Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Posts Tagged ‘mmo’

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.

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

Realtime Worlds and Runic Games: Vastly Different Strategies

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 17, 2010

It appears to be official that APB is closing, a mere 2 months and change after it was released. This might be some sort of record in the MMO world, especially given the much-heralded pedigree and investment capital behind APB. I don’t know anything about the internal workings over at Realtime Worlds, but ex-employee Luke Halliwell has posted a set of thoughts on his blog. They’re quite frank, which may be a bit of an English thing as compared to the average game developer perspective it’s pretty unedited. I have no opinion on the veracity of his notes, but I did find them a fascinating read.

I found his Part 2 to be the most interesting, as it directly discusses what happened when the company received $100m in funding: they figured out how to spend as much of it as possible as quickly as possible by hiring 300 people. Then, when they ran out of money they started nickel and diming expenses instead of releasing some headcount. It turns out that many companies have tried this strategy, and it rarely works out. It’s hard enough to scale up to be a “real company”, but no game company I am aware of has done it successfully over a 3 year time frame. You cannot grow a company built around creative work and software development that quickly. I recommend you read the linked entry, as this kind of rapid growth leads to the specific type of gaps between “business” and “development” that leads to something like the APB monetization model.

In contrast with the Realtime Worlds strategy, you can take a look at the strategy Runic Games is taking. Last week’s (9/9/2010) Active Time Babble podcast features a great interview with Max Schaefer from Runic Games, starting at the 42 minute point. The first half is discussion of the design of Torchlight 2, but starting at around 65 minutes Kat Bailey starts asking him about the business decisions behind making Torchlight 2, and Max answers them candidly in a way that few PR departments would allow. It’s not a problem, because he answers it in a way that makes me feel great about the quality of Torchlight 2 and the future of Runic. It’s particularly interesting given Max’s history at Flagship Studios, which is a company that shares some commonalities with Realtime Worlds.

Basically, the original plan for Runic was to make Torchlight 1 and then move directly into the Torchlight MMO which would be the real money maker. But then Torchlight 1 was extremely successful and fueled strong demand for a peer-to-peer multiplayer version. Because Torchlight 1 only took a year to make and the studio is only 32 or so people, they were able to refocus the company and work on Torchlight 2, which is a product that is directly based on user demand while also serving as a bridge to expertise needed to build a successful MMO. By being small and responsive to the community, they can make a product that satisfies both the market and their own creative impulses. Instead of there being a rift between business and development, they’re unified in a way that works out better for both game quality and the long term health of the company.

On APB specifically, Max says the following: “Projects have gotten too expensive and too risky and have to return so much or else they’re giant money losers, so people seem to go All In too often with their bets on getting into the online world. There’s always a temptation to go big and make the biggest and best thing ever made… it’s just so risky and the numbers are so big now, and the timelines are so long, it’s very, very easy for a project like that to fail spectacularly”. In contrast to leaping into it, Runic is “rappelling down slowly into the abyss” of making an MMO.

The Realtime Worlds story continues to develop, but I can at least appreciate that people are starting to talk about the process via which games are created. Hopefully the industry can start to learn from the mistakes of the past, at least when it comes to company structure and growth. “Go big or go home” is what investors (from VCs to the public markets) seem to want to hear, but that isn’t actually what gives a return on investment in today’s world of rapid change in the gaming space.

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , , , | Comments Off on Realtime Worlds and Runic Games: Vastly Different Strategies

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 »

GDC 2010: Procedural, There is Nothing Random About it

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 19, 2010

It’s starting to wind down, but here’s some more notes! These are from the session Procedural, There is Nothing Random About it by Eskil Steenberg. Eskil is working on the indie MMO Love, which is going to go live very shortly, and his talk comes from the perspective of integrating many procedural techniques into his work. It worked well both as an overview of the concept and as an explanation of specific techniques. This talk had a bunch of valuable visual aids (he opened the game live at several points) so these notes are not as useful as a video would be. Sorry. Anyway:

