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Posts Tagged ‘battletech’

Dice are one way to carry your team’s banner on the tabletop battlegrounds.

Davion

For Davion!

…of course, there’s not really a Tinker faction in BattleTech, but Tinker Dice will fit into a WarMachine play session nicely.  Unless you’re going to play WarMachine digitally, thanks to this project, but I digress.

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I’ve written about this a little bit before, in my Losing Control article, and I previewed it a little bit in my card preview in the Keeping Track article.  One of the key mechanics of my Zomblobs! game is the Heat mechanic.

Once again, here’s the preview card:

zomblob card murmurer

Of note for the Heat system (which I suppose could use a more snappy name, but hey, “Heat” worked for BattleTech, and this is inspired in big ways by that game, so I can’t be too picky) are the three key values in the lower left corner, and the Heat values in each Action Tile.  Action Tiles are the largest visual elements on the card, the stack of pink and blue rectangles on the right side.  They define what the unit can do for its Action each turn.

A unit’s options are limited by its present Heat value.  Heat is a scale from 1 to 12 (easily tracked with a D12, 2 D6s or pen and paper) which every unit needs to track.  The Norm value is where the unit starts along the scale in any given battle.  The Coma value is where the unit slips into a comatose state, unable to move, and only able to use the universal Recover Action instead of any of its other Actions.  The Fever value is where the unit crosses the threshold between cool and warm.  This is really where each breed (Aspirant, Feral or Zomblob) most strongly differs.

The card above shows a Zomblob unit, which starts in the warm section of the gauge.  While it’s there, it can only use Actions that have the pink “warm” background (and the standard Actions, Recover and Absorb).  These actions will make the unit’s Heat go down by the number noted in the costs section of the ‘Tile.  Zomblobs prefer to be hot and fevered, and when they cool down, they start malfunctioning.  This is reflected in the blue Action Tile; when in its non-Norm phase (cool, in this case), a Zomblob unit can only use the Actions with blue backgrounds, and as can be noted, the Murmurer’s cool Action isn’t quite as desirable as its warm ones (though it may be useful in mirror matches… otherwise, it’s going to be attacking its teammates).

Aspirant units, on the other hand, start off in the cool section of the gauge and melt down into mania if they get too hot, and their available Actions will reflect this.  Feral blobs are perhaps the most quirky here, as they are about as effective warm as they are cool, just in different ways.  A unit that specializes in fast melee single target strikes while cool might settle into slower strong Area of Effect or Swipe (arc) attacks while warm.  Ferals don’t particularly mind being warm or cool, they just function differently (and unlike the other two, they may use the Recover and Absorb Actions while in their “non-Norm” state).

This dance between heat states is one of the most important things to track in the game.  Sure, Health is important and the Time system is key to some tactics, but Heat will dictate what Actions you have available on any given turn, and that can make all the difference.

Consequently, one of the most crucial aspects of Support units in the game is the way they can help other units manage heat (or inflict heat troubles on opponents).  Notice the last Action Tile on the sample card up there.  The Murmurer can make a target unit gain heat (and time).  This is a multifaceted tool, usable on *any* target.  Sometimes it might be advisable to heat up your own unit, even if it does mean a time delay (though I might just reduce or omit that to make the Action more useful).  Sometimes it’s best to heat up an opposing unit to throw their tactical options off.  It might even be useful against an opposing Zomblob, purely for the delay.

Each unit also (often) has access to the universal Recover Action, which costs 2 Time Points but heals 2 Health Points and moves the unit’s Heat 2 units towards its Norm.  Sometimes it’s best to stop and take a breather.  (Though the healing part of that might be too strong… playtesting will be key to nailing down the magnitudes of these functions.)

This will probably make more sense with more cards to compare, but that’s the core idea behind the Heat system.  It’s a way to modify the tactics of combat, and a way to make choices and timing more important.  Do you go for the big attack that will put your unit in its “off” state, or do you play it safe and Recover or use a cheaper Action?  I think it’s these choices, and their concurrent risk and reward, that make this sort of game most interesting.

What think you?

Oh, and I’ll write more about the combat system next time.  That’s really important, too, I’m just trying to break these articles up into concepts.

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One of the cardinal… guidelines… of game design is the K.I.S.S. mandate: Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Designers (and I count myself in this group, though I’m just an indie, and an artist by day) have a tendency to want to make intricate systems with many moving parts.  Part of the beauty of a good game is how well design elements mesh and make something more than the sum of their parts.  Tangentially, this is why emergent gameplay is so fascinating, but that’s an article for another time.  This tendency is an asset and a liability.

