Friday, November 28, 2008

No More Leveling Games Please

I didn't like Tabula Rasa because it felt like World of Warcraft with pew pew guns. I didn't like Auto Assault because it felt like World of Warcraft with cars. I did like Pirates of the Burning Sea, because of its skill-based naval combat system and the player driven economy. But the rest of the game, with its quest arcs and lackluster combat was just World of Warcraft with arrr matey, manly women, and boats.

With the recent high profile MMORPG failures, some people might ask if the MMORPG industry is oversaturated. I don't think it is; I think it has plenty of room for future growth. What I do think is: it is oversaturated in quest-arc driven leveling games.

We already have our fill. EverQuest, EverQuest II, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Age of Conan, and now Warhammer Online. I think anyone and everyone who wants to play a quest-arc driven leveling game has found one by now, and its going to take a lot more than sci-fi trappings and pew pew to draw us away.

I think there are probably many, many people out there like myself, who have already found an addiction we're happy with (for me, EverQuest II), already capped a few characters with the leveling, and just don't have the patience or desire to do it all over again.

I think Warhammer Online would have been better if they had dropped the battle rank. Just use renown ranks to give people a goal, but otherwise have people start in the end game, marginally equal (except for the benefits renown ranks provide) with war everywhere, trying to capture the other city. As it is, I just can't muster the interest anymore to grind through its lackluster PVE or Tor Anroc until I get to 40. There should be no need for chickening or other silly game mechanics. There should have been no need for mentoring. Characters could still improve with time invested, but the difference between an RR80 and RR1 character isn't as big as the gulf between a Battle Rank (BR) 40 character and a level one noob.

I don't think you'll see another major success in the MMO genre until you get one that either eliminates the leveling mechanic (replacing it with another carrot, such as collecting, for instance) or flattens the leveling curve such that new players and veterans can play viably together.

Looking forward, the Agency looks like it might be that game; it seems like it uses a collection mechanic (collecting agents) as its RPG advancement "carrot". Other than that, what else is there that doesn't look like Yet Another Leveling Game? Because we've all been there, and done that, and its high time for something new...

... or old? Maybe I should have given Eve Online a chance.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Tabula Rasa Bites the Dust...

You can't say we didn't see it coming...

I wonder if they could have eked a little more life out of these games if NCSoft had implemented a payment plan similar to Sony's Station Access plan. Sony seems to have a bunch of games that I would imagine would have been on life support (Matrix Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea?) or shut down had they been forced to run independently like Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa.

Its a shame that the only games that seem to thrive are the Diku MUD Everquest clones like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, and all the others. None of the games with unique settings or unique game mechanics seem to last.

Bored of WAR

I think I might be bored of WAR. I don't normally post "I'm quitting posts". Readers of this blog might note I stopped playing Pirates of the Burning Sea and Age of Conan with nary a whisper. Though that might be just because I was too lazy to post.

I'll try to avoid too much negativity. I think this is still a great game, but it feels like three completely different games that don't quite mesh well enough.

  • I am tired of grinding Scenarios (especially you, Tor Anroc.)
  • People are too spread out in the PQs.
  • Contribution is very difficult to calculate, and this game proves that. Last weekend, I did have one really fun session yesterday doing the Wagon Defense PQ. In the Wagon Defense PQ, you get rewarded for clicking various items on the ground in the first two stages. That means those of us who are actually fighting the monsters guarding those monsters earn nothing. Whoever ninja clicks on the wagon guard or the bag of whatever random item the caravan was transporting gets 100 influence and the rest of us get nothing. So, even assuming you can find someone to PQ with, there are severe issues with how contribution is calculated. I still had a great deal of fun, but I would have had more fun if I felt like I was rewarded properly for my in-game effort.
  • Public Quests are either too easy (because there are too many people) or impossible (because there aren't enough).
  • It takes so long to get to the RVR lakes by the time I get there whatever I was travelling there for is over.
I'll still pop in game off and on over the next few months (I paid for three months already), so who knows... Mythic still has a chance to change my mind.

