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Archive for March, 2011

Winds of Change

Ah, March.  70 degrees Farenheit one day, snowing the next.  I love my state.

Anyway, with the weather in a bit of confusion, there are other winds afoot as well, stirring things about in a bit of pre-spring restlessness.  (At least up here in the Northern Hemisphere.  Apologies to those of you down south.)

The MMO Melting Pot “blogger map” is alive and kicking.  It’s an interesting stalking tool, er, datapoint.  These MMO things are pretty diverse, and it’s interesting to see that reflected in blogs as well, though it would be great to see some African or other Asian entries.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the views over at TK Nation (among them the classic China’s War Beyond Azeroth article).

On a lamentable note, Larisa over at the Pink Pigtail Inn has posted a heartfelt farewell.  She is an excellent writer with a heart of gold, and she will be sorely missed.  Life moves on, though, and nobody blogs forever.  Fair winds, Larisa!

And yes… I’m working on another Balance article dealing with time.  It’s a somewhat substantive topic, so I’m trying to find the best way to parse and present things.  In the meantime, I’ve been indulging in yet another art challenge at work.  This time, well… it’s a bit of a change from what one might expect.  Let’s just say that my childhood in the 80s was a fairly pleasant one, but my imagination goes in funny directions sometimes.  Care Bears mixed with Voltron?  Sure, why not?

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I Can Fly

OK, WoW Anonymous admission time.

My name is Tesh, and I actually kinda sorta like World of Warcraft.  Sometimes, it even makes me happy.

Piggie!

(If you don’t understand the piggie, check out the link to Larisa’s place.  She and BBB have been pontificating on the state of WoW of late, so this is, in large part, for them and anyone else who wants to maybe find a little magic again.  I’m definitely out of touch with the WoW mainstream… and I love it that way.)  And as any good Peter Pan fan knows, happiness can lead to flight.  But I get ahead of myself.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I stand by my assertions that the subscription model* is a Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea for several reasons, I wish WoW were more “world-like” and less “game-like”, and I still see several problems with the game design of WoW.  The one that bugs me the most at the moment is that crafting tradeskills suffer from atrocious pacing, high cost (in time or in gold via buying ingredients at auction) and irrelevance to gameplay and the economy 98% of the time.  Sometimes, other people still stink (though my experience with other players is 80% pleasant, 15% awesome and only very rarely bad). I can even see a LOT of little art things to nitpick, since I deal with 3D game art all day.  The game still has an unfortunate gravitational effect on the MMO industry on the whole that I think is stifling innovation.

…but y’know what?  I’m a latecomer to the party.  While I’ve studied the game off and on since it came out years ago, as a player, the world of Azeroth (and Outland) is still largely new and even joyous to me, even though most of the mechanics are long since rote and bland (though really, the same could be said of most of my beloved JRPGs, even the incredible Chrono Trigger, so that’s nothing new).  There is still stuff to see, places to go, quests to read, ways to explore.  I got my first level 60 character just a couple of weeks ago.  My Tauren Druid, Tishtoshtesh, dinged 60 and immediately set out to get the Druid Flight Form.  And hoo boy, bob howdy…

I LOVE FLYING

If I could have a supermutant power, I’d want to fly.  OK, well, if I could have only one supermutant power, I’d want invulnerability, but flight almost as much.  (Since really, flight without invulnerability of some sort is asking for trouble anyway.  RIP, Banshee.  But I’m not bitter.  Nope, not at all.)

So yeah, I’m loving just flying around the Old World of Azeroth, taking plenty of pictures of things that interest me.  I’ve been given license to explore like I’ve never done before in the game, and I’m taking advantage of it.  Let those ground-pounding grinders race to the endgame treadmill (sort of like accelerating into a red light), I have sights to see.  I’m sure they think I’m wasting my time, but hey, it’s mine to waste.

Sights like these make me happy.  (And yes, if I could fly in Minecraft, you can bet your favorite great aunt that I’d spend a lot of time doing so.  It’s not as pretty as WoW, but seeing the sights from the air is still great fun, like that greenhouse my daughter and I built the other day, or the water-encased diving tower from world’s top to world’s bottom…)

Tesh’s Picasa WoW stuff

Silithus

Zangarmarsh

Darkshore

More, but better; stitched “panorama” shots

Lordaeron Throne Room

Dalaran

Volcanic Lava Flow

Darkshore Sinkhole

It’s a mix of the mundane (shots I took to study how they do texturing and modeling) and the marvelous (the remodeled Darkshore looks especially great from the air), but hopefully there’s something in there that shows some of what the game has to offer those who go off the rails, taking to wing to see the sights.  There’s a world out there to see, and I’ve been having fun exploring it.

