Tag Archive: theory

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ding

With World of Warcraft, Blizzard continued – and perhaps perfected – a game design they started to really shine at in Diablo 2: the art of always providing positive feedback and an ever-present goal just a few minutes away.

When a player is playing World of Warcraft, they are constantly rewarded for victory. With every normal monster fight, there is a battle, a regular “rotation” of spells/abilities that the player uses to take out the normal monsters, and victory within 5-10 seconds. The monster gives an experience reward as long as the player isn’t max level, and a loot reward regardless. If the player is in the endgame, there’s a high likelihood that the experience reward has been swapped out for a reputation reward with whatever faction is tied to the monster, but the treadmill (if you’re being cynical about it) continues. Monsters are always available, so once you get your little thrill of victory after 5-10 seconds, you look around for the next monster, which takes about 3-5 seconds, and start again. And on, and on, and on. My lizard brain reward neurons are firing just writing about this stuff.

Then, layered on top of the pure combat grind, there are the quests. One is almost never simply killing mobs in a vacuum of XP or rep grinding. Every monster killed is killed for a reason. Either you need to kill a certain number of them for a quest, or they sometimes (sometimes very rarely) drop an item you need for a quest, or they are in between you and the destination place or object you need for a quest. So not only are you getting the tiny reward for each monster beaten, you get closer and closer to a bigger reward of completing one (or often several tied to the same area of the map) quest. That quest, once completed, gives the same reward as a monster kill but in bigger doses: loot, XP, reputation.  Quests are, by the way, the most extensive way that narrative is woven into WoW.  It’s because WoW has thousands of quests that you don’t feel like you’re just doing the same thing over and over and over and over again.

Layered on top of questing is the reward of leveling either your character or your reputation with a faction. Aside from the occasional helpful loot reward from a monster or quest, this is the first reward you get that directly improves your character. With a new level you either get a new talent point to spend or a new spell. When you reach a new reputation level with a faction, you likely have access to new gear that will help your character.

Finally, at the endgame you have layered on top of leveling/rep boosts for your character the concept of getting better gear for your dungeon/raid group.  Players are rewarded by being part of a solid dungeon or raid group even if they are unlucky enough not to get any drops that help them directly by still getting drops that will help other members of the group, and so the group advances even when an individual character does not.  Blizzard has improved this formula in later expansions by granting currency to each participating party member for every endgame boss killed that, once enough are accumulated, can be traded in for gear even if that character never gets a direct gear drop from any boss fights. For each raid, there is eventually a boss considered a “gear check.” That boss encounter is impossible for the raid to beat until they have gone through the earlier raid content enough times for their entire group to have good enough gear from the earlier bosses to have the raw stats high enough to beat the gear check boss. This boss is, therefore, the gateway to higher content.

Like XP/quests before, some players are just raiding for better and better gear for their characters, others are raiding just to get to see all the content, and others are in it for both. But the raid activity for “progression” is the same for all three.

But wait, there’s more! That’s just one “stack” of reward layers. There are at least three other parallel reward paths:

Crafting: As players are out in the world-whether completing lowly quests or endgame raids-they will come across nodes of resources that can be harvested for crafting components. As players build gear from these components, their crafting skills are improved, and they get closer to building better and better gear. So players will often fight monsters just to get to a harvest node so they can get more resources to build more gear and raise their crafting.

Achievements: With Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard added explicit achievements to the game. These can range from exploring all the points in any and all maps, to accumulating vanity pets, to completing all the quests in the game, to beating all the dungeons in heroic mode. As with the main reward system, achievements are often layered. For example, players get a small reward for exploring every node on one map, a bigger one for exploring every map on a continent, and the biggest one for fully exploring every map in the game.

PvP: (Disclaimer: I never got deeply into PvP, so my knowledge of this dimension of the game is limited and may not be entirely correct.) Completely parallel to the main game, players may choose to participate in player versus player content. The PvP starts at level 10 (though you’ll be yelled at if you’re not level 19 to be the “appropriate” level for the 10-19 PvP group), and some players spend all their time “twinking” their level 19 PvP character. It ends at Arena matches, available only to characters who have gotten to max level, which have 2v2, 3v3, and 5v5 ladders. Arena PvP is associated with “seasons” in which the medium, higher, and highest ranking players are given gear roughly equivalent to the gear their characters would get at the endgame raid PvE content that is in the game for that season. As I said, I haven’t followed this aspect of the endgame very closely, but I’m pretty sure when new raid content is added to the game with the associated next level of raiding gear (your raid group will only have a fighting chance against higher end raid bosses if they’ve geared up from earlier raid bosses) a new Arena season starts at the same time with rewards on par with the new endgame gear.