However, in the meantime, I'm going to probably spend more of my MMO time in EverQuest II, but I'm probably going to tone down the time I spend online. I also have episodes of Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People to catch up on!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obelisk of Ahkzul

I spent my first night adventuring in The Shadow Odyssey by taking on the Obelisk of Ahkzul. This was a rather interesting dungeon, made up of four rooms in a linear progression.

The first room is a standard zone filled with heroics which you simply have to clear to open up the teleport to the second area. The second area has a lake in the middle with a named that appears when the area around it is cleared. Behind the lake is a tunnel that leads deeper into the void pit.

The third room is where things get interesting. We encountered a shadow man named Kierax who taunted us by threatening to demonstrate his power. Unfortunately, for him, his power emanates from towers in the four corners of the room, near the ceiling. Energy orbs come out from openings in the four corners of the room and float slowly toward Kierax. Once he has absorbed enough of them he unleashes a powerful AOE attack that pretty much takes the entire group down to 5% from full health.

To deal with him, we learned we had to prevent him from absorbing those orbs. To do that, we assigned a few people to rush the room, running furiously towards the center. There is a swirling vortex of red energy with a blue energy swell floating above it. After leaping into the air, you will be caught up in the energy swell and lifted into the air, towards the ceiling.

Essentially, the strategy for this battle was to assign one (or two, to be safe) people to bounce up and down (without entering combat), focusing on grabbing the energy orbs before they get to Kierax. Make sure they take some Dramamine first. The rest of the group stayed on solid ground and used ranged attacks to burn Kierax down.

If you miss an orb, your party will be severely weakened by his AOE. Most groups won't survive missing two times in a row. As long as your bouncers keep floating up and down, grabbing the orbs as they go, this battle is actually quite easy. You will be rewarded with around 13 plat for your efforts!

After defeating him, you can head to the last chamber in the void pit and confront Executor Vark. This is a standard tank and spank encounter and didn't take much thought.

Executor Vark went down easily, and Norrath was saved once more, thanks to the mighty efforts of Akshobhya and friends!

My first foree into a Shadow Odyssey instance was a blast, particularly because of the battle with Kierax. I loved how they added a very interesting twist to the battle. Much of the excitement came from the fact that we didn't know how to proceed, so once we finally took Kierax down it was immensely rewarding. For a while we thought Kierax's ability might be tied to clearing a previous room or that there might be something we could interact with in around the edges of the room. We probably wiped a few dozen times before we figured out we could jump up and catch the energy orbs. And, even then, it still took a few more tries before we figured out how to make the fight work. But when the last fight went like clockwork and everything fell in place, and when this beast that had taunted us and watched over a dozen of our deaths went down, it was a beautiful feeling.

What MMOs Should Learn From Single Player Games

Every now and then I cut down on my MMO gameplay to try out various single player games. Playing single player games reminds me how primitive MMO games still are. From a technical perspective, MMOs are also about as complicated as a game can get, and the fact that thousands of players can play concurrently vastly complicates game design in ways single player games don't need to be concerned with. But aside from graphics, MMOs really have not advanced all that much since the days of Meridian 59. Single player games still frequently have features that should be more prominent in MMO gameplay. Some of the most transformative features that I think MMORPG games could benefit from are replacing the character class concept, factions that matter, and player created content.

Alternatives to Character Classes

Pete recently discussed what he thought MMO devs could learn from Fable 2. One of his points was that Fable 2 doesn't use the a class based system of leveling; you earn XP and funnel it into various skill trees. Many RPGs feature alternatives to the traditional D&D style class and XP structure. The Final Fantasy series generally features some crazy new alternative in every iteration.

What could an MMO developer learn from this? Well, one of the principal drawbacks to the class system in MMOs is that you end up requiring certain classes (the Holy Trinity.) This inevitably leads to all sorts of class balance issues, and angry players/customers because they perceive (rightly or wrongly) certain classes are more desired than others. In addition, all characters of the same class end up being very much alike.

Imagine a system where you get a number of skill trees, like the Achievement trees in EverQuest II, and you build your character's abilities by earning points and spending them how you see fit. Every character could be different, and if a particular ability gets nerfed, well, you respec and rebuild differently. That's still inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as picking a class, taking several months to level it to the cap, and then having its core abilities changed to such a degree you find you don't want to play that character anymore.

