End-Game Primacy: Part 3

July 8, 2012 7 comments

Part 3: Squaring the Circle

If you’re reading this you probably either came straight from the Introduction or were patient enough to work through Part 1 and Part 2.  For simplicity, here is the short form of my theory on the ideal MMO content:

End-game primacy is the idea that the bulk of any MMO development time needs to be spent on maximizing end-game content and that this goal is best achieved by embracing complex systems driven by player interaction, rather than static content. Or put a different way: an MMO’s real story begins after the scripted story ends.

As I discussed in part 2, complex systems can be consumed by players longer than static content, but they are also significantly harder to create well. What works in a single player game may not work in an MMO, and vice versa. It is a lot easier to account for a few players’ actions than it is to predict the impact of millions. Millions of players is millions of opportunities to undo any work developers put into the game.  Structured static content offers a lot more control for developers. Instancing, phasing, personal stories, and other tools isolate players from the larger game population, while simultaneously making it easier to tell a story to the player.  It lets developers preserve the narrative format of single-player games.   In contrast, unstructured simulations take control away from a development team.  The simulation elements are built into the game world and then left to the players’ whims on what to do with them.  This is a frightening prospect because systems not designed to scale particularly well can tend to spiral well out of control, at the detriment of other aspects of the game. For instance, if players can build structures on game landscape, the game world will almost definitely end up suburban.  If players can build in a particular spot, they will if for no other reason than they can.  Expecting that it would not happen is betting against the odds.

Qualities of Good End-Game Content:

End-game content systems needs to ebb and flow organically, self-regulating through internal feedback mechanisms.  In the above example of players building on the terrain, physical game space is limited while the numbers of players who can (and will) build houses has no theoretical limit.  Instancing off the construction projects or expanding the physical land mass using some kind of terrain generator are two ways you can address the finite space.  I’m not stupid enough to think that the second of those two options is exactly feasible.  In many cases, it may be impossible. The alternative of instancing off construction projects or imposing artificial limits on where players can build to control the urban boom misses the point of building a game with lots of players in the first place.  To make the system work, there needs to be a natural feedback mechanism in place.  For housing, if players can create them – they must also be able to destroy them.  Determining the ratio between building and destroying would require a fair amount of find tuning, however.  If it’s hard too build and easy too destroy, no one will bother building.  On the other hand, if it is to easy to build and to hard to destroy, you still end up with a sprawl.

Going back to Part 2, auction houses have natural self-regulation through the invisible hand of supply / demand, but they lack a mechanism to contribute to player narrative.  Systems that have ways to report activity and interactions back out to players are another hallmark of a good end-game system.  Players can buy and trade all day on the auction house, but if there is no mechanism to report major fluctuation in trade, players will likely feel isolated in their game experience.  Even if such a mechanism exists, it probably does not tie into other systems.  Ideally, if a market change occurs, it should be in response to in-game events.  Knowledge of these events provides players immersion, rather than just leaving them staring at a user interface spreadsheet tracking their purchases.  A good end-game content system will let developers track and aggregate player interactions within and across systems to facilitate narrative development.  In the housing example above, a mechanism to monitor and encourage players to cluster buildings together facilitates the construction of towns instead of haphazard sprawl.  For instance, perhaps building in close proximity to one another increases their natural defense.  Two houses have the defense of three;  three the defense of five; and so on.  A shack in the woods could be torn down in a few minutes, where several dozen buildings together takes over a day.  Several towns merge to form a city which takes a week to siege.  And each of these units (e.g. town, city) provides an entity that developers can track and use as a piece to a personal player narrative that is not separate from all other player narratives.

An Opportunity in Player Social Landscape:

These are simplistic examples, to be sure, but it gets to the point of what I’m trying to explain. I cannot suggest an end-game system that will work in every MMO. Each game has its own limitations based on engine, design philosophy, resources and a host of other factors. However, there is one area in many MMOs today that I believe remains underdeveloped, but which also has great potential to add depth to end-game experience and help developers create quality evolving narratives in the process.   While most developers spend plenty of time shaping their landscapes and dungeons and are loathe to let players ruin that art, social terrain is an area that does not currently have structure and therefore cannot be destroyed.

The fact that I can often only be the member of one guild and my relationships to other players are defined as “friend” or “not friend” is fairly simplistic.  This flat and binary social structure is surprising given that large numbers of players are a feature of MMOs. Certainly, social terrain is difficult to communicate meaningfully – even Facebook struggles with it – but games need more than a few binary associations to link players. In life, we play many roles and in games we do as well.  Is there a particular reason that a player can and should only belong to one guild in a game? I would argue no. Further, guilds are generally the only mechanism to permanently join players in games.  This is an artificiality that misses the point. Letting players create different kinds of associations among themselves and build on the quality of those relationships through game play would be a fantastic way to add depth to a relatively one dimensional system.

