Double Buffered

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Archive for the ‘MMO Design’ Category

With Cataclysm, Blizzard took the World out of Warcraft

Posted by Ben Zeigler on December 28, 2010

Now that I’ve hit level 85 with my Feral/Resto Tauren Druid and had a bit to think about it, I wanted to share some thoughts on the newest expansion. The short of it is that if Cataclysm is the direction Blizzard wants to take their open world content, I am not interested. Now, before I get into that I’ll quickly discuss what’s good: The PvP additions, the new instanced dungeons, and the changes to the existing old world content are all well made and great improvements. I very much enjoyed Azshara, and thought it was as good as any existing zone in the game.  But, as soon as I bought the expansion proper and dropped into Hyjal, things went south quickly.

Remember, “Polished” is a relative term

Actually when I dropped into Mount Hyjal for the first time I and hundreds of other players were immediately slaughtered by “friendly” NPC guards (this got fixed a few days ago apparently). You’d think this kind of bug would get fixed in the months long beta, but oh well, things happen.  But throughout the rest of the open world content I ran into constant game breaking issues. The end of the Troll starting area left me in perpetual in-combat until I restarted. The story event at the end of Vash’jr broke on me 3 times in a row, leading me to kill the executable after getting stuck in a cutscene for 20 minutes. When I first entered Uldum I ended up in a broken phase where I couldn’t get out of the small cage it spawned me in until another reset. An Uldum turret mission took me half an hour because 90% of the enemies were moving but invincible. At least 4 separate times I ran into issues where enemies I was fighting would randomly despawn (not even evade, actually disappear) right before the end of boss fights.

I didn’t play Burning Crusade or Lich King right at launch, but playing vanilla WoW at launch I never ran into so many quest progression issues (stability is way better now though). All of the failures I ran into seem to share the same base cause: complicated single player scripting that interacts poorly with the actually massive number of people in the world. After the success of Lich King’s content (nearly everyone seemed to enjoy phasing and vehicle missions), Blizzard has pushed their design farther in a direction their engine cannot handle. There are now a ton of in-engine cut scenes that tell the story, but their quality is often abysmal. Awkward voice work, camera angles that constantly lead me to be staring 90 degrees to the right of the subjects, jerky animation, and an excess of shots of characters slowly walking made me want to skip all of them. But, I stopped trying after half of them prevented me from skipping and 1 of them actually dropped me to login after I skipped it. I’m the kind of player who doesn’t love cut scenes in narrative action-adventure games, but if you constantly take control away from me to show me poorly edited machinima that could easily exist in the game world, I’m not going to play your game.

The Rollercoaster of Warcraft

It isn’t just the cut scenes that take away player control, the plot of the expansion is constantly trying to making you feel small and useless. After helping defeat the scourge of Arthas, jumping into the defense of Hyjal felt satisfying as the zone made you feel important. Deepholm continues the same theme, as you literally save the earth. But when you enter Vashj’ir you almost immediately get kidnapped by completely normal Naga. It vaguely makes sense because you’re in their domain, but it still feels a bit silly for one of the heroes of northrend to be overpowered by a single humanoid. Then, the first thing that happens when you get to Uldum is… you get kidnapped by a small group of stereotypical pygmies and thrown into a tiny cage. Before you end your questing you’ll get abducted AGAIN by inconsequential minions. I’m sure this was meant to make things feel “dramatic”, but it just made me feel like my character was useless as I rode the Rollercoaster of Warcraft.

It isn’t just the story progression that took away my feeling of control, it was the game mechanics. The changes to talent trees were great for balance purposes, but did remove the feeling of being able to choose your own path as you had to stay within the constricted path chosen for you. The biggest change is in quest structure, as there are now far fewer quests available at any given point. The game leads you from quest hub to quest hub in a very precise manner, and if one quest is broken due to bugs you will be unable to progress any further because all the quests are in very long chains. When I got to a quest hub in vanilla wow and got received 6 quests spread across a geographic area, I got to plan my approach and have the satisfaction of doing it efficiently or not. In Catacylsm when I get to a quest hub I get 2-3 quests which are geographically on top of each other and nearly impossible to do in isolation. The confusing part is that because an 80+ character is guaranteed to have a flying mount, they could easily space these out a bit better to make the world feel more alive without killing efficiency. As it is, you’re lead by the nose throughout Catacylsm, with the only choice being which of 2 linear paths to progress down first. Oh, and all these linear chains mean that 99% of quests in Catacylsm are not shareable so group questing is both less efficient and less fun than going it alone.

Massively no More

Blizzard appears to have completely given up on the idea of open world content that is designed for a Massive number of players. In addition to the constant bugs and lack of mission sharing, anything that isn’t easily soloable has been removed entirely. But, the mob and quest mechanics have not adjusted to the fact that everyone is now soloing. The vast majority of quest objective spawns do not share credit if two groups/players simultaneously engage them. A smattering of them do correctly handle split credit but it’s completely random and not tied to any visual or text feedback as far as I can tell (I thought it might be tied to rather an enemy HP bar turns gray when tagged, but this seems to be unrelated). Half of the time quest objectives would quickly respawn when farmed and half of the time it would take 10 minutes. Sometimes the players would informally group up to help share quest credit and half the time someone would gank an enemy despite you clearly being in the front of the line. The only time I died while questing in Catacylsm was when the accelerated spawn timers from farmed enemies would cause them to respawn before they hit the ground. Other than that, the only challenge in questing Catacylsm was in developing a comprehensive spawn camping strategy and stopping myself from raging at kill stealers who are supposed to be my allies.

There are exactly 2 open world experiences that are designed for a “massive” world, and neither of them work. The Crucible of Carnage in Twilight Highlands is the now-traditional forced group quest where you fight dungeon-boss-quality enemies in a full group. But, it’s even more broken than ever. For the experience to work correctly there has to be EXACTLY 5 people who want to perform the quest at any given point. If there are less you will fail because the enemies are difficult. If there is more than one full group the quest breaks as two group compete to start fights, gank spawns, and generally screw with each other. Oh, and sometimes the enemy fears you, you run out of the arbitrary quest area, and fail a quest 4 times in a row. Finally, Tol Barad is the Wintergrasp replacement that aims to provide large scale objective PvP. But, in it’s current form it’s completely unbalanced as the attackers have a nearly impossible task while the defenders can basically not move the entire game and automatically win. Tol Barad may get better, but in it’s current form it’s much less fun and rewarding than the instanced battlegrounds.

