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Posts Tagged ‘RPG’

Grazing

Spring cleaning is traditionally done in the spring, for reasons unknown, but my family always tends to have a post-Christmas bout of cleaning as well.  We try to declutter a bit, maybe just to compensate for all the new clutter from the holidays.  I find myself doing this with gaming as well, going through my game library and either finishing games or uninstalling them and calling them “done”, mostly so I can get on with playing other games in the bits of time I get here and there to play.

…and there’s the crux of the matter; I almost never have blocks of time to play.  I get an hour here, fifteen minutes there… and that’s about it.  That’s part of why MMO subscriptions are a pathetic value for me; I simply don’t get 20+ hours a week to sink into any gaming, much less devote myself to a single game.  There are way too many good games out there to tie myself down like that.  (As my Steam library, GoG collection and Humble Bundle folders will attest.)  So, I have a large library of games, and way to little time to play them.

As a result, my gaming is more like grazing than gorging.  I nibble a little on something like Uncharted, then I go munch on Tactics Ogre, then savor a little bit of Guild Wars 2.  (By which I mean, I create my characters before the game inevitably crashes, then maybe move around the starting areas a little bit.)  The next week, I ruminate a little on Journey, then chew a little on LEGO Batman with the kids.  Once upon a time, I’d ride an exercise bike and play FFXII for a nice 45 minutes or so, but circumstances have made that indulgence obsolete.  (And I find that FFXII just doesn’t work well as a game I only play for 15 minutes in a sitting.)

So it’s no surprise that I play more Plants vs. Zombies, Symphony, Triple Town and Puzzle Pirates these days.  It’s all I can sneak into the schedule.  I still haven’t finished FFXII, and I have FFXIII, FFXIII-2, FFVII: Crisis Core, Blue Dragon, Infinite Undiscovery, Lost Odyssey, Batman Arkham City, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, LEGO Batman 2, LEGO Harry Potter and a host of other, smaller games that I really want to dig into… but just can’t right now.  They aren’t really grazing-friendly.  Heaven help me if I get the itch to play an MMO.  I still have WoW, STORIFT and GW2 installed, and I grudgingly uninstalled LOTRO.  I want to play all of them.  I probably never will.

…there’s something sad about that.

Still, I’m not complaining.  I have a lot of gaming options, and that’s a good spot to be in.  Since I work in the industry, it behooves me to play a variety of games, and be aware of what’s out there, rather than simply be a game fan and devote my gaming time to a single or few fandoms.  And then there’s the fact that my kids and I still love Minecraft (if I only had one game for the rest of my life, that one would do), and my oldest wants to learn the Pokemon card game… yeah, my plate is full to overflowing, but it’s all I can do to nibble at the edges.

Is it any wonder why I like the Tauren, perhaps?  Moooooo

Tishtoshtesh, Tauren Druid

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A little while back, Syl mused about how World of Warcraft has changed her in an article thisaway.  Others chimed in like Victor, over here, and Rakuno over here.  I figured I’d jump in, since I haven’t done enough navel-gazing lately.  To dig into what MMOs have done to me, I need to go back to the 90s, before I did anything with them.

I work in the game industry.  I play games.  A lot of different games.  MMOs are just a small slice of my game library and vocabulary (though they tend to consume a disproportionate amount of time), but they have had some significant effects on me over the last 6 years or so.

My background is primarily in RPG games and tactical games.  I’ve played RTS, FPS, driving, fighting, puzzle, and other games, but most of my gaming time before MMOs was with epic RPGs like Final Fantasies, Chrono Trigger, Star Ocean 2 and the like.  Back in… 2002? or so, I remember seeing an advertisement in a magazine for the upcoming World of Warcraft.  It wasn’t the first online game I’d heard of (Sierra’s The Realm gets that honor, I think, and I was aware of Ultima Online), but it looked really good, and I liked the Warcraft IP, having spent many fun hours with Warcraft and Warcraft 2.  That was the draw, really, the ability to prowl through the jungles at ground level as a single character, rather than the third person nonentity I was in the Warcraft RTS games.  In short, I was captivated by the idea of exploring the WORLD of Warcraft.

Of course, the blasted thing is an online game, and the only place I had internet access was at school or work.  Those were the only places I had a computer capable of then-modern gaming as well.  Yes, I spent a lot of time with classics like Master of Magic, Master of Orion 1&2, X-Com (the old, good one), Privateer and the like well past their heyday.  I’ve always been a late adopter of games, really.  It’s better on the wallet.  Anyway, while WoW looked appealing, there was no way I was going to be able to play it, so I ever-so-slightly wistfully pushed it aside and ignored it.

In the meantime, I graduated from college in 2003, then got a full-time job that let me buy a then-powerful laptop that I fully intended to play games with.  I still didn’t have an internet connection (and to this day, I still think the darn things are too expensive), but I had a computer that could finally play Morrowind.  I was hooked, finally happy to be wandering through a fantasy world that was so much more interesting to me than my FPS experience in Wolfenstein (the old one) and Doom (also the old one).  I got lost along the shores outside of the starting town, died a few times, and then downloaded a few hacks.  I found I wasn’t all that interested in playing the right way, I just wanted to putter around in a fantasy world.  Imagine that.

It was while I was working in that first post-graduation job that I ran into someone actually playing that World of Warcraft thing.  He played during lunch, mining, mostly.  I watched him maneuver his zombie-ish guy around some barren-looking canyons, mining some sort of rocky nodes.  I think, looking back, that it was maybe in Thousand Needles, one of my favorite locations in the game before the Shattering.  He showed me around a little, noting that his “real” character was an Orc Shaman.  He offered me a ten-day buddy key to try out the game, and I graciously accepted.

