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Posts Tagged ‘customization’

WoW Armor Customization

If WoWHead is to be believed, World of Warcraft has finally seen the light of day and is allowing armor customization.

World of Warcraft Patch 4.3

I’m still deciding just how snarky to be about it… “it’s about time”, “welcome to the twenty first century”, “better late than never”, “too little too late”… it’s all rattling around in there somewhere.  In the end, though, I just think that it’s a good idea (I have for a while), and it will be interesting to see what happens.

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Edited to add: Gwaendar’s excellent writeup of the (superior, I think) LOTRO system for comparison

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No, not that Ownership Society, arguably a significant part of the psychology behind the housing boom and bust (and other problems in the economy).  I’m talking once again about MMOs and video games.  In an age of great sales via digital distribution, subscription games and ever dwindling PC game sections in stores, the landscape of game ownership is varied and interesting.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, but Gordon over at We Fly Spitfires is my reference this time:

The Importance of Character Customization

I wholly agree that character customization is a significant part of giving players some ownership in a game.  That’s a big part of establishing a relationship that the player wants to maintain, maybe even at the cost of a subscription.

What interests me is the cognitive dissonance between giving players ownership, all while running what amounts to a lease, wherein once the monthly cash drip is pinched off, ownership dissolves.

Of course, as in the discussions that inevitably come up about difficulty, it’s been noted that players don’t really want difficulty, they want the illusion of difficulty, and a pat on the back or some loot.  So, what do players really want from their characters?  What do players really want from their gaming dollars?

I don’t think there’s any one right answer. (Yes, that’s an obvious statement, but I do feel it needs to be noted.  Challenging the status quo of MMO design is sort of a hobby of mine.)

I just know that for me, ownership of a game is much more than customizing a character.  I want to play it whenever I want, however long I want, without incurring a cost to do so.  I’m happy to pay for a game I like (as my wife will attest to… like Andrew, I probably have more games than time to play them).  I don’t want to lease a game.

Likewise, ownership of a character in a game is much more to me than picking a class at creation and mucking around with talent trees.  I want more out of my gaming time than conforming to a dev’s script.  I’ve written about this before, and likely will again.

Perhaps it’s not so much that I want a sandbox game, but rather, I want a sandman character.  I don’t mind some structure to my games (after all, a sandbox is still a box, and you can’t think outside of it until you know where it ends), but I want to have flexibility in how I approach the game’s challenges.  I want to really own my approach to the game, to leave my stamp on the experience.  Not because I want bragging rights, but because it’s simply more fun to me to do things my way.  I want to make my own memories, tell my own story, and have my own fun.

Because, well, that’s what I want for my money.

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Following up on a comment from Spinks over in the Dual Wield Healing comments, I’ve wondered for a while why “players LOVE classes”.  I suspect there are a handful of reasons, and I’d love to hear what some of you think.  I’m not really disputing that assertion, since I’ve seen plenty of evidence thereof, but I am always questioning why that might be, and if there’s an alternate way (or three) to scratch the underlying psychological itches.  While thinking a bit about those itches, I’ve been thinking of other ways to approach the scratching.

One game that I’ve looked to for good ideas is Final Fantasy Tactics.  FFT has character “Jobs” that function much like classes:  The characters have a core Job that defines their gear permissions (weapons and armor, anyway) and their primary combat abilities.  Soldiers are melee fighters, Black Mages are ranged magic cannons, etc.  Characters can learn abilities from their active “main” Job, eventually Mastering the Job.  They can also use skills they have learned from other Jobs to customize their approach.

Overall, I like FFT’s system, as it allows you to build up a character with a wide variety of abilities that cross-pollinate and synergize, but filters them through the ability to only use a handful at a time.  It’s a nice compromise between learning everything and making tactically relevant limited choices.  Players can make characters specialists or generalists, and anything in between.  This works largely because you tend to field a handful of units in any given skirmish, rather than just a single character.  You can build a team that works well as a whole, rather than just try to do everything yourself.

Battletech works in a similar fashion.  There are several different ‘Mech chassis designs, and several weapons to put in those ‘Mechs.  Players are encouraged to customize their machines by swapping weapons, armor, heat sinks and such, trying to optimize their machine (or team of ‘Mechs in some iterations of the IP) for how they play.  Certainly, there are “stock” configurations of the machines, but half of the fun of the Battletech universe is tinkering with the delicate balance of heat, ballistics, energy weapons, range, mobility, size, and half a dozen other aspects, trying to build the most powerful ‘Mech for its weight.  The stock designs are not usually optimized for greatest potential, which I suspect was intentionally done to give an impetus to tinker, and a reward for those who master the tuning system.

