The Perfect Game, Part 10: Pacing

I spent a lot of time in my last blog talking about the mechanics of character progression in the “perfect” game (and no, I didn’t touch on itemization and item progression, so there’s more to talk about there).  That said though, something I didn’t really touch on was how fast or slow I feel that progression should occur.

Way back in the beginning of this series of posts I mentioned that the point of progression was to establish a feeling of a meaningful growth for a player’s character.  Pacing is a big part of that.  You want each stage along the character’s progression to feel meaningful, which means that they can’t come too quickly.  But at the same time, you don’t want people to feel like their goals are unattainable, so it can’t come too slowly either.

So what’s the magic formula?

Most games seem to base their progression pacing on a strict time formula.  IE, someone should be at this point after X many days of playing, or they should obtain a level every Y days or weeks.  The flaw with this approach is that players have different play styles – what takes one person hours may take another person days, or vice versa.  So when you decide, for example, that players should be level 50 in your game after 2 months of play, what usually happens is you end up with a population at level 50 after two weeks and another population that takes 6 months to get there.

To some extent that is unavoidable, but a smarter way to think of progression is in terms of how long you want your players to play your game.  For example, if you want your average subscription length to be 18 months, then you should probably make sure that it takes about 18 months for someone to progress fully through your game.  Note that I’m not just talking about character progression there but also about things like item/equipment progression, raid progression, and so on.

It may seem counterintuitive to slow down character progression – after all, people want that next level or skill box and get frustrated if it’s too hard.  But the reality is players have a much higher tolerance for waiting than most designers give them credit for.  Players will work for weeks towards a goal if they feel that a) the goal is achievable and b) that they’re making progress towards it each time they play.  You don’t have to force-feed them progression at a rapid pace to keep them interested.  What you DO have to do is make sure that they have fun every time they log in, however, and that at the end of that play session they feel like they made progress towards their goal.

So when it comes to the perfect game, what does the pace of progression look like to me?  Based on my last blog (where I talked about using a hybrid skill system for progression), I feel like it’s appropriate that “levels” (skill points and specialization points) should take days to weeks to earn.  Obviously there is a curve to this:  The first few should come relatively quickly, while the final ones should be things that players work towards for weeks before they obtain them.  But once you put it all together, the average time to progress a character through the entire skill progression that you choose for them (that is, until the game won’t let you get any more skills or specializations) should be approximately 12 months.

That sounds crazy, I know.  We’re all used to games that let you achieve max level in a matter of weeks if you want.  But it’s based on a few factors.

  1. I want this to be a very group-focused game.  There should be things you can do by yourself or with one or two friends but the most meaningful stuff should require more than one or two players to do.  If the progression is too fast, players don’t have downtime in which to socialize and make friends, and that’s critical to the experience I have in mind.
  2. I’m thinking that this “perfect” game is going to have a lot of content with multiple options for each range of player power.  That means that players can and should be encouraged to spread out and travel, and to do different things.  If we rush them through progression, they end up missing out on content.
  3. The requirements don’t have to be in terms of experience points alone.  If you’ll remember from my last post, the concept is that experience points are the gatekeeper, but there can be other requirements needed for unlocking a skill box or a specialization.  For example, maybe you have to have a certain level of faction for the skill trainer to talk to you, or maybe you need to complete a quest, or recover a tome of some sort from a dungeon.  The point is that numeric “XP” should only be one component of actual character progression, and not the only thing that matters.
I mentioned above that character progression is only one part of overall progression and so you can infer from that that yes, I’m thinking about “endgame” as part of the “perfect” game that’s in my head.  I’ll talk about that next time 🙂
The Perfect Game, Part 10: Pacing

The Perfect Game, Part 9: Character Progression

Progression is a central element to any MMORPG.

What I mean by that is that players need to feel like their characters are growing in some way as they play the game.  Most people equate this as “getting more powerful”, and that’s a part of it, but it’s broader than that.  It’s not just about watching numbers tick off.  It’s about seeing that character learn new skills and abilities, amass more money, obtain better or cooler things, and of course, become more effective at the parts of the game they play.

It’s folly to ignore this basic concept in a game design (because then players have little to no ambition to go out and actually play the game), but it’s also just as bad to focus entirely on it.  If you have a game that’s all about progression and little else, you’ll lose players just as quickly as if you have a big sandbox with no progression elements whatsoever.

So the trick is to find a happy medium, and to do it in a way where you balance between a compelling progression and an appreciation for the game world you’ve created.  Too many games emphasize progression over everything else, and cause long term problems for themselves in doing so.  Sure, everything’s great at first, but a year or two into the game, population in low level areas is nonexistent, and the few new players who do join the game are at a severe disadvantage if they want to do anything that requires more than one player for their level.  It also leads to mudflation, which is where the only way to keep people playing is to keep adding harder and harder things at the top end, and of course the rewards for those have to be better than what came before too.  You get a never-ending spiral of player power that can quickly get out of control and stratify your playerbase to the point where people simply can’t play together anymore.

Progression should be meaningful – meaning every time you do advance your character somehow, it should feel important.  Players should be happy to advance, and excited about it.  They should cheer for friends that progress as well.  No one wants a game where things are just handed to you (even though people will always complain that things are too hard, because it’s in the nature of people to complain).  By the same token though, progression needs to happen often or easily enough that it doesn’t begin to feel impossible.  I’ll talk more about pacing in a bit, but right up front I’ll say that most people have a higher tolerance for difficulty than they think they do, as long as whatever they’re striving for feels worthwhile.

Progression should apply to all aspects of gameplay – not just combat.  We’re conditioned by games we have played to think of “leveling up” in terms of fighting monsters and getting better at fighting monsters.  But it can just as easily apply to crafting, gathering, minigames, or other systems within the game.  If there’s any type of gameplay that is built into a game for players to engage in, there can be a progression to it.