Fun to visit, wouldn’t want to live there

What does today’s World of Warcraft gain from being a massively multiplayer game? The open world content is trying to be a linear action-adventure rollercoaster without the satisfying gameplay or high polish and production values required to make that work. The end games of PvP and dungeon instance running are almost entirely run through matchmaking services or via explicit guild activities. Oh, and if I want to play with a friend of mine from work I have to spend 100 hours leveling a character to max or pay $30 and abandon my existing friends to set up a server transfer. 18 months ago I said no MMORPG would ever beat WoW, but it looks like World of Warcraft is on it’s way to killing the genre itself, by abandoning it.

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Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Everquest 2 is going to be Free to Play! Sorta! Maybe?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 30, 2010

SOE recently announced their free to play “option” for Everquest 2, confusingly named “Everquest 2 Extended“. We’ve seen via D&D Online that a Free to Play/subscription hybrid can work within the premium fantasy MMORPG realm, so I was initially excited because I assumed SOE would follow Turbine’s lead. Then I actually started reading the 37-question FAQ (already a bad sign), and my hopes quickly fell. SOE has managed to produce the single most confusing game-purchasing system in the history of the world.

Let’s first take a look at the “Membership Matrix” chart that is trying it’s hardest to summarize tons of information. We can compare it to the same chart at DDO’s site for their membership levels.  Here are the 4 membership levels of the F2P version of EQ2:

  • “Bronze” is the free level, fine so far. This is your typical free level of service that is comparable to DDO’s “free” level. You start with 3 character slots, but cannot purchase more a la carte. You can’t have more than 5 gold/character level. You can get to level 80, but cannot equip high quality weapons or spells. You cannot use most chat commands or send any mail. DDO has a few restrictions on free accounts using chat and auction but these are largely to avoid spamming problems. Bronze players can only have 20 quests active which is probably for database reasons but just comes across as spiteful to the average player. A Bronze player has an experience that is significantly inferior to a current subscriber, even if they were willing to pay for those benefits a la carte.
  • “Silver” is a level that can be purchased once, at a cost of $10. This is vaguely similar to the “Premium” level of DDO, but the big difference is that Premium happens as an automatic upgrade with any purchase. Silver is basically “Less crappy free”. You still can’t equip the highest level of spells, but you can do a bit better. You still don’t get unlimited gold storage, but your limit is 4x higher. You get one extra character slot but still can’t buy any more. You still can’t send mail even though you are obviously not a gold spammer. You can now have 40 quests active, but not the full 75. This level is extremely confusing. You’re better than a bronze player, but still objectively nerfed in terms of game balance and functionality compared to a subscription player.
  • “Gold” is the $15/month level, which is comparable to the VIP subscription level of DDO. You’re finally a “real” player in that you have access to all the game’s spells and equipment. However,  a gold subscription does not include all of the game’s content! For $15/month you get customer support, 4 character slots, some classes (still only 4 races), and various upgrades to storable items. But compared to a “proper” EQ2 subscription player you lose out on many races and gain no benefits.
  • Finally we have the “Platinum” level which is the most superflous. First it appears the only way to become platinum is to pay by the year and not by the month, so it’s not a new tier as much as it is a different way of paying. For your $200/year ($20/year more than Gold, so Platinum costs 10% ish more), you get access to a bundled expansion pack, 3 character slots, and a point stipend. Why does this level exist at all, other than just as a “yearly subscription” version of Gold?

With those 4 tiers we have 4 entirely different ways of game acquisition, with a bewildering array (11 by my count) of transitions. Let’s say you buy a Gold subscription, let it lapse, and go back to a Bronze one. You’re now worse off than someone who paid $10 once for a Silver level membership. Or let’s say you move from Platinum to Gold because you don’t want to pay yearly. You now lose access to that expansion content and can’t access your level 85 character despite still paying $15/month. There are 5 different ways to downgrade the service level of an existing account, all of which are tricky and will almost certainly lead to horrible bugs. Contrast this with DDO, which has 3 tiers but only 3 transitions: Free to Premium when you buy anything at all (which is never reversed), Premium to VIP (which can be combined with previous one, as buying a subscription permanently marks your account as premium), and one downgrade path from VIP to Premium. This was already complicated to work out but is significantly simpler than the EQ2 system.

Now, what I’ve described so far isn’t even the most confusing part of the whole thing! The absolutely stupidest thing is that this whole 4 tier system coexists with the current $15/month subscription to EQ2 proper. That’s right there will be 2 completely different, unconnected ways to pay $15/month to play the EQ2 content.  They claim to wish to continue supporting traditional EQ2 for the long term so this may be the case for years to come. Let’s say you have friends on both, you’d need to pay $30/month or pick up a Station pass. Oh, and if you want to move over to the extended server from the current server? You need to pay a $35 transfer fee per character. Whatever the result, the existing subscriber base will fragment, with some of them moving to the extended servers and some staying put. The game will be less fun.

In conclusion, this is a very poorly designed system that is obviously the result of hundreds of hours of negotiations at the corporate level. It makes absolutely no sense. Someone at SOE felt they absolutely had to keep EQ2’s current model alive, and someone else decided that SOE needed a F2P version. So they did both. They’ve lost sight of what the actual goal is of making a free to play game: low barrier to entry. DDO works because the existing players were able to convince their friends to try out the free version so they could play together. Those new players would then start buying microtransactions and maybe pick up a VIP subscription (total subscription numbers went up for DDO). With the EQ2 system, if I have a subscription and want to get my friend to play I have to jump through tons of hoops. I have to pay $35 to transfer my character to the free server, I have to pay an additional $15/month to get the same access I had before (and possibly maintaining my $15/month on EQ2 if I have a guild there), and I have to explain the “free” system to my friend. That friend won’t be able to buy new slots or features a la carte if they want to get into the high end play. So, they’ll stare at that membership matrix for a few minutes, say “screw it” and go play something that makes sense.

