you’ll be able to go off and team-up with your friends and run an instanced dungeon, but the bulk of the game will be about you and your companions, rather than you and your friends.

Developers need to be careful with where they take the MMO genre next. Enforced grouping as found in EQ and elsewhere is just as bad as the increasingly prevalent solo MMO as exemplified by World of Warcraft, where the levelling content is now nothing more than a quick solo slog in order to get to the group content. Yet the group content in WoW is just a perversion of the solo arcade games of yore, playing the same content over and over in order to progress slightly further and post your highest score. Gear upgrades from raid dungeons are the equivalent to level codes in arcade games, allowing you to skip the early content that you have comprehensively beaten and move on to the harder levels. The difference being that WoW raids require you to a) rely on other people – a Good Thing in my opinion, it’s part of the MMO experience, drama and all – and b) dedicate at least a couple of hours solidly in one sitting to make any progress. This is where it falls down: if I play an arcade game I can drop it at any moment, move off and do something else and come back to it, most of the time I can hit pause, come back to the game later and continue. I may have lost my ‘gaming groove’ by that point, but it’s very easy to do and there is no pressure, self inflicted or from peers, to carry on.

The Tuesday Console Club plays Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode on occasion. We’ve started off on the lowest difficulty and have to fend off wave after wave of enemies represented by fifty levels of content. When we’ve finished it on easy mode, we will up the difficulty by one notch. Why is this so much better than raiding in an MMO? For a start it takes all of thirty seconds from when everyone is online until we’re in and playing the game. We can select which level to play from, so we can carry on from where we left off. The characters do not develop, do not improve with gear or experience, only the players do. Anyone joining us in the middle of a game will be a bit out of their depth for a while, but they will be able to play a part from the very beginning: their character will be just as powerful as any other character in the game, the only difference in the effectiveness of that power will be how the player behind the character utilises it. So what makes this repeated content fun? The unpredictability of other players. I could play the game with bots, but it is a stale and mundane affair, like a drizzly overcast autumn morning, everything looks the same, no variety. When you play with other people there is a random element added to the game that no developer could encapsulate in code, there is no set of algorithms which can capture the camaraderie, that can encode the variation of experience. Never in a game would you share with a bot the exhilarated laughter from the launch a mortar down a street which wipes out an entire wave of oncoming enemies with a well placed yet knowingly fluky shot, and in the next instant share an embarrassed laugh as that same bot launches the next mortar accidentally from within the confines of a building, blowing themselves and all their teammates to kingdom come. And you can laugh, because restarting a level is as near to instantaneous as a game can get. A quick score table appears and then you are off again. Playing the game, having fun. Is repairing gear, recasting buffs, eating more food for buffs, running back into an instance, fun? Is it because it’s an MMO that grindy tedious monotony like that is expected and tolerated? It’s certainly what makes causing a raid to wipe a painful experience, something to be ashamed of for not performing well, for not being dedicated enough, for not executing your job perfectly. Because it is a job, it’s not game-play, not at that level. Not by any stretch of the imagination. If you cause a wipe in Gears of War 2, it’s a matter of hilarity, of light-hearted ribbing and joviality, and then you reset within seconds and are playing again. Mistakes forgotten, only camaraderie remains.

The balance in MMOs, therefore, comes from allowing structure and story in the game whilst at the same time maintaining that element of randomness which no computer generated content can provide. No mean feat. It takes a special kind of companion to enable that element of game-play, and it has taken nature millions of years to perfect it. To think that we can substitute for it with a few years worth of simplistic AI and procedurally generated content is a mistake. The focus needs to be not in replacing other players with unnatural copies that perform perfectly and to script, but to remove those elements of game-play which punish people for being… people. I look at raids in popular MMOs and see something strange, I see people reduced to robots, they have a defined role, a defined pattern of action, a defined place they need to stand. Then move over there. Then run over there. You know, I had a toy when I was a child called a Big Trak with which you could do essentially the same thing: program it to turn on the spot, shoot its laser cannon, run fowards a bit, turn, shoot, run backwards, dodge an obstacle. The curious thing now is that MMO developers do in fact seem to be trying to compensate for this trend, creating more compelling story and game-play by not reducing players to robots, but at the expense of replacing all their fellow players with robots instead.