Ok, so enough general stuff, let’s dive into specifics of what I think the perfect game should look like in terms of character progression.  For this post, I’m going to be talking specifically about character (not equipment) progression.  Equipment is definitely a component of progression as well, and a game’s itemization strategy needs to take that into account – but let’s start with the concepts of character progression first and then add on from there.

Levels vs. Skills

Almost every major game on the market uses a level-based progression system for its core progression mechanic.  You play the game and level from 1 to 50 in your chosen class(es), and as you level you gain raw power and access to new abilities and better items.  When expansions come into the game, sometimes the level cap gets raised (usually in increments of 5 to 10 levels), so that there’s more progression to do.  Most systems do this because they’re what everyone is used to.  Text MUDs did it, and then EverQuest picked it up (UO used a skill system), and pretty much every game since has incorporated EQ’s leveling concept.  It’s not because it’s a great concept – in fact, it has some pretty big failings – but just because it’s familiar and easy to build a game around.

So since everyone does it, level-based systems are the best way to implement progression, right?  Wrong.  They’re just easy and familiar, like I said.  The biggest problems with level-based systems is stratification of your playerbase and obsolescence of content.  Stratification means that your content has to be level-based as well, and lower level players simply can’t participate in the things that their high level friends are doing.  “You have to be this tall to ride” is never fun for the guy who doesn’t meet the bar, not in a social game like an MMORPG anyway.  Obsolescence means that as players level up, lower level areas of the game become useless.  On an individual level this isn’t a big deal – after all, individual players don’t usually care about going back to something they did a long time ago.  However, on a macro scale this is a really bad problem in older games.  For example in EverQuest II today, 95% of the game world is quite simply not used by players in any numbers.  The highest level areas are the only part of the game that gets used, and new players trying out the game encounter virtual ghost towns everywhere they go.  Many other level-based games run into this same problem over time as well.

Game designers have tried various methods to address these problems – level scaling systems that scale character levels down (or up) to fit the content, “hard modes” that revamp old content for higher level play, and so on.  The problem with all of these is firstly that no scaling system is perfect and players still usually end up overpowered for what they’re doing, and secondly that you still have to have some way to incentivize your content so that players will go back and play it on a regular basis.  That’s difficult in games where players will always consume content faster than you can create it.

Ok, so if levels really aren’t so great, what about skill-based systems, where players accrue points and can allocate those points into individual skills as they play, instead of levels?

Skill-based systems allow for much finer control over character progression than a raw level-based system, because players can pick and choose how they progress.  On the surface this seems like a great idea, but there are huge challenges that can arise with skill systems as well.  The first is cookie cutter builds.  Part of the draw of having a skill-based progression is that players can grow their characters in different ways, but the reality is that players will quickly try to figure out what the “most efficient” builds are, and the vast majority of people will do that.  So much for diversity, right?  The second problem with skill-based systems is the measuring stick.  Players like to feel like they’re progressing, and they like to be able to measure their progress against other players.  This is why level systems go over so well – a level gives a definite feeling of progression.  But when it’s a skill system, and skills do different things, how do you compare your progress to someone else?  Two players might have 100 skill points each, but one of them might have put most of those points into crafting skills while the other put most of the points into combat skills.  While many players are just fine with this, many others really *need* that measuring stick in order to feel good about how they’re playing the game.

The third challenge with a skill-based system is building content progression around it.  Players want to do more challenging things as they progress in a game.  But how do you do that when your progression is abstracted to the point where you don’t have a measuring stick to use?  How does a player figure out that they’re ready for something (or not)?  How does a developer provide a greater challenge without locking out 95% of the playerbase who don’t have their skills mapped a certain way?  Even worse, how do you test your content before releasing it?

Hybrid Systems

Hybrid systems combine aspects of level- and skill-based systems to achieve character progression.

There are different ways to do hybrid systems too – for example, you can have a level system where each level grants players X number of points to distribute around however they like.  Or you can do the same thing, but also have the level increase raw attributes just by virtue of achieving the level (so the skill points become a side thing in addition to the level, rather than the point of the level).  Or, you can go the other way, where you have a hierarchy of skills grouped within certain themes, and as you advance through that hierarchy you level up within its theme.  Most skill-based systems actually do this to an extent, if only so that you can have skills that are more powerful than others.

The core idea behind a hybrid system is that it gives players a power progression while at the same time keeping progression very free-form and broad.  Obviously, just how broad it is depends on how the system is implemented, but most hybrid systems end up being “shallower” in terms of power levels than pure level-based system.

I prefer hybrid systems when they’re done right, because it gives me as a player the ability to grow in the way I choose, and at the same time it insures that content stays relevant to me longer (because I’m not out-leveling things).  That said, it’s harder to do a hybrid system “right”, especially since “right” is very subjective.

The downside of a hybrid system is usually that you still have to impose strict limits or eventually everyone just masters everything, and then that turns into a “you must be this tall to ride” bar for whatever constitutes your in-game content.  For example, if every skill box a player unlocks is equivalent to a “level”, then if you let them unlock 120 skill boxes, you essentially have 120 levels in your game and your content has to handle that.  Another issue that can come up is when certain combinations are too powerful to the point where every player goes and learns them to make things easier.  For example, if every single character is running around with a snare ability to slow enemies down, what’s the point of actually having the ability in game?  A final downside to both hybrid and skill-based systems is that they can overwhelm players – while there’s plenty of us out there who are analytical and will go read all the tooltips and such, there’s plenty of other people playing these games who get confused by the minutiae and would rather just follow a recommended path.