Like a precision watchmaker, I find joy in making initially disparate parts work together to make a great game, and like that watchmaker, sometimes most of my work will never be seen.  It’s like working in special effects in a movie; if you’re doing your job right as the FX guy, nobody knows because the effects are seamless.  (I almost went into movies; that is what my degree was geared for, Pixar-style, but I refuse to work in California.)  Like a good watch, a good game should present a simple function to its end user, and do an excellent job with this primary function.  Maybe there are bells and whistles under the hood that are there for further tinkering, maybe the function takes a lot of work behind the face, but in the end, a watch tells time.

A game provides… what?  A good play experience at the very least, hopefully with more depth as players dig into the strategies and implications of the design.  This exploration should come naturally, though.  Dropping an encyclopedia on a new player might be fine in some niches, but generally, the old Othello tagline “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master” is a pretty good rule of thumb.

Of course, each game will be different, and will appeal to different players, so this is more about culling extraneous design elements than it is about establishing a baseline for all games.  If a particular game design element just isn’t giving a lot of benefit for its cost, maybe it needs to be cut.

A couple of days ago, I posted a unit card for my Zomblobs! game.  This is a game that is meant to be a tabletop wargame, in the vein of BattleTech or WarMachine… just with blobs and some other quirks.  Here’s the card again for reference (and remember, it’s effectively boiling a whole page of data into a single card):

Zomblob Card Murmurer

As Andrew and Yeebo noted last time, it’s a busy little beastie.

There are three major mechanics in play here that drive the game engine:  Time, taken largely from my Tick Talk Time articleHeat, inspired in equal parts by BattleTech and Hordes and a simplification of what I wrote about in my Losing Control article, and the D6 Combat (no fancy single word keyword for this yet) based largely on the World of Warcraft Miniatures tabletop tactical game.  There’s nothing revolutionary here, like 4D space or psychometric controls, but that’s not really what I’m aiming for anyway.  This is a part of a bigger whole, ultimately, but it needs to function as a tabletop game as well.  Consequently, I’m dancing around a few self-imposed design constraints.

One, I want it to be easy to pick up, both for new players and veterans of Warhammer and the like.  Two, I want it to be a relatively small scale game, where every unit is important (think Final Fantasy Tactics rather than Warhammer).  Three, I want to explore the tactical implications of time.

It’s that third one that I hung a lot of hopes on.  Zomblobs! Tabletop isn’t a game where players take turns moving their whole army, like Warhammer or WarMachine.  It’s more like the WoW Minis game, where units move according to their own personal clock, and turns can wind up interwoven like the queue in Final Fantasy X.  (Again, I wrote more about this in the Tick Talk Time article.)

This, of necessity, means each unit needs a way to track their time.  Officially, these are the rules for Time (though I may rework the text for clarity as time goes on, this is the core of the design):

Every Action in the game costs Time.  Time is listed in the Costs section of each Action.

When an Action is used, the unit gains Time Points as noted in the Action Cost.  A unit can never have more than 6 Time Points.

Each unit will need to track its current Time.  A D6 die will work well for this.

A unit can only take its turn to move or use Actions if it has no Time Points.

If all units have Time Points, remove one Time Point from all units.  After this, any units that now have no Time Points may take their turn as normal, acting in Initiative order (highest initiative goes first, roll for ties), choosing to move and/or Act.

A unit’s turn incurs at least a single Time Point cost no matter what, even if they do nothing but pass their turn.

This should do what I want it to do, with teams interweaving their turns, units acting when they are ready instead of waiting for their laggard teammates.  This is also a mechanical theme; Feral units are fastest and will be able to act more frequently and move farther, while the Zomblobs are slow, plodding, powerful beasts, and the Aspirants are somewhere in between.  It might be a lot to think about and track, though.

…wandering off on a brief tangent again, Mark Rosewater has written a few times about tracking information in the Magic the Gathering game (though my Google-fu is weak today and I can’t find said articles, sadly).  The game has this Frankenstein’s Monster card with a weird mishmash of counters to show its state.  In recent years, they have tried to make counters only be +1/+1 or -1/-1, with a few exceptions like time counters.  This streamlined the game and made it easier to understand just what those little counters on the cards meant.  In effect, it means that the players have to track and parse fewer things to understand the game state.  The game has been “dumbed down”, perhaps, but it made it easier to play while still maintaining the bulk of the complexity and tactical depth that comes with those unit modification counters.