Posted in Game Design, Game Development, MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Singular Design of the World of Warcraft Talent Tree

Posted by Ben Zeigler on February 16, 2010

I recently started playing World of Warcraft again, for the first time in about 4 years. I managed to make it up to 77 after 200 hours of play before giving up, which is a lot better than last time.  The only reason I stopped is that I ran out of compelling goals to work towards, as I knew I wasn’t going to hang around long enough to be a serious raider. I was also having a hard time assigning my Talent Tree points, largely out of indifference. Then I realized how impressive that was: for 77 out of 80 levels I was compelled to level up almost solely by WoW’s Talent Trees.

My 77 is a Tauren Druid, so I’ll be using the Druid talent tree as my example. I’m only directly familiar with Druids and Hunters, but I suspect my conclusions will hold just as well for the other classes. Yell at me in the comments if you disagree. So, what is it about the structure of WoW’s Talent Trees that makes them the most successful character development system in the history of gaming?

Directed Goals

As soon as you hit Level 10 in WoW, you gain convenient access to information about 90% of your character’s development choices. You can mouse over the highest-level talent in the game, see its requirements, and learn what it does. It may not be initially obvious how an ability works, but simply by virtue of it being at the bottom of the list and having the highest requirements, you know you want it. This is the single most important component of character development as it pertains to keeping players involved: it gives them a compelling goal.

Luckilly, WoW satisfies this goal by making each bottom-level ability worth the effort. Even better, along the way to the bottom of the tree are a variety of enticing sub goals. In the druid example, Moonkin Form and Tree of Life immediately jumped out as things I knew I wanted. After identifying the goals I wanted to hit, I would then use them as guides for picking my powers as I leveled up. Nearly every point you buy in WoW is working towards several goals at once, via direct dependencies or point requirements. On the other hand, a wide open character system like the one in Champions Online lacks any clear long term goals. Without those goals, a player has nothing to work towards.

Concrete Rewards

The long term goals of a character development system give you a future, but a game needs something to keep players going in the present. Certain games, like League of Legends, give such incrementally small effects per skill point that they don’t feel like a reward. In contrast, talent points in WoW either tend to give small but easily describable global bonuses (1% to all stats is incremental but is clearly shown on your character sheet), larger conditional bonuses (30% damage increase to a common power will be noticed), or provide an usable ability. Of course, this wasn’t always true. Today there’s only a few powers in the Druid trees that are difficult to understand or compute (I only vaguely understand bonus healing), and Improved Mark of the Wild now gives the same bonus with 2 invested points as it used to give with 5.

I played Titan Quest recently and it’s an example of a game with a badly designed skill tree. Taking a look at the Rogue tree, you get multiple points per level and have to split them between a “generic” pool that opens up new skills and improving existing skills. So, at a given level up you get 5 points to choose between adding 35 health, increasing the damage of a 12-rank ability by 7, or picking up a new and initially useless passive skill. It turns out ranking up a skill improves more the higher rank it is, which is something I didn’t realize until literally just now. I never really understood what my skill points were doing, which meant I didn’t get any of the primal psychological thrill that results from direct rewards.

Build Variety

Build variety is hard to get right in an online game, because inevitably the hardcore players will try to flatten all variety out of the game as they “discover” the best builds. If you take a look at sites like WoWPopular or disparate internet forums you’ll notice that certain talent builds are considered to be correct. Variety at the high end suffers a bit overall, but WoW does do a good job of encouraging players to diversify outside of their main tree. Once you reach the bottom of your primary tree, it’s a good idea to start working down a second tree towards a synergistic sub goal. In the case of my druid, the Restoration tree has several important skills for Feral druids, so I had a larger set of possible talents to pick from as a worked on my goals.

The real view of character development variety isn’t visible at a static point in time. Instead, WoW needs to be seen as a living, breathing game. For each expansion (and class-by-class between them) Blizzard has dramatically changed the design of the talent trees to fit with the higher level cap as well as solve various Goal and Reward-oriented design issues. This shakes up the playing field and lets everyone explore the full development space. On an individual level, as a player levels up they can respec their talents for an initially low cost. For instance, I eventually realized that I didn’t enjoy Bear Tanking so switched over to be Cat DPS as my primary. Then to effectively double the existing variety they finally added Dual Specialization. Punishing a player for wanting to change their mind on initial decisions or forcing them to specialize on a style of content (PvP, PvE, Solo, etc) when your game supports several is just insulting in today’s market.

Shareable Choices

The final component of WoW’s character development system is actually outside the design of the game itself. If you take a look at a system like Final Fantasy 10’s Sphere Grid it’s got a good mix of Goals, Rewards, and Variety, but it’s missing something critical: There’s absolutely no way to communicate it to someone else. When you’re building a social game, your character development system should facilitate the social element as much as your world design. Based on community support the Talent Tree structure is objectively the best structure for the sharing of character development information yet developed, and has been since Diablo 2.

Several components of WoW’s design are key to this, rather they were intentional or not. The splitting of a WoW class into 3 trees helps as it leads to “Druid 0/58/13” being a useful shorthand for a player’s abilities and inclination. There’s no mechanical reason for any node in a WoW tree to have a specific x/y location, but the spatial nature of the tree makes it easier to remember and discuss. Eventually Blizzard caught on to what the community was doing for them and built the Armory. Basically, if your character development choices cannot be adequately simulated via a single page web application written in javascript, You’re Doing It Wrong.

Half the Game

In my personal opinion, you can blame the success of WoW on two primary factors: the quality of the world, and the drive of the character development system. The importance of Loot eventually overwhelms the importance of talents, but I think many people underestimate just how much talent trees add to WoW. Most players of WoW never make it to level cap or get an epic flying mount, so for all of them the talent system provides that giant carrot on a stick, the one that keeps millions of tired legs fighting against the treadmill of a level grind. Without it, there would be no World of Warcraft.