I still didn’t have an internet connection.

So, I installed it on my office computer and played a little during lunch like he did.  Yes, we played games at work.  We were working in the game industry, and every one of us were gamers.  One guy played Magic the Gathering Online for lunch, and sometimes we all played the actual card game for lunch.  And it was good.  The bosses didn’t play games as much as we did, but they didn’t mind us playing, even with company assets like the computers and internet connection, so long as we got all our hours in and got our work done.

Anyway, I had ten days to play, only during lunch, only at work.  It was little more than a taste of the game, really.  I fired up a Tauren Shaman and puttered around.  I learned what the WoW notion of quests were, and I followed some breadcrumbs around the hill to a small Tauren town, then made my way up the road to Thunder Bluff, still my favorite capital city in the game.  I learned Skinning and Leatherworking, charmed with the ability to make my own gear.  It felt like my Tauren was a self-sufficient adventurer in a larger world.  It was good.

The game’s reality lurked in the wings, though.  I wanted some more backpack space since I kept winding up with lots of junk I picked up off of the critters I killed, but I couldn’t buy anything from the auction house and vendor bags were too expensive.  I figured I’d use Leatherworking to make some kodo hide bags, since there were kodos just downhill.  Silly me, I figured it should be easy.  Just go kill and skin a few kodos (they are huge, and should have plenty of leather apiece) and then stitch together a bag or four.

…the last three days of my trial were spent trying to make those stupid bags.  I had to skin several dozen critters to qualify for skinning kodos.  I had to kill dozens of kodos just to get one scrap of kodo leather.  I needed six such pieces to make one bag.  I stuck with it because it was my “endgame” goal for the time I had.  I never actually did finish even a single bag.

It was stupid.

That, in a microcosm, is the WoW experience, I think.  Fascination with the world and its potential, ownership of your own little avatar in that world, seeing new sights and new monsters… then running face first into the soul-crushing time sinks that the game uses to suck people into that next sweet month of subscription money.  I learned enough about the game to know I still loved the idea of the World of Warcraft, but that the game itself got in the way.  Even if I had internet access at home at that time, I still wouldn’t have bothered with the game because of the absurd subscription business plan… and to be honest, I did want to keep playing, but I was already getting burned out a bit, just because of the stupid grindy pacing of the crafting system.  It was probably good that I didn’t keep going at that point, since I was still on the edge of still liking the game for what it could be, and could go on pretending that it was exactly what I hoped it was.

Soon after that, I found Puzzle Pirates, and it was like I had found a home I never knew I was missing, and I didn’t have to pay a sub for it.  It’s still my MMO home.  I was hooked there by the gameplay, not so much the sense of the world, though I did love “memming” the ocean solo, still scratching that Explorer itch.  It helped that I was pretty good at the game (skill is more important there than time investment), and that I got my own ship without reaching some arbitrary “endgame”.  I didn’t much mind that I was missing out on the WoW craze.  I had something that fit me better, and really, it still does, seven years later.  In fact, last night I finally won my first Swordfighting tournament.  Sometimes it’s the small goals that make the most fun.  It is also the only MMO that my wife has played with me for more than a half hour.  She gave Guild Wars a good try, but it just didn’t stick.

It wasn’t until… 2008 or so, when the ten-day passes were obsolete and anyone could just sign up for a ten day trial, that I tried the game again.  I played another ten day trial, this time with my home desktop and internet connection (albeit a cheap one, which made the game laggy… which didn’t help).  The game still looked nice, and it was fun to make a new character, hoping for good times.  This time I did a little more research on the game and fired up a Druid.  I’ve loved Druids ever since.  I have a soft spot for Hunters and Shaman still, but I’m a Druid player at heart.  I had fun, learned Bear form, messed around a bit shifting between forms as necessary… then my time ran out.  I still mostly liked the game, but still wasn’t going to pay to keep playing.  I was mad enough that I had to pay $50/month for the internet connection.

The wider world of MMO gaming had been opened to me, though.  I tried a bunch, from Dungeons and Dragons Online to Guild Wars to Lord of the Rings Online to Atlantica Online to Star Trek Online to Allods Online to Wizard 101 to Neosteam to Free Realms to City of Heroes to DC Universe Online to my latest experiment, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and others in between that I’m not remembering at the moment.  I (quickly) grew tired of the DIKU grind, always chasing levels and loot.  I decided that playing with others can sometimes be OK, but that I’m still a soloist at heart.  I studied game design, business models and the game industry.  I found some MMO blogs as I studied the silly things and their communities, and eventually started a blog of my own.  This is why this blog still has a backbone of MMO analysis, but it’s not devoted to any one game or even stuck solely on games at all.  I came to this blogging world because of MMOs.

I may not be a MMO groupie, but I still find value in the sociality involved with the games and blogging in general.

So that’s what MMOs have done for me.  They have introduced me to bloggers I consider friends, they have increased my knowledge of the game industry and game design, and given me well over 6000 screenshots that I can use for inspiration (I’m an artist, after all).  My knowledge of games, my chosen career, has been enhanced by the wider world of the internet and how games work in that shared social space, whether or not they are designed for it.

My life is richer, not necessarily for having played MMOs, but for what they have led me to.

…but I still hate subscriptions.

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I’ve never really liked item sets in these silly RPGs and their cousins, MMOs.

