Tobold's Blog
Saturday, July 21, 2007
 
Random elements use for tactics

Somewhere in World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs is a random number generator. Your fireball might do between 157 and 218 points of damage, with a 5% chance of a critical hit for 297 points, and the random number generator determines the outcome. The problem of that is that the player doesn't care too much. On average the above mentioned fireball does 193 points of damage, and that is all that counts, because you use the spell often enough. The random number generator only kicks in *after* you made your decision to cast the fireball, so the random event has no influence on your decision. To make random events more interesting, they need to happen *before* the decision process.

I just finished Metal Gear Acid 2 on my PSP, and that is a typical example on how to use random elements to make tactical combat more interesting. What "cards" you have in your hand is determined by the random draw that happens before you act. You can have 30 to 40 different cards in your deck, but your actions in every round are limited by the random 6 cards you are holding in your hand. Your decision depends on the random draw, because you can't use the rocket launcher if you didn't draw it. Thus even if you repeat the same combat several times with the same deck, it will always be different, because you draw the cards in a different order every time. That increases replayability a lot.

So why aren't there any MMORPGs with random elements influencing your decisions? In WoW you quickly find what order of spells works well and then usually use that same order over and over for hours, making every combat nearly identical. Chronicles of Spellborn announced they will be using a skill system in which you won't have the same hotkeys available every round. But there is no randomness involved, you manually put the abilities into hotkey bars 1 to 6, and they just rotate through that sequence.

Having a "deck" of random abilities from which you draw is one good system for introducing random elements to which the player has to react. But it isn't the only one possible. One curiously under-used way is random behavior of monsters. Ever seen a mob raising its shield for some time, making sword blows less effectice against it, but opening up a vulnerability against kicks? A few boss mobs in WoW have damage shields or magic shields, to which the players have to react. But in the standard solo PvE combat the mobs rarely do things that would force a player to react. If a mob has resistances, it is always the same, like a fire elemental being resistant to fire spells. There are no mobs with random resistances, which you only find out after the first spell you use on them. If monsters would do actions which make certain player abilities more or less useful, that would make combat a lot more interactive.

More interactive combat would be easy enough to implement in classical MMORPGs. The trading card style of combat from Metal Gear Acid would need a completely new style of MMORPG. Game companies are often highly conservative, rarely daring to introduce radical innovation. But the potential spoils could be huge. Because once you have trading cards as the base of your fantasy online world combat, you have the possibility to sell random packs of cards. Of all the games I played in my life, I spent the most money on Magic the Gathering, by a large margin. The urge to buy more cards to make yourself stronger, or to complete your collection, is strong. I'm really surprised that nobody has tapped into that urge for online roleplaying games yet. I've published the idea years ago, but nobody wants to borrow it. A "free to download - free to play - pay for added cards" model could be very popular, as it enables everybody to play according to his financial means. That would be a welcome change from the current games, where only your disposable free time counts.
Comments:
There's some mobs in WoW that do different things. Blade's Edge basilisks can feign death. Warp stalkers can well.. warp. Manaforge Ultris voidwalkers can cast school-specific resistance shields on themselves. Kirin'var wraiths cast Spell Reflect. Nagrand Earth Elementals go berserk and pound the earth. Even the lowly casters at Hillsbrad can Frost Nova to gain some distance. And from what I've heard, the endboss of Zul'Aman can draw upon the spirits of the previously slain bosses to gain new abilities.

As for boosters.. you're basically spending more money to gain power. Not that different from buying gold in WoW.

Finally, about people not stealing your ideas about an MTG-like game.. there's Guild Wars and even Magic The Gathering Online, which was launched back in 2002.
 
Also, the plant critters in DM East randomly change resistances and abilities.

Which makes them great fun to fight.
 
Personally, I hate random. Throwing dice maybe used to make some sense 25 years ago when you were just sitting in the basement with a few friends trying to approximate a big battle. With the computer power available these days, especially for large MMOs, it makes no sense to keep throwing dice when they could simulate a full ecosystem if they wanted to. It doesn't really matter to me if random elements come sooner or later, they've just always been a sign that the game designer gave up at a certain point and had nothing better for the player to do than flip a coin.
 
Actually, I'm convinced that there has to be some random element to all computer games, if they want to keep players that aren't perfect. As long as there is a random element, you can always blame bad luck for your sucky performance.