Posted in Game Design, MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

No MMORPG Will Ever Beat World of Warcraft

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 14, 2009

There’s been a bit of talk lately about the future of Shooters from Cliff Belszinski and others, and there was a nice discussion about it on last week’s Listen Up podcast. The quick summary is that many people believe the FPS genre is headed towards picking up various features from the RPG genre. Nearly every multiplayer FPS released today features a grinding-based level advancement system. As someone who is a huge fan of System Shock 2 and Deus Ex I endorse this trend, and single player games (Borderlands being a good example) are going to take BioShock’s lead and go with it. However, I think this is just part of a larger and more significant trend: The integration of features you might associate with RPGS/MMORPGS into other genres. How will this integration work, and what does it mean for what is currently the MMORPG genre?

Let’s take World of Warcraft, as it is the current pinnacle of the MMORPG genre. To be clear I am using MMORPG to refer to the specific type of gameplay used in World of Warcraft (as well as close relatives), while I am using MMO to refer to the more general category of online games with a persistent world. I feel the success of WoW can be roughly divided into 5 components that heavily interact: The social systems and community that build in and around it, the subscription business model, a persistent world to share with others, the character advancement system, and the DikuMUD-derived base gameplay. The community and social systems are a major reason that players are happy to play your game for years on end, and all other parts of an MMO should enhance those aspects. Although Korea and China have proven that other business models work, the subscription model encourages a strong community, is very attractive to piracy-fearing developers, and is what funds the massive development costs needed to build the rest of the game.  The persistent world (the only thing that Call of Duty 4 is lacking to be a proper MMO) encourages the socialization by giving the players a really solid context to use as the base of forming relationships. The character advancement system ties into the persistent world by making it seem even more significant when you level up. Finally, the base gameplay gives players something to do when they’re not too busy socializing, exploring, or advancing.

There have been many attempts to swap out the base gameplay of an MMORPG for something else, and most of them have failed. Planetside, numerous racing games, ridiculous numbers of free korean MMOs that never caught on. Why is that? The problem is that only certain types of base gameplay fit will with the other components of an MMO design. Quake would make a horrible MMO, because the entirely skill-based gameplay of it does not lend itself well to character advancement. Defense of the Ancients can never be an MMO because the pace of character advancement excludes them from being part of a truly persistent world. My feeling is that Planetside failed because it was too intense. I didn’t play a whole lot, but every indication I’ve seen says that because of it’s focus on pure combat, the game did nothing to encourage out-of-combat socialization. Unless you have breaks and social hubs built into your game (the waiting-for-the-round-to-end time of CounterStrike can serve this purpose well), players will never develop the long term social ties needed to sustain a community. This is also why there’s never been a good MMORTS: the amount of brainpower needed to manage units in a way that engages RTS players doesn’t leave a whole lot left over to build social bonds.

The DikuMUD gameplay is a good match for the other components of an MMO, but it’s reaching it’s limits. First of all, things like MMORPG aggro are still extremely nonintuitive (Why isn’t WoW’s aggro based on positioning? Because DikuMUD didn’t have graphics). More importantly, the direction WoW is moving (towards puzzle raid bosses that need to be solved and game-breaking solo quests with vehicles and such) indicates that Blizzard has run out of ideas to keep the basic tank/heal/control/DPS gameplay interesting. If there’s one thing Blizzard is extremely good at, it is iterating and polishing gameplay ideas. The rest of the industry may be hubristic enough to believe that they’re just going to be BETTER than Blizzard at freshening up MMORPG gameplay, but it’s a better bet to just not try. Age of Conan and Warhammer gave it their all, but they just didn’t do enough to differentiate themselves.

What has succeeded? Eve is an interesting example. The base gameplay of Eve is so barebones that I can’t stand playing it, but obviously others can and it’s still growing. The puzzle genre is an attractive one, and Free Realms may be on the right track (although it’s a bit too scattershot on the base gameplay). I’m 100% convinced that within a year or two one of the major multiplayer shooter franchises will go fully MMO (business model and all). Other variants of the RPG theme, such as tactical positional (ie, like japanese SRPGs) or Action-RPGs (Diablo is 90% of the way there, and there have been a LOT of almost-great Action MMO RPGs) are obvious choices. There are a lot of potential gameplay systems that can be the baseline for an MMO, and I’m sure one is going to come out of left field in a few years and become a bigger success than World of Warcraft. Subscription-based games featuring a persistent world and character advancement will be increasingly successful for decades to come, but World of Warcraft will stand as the pinnacle of popularity for a now-niche gameplay style. At least until it’s time for the retro remake.

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Never Balance Cool Against Useful

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 29, 2009

One of the more important parts of most RPGs (both online and not) is having cool rewards, often in the form of items. Great loot design can elevate a repetitive activity to be extremely satisfying (Diablo 2 is the best example of this), or can drag down an otherwise well designed game. To have a good loot system, you need a decent pool of desirable items, and systems for allowing players to acquire the item they want. There are a bunch of interesting ways to grant access to loot (quest rewards, random drops, crafting, auction house), but all design effort put into those systems is a waste of time if the end result isn’t actually compelling to the players. So, what makes an item compelling enough to drive player desire? I think the real value of an item is a combination of two components: Utility and Coolness.

I’m using Utility in the mathematical sense. Basically, the question is how will a particular item help the player achieve their goals more efficiently. Many players (especially the higher-level players) are trying to min/max their character and all they care about are the raw numbers. If you don’t give them hard numbers, they’ll come up with their own (possibly flawed) ways of figuring out what the best gear is. Also, once these players have come up with a system for evaluating item utility, any item ability that is complicated or hard to quantify will be considered of dubious value. In short, these players like Stats. The higher stats an item has, the more they want it.

Coolness is a bit harder to quantify, and refers to a cluster of different things. First of all, there is the simple issue of how cool it LOOKS. Also, items that are specifically rare (ie special mounts in WoW) will be highly valued regardless of utility. More relevant to combat design is how fun an item is to USE. Items that have cool effects (procs, conditional bonuses, active abilities with a long recharge, etc) can vary the combat in interesting ways and keep a game fresh, even if they don’t necessarily improve a player’s overall efficiency. They can even encourage a player to try out completely new tactics, essentially creating a mini-game nested within a larger game. More casual players, as well as players who crave variety, are big fans of items with cool abilities. However, it is difficult to strike a balance between making situational effects useless and making them too powerful (where combinations of effects can break the balance entirely). If you do it right, players will appreciate the unique abilities but won’t be able to abuse the system.