From Diablo to Titan Quest to Torchlight to World of Warcraft, there always seems to be a subset of items that function as a set, where equipping more than one of the set gives some sort of bonus.  That’s fine design, since it gives gear a little more meaning and fun, rooted in that sweet, sweet loot pinata jackpot endorphin rush.  The item sets themselves don’t bother me, actually, it’s just that actually putting together a set based on random (and usually very rare) loot drops is an exercise in futility.

Combine the leveling mechanism (gain experience points from killing stuff and quests, level up, be stronger and more specialer, ad infinitum) with the rarity of actually acquiring those set items, and the fact that you have to kill a lot of pinatas to get said gear and well… more often than not, the activity of grinding to try to acquire those set pieces makes them obsolete by the time you get all of them because you’ve leveled up a few times (or more) trying to get them.

I do call that bad design, at least if those sets are meant to ever be completed when they might be relevant to the bulk of gameplay.  (And if they are not meant to be so completed, why have them at all?)  Why offer the Perseus Hunter set for the dashing midlevel Hunter if they have almost no chance whatsoever of assembling the set before they start shopping for the Artemis Set?  The storytelling often included in item sets is fractured beyond usability, and the function of the gear gets lost to the winds.

Yes, yes, there’s a market for gear sets for “twinks” in WoW (sometimes, anyway, and mostly just for stuff that doesn’t Bind on Pickup), and gear sets are great for role players, especially with appearance tabs (if you’re lucky enough to have them, like LOTRO).  Some “endgame” gear sets are good, too, since you’re not leveling up any more, and character progression is largely based on gear.  Item sets aren’t wholly useless by any means, they are just… silly.

At the level cap, you can at least “sidegrade” to gear set pieces if they wind up being better as a set than whatever other random stuff you’ve collected.  That’s solid design to keep people playing when the leveling system has fallen into uselessness.  Bonus points if those sets look sweet together.  Guild Wars largely gets this right, since the level cap (and gear effectiveness cap!) is reached pretty easily, and at that point, chasing item sets makes more sense.

And yet, item sets simply aren’t all that special in the leveling content, since the rarity of special items for the set runs contrary to the core leveling mechanic of the game.  Some players will collect the sets anyway, knowing full well that they will be largely useless once collected, but many will just use a set item for as long as it’s useful on its own, since the set bonuses are extremely unlikely to ever come into play at all.  It’s just another piece of random loot at that point.

That’s just… silly.

Of course, I do think that games need a bit of silly here and there to break up all the Serious Gaming Business, but game elements that are internally conflicted like this just set off my “wait, what’s the point?” alarms.  It’s that clash and tension between leveling and collecting stuff for a narrow level band that bugs me.

So… how to do it better?  Would item set pieces work better if they were extremely common rather than rare and special?  Maybe give a real chance for the set to be collected in time for it to be useful?  Maybe shift item sets from random loot drops to purchasable items?  Enhance the purchasable set with upgrades from loot drops, to catch the best of both worlds?  Maybe work like the “satchel loot” from WoW’s Dungeon Finder (guaranteed high quality gear for running dungeons… not really a “set”, but definitely themed and visually unified)?  As in, you’re guaranteed a set item if you do certain tasks, and set items are paced properly to be useful for when you get them and a bit beyond?

What else could we do as designers?

And yes, I know that these sets are one more layer of addiction for the completionist and collection (pack rat) mentalities of players, but since there’s never really much of a payoff (considering pacing and obsoletion of item sets once fully collected), I’d argue that it’s not a very effective layer of addiction.  (Of course, maybe that’s a good thing…)

It’s just that the randomness of the loot mechanic and the rarity of item sets, layered on top of the leveling system, well… it’s silly.

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Quest for Class Glory

The Quest for Glory games are a quirky series of adventure/RPG hybrids offered by Sierra.  Part King’s Quest, part class-based RPG, they provided me and my friend with plenty of hours of gaming goodness.

Looking back at those games, the part I wish I would see more in modern games is the differences between classes.  A Thief and Fighter would play very differently as would a Mage and Paladin, almost creating four different games.  The strong class identity wasn’t just in the title and different DPS rotation, each class had their own animations and skills.  Each hero type would play through the same game, but a mission where you were trying to retrieve a Tchotski of Greed from the local fantasy mob boss would play very differently if you were a Thief instead of a Mage.  You could literally sneak in and just swipe the widget and get full credit for the “quest” as a thief, as a Mage, you could use a “fetch” spell.  On the other hand, as a Fighter, you’d have to just go kill everything and take the spoils.  Paladins might be able to talk their way through, or bluff the bad guys.

The thing is, any of those solutions would work and give you full credit for the quest.  You didn’t have to kill everything to gain XP to level up and progress.  You just had to complete tasks, and many tasks could be completed in different ways.  I loved that flexibility, and I believe the game was stronger for it, and the class identity was stronger.

So, when I see something like this little postlet from Ghostcrawler

You realize “only class” claims are viewed as a success by the developers. The classes are too similar as it is.

I naturally compare and contrast that with the stymied desire from the player base to have class-specific questlines.  Also, there’s the unfortunate tendency to make every problem a nail, solved by liberal application of the Kill-Stuff-and-Loot-It Hammer.