Factions that Matter

Recently, I've been playing Fallout 3. Wow, what a great game. Bethesda did a great job living up to the original Fallout franchise (the first two games, as well as Wasteland, which the Fallout games were a spiritual sequel to, still rank as my favorite RPG games ever.)

One of the great things about this game franchise is that you get to make a lot of decisions that impact the world around you. The people in game will react to you based on the decisions you have made in the past.

It would be nice to see an MMO that also let you make choices over time that affected how NPCs reacted to you in the future. EverQuest II has a few diplomacy quests where you get an item and are asked to deliver it to one faction but can deliver it to their enemy instead; however, these quests are rare and typically the only impact on the game is the reward you get.

One reason we don't see this is people don't like changes that can't be undone. Its hard to stomach making a "wrong" decision if it took you a year or two to get your character to that point. But if a game is designed where leveling isn't as important, then maybe people won't mind as much - since it won't be that much trouble to build up an alt who can take the different path.

Right now, I think MMORPG developers are taking the easy way out. They like to advertise that they have over 10,000 quests in the game. It sounds great. But when half of those are "kill 10 " in quest arcs that lead to other variants of the same thing with no further ramifications, well, what's the point? Its quantity over quality.

While quests might not be able to permanently change the world, they should be able to permanently alter how NPCs react to the players in that world. I hope that's what Bioware is going to try to create with their Star Wars MMORPG. It really is the next step forward for this genre.

Player Created Content

I've been playing LittleBigPlanet recently and that game is addictive. One of the great features is it allows players to create their own levels and share it with the world. Only one game so far, the Saga of Ryzom, allows player created levels. City of Heroes is introducing this feature soon as well.

I could imagine other games doing so. Of course, the fear is that players will abuse them to make games that provide easy leveling or easy loot. But there might be ways to avoid that:

Imagine if EverQuest II implemented a player created mission system. It might start out with players going to an inn in a city. There, a bard spins tall tales, repeating stories he has heard. The stories are missions created by other players. Since the stories are imaginary, we can easily dismiss them as non-canon, and therefore don't need to worry about conflicts with established lore. You can earn experience, as people can learn through listening and learning as well as doing, but you don't leave with any loot since you never really went anywhere.

Any drops in the zone would be NO ZONE (and used only for things that you need for the quests). However, monsters and player-created quests might occasionally reward players with the equivalent of D.I.R.T.Y. Money (tokens) which you can keep with you and trade in to the Bard's Guild for various, mostly cosmetic rewards, such as appearance armor, etc.

I can see something like this being very popular on roleplaying servers. I think it would also be popular with the general public as well. There could be titles for players who create the most popular zones. And it means that there would be a constant influx of new content.

When City of Heroes Issue 14 comes out, I'll definitely be resubscribing just for this feature alone; hopefully, more games will allow forms of player-created content in the future.

The Road Ahead

There is a lot of potential in this genre that is barely being tapped. Ever since World of Warcraft came out, everyone has been bending over backwards to clone their success. World of Warcraft did innovate somewhat - it made the quest arc the central mechanism for leveling. And, while that system is incredibly flawed, it was an improvement over the previous model (the EverQuest model) which was to sit in one spot (the camp) and pull the same mobs repeatedly.

But ever since WoW came out, the industry sort of got stuck in a rut where it was too busy trying to copy WoW's success. Hopefully, that's starting to change.

Coming soon, we have, the City of Heroes Architect feature, which makes it the second MMO to make player-driven content a huge part of the game. Chronicles of Spellborn promises some innovation with a card deck-based combat system. And Bioware promises a very strong story-driven MMO experience in the Stars Wars universe.

Have you seen any particularly innovative features in recent games that you would like to see become a more common feature of the MMO genre as a whole?

