The Internet notoriously polarises opinion and reflects everything in either black or white, often with little or no room for the grey in-between. We see this a lot in how MMOs are reported and commented on by fans and it’s why we have those big debates such as “casual vs hardcore” or “WoW does/doesn’t suck”. The games themselves also try for one strong audience in particular and we end up with either ultra-hardcore, better-off-punching-yourself-in-the-face, games like Darkfall or super-easy-breezy, I-heart-carebears casual ones like World of Warcraft. It’s all very strange though because real life isn’t a single extreme but rather a combination of lots of factors , good and band, all mixed together. So why can’t our MMOs be more like that?
Posts Tagged ‘mmorpg design’
A lot of gamers new to the MMO genre will probably have no idea what crowd control is, other than it being something that police do at football matches. So, I shall take it upon myself to pop on my slippers, sip my tea, stroke my handsomely chiseled chin and explain what it is and why, oh why, we’ll never ever see it again in another MMO…
[Warning: contains mild spoilers about Priest talents in Cataclysm]
Leveling up healers in MMOs is usually pretty tough going. They are, after all, designed to heal which is not a very helpful mechanic for trying to solo and I’ve often wondered why so many designers insist on flooding healers with dozens of heals at low levels but few ways of defending themselves and inflicting damage. Surely it would make more sense to start off with fewer heals and more damage and then slowly acquire more and more healing abilities as one progresses?
Unless you’ve got no interest in MMORPGs (which begs the question why you’re reading this blog) or have been living in some sort of lesser developed country during wartime, you’ll probably have heard about the changes coming to World of Warcraft with the Cataclysm expansion later on in the year. I’ve been following the drips of information we’ve been getting with great interest, not because I particularly care about my favourite class getting some exciting new ability but rather because I find it fascinating to see how the Blizzard developers are evaluating the worth of mechanics and abilities.
I’m not a hardcore PvPer in the way that I play games like Darkfall and lament the loss of old school FFA PvP such as that found on certain Everquest servers where high level players could just, and did, repeatedly grief and gank everyone and anyone without care. No, I’m the type of guy who prefers sanitized, sanctioned PvP in which every player is on a (more or less) equal footing.
This is not just because I hate losing to players only because they’re 40 levels higher than me and I never, in anyone’s wildest dreams, ever stood a chance against them but also because I take no satisfaction in defeating an opponent in an unfair fight. Now, this doesn’t mean I follow some strict code of the Samurai or an ancient chivalry philosophy, it just means I want to know that I beat my opponent because I was better than them and not because I had a huge advantage in levels or class imbalance which they could do nothing about.
Balancing inter-player combat is tough in any situation but unfortunately in games like World of Warcraft it’s made even tougher by the fact that the developers need to make sure everything works and fits into PvE as well. Unfortunately, however, it’s been my experience (from a variety a MMOs) that this feat is practically impossible to accomplish. Even with the best will in the world, PvP and PvE are essentially two separate games existing within the same universe and trying to mix them together so they can exist in harmony is very, very difficult thing to achieve.
Some solutions do exist though and probably the best one I’ve seen was in Everquest 2. The developers came up with a very simple, yet very effective, method of dealing with the divide between PvP and PvE: they gave every PvE ability a special PvP version. For instance your normal Kick might deal 200 damage when used in PvE but only 100 damage in PvP (as mob hit points scale higher than player’s and thus this offset the difference). Likewise a Scout’s stun ability might last 6 seconds in PvE but only 3 seconds in PvP and so forth. Simple, elegant, perfect.
Although the system wasn’t perfect and the devs spent a lot of time tweaking things, the fundamentals were sound. And if an ability was prone to exploit (such as Scout’s Evac) it could be altered in PvP with no impact whatever in PvE. Not only did this make the devs lives a lot easier and PvPers a lot happier but it also created a nice separation between these two forms of gameplay. PvE could remain challenging and balanced without affecting PvP and vice versa.
Last month I wrote about how Everquest 2 is a better game than World of Warcraft and this is one of the many reasons why. I played on Darathar and Nagafen (the EQ2 European and US PvP servers respectivily) for 3 years in total and never felt the frustration or annoyance that I sometimes feel when I PvP in WoW. It’s not that hate WoW PvP or want to rage quit or anything like that, I just felt like writing a commentary about the situation and giving SOE the credit they deserve. If I was a MMORPG developer, separating PvP abilities from PvE is definitely a fundamental I’d observe.