There’s a lot more that I can say here but you probably get the gist.  And you’re probably wondering “ok Tal, so how exactly *would* you set up a character progression system?”  I’m glad you asked.

The “Perfect” Character Progression System.

Let’s start with classes (and let’s see if I can explain this without flowcharts).

Depending on the setting of the game, classes might vary, but classes are overall useful things because they allow players to identify with a core concept:  healer, tank, ranged dps, etc.”  So my idea of a perfect character progression system does indeed begin with classes – as in, when you start your character off, you pick a class.  That class gives you a certain set of skills to begin with.  It immediately provides you a direction for your character.

For the sake of this example, let’s say that there are 240 distinct skill “boxes” in the game, and those 240 boxes are arranged into approximately 12 skill trees of 20 boxes each.  Skill trees themselves are generally 5 or 6 levels deep, meaning that to get the best skills in a skill tree, you need to pick up 4 or 5 preceeding skills.  (Note to self:  Make a flowchart sometime, it’ll be easier).  What a “class” does is give you a few basic skills in one or two specific trees.  For example, if you chose a “healer” class, you might get three boxes in the healing tree, giving you a few healing type abilities, and then one or two boxes in a generic tree that give you combat abilities.  Essentially, the class choice is a starting template, but after selecting it you’re free to pick up other skills in any tree you want as you advance, with some rules:

  1. You can’t pick up a skill that’s high up in a tree unless you have the skills below it.
  2. There’s a maximum number of skills (let’s say 40) that you can pick up at any given time.  This would allow players to completely master two skill trees, or get to a moderate level of achievement in 3-4 of them.
  3. There may be restrictions or requirements on certain skills.  (For example, can’t be used while wearing heavy armor)

Make sense so far?  There’s more to it, but the basic idea of progressing your character is picking a class to start with, and then advancing your character through picking up more skill boxes – you can choose to develop the class you started with, mastering a skill tree, or you can spread out to other trees, or you can mix and match, maybe taking two or three trees partially up.

You’re probably thinking “ok, you just described a skill-based system”, and it’s true I did.  But I mentioned that I wanted this to be a hybrid system.  The hybrid system comes in in terms of how you develop new skills.  Every time you gain a certain amount of experience with your character, you get the following:

  1. A small increase to your base health or other statistics
  2. A skill point to spend on a new skill box of your choice.
  3. 5 specialization points to spend in skill boxes you already have.

Experience is gained by doing things in the game – most often combat, but not always.  I’ll talk in another blog later about the pace of progression but for now let’s just say that leveling should be a big deal – players should not take it for granted.  But for now let’s stick to the core of how progression works.

Specialization points are the second part of progression and what allows players to distinguish their characters from each other.  Specialization points allow you as a player to emphasize certain skills over others.  Doing so increases the potency of those skills, and may also unlock special things once you reach a high enough level of specialization.

Starting out, all the skills you know have a specialization of 1, meaning you just know the basics of that skill.  However when you level up you get 5 specialization points to spend any way you like among the skill boxes you have unlocked.  Each skill box has a number of points you can spend on it – how many depends on the skill itself.  Some skills might only have 3 or 4 specialization ranks, others might have as many as 10 or 15.

As an example, you might have the skill “Swords”.  That means that your character knows how to pick up and use a sword without injuring themselves.  But your character could further specialize in the sword skill, earning attack bonuses when using a sword, or eventually the ability to dual wield swords in combat, or so on.

It should go without saying but the benefits of specialization should be high enough that it’s worth it to specialize in a skill, and players really have to pick and choose which skills they want to specialize in as they level up (since they could only “max out” a few skills in terms of specializations at most).

Specializations mean that even if you have the exact same skill choices as someone else, your characters could still perform vastly different depending on how you have chosen to specialize them.  It helps insure diversity and keep choices compelling.  After all, a skill tree is only useful if people have reasons to choose any/all of the skills in the tree.

Recommended advancement

I mentioned above that one of the downsides of skill and hybrid systems is that they can overwhelm players who aren’t very analytical.  This is also a reason for using a “class” as a template for initial skills, but that in and of itself isn’t enough.  So at any stage of the game a player should be able to ask the game to show recommended skills and specialization ranks for a predefined class role and then choose whether they want to follow those recommendations or do something different.  This way, a player who really isn’t sure what skills or specializations to select can view different recommended options available to them and get some inspiration (or just pick one).

I’m going to stop here and pick this up in the next blog post where I’ll talk about the pace of progression.  Before I do that though I’ll note that there is no such thing as a “perfect” progression system – the main goals with this design are to make it deep, compelling, and a platform for diversity among characters, which I think this system accomplishes pretty well.

The Perfect Game, Part 9: Character Progression

All I wanted for Christmas was a time machine

Hi.  Yup, I’m still here.  I apologize to anyone reading about the long silence.  It wasn’t my intention, I just haven’t had any time to sit down, collect my thoughts, and write.

I should explain.  I am the sort of writer who gets writer’s block when I’m stressed out.  I know for some folks it’s therapeutic to write – a stress reliever, but for me, when I get stressed the words simply won’t come.  And wow were things stressful leading up to the holidays.

Most of my stress I can blame on my job.  My job can be nice and normal when things are going right, but over the past few months it has been crisis after crisis after crisis at work, and my position unfortunately means that I have to try to manage all the crises and pull us out of them.  That’s led to long hours and me just being mentally exhausted when I got home from work – and thus, not being able to write.  I still have the next post in the “Perfect Game” series I’ve been writing halfway done and sitting as a draft.  I just need to get time to think so I can complete it.