I tend to agree that classes should feel different.  Yes, I’d prefer a classless system where I could mix and match to my heart’s delight, but if you’re going to use classes, do it right and make them feel different and have different playstyles.  I want to play as a Rogue in WoW and gain XP from stealing stuff.  I want my Mage to gain XP by using their unique talents to escort a friendly to a succession of friendly cities (and keeping them OUT of combat), or to get to places only a Slowfall could help access.  I want to gain XP for healing if I’m playing a Priest.  I want to gain XP for helping nature as a Druid, rather than always being asked to kill reskinned rabid rats.  I want to gain XP as a Paladin for making peace or for setting an example.  I want raids and dungeons to have class-specific solutions and alternates to “find and kill the boss”.

I want there to be a reason to play a class beyond finding the best way to kill stuff or tank stuff or heal stuff.  If I’m stuck in a class (or subclass thanks to the new WoW talent tree locks), I want it to be something other than just combat, to offer unique gameplay options.

It might even make me like the class-based system.

Oh, and bonus reading:  An article from the 1-Up RPG blog…

Pretty Princess Adventures

It looks like Etrian Odysseys 3 has some wacky class mechanics going on.  It’s a different take on the idea of expanding the point of classes.

Incidentally, I happened across this article from Jason last night, but I’ve had this written for almost a month.  Bloggish hivemind at work?

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I’m one of those odd sorts that plays a game like WoW as if I’m a citizen of a world (a role!), rather than as a race to the raiding treadmill.  I make up minigames for myself, or just go wandering around looking for the perfect screenshot (I still need to set up a Picasa portfolio for sharing, come to think of it…).  I even have a Goblinish trend, happy to tinker in the markets, which so far has been supplying the Horde AH with Deadly Blunderbusses with an Orc Hunter Engineering alt… nothing huge, but a fun little way to make some profit fairly easily at a low level.  (I’ll leave the misanthropy to Gevlon, though.)

So when a quirky little game like Recettear comes out and embraces a different aspect of these RPG things, in this case shopkeeping, my interest is naturally piqued.  Tipa mentioned the game a while back, and I’ve been keeping an eye out for a sale.  At present, it’s available via Steam and Impulse for preorder for $18ish, 10% off.  I’m sorely tempted to get it, but for now, I’ll be playing the demo.  Maybe I’ll get the whole game in the next few days, depending on how the demo goes.

Still, I applaud these Japanese indie devs for tackling something in a new way, and the intrepid localization team for bringing it to my side of the pond.

It also has me itching once again for some more interesting noncombat options for “careers” in MMOS… but that’s another article for another day.

Update: I went ahead and preordered the game through Impulse.  I think that’s the first preorder that I’ve ever done; usually I wait for sales.  I’m impressed with the game, and I’m even going to use it to teach my four year old a bit about capitalism.  Score one more for the indies!

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I’ve written before that I’d buy an offline WoW and have fun with it.  It would be the ultimate solo WoW experience, maybe even something roughly approximating one of those weird Role Playing Game things.  I do think the world of Warcraft has some interesting things to offer, and it can serve as a stage for some good gaming that need not be of the MMO variety.

But then… what is an RPG?

Such a question has been bandied about for some time now, so I’m not going to rehash much of it, but rather ask:  What would a WoW RPG (offline, solo) look like?

Ignore for the moment, the tabletop version, another interesting iteration of the IP in itself, and yet another flavor of RPG, but not quite what I’m looking for here.  This is, of course, all whimsy and conjecture, and is completely incomplete.  Addendums are welcome, bearing in mind this is more about curiosity than anything I’d expect Blizzard to actually do.  A few thoughts, then:

