Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 29, 2010
Redesigning MMO combat with poker

When we recently discussed how we could make MMORPGs more challenging and interesting, we listed things that had been tried before, from forced grouping to death penalties. But I believe that the answer is not twiddling with numerical parameters. The fundamental problem of MMORPGs today is that combat is based on a system that lacks interactivity and is completely pre-determined. You can go to a website like Elitist Jerks and find out exactly which combination of keys you have to press in what order to deal the maximum amount of damage for your class and build. And that same spell rotation will be valid for most fights in the game. Hence there is no need for players to make decisions, the only "skill" lies in the flawless execution of a predefined script. To make MMORPG combat interesting, interactive, and by forcing players to make decisions automatically more challenging, we need to introduce some sort of randomness.

Giving myself a generous game development budget of $5, I'll develop in this post a new MMO combat system which is inherently more interactive than what exists on the MMORPG market today, and more tactical, through the use of randomness. For my $5 I'll buy a standard poker deck, and turn it into the base of a MMO combat system. Obviously a real MMORPG would use computers and random number generators and fancy graphics, but this is just a demonstration of principle.

So first I shuffle my poker deck, and then I draw 5 cards. What I get is some sort of poker hand, but thinking outside the box I can also see that I have 5 different "icons" in front of me. If I imagine those 5 icons in a row on the bottom of a screen, the upper part of which shows a 3D virtual world with a monster about to attack me, I can easily make the connection between "playing a card" and "pressing a hotkey", which is the typical way to interact with a MMORPG.

So lets say each card is some sort of attack. To keep within the spirit of both regular playing cards and MMORPGs, lets say that the lower card values are cheap, weak attacks, and the higher card values are more mana-consuming, more powerful attacks. Thus in my first iteration of my combat system I simply play a card, the card "deals damage" to the monster, and I redraw a new card to fill my hand up back to 5 cards. So far, so boring.

But now it gets interesting. In a MMORPG when I press a button, the hotkey goes through some cooldown and is available again. In my poker MMO combat system the card I played is now on the table, and I drew a different card. So unlike in a classic MMORPG, I can't use the same ability again. So now I play a different card, and notice something: The two cards that are now on the table can have some sort of relationship with each other. They could be the same suit, the same value, or they might be of values following each other. What if we integrate this relationship into our MMO combat design?

So we make a new rule: If the new card played is of the same suit, or same kind, or forms a direct sequence, the amount of damage the card deals to the monster in front of me increases, without that its cost increases. For the next card the same thing will be true, but we'll consider longer "X of a kind" and flushes too. Thus playing a 7 of spades, 8 of hearts, and 9 of diamonds in this order deals *more* damage than playing them in 7-9-8 order. Now we'll just need to devise a table, similar to poker hand rankings to list exactly what kind of damage bonus what sequence gives, and our combat system is up and running.

It is easy to see that through the randomness of the shuffled deck the player is unable to say what cards he will play before he actually draws his hand. And as he draws a new random card every time he plays a card, he can also not know exactly what cards he will hold next round. But just like in a poker game, he can make tactical decision. If he is for example just holding a pair in his initial hand, he can play that pair right away, or he can first play the other cards, hoping to draw a third card of that kind. That decision will not only depend on his cards, but also on what monster he is fighting in our MMORPG: For a weak monster a quick burst of damage might be sufficient, for a stronger monster and longer fight it might be better to first build up some combos.

Now while this poker combat system would already be tactical, we can still improve its interactivity. So lets add resistances and vulnerabilities to our monsters. Keeping with the theme of randomness, lets have the monster from time to time exhibit either a resistance to certain types of cards, or a vulnerability to them. So for the next 10 seconds our monster could be taking only half damage from queens, or it could take double damage from hearts. That creates new decision making points for the player. He was maybe holding 2 heart cards in hand, trying to build a straight flush, but now the monster is vulnerable to hearts he rather plays those cards immediately. And what if these resistances and vulnerabilities aren't completely random? Lets say players learn with time that wolves more frequently have a resistance to spades than to clubs, or undead are often vulnerable to kings, that would change their planning depending on which monster they fight.

