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Archive for July, 2011

I’m not a fan of PvP (Player vs. Player combat) as found in most MMOs.  The prevailing DIKU DNA, manifested in levels, gear and ganking, just doesn’t provide the level playing field that I prefer when it comes to pitting my playing skills against those of another human.

I loved Street Fighter and other assorted fighters when I was in high school.  SF2 really hooked me, and I thoroughly enjoyed several derivative games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, SFAlpha, Killer Instinct, King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, DarkstalkersSoul Edge, and their variants.  Mortal Kombat is too exhibitive for my taste, but for a while there, there were a lot of good fighter games floating around, so there was no dearth of options.  The most expensive game I ever purchased was the SNES cartridge of SF2Turbo ($70 at the time, stupidly expensive, but still a ton of fun).  My friends and I spent a lot of time and money in arcades and at home with fighting games, a not uncommon thing for teens of the 90s.

My skills were never such that I could play in a tournament, but I did hold my own against most arcade players, and won far more often than I lost.  It was very satisfying to play in a hard-fought match and come out on top.  Steamrolling new players wasn’t much fun, and I’d often take it easy on them reflexively.  I like to win, but I like it to be an honest win that requires good play on my part.  Perhaps I was doing a Darwinian disservice to those noobs by taking it easy on them, but I tried to always have fun and try to let the other player have fun too.  It seemed to me to be a better way to spend my time.  Constantly losing to a better player is only fun if you’re learning something  (and if they aren’t a jerk).  Frustration isn’t fun.

The best part of these fighting games was the intricate balancing jobs they did, working with disparate characters and playstyles.  Some games were better balanced than others, to be sure, but on the whole, success in fighting games when playing against other players usually boiled down to player skill.  This made successes sweeter and failures more instructive.  It was also a lot of fun.

Dave Sirlin has made a bit of a career out of writing about SF games and fighting games in general, and he wrote a great article some time ago about how World of Warcraft teaches the wrong lessons.  Everything Sirlin writes is filtered through his SF background and his “Play to Win” ethos, so it’s not going to be a set of assertions that works for everyone, but it’s a solid read, and really strikes at the heart of what I don’t like in MMO PvP.

One of his memorable quips is the suggestion of a “level 60 Chun-li” and the absurdity that such an image presents.  It’s silly to think that player time investment in building a character would outweigh player skill in the fighting game scene, yet it’s precisely that paradigm that drives PvP in most MMOs.  This is why open world PvP inevitably degenerates into a cycle of bullying and “ganking“; players aren’t looking for a fair fight, they are looking to win, or worse, to give grief to other players.  A game system where time investment brings more powerful characters in the form of higher levels and/or better gear doesn’t offer much in the way of a fair fight.  (Notably, it also causes problems even when you’re not playing against other players… there are problems playing with other players against the computer.  Levels do weird things sometimes.)

I might note that a very narrow power band might make for tolerable PvP, of course.  Guild Wars gets close to this.  World of Warcraft, with its endgame characters being orders of magnitude more powerful than new characters, is a bit different.  It shouldn’t take 300 characters to kill one foe.  (Sadly, the video has been lost on that one, and the 300 weren’t even enough, but still… the power of a end game character is absurd compared to a new character.)  Maybe that makes for good fantasy power trips if you’re the powerful one (and that was a Player vs. Environment contest), but it’s awful for PvP.  Puzzle Pirates has a very narrow power band, and the vast bulk of the game is based on player skill.  This is a big part of why I still consider it to be my MMO home.  It just feels more like my skill matters, rather than my time investment.

I want a level playing field for PvP contests.  If I fail, it should be because I wasn’t good enough.  If I win, it should be because I played well.  It’s all about player skill.

I don’t see that in most MMOs, which is one of the reasons I’m a dedicated solo Explorer who occasionally indulges in dungeon prowling with other players.  I don’t mind an imbalanced contest against the computer’s monsters (though it’s nice to have a spectrum of challenge), but when I’m playing with other players, I want to know that the contest is one of skill, strategy and tactics, not a barely disguised measurement of time investment.

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My Zomblobs! is a game designed in shells.  There are layers to the design, allowing for a “bird’s eye” game experience with little micromanaging, all the way down to a Civilization-like world conquering game with a Tactical RPG layer, between them plenty of opportunities to min-max your way into gaming geek happiness.

I’ve thought on more than one occasion that it could also be developed that way.  As in, develop the outer shell as a functional game and iterate down through the shells until it’s ready to weld to the TRPG (which could also function on its own) as a complete package.  Some of those iterations can stand on their own as playable games, perhaps even marketable ones.

This does spread out the work and allow for monetization to keep a project going, and even allows for design changes if it’s found that one of the iterations or directions isn’t playing well.  It also runs the risk of oversaturating the IP, making releases too disparate (in theme and/or release date) and therefore too easily ignored, getting lost in a crowd of shovelware (or becoming shovelware), dev team turnover, and code bloat.  There’s also the risk that all the shells may not play nice together if they have to bend to accommodate separate releases.