Happy Launch Day, EQ2 Fans

The fifth expansion pack for EverQuest II, The Shadow Odyssey, is released today. Happy Launch Day, EQ2 fans! As of the time of this writing, you still have a few hours left to place a preorder if you want the exclusive in-game items from the digital pre-order (a Void Beast pet and a painting to spruce up your home, and reduce your rent!)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stupid XFire Errors

If you get the error message "This application has failed to start because WSOCK32.dll was not found. Re-installing the application may fix this problem.", do not panic. And do not reinstall the application. The likely culprit is that you are using Vista 64-bit and also are running XFire. The problem may also related to UAC; I have mine disabled. Because I really do want to copy that file. Really.

I get this popup error starting Fallout 3. If you just hit OK several times eventually the windows go away and the game starts up normally. That is, unless you need to patch the game. If you need to patch, LIVE will give spurious error messages about connection problems. In that case, you really do need to shut down XFire, at least until you get the game patched.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Master Alchemist, Buy Orders, No-Trade Recipes, and Other Thoughts

Thanks to the noble efforts of Albrta, Nizenka, and Shadowgeist, my monk has finally become the Master Alchemist on Najena! OK, maybe I'm just a Master Alchemist on Najena. Still, I'm rather happy to have my first artisan at the level cap, and now a proud owner of the Earring of the Solstice, a Master Alchemist title, and a lovely new cloak!

I enjoyed the epic tradeskill quests, particularly the missions that required avoiding mobs by temporarily stunning them (such as the djinn in the Temple of Light) or otherwise disabling them (the bixies). I wish they had more quests that rewarded us for sneaking around and avoiding combat, Solid Snake style. But anyway, I digress.

I wanted to finish my Alchemist's tradeskill levels so I could experience the new tradeskill raids that Sony is introducing with the new expansion pack. I'm looking forward to those; it will be intriguing to see a new form of game play, and a new (cooperative!) take on crafting.

The only thing I'm worried about it is more of the new recipes are supposedly NO-TRADE. This means we will have more items that require the commision system. I don't mind the fact that the items are NO-TRADE, and I think the commision system is a great feature, but I don't like the idea that my adventurers might have to run around and spam trade channels to find someone willing to do every little upgrade I want. Its not so much that I'm anti-social, its just busy work that I don't think is "fun."

What I'd prefer to see would be some kind of "buy order" feature on the auction house. The way I'd envision it: I would select the recipe I want someone to make, and a quantity, post the requisite fuel and components, and some gold, and then it shows up in a list in a tab on the auction house. Any artisan that wants to can then click fulfill that order. If they beat the rest of the world to it, a consignment window pops up for them and they get to work on it. If they close the window or fail, the order goes back on the auction house. Maybe the artisan would be rewarded with some XP as well as my payment. In fact, this could even replace the Writ system, as the game could allow NPCs to post buy orders (with faction as a reward in addition to gold), just like NPCs occasionally use the mail system today. The person who posts the buy order would eventually get their item in the mail once someone satisfies the order.

Maybe we could even get dynamic systems where NPCs post buy orders (such as swords for the Qeynos Guard), and if enough crafters satisfy the orders something good happens (so long as crafters keep the Guard well equipped, they protect a dangerous area from bandits, and hence, fast travel options to some otherwise remote, inaccessible location becomes available.) But, again, I digress into idle fantasy.

This type of system wouldn't replace the consignment system completely, of course, since you'd still need it for situations where someone specific (like my guild members and a friend of theirs, thanks again guys!) want to help me out. But, if we're going to get more recipes that generate NO-TRADE items, I'd like the ability to get people to do it asynchronously. But maybe I'm just being anti-social, and spamming trade channels will be end up being good for me.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why Do You Multibox?

Werit asks if Multiboxing is Fair or Foul on his site. Some people think its a form of cheating.

For PVP games, it certainly can be used for that. Some people cheat in games like Pirates of the Burning Sea (and probably in Warhammer Online as well) where you are restricted to playing on faction on any particular server. They use a second account to spy on the other side. On the other hand, dual boxing in actual combat was generally not as effective as it sounds. Managing two characters is not as efficient as having two players playing one character each; in an RVR game, I think it would actually set your team back, because few can play both characters as well as two real people would play.