I wonder if a balance can be struck between compelling story-based game-play and the fundamental basis of an MMO: that being massively multiplayer content. Developers perhaps need to concentrate less to start off with on how the game plays, and instead build the foundation of their game on how they will enable players to come together, play together and have fun together. Not only that but they need to take randomness and imperfection and make it a part of the enjoyment of the game. Developers of MMOs spend man-months trying to encapsulate and encode randomness into their games, and yet they neglectfully ignore, nay more often than not punish the greatest source of randomness the world has ever known: human nature.

Posted by Melmoth at 3:56 pm

Art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus.

armchair design, melmoth, wow 2 Comments »

Tobold COMMANDS us to design a new hero class for the next World of Warcraft expansion, and so we grudgingly obey. Because we’re bored. And it’s been a while since we’ve sat in our designer’s armchair, which is a designer armchair, so it’s a designer’s designer armchair and… I’ve no idea where this is going.

Tobold has settled on the next hero class being a healer of some sort, and as such has outlined a framework for consideration that I shall bullet point thus:

  • “The first question to answer is how the new healer hero class would power their heals. All existing healing classes in WoW use mana for heals. And just like the death knight doesn’t use mana or rage, but a completely new mechanism, it would probably be a good idea to design a new healing mechanism for the new hero class.”
  • “A related question is what else but healing the new class should do, and what connection there will be between his healing and his damage dealing.”
  • “The hardest design question is how to balance that new healer hero class against the other existing classes.”

With the points all firmly lined up against the wall and bullets squarely pointed at them, we shall now attempt a little straight-faced design brainstorming. ‘Dis shit be somewhat more serious than the customary puerile persiflage found here, yo. Old bean’, as I believe they say down in the game design meeting rooms of Harlem.

So everybody put on their serious straight faces. If you don’t have a serious straight face, perhaps you can skin one from the person sitting next to you and attach it like a mask through the use of Sellotape or staples. Right, is everyone wearing a straight serious face, be it theirs or someone elseís? Good, then I shall begin.

Stop giggling at the back! Yes I know Jenkins’ serious face mask is drooping and it looks like he’s having a permanent orgasm; you should have used more staples along the brow line Jenkins, this is supposed to be serious! Now shush!

Tsk.

Healing hero class

I like melee healers as a concept, but they’re often a tricky blighter to get right because you’re combining two roles – both of which need concentration to perform well at – into one class. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, your average healer is someone who plays health bar whack-a-mole whilst standing as far away from the enemy as possible and hoping that they find the tank a more interesting conversationalist, usually enhanced by the tank shouting intriguing topics of conversation at the mobs such as “Yo mamma so fat!”. And as much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, doing decent DPS with a character does take some level of thought, even if that’s nothing more than hitting the right buttons in sequence for the current ‘optimum attack rotation de jour’, it doesn’t give that person much time to think about healing other than maybe quaffing a potion if they see their health bar drop dangerously low; certainly it’s a bit much to expect melee characters to maintain focus on all of the health bars of other people in the party at the same time, which leads us to idea the first:

  • The hero melee healer automatically applies a buff on other party members. This buff can be charged-up by the melee healer doing damage, the player it has been cast on can then activate the buff (it would appear in their UI as a button) to heal themselves, as and when it is required. The buff can be activated at any time and heals proportionately to the amount that it has been charged.

So, we combine the two ideas of melee and healing into one. Other party members become responsible for monitoring their own health, which is not too much extra to ask in the grand scheme of play, and the melee healer powers this healing through the somewhat surprising mechanic of… have you guessed yet? Those who said ‘meleeing’ well done, those who said ‘scientology’, seek professional help.