History of Procedural

  • Procedural content generation started as a purely practical pursuit, because many old systems were severely lacking in memory. Games like Rescue on Fractalus and Populous (Eskil said the high selling “Mission Disk” addon was purely a list of random seeds) generated their procedural data in engine, but that solution is fairly pointless in today’s world.  We now have tons of memory and storage space.
  • The next type of procedural content generation is offline generation. One early attempt at this was the Massive crowd simulation tech created for Lord of the Rings. It’s also been used in a variety of modern games such as Far Cry 2 or Eve. This technique is valuable because an imperfect procedural tool can be fixed up in post production to iron out the kinks. This is a valuable way to save time.
  • Last year Eskil told everyone to fire their designers, this year he’s telling everyone to fire their artists. The way you make a good game is to make a bad game and fix it, so you need as fast an iteration as possible. This means you need a super fast art pipeline, and procedural tools are a huge help for this.
  • Ken Levine has said that filmmakers get to make movies while game developers get stuck having to make the camera first. “Ken, I love you but you’re wrong”. Many of the most artistically interesting films have been made by filmmakers who DID make their own camera. Technology is not purely a means to an artistic end, but can in fact inspire new and interesting artistic expressions.
  • Eskil demoed his modeling tool. He showed how it allows artists to make fragments and then use “deploy” to recursively place those objects over any mesh or surface. It’s an example of how you can set it up so artists get to art direct, instead of just make tons of individual custom pieces.
  • In today’s game industry, Art is what is stifling innovation. Design, tech, and innovation and held back by art constraints. Destructible environments are easy, but the high visual requirements mean we can’t do them. “Chris Hecker, I love you but you’re wrong”, there are still interesting tech issues to solve.

Procedural Generation Back In Engine

  • The solution to the issues with the stifling art pipeline is to put procedural generation back into the engine. Ragdoll may not look as good as hand animation, but it reflects the player actions in a stronger way. This feedback and responsiveness is what is missing.
  • How would you procedurally build a labyrinth? You start with a block, carve out a solution, and then add embellishments once you’re sure it works. The traditional way to make a locked house is to make exactly one door that can be opened by exactly one key.  The emphasis is on logically correct structures.
  • But, how about we take a statistical solution? Perhaps we make a house that can be opened in any number of ways. You find a key, and then maybe you find the house. Life is lots of keys and lots of doors, and can be about improvising. Why can’t games be about this kind of improvisation?
  • If Eskil were an assassin, he could pickpocket the entire room and gain hundreds of possibilities. Games can be like that. Instead of enforcing logical consistency, we can build a house with 5 doors, and randomly placed keys. It will be statistically consistent because the odds are functionally 0 to have all 5 keys end up in the house.
  • To build interesting statistically consistent systems you need to take advantage of spatial dependencies. Applying series of what are basically image filters can be used to handle these relationships. Stochastic sampling is a good place to start.
  • Disney said to Pixar that Pixar would fail because computers can’t understand emotions/wants of consumers. But, the designers of said computers can. If a rule can be taught to a designer it can be taught to a computer.
  • As an example, Eskil had an algorithm to place bridges in his world. At first it made way too many bridges, so he kept refining the algorithm. Instead of just reducing the frequency he made the requirements more strict until he arrived at the best bridge he could think of. The bridges made by his algorithm where more interesting and logical than ones he would have hand placed, because the computer didn’t come into it with any biases.
  • Love is basically complicated systems of hierarchical filters, that can construct objects of any type, such as buildings cliffs etc. The world is a grid, but subsections of the grid are replaced by custom artist assets as appropriate, so the world ends up not looking like a grid.


  • Last year, Eskil felt alone. He didn’t share any of the problems of the rest of the industry. The PC is dead, except for steam (but that doesn’t count). Free to play MMOs are all that matter, except for WoW (that doesn’t count). Eskil doesn’t want to count: that’s when you succeed.
  • Finally, Eskil wants us to all go out and explore. He wants us to say next year “Eskil, I love you but you’re wrong”.

