Wednesday 6 April 2011

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

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.

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