Okay, so there are two reasons why items are interesting: the quantitative improvement offered by Utility, and the qualitative improvement offered by Coolness. They both provide value to an item, but the perception of that value depends heavily on the player. Hardcore number crunchers will devalue cool effects for not being obviously useful to efficiency, while casual players will devalue pure stats for being boring (I think World of Warcraft equipment has actually gotten significantly more boring over time as they cater to the hardcore more). Given that we have two dimensions of value that are difficult to compare, how do we build an economy around them? You could try to estimate the average economic value of stats and cool effects and attempt to directly balance them against each other. This seems to make sense, but I believe it is the wrong approach.

If you balance Utility against Coolness, what you end up with is a system where the people who want stats will pick the items with the best stats but no coolness, while the players who want variety will pick the items with bad stats but lots of cool things. This has two horrible problems. The variety seekers ends up with a set of complicated conditional effects but will be significantly worse at everyday efficiency, which means they’ll fall behind their friends at levelling and be irritated at the game difficulty. The stat seekers will end up with no interesting combat effects, which means they’ll get bored of the combat more quickly. Both players get what they think they want, but are more likely to be dissatisfied over the long time.

The solution is to not balance utility against coolness, but to scale them both up as the value of an item increases. As a basic example, a “common” quality item should have mediocre stats and be fairly boring. If your baseline is fairly boring it gives you more space for improving your higher quality items without having to get too crazy. Then, a “uncommon” item should always have better stats and have some sort of interesting conditional ability. All “rare” items should then have better stats and be more interseting than all “uncommons”. Put another way, instead of constructing an item from one pool of “item points”, you instead construct it from the dual currency of “stat points” and “cool ability points”, which vary per item level and quality. This system results in items that are valued approximately equally by both stat-seekers and variety-seekers (and the majority of players who are in between). This means everyone strives for items that are both fun AND useful, and so everyone is happy! Well, everyone who can pay is happy, and everyone else is looking forward to being happy. In the world of MMOs, that’s even better.

Posted in Game Design, MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Players Are Wrong, But Listen Anyway

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 16, 2009

When you’re deep in Beta, or you’re just taking the unusual step of actively seeking out what people think about your game, you’re going to interact with direct user feedback. Now, unlike feedback that has been filtered through OCR (which sometimes improves it and sometimes obscures it), direct user feedback tends to be either VERY FORCEFUL or just a bit confused. Based on my observations of fellow employees it seems to be standard policy for a new developer to seek out feedback, realize that some of it is hateful or confused, and then conflate the rest of your player base with the minority (well, or majority depending). The human brain really likes to make those kind of assumptions, so it takes conscious effort to get over the impression that not everyone who disagrees with you is a worthless human being. It turns out that most of the direct feedback you get from users DOES have value, if you just know how to mine it. Anyway, here’s my informal guide to Actually Learning From Users, broken down into helpfully pedantic steps:

1. Note Context

The context of the feedback should have a large impact on your interpretation of it. For the MMO-playing audience this can be broken down into Official Forums and Email (except for those bizarre companies that think they’re a waste of time), MMO Forums (F13, Fires of Heaven, Massively), and General Forums (Kotaku, Joystiq, etc). Feedback on the official forums tends to come from either low post-count users with specific issues or high post-count users who are part of the forum community. MMO forums tends to be full of cynical posters with a high level of knowledge and distrust, but with the occasional great suggestion. General forums are full of people who sort of heard something about your game and are a good way to get a feel for how well your marketing (formal and word of mouth) is working.

2. Ascertain Motive

Once you know the context of a posting you can make a quick guess as to the motive of the poster. The first motive is the always exciting Trolling. From my personal experience this is actually pretty rare on official boards, but this happens a lot on the general boards. If the goal of a poster is to instigate conversation or argument without actually contributing anything, go ahead and ignore them. A related but much less evil motive is Conversation. These posters will have very high post counts and are an integral part of the community, but most are useless for feedback purposes because message board posting, much like Blogging, is all about volume instead of content. A small number of high-volume posters graduate past Conversation into Aggregation. These users (I was one at one point) actively enjoy collating feedback for developers, and some are very good at this. During City of Villains Beta I trusted the bug-aggregate threads far more then I trusted our Q/A department, sad to say. Past those, another motive is Confusion. These users are often new and have a lack of knowledge. Because of this they will often be ostracized by the other members of a community, but to a developer they’re invaluable. If a number of posters are confused by some part of the game, there are no plans to make it better, and your game isn’t Darkfall, you Have A Problem. Either the system isn’t being explained well enough, or more likely your system is just too damn complicated in the first place. If players don’t at least have the illusion of understanding a system, they’re going to be constantly second guessing their choices and be too worried to have any fun.

The last motive is Advocacy. These users have a very specific goal, which is to get something about your game changed. These are the trickiest to deal with, because the first instinct is to ignore people who want something as being selfish and self-serving. But this is only part of it. Users who constantly gripe about their class will always exist no matter how well balanced your game is. The usefulness of Advocacy feedback comes in specificity. If a player feels that his class is gimped overall but doesn’t provide detail, that post is largely worthless. However, if a player specifies that a specific ability seems underpowered, and non-regulars agree (regular complainers will agree that everything is broken), it’s worth taking a look at. The odds are good there’s either a design bug or misleading player feedback. Oh, and as for those players who REALLY care about the way that one CERTAIN cape looks and it NEEDS TO BE RED or else they’ll QUIT FOR REAL, those players should be humored but largely ignored. MMOs are so much about personal identity that it’s inevitable you will highly annoy detail oriented people who can’t have exactly what they want. The only people who threaten to quit are those who are highly invested in your game: you should worry about the ones who don’t give a shit either way.

3. Extract Value

Any feedback that passes the Motive check (specific advocacy, content aggregation, and confusion) contains some value to a game developer, and I refer to this as Valid Feedback. Now, I use Valid instead of Good for a reason. The posts contain useful information but there’s absolutely no guarantee that it’s correct information. For instance, a confused user will often make weird assumptions about the cause of a bug because of their lack of background. The useful kind will still report what confused them, but if you see completely illogical feature requests or feedback it’s probably from someone who is confused but doesn’t want to admit it (because of the social ramifications of admitting to being confused). In these situations you have to ask “Why would they say this?” instead of “What did they say?”. Let’s say a user angrily posts that you’re evil for removing his favorite power. Instead of ignoring him because the power still exists in the source data, you can check to see if something weird broke in the runtime to hide it from the UI.