Posted in GDC 2010 | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

GDC 2010: Single-Player, Multiplayer, MMOG: Design Psychologies for Different Social Contexts

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 17, 2010

Here’s the notes I have for Single-Player, Multiplayer, MMOG: Design Psychologies for Different Social Contexts as presented by Ernest Adams. Ernest has a long history of writing about and teaching game design, although primarily single player games. Roughly, this talk is about him extending his previous concepts to encompass multiplayer games, with varying success. It works as a good overview of how social context affects design, but Ernest is a BIT out of date with the MMO world, as he himself admits. Blah blah, any transcription mistakes are purely my own.

Ernest’s General Philosophy

  • Intellectual pursuits can be vaguely separated into deductive (which he described as English) or inductive (French) thinking. The Classic or Romantic contexts. Game design basically straddles the line perfectly, and is a Craft instead of an Art or a Science. DaVinci should be our idol.
  • But game developers aren’t really very good at their craft. They kill 2/3 of projects they start. They never seem to think through the final goal, and generally lack a philosophical direction.
  • Player-Centric design is a solution to this. A designer must imagine a single, idealized player. The goal of a designer is to entertain them, and to empathize with them. The designer has a responsibility to think about how their game will make a player feel.
  • The Tao of Game Design is the model Ernest uses to describe the relationship between player and designer. They are collaborating to create an experience, and neither would exist without the other. Each has the other inside of them, as far as trying to build a mental model.
  • But, Ernest says this model is incorrect, because it specifies a singular player. Ernest said he was falling into a bias of writing about games he likes to play and create: single player games

Player Versus Environment

  • The first type of game is PvE, which is not exactly the same as single player. A strictly cooperative game can be closer to PvE, and a single player game with a simulated AI player (such as football) is not PvE either.
  • In a PvE game, the designer’s job is to design interactions. It’s vital for the designer to maintain a fairness throughout. Difficulty spikes, learn-by-death, stalemates, insufficient information for critical decisions, and expecting outside information can all violate the player-designer pact and pull the player out of the game.
  • The relationship between player and designer is very intimate, and according to Ernest these kind of games can be Art (with a capital A) because they really have the concept of an artist.

Player Versus Player

  • In a pure PvP design, the job of a designer is to do competition design. The goal is to enable the fun that comes out of players interacting with each other, not over designing and trying to force the fun into the system. Fairness is fairly simple, and involves making sure that everyone has an equal start and can’t cheat.
  • Instead of a designer collaborating with a player, a designer is creating a system in which players will exist. Basically, a PvP designer is more of an Architect then an Artist. You can try to make all the rules you want, but players will add their own rules to the system.

Massively-Multiplayer Online

  • Ernest talked a bit about how he worked on one of the first online games, Rabbit Jack’s Casino at AOL. It was pay by the minute, so Ernest feels it kept him extremely honest as a designer. Everyone seemed really nice. If he didn’t keep the player engaged they would just leave. (Note: a cynical view here is that if he didn’t keep them psychologically addicted they would quit)
  • His recent MMO experience was to jump into Second Life, which was a very lackluster experience. Everyone was extremely rude to him, the game took forever to load, and it felt very unfamiliar. (Note: Yeah, that’s Second Life. Which is not a game.)
  • Designing fairness is basically impossible, as the starts are inherently uneven. The best people seemed to figure out was things like Raph Koster’s Laws. These laws are based on empirical evidence from existing communities, and tend to be about SURVIVING an online game, not having fun. Baron’s Laws saws that Hate is good because it brings people together. As long as Raph’s laws are true,  MMOs will suck for the vast majority of potential players. (Note: Many of Raph’s laws are super cynical and really don’t apply to newer designs like World of Warcraft. Which is kind of why it’s successful.)
  • As an MMO designer, it’s about servicing a cloud of players, who really won’t care about you until you screw up. Your job is to be a social engineer.