Imagine if player organizations came in many different forms, which were not binding to individual players. Guilds might still exist as the highest form of player grouping, offering resources like shared banks and chat channels. Others might exist for circles of friends to communicate.  These circles could extend between guilds and offer benefits like being able to travel immediately to your friends’ location. Still others might exist for trade groups: players who regularly share crafting resources to each others’ benefit.  Being a member of this group may offer additional crafting benefits. Player organizations like this only come into existence when the game recognizes a cluster of individual player associations strong enough to warrant it. When players “friend” one another they select the kind of relationship they want to build. Small groups of friendship-linked players might warrant a “friend circle,” clusters of adventuring-linked players might warrant a “guild circle,” and clusters of trade-linked players might warrant a “trade circle,” and so on.

Natural player clusters provide the basis for player groups of all types.

These interlocking social circles would create an inherently organic system that already lies on top of almost any game’s existing game play.  Anchoring these circles into less organic game systems could vastly improve and regulate end-game play.  For instance, if a game allows players to fight for control of game regions, a map which only has guilds will be one dimensional.  Add in trade organizations that may operate across regions and suddenly you have two dimensions with the same players.  This in itself is a story, and one that with the right tools can be communicated back out to the players.  Using the housing example above, anchoring the ability to build houses to player associations may be a way to organically limit the growth rate of construction in a game.  Player groups may be the unit to build (instead of players) and they may only be eligible while the quality of relationships between members remains high enough.  Social pressure does the rest.  Capture that narrative and push it back out to the affected players and perhaps one or two tiers out (using the same association network). Players would learn about attacks on towns that their friends live in or where their trading partners do business. The game tells a story that people care about.  By necessity, this needs to occur in near-real time, a challenge in itself, but done right could absolutely change the face of MMOs today.

Conclusion:

As you can guess, there are a lot of things to consider in anything as complex as a virtual world, so these theories are as much a work in progress as anything else.  I hope that they were, at least, somewhat thought provoking. There are plenty of technical limitations preventing much of this from happening in the near future, but adding one new end game system to new MMOs should not be out of the realm of possibility. Hopefully over time some of those will be captured as best practices and replicated out, leaving room for newcomers to add even more dimensions to virtual world game play.

Advertisements

End-Game Primacy: Part 2

July 8, 2012 3 comments

If you don’t know how you got here, head back to the Introduction or Part 1.  Otherwise, read on:

Part 2: Building the Theory

In a perfect world, developers would just make content all the time to keep players of all kinds entertained by the game world, but that is not possible. Developer resource constraints limit how much content a team can produce in any given amount of time.  As a result, there is a natural design triage where teams must choose to implement new features that can most positively impact the game.  I have seen people suggest before on forums that this problem can be solved by hiring more programmers, designers, and artists.  That is not a real solution because the numbers you would need to hire to eliminate the problem are probably staggering.  Further, that many people would bring a host of of organizational issues that would probably impact quality in unintended ways.  Given these issues, I am not even considering that avenue an acceptable solution to the problem.

Further, resource constraints are not a problem unique to the gaming industry. In the military, people who didn’t understand the principles were described as  “good idea fairies” because their decisions resulted in ineffectual changes that only served to drain resources in time, money, and manpower without actually effectively improving a situation or organization. Unfortunately, the military has been so awash with resources over the past decade, much of this behavior isn’t penalized the way it should be.   That is not an option for a gaming business. So I’m going to assume that, at present, the average developer produces content at a mostly fixed rate thanks to effective resource allocation.  The way to improve the output of the equation is to find ways to make the content created last longer when faced with players’ content avarice. This is no small feat, given that even veteran game companies sometimes fail to retain players. I cannot claim that it is fool proof, but I think it is possible.

The Theory:

Accepting the reality of resource constraints leads to the first half of end-game primacy: the bulk of any MMO development time should be spent on maximizing end-game content.   Most MMOs embrace some form of individual progression system where players consume static content until they finally hit a hard cap on player development.  Any content consumed along that progression track essentially comes with an expiration date.  It is only consumed for a very small portion of a players overall game experience.  In contrast, content at the end-game can be–and is–consumed for much longer, even when it is static.  If enough static content exists at the end-game, developers can eventually issue an expansion, pushing the progression wall a little further and starting the cycle over.  The most successful games already embrace this half of end-game primacy.  Others spend too much time on the initial progression, expecting to have time to expand later only to realize their players did not feel like waiting around.  While even this strategy can work, pushing static content to players is still limited.  Players still consume it and content themselves with repetition and brand loyalty as the glue that keeps them around long enough to see the next cycle.