What say you, gentle reader?  Did I miss anything?

The many forms of “We rule!”

Derek’s post a couple days ago on “I rule!” versus “That rules!” got me to thinking, which is always a dangerous and frightening prospect. While thinking back on my own “I rule/That rules!” experience, it suddenly struck me that my very best experiences in multiplayer role playing games have always come from two very different approaches to “We rule!”

On the one hand, we have the MMO raid endgame experience. There is nothing like 25 voices screaming in victory after taking down a raid boss that the guild has been throwing itself at over and over again for weeks. Progression raiding is painful. It’s frustrating. It’s time consuming. It can tear guilds apart. And it is one of the best video game experiences out there when you finally succeed.

On the other hand, there is the group of role players I am currently tabletop gaming with. We are the Most. Dysfunctional. Party. Ever. Our mage has a charisma of 2, but will take any opportunity upon meeting new friends or foes alike (‘friends’ in this case being defined as NPCs we haven’t made ‘foes’ of yet) to bring out his magic box which will announce to the world that he is “HARWIN THE MAGNIFICENT!” One of our fighters is a greedy halfling, who in his finest hour discovered that the urn he was hauling tightly in his arms back to town to figure out how to open was actually a trap: on our way out of the dungeon the urn evaporated, leaving dear Merbles covered in green slime. The bad kind. Our priest has a relationship with the bottle that can only be described as masterful. But even more important in understanding his personality is to realize he…ah…absconded with the robes and holy symbol he currently wears from a fellow traveler on the roads. He has no idea which deity is answering his prayers (and for our party, we need a great many prayers), but some higher power is indulging his adjurations…at least for now.

I round out the group as our second fighter, a dwarf named Lars the Epithetless, who fancies himself something of a strategist. He almost never gets to enact any great plans due to his fellow party members’ tendency to rush into the next room swords and spells blazing, but last session he finally had his chance to shine. The party had come to a halt in front of a door behind which was a room teeming with rats. Behind us was a room full of caltrops we had picked our way through earlier. 15 minutes of excited scheming and trap setting later, Lars launched into action—the final result of which was a horde of nonplussed rats, Lars’s feet riddled with rat-poop-covered caltrops (cure disease, anyone? no? lovely…) and the nasty monster who was master of this corner of the dungeon alerted to our presence. It was the best role playing I’ve done in weeks.

Our party is terrible. But at the same time, we rule! Because playing these horribly inept adventurers is hilarious. Managing to get out of every mess we’ve made for ourselves so far has actually been something of a two-edged sword. We were never supposed to make it to level 2. Months later, now that we’re approaching level 4, I must admit, I’ll be sad when we eventually end up getting ourselves killed by plunging into the middle of more than we can handle. But that won’t change how we play this group, because that’s who these characters are.

This second form of ruling—the ability to craft a fun player-based narrative, even if it is by playing incompetent characters—is something you don’t see much in single player RPGs. It’s out there, though, if you can find it. One of my biggest “I rule!/That rules!” moments in playing Mass Effect 2 happened during one of the cutscenes. For those not familiar, if you progress far enough in either the “paragon” or “renegade” options for your character, sometimes you have the opportunity to interrupt a cutscene to your benefit. The character I was playing was primarily a paragon, though she would occasionally show traits that could be considered “renegade” under stressful situations. During one particular cutscene, a renegade interrupt became available to my character. But it just didn’t fit her character, so with great difficulty (as a player), I let the opportunity to interrupt the scene pass. Later in the same cutscene, a paragon interrupt opportunity appeared, which my character did activate. It was awesome! It was perfect! By being true to my character and keeping a cool head, I let a chance to be a nasty sort of character pass, and I was given the chance to influence the narrative in a more virtuous manner. The result was both an “I rule!” and “That rules!” moment at the same time. BioWare managed to outdo itself again by supporting this kind of gameplay opportunity, and I was thrilled that I had discovered it. At the same time, I was able to keep my character true to the personality I had crafted for her, which made the moment “rule” for me in an entirely different way.