Anyone else know of any good examples of mixing and balancing PvP with PvE?
When I were a lad and had just started playing Everquest, I used to dream about power. Not the sort of power that runs through wires and cables but rather the social and ‘physical’ power than one can acquire in an imaginary world. I wanted to be Tyromere The Beautiful, Strongest Warrior Of Them All or Optamus The Almighty, The Most Narcissistic Cleric Of Them All. I wanted to be loved, I wanted to be respected and above all, I wanted to feel the thrill of power.
Creating the illusion of power (an illusion because it has no real world benefits or implications) in video games is an interesting thing and usually a combination of relativity and extremes. Relativity in the sense of being stronger than the NPCs you previously faced and struggled against and extremities in the sense of getting bigger and crazier spells and abilities as you progress. Start a game with a puny little fireball and end it hurling gigantic volcanoes of errupting magma death.
In games like Everquest, where everything is almost always determined by a little level number, it’s easy to gain a sense of power simply by leveling up. Returning to kill level 1 bunnies in the Newbie Garden when you’re level 90 creates an obvious and strong sense of dominance to the player. My brother, the WoW Noob King, remarked on this fact not so long ago when he went back to Darnassus in WoW with his level 47 Warrior and started tearing the zone up. It’s a cheap trick but it works well. Relative power is also especially apt in MMOs because, unlike other gaming genres, not only are you comparing yourself against NPCs but also to other players, something which can be ego trip in itself.
Less well implemented examples of this relativity include the SRPG Oblivion and the original Star Wars: Galaxies MMO. In Oblivion everything in the world always leveled up as you did and thus there was never any sense of true power because, no matter how tough you got, that annoying little goblin you encountered within the first five minutes of game was always going to be just as difficult to beat. SW:G was also interesting because it didn’t have any level numbers at all and thus wasn’t easy for the player to determine how powerful they were. Without those visual cues it was hard to track, rate and compare your progress day-in and day-out.
I’ll admit it now, I’m a huge fan of extreme spells and abilities in games. Some people like extreme sports, I like extreme magical abilities. I’m talking about those melee attacks that make you giggle like a child with delight and those magical spells that make your jaw drop in utter admiration and awesomeness. They’re the things that separate your character from being just a noob to being an awesome pro and make everyone else around you jealous.
Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking but Everquest for me had a great sense of extremes. Tanks were significantly sturdier than finger wigglers, DPS classes owned the damage meters, healers truly held the scales of life and death in their hands and Enchanters were simply Gods amongst men. Due to the risks and restrictions in the game world, the special abilities of classes were exaggerated and enhanced as a result. Wizards and Druids had the incredibly useful ability to teleport anywhere, Bards were the masters of travel and speed, Enchanters the crack dealers of mana, and Clerics the only ones who could reimburse 99% of your experience loss after death. There were gigantic differences between the classes and it created a wonderful sense of diversity, power and need.
Newer games, unfortunately, tend to opt more for balance than extremes. Everyone can travel quickly, everyone can regenerate quickly, everyone can withstand attacks and contribute good damage to the team and there are no harsh penalties to be saved or rescued from. This type of environment creates balanced, fair and casual gameplay but it also removes that egomaniacal feeling of power. Everyone is equal and everything is sanitized as a result.
Balancing The Challenge
World of Warcraft is a pretty slick and well designed game but it’s always had one factor which has irked me a little: the game gets easier as you level up. It doesn’t seem to matter what class you play but climbing up the leveling ladder becomes easier and easier and easier every step you take. Priests will die constantly and consistently from levels 1 to 20 and then a little slower after that until eventually becoming a dominating force in the higher levels. Even more traditional classes like Warriors go from being apt and efficient soloers to unstoppable, unthinking killing machines. At level 15, you cautiously take on one opponent at a time but by level 60, you run in and slaughter groups without consequence.