The rough analogue to MMO class design is the Battletech ‘Mech chassis, and the “spec” for a class (minor tweaks to how the class plays) are the loadout of the ‘Mech.  Of course, a MechWarrior need not be tied to a single Mech for his career, which is where the Battletech variability wins out over a class design; it’s like the ability to change your class (chassis) at a whim (or limited by experience/story permissions/bankroll, whatever), allowing for a much greater gameplay variety over the course of a single character’s “life”.  This is also where FFT shines; it allows a single character to change their class/spec/loadout often and completely.

I really like this sort of customizability, as I love the freedom it offers, and I can get more invested in my characters since they really are mine.  Their progress is dictated by my choice, and ultimately, those choices affect how I approach the game as a whole.

Still, that depth does put off some people.  I suspect that it would similarly put off people in MMOs who LOVE their class and can’t imagine playing anything different.  It’s a lot to keep track of, and some people don’t want to bother with learning that much.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

*Quick tangent… I also see class distinctions as yet another way to artificially extend playtime, since you can’t take an existing character and just change their class like you would a Job in FFT.  You must start a whole new character and grind through the levels.  The ability to change your class completely in an MMO doesn’t rob you of identity any more than the ability to change your spec or gear.  It’s your character, and you can always just stick with one class, even if there are options to change.  When there are no options, though, the player interested in exploration of game mechanics is unduly forced to jump through altitis and grind hoops.*

One of the game designs that I’ve toyed with in the last few years is a Tactics-esque game that has a FFT/BT level of depth for character customization, but has what I’m calling Autopilot Character Development.  For those who don’t want to make those choices of how to build a character, there would be “templates” that could be assigned to a unit, automating that progress, allowing the player to just focus on the tactics and strategy inherent in a larger campaign/storyline.

For example, a unit might be given the Scout Template, which would automatically assign them to the Scout class for a while, as it learns some Scouting abilities, then later, assign it to a Ninja class where it can learn some greater evasion and attack abilities.  At any point, the player can turn off the Template and take control of the progression, but if they just can’t be bothered with the minutae inherent in the system, the Autopilot lets them get on with playing the upper-level game.  (Here “upper-level” meaning higher concepts, like tactics and strategy, not high unit level.)

Put another way, this sort of Template system could be overlaid on an open skill system to create a loose sort of “streamlined” class-based system.  UO could become Diablo, as it were.  The key here is that you would always have the option to go back and take the reins, mixing and matching to make your Scout dabble in magic or your Barbarian toy with bows.  This, of course, means that you would also be able to change pretty much everything about the character, from the most basic stats (the prototypical SRT, DEX, whatever) to skill levels to combat skillset (a limited set of usable abilities, like the FFT system).

Is it a lot to keep track of?  Of course it is.  Is it a lot to dig into and potentially have fun with?  If done well, definitely.  Is it good design?  I think so, largely because of the experience I’ve had with games.  (Of course, this mostly applies to those games that require a huge investment of time and character building.  Team Fortress 2 and Smash Bros. work because each round of playing with a class only takes a few minutes.  When that play session extends to hours, weeks and months, it’s onerous to think of “replay” as “rolling another class”.)

I played Titan Quest through as a Sage, a Hunter/Storm ranged DPS machine.  I used Hunter as my “main” class because arrows are infinite, and I could attack at range without burning through mana reserves.  I used Storm to augment that plan, buffing my offense with elemental punch, making my basic ranged attacks sufficiently powerful to kill all but the hardiest enemies long before they got to melee range to bother me.  Ranged enemies went down even quicker since I had great range and high damage… and they were typically slow casters with little defense.  I had a blast, but once I finished the game, I wanted to try another class build.

I didn’t want to spend the time grinding through the lower levels of the game building up a new character, though, playing old content just to see how another class would approach it.  So I found a little program called the TQ Defiler.  It let me edit my character, changing his class to anything I felt like.  I would not have played the game as much as I did without that freedom.  In my younger, stupider days I might have jumped back in with another character from the very start, but with life constantly intruding on my gaming time, I don’t have that luxury any more.  Of course, the TQ Defiler also allows for other sorts of hacks which make the game much easier or harder, but the part that interested me was the class swapper.  There is a “respec” option in the game, but it only allows you to change the way you’ve allocated your skill points, not change your class or secondary, and the cost in game currency increases with each use of the service.

Why?  What does that add to the game?  “Replay value”?  In my time-constrained world, playing through the same content with a different approach is pretty low on the replay value scale.  Yes, it’s technically “replay”, but the bulk of that sort of replay is just repetition, which never sits well with me.  (Mostly because DIKU design is very repetitious to start with; repeating the repetition just gets too stupid too fast.)