*Disclosure: I’m taking advantage of the WoW VISA card to get some playtime.  I keep it around just for big purchases and emergencies.  We replaced our 35-year-old house’s windows, so I put that bill on the WoW VISA, and bam, four months of playtime in the form of four one-month time codes, just for going through a little extra paperwork.  (We paid off the VISA bill almost immediately from savings; we had the money to pay the bill effectively on-hand, but we may as well push it through the system for a little bonus, hm?)  I maintain that subs stink, but hey, there’s enough fun to be had in WoW to play, at least for a little while.  I’ll man up and burn out like a bitter veteran later.  Maybe.  If I feel like it.

…though I maintain that it’s possible to like the good parts of the game and dislike the bad parts without conflating the two and condemning the game or praising it to the exclusion of the other.  Weird, I know.  That just isn’t done on the internet.

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Balance, Part 1: Tao of Picasso

Balance, Part 2: Asymmetry and Art

Balance, Part 3: Systems, Defaults and Munchkins

Last time, I wrote about what I’m calling the DNA Grid, my tactical RPG’s character advancement system.  That happens to be only a part of the system, and stepping back a layer, there’s a triangle that I’m using to give the game’s three major factions flavor and unique functions while trying to give them asymmetrical balance.

It’s at least partially built on the old gaming triangle of Paper-Rock-Scissors.  Paper beats Rock, Rock beats Scissors and Scissors beat Paper.  (Or, as my family has played, Chicken-Pickle-Elvis.  Chicken eats Pickle, Elvis eats Chicken, Pickle chokes Elvis.  Long road trips and tired kids make for interesting game design.)  The Fire Emblem games use other triangles that function almost in the same way, Axe-Sword-Spear, Wind-Thunder-Fire or Anima-Light-Dark.  They aren’t absolute triangles, they are just advantages, but they can be key in combat.  They also have some outliers like triangle-reversing weapons, knives, ranged weapons and healing, but the core triangle interactions are going to cover the bulk of combat.

DNA Codex Full

My design uses Strength, Agility and Focus.  Like the FE games, it’s not an absolute triangle, but rather, it’s a series of advantages.  Strength has an edge over Focus, Focus has an edge over Agility and Agility has an edge over Strength.  Each should perform mostly the same in the DPM (Damage Per Minute) over time against a neutral target.  Strength units hit harder but less frequently and with low critical rates, Agility units hit more often but with less power, also with low critical rates, and Focus units have power between those two, but act infrequency with high critical rates.  The RNG (Random Number Generator) makes the Focus units more “swingy” or “spiky” than the other two unit types (with an uneven damage distribution), but over time, all three should be more or less even.  Of course, the point is to play to your strengths tactically, and make your units more effective by how you use them.  That will be different with each type, if I do it right.

Key to this balance is how the metric for “over time” is chosen, or more accurately, how the DPM is split up into discrete attacks when it comes to balancing numbers.  If there are too few samples per minute, Focus units will be too erratic.  If there are too many samples required to create balance, the pacing of the game can suffer.  I’d like the baseline combat session to have about three segments of “balanced” time, or, put another way, enough time for a unit of each type to defeat three neutral units in roughly the same overall time.  If the Focus unit defeats one foe early thanks to a lucky critical hit, it might take a little longer on another unit as the RNG swings the other way, but over those three time segments, it should be roughly on par with the others.

These are rough ballpark guesstimates, by the way.  Balance is an iterative beastie, and this may well require some more tinkering.  That’s the point of playtesting, and why early playable prototypes are important… but that’s another article, perhaps.

Anyway, back to the DNA Grid, each type of unit, Strength, Agility and Focus, has a separate third of this overall grid (they won’t have access to the whole tripartite grid, just their section).  Combine that with the RNA Salvaging mechanic (units can steal RNA from foes they defeat, no matter the unit type), and the flexibility of a unit’s “build” can be pretty crazy.  A Focus unit might be able to use a midlevel Strength RNA sequence to shore up its baseline damage, or use an Agility RNA sequence to increase the frequency of its attacks.  The shape of the DNA Grid means that each type will have exclusive RNA sequences (and choosing a five-unit long exclusive RNA sequence locks out three-unit long RNA sequences from other types), but there’s room to tinker and fudge things around to tailor the play experience.  Since you’re tasked with controlling a squad of units instead of just one, you can make specialists or generalists, whichever befits your tactical style.