Still, there’s something appealing about the notion of breaking up a larger project into smaller bites to make it more manageable.  I’m not really sold on either approach at the moment, but it is still interesting looking at options.  The iPhone market and even XBox Live have allowed for smaller games to have decent viability in recent years, and I instinctively want to leverage that to make something bigger.  It’s a business sense that I haven’t honed very well, to be honest, but one that I can’t quite ignore.  I’d love to focus purely on designing the game and doing art for it, but the sad reality is that money makes the world go ’round, and if I want to turn the time I’ve spent on this into money (which really would be nice), I need to look at the business side of things.

On the other hand, since this is a one-man show at present, and I don’t have much programming ability or money to hire some, well… this may well all be academic anyway.  Sure, I’d like to learn the programming someday, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Still… dream big or go home, right?

At any rate, since I’m thinking of shells, here’s a rough concept of the outermost shell of Zomblobs!, the 3D globe Ataxx-variant I’m dubbing the Cytoglobe:

Cytoglobe layer

It’s a game that could stand alone as a smart phone game (or XBox Live or PC, whatever… though smart phone mobility and connectivity opens up a few new design options), and it could host a variety of variations, from multiplayer rule variants to a full map editor.  Ataxx-style play isn’t really all that mentally taxing, but it’s still fun, and I think a global geodesic version could be a nice spin on the idea.  (There’s also a fun tactile appeal of playing this on a touch screen… or even with Kinect controls.  Sort of a “megalomaniac conquering the globe” feel, as it were.)

Of course, from there it’s possible to drill down into discrete blobs with hit points instead of instant-capture, species-specific boons and weaknesses, location-specific special effects (with real world GPS twists, perhaps), progression mechanics (sometimes mistakenly called “RPG elements”), resource management, research trees and even stories.  The full Zomblobs! game would then only be a hop skip and a jump away, pulling all the elements together in a tighter fashion and welding them to the tactical game.

There’s a lot I want to do here, and there are good reasons to limit the scope of any single project.  Absent an organized plan of production, things can get hairy fast.  I’m still not sure what I’ll even be able to do… but it’s good to at least make sure I look ahead.  Forewarned is forearmed, and all that rot.

Any thoughts?

Would you buy a game that’s effectively a “slice” of a larger game?  Would you just expect it to be a sort of neo-shareware, offered for free, and the other layers monetized underneath for those who care to dig deeper?  Would you like a suite of games that work like cogs in a larger machine, or would you just want the larger machine?  Could you wait for new pieces?

…are any of you bored programmers with an itch to work on this?

…would a publicly readable wiki on the design be something worth making available?

…would Battle for Wesnoth eat my lunch anyway?

…EDITED to add the following great link to The Rampant Coyote’s recent article on “Feature Creep”… a highly relevant article as I sort out exactly what I want to do here.

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Long Arm of the Law

I’m generally a law-abiding sort of person.  I’m a careful driver.

…so when the officer pulled me over on my way to work, I wasn’t quite sure what he was thinking.

It turns out that my annual emission and safety inspection was past due, so, naturally, since (even petty) law is important to enforce (unless you’re politically connected, of course… laws are only for the little people), the officer pulled me over and cited me for it.  In the process, he found that my driver’s license was expired.  Naturally, I got cited for that as well.  I’m pretty sure he was grumpy about that, since he had that sort of stern, constipated look that officers seem to wear so well.

Yes, I’m a terrible, terrible criminal.  It’s a good thing I don’t have much dignity or I’d have been annoyed about being pulled over with the flashing lights for a paperwork infraction.

If the news radio is to be believed, he should probably have been out taking care of a homicide or something, since those happen almost every day or so.  I suppose that I should be grateful in the abstract that he didn’t have anything better to do than pull me over for a paperwork violation.  On the other hand, I kinda wish he had something more important to do.  I could give him a list.

As Denninger notes, it only takes one bad experience with officers to start to see all law officers with a jaundiced eye, no matter the real facts of a case.  (I was undeniably past due on my registration and licensing, but those are victimless and far from criminal offenses, and perhaps not even worth worrying about.  I guess the office was low on revenue, and taxing property just doesn’t pay the bills.)  The same principle works on judicial officers, politicians and…

wait for it…

game developers

As my boss suggested to our programmers, game developers are the gods of our little game worlds.  We wield absolute power over permissions, presentation and, er… Putress.  (Yes, that’s an oblique reference to over-reliance on cut scenes to tell a dev-controlled story instead of letting players tell the story.  Sometimes alliteration is a bit of a stretch.)  We build the systems that make a game function.  If players want to pick up an apple in Stormwind, they have to have a shopping list for permission.  Otherwise, there is an absolute, unbreakable ban on picking apples.

We don’t even have to rely on bored police officers to enforce things for us (though Game Masters are useful to moderate grey areas), we just have to make actions we don’t want absolutely impossible.  We are the petty tyrants and dictators of our products, we can do that.  Arguably, we should do that and not let players get full of themselves (coughEVEmonaclecough) and think they own the game.  Customers aren’t always right, though they are usually worth listening to, or at least, for the more cynical, giving them impression that they are listened to.