In the end, I’m not sure how well the MMO style of ruling and the narrative crafting/role playing style of ruling can coexist. As I wrote in the comment section of Derek’s post, an MMO raider serious about progressive raiding isn’t going to be worried about whether his character’s arachnophobia should be decreasing his competence against the spider boss, nor would his teammates appreciate him playing that encounter “in-character” by /cowering in the corner during the entire fight. On the other hand, a munchkin/rules lawyer tabletop player may not be seen as the optimal partymate for a group of gamers who are injecting a lot of player-based narrative into a gaming session. Therefore, as game designers, one of the challenges we face is determining what type of gameplay experience we’re trying to build in our game and make sure that the content we’re producing allows that type of experience to shine.

What’s wrong with Civ V?

I’m a long-time fan of the Civilization games, old enough to remember playing a cracked copy of the original Civ games on the university computers while in high school. (Yes, I pay for all my games now, thanks for asking.) When a new iteration of Civilization comes out, it’s a joyous event: not quite Christmas, but bigger than Halloween, y’know? So when I got my sweaty palms on Civ V, it was with a great deal of anticipation.

Developing a game doesn’t leave you with much time to play other games – one of those ironies they don’t tell you about. But I’ve managed to sneak in enough time with Civ V to end up… a little disappointed. Not such that I won’t play, or enjoy myself while doing so, but I’m not enthralled, not yet. Civ 2 and Civ 4, I each played for five years, all the way through until the next version came out. Civ 3, I played for maybe six months. There’s a danger Civ 5 will be another Civ 3 for me.

Why? What’s the problem? Did they simplify too many things, or the wrong things? Maybe, but I think it’s something else. I think it’s the vaunted new combat system – or, more precisely, the secondary consequences of that system.

One of the largest changes to Civ V is the elimination of stacked units. Now, each combat unit occupies a space that cannot be shared with any other unit. This, combined with the introduction of hex spaces, pushes the game into the tactical realm inhabited primarily by war games. And it does make the combat more interesting, on a per-engagement basis.

However, to make this work, each civilization needs to end up with an army that is much smaller on a per-unit basis than was common for any prior Civ game. There’s just not room on the map for them otherwise, and presumably they also wanted to limit the amount of time players needed to spend each turn just moving their armies around the board. Instead, you have tougher units, and more attacking and withdrawing and so on.

At least, that’s the theory. And sometimes it works out okay, and you get nice consequences, like more “leveling” of units as they survive and gain experience. But the big problem is that this means they need to make each unit more expensive to field. Creating an up-to-tech unit takes much longer in Civ V than in previous versions, and costs a whole lot of schmuckers to buy outright.

Okay, so what? Well, if we push further down the train of consequences, we get to this ugly one: if you defeat your enemy’s initial forces, they can’t rebuild in time for it to matter (unless the enemy is very large). As a result, it’s all about the early battles. Win those, and you will collapse the enemy’s empire and take it all for yourself. There’s a middle ground, but it is small.

Civ IV, by contrast, had both small and large wars. A number of things worked against large-scale conquering: the slow process of assimilating new cities, the effects of culture on newly-acquired border cities, war unhappiness, the ability to manufacture reinforcements reasonably quickly, and the ability to stack units in cities (which not only protected those cities, but also kept the reinforcements safe until there were enough of them to meet the enemy in the field). Civ V only has unhappiness penalties for new cities (and it doesn’t matter whether you are at war or not, so this is not a disincentive to further warring), and some policy and wonder bonuses available to boost combat prowess within one’s own borders – which won’t matter once you’ve lost your army.

And that’s really too bad, because it eliminates a whole dimension of gameplay, and makes the game swingy: be the first to bash another Civ’s head in, and you have a big leg up on the rest of the game.

Civ V gets a lot of other things right, particularly the addition of city-states, which are a huge and clever innovation that adds both to the mechanical gameplay, and to the realism factor in the game. And I will continue to play it, with some measure of happiness. But the main thing I’ve come away with is a renewed appreciation for the potential for unintended, second- or third- or nth-order consequences in the complex, dynamic system that is a game (especially one with as many variables as a Civ game). Something to watch out for.