…back to the Time mechanic of Zomblobs, then, it’s one more thing to track in the game.  This, on top of Health (Hit Points, really, as Yeebo wrote eloquently about) and Heat (both of which will have a 12-unit span, making them trackable with a D12 like Time Points can be trackable with a D6).  Now, tracking three things per unit isn’t terrible when compared to some tabletop games, but it does mean fiddling around with pen and paper or dice.  I’m not inherently opposed to this, it’s expected in this sort of game, but I am keenly aware of the potential pain involved in tracking too much.  It seems like tracking Time isn’t quite as essential to the unit as Health or Heat (it’s not even part of the unit card), but at the same time, it’s pretty central to what I’m doing with the game’s combat tactics and pacing.  Time and Heat are both costs for each unit’s action, and they are fundamental to how units interact.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the time system will be too much to handle for players who just want to take turns.  I think in the balance, the Time system adds enough tactical depth that it’s worth the cost of tracking it.  Maybe I’m wrong, but hopefully playtesting will give me a better idea of how well it’s received.

I hope to have a set of PDF files available here in a couple of weeks or so for printing by beta testers.  I’d greatly appreciate any help in testing this, especially by those of you who do have experience with other tabletop wargames.  I’ll make a big post on that when it’s ready, but I figured I’d mention it now.  In the meantime, does this make sense?  Any thoughts?

Thanks for the input!

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Copra asked a little while ago about MMO settings, specifically, “What would you like your MMO to be?

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, but mostly in a whole package sort of way, pontificating mechanics, business model and such along with the setting.  Just for fun, though, while I’m working on another balance article, I wanted to write a bit purely about a setting I’d love to see in an MMO.

While I’d like to see things like Dinotopia (from the book, not the lame TV versions) and Midkemia represented well in a graphical MMO (Midkemia Online is a text MMO… I’ve nothing against such, they just don’t interest me as much), or even Warmachine, what I’d really like to see is a blend of things.  Over at Copra’s place, I called it “an alternate history Steampunk MechWarrior game”.  Perhaps a bit more detail is in order, perhaps not, but it’s fun to get things down in type.  That’s sort of what I do here.

First, there’s Steampunk, a curious fiction genre adequately summarized by the Wikipedia entry, or in more entertaining form, by the Girl Genius comics (yes, yes, the Foglios refer to GG as “gaslamp fantasy“, but I like that twist of the fantastic in the steampunk mix) or the Clockworks comics.  It’s a sort of alternate history where steam power became more prominent than it did in our history, with a bit of Leonardo da Vinci and even Escher thrown in, maybe with some magical elements.  I love the look and feel of this sort of gritty, gear and steam-based technological world.  The Industrial Revolution was a fascinating period of history, so riffing off of that makes me happy.

MechWarrior, on the other hand, is a subset of the BattleTech universe, a fictional far future where different factions of humans use big, stompy robots to fight interstellar wars.  It has a long and storied history, and the IP has spawned a ton of games in a variety of formats.  MechWarriors are the elite warriors of that universe, pilots of said big stompy robots.  There are other military units to be sure, but infantry and even most tanks aren’t much of a match for these giant walking tank-things that typically range from 20 to 100 tons, bristling with energy, ballistic and even melee weapons.

I’d like to mix the two.  I’m imagining a game setting where the Industrial Revolution turned into an arms race, with each country devising its own steam-powered ‘Mechs as the ultimate fighting machines.  A purely terrestrial political war might not have the vast resources that the interstellar Inner Sphere of BattleTech has, but that’s part of the draw.  ‘Mechs would be more ramshackle, more likely to be MacGyvered into military service than perfectly cloned assembly line hot rods.  They wouldn’t be far and away better than the other machines of war, but they would be important “heavies” in combat.  They would be steam and gear-powered, but you could even see prototype Gauss Cannons (purely magnetic) and Gatling Guns.  Scientific innovations would be rapid, and experimental weapons might just carry the day in several instances… or might backfire spectacularly.

The political landscape would be a mix of feudal systems and nascent city-states, with most major countries shattered into several internal factions.  Such a diverse political backdrop could provide very fertile ground for mercenary work.  Reputation could be interesting, and managing a career by playing the lines between powers who may or may not know of your work history (communications being a bit more primitive in those days) could be an interesting non-combat large scale puzzle.

Similarly, the economic game could be a lot of fun.  The arms race would be fueled by weird science, always chasing new energy sources.  Factions would try to squeeze the most out of their controlled territory and even expand into the New World.

…which opens up even more potential.  Forget the Eastern Kingdoms vs. Kalimdor, let’s talk stompy robots storming New England.  And don’t forget, ‘Mechs function underwater…

…and you never know what sort of things a mad scientist might come up with.  Even smaller mouse-sized ‘bots might be a threat…

Mouse Mech

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My Perpetuum

I want to like Perpetuum, I really do.  It has stompy robots, EVE-like thumbing of the nose at MMO traditions, and pretty visuals.