  • First and foremost, it strikes me that a translation of the existing game would almost certainly be a Western RPG rather than a Japanese RPG (WoWWRPG?).  As in, more Neverwinter Nights (make your own character, make your way in the world), less Final Fantasy (assume a role the devs crafted and go through a story they tell).  The difference between the two styles is significant, and the existing game leans heavily in the Western direction.
  • But why translate more or less directly?  Why not make an entirely new RPG, perhaps even a JRPG-styled tale of a key character or band of characters within the WoW IP?  That would open the floor to big, sweeping changes, which may indeed be the healthiest route overall, but since it could take a LOT of different forms, here I’m mostly wondering about a game that is more of a mild translation of the existing game design rather than a new game.  There’s certainly room to imagine a completely new game within the world, but I’ll save that for another experiment.
  • With the increased focus on player agency and a largely seamless world of a Western-flavored WoWRPG, the balance between authorial direction and player agency is almost diametrically opposed to the tightly controlled Final Fantasy XIII or even tighter Heavy Rain.  (Tangential:  Is Heavy Rain even one of those RPG things?  You assume roles of characters who already exist and pilot them through a story with a few branching options and different endings, clearly heavily Playing Roles in a Game… but there isn’t much in the way of levels, loot and assorted “character progress” mechanics that some associate with RPGs.  How many thorns and petals can you remove from a rose before it’s just a stick?  How many games could easily be RPGs if it’s just about playing a role?  But I digress…)  On the one hand, that’s great for people just looking to noodle around in a cool world, but on the other hand, a good story under a strong directorial hand is more preferable.  The WoW IP could do both, but not so much at the same time.
  • WoWMMO is designed (perhaps obviously) for many players, from the group content to PvP to the player economy.  A single player offline version would either need to drop group content or provide henchmen, like Guild Wars or Dragon Age.  Solo-control party-based RPGing isn’t anything new, but neither is it something that exists in the WoWMMO.  Curiously, this might make it easier to teach players how to play with a group and teach the holy combat trinity, since the game could have tutorials that show the finer points of group dynamics without the unpredictability of real people monkeying around.  You could even make combat pauseable (even if only in tutorials) to make teaching easier.  It seems to me that educating people is a better long-term idea than making games so dumb and easy anyone can sleepwalk through them.  If we wanted that, we should make movies.
  • …and yet, why bother with the trinity when you only have one player?  The trinity assumes that multiple parties are in combat, so WoWRPG would really need to either make henchmen or dump the trinity.  (OK, snarky aside about Paladins and Druids being able to do everything goes here.)  It’s hard to say which would be harder to actually implement, but henchmen fit into the current design structure, while the trinity would be much harder to excise.  It’s the foundation of WoW combat, combined with aggro management and crowd control.  Lose the trinity, and all sorts of content would be suddenly skewed, and you’d have to lose most dungeons and instances.  Add henchmen, and the WoWRPG could offer offline players almost all WoW content.
  • Ultimately, that’s what this is about, by the way; content and the world of Warcraft’s lore, not the play experience itself, since that would necessarily change significantly.  MMOs offer a play experience that offline games just can’t do.  Offering a WoWRPG would be a way of getting the WoW content and lore to more players, thereby building the brand.  …if that matters.  It may not, which is why this is more of a thought experiment than anything else.
  • What of Altitis?  Some RPGs have toyed with multiple protagonists, like the Saga Frontier series, but those haven’t really been the movers and shakers of the RPG genre.  There are some interesting things that you can do with storytelling when you can bounce between viewpoints (especially between factions) and have different characters illustrate varied angles of an in-game event.  (Say, have low level Alliance players actually take part in the smallish Alliance invasion of Durotar, rather than just having that little outpost south of Orgrimmar be a mob spawn point for Alliance mooks for low level Hordies to attack repeatedly.)  That starts poking into JRPG territory and significant changes to the game… but it could be interesting.
  • Speaking of which… storytelling could change significantly.  Time could actually proceed… perhaps even while the player is off doing something else.  The world could feel more like a world again (gasp!), as the game moves out of the perpetual now twilight zone that MMOs are stuck in.
  • Persistence. This one is huge.  If you don’t have to recycle the world for every Tam, Dick and Ratshag, you can actually have bad guys stay dead, rather than respawn every few minutes.  This, of course, could run at cross purposes to the notion of letting players advance an Alliance character and a Horde character in the same universe (instead of their own instanced storylines), but at the same time, if you do let players bounce back and forth, and keep persistence, suddenly you’ve made the finite state machine go into overdrive… but also given yourself a TON more knobs to tweak for making the game interesting and telling an interesting story… or letting players tell a story by changing the world.  The scope could get out of hand quickly, unfortunately.
  • Phasing could still have uses, but the changes implemented could be more permanent as the storyline actually moves on.  Still, if alts enter the same world where things have happened and stay… happened… phasing might be a tool to let them replay some content that a predecessor had already gone through, if that were ever needed, then let them rejoin the “real world”… almost like a mobile, personal Cavern of Time.
  • Questing and the Yellow Brick Road… there are many, many small storylines in WoW, often tied up in quest chains.  Even so, there aren’t many larger, overarching stories.  A WoWRPG with persistence and a properly functioning arrow of time could bring those overarching stories into greater focus, and let the grindy tangential stories slip back into the shadows.  Kill Ten Rat quests could actually tie into a bigger story, rather than be something you do to level up so you can go kill ten bigger rats ad infinitum.  That, or quests themselves could be rarer beasts, especially if the XP curve is revamped…
  • Pacing could change significantly.  Instead of needing to grind in an area to qualify for the next (or extend subscription time), the XP curve could be tweaked to allow players to naturally proceed through zones as they follow larger stories, pillaging along the way instead of grinding in a zone to prep for the next.  To be fair, this is something that many other RPGs, Western or Japanese, still have issues with.  Even offline RPGs have grind in them… but structurally, they don’t need it nearly as much as a sub-based MMO.
  • Speaking of grind and quests, perhaps a WoWRPG could omit some of the obnoxious time sink quests (FedEX quests that take you back to areas you’ve already been, kill quests that only count critters killed after the quest starts instead of the pile of corpses left on the way to the quest hub, running all over the continent, that sort of thing)  that do little but extend playtime (and paytime in a sub model).  It really is OK for a game to be short if it’s fun all the way through.
  • Saving would be new; MMOs “save” all the time as they communicate with the server.  Offline games need to be saved… though that could be automated.  Still, if you allow saves, you introduce the Save-Load system where a battle that went bad can be replayed, and players effectively become Time Lords, able to rewind and replay at a whim.  That would be a big shift in how the game would play, for better or worse.  (Perhaps a little of both.)
  • Crafting could be either maintained (almost necessitating alts if you wanted to dig into everything and be self-sufficient, or let NPC henchmen in a party-based system also craft), or characters could be allowed to learn any number of crafting skills.  I’ve always thought that the two-skill limit (barring Cooking, Fishing and First Aid) was a silly hammer to try to force player interdependence, so I’d certainly lean to opening the system up.  We don’t often see a robust crafting suite in an offline RPG, so this is one area especially that WoWRPG could shine.  That, or crafting could be cut completely as another time sink and unnecessary appendix, since a lot of crafting does wind up fueling the in-game economy.
  • The game’s economy could either be a static beastie with NPC vendors as the currency fountains and skills and gear being currency sinks… or it could be a bit more dynamic and AI driven, like the economy in something like X3.  Either would function to make the game playable, but neither would be anywhere nearly as interesting as the multiplayer economy.  This and the multiplayer dungeons would probably be the biggest losses in taking the game offline.
  • Respeccing could be interesting.  I’ve long argued that a full and complete respec (even all the way down to the class) should be easy and cheap.  WoWRPG could offer this function with a lot less fuss than the MMO would see.  Of course, if you’re able to swap classes easily, you’d want a larger bank to keep the many, many potential “offspec” treasures that you collect.  The alternative would be to make the game less gear-centric… and that’s not likely.  Final Fantasy games have wavered between strict classes and very flexible systems, so there’s precedent for both… though it’s notable that strict class-based systems tend to introduce party members to keep a bit of flexibility as an organic party, if not a very mutable single character.
  • But why a WoWRPG over something like Morrowind or Oblivion, or even Fallout 3?  What does the WoW IP offer that those games don’t?