This same principal needs to be applied to Advocates. When someone discovers something about a game that makes them unhappy, the average player will not do a very good job of figuring out why they’re unhappy. Instead, they will grasp around a bit until they find a vaguely plausible cause, and then flog that horse until it’s dead. This often results in a petition of some sort, many of which won’t make any sense. As a developer you can either ignore them for being incorrect, or you can embrace their opinion as being valid but misdirected. For instance let’s say a large number of players complain about the fact that you nerfed a particular self-healing power which was obviously broken and overpowered. You can say the players are selfish exploiters, or you can take a deeper look and wonder if the players are only upset because that broken self heal was the only way to compensate for the occasional player mistake during unforgiving combat. Players choose to post out of genuine frustration, but instead of reasoning why they tend to just rationalize.

4. Repeat

These rules are a bit verbose, but after reading a few hundred posts you can start to filter them really quickly. Most feedback will end up not being useful, which should give you enough time to think about what’s actually important. Basically, if enough sincere people post asking you do something, then there is very likely a real problem. However, the solution to that problem is unlikely to be what they originally asked for (although specific posters with deep knowledge and analytical skills are better at this then your Q/A department. Learn who they are). Extracting out the Valid feedback from the chaff is not a skill that comes naturally, but I think it’s invaluable for making a compelling long-term product. Directly following user requests and completely ignoring them are two different paths to ruin for an MMO, and the solution is to seek the middle path of interprating that feedback without being slave to it.

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Solving an Impossible Puzzle: MMO Controls

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 11, 2009

My last post discussed in the abstract the various benefits of a substantial MMO Beta, and I now have a very concrete example from my own experience. Our game is at the point in development where all the major features are in, but there is still a lot of work left to make the game fun and polished. 2 months ago one of the areas that needed the most help was the combat controls. It’s something I care a lot of about personally and enjoy doing, so I volunteered to jump on that particular grenade.  It’s a tough job because controls are subjective, involve the interaction of multiple software systems, and critically affect the final game experience. No one can agree when controls (which include targeting, ability use, and camera) are good enough, but everyone knows when they suck. After spending 5 weeks on them, I can confidently say that the controls Don’t Suck. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but there’s not much documentation on the subject so I thought I would share some thoughts on the process.

Gather Intelligence

Because Controls interact with many different gameplay and design systems, I knew I had to do some research before starting to code. The first part of this was to see what we already HAD. I had been playing the beta for months and was aware of previous attempts to design the controls, and after looking around I saw there were remnants of  multiple control schemes implemented over multiple years. There was a lot of good code and many good ideas, but only one actually working control scheme, that had some issues. Additionally, there was a 90% complete back end for switching control options per-character, which wouldn’t require much modification. There were a lot of useful bits and pieces, but nothing resembling a controls system.

The second part of research was to figure out the goals of our controls system. There were 3 major sources of input here: what I wanted, what other developers wanted, and what the end users wanted. I’d been thinking about combat controls a fair bit so that part was easy. To represent the desires of other developers, I tracked down design docs and email threads about the older prototype designs and broke down what the goals of each were. It turns out everyone was trying to make the perfect default control scheme, but no one had quite gotten there. It’s normally fairly difficult to get direct feedback on controls from end users, but the game was in a beta so I just asked them. I collected the existing bug reports about combat controls and read through a few hundred complaints on the beta forums. The primary user complaints were the fact that they often accidentally attacked non-threatening objects while they were being killed by enemies, that it was hard to predict what the targeting would do, and that combat on the mouse/keyboard took more hands then they actually had. These were serious issues that had to be addressed, but for the time being they went in the back of my mind.

Prepare for the Unknown

After my week of research I now had a clear idea of what my resources and requirements were. I could have immediately started coding up the perfect targeting system that would magically satisfy all end users and fellow developers, but I didn’t.  First, I’m smart enough to know I won’t be able to come up with the perfect solution to any problem as complicated as combat controls. Second, several talented developers had already tried and failed to Solve the Puzzle. I knew that I had to redesign our code to deal with the fact that there was no perfect solution. It had to be designed for flexibility.

My first step was just to remove all of the broken stuff that obviously didn’t work. There was a fair amount of this left over from previous prototypes and removing cruft makes modifying the rest much easier. Then, I hooked up the previously-written control options back end to an in-game UI. This way it would be extremely easy to tweak individual settings without having to modify code or a data file. Finally, I moved all of the existing control options into the unified options back end. Previously they were modified by changing data files or running specific in-game commands, but now they were all modified in the exact same place. Making these changes took another week and didn’t add any new functionality, but all of the existing functionality was hooked up and ready for iteration.

Try Stuff, See What Sticks

At this point in time, I had a long list of suggestions and complaints and a system that allowed me to easily try different combinations of options at run time. I prioritized the list of suggestions (the ones I hadn’t already fixed), and just started implementing them. It only takes an hour or so to add your average control feature, which is less time then you’d spend arguing over rather it’s a good idea or not. I put in the ideas that I thought were good, the ones I wasn’t sure about, and the ones that might lead somewhere new. Important additions were the ability to specify the order of tab targeting, to change the priority of different types of targets, to automatically select or deselect on various conditions, and to modify the camera based on various actions. In between adding new features, I was constantly trying them out and seeing how they felt.

After playing around with a few odd combinations I stumbled on some pretty cool ideas. If you enable the option to show your automatic target, disable the conversion from auto to selected target on attack, set the target priority to be whatever is closest to the center of the screen, and set right click to mouselook toggle, you end up with a playable hybrid MMO/FPS control scheme. Likewise, if you enable the ability for melee attacks to ignore out of range selected targets and set the target priority to nearest, you end up with a hybrid MMO/Brawler targeting scheme that ends up being really fun for melee classes.