To wrap it all up, and turn this poker combat system into a MMORPG, we just need some polishing. Maybe change hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds into air, fire, earth, and water. Maybe not give a full deck to players at the start of the game. Maybe allow "deck building" between fights. Maybe not use a simple Ace to Kings sequence, but make up new card values with new tables of interaction. We could even think of turning the whole thing into a "trading card game MMO", which then opens up the door to interesting business models beyond monthly subscriptions.

Of course this is just a skeleton of a combat system, what did you expect with a $5 budget? But once you start thinking about this system, you'll realize that the existing system of static abilities isn't the only possible one. Chronicles of Spellborn tried putting static abilities on rotating wheels, but I think a truly random system has a lot more potential. By varying the rules of how the deck looks, how many "cards" you have in hand, how the interaction table looks, what other abilities than damage you add, you can create thousands of different combat systems from this basic poker idea.
Well, you're pretty much describing Wizard 101 so far.

I wrote something along theses line in The Initial Hand in Card Games.

My stumbling point is "why are your abilities like a deck of cards?" If you use the cards metaphor, it's obviously the way a deck works, but it's hard to translate that reasoning to non-card systems. Why should ability X randomly not be available?
That's a very creative idea. It does indeed sound a lot like Wizard 101 or Magic the Gathering.

I really like the idea of having a randomized component to combat. In Wizard 101 you're never sure what skills you'll have available at any one time, so every fight is a little bit different and requires more thinking on your feet more than a game like WoW. Also, deck-building becomes an important component of the game, because you want to build a deck that maximizes the chance you'll get the spells you need.

I suppose the downside is that it feels a bit contrived, but there may be a way to include randomness in a way that feels realistic. And many games aren't really aiming for realism anyway.

Overall, I like it!
It's an interesting idea, however...

1) You cannot stop the Elitist Jerks of the world. For every situation, someone will do the math and figure out what is "optimal" and "suboptimal." Just like your situation with holding or playing 2 hearts, someone will calculate the probabilities and what you should do, and that is the smart thing to do in that situation.

From this perspective, you are only creating a game which is more complex and has more to know. But it is still about knowing all that stuff and executing the "optimal" strategy in each situation.

2) This system suffers the problem that you spend a large amount of time pondering your UI rather than engrossing yourself in the fight. As a healer, I'm sure you can appreciate what it's like to stare at an interface rather than feeling like you're in a battle.
Are we talking each player having his own deck, or groups of players and monsters each sharing a deck? Then you could play a game more like rummy, choosing to draw from discard or the deck, sharing combos with allies.

If you then have "classes," allowing each to be inherently better with certain elements or spell types than others, suddenly you're deciding whether to keep a combo going or break the combo with your specialty. Which will maximize effect?

Then throw in different effects for different combos, e.g causing a particular vulnerability or playing your next card with no effect into your enemy's combo to break it.

A simple concept can have a huge number of options! Great post.

@Rohan: I think of it as similar to the spell system in D+D, with resting before spells are available again. Once you refresh, your full deck is back and able to be used again.
Go look at It will take some time to learn how the game works, but it's close to what you describe in an web-based MMO.
Yupp. Magic it is. Shamlessly stealing the wissards idea are you ? Think you make a valid argument though. Would be nice to have game without scripted combat. Not gonna happen to wow ofc. Most players like the current model of ezy mindless key pressing, ezy rewards etc. A game truly challenging players to think would most likely be a nice game.
This is basically the same as the Feral Druid attack priority system in WoW.

Problem seems to be that it's too complex for most players to have fun with.

I actully like systems like chess more where there is no inherent randomness, but a controlled chaos that leads to an unimaginable number of different games. Problem with chess is obviously that it sometimes requires too much time to think :).
I'd prefer a combat system that felt more like "real" combat and less like poker. Flipping cards is too abstract. Admittedly, killing a dragon is pretty unrealistic, or even worse a giant Gruul that grows stronger over time... But I do like bosses like Thaddeus or Netherspite in which position is important. Perhaps if Netherspite had moving beams of random duration, that would be enough randomness for me.

Maybe you could post about what realistic combat would be like against big boss creatures? All video games tend to the same system of dodging/healing damage while DPS'ing the boss for a few minutes. Can boss fighting be more realistic but still be fun?
Amazingly I kept thinking of the Megaman "Battle Network" games for the GBA and DS when you described this combat system.

Check them out (the GBA games are pretty cheap used), and see what I mean.
Without reading the comments, I have to say your idea sucks.