It’s just… I can’t run it.  OK, technically I can, mostly.  I’ve been through a couple of early tutorials (fairly nicely done, actually), but it’s slow, visually inconsistent (with texture resolution wildly variable) and a bit laggy or unstable (I’m not sure which, but at least it hasn’t crashed).

I should stress here:  I think this is almost entirely my computer and connection’s fault.  It even has some trouble with WoW, of “runs on a toaster” fame.  Quite naturally, Perpetuum, a more demanding game, will have trouble, then.  I was hoping to be able to play anyway, but it’s just not working well for me.  I bear no ill will toward the game for this.

From what I’ve seen though, I can make note of a few things about game design:

One, there are a LOT of choices to make in character creation.  Since I have almost no way of knowing what those choices will mean in the long run, I leaned to energy weapons (I love PPCs in BattleTech) and mining/crafting (I was curious to see if one could make a career in that instead of combat).  There winds up being nine “classes”, I think, if the “spark” choice is indicative of major gameplay focus, but plenty of knobs to fiddle with under the hood to make yourself a generalist or specialist.  The sequential nature of this series of choices is a bit tedious if you want to go back and change some aspect of your character, but without knowing what any of them really do to the play experience, I didn’t really bother much with a lot of tweaking.

The game itself doesn’t do a good job of explaining what it actually is, or what you’re expected to do.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing for a sandbox type game, but Perpetuum does seem frontloaded with decisions with no measure of what’s really important to gameplay.  Not having experience actually making those choices work, I’m not sure if any build is viable or if there will be one or two “golden path” builds.  I’d like to think anything can work, though; otherwise, frontloaded decisions like that are a Bad Idea.  It stinks to require a third party wiki doctorate program to understand character generation.  (And of course, if you can respec, it’s not a big deal, but they make it a point to point out a few immutable choices, like the Spark that I’m roughly equating to a class, fairly or unfairly.)

Two, built on the first, is the system of character progression.  Apparently, your account gets the equivalent of XP (or skill points, rather, that get spent on training) based purely on time.  Also, any character on the account can spend those points.  As near as I can tell (though I’d be happy to be wrong on this), spent points cannot be refunded, even by deleting a character.

This does a few things.  First, early adopters win.  At least, if skills are important.  I presume this will be like what I understand of EVE, though, where skill points are mostly just a baseline and player skill and planning are the real key to progress.  Second, altitis hurts.  If you want to try out all nine “classes”, or even just different builds, making alternate characters to tinker can suck up those account points quickly.  Maybe.  Again, I’m not sure, not having spent a lot of time with the game, but again, this seems to benefit those who plan far ahead and/or can live with whatever uninformed choices they make on creation.  If the game is flexible enough and/or playable with low skill points spent, that’s not likely to be a big problem, but if it’s easy to make a deeply flawed build and/or it’s expensive spending skill points to get to playable states, that’s going to be an unfortunate limit in the game.

Three, the UI isn’t like DIKU MMOs much at all.  I’ve read that it’s like EVE’s UI, which would make sense (yes, I still need to try out EVE, but that probably won’t happen until next year).  Looking at it in a hypothetical vacuum, it’s a complex beast, but it seems to be laid out fairly well.  You can move around most elements of the UI, which is a great feature.  It does come across a little like Windows on top of a game, so it’s not really high on the immersion scale, but that doesn’t bother me too much.  All in all, the UI seems complex, but clean and usable.

Aaaand that’s about all I’ve got at present.  I do wish I could have a cockpit view, like a MechWarrior, but that’s more a matter of taste than anything else (and maybe I just missed it).  The basic robot I started with couldn’t jump, so Guild Wars haters take note, but I didn’t really expect it to.  Controls are clean enough, standards WASD/mouse controls… though A and D strafe rather than turn by default.

Anyway, the game is still in open beta until November 25th, I think, so if it’s interesting to you at all, you may as well check it out. They aren’t planning on wiping characters at the end of the open beta, so if you like it, that’s a bonus. EDIT:  I just got an email from them announcing the launch, and I was wrong, they will wipe characters and experience. I do recommend at least investigating it, as it seems like it has a lot of potential.  I’m curious to see how the progression scheme settles out, and whether or not those character generation bits really matter.  That could make or break the game.

As much as I’d like to like it, though, it’s just not going to be a game I can play much at the moment, and with a $10/month subscription impending, it’s not likely to be a game that I can play later if I get a better machine.  Still, I wish the Perpetuum guys well, both for their own sake and in hopes that their success can pave the way for a MechWarrior MMO.  It really does look like a good game that I’d have plenty of fun with, it’s just not going to work out.  Maybe it will for you.

Other voices chiming in:

EVE + Battletech?