Even though I’ve been stressed and not writing, other stuff has been going on though.  Here’s an attempt to catch everyone up:

I took time for myself for Christmas this year – the most I’ve done was go see Star Wars last week with a friend.  By the way, if you haven’t seen that yet, go fix that now.  It’s really a great movie on so many levels.  I mean, you don’t even have to be a Star Wars fan to appreciate that the acting and direction was just top-notch.  It is a seriously, seriously good movie, and it pays homage to both the originals that it’s evoking, as well as a lot of the “non-canon” books developed over the years.

I needed the time off though.  It’s taken me a few days to get my head straight.  My family, who as usual are awesome, got their gifts on Christmas morning, and have more or less left me alone the rest of the time.  Hopefully they understand I still love them, but I just haven’t had any downtime to recharge until now.

My gaming has suffered from my lack of time too, although I still make it online for a couple hours most nights.  My time in FFXIV has mostly been spent working on Tal’s gear (i204 now), just a few more pieces to buy/upgrade), working on the new relic weapon quests slowly (21 of 80 pieces acquired so far), and crafting (59 arm, 56 ltw, 56 bsm, 51 gsm, 32 crp, and 23 wvr now).  It’s been fun but after a lull the last few months I am back to having more things I want to work on in game than I have time for.  I suppose that’s better than not having enough to do when you log in though.

On Christmas Day, I was able to help my guild achieve something that we’ve been working on since we merged together in June.  We were able to get a large mansion in the Lavender Beds, which has made our members very very happy.  This is something we all worked for – the members spent months saving up money so we could buy it.

The act of getting the house was a lot more stressful than I would have liked.  There have been zero large housing plots available on our server for months.  So in order to get one, I participated in the land rush when inactive plots got deleted.  In practical terms, this means that me and a few other volunteers stayed online all night Christmas Eve, and then into Christmas Day, watching housing plots so that we could get to them first when they opened up.  We did this because we knew that if we waited, we wouldn’t get one – there simply aren’t enough to go around.  It was, honestly, terrible.  Even with us being in position and ready to go I still had to do some pretty draconian things.  In order to get rid of our old house I had to kick some people out of the guild temporarily (they weren’t online to demolish their rooms, so it wouldn’t let us demolish the old house we were leaving).  And likewise when I purchased the new plot, I was literally 10 seconds ahead of the next guild also looking for one.  I’m pretty sure they were not able to get a house after I beat them to the one we bought.  So while I’m incredibly happy that my guild was finally able to achieve our dream, I’m unhappy that the game doesn’t really support house moves/upgrades at all, and I’m really unhappy that our victory came at the expense of another guild, in a game where pretty much nothing else is contested at all.

I could go on at length about what I think Square Enix should do to fix their housing system, but the good news is they’re already working on it.  It’s just coming slower than we would like, but they know that what they have right now is simply not scaling for players.

Regardless, we have the house now, and so my members are ecstatically running around decorating it.  We also kicked off a new airship project (those had been on hold for the move).  Add it all up and we have a very happy guild.

Other stuff from my game life:  A few weeks ago I was helping out with a Leviathan Extreme clear and I got the pony drop.  This is the first one I’ve ever had, so I turned the mount music back on to hear the special music with it.  I’ve had mount music turned off for a while just because the chocobo theme was starting to drive me insane.  Since I turned it off though I’d gathered a bunch of other mounts and never bothered to check if they had special music or not.

As it turns out they do.  My favorites so far are the Magitek Armor, which has Terra’s theme from Final Fantasy VI, and Sleipnir (which a friend gave me for Christmas), that plays Odin’s theme.  I’m keeping the mounted music on now and using the mount roulette a lot more now that I’ve rediscovered these things 🙂

Outside of FFXIV, I haven’t really done much (no free time).  I have gotten a little farther in Fallout 4, but I haven’t played it in a couple of weeks.  I’m sure I’ll get back to it sometime soon and resume exploring the world and building up all the settlements instead of actually completing the story of the game.  I also finally downloaded Stardrive 2 (thank you, Steam Winter Sale) and have been attempting to conquer the galaxy and failing miserably.  I like 4x games and Stardrive 2 is a pretty good one, but it’s also harsh.  It likes to do things like stick your home planet in a cluster surrounded by pirates, so you’re trying to build up a fleet with only one or two planets, while the NPC empires are expanding like gangbusters in the background.  Several times I’ve managed to fight my way to where I can begin to expand only to get steamrolled by the NPC empire next door before I can begin to approach the level of their fleets.  Still, I’m getting better at the game as I go, so I’m hopeful that eventually I’ll be able to figure out a formula to “break out” and be on an even footing with the NPC empires more quickly.

I’m technically off work until January 4th, so hopefully by the time I get through New Years I’ll be relaxed, collected, and able to start the year fresh.  If things go well, work should be a lot more sane, and I’ll have more time to post blogs and finish the things outside of work that I start.  Here’s hoping anyway 🙂

 

All I wanted for Christmas was a time machine

Interlude: War never changes.

I’ve been so busy talking about what my perfect MMO would look like that I haven’t talked about me in a while.  And, well, I’m sure everyone’s curious to know what I’ve been up to.  Right?  Right?

Oh, well I’m going to tell you anyway.

As the title indicates I picked up Fallout IV.  And it is vast.  I have already put far too many hours into it (somehow), and I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I am quite sure that this is one of those games that everyone plays differently.  The way I’m playing right now is bouncing around between the first three or four settlements and trying to build them up, punctuated by the occasional quest or journey into some point of interest on the map to see what’s there.  So I’m level 15 and have now four settled areas I’m trying to keep up with.  I literally spend a huge chunk of my game time just walking between them (walking, because I’m lugging all the loot from my latest expedition into the ruins).  But it’s fun and they’re all slowly growing, and I get a quest done every so often too.  This is easily a game I will spend 400-500 hours in before I finish, which is damn impressive for anything that’s not an MMO.