Of course, there’s always human error to deal with, as evidenced when Lord British famously forgot about his own immortality flag and died as a natural result, but even that was something a developer messed up.  Now, it’s true that hackers might break your game world, modders might mod, and hex editors might coopt your code, but for the most part, players have no choice but to exist and abide by a game’s rules.

All the more important, then, to get those laws right.

Petty and pithy laws, like those the officer bothered me for, might have a place in a nanny state hellbent on spending other people’s money on bad deals, but they serve little purpose in game worlds.  You think the ten dollar horse and sparklepony were something to fuss about?  How about a “right to run” tax?  Microtransaction tollbooths?  Maybe a “Random GM doesn’t like your name” surcharge?

That sort of thing really can get onerous.  Games need rules to exist and function, it’s true… but dumb rules only annoy players for little benefit in gameplay.  What exactly constitutes “dumb” is certainly contextual, and in a game with a huge, elaborate ruleset and a big playerbase, you’ll almost certainly run into differing opinions on which rules are dumb and why.  You might not even know until you do a lot of playtesting, or after the game is in the wild and you get a bunch of hate emails.  Still, as the ultimate arbiter of your game, as a designer, you have to own those rules and not be afraid of hardcoding them, enforcing them, and when necessary, changing them.

It might be good to be a minor deity, creating a pocket universe for a game, but the position comes with responsibility.  At the end of the day, though, the devs must be the “adults in the room” and lay down the law for their game.  Devs can’t afford to be squishy on the rules.  Even Magic the Gathering, a game famous for cards that break the core game’s rules, only works because those core rules are clarified as well as possible and enforced strictly so that the quirky cards work well with them.  At least, in official sanctioned play.

Playing with house rules, well… that’s another thing entirely.

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20 is the New 85

In one way of looking at it, level 20 is the new “endgame” for the F2P slice of World of Warcraft.  Characters are locked at level 20, and progression past that point will be largely based on gear.  It’ll be an unholy grind of rerunning instances and plowing through the crafting system.  I have to wonder, though…

What is the highest GearScore you can attain?  What is the most difficult dungeon you can complete (solo or otherwise)?  What is the highest Achievement point total you can accumulate?  How many classes can you beat one-on-one?  How many Exploration Achievements can you get?  How many quests can you complete?  How much coin can you gather and how quickly?  How many unique pets can Hunters acquire and get screenshots with?  How far can you get from the newbie grounds, and where can you go without dying?  (Rogues and stealthy Druids might just win this one.)

Y’know, Blizzard might be missing a few tricks here.

Normalized PvP is one that I’ve always wished they had.  The heirloom era makes PvP balance worse at low levels (though twinking made sure it was never really balanced), but what if the system arbitrarily set character stats (including level within a certain band, say levels 11-19 get snapped to level 20 or the like for the duration of the PvP event) to something they decided was “balanced”?  Might we see more interesting PvP at lower levels?  The Arena is sort of normalized in that everyone just has the best gear, but what if there were an equivalent at level 20?  (And then 30, then 40 and so on…)

There are a handful of dungeons available to level 20 characters, and it’s a great learning opportunity to play those at an appropriate level for as long as it takes to learn your class, rather than counting on outleveling the content.  You’d have to learn to play a lot earlier than at the now-level-85 endgame.

What if there were full-on raids at level 20 that could therefore be played by characters stuck at level 20?  We might, just might, see players learning about raiding earlier and how to play their class, rather than outgear the game.  That might be a Good Thing.  Of course, I have other ideas about raids, too, but still, just thinking out loud here.  What if these pre-endgame raids were normalized like PvP?

How else might the level 20 cap actually be a good thing for players and the game?  I can’t help but think that there’s potential there to teach players what the vaunted “endgame” is all about a bit earlier than the, well… the endgame.

Of course, there are pros and cons to teaching about endgame habits early, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.

It’s also notable that with the trial restrictions on characters, they might be as close as possible to “purist” WoW play.  Yes, they don’t get the multiplayer experience very easily (alleviated somewhat by the Dungeon Finder, which works just fine for trial/Starter accounts), but neither do they find their play distorted by heirloom gear (leveling is too fast, waaaa!), fairy godmother alts or the severely disjointed market via the Auction House that winds up pricing copper ore and bars at one gold apiece.  That’s a pittance to level 85 characters, but a week’s wages for a low level character.

Starter characters also don’t get the guild experience, but with the new guild incentives, they aren’t the purely social animals of old anyway.  Oh, and sufficiently leveled guilds will also accelerate the leveling pace of low level characters.  The horror!

So maybe, just maybe, guildless and godmotherless is a nice purist way to play the game.  Leave the default UI on and don’t bother with addons, and get a feel for the game as Blizzard designed it, rather than what bitter veterans complain about through distorted glasses.

…that’s not to say the game won’t have problems, of course.  It will.  It’s just that if you learn to accept a game for what it is and see what’s there, rather than what you want to see, you might just learn something.

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