The many games of Dragon Age

As was briefly touched on in an earlier post, Electronic Arts made the interesting decision when the launch of Dragon Age: Origins was imminent to release a free Flash-based game set in the same world called Dragon Age Journeys. Looking back on both the Flash-based and retail game now, it’s clear that both had a lot of shared background. The races, classes, and world history are all the same. Many of the abilities and the philosophies of combat were very similar. When discussing RPGs, that covers a lot of the bases.

And yet, in the end, the two games were so very different. Most of the people I’ve talked to who tried out Dragon Age Journeys didn’t find the game very engaging, and I’m afraid I didn’t either. Despite a multitude of abilities and some pretty sophisticated AI for a Flash game, the combat felt repetitive. The story felt thin. There just wasn’t enough to pull the player along.

The retail game, Dragon Age: Origins, was as we know almost the polar opposite experience. The story was fantastic, as is only to be expected from a Bioware RPG. The combat was always engaging, even 60 (or *cough* 80) hours into the game. Where in the Flash game it was, alas, difficult to keep pushing forward, the retail game was hard to put down. For those of us that study game design, it’s a valuable lesson.

But it was when the retail game came out for both the PC and the console that the story gets really interesting. These games tell the exact same story (if you played the same character in each one) with more or less the exact same graphics. Leading one to think that if they were to play the game on the console or on the PC, they would be playing the same game. But they would be wrong.

I had the chance to play a little bit of Dragon Age for the XBox 360 after beating the game on the PC. It’s an entirely different experience. The difference is in the combat engine, and it is dramatic. With the PC, you have at least 12 abilities at your disposal directly on the screen (more when you figure out that you can drag your action bar to expose more action slots–which I didn’t until after I had beaten the game and I will never forgive Bioware for ever ever ever…but I digress), 10 of which are hotkeyed. For the more restrictive console interface, you never have more than 6 actions available without having to bring up other screens in the middle of combat. The PC version allows the player to zoom the camera out until it (very elegantly) shifts from over-the-shoulder to top-down perspective for a better view of the entire battle. In the console version, you’re locked into the active character’s perspective (though you can hop from character to character in your party).

Essentially, combat in the PC version is a much more tactical experience, and this is by design. When I played the console version, I did my best to navigate the console UI to have my character be of some meager use in battle (I’m not very good at console games). The AI took care of the rest, and we were fine. If I tried to play such a weaksauce party in the PC version, we would have been annihilated. The PC version requires the player to frequently pause the game to direct their entire party. If you don’t, you will die. Think that group of genlocks and hurlocks up ahead should be easy enough to plow through on autopilot? Not on the PC: if you don’t pause and control your party in every single fight–especially in the early levels–you will die. It was hard. It was fun! For whatever reason, the Dragon Age team didn’t feel like they could or should replicate the experience on the console version, so they made the fights significantly easier. You can, in fact, more or less coast through the game on the console (at least as far as I have played). I found it made for a less powerful–and in the end less fun–experience. It’s remarkable how these games with so much in common, especially the different retail releases, can feel so different when you sit down to play them.

What we're playing: Osmos

A game is a closed, formal system that engages players in structured conflict and resolves in an unequal outcome.

Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain, and Steven Hoffman

Ask ten game designers what a game is, and you’ll likely hear ten definitions.  But if there’s a game that embodies this one, it’s Osmos, a downloadable indie game in which you control one cell-like mote among many drifting in a Petri-dish-like environment.

The mechanics of the game are simple: a mote moves by ejecting a bit of its mass as a smaller mote behind it, and when two motes come into contact, the larger begins to absorb the smaller.  The combination of these mechanics creates some fun situations.  Two of my favorites:

  • When fleeing from a larger mote, your ejected material will often end up making it a bigger threat in the process.
  • When you make a course correction near a wall, you can sometimes reabsorb ejected motes as they rebound.

I can’t think of a recent game that better fits the definition of Fullerton et al.: the bounded environment and strict conservation of mass embody a closed, formal system, while absorption-by-contact is a quintessentially unequal outcome of a structured conflict.

I don’t want to give the impression that Osmos is more academic experiment than actual entertainment, though.  It’s also a viscerally enjoyable game, with evocative graphics and a soothing ambient soundtrack.  I’m not sure it’ll have a lot of replay value, but Hemisphere Games is offering it for download for the price of a movie ticket, which strikes me as a good deal.

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