Using "skill" as "the ability to do something" and "talents" as "the ability to learn to do something" I have to say there's nothing skillless about your poker combat. It is simply: How many people have the talent?

Not a large majority.

Here's a "better" idea: The enemy, the terrain, the time of day, the mood of your character affect your spells. What's that I hear you say? "You mean frost spells work better when it's snowing, in the storm peaks, against rock creatures? HERESY!"

I know, I'm so bad... let me go sulk in the corner that I've actually come up with a system that's simple enough that even an old-folks home has talent with it.

The flaw with randomness is that there's no way to have skill at something that's random. If you have ten class abilities and randomly only get to use 5 at the start of every combat, there's the minute chance that eventually, you'll get the 5 abilities, which even combined, will not ever net you a victory.

What happens when you're trying to solo an elite, and oyu need pet-taunt, distracting shot, feign death, nitro-boots, and cheetah? You engage.... realize you didn't ge tyou 5, eat the repair bill, and rez to do it again until you get your 5. THEN you go QQ about it on the forums/blogs. ;)

Gevlon has already pointed this final fact out. Do you even read his blog?
The flaw with randomness is that there's no way to have skill at something that's random.

You obviously never played any sort of trading card game if you believe in such totally false statements like this. There is a fundamental difference between the randomness produced by dice rolls, and the random draw of a card from a deck. Playing a game like Magic the Gathering well requires far, far more skill than playing a game like WoW well.

The flaw with randomness is that there's no way to have skill at something that's random.

That's 100% nonsense.

I agree, however, that I a combat system should be credible. (Big surprise :).

I, too, wouldn't like to draw some card like 'super duper 3x kick with added poison gas'.

Think about how you would defeat a dragon. It's probably not easy. It's probebly not with random cards and not with a sword and a shield alone.

Think about it and there a millions of ways to enrich an RPG.

Credibility can be used as a source of innovation.
Now you've got me curious: How many MMOs have tried using randomized combat systems like this? And if so, how successful have they been? Wizard 101 is the obvious one, and maybe Spellborn (which I haven't played). I'm sure there are others as well.

Playing a game like Magic the Gathering well requires far, far more skill than playing a game like WoW well.

I'll second that. Really, any good card game (bridge, poker, etc.) requires more skill than the standard MMO, despite the "random" elements.
The main problem about a system like this is that it inherently requires a far slower thought process than current MMORPG implementations. With static, refreshing abilities, you always know what's under button 2. Therefore, the decision simply becomes "is it tactical to press button 2, or not?"

When you add a randomness to each and every button, you force the player to actually look at the new button, analyze the new DECK of cards that he has for new possibilities, consider also the cards he has already played, and then only be able to make a decision upon the next button to press.

Now that's all fine and dandy except now you're designing a game that is far more intricate than is applicable to the tastes of the current generation. Not all people play games to think hard and long on which button to press next. In fact, I would say most of the current generation of players want action, fast, decisive action that requires less thought and more reflex. This is the undergoing popularity of FPSes and just about any game you can think of, even strategy games. If the units you could build at any moment changed randomly, I wager such a RTS would not enjoy as much success as current ones.

Also, in terms of speed, this now forces players to spend 3-4 seconds, easy, considering each and every next move. Not every one wants to play a game that moves at that pace. In fact most people would consider that pace to be a snail's pace, today. Blizzard has already been trending WoW towards faster action and games, because the attention span of the current generation no longer leans toward the slower metric. It would not be difficult to surmise that a game with this slow a pace would not be as popular as what Blizzard already has.

Thirdly, it introduces a far larger element of randomness than would be conducive for a cooperative environment. WoW, and most MMOs, are fundamentally NOT pvp games. In fact, the vast majority of players play MMOs for cooperative multiplayer, ie. raids and PVE groups. In this environment, a system in which the guy next to you can contribute twice what you did, despite him being of far inferior skill, simply due to bad luck with cards, will likely not be tenable.

Some conclusions:
-A gaming system does not require randomness in the possibility of moves to be interesting, deep, and engaging. See chess.
-A gaming system with that much randomness requires far more attention and time or effort put into the decision-making process for mainstream appeal. There's a reason why action/horror/romance films are far better recieved than films that force you to think--a large majority of people don't want to think for their entertainment, or don't have the time to.
So your proposal to make games more tactical is to add randomness? One of the most tactical games, chess has zero randomness.
I was just going to ask Tobold if he'd ever played Wizard 101 because the combat mechanics are pretty similar to what he's proposing.