The same applies to trading card games of course - you can always blame a bad draw, but then, the deck could be built as to diminish the chances of such a bad draw by quite a bit.

You actually gave me more ideas for that browser game that's whisping around in my mind. If I know myself though, it'll never reach maturity.
 
Interesting post, as always. While random events on the whole feel very unsatisfying to gamers, the reality is a little bit more nuanced then your opening paragraph would suggest:

The random number generator only kicks in *after* you made your decision to cast the fireball, so the random event has no influence on your decision. To make random events more interesting, they need to happen *before* the decision process.

Imagine that you are a wizard with knowledge of two spells: a "fireball" that does 10 damage and an "unstable fireball" that does 5-15 damage. Other than these damage ranges, each spell is functionally identical. (same cost, same casting time, etc.)

Consider the following situations, assuming that you are fighting the mob solo:

* Which spell is better to cast on a mob with 10 health?
* Which spell is better to cast on a mob with 11 health?
* Which spell is better to cast on a mob with 15 health? Does your answer change if you only have 1 health left?

Removing the random number generator but leaving average damage the same may make no difference in the long run. In the short run, however, our decisions can be influenced by the random number generator even if we haven't yet decided on our next move.
 
@haslo
You can blame a loss on factors other than random chance! And while random elements allow for blame in bad play, they also strip you of accomplishment in good play. In reality, the generic question is about the role of uncertainty in a game. A game like chess or go has perfect information, so it does come down to how well you play. Games like Stratego or Battleship, though, use hidden information to provide uncertainty that isn't random. I find that a much more attractive design element than having a MMO be just another glorified dice roller with a fancy 3D skin. I think it's kind of sad that so many games rely on stuff being random, and even more sad that so many players accept it.
 
There is a lot of 70 raid content which is random. For example, The Prince in KZ launches infernals randomly at you in his huge area. Every fight against him has you moving the raid together and every fight is different. 25 mans like Gruul have the "launch everyone in a different direction and have them run away from each other" tactic added to them. It seems Blizzard decided that we should have to deal with randomness in a bunch of these boss fights to make them a bit more diffuclt.
 
And to add to goolsnut's comment, people don't deal with randomness very well. If you look at the Raid & Dungeon forums, you'll see a lot of posts decrying Prince Malchezzar as being "luck-based".

Prince is almost a perfect example of a fight which incorporates a random element, forcing the raid to adapt on the run. Yet, there's a lot of anguish about this fight.
 
One problem with how generic some MMO's can be is their environments.

There are two types of environments that are fairly popular in MMOs lately, and those are permanant and instance environments. What I would like to see is even more environments such as random permanent and random instanced.

Diablo 2 was a game that stepped into random instanced games where basically you create a 8 person game, and everything outside of town will have a randomed tiled look, creating a play effect to counteract the tedium of the hack and slash gameplay.

What could be very interesting is a random permanent environment that offers exclusive look to your ingame world. Take for example a random permanet spin on the game WoW, perhaps have housing for the players who tackle through certain aspects of the game first and make contested ways to stay in control of the custom/award houses and you add a plethora of gameplay to what otherwise is a game you can read wowiki or thottbot and beat without fail. Less like a book, more like an adventure.
 
In addition to the mobs shalkis mentioned, there are also the demon boars that wander around the area near Ogri'la in Blade's Edge mountains. The randomly activate a spell-reflect shield during the fight. For a caster, that can be really annoying... ;0
 
The ravagers in the Netherwing Ledge mines shell themselves occasionally. If you break the shell with damage they become enraged and hit harder, if you stop attacking they come out of the shell naturally with no change. There are plenty of mobs that require you to react to them, it's just that it isn't a matter of life-or-death if you don't react. It just makes the fight a bit harder or last a bit longer. Solo PvE isn't meant to be too challenging, otherwise you'd get fatigued from playing for 30 minutes, and the game companies want you to play for longer. So mobs are relatively easy to defeat, with minor complications every now and again.

As for your idea about buying 'boosters' for games, you've trotted out the same idea more than once, and you have failed to respond to criticism adequately enough to convince people it would be a good idea. Maybe you should deal with those issues before you bring up how no one wants to listen to you.
 
Tobold, I have sent you an
email about shandalar. I hope
you have time soon to read it.
 
If the Prince does big spike damage twice in a row to your tank, he dies, and so do the rest of you. That is a random element I would be quite happy to be rid of.
Also being cut off from the tank because 2 infernals landed between you and him, and the tank is thus out of healing range, is very frustrating.