The World of Warcraft is an interesting, largely attractive place.  It’s a grand stage to tell stories on, and I do wonder occasionally what it would be like if it were initially developed as a single player RPG rather than an MMO.  MMOs are almost always kind of schizophrenic in their approach, a function of appealing to a large player base.  Might a more focused goal (a great story-based RPG) have changed it for the better?  Could the world still have some sort of tangential story-based RPG to offer?

The WarCraft universe did come from a pair of Real Time Strategy games, after all (possibly based on tabletop games and Tolkienish flights of whimsy), and it’s not unheard of for an IP to bounce between game genres, even the venerable Final Fantasy series (though that’s less about maintaining a consistent world-based IP as a brand name).  WarCraft even had an Adventure Game iteration once upon a time.  MMOs and RPGs are different, but not so different as to make such a tangential game impossible.  Whether or not it would fit into the WoWMMO timeline proper is perhaps a significant question, but it’s my rambling opinion that Azeroth has a lot to offer.  Even though the WoW live team tends to selectively interpret lore to various ends, there is still a LOT of lore out there to explore… and it might be satisfying to explore it in a slightly different vehicle.

…or a very different vehicle.  If the WoWRPG were more of a Japanese RPG, with strongly defined preconceived characters and a directed story, you’d lose a lot of what makes WoWMMO playable, but perhaps gain a much more focused experience that could tell a better story.  I can see a place for both approaches, actually.  All in all, I think that a translative approach that maintains much of the existing game would be more feasible… but I might be more inclined to play a well-crafted JRPG-ish WoWRPG that really digs into the world of WarCraft, finding some meat on the bones of the IP that is often only hinted at in the MMO.

Of course, in actuality, I’m more inclined to play Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey or Infinite Undiscovery than pick up a WoWRPG… but it would almost certainly make it on the list.  The world of WarCraft really could offer up a couple of games that aren’t merely WoWish subscription skinner boxes.  Blizzard has shown at least a vague interest in that sort of diversification before, and it might be good to see them branch out again.  I’m not an unabashed Blizzard fanboy, but I do see potential there.

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It’s My Party

One of the things that makes tactical RPGs (Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, Front Mission) so great for me is the depth of customization that I have when building and developing my party.  Atlantica Online is the only MMO that I’ve played that dug into this notion of letting the player control  party of adventurers rather than a single avatar.  (No, Gibberling triplets don’t count as a party; I can’t tune them individually.)

FFT is especially fantastic since I can change character classes and even equip characters with certain off-class skills.  The flexibility is a huge strength in the game design.  I can field a monoclass team or set up a balanced mix, depending on how I play, what gear I have, or what challenges I want to tackle.  The off-class skills make for even greater depth, since I can patch up holes in my battle plan or reinforce strengths.  Success often hinges not only on smart battlefield tactics, but also on long-range strategies of party development.

I’ve written before about disliking rigid class-based design, but if there is flexibility to move between classes like that, where it’s easy and often useful to do so, I don’t mind classes.  It’s even better if the base class design bleeds across boundaries, like the cross-class skill design of FFT or the dual-class design of Guild Wars or Runes of Magic.

It’s really all about choice.

A party system makes rigid classes easier to work with.  Final Fantasy X, for example, has a fairly rigid sort of “class” design for the characters for a good chunk of the game.  You can unlock the Sphere Grid to train characters in cross-class abilities later on in the game (which is awesome, but not necessary), but for the early game, characters have pretty clear roles that roughly parallel class design.  Auron is the tank with piercing weapons, Wakka is the guy to call for aerial enemies, Rikku is a thief, Lulu is the mage, Yuna is the healer, Tidus is the fast warrior, and Kimahri is malleable.  He’s sort of a blue mage (who uses skills he can learn from enemies), but he also chooses one of the other roles early on from the other character skill paths.  (So you can have two tanks, two white mages, whatever.)

The combat works because you can swap characters out almost any time, tailoring your party to the tactical situation.  If you need a screwdriver, you’re not stuck with a hammer.  Also, you typically have three characters in your combat party, which means that you’re equipped with a variety of tools even if you’re not switching characters out.

MMOs are generally designed around the notion of people playing together, though, where “parties” are comprised of people each playing a single character.  That’s not the only way to design an MMO, though, and it surprises me a little that we haven’t seen more devs work player-controlled parties into these games.  Maybe that’s just not where the market is, but it does seem to me that it might be worth exploring the design concepts a bit, at least in theory.

Atlantica Online manages to let players control a party of characters but also encourages player grouping with dangerous dungeons.  Attempt those solo and you’re most likely to be demolished as the enemies gang up on you.  It’s also still a good idea to group up in some areas to make progress faster or more fun.  Of course, combat in Atlantica is different, since it’s tactical and turn-based (with a timer).  There are some different fundamental design choices being made there as opposed to the MMO mainstream, and I think it’s healthy.

Are there other party based MMOs out there?  Is there much of a market for them?