I recommend anyone interested in those mechanics to check the title out. Don't let the kiddie-centric theme scare you away. There's a solid MMO with some unique ideas under there.
I see how my statement ignited such fury, and I think if I could rewrite my comment I would rephrase that, so you have that point.

>>There is a fundamental difference between the randomness produced by dice rolls, and the random draw of a card from a deck.

I don't buy this. Why? Because both poke and magic have systems in place to spite randomness. When you play a game of poker, you know before you start if its draw or stud (official terminology?). Magic has mulligans.

Someone, somewhere out there, shuffled their deck, let the opponent cut, and drew 7 lands, with the top 14 cards of their deck also being lands. Whoever was responsible for magic way-back-when saw that this could happen and created the option for mulligans.

While that is an extreme example, it is entirely possible while shuffling two decks that the game, no matter how well or poorly played by either player, it will be impossible for one player to win.

The chance is extremely minute (how many mulligans were there in the last pro tour? And many of those were for "poor" hands, not "garanteed to fail" hands), but that's the only difference I see between a die and a deck - a deck is a die with MANY more permutations. All that means is there's a much less chance of rolling a 1 in a Magic deck than on a number cube.

Also, though it might not have been brought up yet, when thinking about Magic vs. WoW, it would be better to think of WoW's PvP sector only, as there is no such thing as Magic PvE.
I would input stats like:

- Drawing speed (cooldown between getting a new card)

- maximum hand size

- starting hand size

Cards would eventualy be reshuffled in the deck from a graveyard, at stat could modifiy the cooldown time of graveyard cards.


The card collecting and deck building aspects of the game would be great.


I wonder what will Magic: The Gathering - Tatics be like.
"So for the next 10 seconds our monster could be taking only half damage from queens, or it could take double damage from hearts."

This is great until the game gives you nothing but queens for the entire deck. I remember going entire fights while Leveling without a SoComm proc (back in 1.9 days).

It would stink to lose a fight not because you lacked skill or knowledge but simply because the RNG was unkind and you got a bad deck.
So if I draw a royal flush on this mob and obliterate it in 5 seconds, then I draw a 5,7,J,2 for the next mob and I die because of it, how will that make me feel? Extremely pissed off that I died because of something that is completely out of my control.

Randomness may sound very fun, but it looks to be very hard to balance in a DIKU. I have no idea how Wizard 101 is getting around that, perhaps someone can explain?

Poker is all about taking calculated chances and there is a reason why so many players lose their shirts when going all-in. Sheer randomness may reward good statistical play with bad results. This sounds like a bad mechanic to me.

I honestly don't see how taking control away from a player is a good thing in any sense whatsoever.
The game you describe sounds remarkably like Armchair Cricket. Whilst it's unlikely that anybody from a non cricket-playing nation will have heard of this (let alone played it!), it's a good example of what you're trying to achieve.

The game is card-based, but allows different tactical & strategic choices on the part of the players, where they can trade off risks & rewards. It's a great game when you're at card-game pace, but I wonder how well it would translate to the speed with which computer games are played.
Good idea Tobold, keep em coming. Wizard 101 does this but it's implementation is primitive IMO. Needs more depth. This idea has been implemented in many of my favorite console rpg's. Baiten Kaitos is a great example and goes a bit farther than Wizard 101. You can arrange your deck and your defensive and offensive cards but you can have a lot more than you can use and they come to you in semi-random order. There is a number system and a lot of other things that add surprising depth.

If you're bored and want to do game idea reconnaissance I recommend the game. Here's a review from Gamespot:
Have you heard of Dave Sirlin's "Yomi" card game? It's actually somewhat similar to what you're talking about, except rather than MMO combat, it's player vs player combat. You can take a look at it here:

It's pretty interesting, like a combination of rock-paper-scissors with a card game.

I like the idea, with my own modifications of course.

First it hasn't been said but I think that deck building would be an obvious part of this game. Defeating mobs and other players would give you a chance at getting a card from their deck. And building your deck would allow you to ensure that you don't ever draw all of one card and or continue to only draw the cards you don't need.