Free to Play MMO

  • Much of Ernest’s material for this section is based on slides from a presentation Zhan Ye gave at Virtual Goods Summit 2009. That presentation is from the perspective of someone from the Chinese free to play MMO industry giving advice to western developers.
  • In a pay-per-time-period MMO, the only goal of individual features is to increase fun and general engagement, because specific actions are not monetized. However, in a Free to Play (ie, not free at all) MMO the design goal ends up being to maximize revenue from specific actions. Every feature in a F2P game must directly add revenue, or do so secondarily.
  • Fairness is no longer a goal at all, because it doesn’t help revenue. Instead, the goal is to create drama, love, and other elements of the real world. These elements will spur people to purchase items. The large advantage you get from an item, the more likely a player is to buy them.
  • As a result, in the first generation of successful Chinese F2P games, rich players would buy all the weapons and then use them to kill all the poor players. This ended up being too unbalanced, as all the poor players would immediately quit and not provide the player base needed to keep the rich players buying items.
  • So, the solution in the Chinese F2P community is to set up a series of family clans that will hire poorer players to fight for them. They would use gifts, threats, and extortion to control the poorer players. In other words, form in game criminal cartels.
  • Most successful items are based explicitly on exploiting human emotions. “Little Trumpet” is an item that can be purchased and used to publicly humiliate another player. That player can then pay money to have that curse removed, and is very likely to do so due to emotional distress.
  • Zhan compares F2P games to Las Vegas, but Ernest says they are worse because in Las Vegas you at least have the chance to make real money. F2P uses all the same psychological hooks of a slot machine, but with 0 chance of winning.
  • Ernest believes that these games are in fact evil. The designer has a set up a system that explicitly subsidizes real hatred, because there is no such thing as virtual hatred. If a game is set up to incentivize players to inflict emotional harm that game is evil.
  • There are two solutions to this problem. The first one is to NOT make your game zero sum, and remove competition (Note: So Farmville is not evil in this SPECIFIC way as it does not encourage hate), and the other option is to institute various methods to restrict it to competition instead of hatred and destruction. Something like the NFL salary cap vs. the America’s cup or F1 where richest always wins.
  • In F2P the designer’s goal is to be an economist. They still need to entertain the players, but empathizing with them is strictly bad business. If these games continue on this path, Ernest asks that we shoot him.
  • In conclusion, the craft of game design is fragmenting, there is no longer a single unified philosophy.

Note: As a focused response, I found his discussion of F2P MMOs very interesting, although I think he restricts it a bit too much to that genre. I would expand it a bit, because hatred can happen in PvP or MMO environments just as easily. For instance, take your typical 360 shooter populated by teenagers: they clearly want to inflict emotional harm and there is nothing in the game systems to help ameliorate that. But I can definitely stand behind his basic conclusion: Developing games that prey on the weak emotions of players is basically evil, and F2P games are much more likely to incentivize such decisions because of the focus on revenue over empathy.

Posted in Game Development, GDC 2010 | Tagged: , , , | 5 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.

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A Timeline of Western MMO Development

Posted by Ben Zeigler on February 7, 2010

Update: I modified the chart below based on feedback from various emails and forum posts on QT3. Original is available here for comparison.

The recent layoffs at Red 5 Studios lead me to think about the often convoluted history of subscription-based MMO development studios in America and Europe. How many MMOs did EA release and then kill? How did other studios consisting of Ex-Blizzard developers fare? Where did BioWare Austin come from? What’s up with European MMO studios? Seeking to document the answers to those questions and others I started Googling press releases and booted up a copy of Dia. I then produced the possibly useful Timeline reproduced below.

Rectangles indicate company events such as formations and closures, while ellipsoids indicate game releases or closures. The position on the X axis indicates rough time ordering, corresponding to the years below. Solid connecting lines indicate official developer or publisher relationships, while dotted connecting lines indicate migration of key development personnel. For example, the dotted line from UO to Sony Austin basically represents Raph Koster.

I used the internet for sourcing everything, so I make no absolute judgments with regard to accuracy. The dotted line connections are mostly based on press releases that mention key developers being from another studio. If something sticks out as being incorrect, either leave me a comment or send me an email. I’d be happy to forward the Dia file along to anyone who asks for  it.

A Timeline of Western MMO Development

  1. EA has launched 5 MMOs and quickly killed 3 of them.
  2. Ex-Blizzard MMO studios appear to be batting about 1-in-4.
  3. Rich Vogel from BioWare Austin has extensive MMO experience on both SWG and UO.
  4. CCP and FunCom have historically been isolated from the rest of the western MMO development community.

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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.

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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.

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