Role Playing requires a Death Penalty

For me, a “role playing” game, despite being short hand for a genre of games, has always meant a game where you, the player, get involved, care for the character and can influence the outcome.  One of the largest aspects of role playing is the danger of losing.  In MMOs this is often referred to as the “death penalty”.

Gordon wrote about it a couple of weeks ago, and Darren a few days ago.  I’ve written about it too.  And if you search around the Internet on the gaming blogs you’ll probably find hundreds of posts.

In my experience the best role playing games have at least a modest death penalty.  More than just a few coins spent on repairs, or being set back a few seconds, but real almost tangible loss that you want to avoid.

My first real role playing game was, of course, Dungeons & Dragons.  Because the game is so unstructured, being just a set of rules which your gaming is built upon, I’ve found that lots of people have lots of different experiences.  If your Dungeon Master never actually reduced your player’s constitution when he got resurrected, then I don’t think you’ve ever really role played Dungeons & Dragons.  If you never had a character die (and I mean really die, as in you might as well tear up the character sheet because that guy is not coming back, ever), then I don’t think you’ve ever really role played Dungeons & Dragons.  If your character went from 1 to Demi-god without ever being in danger of being permanently hurt or sent to the circular file, then I don’t think you’ve ever really role played Dungeons & Dragons.  That’s just me, but if you played without penalties, I don’t know if I would consider what you were doing to be role playing.  You were just gaming.  You were rolling dice while the DM told you a story.

Playing EverQuest, you put together a group (or joined someone else’s) and you went somewhere to complete a goal or just grind out some experience.  If you died, you had to watch the exp bar retreat, possibly hours worth of advancement vanishing along with the pixels.  You could recover the majority of that loss with a resurrection from a cleric (or later, other classes), but a bit of it was gone.  Just gone.  So, because of that reality, if you invited a player into your group who wouldn’t stop drawing aggro or sucked as a healer or in any number of ways exposed your group to death and loss, you kicked them out.  And because of that reality, combined with that fact that most classes benefited greatly from being in groups, people tended not to be aggro drawing crappy healing death magnets for very long.

Many people will tell you that EQ didn’t have any role playing because people talked out of character or min/maxed numbers or whatever, but to me it will always be a role playing game because your character mattered.  Your reputation, your wins and losses, it all effected how you were able to play the game.  Within the confines of the defined computer controlled rules of gaming, you had to play a role in order to play the game.  I remember a number of weeks I spent in Karnor’s Castle in EQ and there was this bard shouting for a group, and most of us who’d been around wouldn’t group with him.  Every time he’d get into a group, he’d go AFK a lot.  Sure, he’d leave on mana song or something, but he wasn’t doing crowd control, and his songs often pulled aggro off the tank on the pull, and when running was needed he wasn’t there, would have to be left behind, then he’d complain about the group getting him killed.  So he spent most of his time looking for a group instead of being a group.  Sure, his actions would eventually earn him the same level of ignoring in newer games that he got in EQ, but given the design of EQ, the fear of death, the shared spawns and grinding exp, he was very quickly rooted out, not because of how he played but because of how his play affected the play of others.  Meanwhile, players who worked well with others and had a healthy respect for the loss of experience grouped well.  Lasting friendships and guilds spawned from avoiding the penalties together.

Of course, not all MMOs need to be RPGs, but I believe what I have discovered over the past couple of years and what I am realizing now is that in the genre of MMOs I prefer the MMORPG.  Many of the most recent MMOs don’t have much RPG in them (remember, I’m using RPG to actually mean role playing and not as shorthand for a genre of gaming features).  Too many of them are too soloable, with too little penalty, with inevitable victories no matter how much I suck.  Many of these MMOs are more like sports leagues for kids that don’t keep score, where everyone gets a trophy because everyone wins simply by showing up.