Publishing your First Draft

After a week of iterating personally, the control scheme options were coalescing into 3 clusters: the traditional MMO cluster that focused on precision and predictability, the Action cluster that focused on smart automatic targeting, and the Shooter cluster that used mouselook-based targeting. These would be the initial presets that players would have access to, so I made a best guess at initial settings for the two new schemes. I set the default scheme to be the same as the old settings so I would be able to compare the feedback from people who modified their controls to the control group of people using the old settings. I posted to the boards explaining the design goals and let the options loose on the Beta community. The feedback was illuminating.

That week the feedback fell into two groups. Players who had discovered the options posted generally nice feedback, but that was overwhelemed by the feedback from people who had heard there was control changes but hadn’t found the options menu. These players complained bitterly about the lack of something that was now available. There was literally no one who preferred that option to be off, so I enabled it by default and removed the option from the menu to avoid confusing people. Several other options I had added ended up being confusing and useless, so I removed those. Others fit into a middle ground where some people liked them and some didn’t, so I left them disabled but kept the ability for end users to override them. Using the feedback from that week’s beta testing, I made a bunch of modifications to the defaults for next week’s test.

Polish and Iteration

The feedback after I updated the defaults was significantly improved. There were significantly fewer negative comments on targeting than before. There was still a lot of specific feedback about missing options and confusing text, so I knew my job wasn’t done. By having week-long iteration cycles with direct player feedback, I was able to very quickly focus on what else needed to be done to make the controls system as good as it could be. After two more weeks of changes and feedback, the iteration cycle was over and I was happy.

6 weeks ago, the combat controls were one of the most commonly argued about features on the beta message boards and were a source of significant player rage. After last week’s playtest I took a look at the feedback threads and there was not a single negative comment about the combat controls, which shocked me. There were also very few positive comments. This could be because players don’t really like them, but lack of discussion is really the ultimate goal of controls: if no one notices the controls, they’re perfect. I’m sure the combination of rising player expectations and bugs will cause future complaints about controls, but it’s very satisfying to dramatically improve the experience of thousands of players over such a short period of time. That’s why MMOs need Betas, and that’s why I like working on them in the first place. It’s not about solving puzzles, it’s about making (virtual) life better for real people.

Posted in Game Development, MMO Design | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

What is Beta Testing Good For?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on April 21, 2009

A few days ago, TenTonHammer posted a comprehensive article about what Beta Testing means to MMOs. I got it off Scott Hartsman’s twitter, and it has a lot of quotes from both developers and users, regarding what Beta really means these days. To summarize, both developers and players generally agree that Beta is less about gathering player feedback, and more about marketing. I will 100% agree that OPEN Beta (or pre-order Beta, whatever) is entirely about marketing and load balance testing. A month out from release is too late to really do any significant changes to the game. However, at least at companies that are open to feedback, a fairly large Closed Beta is required to make a high-quality product. Other than the obvious benefit of having players do free Q/A, here’s why Beta is vitally important:

  1. Gets your Community up and running. You can’t start a community from nothing, so if you want a solid and supportive community at launch, you need to put in a lot of work before launch. A big part of this is getting together the right community team, and there’s really no way to figure out what will work without just TRYING it. So, during Beta both the OCR team and Devs can directly interact with the players and set up a rapport that will hopefully carry through launch. Both the CoH and CoV betas had good developer-community communication, and I definitely think it followed through past launch. For this reason, I think using different community tools (*cough*Warhammer*cough*) for Beta and Live is a stupid idea.
  2. Helps resolve developer choices. The development of an MMO involves a LOT of people, and reasonable people can disagree on various features and design decisions. Sometimes it works out that it’s fairly easy to implement two versions of a feature, but everyone knows that a choice has to be made before launch, for either player confusion or implementation issues. If the developers structure it correctly, it can be very helpful to use Closed Beta as an extremely large focus test. So, you can give players a set of options and see what the reaction is, both via data mining and direct feedback. In cases like this, the players in Closed Beta will have a direct effect on the final product, and I know that’s happened before at Cryptic.
  3. Tracks down compatibility issues. This is kind of boring but absolutely crucial. MMOs are the most complex type of video game, and PCs are stupidly complicated. This means that you’re guaranteed to have a shitload of obscure technical conflicts, and you’re going to have to spend incredibly tedious hours resolving 90% of them (you never fix all weird technical conflicts, you just have to live with that). It’s important to make sure your Beta includes a very wide variety of computer setups, and inevitably it means that some percentage of you users just won’t get to play for a few weeks. I have to say I was mildly irritated by some of the user comments in the article on this subject. Very likely the reason the client doesn’t run on your computer (if it does run on most other people’s) is that the PC platform is stupidly complex and prone to failure.
  4. Drives your post-launch content. By the time you get to large scale Closed Beta, it’s generally too late to make dramatic content changes in time for launch. However, this does NOT mean that user feedback during Beta is useless. Remember, an MMO tends to change a lot in the first big content release after launch. This is because the feedback from Beta users ends up directly affecting the design decisions and content additions that go into content that comes out 2-3 months after launch. For instance, a LOT of the content in the 40-50 level range in CoH (and CoV) was directly built in reaction to shortcomings that became obvious during Beta testing. Again, this is an area that Beta players had a direct impact on the future of the product.

If you don’t run your Closed Beta with an eye for gathering feedback from testers, you’re going to end up with a game that has a disconnected and isolated community, unpopular design decisions that the developers dont particularly love, a cavalcade of horrible compatibility issues, and no plan for post-release content updates. If you run your Beta as an advertising campaign with incredibly strict moderation and no developer feedback you’re taking a huge risk. I could name a few recent MMOs that have had large initial launches and exactly those kind of post-launch problems.