I multibox, but I only do so in one game: EverQuest II. That game is a PVE game with very little or no PVP (except on certain servers, which I don't play on), and I don't consider multiboxing to be an unfair advantage in a PVE game, since it doesn't effect anyone else.

Some people assume people multibox because they are anti-social. I don't think that's typically the case; in fact, I probably even group slightly more often, since I can LFG from both machines.

I multibox for a few reasons:
  • I think it adds an additional element of tactical interest. RPGs are very role oriented, because they traditionally require groups with varied skills, such as your Holy Trinity: chanter, tank, healer. Playing one of those roles without the others is boring. That's one reason why grouping is usually more fun (the social aspect is another). However, we can't group all the time.
  • I actually started dual boxing because my Defiler soloed so incredibly slow, especially once she got to the ROK era. I think ROK may have driven me to dual box. I am not sure whether to admire or fear for the health of anyone who had the patience to level a Defiler to 80 naturally. I'm leaning towards "concern for their well-being." I may be the "anti-social multi-boxer" but at least I have a life.
  • I'm a very casual player and am very time constrained. I work long hours, sometimes need to work on weekends, and often have to drop at a moment's notice. Some people might say MMOs aren't for me. Maybe they still aren't compatible with my kind of schedule (despite how casual accessible they have gotten in recent years). But for an extra $15 a month, I have managed to make EQ2 compatible enough.
In a way, I guess I dual box because it gets around what I perceive as design flaws in EverQuest II. These flaws aren't specific to EQ2 itself; I would dual box in World of Warcraft as well if that had been my game.

The design flaws I perceive:

  • I enjoy the end game because that's where we do instance runs as groups. The progression curve becomes flatter and instances generally require more skill and tactics than overland quest arcs and soloing. I group for the dungeon runs; I don't dual box those (I doubt anyone would let me if I tried :) ). Leveling to get a different kind of character there is not quite as exciting for me. Some people say "its the journey" that counts. To them I say "I've done it twice." And claiming the leveling process is to learn the class doesn't make sense to me when it takes longer to level to 80 than it takes a doctor to get certified for some very difficult medical procedures. And you aren't learning the class unless you are grouping, and you aren't grouping in the low levels anyway because there aren't enough other people around below the level cap. So I have been dual boxing new alts that I've created to get them to the fun faster.
  • Solo mobs are boring. I think one of the problems with recent games is they try to balance things so solo mobs can be handled by anyone, and that means they don't have any interesting abilities nor are they challenging in any way: the game designers don't know what skills the character will have, so apparently they assume they don't have any. I think a better design for MMORPGs would be to make everything require a party, and let people train pets (hirelings/Heroes) to fill out their own party when they are feeling anti-social or are time constrained.
  • There really needs to be a way to LFG (with the in-game tool) any character on your account from any other character. Let's say I'm working on soloable epic updates on my Monk. No one would group with me just to watch me run around Norrath clicking on things. But maybe I'd be glad to group with my Assassin for something - let me do that! Let me LFG my Assassin and then route tells to that character to the one I'm on. Add a way to fast character switch while we're at it.
  • With a subscription fee, I guess I start to feel I need to make a certain amount of progress or else I'm wasting my money. It may seem silly to spend more to give myself that little boost to ensure I make that amount of progress, but the numbers work out in my head. I might not care so much about "progressing my character" if these games used an alternate business model such as a pay as you go scheme where you pay based on how much time you spend in-game instead.
  • I simply find it more interesting playing two characters at once. I grew up on multi-player dungeon crawls: Wizardry and Bard's Tale and Ultima 4-6. I leveled my monk to 80 the normal way, and now the early (pre-80) game just doesn't seem as fun as it was the first time around; but by adding a second character to manage, it adds something intangible to the leveling process that makes it more interesting.
So now, dear readers (both of you), I have some questions for you. Do you multibox and, if so, why? Or if you don't like multiboxing in PVE games, why?

Friday, November 14, 2008

KM Switches and Other Multi-Boxing Aids

It seems Stargrace has discovered the joy of the software KM (keyboard+mouse) switch. She had recently started dual boxing but was controlling the keyboard and laptop by physically going to each keyboard. When I first started dual boxing, I did that as well, but KM switches make it a heck of a lot of easier.