As always, I’m rambling, and I’m not even sure where I was going with this other than to empty onto the Internet another reason why I think I’m not being drawn into many MMOs anymore…

Concise Gaming

Spawned from this article from Kotaku and Gamespy, this post by David Jaffe got me thinking… I’ve played through a few single player games that end up taking twenty or more hours to play, some longer.  Which since I tend to only play for an hour or two maybe once or twice a week means that these games take ten to fifteen weeks to finish, some longer.  Now, while I’m willing to accept that part of that is my fault, another part of it is that one of the reasons I only play for an hour or two once or twice a week is because there are parts of many games that feel like repetition or filler.  Many twenty hour games could easily be pared down to ten hours, if not five or less, by streamlining.

If you make a game that consists of three or four hours of genuine “fresh” game play and then seventeen or more hours of “repeating” game play, I think you might be doing it wrong.  Multi-player games can more easily get away with repeating content because it is the other players than change.  A good example of this is Left 4 Dead.  I can play the same campaign with the same three other people and still have a different experience because the weapons are in different locations, the hordes happen at different time, and the other players don’t play the same every single time.  But in many single player games, once you learn how to fight monster X with weapon A, repeating that a thousand times gets boring, and this is usually the point I save the game, turn it off and go do something else.  I’ll come back later and play some more.

Like David, I think I’d rather see game companies trim down their product, give me a concise, powerful, exciting four or five hour story for about $10.  Then sell me downloadable story additions, four to five hours in length for $10 each.  If your game works as multi-player, give me a multi-player mode and then sell me new map packs or game modes for $5 or something.  But as it is, despite their being a good number of awesome looking games on the shelves, looking is all I’m doing because $60 and all that time is just too much.

Removing Grouping - Conclusions

At the end of this, having now gone through the five elements of what a player gets, technically, from a group structure, it appears that grouping itself needs to stay unless the games are completely redesigned.  For example, in playing Wizard 101 I have been a part of a group many times without forming an actual group because the game is built around “casual grouping”.  If a player is in combat, to join them you need only step into the combat circle.  All combat is contained within a temporary group, four slots for your side and four slots for the enemy, and when combat is done the group is dissolved.  But it is turn based card/deck played combat, and not the real-time hack and slash spell casting of the traditional Diku model.

Also, as brought up by many of the people I discussed this with, grouping does bring a social element with it, a sense of belonging and direction.  There is just something about being invited to a group and joining that group that bands people together in ways that a random collection of people doesn’t have.

Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed this exercise.

Singularity

Over two years ago on this blog I decided I was going to investigate the idea of building a game where the player was only allowed to create one character.  From thinking about it on my own and from discussions on message boards, I came to realize that most MMOs simply couldn’t do it.  Mainly because their design has actually come to not only expect but actually count on players playing more than one character.  With shared bank space to easily swap items and continuing to limit characters in the number of trade skills and other aspect, as well as encouraging people to play alts and race through the old game again and again removing as many barriers to speedy leveling as possible, you simply couldn’t release a clone of any current DIKU-style MMO that only allowed one character.  You’d need to rebuild the game from the ground up.  And most MMO players simply weren’t interested.

Enter the Facebook game.

By default, the design of almost every Facebook game is that you only have one character.  As well, there is only one world and everyone shares it.  It is this element, and this element alone that has me taking a second look at the Facebook games that I originally dismissed.

The game play of most Facebook games still irritates me.  Some of them are what I refer to as “intensely casual”.  They are casual in that they require very little effort, but they are intense because their design is that there are actions to take and buttons to click all the time.  These games often provide so much micromanagement that a player can get lost in there quite easily.

I’d love to see some games that can dial back that intensity, like D&D Tiny Adventures (though they go a little too far and it barely feels like I’m playing a game at all), and I’ll keep looking for them.  Sadly, though, Facebook games are almost less diverse than traditional MMOs, so it won’t take long at all to go through them.

But maybe this is what it takes.  I said that to do one character in one world that MMOs would need to be rebuilt from the ground up, and maybe Facebook games are where that rebuilding can happen.

Removing Grouping – Part IV

Communications and status updates were easy problems, relatively.  Especially compared with the mine field of the reward structure.  The next element I want to look at is content gating.