Gremrod’s Terminal Chat

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Perpetuum looks like a fusion of BattleTech and EVE.  “EVE OnLand“, perhaps.  I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment, so I’m going to go tinker for a little while with their open beta (which starts today!), assuming they let me.  I’m looking forward to it, anyway; I’ve wanted to play a good Mech-flavored MMO for a while now.  (It turns out that Project of Planets wasn’t terribly impressive, but then, it was still under construction when I last checked in.  Maybe it rocks now.)

Now that I’ve got WoW out of my system (thanks, BBB!  Screenshots thisaway…), it’s time to see what I can do with some stompy Mechs.  It’s a subscription game, so I may never have a better chance to see what it’s like.

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I’ve been designing some miniatures I can get the Shapeways guys to print out eventually, ultimately for use in a pair of games I’m working on.  One is a six player (or three or two) elemental sort of chess, so I just need models, but the other is sort of a fantasy/BattleTech mashup, a tabletop tactical miniatures game almost in the vein of WarMachine.

I’m running into a design question, though that I’d like some input on.  I’m trying to find a good way to keep track of information for the combat units.  For those of you with experience with or interest in mini games like this, how do you like to keep track of unit status?  This might include things like hit points, status afflictions (morale, poisons, buff and debuffs, auras, that sort of thing), weapon loadout, special moves, or any of a number of other variables.

I’ve seen games like HeroClix and the World of Warcraft minis game try to encode at least some of this data on a rotating base under the figure.  This has always seemed like a gimmick to me, but it does reduce the number of things you have to keep track of on paper off the combat arena.  The models seem a bit flimsier for the mechanical base, though, so it’s definitely a tradeoff in terms of usability.  They also seem a bit more… “gamey” than the games that just use minis on bases that might have a more simulationist feel.

Other games like WarMachine and BattleTech offload the bookkeeping to papers.  This isn’t as easy to tell the status of things at a glance, but it does allow for much more detailed information and thus, potentially more game design elements and clearer design.

Warhammer does a little of both, in a way, letting unit count in a block of infantry be a visible tally of a combat group’s strength, but it also has a lot of data offloaded onto paper, especially for hero units and special gear or magical effects.

One of the strengths of the Magic: The Gathering card game is that they have tried to reduce the bookkeeping and memory issues over the years.  Once upon a time you might have to keep track of multiple different upkeeps, special effects and what different counters represented (is that a +0/+2, +1/+1 or +2/+0 counter?).  These days, they have tried to distill these issues and have the “board state” give as much information as possible.  It’s nice to have a lot of data out there in the gamespace rather than offloaded to paper, but some things just don’t code well in a small amount of space.  Reducing the number of things players have to remember also helps speed up the game and make it easier to learn, as well as easier to play.

My question then is about that data encoded in the figure bases, whether it’s HP, action arcs, facing, whatever.  Is that method actually helpful in real gameplay?  (This includes noting that it’s more of a hassle if you’re always picking up the models and twiddling with their bases, and on a non-grid gamespace, that’s kind of annoying.)  Is it better to have all bookkeeping off-model?

Which do you prefer playing with and why?  I have my opinions, but I also have relatively little experience with miniature tactical gaming.  I’d like to get a bit more information if possible.  Tangentially, how much bookkeeping is too much?

Thank you in advance!

(Perhaps this could be generously noted as a bit of game UI design.  Playability is a big component of whether a game sticks or not.)

Oh, and bonus question while we’re talking mini design.  Painted or nonpainted?  Shapeways can print in full color now, and it’s even cheaper than nonpainted models.  Painted models are more brittle, though, and don’t have as much detail, so again, it’s all about the tradeoffs.

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Puzzle Pirates has a deliciously useful way of letting players pay with time or with cash.  Their dual currency microtransaction model lets players either buy doubloons with cash from Three Rings directly, or from other players with in-game gold via the in-game blind currency exchange.  It’s a great way to let players either pay for their stuff with cash or time.  (Yes, that simplifies it a bit, and every single doubloon has to be purchased with cash at some point, but still, it’s a great, fungible system.)

Out here in the real world, gamers who have paid in time (patience, really) can get their hands on a couple of great games:

Valve’s meme-tastic Portal is free until May 24th

MechWarrior 4 is now available for free

Sure, your anguished cake jokes will be a little stale these days, but in many ways, these are games worth playing, years after release.  That just costs a little… time.

It was worth the wait.

Edited to add:

Oh, and Myst Online: Uru Live is now open source, an interesting take on the “death” of an MMO.

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Will it blend?

Combine three parts Guild Wars, one part Legend of the Five Rings, and one part Battletech and what pops out?  In this recipe, I’m hoping for a great Episodic Massive Multiplayer Online… game.  (Which should be EMMOG, but “leggo my EMMOG” just doesn’t flow that well.)

