Tobold's Blog
Saturday, March 27, 2004
The Bartle Test

Another short post, with useful links. One of the problems in designing a good MMORPG is to give the players what they want, because different players want different things. So somebody named Richard Bartle went and actually wrote a scientific paper about the different player types. It is about players in MUDs, multi-user dungeons, the text-based grandfathers of the modern 3D MMORPG, but the same classification still applies.

He roughly divides players in 4 groups, Explorers, Socializers, Achievers, and Killers. Of course everybody is a bit of everything, I'm much of an Explorer, a bit of Socializer and Achiever, and not at all a player Killer. To find out what you are, somebody designed a Bartle test questionaire that gives you your Bartle (or ESAK) quotient. They also have extensive statistics, showing for example that killers are more likely to play Shadowbane, or the scores of some "famous" people in the genre.
Thursday, March 25, 2004
Basic repetitive units

Last July I wrote a piece about content, the non-repetitive part of a MMORPG. Of course content is important. But even more important is the repetitive part. Every MMORPG has these basic repetitive units, like combat, or making an item with a tradeskill. The idea is simple: By offering these basic repetitive units of gameplay, you can occupy your players for many hours, without having to offer them any expensive-to-create content. Of course this only works if people are willing to repeat the same action over and over. For that to be fun, each basic repetive unit has to be a mini-game in itself.

With combat, that is easy. Combat has both risk and reward, and slaying an orc or dragon is intrinsincaly interesting. Nevertheless, solo combat in MMORPG games is often boring. The problem is that the designers have to account for lag. You don't want a game where the guy with the best ping has a definite advantage, while a guy with a bit of lag loses out. So MMORPG combat is often of the one-click-combat kind; you click on some sort of "start attack" button, and your character hits the monster once every x seconds, until either you or the monster are dead. You can even leave the keyboard and go and get a coffee while fighting. Only spellcasters have it more interesting, as they have to chose which spells to cast. To create something a bit more interesting for the melee fighters, they usually get some sort of special attack, so they have a button to hit once in a while in combat. Very predictable, very boring. MMORPG combat only gets interesting when fighting in a group, as fellow players are a lot less predictable than AI controlled monsters. Group combat is all about cooperating to control what the monster is doing. You try to make the monster hit the guy with the best defence (the tank), while the other players either heal the tank, or deal damage to the monster.

Not much progress is in sight for MMORPG combat. One idea, used in Horizons for example, is combat stances. These work like rock-paper-scissors, if you chose the stance that "beats" the stance of your opponent, you deal more damage. Another possibility is being able to chose between more aggressive and more defensive combat modes. Skills like "Berzerk" exist for that in some games, like FFXI. But the world is still waiting for a really good idea how to improve MMORPG combat, without forgetting the lag problem.

While combat is more or less okay in most games, the basic repetitive unit to create an item, usually called "tradeskill", is bad in most games. The only game that can claim to have turned tradeskills into a sort of game is SWG. But even there the mini-game actually consists of gathering the resources, while turning the resources into an item is as boring as in all other games. One problem is that the player usually has no influence on the degree of success. There is a risk, failure to create the item, losing the components, but this risk is just linked to a random chance which happens invisibly in the background. There is also a reward, in increased skill, and possibly in creating wealth, but most MMORPG designers seem to have problems with that concept. In all games I have played up to now, the skill increase was far too slow. You had to create thousands or even tens of thousands of items to get the skill to maximum. And that in turn totally kills the economics of tradeskills, as there is no market for these thousands of items. Designers are often unwilling to allow you to make a profit on items sold to NPC. And making an item for players is often only profitable once you have a relatively high skill, meaning AFTER you repeated the creation process several thousand times.

The only improvement to tradeskills promised by the games of 2004 is that World of Warcraft scrapped the concept of random failures when making items. But they replaced it with a simple "every try is a success", which is less frustrating, but not necessarily more fun. The fundamental flaw of tradeskills is that the process still consists of chosing what to make, and selecting the ingredients, and then just clicking a button. Once you know what to make, this degrades quickly in a repetitive click-feast. A good indicator for that is that people often try to macro tradeskills, to at least minimize the number of clicks per item, and ideally to run in a loop without having to be at the keyboard. That is a sure sign of a part of a game which is badly designed and boring. What is missing is the mini-game part in the creation. Players only do tradeskills to get to the final reward of being master, in spite of being bored by the actual process to get there.

That could be something as simple as a sliding puzzle like this one. I chose this example, because you see how you can make sliding puzzles from easy to hard by simply increasing the number of rows and columns. So the easiest items to create could be a 3x3 puzzle, while the most complicated ones could be a 6x6 puzzle. To make things really difficult, there could be a time-limit, or better a limit on the number of moves to avoid lag problems. Of course other sorts of mini-games would be possible. But the player would be actually involved in the creation of the item. It would be impossible to macro. And the difference between an easy item and a master item would not only be the number of skill points required to do it, but it would actually be more difficult for the player to make the master item.

After combat and tradeskills, in most games there are no more basic repetitive units. Some games offer fishing, but that usually suffers the same fate as tradeskills, in that there is no actual game involved besides pushing a button and waiting for a random chance. Not that random chance is bad, the problem is that it is usually invisible. If there was a little pop-up window with a slot machine like display, and fishing consisted of getting 3 fish in a row, it would already be a lot better than now. And there would be a lot of other basic repetitive units like that which could be added to MMORPG, each of them a different mini-game.

One of the worlds most successful single-player series of role-playing games, Final Fantasy, is famous for being stuffed with mini-games. One of them even had a complete fun fair full of games included. It is unfortunate that MMORPG, not even FFXI which is ostensibly from the same series, do not take up that concept and make their basic repetitive units into better mini-games.
Friday, March 19, 2004
More on Jedi

No, I haven't gone back to SWG. But I found this rather interesting 10-page article on Gamespy, on The Real Story of SWG, with more about what went wrong with Jedi. Different angle, and more information, than what I wrote on Jedi in October; but the basic message is the same, forcing people to play a character class they don't like is not a good idea.

I realize that for a "blog" I posted pretty few links up to now, so enjoy this piece of "classic" blogging.
Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Of my discussion of playing with other people, I left out Player versus Player combat (PvP). Games in which people fight against each other online are a huge success. Games like Counterstrike on the PC, or SOCOM on the PS2, or Halo on the XBox are driving those game platforms online. After fighting against bad artificial intelligence for many years, players are very happy to compete against human intelligence by playing PvP games online. So it is only natural that some people, players and game developers, were thinking about adding PvP to MMORPGs as well. With a rather sobbering result:

PvP in a MMORPG does not work.

The first game to make this experience, Ultima Online, nearly killed itself through PvP. A minority of player killers (PK) made life such hell for the majority of people, that many of them quit the game. UO was fixed by creating a mirror world. The same world existed in a bright, PvP-free version, and in a dark, PvP-enabled version. More than 90% of the players stayed on the PvP-free side, causing server problems. And the PK minority on the dark side wasn't happy either, because their side was so empty that they couldn't find anybody to fight with.

Since then, game developers were a bit more careful with PvP in MMORPG. Everquest had 1 PvP-enabled server for 30 non-PvP servers, and that was largely sufficient. Games that tried to pull in a lot of players by offering PvP didn't succeed in doing so. Dark Age of Camelot was one of the more successful attempts, but even there large parts of the game were PvP-free.

So why doesn't PvP mix well with the MMORPG genre?

Reason number one is character development. One of the big driving forces of role-playing games is the fact that your character is getting stronger as he plays. If at level 1 you encounter a big, mean monster that kills you with a single attack, a couple of levels later you will be equal in strength to that monster, and another couple of levels later it is you who kills the monster with a single attack. Now add PvP to that, and you see immediately that it can't work. If Player A has no chance against the monster that Player B can kill easily, Player A obviously doesn't have a chance against Player B in PvP. In DAoC it could easily happen that you enter a PvP zone, and after 3 steps you get hit by a single arrow from a high-level opponent and you die. That is no fun at all to the player that gets killed without having a chance. And the fun to the player killer is also limited.

Reason number two is that MMORPG are not pure PvP games. There is always Player versus Environment (PvE) combat of players against monsters. And there are nearly always other, more peaceful activities, like tradeskills, chatting, trading, or exploring. And all this doesn't mix well with PvP. If you just fought a monster and won, you are most probably wounded, or low on mana, afterwards. If in that moment a player of the same level as you, but fully rested, is attacking you, you don't stand much of a chance either. Being attacked while you are doing something peaceful would also put you in a disadvantage. In UO the PK were often attacking people that were mining, or doing other tradeskills, and were currently not wearing their combat equipment. In SWG fights often started in hospitals and cantina, where people had to go to rest and heal their wounds. If you are going somewhere because you are wounded, you don't want to fight at that place.

Reason number three is that MMORPG have different character classes. That works very well in PvE, as the different members in a group have different roles in combat. The character classes are balanced for PvE. The class with high defence has low offence to balance it out, while the class that deals the most damage is only lightly armored. And then there are support classes, most notably healers (of which I am particularly fond of). PvE combat works by introducing Artificial Stupidity for the monsters. The high defence classes, called tanks, have some sort of ability, called taunt, or provoke, that makes the monster attack them, and not the other group members. Meanwhile the other players are dealing damage, or healing the tank. This system obviously doesn't work for PvP. Enemy players can't be taunted into ineffectively attacking the heavily armored tank. So they kill the lightly armored damage dealers and healers first, and leave the tank standing until the end, as the tank deals little damage anyway, and isn't much of a danger. Character classes that offer both variety and balance in PvE, are suddenly unbalanced in PvP. But if a game developer wants to balance character classes for PvP, he has to give them all equal defence, so as not to create a class that always dies first. And if they all have equal defence, all damage dealers need to have equal offence as well, and the strength of the abilities of the support classes has to be equal in quality to the offence. If one class is better in dealing damage than another class, everybody is going to play that class. So you end up with classes that are more similar, and offer less variety in PvE.

Game developers are still trying to overcome these reasons against PvP in MMORPG. The best solution up to now is dividing the world into classical PvE zones, and specific PvP zones. To overcome the level problem, access to PvP zones can be restricted to people of a certain level or level range. One zone for people of level 25-29, another for people of level 30-34, and so on. Then if you don't add any monsters or other non-PvP environment to these zones, people ONLY go there for PvP, which takes care of the second problem. The third problem can't be solved, but it can be camouflaged. You balance different classes to be all of equal strength, but you make their offence and defence look different. The warrior has a plate armor and big sword, while the mage has a magic barrier and a lightning bolt, providing exactly the same defence and offence as armor and sword.

Another less well working solution is PvP flags. Only if you set a special PvP flag, you can attack other players, and be attacked. Without this flag you are totally protected from other players, but can't harm them either. SWG is doing this. It enables them to have classes that are basically useless in combat, like pure crafters, or even dancers and barbers. But their combat classes are still very sameish, to avoid unbalanced PvP fights. The level problem is solved by having a rather flat power curve, where you quickly reach a plateau, and can only develop your character further by giving up other skills you previously learned. Ends up making SWG rather unsatisfying in PvE.

Still some games try to make universal PvP possible. Usually you get some sort of negative flag when repeatedly killing defenceless other players. In EVE for example you had some sort of score which made the police hunt you if it went too negative, and force you to go hunting pirates to bring it back up into the positive region. Didn't work very well, some people simply didn't care about whether they were wanted by the police or not. And as all travel in EVE went through special worm hole gates, those gates were often camped by PK players shooting down every harmless trader wanting to pass. The EVE game developers are still trying to work out a better system, but they might already have lost too many customers due to PvP. Another game, Lineage II, will also have unrestricted PvP, and people are already reporting PK occurences in the beta.

The best solution is to not mix things that can't be mixed. One could well design a PvP combat game based on warriors, mages, and monsters, with every monster being played by a player, and no artificial intelligence monsters at all. No levels, no quests, no RPG, just pure player versus player combat, well balanced. Counterstrike goes fantasy, so to say. And then do the MMORPG games without a PvP element.

By the way, my favorite online comic strip is PVPOnline. But that one has nothing to do with PvP combat, although it does play in a fictional game magazine company, and thus mentions a lot of computer games, and makes fun of computer game players typical behavior.
Sunday, March 07, 2004
Playing with other people

Sitemeter tells me that this blog is actually getting read by some people, so I'd better add some content. :) What I am currently thinking about a lot is the relationship between people in a MMORPG. Other people playing the same game as you are at the same time the biggest advantage, and the biggest disadvantage of MMORPGs.

The advantage side is that human intelligence is still far superior to artificial intelligence. Whether the other person is fighting on your side, or against you in PvP (Player versus Player), he is a lot more interesting than any NPC. Fighting solo in a MMORPG is often boring, especially for pure melee characters, as combat is nearly totally automated; the only thing you can do is occasionally use a special attack. But the same fighting system in a group suddenly becomes interesting. Controlling "aggro", making the monster hit the character with the strongest defence, is a challenging task. Pulling isn't as easy as it looks. And spellcasters have to think not only about how much damage they heal or deal, but also about how their spells are affecting aggro. And if you think you know everything about fighting in a 6-player group, try big encounters where several groups ally to kill a huge boss mob.

Another big people plus is chat. Chat in all its different forms is huge on the internet. MMORPGs act as animated 3D chat rooms, and the game content provides something to chat about. You make friends, and group of friends band together in guilds, with both a guild chat advantage, and the possibility to group with each other, or help each other. If you ask somebody why he is still playing a game like EQ after years, when its grown boring long ago, he will usually tell you that he couldn't possibly leave his friends there. So obviously this is something that also helps the game company a lot, and they should enforce positive player interaction by the game design. Nothing worse than a game where the guild chat doesn't work properly, or people have difficulties playing together. (Unfortunately this is my current game's weak point. FFXI guild chat tends to get lost in the battle messages, as there is only one window. And playing together is only possible in a too narrow range of levels.)

Other times the other players in a MMORPG can be hugely annoying. Many of the bad stories you read on the different MMORPG game forums are about bad encounters with other players. Some players are simply jerks, encouraged to bad behavior by the anonymity of the internet. And unlike real life, in most games you can not punch another player in the face in response to verbal insults, so the insulter is feeling safe. Good games have good coverage of GMs (game masters), customer service representatives in game that can punish people for verbal abuse, or even ban them from the game. If justice is swift, word gets around fast, and people behave a lot better.

But where even a GM is helpless is the problem of competition. All MMORPG have limited in-game resources. Most of the time the most visibly limited resource is monsters to kill. A certain area has enough monsters to keep one group happily fighting all the time, with monster respawning as fast as they get killed. Move a second group, or more, into the same area, and downtime increases. The group gains less xp and loot per hour. And there is usually no way to reserve yourself some area. The best places to hunt are often well known, and sooner or later they become contested. That gets even worse when hunting specific mobs for specific treasures. Its bad enough that a certain monster only spawns every X hours, and then only has a one in Y chance to drop the magic item you want. If after you waiting for X hours for the monster, somebody comes along and happens to be faster than you in killing it, you wasted a lot of time for nothing.

Of course the competition problem is often aggravated by game design. Both common mob areas, and specific monsters are often static. If the good spot is always at the same spot, no wonder it becomes contested. Especially the specific monsters dropping the best magical items should not spawn always at the same spot, but in an area bigger than what a single person can watch. That would turn a camp into a hunt, and the competition would at least become less noticable. Quest monsters should not be random spawns at all, but be triggered by the questing player appearing. (FFXI does that well, but only with the biggest quest mobs.)

Somebody else killing the monster you wanted to kill is called killstealing. It was one of the biggest problem between players in EQ, because the game allowed people to steal the monsters that were already in a fight. So people organized blacklists of players accused of killstealing, with the target of socially outing them, to not let them join the big player organized raids and such. But with wrong accusations, some people simply not caring about being blacklisted, and thousand of players per server, the whole thing wasn't really satisfying. Newer games, FFXI among them, at least make it impossible to attack a monster that is already being attacked by another player. But that still leaves situations where players accuse each other of killstealing. Maybe one player used a slow method of pulling, like a bow, and another player grabbed the monster he was already targetting, but not yet in combat with. Or one player pulled several monsters with an area spell, and the game only counts one of them as reserved. Then there is the problem of higher level people easily killing all the low level monsters in one area to get their loot, and a group of low level characters not being able to get xp because of that. Possibilities of conflict are endless.

One interesting solution is personalized dungeons. Anarchy Online introduced them, and World of Warcraft is announced to be having them as well, when it comes out later this year. Obviously if the game can create a whole area just for you, or your group, there is no problem of competition. We will have to see how this is implemented in WoW. While WoW is definitely the "next big thing", MMORPG experience teaches not to believe all of the hype. The game soon to be released is always rumored to be much better than the game you are currently playing, but then it often falls flat once you can actually play it.

In the end the only solution to all problems between players is in the hand of the players. We all need to respect each other more. Even if the world is just virtual, the players behind the keyboards are feeling real emotions. If humanity has learned to hold back on the verbal abuse, and not start fighting about the last piece of cake, we should apply those rules of polite society to MMORPG as well.
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