A KM switch lets you control multiple computers using a single keyboard and mouse. This differs from the more popular KVM switch in that you still require separate monitors for each computer. If you have multiple desktop machines, that saves on desktop real estate since you don't need to have more than one keyboard and mouse. And if you are using a laptop and desktop together, these devices save you the hassle of having to switch to the other keyboard. And when gaming sometimes, every second counts!

You can go out and buy a lovely hardware KM switch like this:

... but nowadays, there are plenty of software equivalents.

The way the software KM switches work is when you move your mouse offscreen (in any direction, up or down, but more commonly, left or right), control moves to another computer. This means that the OTHER computer will start receiving your mouse and keyboard input.

My setup at home has three computers: two desktops, and a laptop for work. The center computer is my primary computer and the keyboard and mouse is physically attached to that machine via the standard USB ports. When I move the mouse to the left, it appears on my other desktop machine. If I move it to the right, it appears on the laptop I use for work.

KM switches are really great for gaming. You can use it to dual box (to control characters running on two separate computers). You can look things up on the Internet on the secondary computers while playing fullscreen on your primary machine.

Stardock Multiplicity

I use a program called Multiplicity which works pretty well. It does have some drawbacks: some games like Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, City of Heroes, and Warhammer Online stop responding to mouse clicks after you've switched off and on screen a few times. Its rather frustrating since Warhammer Online is one of the main games I play right now. It also confuses programs that use mouselook when your mouse ends up "offscreen," so I disable it when running a game from the first person perspective like Fallout 3. Multiplicity has a number of really great features though:
  • You can share clipboard information between the machines. This means I can look up coordinates in eq2wikia and paste them into my fullscreen EQ2 instance running on my other computer. With as much running around and exploring that EverQuest II quests typically require, that's a lifesaver!
  • You can also share FILES between machines. Its as easy as highlighting the files in Explorer, hitting Ctrl+C (the keyboard shortcut to Copy), and then moving the mouse "offscreen," and then hitting Ctrl+V (the keyboard shortcut to Paste) in the other computers folder.


For a more general purpose KM switch that won't cost a dime, check out Synergy. It supports Mac, PC, and Linux, so multi-OS users would benefit from that. I haven't used it myself yet, but Stargrace seems to like it. I intend on trying it out because of the frustration I have with Multiplicity not working with Warhammer Online.


If you are primarily a World of Warcraft player, you might instead look into Octopus or Interbox, since these appear to be customized particularly for boxing in WoW. They support some features such as key cloning (so you can have some keyboard commands that get broadcast to all clients simultaneously.) It can also broadcasting multiple clicks to multiple windows on the same machine.

Did you hear about the guy who plays 36 World of Warcraft characters at the same time? He uses Octopus.


Of course, if you just want to broadcast multiple clicks but don't want a KM switch, you can use Keyclone. This software will even work with multiple instances on the same machine.


One commercial alternative that I have tried is Exxtramon from KaVoom software. This program is pretty neat because in addition to letting you control two machines with a keyboard and mouse, you can also use your secondary computer's monitor as an extension of your primary computer's desktop. Let's say you have a laptop and a desktop. In that case, the software would make your laptop behave as if it was a second monitor attached to your desktop. However, your laptop can still do its own processing and run its own programs, and you can then flip back and forth between the extended "virtual desktop" and the laptop's actual desktop at will. Its a neat feature but not something I needed for gaming. However, they do offer a separate product that is only a KM switch without the virtual desktop feature.

Anyway, hopefully this helps anyone out there interested in dual boxing, or struggling with dual boxing without these tools. Even if you are not dual boxing, if you have more than one computer side by side, a software KM switch will seriously make your life easier.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Most Hated Mob In EverQuest II...

... is the dreaded node stealer...

Too Little, Too Late?

More bloggers are cancelling their WAR accounts? I've been considering it, though I am still having enough fun that I like to log in on occasion. I just managed to grind my Bright Wizard to 26 tonight, but the game isn't anywhere near as fun as it was at launch. And I'm on a destination server for server transfers...