This seems an unfortunate side effect of acquiring power as you play through the game. As your avatar levels up and becomes tougher, opponents become easier and as you get better and bigger and sparklier spells, they become even less challenging. It’s a vicious cycle. Being able to dominate your foes rewards you with a sense of power but it also chips away at the challenge factor. The only way to fix it is to keep scaling your enemies and move you along from killing Giant Rats to taking on real Giants to taking on the ancient Gods themselves. At some point though, we’re going to run out of big, crazy things to kill…
I Want It All
Most themepark MMOs these days ooze relative power by the bucket load. Levels, Alternate Advancement points, Talents, Masteries, Deities, all of these little things are designed to make you feel more powerful than did you 10 minutes ago and trigger that little surge of adrenaline that keeps us all hooked. It all seems a little vacuous though and often lacks real feeling behind it. I wonder if this is something to do with the fact that they don’t create a sense of extremity like older games do because they’re often too focused on trying to keep everything balanced and everyone self-sufficient. By trying to make all the players happy, the games have sacrificed the things that make us truly powerful. We can’t be the ‘best’ and most powerful in the game because everyone else has to be just as good. For instance, DPS classes can’t blow away the charts because the other class have to remain competitive to them and the tanks and healers have to be given their fair chance as well. In a world of averages and mediocrity, no one stands apart.
I can understand all of these development decisions but I suppose the child inside of me still wants to feel that thrill of power which can only be achieved by having that unique something which others can’t offer and everyone needs. Whether it’s the ability to be only class who can tank the Dragon of Death or the only DPS class who can backstab for a billion points of damage, I want to feel special and I want to feel powerful.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that this sense of power is easy to achieve or balance with everything else in a game but then, fortunately for me, I have the ultimate luxury of armchair design and blogging commentary.
Playing EVE Online again has made me feel something I haven’t felt in quite some time. Fear. It’s a strange emotion to feel when playing a computer game but it’s also quite a welcome one. I’m by no means a masochist who enjoys punishing myself but I do like feeling emotionally connected and immersed in the online worlds that I inhabit and when I take my ship out for a spin in EVE and embark on a tough mission or venture into low sec space, the hairs on the back of my neck stir ever so slightly. Will this be the time when the Grim Reaper comes calling? Am I prepared to meet my maker? Will I punch my monitor if my prized ship explodes into a million tiny pieces?
Death in EVE isn’t the end of the game but it does comes with a nasty sting, accompanied by a rollercoaster feast of the senses. Fear and trepidation are your appetizers, shock and awe are your entrées and desert is a healthy portion of regret and anger. You certainly don’t want to die in the world of New Eden and that’s exactly the point. We should be scared of death, after all it’s the most terrifying concept human beings can deal with.
I felt these emotions back when I played the original Everquest. Death in that game was not something to be taken lightly and players and groups would avoid it at all costs. Which, kinda obviously, is exactly how it should be. It wasn’t just about losing experience and the resulting time you’d put into it though, it was also the fear of losing your body, your items and everything that you’d work so hard to achieve and make yourself unique. It was a game mechanic designed to invoke emotion and bond you with your character and, certainly for me, the thought of my corpse being stranded at the bottom of some treacherous dungeon made me wince.
I can remember every time I’ve died in EVE and I can recount fantastic stories of comradery based around death, the fear of it and overcoming it, in Everquest. Death mechanics in these games are an integral part of the design and the fear of it is used to leverage our emotions. Would players have the same stories to tell in EVE if they never had anything to lose? Would the Universe even be worth fighting over if pain could never be inflicted upon the enemy?
Death in newer MMORPGs is almost, if not completely, meaningless. Why does it even exist as a mechanic in WoW or EQ2 or AoC or WAR? There is no emotional response, no fear or anger, and no resulting immersion so what purpose does it serve other than to set us back a few seconds in our gameplay? The death mechanic here could simply be replaced with a 30 second countdown followed by the avatar resurrecting automatically in the same spot they died in. At least that way there wouldn’t be a redundant illusion of mortality.
The meaning behind death penalities has been lost in many MMORPGs and replaced with a false sense of accessibility. There’s the misguided idea that taking the sting out of death makes the game more suitable to the casual or new player. Accessibility and a healthy fear of death are not mutually exclusive though and, I believe, the two can co-exist in the same game if there’s impetuous to design it that way.
We need harsh death penalties in MMORPGs because they give us risk and emotions. Without risk we cannot possibly appreciate the fruits of our labours and without emotion we cannot bond with the environment and other players. WoW is infamous for it’s antisocialness and I have absolutely no doubt that if players were scared to die, if they were forced to work together to keep each other alive, to truly help each other avoid the sting of death, it would be a game over-brimming with conversation and comradery. Instead, we’re left existing in a hollow shell of an online world in which one cares if they live or die.
Just like in real life, we need to feel the exhilaration of accomplishment in our games and that cannot happen as long as there is nothing to risk and nothing to lose. Death needs to matter, it needs to hurt, because without it we’re nothing more than bored, spoilt immortals living in emotionless worlds.