In FFXIV, I’ve finished the 3.1 story in a distressingly short period of time.  It was good (I won’t post spoilers for anyone who hasn’t done it yet though, although the scars are obvious.)  But mostly I’ve been trying to work on crafting.  I hit 49 goldsmith yesterday, and 26 carpenter the day before.  So for those keeping track the crafting classes are:  58 armorer, 56 leatherworker, 55 blacksmith, 49 goldsmith, 26 carpenter.  Once goldsmith hits 50 i’ll start on weaver (and armorer and blacksmith will probably level up before then, they’re really close.

I am purposely holding my gear back to a level 50 set until I have all of the classes at 50 – and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m leveling through making items to sell, rather than through the “quick” methods of beast tribe quests or leves.  The reason for this is simple:  I am trying for true mastery – that is, I’m trying to make sure I know the ins and outs of the crafting abilities well enough that I can change what I’m doing on the fly.  I don’t want to be one of those crafters who gets lost when their macro doesn’t work for the recipe or when SE changes something in a patch and throws their rotation out of whack.  The way I do it is slow, and there are a lot of people who think level is the only thing that matters and who don’t understand, but it’s what I do.  Either way, I’ll be starting weaver soon, and once I have carpenter to 50, I should be able to reliably handle 2- and 3- star level 50 items in the professions I have at 50 or above.

The other thing that happens from all this crafting is money.  I’m putting a little over a million a week into my FC’s house fund, so that we can hopefully buy a mansion in December when they will theoretically open up.  I’d like to put more in but time is my enemy during the week – I typically only get time to craft on weekends just due to a heavy RL work schedule.  I’m hopeful that someday soon my job can change (in a positive way) so that I am not constantly working 80 hour weeks.

The housing thing is interesting.  Essentially, we’re banking on the hope that someone, somewhere, isn’t logging into the game and their house will vanish in December.  The system seems fair to me but I’m honestly not sure how much impact it’s going to have.  I also know that there’s going to be a land rush the day any houses disappear, so when it happens we’re going to have to move really really fast to actually get the plot we want.  It’s daunting because we will have to give up our current house in order to get the new one, so if we lose the race… we’ll be effectively homeless.

In other FC news, our recruiting is working and we’ve gotten several new members thanks to the efforts of our recruiting officer (she gets all the credit).  We’re not where we need to be yet but the new blood is definitely helping.  Our biggest challenges in the FC right now are that some of our members have been bitten pretty hard by the heavensward raiding bug, and that’s leading to some elitest tendencies (not consciously, but everyone else notices and that raises the tension level).  At the same time, a lot of our folks who do want to do the raiding feel held back because our FC as a whole simply isn’t able to bring 8 people together for it.  For example, we get 8 people together for Alexander (normal), and half the party barely meets the minimum ilevel, and so we fail the DPS check.  This is a problem that corrects itself over time, but it still frustrates the people who focused on their gear and now are having to wait for their FC to be able to support them.  Of course, it’s also true that only about half of those people actually seem to care about doing it with their FC (and those people are super frustrated).  The other half aren’t DF-adverse and just queue in for things.  Sadly, I’m in the first camp – I’m DF-adverse, and that’s partly because I am a tank.  Everyone expects me to know the fights and so DF is usually not a happy place for me for any content I’m learning.  It’s a little different for people who are primarily heals or DPS, since they’re not under as much pressure in the group (unless the tank is bad).

It’s a hard problem to solve and the only answer I really have to it is more people and hoping that everyone will be patient enough for us to get critical mass for the raiding.  We’re closer than we were a few weeks ago, but still not there yet.  But this is something I struggle with in every game.  The best FC members in a casual guild are often not as reliable or geared as you want them to be for top-end raiding, because they have lives to deal with.  There are exceptions, of course, but in general the good people are also the ones that take longer to be ready or can’t attend consistently.  Regardless though, we’ll get there, and hopefully before the end of the year.

Interlude: War never changes.

The Perfect Game, Part 8: Content Mechanics

I wanted to take a post and talk about some of the mechanics that MMORPGs historically apply to make content work and that in my opinion get overused.  That’s not to say that they’re bad ideas in and of themselves, but the truth is that if you rely on the same trick too much in any gameplay system, players start to see it for what it really is.

I should note that by “content”, I’m talking about any game-generated objective or goal that players go out and work on completing.  That could be quests, it could be obtaining rare items, solving puzzles, unlocking access to things, and so on.

Anyway, here’s a list of various content mechanics and pros and cons.

Tokens

Token (or currency) systems are where players are rewarded with a “token” of some sort from content that they do, which they can then trade in for something appropriate.  I first encountered a token system in EverQuest, in the Lost Dungeons of Norrath expansion, and they are very heavily used in almost all modern games.  We like token systems because they let us choose our reward – I don’t have to worry about the randomness of a drop table, because I just get my tokens from doing whatever it is and go cash them in.  However, the disadvantage of token systems is that, well, they’re boring.  When overused, they detract from immersion because we end up getting more concerned about tokens than we do the actual gameplay.

In the perfect game in my head, token systems would be almost nonexistent – replaced instead by smart drop tables and integration with the game’s crafting systems.  Any token systems that did get implemented would be specifically linked to minigames and special events rather than mainline content.  For example, the midsummer fair arrives, allowing players to compete in various silly competitions and games, earning Sunstones as their reward.  They can then trade in their sunstone for prizes at the prize booth.

Access Quests

Some games like to lock nearly every single thing behind a quest so that players have to do the quest to unlock that thing.  In some cases this makes sense – for example, if you want players to have played through a certain storyline before they gain access to an area – but like anything else this can be overused.  I’ve honestly lost count of the number of people I’ve had to talk through an access quest in FFXIV in order for them to come to the dungeon with us.  “Yes, I know you’re level 50 and played through the story, but go here, find this NPC, pick up the quest, and then go talk to the other guy to unlock the dungeon”.

