I loved Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. I’ve been looking forward to its “sequel”, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix. Tobold wrote about it a bit ago, and I’ve been reading other reviews. I’ve noticed a few interesting things that pop up pretty consistently regarding luck vs. skill, and the class system in PQ:Warlords vs. the lack of one in PQ:Galactrix. Since I also write about MMOs, it’s probably not too hard to see how these might apply. The post title might be a bit more obscure, but remember that I consider games to be all about choice, and MMOs to be perhaps the best genre to explore certain choices. (This is a bit sprawling, weighing in at over 2400 words, so I’ve amputated it a bit here with a link. I’m still toying with finding the sweet spot for doing that.)
This reviewer seems to really miss the class structure in PQ:Warlords. I did think that the classes in that game were interesting, but I was ultimately deeply annoyed by the fact that there were four classes but only two save slots. In a game with RPG aspects deep in the core design, requiring dozens of hours to fully “master” a class, this amounted to the devs wasting the player’s time if they wanted to see all the game had to offer (since saved games of mastered classes would have to be deleted). That is deeply annoying to me, and while I like the game for what it is, I cannot overlook that poor decision.
Beyond that, though, even if there were four save slots, that still means that you would be playing the game through four times just to see everything. That does mean that it has “replay” value, but I’ve never really considered replaying the same content with a different approach to be quality replay value. Yes, you can do it, but the content itself doesn’t change substantially, just your approach to it. I want more out of replay value, m’self. To be fair, the bulk of Puzzle Quest games actually *is* the puzzling, and the different classes to approach puzzle combat differently, so this isn’t as much of a problem as “replay” derived from playing a different class in something like WoW, where quests and crafting draw largely from the same well every time.
In contrast, this reviewer seemed to really like the new classless system. I concur, as it allows players to tailor their experience without having to resort to playing through the game again. Replay should be an option, a choice, not something that completionists are required to do to see all a game has to offer. To be fair, not every gamer is a completionist, but at the same time, we do seem to have more than our share of the hyper-obsessed completionist sort, and taking advantage of that by making “replay” largely literally replaying old content rather than offering something new just doesn’t sit right with me. (And, as you might imagine, the way that MMOs monetize that replay, based on consumption of time rather than content, is even more annoying.)
Someday, devs will realize that their audience has grown up a bit and left them behind. No longer can devs assume that players have dozens of hours to dedicate exclusively to their game. Devs can and should certainly seek to offer such a great value for entertainment dollars, but making games that abuse customer schedules with grind or stupid “gotcha” design is a mentality that should be left in the 20th century. (If you haven’t read that article by Shamus over on Twenty Sided, please do; it’s a great rant on that annoying game design crutch.) This is especially true as games seek greater storytelling or immersion, since making players muck around with lame, repetitive tasks breaks the experience. (Which is tangentially why “kill ten rats” quests are so lame.) Bioware, are you paying attention? ArenaNet seemed to grok this a bit with Guild Wars, but even that game has some grind.
Mind you, I’m not saying that grind itself should be abolished, just that it should be optional. I’ve written before that I like to grind sometimes, as it’s a nice, mindless Zen-like activity for those times when I just feel like zoning out in front of a game. I loathe being forced to do it to access content. If I’m playing through a well-paced storyline and I just naturally wind up prepared for challenges as a result of playing the game, I’m happy (Chrono Cross does that well). It’s those moments when I have to wander the Veldt for hours or schlep around the world looking for blue butterflies to feed the Gate Demon that I find annoying.
Ultimately, I don’t think that there is a “perfect” solution for everyone. That’s part of why MMO design will always have a lot of problems; the innate need to appeal to a critical mass of gamers will mean that the diverse gaming styles will inevitably butt heads at some point. The best we can do is to make sure that nobody feels forced to do things, or to minimize such content gating. Of course, that runs contrary to the desire to keep people playing your game, but when I see game design bent to making people play the boring parts of your game (repeatedly) to get to the good parts, instead of giving people fun reasons to play all the time, I see design problems.
Specifically with the class design, I’ve toyed with an open skill set design, but one that has “templates” that players can slot themselves into if they want to just let the system lead them by the nose. These templates would be the rough equivalent of classes, but they wouldn’t be set in stone, they would just be a way for players to tell the system to make them live in constraints. It’s “fire and forget” character progression, not unlike current player classes, just framed as an option within a classless skill-based design.
It’s not unlike the discussion in the Microsubscriptions article, where I wrote about offering monetization options. Adele piped up with an implied complaint about the possible complexity of such a system. Yes, giving players choice can paralyze some people. That’s why it can be important to offer not only a whole suite of choices, but also the “metachoice” to dodge the whole thing and let the computer (or automated billing) take care of it.
Moving on to the “luck vs. skill” issue, I’m honestly baffled by the ire that PQ:Galactrix has stirred up. The original was equally luck-based, and if anything, potentially more so. At least in PQ:Galactrix, you control the direction of “gravity”, which is more than the original offered. Yes, you’re still at the mercy of the random piece generator, but that’s always going to be true in a game of this nature without perfect information (rather than Chess, for example, where everything is there on the board, and it’s player skill that determines things). These games reward planning that takes that randomness into account. Luck is part of the design, and complaining about it misses the point. (Sometimes it’s even based on the faulty memory that conveniently forgets that players often get lucky as well. It’s just when the computer gets lucky, or that the player loses, that sticks in the memory, exaggerating the effect.) To be fair, RPG nuts like their fairly deterministic relentless march to success, so this might just be an inevitable clash that comes from the game’s particular mashup of genres.