Many games implement areas where only one group can enter.  Or two groups, or five groups, etc.  When the designers put a cap on the number of people that can enter, it allows them to more reasonably design content.  If group size is 5 and you limit the dungeon to a single group, you can make content and then test it with varying groups of 5 characters much more easily than trying to design content to scale in challenge as the number of people increases.  Something that is challenging for a group of 5 might be trivial to a group of 10.  Of course, a formal group structure isn’t required for this, as the number of players within an instance can be maintained by the instance itself.  You could even place a UI element called “People in Instance” that would provide you a list of the players in the instance for easy selection and pinning to your UI.

After a long look, it actually seems that the main benefit of groups to content gating is actually in getting people who intend to play together into the same instance do they can play together.  Getting around this winds up being overly complicated with solutions like having one player enter the instance and then inviting each other player to join him.  That first player being designated the instance “leader”, a job he will pass off to someone else if he quits playing.  Then you have issues of players wipes, when everyone gets killed.  How does the game keep track of who belongs to this instance?  Is it because you have a dead body in there to recover?  If you get frustrated and log off for the night, is the group now permanently down a player because you left your body in the instance so the game holds your place?  Again, it looks like if you wished to remove the group mechanic from the game, like with reward sharing, you wind up needing to examine the entire game from the ground up and make changes all over in places where the group mechanic was either planned on or taken for granted.

The Failure of the Free Weekend

If you have ever played an MMO, you know what I’m talking about when I say “Free Weekend”.  If not, here’s the run down.  You subscribe to an MMO, you play a while, then you cancel.  Every now and then (about once a quarter) the company will blast an email out to all the inactive accounts and tell them about a “Free Weekend” – a Friday afternoon to Monday morning period – where their account will be reactivated for free!  You can just log in and play like you used to!  This email will also probably include a list of the latest features/changes of the game, and often will coincide with some sort of event for the non-canceled players, like double experience or the beginning of a week/month long holiday event.

One of the things I said in a post last week was about Free Weekends being on your schedule not mine.  This is true, and is the biggest flaw, in my opinion, to the Free Weekend promotion.

There are, in my experience, three kinds of people who cancel a game subscription for an MMO:

  1. Switched to another game. This player may have been playing your game and enjoying it, but something new came along and off they went.
  2. Bored with your game. Not the same as the person above, this individual isn’t going anywhere in particular, they just ran out of things to do in your game and are taking a break.  They usually only cancel after not logging in a couple of months, but eventually they do.
  3. Not enough time to play. This is me.  I’ve got other activities and things like console games and I just don’t have enough time to make paying for the game worth it, or my time is so erratic and there are enough gaps where I’m “wasting money” that I give up the occasional romp in order to keep the money.

The first two types are often best lured back in by patches and expansions that either add more content or fix issues that lead them to quit.  In fact, the guys at WoW can probably give you hard numbers on how many reactivations they get before/after patches and expansions.  Even so, the Free Weekend can work on them as well.  These players still have the time to play, so the weekend offer is there to convince them to give the game they left behind another try, and maybe sign back up for that subscription.

For me, however, I left because my playtime is erratic and scattered.  Nine times out of ten, I get a Free Weekend offer for a game I used to play and then find I don’t have time to take advantage of it.  Monday comes and I say, “Oh man, I missed another Free Weekend!”  For the third player type, rather than just unlocking their account for a set weekend, companies should consider giving out a Free Weekend Key that the player can redeem any time.  Of course, the key needs to be locked in to the specific account to prevent creating a secondary market for selling keys, but this way I could unlock my account for the free couple of days when it works best for me.  No more smacking my head about another missed Free Weekend.  Instead, when I find myself with nothing to do on a random Saturday, I can open the email and select a Free Weekend Key and go play because I have the time to play.

This doesn’t entirely solve the problem, since I would still be unlikely to resubscribe unless my schedule changes, but it would allow me to occasionally dip my toe back in the game and keep it fresh in my mind for when my schedule does change or my budget frees up some extra cash.  But as it stands now, once I cancel and because I miss every Free Weekend, I’m more likely to buy a new game when the time comes than return to an old one I haven’t touched in ages.

Left 4 Demo 2

If you are a Gold Member on Xbox Live (and seriously, if you are planning to play Left 4 Dead 2 as single player or local multi-player only, you are missing out on the best parts of the game), the Left 4 Dead 2 demo is out.