“Class identity”?  Thing is, if you have the option to change, you don’t lose that identity; those classes and builds are still there, you just gain the ability to make more choices in the game.  Remember, I like choices.  Purist players in a freeform system will always have the choice to stick with their initial choice, but it doesn’t work the other way; those who want freedom can’t drag it out of a class system without a hex editor.  (Which is effectively making the game behave in ways it wasn’t built for, but arguably should have been.  That sort of hacking doesn’t work in MMOs, since the admins tend to frown on it, banhammer in hand… understandably so, if disappointingly so.)

In a freeform system with Autopilot, you could let the Templates handle the minutae of maintaining a “class identity”, and just go ahead and play your class.  Those who want to do something more freeform could use the Autopilot a bit, or just go all in and do their own thing.

Guild Wars already has something somewhat like this with their Build Templates that you can save and load when you do your “free respec” thing in any town.  They are shorthand precooked “builds” that can be used at any time you would respec, so you can quickly change from a “farming” build to a “questing” or PvP build.  You can also change around your “attribute” numbers willy nilly, to accent your particular build of the moment.

I’m just extending the concept to push that freedom into more aspects of the game, all the way down to the most basic of character customization, the “class” choice.  I’ll reiterate, though, I’m talking about adding choices, and adding an Autopilot for those who want the more constrained experience.  This system wouldn’t destroy the ability to make a killer Rogue or buffalicious Tank, it would augment the game as a whole to allow for more variety and player ownership of one of the few things they truly can control; their character or team.  And yes, this design ethos would apply equally well to a Tactics team-based game as to an MMO.  Any game that uses classes or jobs could benefit from this sort of freedom.

I know, some people wouldn’t like that sort of freedom.  Some want strict predictability and/or relatively simple decision making.  That’s the point of the Autopilot, to let those players just get on with playing the game.  For those who want to dig deeper, though, why not let them do so?

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Game balance is a tricky thing.  Psychochild has a good article up about it over here:

Balanced but not Equal

I’ve also been pondering the nature of Final Fantasy games and game balance.  In nearly every FF game, players have the option of outleveling the game’s difficulty, effectively toning down the challenge by investing time in lesser challenges.  (That’s also what WoW winds up doing as well, at least until the “endgame” where the core play changes anyway.)  Thankfully, the games are usually fun enough to make that sort of “grind” enjoyable, and it’s often incentivized with side quests.  Of course, this blows the designer’s carefully crafted pacing and balance out of the airlock, but one of the cardinal lessons that good designers learn is that the player’s experience (including the ability to do crazy things the designer didn’t intend) is paramount, not the designer’s ego.  Games should be about letting players play, not trying to force them into the designer’s vision.

In FFTA2, like its predecessor, there are some midgame/lategame abilities that can be learned that make for “broken” gameplay.  The prototypical example is the “Red Mage/Summoner with Doublecast and Blood Price and Juggler with Critical:Quicken and elemental absorption gear”.  It’s a rather “degenerate” combo that allows the player to use two units to take infinite turns and bounce around the map, blasting foes with elemental summons (powerful large area magic).  There are those who use that as an example that FFTA2 is “broken”.  A quick YouTube search will produce more than a few results to that effect.

I think it’s brilliant.

As Mark Rosewater of MTG fame might say, I’m a Johnny.  I love finding those sort of absurdly overpowered combos in a game, using game mechanics in synergistic and explosive ways.  It’s a bit of a metagame puzzle for me, plotting out the most interesting and effective way to completely dominate the game, or maybe just do something interesting that the good little hamsters on the designer’s wheel might not have thought of.

And who doesn’t like that at some level, anyway?  Games are many things, but close to the gamer’s heart is the desire for a power fantasy; the ability to completely bend the game to our whim and demonstrate power unheard of in our petty little “real” lives.  If we’re just actors in the designer’s little “movie”, especially if we don’t know our part, we’re not going to really enjoy playing the game.  We might enjoy the satisfaction of finally figuring things out and reading the designer’s mind, but that’s an entirely different psychological fix.

FF games allow for that sort of customized playing experience, especially in the Tactics games with their expansive stable of Jobs and abilities.  I love that they offer that sort of choice.  If I want to play the game “the purist way”, I can just suck it up like a man and beat my head against the wall until I develop a sufficiently thick cranium and neck muscles to plow my way through the challenge.  If I don’t want to deal with repeated failure and stupid “do it again, stupid” gameplay (thanks for the phrase, Shamus!), I can just go out and level up a few times and come back with more beefy avatars.