Many people are pointing out that a bad hand and series of draws could lead to an inevitable loss. And I say that this can already happen in WoW. Not getting any crits, or missing too much, or getting crit a lot by your opponent can all lead to very fast defeats. The reason you don't see this often in WoW is because most of the time you fight opponents that are so weak that it's not possible. Or the fight is slow enough that you get enough chances to overcome bad luck with the RNG.

One simple way to overcome the randomness problem is to avoid having to play cards that add to your power. Simply limit cards by making them only playable after so many turns. Limit card playing per turn to some arbitrary number which will not allow one player to eliminate another on the first turn. Say for instance you can only play one card at a time, straights, flushes, pairs and such can only be played over a series of turns.

For actual game play I'd decide on some number(let's say five) of elements or schools of magic and physical combat. Each school has at least one diametrically opposed school or element. Playing a card of one school would bolster your defense against your two opposite schools and lower your defense to allied schools. Or maybe you only have one school that you weaken to and one that you build against.

We could make all schools affect their target in a debuffer way. Such that at times you might have to change your offense so that it also provides defense against what your opponent has been doing.

Fights also don't have to work out in a circular round. Each round could happen simultaneously, with all players and mobs knowing what their opponent has decided to play at the same time their intention is revealed.

Deck sizes could be standardized without recycling of cards until the decks run out. Or you could have constant recycling.

You could allow decks of unlimited size or at least of varying size. Running out of cards could mean you lose, although you might want to allow limited a way to recycle your played cards if running out means an automatic loss.

And the talk of chess and randomness reminds me of an old game I used to play at a friends house on an Atari system. It was a chess like game. But any time one piece would normally take another those two pieces went to a separate combat. The combat took place in an area that varied terrain wise. And each piece had different movement rates and forms of attack. So even someone that played a superior strategic game could be beaten by someone who knew how to use their pieces better in combat.
While this is an interesting thought experiment, I doubt many players will actually like it. One of the big complaints from raiders back in BC was that if the RNG didn't like you and you got a string of crushing blows, you wiped. It had nothing to do with skill (even though skilled players can handle a longer string of crushing blows) and that's why Blizzard got rid of them.
Another problem with this is that it's very hard to assess who is a good player for PvE. How do you recruit good players for your guild?
If making attacks in WoW was as simple as executing an EJ script, everyone would DPS at the same rate. I think you're either underestimating the mechanics in raid encounters, or overestimating what MMO players are capable of doing.

Being given random cards to use abilities is poor game design, as players won't feel responsibility for their character/actions. Deck-building could be fun, but then you're just going to reach EJ optimization by a different route.

What WoW really needs to do is make DPS more intricate (more like feral druids in say 3.0/3.1). Where, an adequate player could juggle just 3 abilities or so and do enough to kill a 5-man or nerfed raids, but a superior player can manage 6 or more and be rewarded with much greater DPS. Greater effort should lead to greater rewards. Now mostly what separates good and bad players besides awareness is who presses their 3 buttons faster or more often, which just isn't as interesting.
While I enjoy MtG and some other card games, and deck building, such system would not please me in a MMO.
The main reason is that there is too much luck and randomness involved and while it's not a biggy for DPS classes, I only play healers and tanks, which means I cannot have the opportunity to just not have luck. I need to know I can do the job because I, personally, can, not because lady fate decided that I could.

All in all, the example you gave is far less tactical than anything WoW can offer, and that's saying something because WoW is already not very tactical :)

PS: I'm not saying it cannot be fun, just not with ANY MMO design I've seen so far.

PS2: The "skill" in MtG is in deck building, not playing. Also, most MtG players actually HATE the randomness of MtG, which can be seen clearly by the amount of the same card they put in their decks and by how happy they can get to FINALLY get THAT card they wanted. As said, there is always less "skill" when randomness is involved. WoW requires different skills but overall, to play properly, it's much harder than MtG (again, not talking about deck building here, which is the "skilled" part to me).
Rohan: This is the combat system for the upcoming Elric MMO. Powers are based on demonic supplication and control. Thusly, the demons provide you with whatever it is they decide they want you to have. You might have bound 12 different demons, so you pick 3 of them to make "active" and then those 3 decide what, exactly, they want you to have at any given moment. You can influence your deck by binding the same three demons in each "slot" but then you run the risk of just getting a 3 of hearts for all your cards.