If you want randomness in instances, join a pug. I can guarantee you completely random behaviour from some players. Is that fun though, or just annoying?

One reason why I never started collecting cards, is that there is effectively no end to the number of cards they can bring out. I just see cards as a real life money sink.

If they brought out booster packs of cards that may/may not contain item upgrades for online games, I certainly wouldn't buy them. I can live without such upgrades (same reason I never bought the collector's edition of WoW or BC).

Status symbols online don't interest me, but for those who need them, maybe 2nd life would be a more appropriate 'game'.
 
I can't put into words how much I hate the idea of a "velvet rope" mmorpg business model. I'm totally against any out-of-game method for acquiring in-game items; whether it's trading cards, blizzcon rewards, or anything else. I consider it a giant scam, that's dreamed up by corporate bean counters, looking to squeeze every single penny out of their ip.

Flat fee mmorpgs for the win!
 
I picked up on the point about the random spells or rather, rotating hotkeys.

As a long-time reader of Dragonlance (I am sure some people here have read that at some point), they know that once a spell is cast, it is forgotten and must be committed to memory again before it can be used.

Now I am not suggesting that WoW should start selling spellbooks and learn each spell word for word a la Dragonlance, but not allowing the same spell to be cast over and over again (spamming fireballs is something I am still guilty of, even at level 42!) could add a new dimension to fights, and would mean that you would have to be more creative to kill mobs.

I know there are holes in what I have just outlined, but I am sure it could be refined and would take some of the boredom out of simple 'grinding mobs' that I see people talking about on the forums.
 
I like games that have more dynamic/random spawning systems. For example, UO has the paragon monsters. A paragon monster is a MOB that is a faster,tougher version of the regular MOB that randomly spawns. It forces you to react and makes working a spawn area much less boring.

Premature equipment failure is another random occurance that I wish more fantasy MMO's used. It would seem more realistic/immersive to me if once in a while an equipped item randomly failed or broke. I prefer games that have more equipment turnover as it makes for a more vibrant player economy.
 
Having mobs behave interestingly (the mob shield position example you mention) would be good. Although BC is much better at this than old WoW was. The Voidwalkers on Void Ridge in Hellfire Peninsula that become resistant to the first spell school you cast springs to mind.

I hate the idea of having your own abilities be random though - it's one thing having an ability on cooldown, but quite another to have something randomly unavailable to you.
 
The first game I encountered which had a gameplay element promoting varied use of abilities was One Must Fall 2097, a robot beat-em-up game for the PC. It seemed fairly standard until you started doing air combos. Each of your attacks could hit the enemy only once. If you performed a headbutt, your next headbutt against the target would miss. So you had to come up with a combo that used as many different attacks as possible.
 
---- Quoted above ----

"= # # = said...
I can't put into words how much I hate the idea of a "velvet rope" mmorpg business model. I'm totally against any out-of-game method for acquiring in-game items; whether it's trading cards, blizzcon rewards, or anything else. I consider it a giant scam, that's dreamed up by corporate bean counters, looking to squeeze every single penny out of their ip.

Flat fee mmorpgs for the win!"

Alright, to counter the way you feel about "velvet rope" in MMO's I feel the same way towards players who play more than I do (which is just about everyone that plays more than 4-5 hrs/ day, which easily is millions of players).

You see the reason you dislike the velvet rope option is because it is advantageous towards players unlike yourself, but when it comes to having an advantage that benefits you directly I doubt your thoughts remain the same. Time and effort are the two most abused aspects of MMO's (RMT, Botting) and to counteract time and effort you have options such as stimulating gameplay, challenging gameplay, a lvl scheme that doesnt allow "TWINKING" or "PWRLVING", and many more options, devs havent had the gonads to implement these ideas into MMO's as it is risk, and risk could cost them money....
 
There is only one NPC I can think of that came pretty close to what you posted on and thats Chrommagus. For those of you not aware of the Chrommie fight, it was a different fight every time you encountered him, and you only knew which combination of tactics to use a minute or so after you encountered him.

His resistance to spell damage was also random during the fight, in which it changed every few seconds. Only we never knew what he was vulnerable to after the mages opened fire and announced in raid chat which spell yielded the most damage. So in essence a raid never knew what they were in for until Chrommagus was at least down to 90%.