The truth is, there are players like me who do every single quest they see, and lots of other players who avoid them because they don’t want to level too fast, or they think the quests are stupid, or for whatever reason.  Having a lot of access quests in a game hurts the experience of these other players (although it could be argued the problem really stems from having too many “filler” quests in a game).  Either way, locking all of your major content behind quests doesn’t really add a lot to the game.

In the perfect game I’m proposing, I think there should be *some* access quests.  But there should also be dungeons, instances, and so on where you can walk right up to them and go inside.  The key, as I mentioned, is not overusing them.

Feeder Quests

A feeder quest is a quest designed to move a player from one area of content to another.  When the last quest you get in the village is the one that says “hey, could you deliver a package to the next village over for me?” you’re looking at a feeder quest.

While the intent of feeder quests is a good one (point players at the next set of content) they get overused, and are often poorly implemented as well.  Most of them assume that players are grabbing every quest they see and so the system breaks down when players aren’t doing that.  Likewise, sometimes you get the feeder quest from one NPC, while another NPC still has you running around weeding his garden or whatnot.  So the bottom line is that players miss these, or worse the feeder quests cause them to miss actual good content that they might have wanted to do.

Instead of feeder quests, I think that there should always be a starter for something important in the area that players are in, even if it might take them outside of that area.  It should be the player’s choice whether to go see what’s going on in that next town or whether to stick around their current area and keep working with the locals.  Obviously, as a player’s tasks progress in importance they’ll likely be asked to range further afield – and this will bring them to new content areas organically.  Players will remember places they have seen or heard about and one day, they’ll go check those out.

The goal is to have less of a linear “go here, do this, go there, do that” experience, and more of an open-world experience where players can all take different paths through the available content out there.  Feeder quests don’t help this goal, so in general I wouldn’t use them.

Item-initiated Quests

Several games have used systems where you can pick up items that offer you quests.  While this is a great way to make quests feel unique and special, if characters don’t have much in the way of inventory space it can be a real pain.

Even with the downside I still like these quests, especially if the items in question are rare drops.  But they need to be suitably rare.  It’s pretty cool when you find the broken crown in the bandit lord’s treasure and then you can undertake a quest to restore it.  But it’s less cool when it drops every single time the bandit lord is killed and everyone has done it.

Because of this I’m in favor of using item-initiated quests sparingly, and only in situations where the item might “feel” very unique or special.

 

There are undoubtedly other mechanics that I’m going to remember as I write more about the Perfect Game, but for now I’ll stop here.  Next time I talk about the game I’m going to start talking about character progression 🙂

The Perfect Game, Part 8: Content Mechanics

The Perfect Game, Part 7: Non-quest content

My first game was not EverQuest, but it was the first one I played for more than six months after it launched.

For a game with the word “Quest” in the title, there weren’t many quests, actually.  More importantly, they were not easy to find.  You had to actually talk to NPCs and pay attention to what they said.  While some quests themselves were pretty simple (Crushbone belts, anyone?), others were very involved and lengthy, and took serious lore research, camping, trips to dungeons, and often a lot of luck to figure out.

Most newer games make quests obvious and ubiquitious.  Enter a new town?  There’s a dozen symbols floating over NPC heads shouting “hey!  There’s a quest here!”  However, compared to these games, EverQuest was one of the most content-rich MMOs I’ve ever played.  I say that because EQ’s designers understood, correctly, that quests are only one form of content.  There’s a lot of other types of content that the perfect game should have.

Let’s break it down:

Dungeons

In recent MMOs, dungeons are instanced group adventures where you travel along a relatively linear path and fight several bosses.  There’s probably a quest that leads you into the dungeon to begin with, and you and your friends get loot from each boss you kill.  Most players may do a dungeon a few times if it’s fun or if they want a particular armor set that drops there – and then they’re on to other content.

Back in EQ however, dungeons were a place that you went back to, regularly.  They were designed with multiple groups in mind.  You took your party in and fought down into one part of the dungeon, whereas other people could go fight in a different part of the dungeon.  You weren’t after “bosses” in the modern sense, but those rare “named” mobs that dropped rare things.  You might or might not have had a quest objective inside the dungeon as well, but the dungeon was more about loot and experience than it was about questing.

There’s something to be said for both methods.  That’s one of the reasons I want to distinguish between a dungeon and an instance.

Either way, these are content, pure and simple.  More importantly, done right, dungeons are repeatable content.  Things that players can go and do over and over again.  The trick is doing them right.  So here’s the vision I have for dungeons in my perfect game.

  1. There should be at least one dungeon/instance in each area where it makes sense.  These things should be everywhere.
  2. The first time you visit a dungeon, you get the Instance version – this is the thing that introduces you to the dungeon, tells you the story of it, and so on.
  3. After defeating that first instance with your chosen friends, you gain access to a contested version of the dungeon that’s larger, with plenty of room to support several groups and lots of interesting encounters and rewards along the way.
  4. For those regional and legendary or epic quest lines, the things you’re after may often be in the contested version of a dungeon.
  5. For some dungeons, there might be objectives that you complete after a while that open up a second instanced version.

Adventures

Wildstar has a really neat concept that I haven’t seen in any other game (although it’s possible that it’s been done elsewhere.  That concept is called Adventures.

Adventures in Wildstar are instanced, well, adventures that have special mechanics modeled from other types of PC games.  There’s one that’s a “choose your own adventure” style, there’s one that’s a MOBA style, where you’re capturing control points, there’s a tower defense one, there’s a murder mystery, and even one based on the Oregon Trail, where you’re escorting a caravan across the desert.