Samus: The problem is, there's not always a 100% optimal solution. Or, if there is, it's sometimes so amazingly complex that you can't adequately analyze it.

Sure, add-ons could recommend the best card to play next, but that's about it. And they can only take the data they've been fed.

Take poker as the example. Granted, there's a human element, but even without it, there are many times that people won't make the "right" call, purposefully, if they feel that a suboptimal call is a better bet. And sometimes it is, especially with randomness. This would be especially true in PvP, if everyone is building their own decks. Which would be pretty awesome. Really, this system is *far* more intriguing to me as a PvP system. PvE will, in fact, have optimal choices most likely. But PvP, just like playing a CCG, relies on figuring out what deck your opponent is bringing, if they've modified it slightly, and *then* what cards come up. An add-on could track all their cards, and eventually figure out their deck, and then provide the best choice. If you PvP them for 20 rounds straight without a chance to change decks. Which I would, as the designer, make impossible.
The question with completely redesign a combat system is how complex you want equal lvl mob grinding to be.

At the moment you can easily create a bot macro that can be almost as good as a real player at mob grinding. This is because most mobs do nothing random or unpredictable or interesting.

Despite the supposed complexity of most TCG in a lot of them each deck basically contains 2-3 "I win" setups and playing them involves getting the 3 cards in to play for a particular Overwhelming combo. e.g. the MTG classic Channel + Fireball.

You then end up with basically two sorts of decks, rush decks and survival decks. Or Burst vs Build-up.

Almost every class and build in WoW has access to an enormous number of skills/spells. The problem is that 90%+ of your actions are the same 3-5 buttons (which is an improvement on the old days when some specs were shadowbolt or icebolt spam).

For combat to be interesting it should involve movement and multiple targets (not necessarily AoE).

Fights like the AQ20 final boss who used to become vulnerable to particular damage types are good, but you can't have every fight using that gimmick.
"As said, there is always less 'skill' when randomness is involved."

That's a very particular viewpoint. There's a plethora of words on both side of that - the classic Eurogamer vs American gamer fight.

There's a different sort of skill. Would you say that playing poker requires less skill than chess? It's a *different* sort of skill, for sure, but there's a skill revolving around setting up circumstances, recovering from bad luck, maximizing good luck, etc. There are many who would argue that it takes far more skill to react to a randomized game than it does to pick your gambit in chess and follow it through.

I agree that this system is not for everyone. And there would likely be meta-abilities dedicated to "stacking" the deck, at the expense of higher possible powers, etc. In fact, in the system imagined, I'd bet the balance would be struck such that losing due to bad luck alone is rare. Abilities like "Control Fate" would come in to play - if you've drawn 5 abilities in a row that are "bad" you would then be given the option to trash your wheel (I'd imagine this as a combat wheel, rather than as a literal deck) for 3 guarenteed good abilities, or the like.

The programmers would have to have an idea of what's good and bad for each mob, and mixed mobs would be interesting.

In fact, I might argue that mixed units are a far better scenario. Each encounter might have a timber wolf, that favors Queens and Spades, a black wolf, which favors Kings and Diamonds, an Alpha, who is vulnerable to Jacks and Hearts, and then a couple no-names, who are equally vulnerable to everything. If you pull something that's not favored, you throw it at the trash mobs.

Additionally, each ability would have some sort of alternate option. Say Hearts can be trashed for +15% defense, Diamonds can be trashed for +15% damage on your next combo of two or more cards, etc.

Such that even "bad luck" can be used in your favor. Some players might even hope for "bad luck" to add to alpha strikes or the like.

And I would further say that, as you level up, you have a talent tree that is dedicated to locking cards. Say a level 30 Binder can focus on this, and as he goes up his tree, he gets abilities like "Increases the chances of getting favored cards by 10%" or "Tempt Fate: Activate to have a 15/30/45/60/75% chance to transmute an active card to a favored card."

In terms of interface, I'd think you're looking at a semi-transparent wheel in the center of the screen, rather than a hotbar at the bottom.
I was browsing iPhone apps the other day and came across a little game called Sword and Poker. Have you seen it? It sounds a lot like your idea.
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