A MechWarrior MMO would really work best as a single-character avatar game, but a BattleTech MMO could be party based and more tactical.  MechCommander was a fantastic game.  Of course, not everything needs to be multiplayer or an MMO, but there’s some potential there at least.

If nothing else, commanding a party would make for more tactical decisions, including flanking and blocking, that we just don’t get as single-character pilots.  It also need not eliminate multiplayer game aspects, since it’s really just giving each player more tools.  Players can still play together, and may even need to for some content.  You could get some truly massive, tactical battles going on with party based design.  It’s almost a middle ground between WoW and StarCraft multiplayer, if you want to frame it in Blizzard terms.

There is a diminished sense of “role playing” as you take on the role of a disembodied commander, as opposed to the very personal single avatar.  That doesn’t completely preclude role playing, and modern MMO design isn’t firmly rooted in playing a role anyway… but it is still a downside of a party design.

There are also tech hurdles, especially if we’re going to allow the party to be split up.  Atlantica Online parties are static in combat, but malleable outside of combat.  RTS-ish tactical combat means controls and UI a step beyond hotbar Rock-em Sock-em Robot combat, and it would be more susceptible to lag.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the complexity.  Party based design has the potential to be an order of magnitude more complex than the mainstream is used to.  Still, would those players who are fussing about the “dumbing down” of the genre welcome this sort of complexity?

All in all, I’m not surprised that this sort of design isn’t the mainstream, but I do wonder why more devs haven’t tried it.

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Disgaea DS has a fun little bonus for a “new game plus” playthrough. If you finish the main game and then start it again with the same save data, you not only keep whatever loot and levels you had, but you also get your own one-Prinny Greek Chorus commenting on the plot during cutscenes.  It adds a fair dose of humor, and even a few nuggets of backstory.

Greek Choruses serve a few different purposes, shifting between exposition and explanation, interpretation and instruction, emphasis and education, even serving as pacing and distraction tools, making the stage play format work.  Sometimes they tell us how to react if the script itself isn’t terribly clear.  Sometimes they tell us things that aren’t apparent by the acting, like the inner thoughts of characters.  They are a significant fudge factor, filling in the gaps in backstory and setting that aren’t always apparent when we are limited in time or technical aspects of a presentation.

Games aren’t plays, and games aren’t movies, but we can still benefit from some Greek Chorus mechanics.  Sure, we’re often told as writers (especially in visual media) to “show, don’t tell”, but sometimes it actually is more efficient to tell.  Sure, that pensive look on Oedipus’ brow shows the vast emotional range of the actor, but do all the viewers understand what’s firing in his synapses?  Do they understand the context and circumstances that moved him to stare dramatically into the middle distance?  A Greek Chorus can fill us in.

Perhaps it could be argued that those attending plays and actually paying attention do understand what the characters are thinking.  There’s a certain level of interest and extracurricular preparation that avid playgoers indulge in.  Perhaps that sort of interest and focus exceeds the modern gamer’s attention span.  And yet, we do have examples of lore fans for something like WoW.  Sure, it’s one thing to flash your Silmarillon or rattle off Aragorn’s lineage to establish Tolkien geek cred, but waxing philosophic about Malfurion Stormrage is another thing entirely.  Some gamers do want to understand the worlds they play in, and certainly the devs have poured a considerable amount of effort into making them interesting and credible.

I believe that a world that has a credible backstory (recent history), a cohesive sense of logical rules for how the world behaves (“you can do magic here, but only if you’re not a Muggle”) and a real sense that it’s lived in (a well-plotted long-term history and a sense of progression from that history), as well as interesting characters, will naturally be a more wondrous place to visit than a ramshackle Potemkin village with a few shooter mechanics.  This is especially true in RPG design.  The trouble is that players may not always get to see all of this construction.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since getting lost in a Grand Quest to save the Duchess’ Long Lost Twin Brother who has The Key to the one and only Book of Doom (previously owned by the Big Bad’s mentor, and claimed as a reward for another quest chain) that you need to read to learn the password to the Lair of the Evil Eye (and so on) can be a rather tedious affair.  Even so, if devs are writing their stories with a clear understanding of this underlying structure, the slice that actually gets presented can make more sense.

Devs need not hit players over the head with exposition to make their world interesting.  Some devs tuck story away in optional tomes found in the game world (Planescape Torment apparently had hundreds of pages’ worth of story tucked away for investigative players), some use cutscenes (that players inevitably want to skip), some just rely on smart writing to pick up enough of the world to be interesting.  When the depth of the setting and characters are left for the player to tease out on their own, those who are interested will find it, and those who just want to get on with killing ten rats will be able to do so.

Greek Choruses, or game characters that serve a similar function, can be valuable to making a world work by teasing out some of those details from within the game.  Auron is a sort of Greek Chorus for Final Fantasy X.  He’s a grizzled warrior who has history with the main romantic pair’s fathers.  He’s walked the road Yuna and Tidus find themselves on, and takes several opportunities to wax philosophical about “telling stories”, and how his story is important, but the characters (and players, by proxy), must tell their own story.  It’s his memories that serve to flesh out the world of Spira, told as vignettes relevant to the task at hand.  (It helps that the story of FFX is a fairly cyclical one, to be fair.)

Auron’s story makes the world more believable, and gives the tasks the heroes undertake more emotional weight.  The cyclical nature of the Big Bad, and how Auron dealt with the previous cycle, bear witness to the terror and gravity of the situation, and give the player more reason to push through with the wild plan concocted by Yuna.  Her line in the sand, her effort to stop the cycle, makes a lot more sense when you understand what’s really at stake.  The story gains more credibility and plausibility when we understand not only the present danger of wolves chewing on our intrepid team, but why we’re bothering with the grand operatic quest to Save The World in the first place.