To be quite honest, until I played Wildstar I would have sworn that these would never work in an MMORPG.  But you know what?  They actually do.  Wildstar may have a silly, over-the-top style but building instanced content with unique mechanics is a great concept in general and something that the perfect game should probably do.
Hunts and rare spawns
FFXIV has a system called “The Hunt” where players are asked to hunt down rare spawns in the world, and by doing so, they aquire rewards.  This is a great type of content because it gets players out into the world, often working together with others around them.  So when I talk about non-quest content, I’m not just talking about dungeons and different flavors of instances.  I’m also talking about reasons to get out in the world – tracking down those rare and elusive things that maybe only show up once per game day in a random location or something.
Exploration
In every MMORPG, there are people who are driven to see what’s on top of that mountain or in that cave or hiding in that asteroid field.  By rewarding these people with something to actually find, you create a great type of content that can keep players playing long after they’ve run out of things to do.
The best way I’ve seen to implement exploration content is a puzzle pieces system – where your exploration rewards are objects that can be found.  Collect enough objects (and pay attention) and you start to piece together a puzzle that leads you to some reward.  This not only encourages people to keep exploring, it rewards those who invest the time and energy to solve the puzzles (and they shouldn’t be easy).  There should be multiple exploration puzzles out there, and solving them all should require literally exploring the entire game world.
Collections
One of the greatest (and most insidious) features of EverQuest 2 was the collections system in the game.  As you explored the world you’d fine “shinies” on the ground that you could pick up.  Each “shiny” was a collection item.  Complete a collection and get a reward – a useful item, something for your house, money, and so on.  There were achievements and titles for completing lots of collections.  Needless to say, it was easy to get a little OCD about finishing all the collections you found in your travels, but this is a great form of content because it gets people out into the world.
Dynamic Events
Dynamic events are something that a lot of games are doing these days.  FFXIV has FATEs, RIFT has Rifts, and lots of other games have their own versions of these.  These are objectives and encounters that pop up on the map for a short time and (typically) require multiple players to beat.  Sometimes these can be as simple as defeating waves of enemies, other times they are scenario driven where you have to fulfill multiple objectives or complete a puzzle in the time available.  These are content because they give players something fun and unique to do, and so this is something that should definitely be incorporated into the game.
All of this stuff, in conjunction with all the different types of quests, equates to content that can keep players busy playing in the game.  There’s other things that I haven’t mentioned yet – for example, raiding, and PvP, but before I go into those I want to talk about some of the mechanics that make content work, which I’ll do in my next post.
The Perfect Game, Part 7: Non-quest content

The Perfect Game, Part 6: More Content

In my last post I talked about some of the content that my perfect MMORPG should have.  I outlined handcrafted local/story content, dynamically generated content, and character-based content (character stories).  But it really doesn’t stop there.

The strength of an MMORPG is always in its immersion – how well it can draw players into the game world and make them feel like they’re really there.  Even for players that don’t specifically roleplay, immersion is important.  It helps connect them to the world around them and the stories that they’re playing out.  I still use the acronym ‘MMORPG’ specifically because I believe the “RPG” portion of that acronym is important.

With that in mind, let’s talk about some more types of content that the game should have.  I should also clarify that in both the previous post and this one, the types of content I’m talking about are what is commonly known as “quests” – or essentially, story hooks that get the player go to do *something* in the game.  This can be adventuring – killing monsters, etc.  It can be exploring – visiting places and finding things.  It can be crafting, or involve a minigame (like diplomacy).  The point of it though is that it gets players out in the world doing things, instead of standing around figuring out what to do.

I’ll talk more about the mechanics of content in future posts as well as about non-quest content but I want to try to wrap up the quest-related content in this post.  That said:

Regional lore/story based content

If you’ve been reading this whole series of posts you know that I’m envisioning a very big game world with lots of different regional and local lore to it.  For example, there might be multiple continents on a world, and each of those continents might further be broken down into broad regions, and then each of those regions might have a number of areas.  Those areas might be distinct wilderness areas, or they might be civilized NPC nations, or they might be both.  Every local area should have a story behind it – local lore and history, and there should be unique content based on that local lore and history.  However, there should also be regional lore and history as well.

To give a more practical example, let me go back to my example of the eastern and western kingdoms I used back in Part 2 of this series.  In that example, there were two kingdoms (one east and one west) separated by a forest in the north and a desert in the south.  The desert area hid the ruins of an ancient civilization, and the forest was home to a dark and foreboding evil.  It was a simple example meant to show how each local area should have unique story hooks that are used in building content.  But let’s take that a step further.  Remember those ruins in the desert?  What if those ruins were the capital city of an ancient empire that ruled over the entire region?  What if there were other ruins elsewhere in the region, and explorers who found them all could begin to piece together the story of what happened to that ancient empire (which in turn led them to even greater adventures)?

Just as areas should have story/lore hooks, entire regions of the game world should have story/lore hooks.  After all, while we want every area of the game world be meaningful, we also want players to explore and travel and uncover things.  So let’s consider a player that starts out in one of my two kingdoms above.

At first, the player probably is going to spend time checking out the content that’s local to the kingdom they started in.  Moving from there, they’ll probably start traveling to bordering areas a bit – maybe following a diplomatic quest and crossing the desert to reach the other kingdom.  As they pass through each area they may (or may not) get involved in the content associated with that area.  But at some point, the player’s scope will have broadened sufficiently such that content specific to whatever local area they’re in is just not sufficient anymore.

This is where the regional content comes in.  This is story-based content, handcrafted quests if you will, that requires you to travel.  The puzzle you uncover in the desert isn’t solved in the desert alone (or if it is, it might lead you to a larger puzzle).  Travel to the western kingdom and find another piece of the puzzle.  Travel to the forest and find a third.  And so on.