Contrast this with Peggle, another “casual” game. The Escapist has a great article digging into this in their recent issue. Ultimately, Peggle isn’t about luck at all, though it would seem so at a glance. There is no random piece generator. The game is completely deterministic, as it’s based firmly in a physics model and consistent timing. The Youtube videos of multimillion point shots attest to the predictability of the thing; those are not lucky shots, they are carefully orchestrated and painstakingly constructed. They are repeatable.
Gamers love the illusion of control. Some games are better at giving this, like PQ, while actually holding the player hostage to a fairly random system. You can go further back to see this, too; Tetris had a random piece generator. (And the best Tetris innovations were the “next 3 pieces preview” and “hold a piece in reserve” that gave players more control. That’s no accident.) In both games, it’s best to plan ahead for contingencies, doing your best to anticipate what might happen, and how to best take advantage of whatever does happen. Planning ahead to compensate for luck is itself a skill, and refusing to learn it is a failure on the part of the player, not a failure of the random piece generator or the game design.
On the other side, you can look at Pong, where the whole game was determined by player skill, timing and a fully predictable physics model. Air Hockey does the same thing. So does Peggle. To the unskilled, flailing away, hoping for things to fall your way is a valid strategy, but it seems driven by luck. There is no luck in these games, just lack of skill and a psychological blame game.
That’s the root of the problem with games where “luck” really is a component of the design, like those with a random piece generator. We think there’s luck when there isn’t, so when there really is luck involved, the perception is multiplied.
Look at Magic the Gathering. That game definitely has a luck component by design, given that it’s a card game with shuffles and imperfect knowledge. Even so, there is a huge amount of skill involved in deck construction (which seeks to minimize luck), and card choice during play (savvy players again try to minimize luck). I presume the same of pretty much any card game, actually. In MTG, the player who loses to “mana screw” (not getting the right resource cards at the right time) is more apt to complain about luck than their own lack of skill with deck construction. We’re just wired that way, but it doesn’t mean the game design is broken. (Of course, sometimes the game design really is broken, but that’s tangential.)
In MMO terms, players try to min/max their way past the luck inherent in a “die roll” combat resolution system. They twink the snot out of their characters, optimize their skill bar, and try to play in groups, all to minimize the impact of an unlucky mistake. The recent Wrath of the Lich King design that is apparently less punishing to mistakes (fewer wipes in raids, specifically) is one way that they are giving players more control to choose how they approach challenges. I see this as a good thing. Not everyone plays games to be punished.
That said, I am sympathetic to those who want the flagellation in their games. Darkfall is unabashedly catering to that niche. The NES Ninja Gaiden did so in its day. Many arcade games did the same thing, though usually because they were hungry for quarters. Ultimately, however, that’s all I think that it is, a niche. An MMO that lives or dies on critical mass needs to make the experience palatable to that mass. That means that yes, some will dislike it, but it’s purely a business decision, not a personal vendetta against the hardcore.
Giving players choice and power over their experience will mean a softer, more forgiving experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if the designers reserve optional areas for those who don’t want forgiveness. That’s the point; let players choose if they want things hard or soft, but never force players on either side to adopt the other stance just to get to your content. If that means instanced dungeons in MMOs, so be it. If it means personalized difficulty settings, do it. If it means self-balancing content, it’s worth devising. Find what works for your game design and do it, or you’re cutting yourself off from those who would play, but won’t because of limited choices. (Which again echoes the monetization scheme; one size does not fit all.)
There’s another complaint about PQ:Galactrix that pops up in a few places. These guys perhaps make the most noise over it, but ultimately, I think this is another failure of expectations more than a failure of design. They complain that the multiplayer suite for the game is rather underwhelming. It’s a single player game. By design. It’s not meant to be a game that does everything. That said, the basic draw is that of a “two player competitive puzzle”, so not having good options for multiplayer is a curious omission. I do see a lot of complaints that games should always be multiplayer, and any game that fails to do that is somehow incomplete, but sometimes, it’s OK for a game to just be a really good single player game. (Especially a portable game.) The PQ games straddle the line a bit, and a good multiplayer suite would definitely serve them well, but if they are perfectly enjoyable as a solo game, as the PQ games are, reviewers docking them for lack of multiplayer perfection seems a bit petty.
The mirror of this is naturally the MMO genre. Th0se games are multiplayer. By design. That said, the logic doesn’t exactly map backwards. MMO games are more of a “virtual world”, and as in the real world, it’s perfectly viable to go through life solo. Not everyone is an extrovert who travels in a herd all the time. I can see where asking for a single player CounterStrike or Team Fortress 2 would be fairly silly, but MMO game design really has to get past the mentality of “we’re multiplayer, so group up, dagnabbit”!
I do think that MMOs in particular should leverage their unique multiplayer persistent aspects to do unique things in gaming, but again, it’s about choices. Give players the choice to live in your MMO world however they would like (within non-griefing bounds, perhaps), rather than try to force a certain gameplay style on them. That’s the true promise of a world “with no boundaries” like the MMO genre has more than once pretended to. There’s the promise of unique multiplayer experience, and there’s the promise of unique solo experience that has an effect on other players. There’s a difference between the two, and the critical points of that difference are where MMOs need to step up and evolve.
As always, it’s about giving players choices, and making them meaningful. It’s scary, as a designer… but oh, so rewarding for the players. You don’t need to make players go through grinds or other gating mechanisms if they feel they are making important choices most of the time in your game. That’s what devs should aim for, not building a better treadmill, or offering a “choice” of a set of treadmills.