The Prinny Chorus of Disgaea DS is considerably more tongue-in-cheek, but that’s the nature of the game in the first place.  It’s still a great addition to the game, not only adding to the player’s understanding of the nature of Prinnies (a key plot element), but also letting us understand the other characters a little better.  It’s notable that it’s a wholly optional aspect of the game, added simply to make the game world and story more entertaining and interesting.  It has no direct bearing on the story, no mechanical relevance, and yet, it makes the game better.

Not every game can benefit from a blatant Greek Chorus character or mechanic, but if world and story are important to the game, it’s worth experimenting, trying to find ways to clue in the player to some of the context of the story.  They can also stand in as a player avatar of sorts, reacting how a player might when they are only given a mute protagonist or a predefined story to play through.  They can be a way to lampshade some of the more notorious oddities in a game story, since humor can go a long way to making dumb things look planned or interesting.  They can call attention to Chekov’s Guns or other MacGuffins (or even be MacGuffins).  They can bridge the gap between dev intent and player experience.

Presentations can be more persuasive with a Greek Chorus in the wings, or they can at least give the sense that something Important is happening, that You Should Pay Attention To.  It’s almost an appeal to authority, where the Greek Chorus is presented as an authority on the game world who can relate to the player, while the protagonists can get on with their own concerns within the story.  That need not always mean they are reliable sources of information (in fact, tweaking the expectation that they are trustable can be a fun experiment), but they do help sell the story.

Obama's Greek Chorus

Image shamelessly swiped from this article at Fox News… yeah, they are a bit rabid at times, but that’s the best picture I could find of this particular case of a modern Greek Chorus… which honestly creeps me out a bit.  Call it the dark potential of a Greek Chorus; they can and do manipulate the reaction of the audience.  Any tool that has power can be misused, standard disclaimer, etc. …

Still, when we (as devs) are trying to present something that we consider important, sometimes it’s nice to have a chorus backing us up.  A Greek Chorus, a character or group of characters standing between the player and the dev, is another tool in the box for crafting an interesting narrative and a plausible world to put it in.  It’s not always going to be the best tool, but it can be a valuable one.

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I’ve seen this pop up in a few places, and figured it might interest some of you.

DriveThruRPG is offering a package of PDF downloads for various RPGs as a way to generate funds for Haitians dealing with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake.

If you’re a cold hearted capitalist, this is a fantastic deal to get some good source material for tabletop RPG play.  Take advantage of the situation, you big meanie.

If you’re one of those soft-hearted bleeding heart carebear nice guys, the money they are taking in for this promotion goes to help people who need it.  You selfless prig.  (Oh, and they are donating to that unwashed bunch of hippes, the Doctors Without Borders.  Internationalist dogooders.)

So, for $20 you can champion your cause, whether it’s selfish capitalization of tumultuous times, or trying to help people when all you have is a checkbook.

Who said gamers only want to kill things?

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Disgaea is packed with a bunch of good ideas.  I’ve logged over 100 hours with the game on my trusty DS (with a sadly defunct R button), and I’m still looking forward to playing more.  The game isn’t perfect, and has a few glaring flaws, but I wanted to point out the things they do well first (so yes, I’ll be writing a few articles on the game).  One of the best facets of the game is the way it handles classes.

Any character can equip any bit of gear.  Each character “class” uses gear a little differently, however.

The ten core statistics (HP, DEF, ATK, etc.) each have their own “inheritance” value.  This inheritance value is a percentile, typically between 50% and 100%.  It dictates how much equipped gear’s stats carry over to the character.  For example, a Mage class character with a 50% HP inheritance value will get a boost of 200 HP from a bit of gear that grants a base boost of 400 HP.  A Sniper character with an inheritance of 110% HIT will predictably get a 220 HIT boost from a bit of gear with a 200 base HIT boost.

As such, classes come with a relatively clear role, as defined by how their inheritances balance out, but the player isn’t locked into arbitrary equipping rules.  It’s perfectly possible to make an Axe wielding Cleric.  It’s not terribly smart, but it’s possible (and random enemies will often have such class/gear mismatches).  It’s all up to the player to choose how they want to approach character progress.

This freeform character control is a great way to handle development.  Classes are still present, but are more like guidelines rather than hardcoded expectations.  If you want your squishy mages to use the most incredible armor and carry pikes into battle, you can do that.  They won’t be as effective on the front lines as a battle hardened Ronin, but they will certainly be more durable than they would be in typical mage robes.

This flexibility is especially useful if mages have already learned all the magic they can and want to branch out.  Everyone can learn almost everything, taught by weapons, so it may well be smart to crosspollinate a bit for situational tactics.  Since you can change gear for free in a fight, you can afford to have several skills “on standby”.

And sometimes, it’s the little things like that that make all the difference in a pitched battle (though, to be fair, there aren’t a lot of those, considering the wide power band and the ability to outlevel pretty much any challenge).  It’s certainly most welcome in a game where tactical choices are what make the game tick.

It’s also possible to “reincarnate” a character as a different class, and if you do it right, they retain memory of what they learned in their previous life.  The level cap is an insane 9999 (not a typo), and since you can effectively level to the cap in each class, things can get extraordinarily grindy for the completionist.  For someone just exploring the system, though, the freedom is excellent.

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