I want to caution here that the point of this content is *not* to give a guided tour of the world, but rather to give players a reason to get out there and explore.  It should be longer, and have much more to it, than the simple quests that players might be used to doing.  The rewards however should be proportionally larger as well.  I’ll talk more about this when I talk about the mechanics of content, but suffice to say that this is the stuff that makes the world start to feel like a world, rather than just a conglomeration of individual nations and geographic areas.

Legendary/Epic content

I’m just going to start by saying that I was a big fan of the epic quests as implemented in the original EverQuest – *in spite* of the raid requirements.

So yes, the perfect MMORPG should have that kind of thing.  These should be world-spanning quest lines that utilize the most challenging encounters, areas, and puzzles in the game to tell you a unique story and reward you with something amazing at the end.  They should be the sorts of things that players work on for weeks or months, and don’t just finish in a couple of nights.  And there should be plenty of them.  If local story content is what new players do, and regional content is what more advanced players do, then legendary content is what your top end players do.

There are several reasons to have this kind of content in a game.  First, it gives players an overarching goal to pursue.  Players need goals.  While some of us can make our own goals (for example, becoming a master crafter, or seeing every region in the game), there’s a lot of players out there who if left to their own devices will gradually run out of ideas.  So always having some new (and hopefully harder) objective to pursue keeps those players interested.  Second, this sort of content caters to the players who have put the most time into the game.  The whole point of “legendary” is that it’s an ultimate achievement.  When you finish that epic quest line and pick up that shiny item (or whatever it is), you should feel like you really accomplished something that relatively few players complete.  This sense of achievement allows players to feel like they have a place in the game world, and that’s very important to immersion.

It goes without saying that eventually, all handcrafted content in the game will become known to players.  They’ll figure it out, parse out what needs to be done, and suddenly there will be guides and walkthroughs and it will become easy.  There are ways to combat that, of course (for example, link parts of the content to dynamic events so that something has to “happen” to the player in order to complete the content), but even those methods will eventually get figured out and players will learn how to do them.  So it’s very important to have lots of this stuff, and to add to it regularly, because over time players will complete the older content faster, and it won’t have as much impact.

Ongoing event content

When I wrote about the concept of dynamic relationships between NPC groups, I talked about NPC-NPC standings being modified via events – big things, such as natural disasters, unexpected political developments, and so on.  The subtext of this was that these events would be intentional on the part of the team running the game – a way of stirring the pot, essentially.  No one likes a static world after all.  Stuff should be happening and the world should be changing in response to that.

A mistake that EVE Online made, for a very long time, was having their world-changing events be things that players only read about after the fact.  A patch would come, and suddenly we’d see news articles about some massive political upheaval or flash war that changed the landscape of the game world permanently.  More recently, CCP has been trying to time live events to coincide with these changes, but those have been met with mixed success – why?  Because it’s simply not possible to run a live event for every player that plays your game.

A better solution, then, is to implement quest-type content around the big, world changing events.  An event doesn’t happen all at once (most of the time), so this is not as hard as it sounds.  The content’s available for a limited time, and then after that time, it changes because the timeline of the event in question has progressed.

As an example, let’s say the admin team of our game world decides to shake things up by having an invasion from an outside force occur in one part of the world.  Prior to the invasion, the local nations that make up that region are engaged in their usual activities – there’s spying, trade, plots, counterplots, skirmishes, even occasionally a small war or two.  This goes on for a while but then things start to happen.

  • The invaders begin preparations for their initial invasion, and their agents scattered throughout the region become active.  From a gameplay point of view, new quest content is implemented to clue players into the fact that someone is actively sabotaging local nations, but it’s unclear as to who it is.  As a result of this change, NPC-NPC standings among the established NPC nations shifts as everyone becomes more suspicious of their neighbors.
  • Some time later, the invaders begin their attack, taking one (or more) of the nations in their path by surprise.  New quest content is brought into play as players (and NPCs) now realize that there’s a new player on the field, and one that is advancing rapidly.  Players might be called on to fight the new enemy, to break sieges, to protect refugees, and so on.  Diplomacy shifts into high gear as the nations of the region all look out for themselves first, and most of them still don’t trust each other.
  • As the invasion progresses and the invaders take more territory, quest content is cycled in and out of the game so that it’s always relevant to where the battle lines are currently drawn.  If a nation falls, a resistance is formed, and so on.

The point of all of this is that the game world should be changing, in significant and compelling ways, over time.  Along with that change, the content available to players should be updated so that it’s always in sync with the state of the world at that moment.  By necessity this means that the pace of change will be slow, but that’s not a bad thing – although the most active players will finish all the content quickly, more casual players need time in between the shifts in timeline in order to experience what’s going on.

Hopefully if you’ve managed to read this far you’ve seen that I’ve tried to lay out a roadmap for the different types of quest content that should be available in this “perfect game”.  Needless to say there’s a lot of room to flesh out on any of this, but that’s on purpose.

In closing out on this topic I want to say that quest content should be meaningful.  I’ve played games where quests were few and far between, but were (for the most part) very detailed and worthwhile when you found them.  I’ve also played games where quests were everywhere, and 90% of them were completely forgettable.  The goal of any good design team should be to provide enough directed content (ie, quests) to keep players interested but to also make sure that all of that content feels unique and meaningful to players.  Quests should always “feel” special and cool to do, and relevant to the setting and the world, and (just like everything else) should never feel like filler – this should be a rule in place whether the content is dynamically generated or whether it’s hand crafted, whether it’s something simple or a world-spanning epic.

In my next post, I’ll talk about non-quest content (yes, I believe there is such a thing!) and then after that I’ll talk about the actual mechanics of content that work and don’t work.

The Perfect Game, Part 6: More Content