Of course, the trick is to balance things sufficiently that such game breakers don’t show up too early, and to give challenges to even the elite (hello, Ruby/Emerald Weapon, meet my Knights of the Round via WSummon).

To be fair, the FF lineage does have a penchant for “one shot” gear or items that can only be found if you don’t open a treasure chest when you can in the first three hours of the game and come back to it just before the final boss, or some other obscure set of procedures.  I’m not a fan of that sort of option, since it’s only available to those with a FAQ or replay OCD.  I’m most interested in the “toolbox” sort of design that makes all of the pieces available to players, and their skill or devotion at putting together the puzzle unlocks interesting gameplay, above and beyond what the “main story” requires for completion.

Bottom line, though, I do think that FF games strike a decent balance between allowing nearly anyone to see their lovingly-crafted stories (the quality of which can be debated, of course, but here I’m talking about gameplay access) and still offer challenge to players of all levels.  It does make for some “broken” combos, and some nonsense “optional bosses” that could have eaten the Big Bad for a snack, but when it boils down to gameplay, it’s about letting the player make choices in how they approach the game.  Those who want a challenge can try a FFX “no sphere grid” game (no upgrading the characters as they level up), and those who just want to see if Yuna and Tidus finally get over their angst  can just mosey on through the game, creating superheroes that can destroy the final boss with a glare.  That flexibility is a good thing.

(And, as should be noted, this does change between single player games and MMOs, where combos need to be kept reined in a lot more, given PvP and the inevitable whining pity parties.  Still, giving players different ways to do things and have fun playing is a good thing.)

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Michael Stackpole’s “I, Jedi” book is my favorite novel in the Star Wars Extended Universe.  (Let us not speak of the travesty that they call The New Jedi Order.)  It’s an intriguing look at what it might be like to adopt the Jedi code, and how one adapts to using the Force and living as a Jedi Knight.

I never played Star Wars Galaxies.  I’m not sure if there was a similar sense of responsibility and power that was attached to the Jedi character class.  I hope there was, just like I hope that the lore is treated well in the Bioware MMO, Star Wars:  The Old Republic.  Being a Jedi should mean something beyond having a fancy lightsaber and an emo cloak.  (Yes, this means that I think George Lucas didn’t quite treat the lore all that well, either.  Yes, it’s his baby.  Yes, I’m a fan of what I think it could be, not what it has become.  Too bad.)

I want an I, Jedi experience from Bioware.  I want to know what it’s like to be a Jedi, not just some dude who takes turns trading lightsaber blows with some Sith NPC.  (Seriously, trading hits with a lightsaber?  Am I the only one getting serious Monty Python Black Knight flashbacks?)

I want to build my own lightsaber.

That is, I want to go through the entire process, like Corran Horn did.  I want a personalized piece of machinery, tuned to perfection for my abilities, and suiting my tastes.  I don’t want a generic Trainee lightsaber that I can only tune by swapping in some gems of +5 Rancorslaying.  I want to go hunting down an exotic monster’s horn, hollow it out and put the emitter in it, give it mother of pearl inlay and obsidian buttons, and install a secret compartment or two for when I get my MacGyver itch.  Or maybe scavenge a droid’s arm and make myself a unique hinged lightsaber.  I definitely want a dual phase blade.

In short, I want player-driven crafting in SWTOR, and I want craftsmanship and individuality to mean something.  Surely that’s something Bioware can do, right?

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Raph Koster has responded to the recent Wikipedia whirlwind by taking a moment to write up a history and definition of the DIKU MUD.  This is a valuable resource that I have bookmarked and will probably be referring to again in the future.  Modern MMOs have much to thank DIKU MUDs for, for better or worse.  They are apparently the root of the class structure and level/loot treadmill, among other things.

If you’ve been reading my other articles, you might know that I’m actually not all that impressed with that lineage.  One of the “diseases” that the DIKU genetic strain is susceptible to is altitis.  Technically, it’s a mild form of imaginative metagaming schizophrenia, often seen in RPG players as well.  It is harmless in most cases, but a notorious time sink.

One potential “cure” for altitis in MMO design is Alternate Progression.  Research on this is still in the early stages, and the market is glacially slow in acceptance.  Still, with a modest grant of 50 million dollars (pocket change for the TARP, and the aging MMO genre certainly qualifies for monetary relief), I’m sure I could come up with some effective treatments.  (This, of course, is assuming that players want such solutions.  There’s nothing really wrong with altitis, but I see it as a symptom of one school of game design.) (more…)

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