We need to consider several things with this mechanic. Firstly, we know that powerful melee characters with healing abilities are what are known in technical circles as OMG WTF NERF NEERRRRRRRRRRFFF!!!1, so the healing buff would not be applicable to the melee healer themselves. However, we also know that playing in an instance and being a main healer who is unable to heal oneself would lead to what is known in technical circles as OMG WTF I R BROKEN FIX ME OR I QUIT THIS IS AN OUTRAAAAAAAAGE!!1, so to compensate we would need idea the second:

  • The hero melee healer is also healed by some amount X when others in their party are healed

This leads to what I think is an interesting party interdependence on healing. The party requires the melee healer to be alive and doing damage to get their own heals, but the melee healer relies on the party members using their own heals judiciously so as to keep themselves alive and also to keep the melee healer alive as well. This spreads the primary healing responsibility out between the party as a whole, giving each player a little more to do, but gaining the party an extra level of DPS. However, this is a very passive level of healing for the hero class, so we would give them a little more control over healing by implementing idea the third:

  • The hero melee healer has special abilities that can draw on the stored healing power of all party members in order to activate a more powerful overall effect.

This could be as little as an ‘Oh shit!’ ability on a reasonable cool-down that allows the hero class to heal all party members by a substantial amount at the cost of all currently stored healing power in the buffs of the party members, but for a proportion more than the stored power would allow if the buffs were activated by the players themselves. Or it could be a powerful damage ability, again at the cost of stored healing, to be used when the group was on top of a fight and not taking that much damage, again on a cool-down, lest the temptation be for the hero class to constantly activate their damage ability in PvP at the cost of their team mates being able to heal themselves.

Speaking of PvP (and for PvP here I’m talking about PuPvP, i.e. battlegrounds and open world), this passive healing helps a little with the whole (alleged) ‘nobody heals in PvP’ problem. The hero class merely has to wade into combat and they will be empowering their side through the Joy of Healing. PvP is also the reason why the buff is applied automatically to all team members, to get around the notorious secondary problem that many players are too lazy even to buff their own team mates in PvP (again we’re talking battlegrounds and world PvP here, obviously arena teams are likely to be a tad more disciplined if they want to get anywhere at all). Now the reason that it is an automatically applied buff rather than a stance or aura comes in to play here: in PvP (and potentially PvE) if the enemy has a dispel ability in their arsenal they can remove the buff; the buff is, of course, automatically re-applied, but the stored healing power is lost. Therefore we provide the enemy with a way, through intelligent play, to compensate for the fact that the hero class is a very powerful member of a team, as a hero class should be. However, we don’t want the hero class to be so awesomely powerful that no other class is worth playing, and therefore we have to temper them somewhat, so onto idea the fourth:

  • The hero melee healer’s melee damage is related, in some way (which I haven’t quite calculated because I’m too lazy and it’s too much work for a bit of armchair-based design beard stroking) to the amount of power that they have stored in the healing buffs of their team mates.

The idea here is that the hero class’s power will ebb and flow with a battle, therefore they won’t necessarily be one static level of uber DPS, they will start low, build up to higher levels of DPS, but inevitably their team mates will need to heal themselves, and thus the hero class’s power will lessen as some of the stored healing power is used up. This is all well and good for PvP, but now we have to go back and consider solo play, because if we cannot store healing power when we are solo, as stated in idea the first, then we need a way to increase the damage of the hero class when solo, thus idea the fifth:

  • The hero melee healer has an innate ability which increases the power of their melee abilities when they are not a member of a team

Quite simple, the hero class can do more damage outside of a team, at the expense of any healing.

So there we have it, my initial brainy stormy idea for a melee healer hero class in World of Warcraft. To be sure there are bound to be flaws and problems and missing elements, I’m certainly not claiming that it’s perfect and ready to go, but hopefully it is food for thought and might inspire others to take part or all of the ideas and run with them further.

You may now return your faces to the non-serious non-straight position, and if you stole your serious face from someone else, please be sure to remove all staples, wash it thoroughly and reapply any make-up before returning it. Thank you.

Posted by Melmoth at 5:15 pm
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