Warhammer's major problem right now is population. The game simply requires a critical mass of players to work, and it doesn't have it. A PVE MMORPG might be able to survive with a low population, but not an RVR-centric game.

Mythic has been working hard to release patches and start server transfers to alleviate the issue. I'm still subscribed for three more months, so I'll be around to see how that turns out. But at this rate, I'm wondering if the game will even make it that long.

Its too bad, because with the right number of players, this game is a blast.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Big Changes in WAR

Looks like Mythic has been rather busy.

I particularly like the changes made to help make sure one scenario doesn't dominate.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Do We Do Without Levels?

Hardcore Casual asks how important are levels? Well, for most MMOs, its pretty much everything. The level IS the game. You have this exponential growth curve to the level cap and then levels are replaced by gear, which is pretty much the same thing, except prettier. The fact that they are just a substitute for levels is especially obvious when they do it with a blatant progression in mind.

Why do we have levels? Well, players need a goal. And making your numbers bigger becomes that goal.

But levels also come with disadvantages... one major disadvantage is that it creates a gulf between haves (people who have been playing a while) and have-nots (newbies) that tends to deter new players from joining the game. As a game ages, more and more people end up at the tail end of the level progression, and it slowly dies as people leave and no one new joins. It also means that no matter how populated your server is, you still have very few people you can group with at any one point in time, since everyone might be a different level. (Mentoring/sidekicking are nice little hacks that help avoid this issue to some degree.)

Another disadvantage is that it renders old content obsolete as people progress. Older zones become static, empty wastelands because everyone already beat the content.

What else can we do to provide players with a sense of progression besides "levels"? Well, not much, really. At least not for role playing games where the notion that you start off weak (the amnesiac adopted peasant boy) who grows up to be strong (along the way finding out you are the son of a god or the illegitimate son of the King and only heir to the throne, or both, who knew) is part and parcel to the genre, and so there has to be some arbitrary thing in game to measure your progression from subpar to super. Whatever you call it, that arbitrary measure is the "level."

But we can implement the leveling concept differently... the most significant flaw in most existing models is that it prevents a lot of the player base from playing together.

I was disappointed to see that Warhammer Online, with its PVP focus (which is a pretty powerful carrot on a stick right there) decided to create a lengthy level based grind. Couldn't PVP leaderboards be the incentive to play better and longer? Did we really need regular ranks (levels) AND Renown Ranks? If we just had Renown Ranks people would start off at mostly the same degree of power (Renown Ranks of course let you train and become more powerful, but not exponentially like the regular levels do), so they would still provide a powerful incentive to keep playing (making that Renown Rank numbers go up) while avoiding the principle drawbacks of leveling (players not being able to play together.) Imagine being able to log in from the very beginning and group with grizzled veterans on the battlefields! Keep imagining, because that's not what you're going to get if you actually log into WAR. Instead, you get empty chapters, empty PQs, and people spread thinly across each chapter and each tier, you'd never know there were thousands of players online with you, because you'll never see more than a handful at a time unless you jump into a Scenario. In Scenarios, you get to see BOTH handfuls, one handful playing Order and the other Destruction.

Another way to avoid the pitfalls of the leveling mechanic is to have a mechanism that makes people restart frequently; this could keep the game friendly to new players much longer. I can picture a game where your objective is to collect henchman/pets that you can level and gear up separate from your main character (the distinction being that the main character wouldn't need levels - and experienced players would have an incentive to play with inexperienced players when leveling up a new pet.) While leveling a pet would involve the on-rails movement through the world that we have today, if every player periodically has to start over from the beginning (with a new pet), that means the old world is constantly in use, and no part of the world turns into the complete wasteland that most MMO starter areas become shortly after launch.