Posted in Game Development, MMO Design | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Warhammer Online: Basically Pretty Good?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 30, 2008

I now have a level 12 Goblin Squig Herder in Warhammer Online. The interesting thing is that I can’t decide if I particularly want a level 13 Goblin Squig Herder. I’m in a unique situation because I got him to level 12 on the pre-release head start code, and my physical copy didn’t arrive until Saturday. So, that left me with having to make the choice to open up my copy of warhammer, enter the retail cd key, and set up my credit card for monthly payments. This is NOT the kind of decision you want your players to have to make, and if I hadn’t been in the pre-release headstart I’d just be playing on my first month, and would play until that ran out. I can’t decide rather I want to keep playing the game, and here’s why:

  1. The game is the opposite of visceral. One of the things I actually did like about Age of Conan was that it was inherently fun to kill things, with all the fatalities and action-oriented combat. Warhammer goes very far the other way, and combat generally feels very floaty and out of sync. For instance, the damage numbers NEVER seem to sync up with the animation. There are also a bunch of client-server sync issues, and it’s obvious they don’t really get the whole client-side prediction thing. Of course, either does WoW, but the combat interactions are far more polished there, so it doesn’t bother me as much. WAR is a much more indirect, detached experience and I don’t think I like it.
  2. The player population feels very small. I was playing Destruction on one of the most popular servers (Volkmar) and I had to wait in line for up to an hour to play during prime time. However, when I actually made it in to the server, it felt pretty empty. I was the only person defending an RvR keep, and many of the public quests were entirely empty. Most of the players were standing still by the shops waiting for an RvR scenario to queue, or grinding one public quest over and over. The design is not doing a very good job of encouraging diversifying, so much of the game world feels very lifeless and barren.
  3. It runs really poorly on my computer. I have a Athlon 64×2 and an 8800GT, so I should certainly be able to run a game that looks worse than WoW (okay, it SOMETIMES looks better). However, my fps often drops down to 10 or 15, especially in RvR. I think a big part of the problem is disk-loading stalls, as my framerate is perfectly fine when standing still. However, roaming around the world is not at all a smooth experience. It reminds me a lot of CoH before we put in a lot of the multi-threaded data loading enhancements. 4 years ago.

It may just be that I’m becoming more critical as I’m a game developer longer, but the good ideas in the game (The scenario RvR combat is really fun, and I like the exploration-based tome mechanic) don’t seem to be enough. Warhammer Online brings together a bunch of things I generally like in a generally well-constructed package, but I think I like some of those elements seperate. I prefer to get my PvP from Team Fortress 2, and I prefer to get my action roleplaying from other games (Tales of Vesperia currently). Warhammer does a bunch of things well, but it’s not doing it for me personally. Maybe I’ll come back in a few months, if the population issues aren’t as bad as I fear.

Anyone want to buy an unopened copy of Warhammer Online?

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Subscription MMOs Encourage Good Game Design

Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 27, 2008

I got some good responses to my post Sunday about subscription-funded MMOs. I posted some reactions in the comments, but it seems I was reading the Guild Wars numbers wrong. It’s likely that Guild Wars has fewer active users than I was saying before, but I can’t find anything concrete, as there are no public user numbers available. Also, there’s some other good discussion down in the comments, take a look.

For instance, Sulka Haro proposes in his post a hybrid system that combines optional subscription and microtransaction currency. This sounds great, but the general problem is “if you give players too many choices, they end up choosing none”. As an example of how this can go wrong, take a look at this interview with Hellgate’s Bill Roper: “We wanted to get people who’d never subscribed to a game before to play it by themselves, then go online and play it with their friends, and then they see all this new content and want to subscribe. But I think that was a model that caused a lot of confusion and caused a lot of division amongst our community, too.” By splitting your community into two (or more) segments you fragment the commonality and generally create customer confusion.

The other interesting bit was when Lum posted a general meta-response to responses to his transcribed interview. His general argument is that “subscription” at least partially implies “catering to hardcore”, and this leads to a bunch of bad design and business decisions. I generally agree with his concerns on targeting the hardcore, but I think he’s wrong on a few points about subscription-based games:

They have favorable Decision Points. Lum talks about the concept of a decision point, where you have to decide rather or not to spend money on something. He claims that microtransaction-based games have easier decision points, because they take place once someone is already invested in a game. However, when playing a microtransaction game, instead of one simple decision, you are confronted with a shitload of complicated decisions. “Is this sword really worth $2? What about this other sword that costs $5? Oh crap what about that haircut?”. When presented with microtransactions, my eyes usually glaze over, and I end up buying nothing. Obviously this will differ from person to person, but I don’t think it’s automatic that the decision points are better with microtransactions. The other huge factor is that the single decision point in a subscription game is inherently tilted in the favor of the game creator. Generally, when you start a free trial you have to enter your credit card information, so when it’s time to stop the trial, the decision isn’t “Do I want to pay for this?” but “Do I want to not pay for this?”. The same thing happens every month, and the normal human tendency to choose the easier solution means that people on the edge between paying and not paying end up paying. This is a huge part of the revenue in subscription-based MMOs. I would feel guilty about this, but…

They encourage good game design. Lum starts out arguing that subscription-based games encourage level grinding, but sort of gives up when realizes it happens plenty with free game. In my opinion, the subscription payment system should discourage it. In a pay-for-play system it’s clearly in the financial interest of the developer to make a game that gets played as much as possible. I argue that this is one of the reasons the Chinese and Korean-designed MMOs have a bigger problem with addiction than Western-developed ones. The optimal user in a subscription-financed MMO is someone who feels involved enough in a product to keep their subscription going, but not someone who is so involved they will burn themselves out and quit. What keeps people paying is involvement in a community (which I discussed Sunday) and near-term expectations.

If an MMO is designed correctly, there should always be something cool next month that people want to engage in. The player should be thinking “well, if I quit now I won’t be able to do the cool winter event, and I REALLY LIKE the winter event”. Seasonal events, frequent updates, and dynamic game worlds (like Eve’s) contribute heavily to this. People can’t stand to miss out on something awesome, and it’s the job of an MMO creator to keep the awesome stuff coming. Players who quickly grind to a level cap are actively working against this, and are NOT the kind of player a dev generally wants. They tend to burn through content very quickly, and upon reaching the current max, see nothing interesting in the future. These players will then quit (or some of them start hardcore raiding). It may seem like this is the majority of players, but certainly in CoH, 95% of people never reached the level cap. Players who progress at a reasonable pace always have something to look forward to, and they’re much easier to deal with from a support perspective. They’re important for advertising and creating content/interest for others, but having a large percentage of hardcore, addicted players isn’t good for an MMO.

Posted in Game Development, MMO Design | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »