Friday, June 3, 2011

Rift: First impressions

Finding Rift for sale on Steam a couple of weeks ago, I finally took the plunge and decided to try it out. Here are some assorted impressions based on about two and a half weeks of play.

The presentation is outstanding. The graphics are beautiful even on my middle-of-the-road machine. The music is varied and appropriate to the settings. Performance has been flawless except for a handful of the inevitable bugs in any new MMO. And generally the game feels very complete. So a big thumbs-up to Trion for releasing a polished product.

The invasions are super fun. My second night playing, a huge fire invasion erupted in Silverwood and I had a grand time running around with an impromptu raid group fighting off invaders and closing rifts. The event culminated in a huge boss fight, and I ended up with enough loot to buy a shiny new weapon from the rare goods vendor. The whole thing was exactly the kind of thing I like in MMOs--dynamic, open world play. Hopefully this will become a trend in the industry. I do have some concerns with how long invasions will stay interesting, expecially if the endgame is heavily instanced, but for now they're a lot of fun.

The character build system is fun, but not quite as focused as it should be. Each class has several different "souls" out of which you can choose three, and each soul has a variety of skills. So the result is that you can customize a character pretty much how you like, and with all of the skills from three different souls, you have a ton of abilities at your disposal. The problem is that, despite the huge number of skills, many of them are generic and also duplicative across souls. For example, in my current Inquisitor/Sentinel/Warden build, I have three DoTs, two knockbacks, four direct damage skills, and five heals. I would have preferred fewer skills but more uniqueness. However, I was able to build a character that appeals exactly to my playstyle, and that's not possible in less flexible systems.

Other than the rifts and soul system, the game is pretty much a copy of WoW and includes both the good and bad points of that game. The quests are the kill-ten-foozle variety, the crafting system is a sidelight, PvP and dungeons are almost entirely instanced, and solo combat reduces to executing the same skill rotation on every monster. Presumably the intent was to feel familiar to WoW fans, but it doesn't feel like Trion put as much effort into the non-rift elements of the game as they did into the rifts.

I did appreciate the fact that Trion made an effort to appeal to Explorer types by including hidden puzzles, cairns, and artifact collections. Of these, the puzzles and cairns are quite fun, and often require the player to go off the beaten track to find them. The world designers also made mountains generally climbable, with few invisible walls, which adds a fun mountaineering element to the game. The artifact collections, on the other hand, are a bit grindy, and feel more like a checkoff list than exploration for its own sake.

In sum, Rift is a very polished, traditional MMO with one great new feature. If you enjoy games like World of Warcraft, you'll almost certainly like it. If you don't like WoW, or are tired of that style of game, you probably won't. But its focus on dynamic, open-world gameplay definitely makes it worth trying.

Situational skills in MMOs

Nils has an interesting post up about MMO combat systems. As he notes, many systems have a simple optimal strategy that reduce to using a certain skill rotation, or to using certain skills whenever they become available. My response was that I'd like skills to be more situational and require judgment in their use.

When I say skills should be "situational," I mean that whether or not to use the skill should be an interesting decision without a consistently provable right answer. For example, a skill that can be used only after a critical hit is not situational if the best strategy is use it whenever it's available. That's just a simple reaction and not an interesting choice. So let's take a look at some examples of ways skills can present players with interesting decisions.

Resource management. Many MMOs give players a resource (like mana) that powers their skills. Common practice these days is for the resource to regenerate quickly to avoid downtime. If resources regenerated more slowly, then players might have to choose carefully which skills to use.

One great example of this is Vanguard's druid class. The druid is basically a traditional mana-based caster with an unusual twist. In addition to his normal mana-based spells, he has a set of powerful skills called "phenomena" that draw from a limited pool of "phenomenon points." Phenomenon points are similar to mana except that they regenerate much more slowly (I think it took something like half an hour for my pool to regenerate fully). That presents druids with interesting choices about when to use their limited supply of phenomenon points. Do I want to do massive burst damage quickly at the cost of all my points? Or do I want to save some for an emergency heal I might need later? At the same time, it avoids the downtime problem by making mana regenerate fairly quickly.

Reactive skills. By this I mean reacting to what the opponent is doing or what's happening on the battlefield. For example, a spell interrupt with a cooldown is reactive because it requires the player to watch what the opponent is doing and use the skill at the right time.

The Vanguard druid has a nice twist on this as well with its counterspells. One counter has a long cooldown but can reflect a skill back at the opponent. So if a monster is about to hit you with a massive damage spell, you can reflect it back in its face. The cooldown is fairly long, so the player has an interesting choice about when to use it. Should I reflect that damage spell? Or should I wait for the self-heal I think is coming?

Skills with drawbacks. Less commonly, some MMOs include skills with powerful effects but huge drawbacks that have to be taken into account. For example, the "Absorb Pain" spell from City of Heroes is a healing spell with a twist. It's powerful and cheap, but in addition to healing the target, it damages the caster and makes the caster unable to be healed for the next 20 seconds. When used properly, it massively increases healing output and saves power, but when used carelessly it can easily cause the caster's death. Whether to use it is a matter of judgment without an easy answer.

Offense vs. Defense. Many strategy games involve choices between offensive moves and defensive moves. In chess, you have to decide whether to spend time protecting your own king or to go all out against the enemy. Rift occasionally demands these types of choices; for example, if I get mobbed by enemies while soloing I need to decide whether to spend time healing myself or whether to try to kill one of the mobs quickly to reduce the incoming damage. However, MMOs typically don't offer this type of choice as often as they should. Soloing is usually so easy that the best strategy is unrelenting offense, and group combat usually assigns each player an offensive role or defense role, so no choice is required.

So what do you think? Are there other ways MMO combat systems can give players more interesting decisions to make?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Elements of Gameplay

I apologize in advance for this rambling post. I'm hoping to do a series of posts on high-level game design, and to that end I'm trying to create a framework for separating out the different components of modern games. As always, your thoughts are welcome.

Where is the fun? Goals of videogames

In thinking about ways to categorize games, it's important to note that modern video games include elements that aren't gameplay in a traditional sense. Traditionally, a "game" is an activity involving the pursuit of a goal within the structure of a set of rules. Some modern video games--like flight simulators, the Sims, and sandbox MMOs--don't give players specific goals. In other video games, like DreamFall or Facade, gameplay is clearly subordinate to story or some other feature. I suppose it might be more accurate to refer to video games as "interactive digital entertainment," but for simplicity I'm going to refer to them all as "games" regardless of whether they include traditional gameplay.

Modern videogames have at least four potential goals:
(1) Gameplay. In the traditional sense, gameplay involves competition or pursuit of specific goals within the framework of a set of rules. Gameplay fun involves overcoming challenges and mastering a set of skills. (Like Nicole Lazzaro's "hard fun")
(2) Simulation. Many games derive part of their interest from the simulation of some place or experience. The Sims is a people simulator and a flight simulator replicates the experience of flying an airplane. Many large-scale RPGs, like Morrowind and EVE Online, are in part simulated worlds. Simulation fun often takes the form of immersion in an interactive world or unstructured sandbox play. (Like Lazzaro's "easy fun")
(3) Narrative. Many games tell a story. In some games, like DreamFall, Indigo Prophecy, and Facade, the story is pretty clearly the main draw. Narrative fun is similar to the experience of watching a movie or reading a book.
(4) Socializing. Chatting and hanging out with other players is an important part of online games. This one doesn't apply to single-player games.

Where is the challenge? Types of gameplay

Within the gameplay category, there are several types of experiences games can offer. Gameplay fun usually involves overcoming challenges of some sort, so let's take a look at the types of challenges games might offer.
(1) Action. Many games offer challenges based on manual dexterity. Traditional arcade games are mostly action based, as are many sports games and shooters.
(2) Strategy. Some games require long-term planning and resource management. War games like Warlords and god games like Spore include strategic elements. Traditional board games like chess also fall into this category.
(3) Puzzle. Other games require players to solve discrete, short-term problems. Many casual games like World of Goo fall into this category, as do traditional adventure games.
(4) Chance. Some games are based in whole or in part on luck. A slot machine is a game of pure chance.

Obviously there is a gray area between strategy and puzzle-solving, as both require thought rather than dexterity. Generally speaking, strategy involves long-term planning and decision-making in situations without clear right answers, whereas puzzles involve solving discrete short-term problems which often have a specific solution. For example, chess is a strategy game, but a mate-in-two chess problem is a puzzle.

Many games combine more than one type of gameplay. Starcraft is an action-strategy game. Portal is an action-puzzle game. MMOs and RPGs often have elements of all four types of gameplay.

Next up: Analyzing gameplay.


Craig Lindley, Game Taxonomies: A High Level Framework for Game Analysis and Design,

Nicole Lazzaro, Why We Play Games,

Chris Crawford, The Art of Computer Game Design,

Richard Bartle, Players Who Suit MUDs,

Nick Yee, Motivations of Play in MMORPGs,

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Quests and the Bartle Explorer

Modern MMOs tend to be heavily quest-driven. Gameplay consists of locating a quest-giver (conveniently identified by a brightly-colored icon over his head) and following instructions. Some games, like Warhammer Online and LotRO, use map markers or quest arrows to show where to go. This structure gives players constant guidance and ensures they always have a sense of knowing what they're supposed to do next.

However, quest-driven gameplay can have a disastrous effect on the incentive to engage in undirected exploration of the world. This can be a problem for Bartle Explorer types, for whom open-ended exploration is a central component of the game. Let's take a look at a couple of examples.

Let's start out with a traditional MMO quest. An evil wizard has kidnapped the princess and is holding her captive in his tower. A quest, available from the king, asks the player to rescue the princess and escort her back to the castle. Galahad the Quester talks to the king, gets the quest, and travels to the tower. He proceeds fights his way through several tower levels worth of monsters, talks to the princess (helpfully indicated by a glowing exclamation mark over her head), and returns with her to the castle. Mission accomplished!

Meanwhile, Marco the Explorer has been exploring the world just for fun. He finds the tower and fights his way to the top to see what is there. Once at the top, he sees a beautiful damsel in distress apparently being held captive! However, he can't talk to the princess, attempt to rescue her, or interact with her in any way because he doesn't have the right quest. If he wants to rescue her, he has to go to the local castle, find the king, get the quest, return to the tower, and proceed to fight his way back up to the top (where the princess now has an exclamation mark over her head).

Another example: A tribe of orcs, based in a nearby encampment, has been plaguing the local village. A quest, available from the mayor, tasks the player with eliminating the orc menace. As proof that he's accomplished the deed, the player has to bring back 10 rusty orc axes. Galahad the Quester gets the quest and heads to the encampment, where he kills orcs and loots their axes until he has ten.

Meanwhile, Marco the Explorer has been exploring the world just for fun, and comes across the encampment. The orcs look pretty evil, so he decides to kill them to see what they drop. However, one thing they do not drop is rusty orc axes, because he doesn't have the right quest. A few minutes later, he arrives at the village, where the mayor asks him to go kill orcs at the encampment. If Marco wants to finish the quest, he has to return to the encampment and kill more orcs, which now are all mysteriously furnished with rusty axes.

There are two problems in both of these cases. First, Marco is being penalized for engaging in undirected exploration of the world. Sure, he can find things, but he can't interact with them. Second, the situations are immersion-breaking: Despite having found a damsel obvious in need of rescue, the explorer can't attempt to talk to her or rescue her. The problem here is that the world is interactive only when the player has a specific quest to interact with it.

Paul Barnett touched on this issue in his famous "Bears, Bears, Bears!" speech. The solution seems simple: Allow the player to accomplish quest-related tasks before obtaining the quest. And once the player gets a quest, allow him to complete it then and there if he's already done what's required. In the first example above, the princess was not flagged as "rescuable" until after the player talked to the king. A better approach would be initially flag the king as "quest available" and the princess as "rescuable." Then allow the player to accept the quest be talking either to the king or to the princess. This would allow the player who discovers the princess before the king to complete the quest in a natural way. In this case, the solution is simply a matter of setting flags differently.

In the second example, the solution would be to have the orcs initially flagged to drop an axe when killed. When the player has accumulated ten axes, the orcs would be flagged no longer to drop axes. The player could gather ten axes before talking to the mayor, and then complete the quest on the spot once he arrived at the village. Obviously this would result in the player accumulating apparently useless axes in his backpack, but they could be placed in a special "quest item" section of the inventory to hint that they can be turned in for a quest.

What do you think. Does the current questing model work well for Bartle explorer types? If not, could it be improved?

Making crafting fun, part 1

As a big fan of crafting in MMOs, I've tried out quite a few tradeskill systems. And they all share one thing in common: They don't feel nearly as fun as they could be. In particular, the "standard model" of crafting used in games like WoW and LotRO involves grinding out hundreds of useless goods to raise your level up the point where you can make the handful of items that other players actually want. Some recent games, like Warhammer Online, seem to have given up trying to make crafting a compelling part of the game, instead reducing it to a simple adjunct to adventuring.

So how, if at all, can crafting be made more fun? I hope to analyze this question in a series of posts examining the various aspects of crafting. As Brian Green has pointed out in an insightful post, tradeskills consist of several different activities. Typically, a crafter must acquire a recipe, harvest or otherwise accumulate raw materials, combine the materials into an item, and then sell the item. Different players often enjoy different aspects of the crafting process. Some get a kick out of locating harvesting nodes, while other like to run a store. So it's worth asking what makes each step of the process "fun," or if it isn't fun, how it could be made so.

In this post I'd like to look at the process of gathering raw materials. Typically, crafting materials can be acquired in one of three ways: (1) by looting them from monsters, (2) by harvesting them from resource nodes, (3) by buying them on the open market, and (4) by buying them from NPCs.

The first way to acquire resources is as loot drops. It's worth asking why a designer would want crafting materials to be looted rather than harvested. After all, killing and looting monsters is generally considered an adventuring activity rather than a tradeskilling activity. Does including crafting-related loot drops make a game more fun? There are two possible ways in which it might. First, it creates a reciprocal relationship between adventurers and crafters: Adventurers can sell loot drops to crafters, and crafters can use them to create items for adventurers. Second, it can help keep loot drops realistic, which can enhance the game's immersion and lore-consistency. It's always disconcerting when a rat drops a suit of plate mail.

Resources can also be obtained by harvesting resource nodes scattered throughout the world. In some games, harvesting is an integral and time-consuming part of the game. For example, some corporations in EVE focus entirely on mining ore in asteroid belts. Harvesting often appeals to the Bartle explorer type. Spreading resource nodes throughout the world gives people an incentive to get off of the beaten track and hunt for them. In modern quest-driven games, locating harvesting nodes is often one of the few motivations for undirected exploration of the world.

Third, resources normally can be bought and sold on the open market, often an auction house of some sort. In many games, trade in resources forms the backbone of the economy. It can also create interesting arbitrage opportunities, especially if markets are decntralized (as in EVE or Pirates of the Burning Sea). I'll discuss marketing in more detail in part 3 of this series.

Finally, crafting materials can sometimes be purchased from NPCs. This is not particularly exciting in a gameplay sense, but it may serve other design goals (like removing gold from the economy).

So is accumulating resources "fun" in today's MMOs? The standard model uses a combination of all of these techniques, and I think it mostly works well. Finding harvesting nodes is a central component of explorer gameplay, and trade in resources keeps the economy vibrant.

What do you think: Is traditional resource harvesting fun? If not, is there a way it could be made more so?

MMOs and storytelling

I've decided to start my blog with a topic close to my heart: storytelling in MMOs. I've always been a fan of story-driven games. I grew up playing old-school Lucas Arts adventures, and more recently have enjoyed role-playing games by the likes of BioWare and Obsidian. But when BioWare announced that the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic will be an entirely story-driven MMO, I confess I was skeptical.

Fundamentally, I'm not convinced that traditional single-player storytelling methods work well in an MMO. The protagonist of a single player game is usually a special person with a unique destiny--the Bhaalspawn/Revan/Nerevarine who single-handedly saves the world from destruction. Good role-playing games also allow the hero to make choices that affect the plot. For example, in Fallout 3 the player can literally decide whether to blow a town off of the map with a nuclear bomb. An MMO has thousands of players, and they can't all be a lone hero who makes world-changing choices. Trying to give them that experience can end up hurting the social aspect of the game.

Lets take a look at how this might play out in SWTOR. BioWare recently revealed that the game will include story-based instances that culminate with some sort of game-affecting moral choice. In the E3 demo, a Sith-aligned team fought its way through a ship and then made a collective choice about whether to kill or spare the captain. Let's assume I play through the quest and choose to kill the captain. Typical BioWare-style gameplay, right?

But wait... we're in an MMO. So what happens when a guildie logs in five minutes later and asks me if I can help him with the quest I just did? On the one hand, the game might allow me to play through the instance again with my guildmate. This ruins the story. The captain that I just "killed" is now back on the spaceship, ready to be confronted again. The emotionally-wrenching moral choice I made turns out in retrospect to be meaningless. In fact, presumably our group could choose to spare the captain the second time around, resulting in me bizarrely both killing and sparing the same person.

On the other hand, the game could prohibit me from playing through the instance again. This ruins the social aspect of the game, because it means I can play with my friends only if we're at exactly the same part in the storyline. Even worse, BioWare has hinted that some choices may actually cause the story to branch, so I may be prohibited from playing with other people unless we've made exactly the same choices in the earlier part of the story. For example, suppose that sparing the captain causes him to appear in some instance later in the game. If I killed him and my friend spared him, what happens when we group up for the instance in which he has the potential to reappear? He can't be both dead and alive at the same time, right?

Personally, I'm worried that BioWare is going the second route, and that friends and guildmates will have a hard time playing together unless they synch their progress through the story. That's a horrible sacrifice to make in the service of storytelling. And even then, the story still won't be as convincing as it would be in a single player game, because, at the back of their minds, players will know that thousands of other people are doing exactly the same quests they are.

What do you think. Can traditional storytelling methods work in an MMO?

Thursday, March 5, 2009


After spending several months exploring the gaming blogosphere, I've decided to bite the bullet and start my own blog. My hope is to use this space to record thoughts about gaming and design, in particular narrative game design. I welcome your thoughts.