Its a shame really that Blizzard never continued this line of thought. Even now, so many instances later, I still know exactly how every fight will pan out, the only random element being human error or disonnects.

Good post!
 
have failed to respond to criticism adequately enough to convince people it would be a good idea

What criticism? Sorry, but "I hate the idea" or "I wouldn't play it" isn't criticism you can answer to. Are you saying that collectible elements don't work, and Magic the Gathering and Pokemon TCG never happened? Tell you what, either mail me your criticism, or post it here, argument by argument, and I'll answer it.

As ten mohican so correctly remarked, the current crop of games favors people with endless time and little money. So what if those people wouldn't play the collectible MMORPG? They aren't exactly good customers for the game companies anyway. There are enough people playing games nowadays who can spend considerably more than $200 a year on a game, but don't have endless time.
 
@anonymous: Have you ever played the Dragonlance (and any other AD&D related) computer games?
Having to make a campfire after every battle to rest up and relearn spells is incredibly tedious. The less drudgery as far as combat is concerned, the better.

@transience: But the first time you go to an encounter, you don't know what to do (unless you choose to read up on it beforehand). There is enough variation in most boss encounters (in WOW at least) to keep things interesting.
I challenge anyone to say that they have been to a raid boss in WOW without prior knowledge of his behaviour, and say that they didn't wipe first time, whether it be Baron geddon, Cthun, or even King Maulgar.
 
[quote]
But the first time you go to an encounter, you don't know what to do (unless you choose to read up on it beforehand). There is enough variation in most boss encounters (in WOW at least) to keep things interesting.
I challenge anyone to say that they have been to a raid boss in WOW without prior knowledge of his behaviour, and say that they didn't wipe first time, whether it be Baron geddon, Cthun, or even King Maulgar.
[/quote]

I'm not disputing the fact that each new encounter has its own elements of surprise and variation. But would you be able to say the same thing about the same encounter after you've faced it two dozen times, and after your raid gets more experience and better gear? Separate the random and unpredictable human factors from actual in-game mechanics, then ask how unpredictable is the encounter then?

Granted there has always been a degree of unpredictability in every encounter I've faced. Bosses charge, curse, banish random players. You know they'll do these things, you just don't always know when or on whom. But these things become easier to handle with practice, till eventually its lapses in concentration that wipe you.

I must say though that things have improved a fair bit with TBC, although as *Vlad* mentioned, having your tank receive 2 or 3 big crits in a row is something that cannot be recovered from. I'm all in favour of manageable random game-play, one which keeps you on your toes even after 2 or 3 dozen encounters.
 
I enjoy some amount of randomness to simulate luck and the fact that you can't always predict everything. In WoW it does help that there are some beasts that occasionally do things at times that you can't entirely predict---like the warp critters. Having a random selection of abilities available at the beginning of a fight or the like seems arbitrary; it would be tough to come up with a rationalization for it that would make it seem less than silly. That said, I don't find the randomness of things like crit chance to have as little effect on my gameplay as they seem to for you, particularly in games like WoW where you can often build up talents that affect or are affected by crits. Talents that, say, give my fire spells a chance of setting my target on fire, then increase my chance of critting, definitely have an effect on how I play, and that's one area in which I would be interested to see more ability to play around with randomness.
 
I like the idea of being able to have random character in your abilities but being able to use that inteligently. Maybe during combat random skills would flash for a period of time meaning that in that period of time a guaranteed crit was possible. Then you have the random but you have to be skilled enough to adapt your casting to incoporate the spell that is "hot".
 
Guildwars offers many of the things people are asking for here. It is somewhat limited as the random element is other players and their uniquely chosen char builds in random arenas.

If you havent heard about Guildwars, basically it is a MMO that is geared to suite both a PVE/role-player type of person and also a PVP type of player. You have the option to do both with your char, but the nice thing with GW is you can choose the "pvp" mode first and have a fully lvl'd basic-geared char and jump right into player vs player fights.

The pvp mode is what is most interesting to me, as they have setup a great reward system for choosing smart builds. So far there are 10 classes, warrior/monk/necro/mesmer/ranger/paragon/dervish/assassin/elementalist/ritualist to choose as your main class, and you get to specialize by choosing a 2nd class to go for as well. There are a lot of combination of classes to make all with their strengths and weaknesses. The rewards for winning matchs is points to spend towards learning new skills/moves and new gear and new mercenary helpers. Pretty addicting for me I guess.
 
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