This, for example, is a Strength unit using a 5-wide Strength RNA Sequence, a 4-wide Strength RNA Sequence and all three units using the same 3-wide Strength RNA Sequence.  Note that the 3-wide cuts off different options for the Agility unit and the Focus unit.  The Focus unit could use that 3-wide Strength RNA Sequence and four 4-wide Focus RNA Sequences, but the Agility unit is more constrained when it’s using Strength “offspec” RNA, a simple byproduct of the geometry of their DNA grids.

Strength RNA Sequences

…and yes, I know that I’m going to have to make cleaner and cooler UI design for usability on this.  This is by no means the final art.  I need to communicate base type and function for each RNA Sequence… though maybe the base type is implicit in the shape.  Of course, when you get shapes that bend around a corner into two major axes, well, that’s another thing yet again… and maybe a good reason to just let the shape do the communicating.

———————————————————-

But speaking of triangles, what of the (un)Holy Trinity of HP-depletion based game design?  So long as there is damage to be dealt, damage to be avoided and a healing fudge factor, are we stuck with the trinity of “tank/damage dealer (DPS)/healer”?  Well, a few links are in order to start with, perhaps:

Syl issues a lovely rant/request on the trinity of MMO combat and how Guild Wars 2 is changing the game, and Nils takes that and runs with it, then takes a flying leap into the breach.  Big Bear Butt ranted magnificently on it not so long ago.  I’ve written about the trinity before, here and there.  I agree with these fine authors, that the trinity is functional, but I want something different.

To that end, I’m adopting a triage model, effectively the Battletech “battle of attrition” model with a slight healing fudge factor on top.  I’ve taken to thinking of it as a sort of multipart boxing match, a battle less about who gets in the big hits, and more about who can take the hits and keep going.  (This being what some boxing aficionados would have one believe is the heart of boxing.)  I want a battle of endurance where units aren’t always healing through big unavoidable damage, or finishing a fight in pristine condition.  Real fights hurt, and the winner is all too often just the last guy standing, no matter his condition.

As such, I’m going to push healing to the curb a bit.  I still like that healing can be a fudge factor for tactical mistakes, but on the other hand, if a single mistake doesn’t hurt as much, it’s not as necessary.  That’s where I’m coming from on this, at least.  I intend to avoid OHKO (One Hit Knock Out) moves, and make each fight be one where smart tactics of positioning, careful target selection, communication (AI units can communicate across certain distances), focused fire and careful planning carry the day.

Healing will be changed under this triage and attrition model.  Each unit can perform a small self-heal or heal another unit, but those actions cost time, and sometimes time is the most important element.

…but time is a big topic for another article.  Balance, Part 5… when I get it put together.

Still, when each unit can afford to take a handful of hits, the hope is that healing won’t be quite as necessary as a fudge factor, and the focus can be on smart offensive tactics rather than simply wading in and healing through mistakes.  Again, playtesting will be crucial here, to make sure this winds up being fun without being onerous, and that the tactical play can stand on its own without players leaning on the healing crutch.  It will be a lot of number crunching, I think, and some systems analysis, but I think it can work.

Battletech is very playable, after all, and it has no healing at all in most iterations of the game.  Repairs come after the mission is done, not during combat.  (The MechCommander games played a bit with this by including Repair Bays, which changed the game significantly in some cases, though they notably only used them for longer, tougher missions.  That seems like a fair compromise to me.)  Similarly, Fire Emblem games tend to have sparse and somewhat weak healing, making smart tactics more important.

Short story long, I’m not opposed to healing as a fudge factor, I just want to see if I can shift the focus to a different set of tactics.  Healing works, but as with the holy trinity of MMO combat, it’s not the only way to do things.

There’s a lot to consider in my design still, but these, as always, are submitted to public airing in the hopes that they can spur thought and discussion.  My design is by no means the One True Way to design games, it’s just the way I’m doing things, for better or worse.  And, as noted before, I’m not much of a programmer.  I’m not certain at all that this will ever be made.  Still, it’s nice to at least go through the logic and think things through, especially if what I present here can help someone else.

See you next time!

Oh, and just for fun, if all this blather of game design hasn’t bored you yet, and the industry interests you, try this:

So You Want to Work in the Video Game Industry…

Maybe there’s good reason I’m instinctively writing first about the game design, rather than start with the story/setting and snazzy concept art.  Y’see, I’d rather have substance over style.  I can add style very easily (and indeed, the terminology I’m using is certainly not inviolate if I come up with a more flavorful theme)… getting the core game down right is more important to me.

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Cloning Clyde

Our company’s Cloning Clyde game released on Steam!  Finally, my four-year-old’s favorite XBox game can be played on the PC.  It’s a fun platformer with a delightfully weird sense of humor.  The clone mechanic and DNA splicing make for some great platforming.