Guild Wars has a lot of great features, but the ones I want to emphasize here are the 8-skill limit, easy respecs, and the business model.

Players are stuck with only 8 active skills at one point, but can potentially choose those 8 from hundreds of skills.  This allows for variety and focus in builds and makes choice and specialization important, without gutting customizability.  The easy and free respecs make this limit work, since players can change their skills and even class focus for free in any town.  (Primary and secondary class choices are permanent, but almost everything else can be changed.)  Fairly quick missions and map travel (instant travel to any hub you’ve visited before) allow for short play sessions, and if a skill build isn’t working, it won’t take long until you can shuffle skills to try another idea, or long to get back where you were.

The GW business model is a thing of beauty; you buy the game, you play the game.  No maintenance fees, no subscription, no microtransactions.  There are optional things to buy, sure, but nothing necessary, and still, no subscription.  As long as the servers are up, you can play.  (That link is highly recommended; Shamus pontificates on online activation and server life… relevant for MMOs, as well.)  It’s a lovely throwback to simpler times when gamers and publishers weren’t in a DRM arms race, and subscriptions were for magazines.

There are expansions to the game as well.  These aren’t exactly sequels in an overarching storyline, but more like standalone novels that occur sequentially, set in the same fictional world.  Players can have a rollicking good time in any of the standalone expansions, or play all of them together, cross pollinating and cherry picking the best parts.  It’s like buying ice cream and then buying a chocolate pie.  Either is great alone, but together, they can be more than the sum of their parts.

Legend of the Five Rings is a multiplatform game world celebrating its 15th anniversary.  The tabletop RPG and CCG in the L5R world are both interesting, but it’s the CCG that I want to look at for this recipe, specifically the player-designer interaction.

The L5R collectible card game is much like many others, in that it is comprised of a large collection of cards that were released in different sets.  Players buy various products that have a small semi-random collection of cards selected from given sets.  One product purchase will not give the whole game library, then, but usually, an entry-level “starter” set will give players enough to actually play with.  Other cards from the entire product line add depth and strategies to the game.  Again, you buy it, you can play it, no permission necessary, no logins, no recurring fees.  Buying more products tends to open up gameplay options, but players can have fun with a single purchase and never spend another dime.

So much for the CCG business model, though it should be noted that the semi-random purchases tend to prompt further purchasing, thanks to the unholy fusion of the collector’s gene and the gambling gene.  In practice, people don’t usually stop at the starter… but it’s definitely possible to play the game with the starter alone.  This doesn’t track especially well in MMO design, but it is certainly possible that a publisher could sell in-game skills in “booster” packs, not unlike CCG boosters.  Single skills could even be microtransaction sale items… but that’s not a direction that I’d advocate.  The randomness of the CCG business model really does put off a lot of people, myself included.  (Though I do adore MTG Drafting and Sealed Deck… and GW has experimented with Sealed Deck-type mechanics for PvP… but that’s another article.)

The most interesting thing about L5R for this particular experiment is the way that the game incorporates players in its design.  Characters, lore and events are built at least partially around player choices in tournaments.  Players register in tournaments by swearing fealty to a particular clan in the game.  Their tournament play affects their clan in future expansions of the game.  Devs even plant certain cards in sets to see what players will do, planning stories around what might happen.  These stories then have a significant effect on future card design.  In a very literal way, the players have become important actors within the clan stories, and the interaction between the devs and the players makes for a more immersive sort of gaming experience.  Player choices matter beyond the immediate match.  Factional differences actually mean something.  Your clan matters.

That interplay is what I really want to see in this EMMO recipe.  Player action in aggregate, changing the direction of the game design in future expansions.  To be sure, crafting a CCG is a very different animal from crafting an MMO, but the design ethos of letting player choices matter beyond immediate combat is what I’m getting at.  Those of us who live in the real world tend to leave a stamp of our passing in one way or another, even if it’s on the road less traveled.  The world is changed for our presence and our actions.  An MMO that offers a living world, indelibly changed by its inhabitants, not just the devs, may well be worth exploring.

The L5R game isn’t entirely built on player choices, since the devs have some pretty clear ideas what they would like to do in the game, but it incorporates player choice far more than a typical MMO, what with the “perpetual now” they have to use to make things technically feasible.  An EMMO would by definition be developed in episodes, not unlike L5R sets, to allow for devs to take player choice and do something fun with it between expansions.  Players could play any given chapter of the story, or all of them, and each chapter would have its own “perpetual now”, but the world itself would advance in time in between chapters, and the way it advances would be at least partially influenced by player choices in the previous chapter during the window of time in the “real world” where the devs are working on the next game chapter.  So a player playing chapter 1 might not affect chapter 3.  If you miss the influence window, the game moves on without your input… though you can still reread and play older chapters.  This means devs don’t have to craft a wholly dynamic world, but can still let player actions mean something when the world’s timeline advances.

This is crucial to making this actually feasible, by limiting the scope of the project by limiting what players actually can do, and what devs need to allow them to do.

The Battletech contribution to this particular delicacy is the separation of the pilot and the vehicle, where the vehicle is the main gameplay avatar, but the pilot is the player’s presence in the world.  Separating the two allows for the flexibility we see in EVE, where the player’s character isn’t stuck with a class choice at creation that they are locked into for the life of that character.  If players playing an MMO are playing characters who can switch between ‘Mech weight classes and models between missions, they can tailor their approach to the particular situation they are playing in, rather than find situations that they can shine in with the only hammer they have been given.  This also allows for a separation of gameplay mechanics (combat, specifically) and the political game.  The mercenary life of many MechWarriors is a great place to tinker with the meaning of allegiance and what it means to the interaction between immediate gameplay and long-term citizenship in a game world.

So, add these five key ingredients to a bowl, blend it up with a fine tooth comb, sift out the bugs, cook at 40hrs/week for a few years.  What are we left with?

Things really could go in a few different directions, and the frosting on the cake (the lore and setting) could be any of a couple different flavors.  What I’d hope to see is the following:

  • Player choice drives future development
  • Flexible approaches to mission-based gameplay
  • Bring the player, not the class (whether this means role swapping on the fly or a classless system, either is fine)
  • Episodic content, where time actually moves on, and some stories have a real end
  • Location matters, and allegiance has gameplay ramifications (more than a faction rep grind and unlocking vendors)
  • One-time monetization of chapters (like Guild Wars expansions), and the ability to play any as standalone games or mix and match

I’d wrap these up in a Steampunk-Battletech lore cocktail, m’self, but that’s more a matter of taste than functionality.

What think ye?  What are the best ingredients of an episodic MMO, and how would it be presented?

Oh, and what if this sort of thing (the reclaiming of Gnomeregan) were built on player actions?  At my office, we’ve talked about flow tracking, where devs can take a look at where gamers tend to play and how long they tend to do so, especially where they have problems or memorable moments.  I doubt that Blizzard is unaware of such technology, but who knows if they are using it on WoW.  BBB also suggests that the Trolls could get a capital; what if that were determined by where Troll players have been playing and how long they did?  By aggregate Troll player reputation, either social or faction rep?

There are all sorts of subtle (or gross) ways like that to take player choices into account, whether in aggregate or high profile individual player or guild choices.  Not only could that make the game seem alive, but also make it more interesting.  (Though maybe more addictive, though, which isn’t always the best idea, duly noted by Callan in the Home Town Pride article’s comments.)

Still, it seems like a good way to make the virtual world more interesting, increasing the quality of feedback between players, devs and the world they share.

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Our home access to the internet died a while ago, and once the company fixed it, it died again a short while later.  We wound up with no internet access for about 3 weeks total.  (Of course we’re not getting our money back for that time, even though the errors were entirely the company’s fault.  Go, go subscription service business model!)  At first, it was an annoyance, but it did coincide with my dwindling interest in MMOs, so we really only lost out on email access and bloggish stuff.  More than once, my wife noted that she wasn’t as bothered by the loss as she thought she would be, and that she actually kind of liked it.  (Facebook detox can be rough, but it’s worth it.)  I concurred.

During this time, I dived into some offline games I’ve been meaning to pick up, namely Final Fantasy 12, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume and Disgaea.  I have thoroughly enjoyed them, and I’m more annoyed than ever that I have to check in via internet to play some games that I own.  (Even my beloved Guild Wars could and should have an offline mode.)

Specifically, when my daughter wanted to play World of Goo and Audiosurf (her favorites), she couldn’t, because I got them via Steam, and while we were offline, Steam wouldn’t cooperate.  Yes, there’s an offline mode for Steam, but we happened to be behind the curve on updating the client (thanks to being offline), so it refused to start up, even in offline mode, because it wanted to be updated first.  This was deeply annoying, and I’ve made it a practice to leave Steam in offline mode as a result.  As it happens, even that doesn’t help, though, since *any* connection to the internet lets Steam do a little backdoor checking (even in offline mode), and if it needs an update to the client, it refuses to work until you restart it in online mode and update it.

This ticks me off.

A lot.

And honestly, how fantastic is that deal when I’ve got to pony up almost $50/month for internet access just so I can play a game that functions perfectly without the internet?  I just have to verify that I’m a legitimate customer and get permission to play.  …for a game that I paid forThat doesn’t need the frikkin’ internet.  Seriously, this isn’t exactly DRM, but it’s pissing me off almost as much.  I’m no pirate, but I sympathize emotionally with those looking for CD hacks or private self-hosted in-house WoW server tech.

Good Old Games does it right.  No DRM, no hassle, no checking in, old games reworked to function on new machines “out of the box”.  Valve might make impressive games, but Steam stinks.

Back to MMOs, though, I’ve argued strenuously against the subscription model before, and will probably do so again, because it doesn’t offer me good value.  I don’t doubt that it’s good for some people, but it’s not good enough for me.  There isn’t enough “value added” to these MMO things to make it worth the aggravation and costs, and that’s just to actually play the blasted things.  Never mind all the idiots that are online that make gaming a pain oft times anyway (LFG IQ>72, PST).  Or the weak storytelling and stupid treadmill design.  Or the atrocious time sinks that they have to be to keep people paying for underwhelming design so that they can pay back the investor sharks who thought they could get in on the next WoW cash cow.

So yes, I’m happy to be gaming offline again.  I’ve discovered an interest in tabletop Warhammer and Battletech (though it’s stupidly expensive for those dumb little plastic miniatures and paints so I’m not buying in, I’m digging into the rulebooks and finding all sorts of interesting game design… I’ll make my own minis if it comes to that, thanks).  I’m working on my own games more (and the illustrations for my mother’s book).  I’m having more fun with my family.  And when I do play video games, I play on the DS more often than not, and the liberating freedom of being away from the internet permission overlords (and the desk!) is refreshing.  It helps that the DS has a lot of good tactical RPG games.  Disgaea is the latest one I’ve been playing, and there are a lot of good ideas in that game.

So when I see something like this, complaining that StarCraft 2 will not have LAN play and is toying with DRM, I shake my head, and go dig up some of my Good Old Games (OK, mostly in boxes on CD, but some from GOG that I never have to bother them for past the initial purchase and download) or just work on the Bee Hive board game that I’m making with my daughter.  I’ve lost touch with internet gaming, and while I agree that aspects of the battle.net revamp and lack of LAN are exceedingly stupid, and has likely cost them my patronage (even though I loved StarCraft and played it a ton), I doubt that Blizzard cares about that loss.

So I think to myself, why should I care either?

Aion, WoW Cataclysm, SWTOR, EVE, Jumpgate Evolution, Star Trek Online, Guild Wars (even the sequel, despite how awesome it looks), Puzzle Pirates, Wizard 101… it’s all just so much static now (even the games I love on that list).  And you know… it’s nice, tuning it all out for a bit.  There are still things about those that interest me as a cog in the gaming machine (I work in the field, so it’s good to keep up to date), but as a gamer… not as much as they once did.  Oddly enough, they would interest me a LOT more if they were offline games, especially SWTOR, Cataclysm, GW2 and EVE.  (I do love Privateer and Freelancer.)  They just don’t offer me enough value in their “onlineness” to make them worth getting riled up too much about or feel like paying a sub for.

Will that change what I write about here?  And how often?  Probably.  I never said this was just a place about MMOs, that’s just what I’ve written about so far (more or less).  I think I have some interesting things to say still about game design (board, card and digital) and art (traditional, digital and photography), so that’s probably what I’ll get into a bit more.  If I do get into Cataclysm as a result of the Arthas contest, I’ll probably have fun with it for that month, and I really do want to look around at the world changes (and take pictures, lots of pictures) and write up a few articles about the experience (not unlike the Death Knight articles), but I’m certainly not signing in for a long haul.  Though Blizzard, if you do make an offline “Old Azeroth” retail box, I promise to buy at least one. It’s the perfect time to do something like that, after the Cataclysm… there’s a strong nostalgia streak out there.

You could call it “burnout” if you want, but I take a critical look at the genre as a whole, and just don’t see that it offers me anything that I want enough to put up with the aggravation or the costs of playing online.  Perhaps it never really did (I never did dive into WoW even when I first played it years ago), and it just took a bit more experimentation to confirm that.  It should probably be noted that for the duration of this blog, I’ve never been all that happy with the status quo.  This isn’t really all that radical of a mindset shift, it’s just… shifting gears a bit.

And y’know… it feels like a weight is off my shoulders.  I wish current and future MMO players and devs well, to be sure.  I’ll certainly play W101 a bit here and there (yay, Access Pass business model!), maybe dabble in DDO, and will probably pick up GW2 when it goes on sale in 2012, so it’s not like I’m /ragequitting the whole shebang.  It’s just time for something else for me, at least as a major focus of what I do around here, at least for now.

Maybe more pretty painted pictures.  :)

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