Also, I think we'll see more collection mechanisms in the future, such as the collectable skills in Guild Wars. Even though each skill are relatively equal in power to another skill of the same type (Elite or normal), and grabbing more skills doesn't necessarily make a character more "powerful," it does make the player more flexible, so you still have a sense of progression. That same drive is what makes games like Magic: the Gathering work. You might not be more powerful than someone else because you buy the whole store display case, but it does give you a great deal more flexibility to create the kinds of decks you want (or "need.") Similarly, Guild Wars, even after hitting the level cap, still motivated people to keep playing to unlock skills to gain additional flexibility in the metagame: creating different builds.

But the ultimate, and least grindy, way to measure a character's progression is: story. Story is why most single player games don't feel like a grind, even if they involve the same kind of repetitive gameplay. Bioware is getting a lot of attention for promising to bring story into MMORPGs. Guild Wars did that too; the mission based progression was a powerful motivator to keep playing. For me, the missions were my "levels." It was only once I finished all of the missions for the Prophecies campaign that I began to lose interest in the game, and I moved on. And, I guess, that's why we get numbers instead of story. Bigger numbers are easier to implement. And if you decide you want your players to stick around longer, you just need to throw in bigger numbers, and most of them will.

Back in the MUD days, story based games were far more common. But it was a lot of easier back then when the only limit to what you could put in game was your English ability. I guess we won't see true innovation in MMORPGs until we see more middleware, to greatly lessen the time it takes to design. Maybe what MMORPG players really need more than anything is better MMORPG middleware.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Proximity-Based Groups

As much as Open Groups are a step forward in allowing us to feel more like a community that works together on its objectives (primarily RvR), they are still very flawed. If the idea is to enhance the feeling of community, perhaps segregating us into little 6-man groups (even if anyone can join) isn't the right idea. Wouldn't it better if we just got rid of the idea of "groups" entirely? Or reframe the party concept so that we are effectively grouped with EVERYONE in our Realm, always? Why can't we just see the nearest 6-, 12-, or however many people that are closest to us?

Since most of us feel that Open Groups were a great idea, why not take them to a whole "nother level." What could be more Open than the entire Realm?

To make it manageable as people filter in and out, maybe the UI would give us mechanisms to "pin" people of interest (friends, the main tank) up to the top. That would also allows us to keep track of someone who wasn't nearby. The idea of a party would still be useful, though it would simply provide a private chat channel and "pin" party members to the top of each other's lists. But instead of ONLY seeing their health bars and buffs, we'd still nearby Realm-mates filter up to the top, so we see who is in need of healing or other forms of assistance.

I don't envision this type of feature for healing alone. I would also prefer to see ALL other party-based mechanics, such as buffs, switched from having party-wide effects to having a proximity-based radius centered on the caster. In a game designed around "proximity-based grouping" (or Global Groups), people might generally communicate in the "global" /say channel; those nearby could get their text highlighted or tagged in such a way that they can be more readily identified and filtered to a special tab (to prevent channel spam.)

Another benefit I can imagine is better immersion. In the past, our characters sat still or soloed, with LFG flags or a LFM screen up, spamming global chat channels that spanned continents. Nowadays, we run up to whatever it is we want to do, stare at an LFG screen, and then join up (if there is room in the arbitrarily size-limited party or warband). In the future, I just want to run up to wherever it is I want to do, and we're automatically grouped. Done. Though, if I'm PVEing, I might talk in /say chat to see if I can tag along.

I realize this feature is probably not entirely feasible. All the checks to determine who is "nearby" could be taxing on the server-side CPUs; even though the client could do some of the work, such as sorting and filtering the list, much of it would have to be done server-side, to determine how much information to send to each client, and who is affected by whom's buffs. A Global Grouping concept would complicate other game mechanics such as combat where the XP and Renown reward factor the party system into account; without a party mechanic, you'd need to keep track of individual contribution on a much higher scale. If too many people "contribute" to killing a monster, then there should be no reward since its trivial. Only those individuals who contributed to killing that monster (so freeloaders who stand around the action don't benefit simply because they are grouped). If you change one game mechanic, every other game mechanic that depends on it is impacted as well, so this is just the tip of the iceberg of what would have to be changed in a hypothetical game that abandoned the traditional party concept.

But the advantage of removing the artificial party concept could be a more cohesive community that more readily works together towards its collective objectives.