It’s even on sale at the moment, though the baseline price of $5 isn’t all that painful to start with.

Cloning Clyde

Of course, maybe that means that now she’ll want the PC even more, what with Minecraft and Cloning Clyde on the system.  Maybe I’m getting punted to the XBox after all.  Hrm…

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I’m not stalling for time while I put together another Balance article.  Nope, not at all.  This is something I’ve been itching to share but only recently got permission to do so.

I’m an artist in the game industry.  I work with other artists who also happen to be in the game industry, which is convenient, since we’re working on the same projects at the same company.  Here at NinjaBee, the little studio that I work for, the artists have started monthly art challenges.  These keep our skills up and are just plain fun.  Beside that, most of these other artists are better than I am, so if you like my scribblings and paintings I offer on occasion, you might just like seeing what other artists come up with.

Find ‘em thisaway:

http://ninjabeeart.blogspot.com/

But please, don’t mess up the place.  It’s a nice, quiet, classy blog where some game artists post weird, wacky art.  I’m sharing because it’s great art by some great people, and I figure a few of you might appreciate that sort of thing.  It might even spur some of you to try some of our challenges, which can be great exercises for anyone interested in working in this industry.

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Social Games

Mwahahaha!

You want social games?  Deal with people.  They will always be the weakest link.

And for the record?  I applaud Ryan’s moves here.  “Kirk to the GDC’s Kobiyashi Maru” indeed.

Tangentially, the commenter in Eric’s discussion thread who noted that “rules are for both the admins and the players” is crucial to good governance.

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What would a world without death look like?

There are many answers, though, and as always, chasing through implications and ramifications and unintended consequences can make for some very interesting thoughts.  Story hooks abound, and fictional universes can be built around tweaking death, like nudging the cosmological constant or the boiling point of water and seeing how (or if) life evolves in parallel universes.

A few links to start with, though:

Merely Magical – An old article of mine digging a bit into magic and what sort of effects it has on storytelling.

Ravnica – Magic the Gathering’s city-plane where some of the spirits of the dead are stuck and cannot pass on, so naturally, many become politicians, er, gangsters, while another group embraces undeath as a way of life.

Valkyrie Profile – Where Japanese writers plumb Norse myths for RPG fodder, winding up with a game where most characters are introduced at their death, and only then does the adventure start.

Gameplay and Story Segregation – In a world with FullLife materia, why again did Aeris die and stay dead?  Because Story is inviolate, and CRPGs tend to be noninteractive movies gated by grindy gameplay.  Speaking of which…

Final Fantasy X’s Farplane – People who die in Spira leave their bodies and move on as spirits that eventually turn into pyreflies.  They populate this odd place, occasionally taking spirit form when loved ones come to call.  They aren’t gone, exactly, but they aren’t what we might call alive or undead either.  Oh, and if someone actually dies without accepting death, their stubborn spirits will likely become fiends, or monsters.  Interesting origin story for monsters, that.

Death is a significant component of our mortal life, so it’s understandable that fiction would experiment with it.  Even something like necromancy, a fantasy staple, has Sabriel (a fantastic book) standing in the wings, toying with expectations.  And then there’s the zombies.  Oh, the zombies and their amazing culture.  And let’s not speak of vampires and their form of undeath/immortality/inexplicable popularity.

And yes, there’s the concept of immortality.  What if there really is no death at all, instead of a multitude of mulligan mechanics?  Forget the Life spells, what if nobody could ever die in the first place?  Would there be population problems?  How in the world would assassins make a living?

…speaking of which, in a fictional setting where death is cheaply and easily overcome, it strikes me that skullduggery of all sorts, from political to passionate, could prove a tricky thing indeed.  Of course we don’t think of that instinctively, but really, there are implications that would change a lot of behavior, religion, customs and even art.

If you found yourself in a world where wars were literally unwinnable by human asset attrition, how would one actually get anywhere?  Would peace be more likely, or would truly determined fighters just find new fronts to fight on?

How would thrillseekers get their rush?  Would skydivers even bother with parachutes?  Would they have crater competitions?

Would ancestor worship change if one could simply talk to them instead of praying to them?  How would the ancestors feel about being worshipped?

Would people even have children or would the population be static?  Is age a component of immortality of this sort?  Would aged people wind up with dementia for millennia?

Would they want to die?

I’ll admit, death is a pretty big thing to change, but even just changing that single thing can have significant repercussions for a fictional universe.  Interconnections abound in any sufficiently complex world, and it can be difficult to track down all the tangents.  Life is complex.  So is death.  Perhaps that’s why they are so fascinating.

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