Personally, I’m not going to bother.  To me, a demo is something you play if you are not yet decided on purchasing in order to see if you enjoy the game.  For example, I played the demo of Mirror’s Edge because I wasn’t sure of the game, and I’m glad I did because it saved me money.  But from all accounts, Left 4 Dead 2 is going to be Left 4 Dead only with more awesome.  Considering how much I love the original, there isn’t a chance in hell I won’t love the sequel.  Valve just doesn’t make crappy sequels.

As a birthday gift this year, I was given a pre-order of Left 4 Dead 2.  So I will happily wait for it to show up and not spoil any of the game playing a mere demo.  But I won’t judge you if you do play the demo.  Have fun!

After The Climax

bort.rose.150I recently finished reading a book that had a good thirty or more pages after the climactic fight scene.  It shook out the ramifications of the fight over a few encounters on a couple different days and let you know the status of all the people involved who had survived and even gave a hint at the direction future books might take without actually dangling a cliffhanger on the reader.  Movies are often like this too.  The climax hits and then you get anywhere from five to twenty minutes of tying up the story and letting you know what the climax means to the world this story has inhabited.

Games aren’t often like that.  Many games practically end with the climax.  Boss monster dies, “You win!!” flashes on the screen and the credits roll.  Other times, games slide in a movie ending, a pre-rendered cut scene that ties up the story and maybe lets you know what the climax means to the world the game took place in.  But that is sort of a cop-out.  That isn’t really a game ending, its a movie ending tacked on to a game.

This months Round Table tasks us…

How can the denouement be incorporated into gameplay? In literary forms, it is most often the events that take place after the plot’s climax that form your lasting opinion of the story. A well constructed denouement acts almost as a payoff, where protagonists and antagonists alike realize and adjust to the consequences of their actions. Serial media often ignored the denouement in favor of the cliffhanger, in order to entice viewers to return. Television has further diluted the denouement by turning it into a quick resolution that tidily fits into the time after the final commercial break.

But the denouement is most neglected in video games where it is often relegated to a short congratulatory cut scene, or at most–a slide show of consequences. This month’s topic challenges you to explore how the denouement can be expressed as gameplay.

So, how can the denouement be expressed through game play?

The simplest answer is just to continue the game mechanics into an interactive version of the cut scene.  If the game included NPCs throughout that you would talk to or exchange items with, continue that.  After the fight, put the player back in the game and make them take the sword they took off the demon lord back to the town and see it destroyed (try, of course, to avoid cramming in another boss battle or cliffhanger by making a town elder or someone grab the sword and fight you or run off with it).

A slight twist on that is to leave the actual end of the game up to the player.  Maybe during the game several people expressed interest in the sword, either for destroying or using, and let the player take it to whom he thinks deserves it most, let them pick the ending they want to see.  After the final boss battle, let the player go finish up some quests or other elements that give them story pieces concerning their actions and the other characters in the game world.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance did this in a way.  The game could be completed without actually winning every level and side quest, and one level in particular required you to choose between two characters which one to save.  While the end of the game was nothing more than a series of cut scenes, it was a series that was built on the actions you did or did not take throughout the game.  The denouement of the game changed depending on the player’s performance.  The only failure here is that during the playing of the game, the player has no idea that this denouement will happen, they just play through so the choices they make don’t have the weight they might because the player isn’t really aware those choices are going to matter.

In the future, I’d love to see more games go at least as far as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, but would really love it to see them go further and let me explore and control the end of the game a bit more.  The worst thing I think that could happen is to have a single player game climax and then roll into an MMO where you’ll meet up with other players who experienced the same single player game, where each of you was the hero and fought alone against the same bad guy boss.  That, in my opinion, would just render the entire single player game story irrelevant.  I suppose that’s why I tend to dislike most MMO tutorials.

Why Do I Play?

Tobold has a great series of posts up called “Why Do We Play?” (that link goes to the summary, which links to the earlier parts because Tobold didn’t go back and put links in his introduction post) wherein he examines several aspects of gaming and how those aspect are realized.  Of course, its mostly great if you aren’t a big gaming blog reader.  Nothing in there is revolutionary, and most of it has been talked before in many places, but its not a bad read.  Here is my rebuttal, of sorts…

I’m there for the social.  I want to play with other people, and if I’m not going to play with other people, then I want a strong narrative which I am unlikely to find in an MMO and will more easily find in a single player game.  One of the things I loved about EverQuest, and I’ve talked about it before, is that the game wasn’t quest driven.  Yes, there were quests, and yes, I’ve said before that there was not a single day of playing EQ where I was not working on a quest of some sort.  However, quests are personal.  It is in their design to be so.  A quest is started by you, it is on your quest tracker, and you will complete it.  Someone can help you kill raptors and collect hides, but in the end, even if you both have the quest, you both need your own hides (whether the item is shared or not) and you will both talk to the NPC separately to complete the quest.  The reason EverQuest worked so much better as a social game than WoW or other modern games is that while a player could always be questing, the bulk of the game was in fighting monsters, and fighting monsters is something you actually do together.  When the monster dies, it may drop an item that is lootable by all group members, but still each of them loots the item for their own quest, they don’t complete the quest together, but they do kill the monster as a team.  Especially in games like WoW, when you’ve collected all your items, you are best off running back to the NPC and doing the turn in as soon as possible because the next quest he gives may very well be in the same area you are already fighting in to kill monsters you are already killing but are getting no credit for since you don’t yet have the quest.  And quests reward the player better than the killing.

To that end, I was very excited about Warhammer Online’s public quest system, where a quest wasn’t assigned to you but just happened in a specific area and to be a part of it you only needed to be there.  Of course, that game also had a ton of traditional quests and the heavy PvE and quest focus of the game, plus it being level based like most every other MMO, lead pretty quickly to people not socializing, racing through content on the traditional quests.  The saving grace of the game was supposed to be the PvP aspects, but with so much focus on PvE, and trying a bunch of PvP elements to PvE sieges, it didn’t really work too well.  Honestly, I hope they keep plugging away at the game and don’t close it down any time soon.  If they just accept that they are not going to defeat WoW at the PvE game and work on making the PvP game fun and rewarding, they might manage to carve themselves out a very nice niche, and I might go back to the game.

Despite my distaste for the gameplay of EVE Online, I am repeatedly drawn to the game because the social aspects of the game carry so much weight.  And by “social” I don’t just mean hanging around chatting with people, though I do mean that too, but in how the player economy involves interaction with other players, even when done through an auction/buy/sell interface there are still other players on the other side of those transactions.  Similarly, its why I am drawn toward Fallen Earth and why I’m so disappointed that I experience so much lag in towns.  Hopefully they’ll resolve that, or I’ll be able to buy a super PC (when I win the lottery), and I can join in.

But that’s it in a nutshell.  Of all the reasons to play an MMO, the reason I’m there is for the social interactions, and not just between me and my friends from previous games talking on our private chat server while playing in guild groups, but for the random happenstance of playing with and around other people, whoever they may be.

Combat Pacing

One discussion that comes up from time to time when talking about game design for MMOs is about combat pacing.  That is, how long should a fight last, and how “active” should the player be?  In fact, just last week a thread about this showed up on the forums over at Nerfbat.

Because I’m more interested in group play and social interactions, obviously my stance is to make fights longer and reduce the need for button pushing.  I’m extremely fond of the old EverQuest design where fights were counted in minutes and players often had between 3 and 10 seconds between actions.  In my opinion, this allowed for more tactical play, allowing you to see what was happening and consider your response as opposed to faster games where you tend to approach the fight with a plan and execute it, the individual fight lasting 30 seconds or less (excluding boss and raid encounters, which are obviously tuned to large groups and to last longer).

I also like slow combat because currently, unless you are playing exclusively with friends and using voice chat on a Ventrilo server or similar service, social interactions have to occur through the same keyboard that controls game play.  If you are hitting a key to perform a combat action every 1 to 2 seconds, that doesn’t give you much opportunity to chat.  The more “intense” the combat, the more “quiet” the game gets, and you have to practically stop playing the game in order to be social.

Anyway, those are my thoughts, also expressed in the thread.  If you want to join in the discussion, I encourage you to sign up at the Nerfbat forums and do so.

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