Arguably the method of pushing static content is more in line with standard software development practices like object oriented design and agile development.  If that was the only way to build content, I think it would be the best way given those advantages, but there is another option. Going back to Ralph Koster‘s quote from Part 1, I want to highlight a particular portion:

You can try a sim-style game which doesn’t supply stories but instead supplies freedom to make them. This is a lot harder and arguably has never been done successfully.

There have been a few attempts at more sim-style content over the past few years, but it is definitely the harder model to do right.  That is probably why so many companies choose the safer route.  The second half of end-game primacy is that complex systems driven by player interaction provide more longevity than static content.  These systems differ from static content in that they allow players to pull content on-demand.  An example found in many current games is an auction house.  An auction house is always there for players to engage in when they want it. Some players will use it some times, others will use it never, and a rare few will use it as if it is the game itself.   It provides a constant stream of content that becomes more dynamic and interesting the more players interact, improving the game play experience for everyone.   It can go for years without ever losing player interest, providing maximum impact for developer resources spent.  Even if player progression is expanded, the auction house grows with that new bound, while older static content like dungeons generally get left behind.

Limitations:

On paper, dynamic systems like auction houses are superior to static content because they offer players new experiences over longer periods of time.  I recognize, however, that they are not all quite so easy to make in practice.  Economic models are fairly well developed, so predicting player economic behavior is substantially easier than say, predicting how a player will respond to a powerful monster or even another player.  These models make it easier for developers to build tools and mechanisms to govern that behavior (like the auction house) but modeling social behavior is a different animal.  Implementing many player versus player systems, for instance, end up being a lot like trying to make a communist economy.  It is great in theory, but horrible in practice.  There are few games that successfully implement player versus player mechanics and end up with a lot of digital pacifists running around cooperating.

Given these challenges, the end-game systems need to be designed in such a way that they do not cause more harm than good — no small task, to be sure.  If this can be accomplished, I feel the amount of development time that these systems entail far outweighs the benefits of spending that same development time creating static content.  The initial upfront investment might be higher, but over the long run they end up costing far less in terms of resources.  Taking in total, these ideas all left me with the conclusion that bulk of any MMO development time needs to be spent on maximizing end-game content and that this goal is best achieved by embracing complex systems driven by player interaction, rather than static content.

But a principle is only useful if you can make good on it,  so in Part 3 I will give a few of my ideas on building meaningful simulations at the end-game of an MMO.

End-Game Primacy: Part 1

July 8, 2012 3 comments

Part 1: Exploring Principles:

To suggest that I have a better way to build an MMO is to suggest that there is a problem with the current model.  That’s not being entirely fair because there are plenty of good MMOs out there right now.  However, it has been my experience as a player that innovation seems to have slowed as more developers choose to replicate the same MMO models across new franchises rather than take big risks of new kinds of MMO game play.  My theory is meant to be an alternative, and I hope justification for someone to build this concept.  I’m going to start with what I believe needs to be the ultimate goal of any MMO and then work backwards on how I think there is a better way to reach that goal that not only makes a better game for players, but also meets the business needs of developers and producers.

1) Successful MMOs need player volume to make money.  Massively multi-player online games are inherently expensive to produce and maintain. From a business model standpoint, this means that the game needs to attract enough players for a long enough period of time to recoup initial development costs, provide future maintenance and development costs,  and also make a reasonable profit for the developer and producer.  It doesn’t matter if the business model is free to play with micro-transactions or subscription based. A consistent player volume is required for both.  This need for money is a hard truth to swallow for those most passionate about these games (myself include) because we tend to idealize the art form. But a healthy player population is not only good for business, it’s also good for game play too (more on that in a moment), which is a goal even the most doe-eyed idealist gamer can get behind.

2) A stable population is a function of player retention .  To reach the idealized population sweet spot where the game world is bringing in enough money to meet the above objectives, players need to be retained over a period of time. In an ideal world, which I’m going to refer to as “Boom-town” (figure 1), players will opt into the game world and choose to never opt out. This would result in near continuous growth as more and more players try the game. The second scenario, which I’m calling  “Bust-ville” (figure 2), shows what happens with many MMOs these days. Players flock to the new game, but their average retention time isn’t long enough to let new players replenish their ranks. The population falls below the theoretical “healthy population” line and fails to make enough money or keep game play interesting enough to attract new players.  The last scenario, or “Just-right-shire” (figure 3), is the most realistic goal. The initial spike of players is high enough to get above the healthy population line, and average player retention time is long enough that the population never drops below that line. The game reaches a state of equilibrium or steady sustainable growth.

3) Player retention is tied to content relevant to a players interest. If content is relevant to a players interest, it should theoretically be fun for the player.  As long as that content exists, the player should be retained.  It sounds simple, but it’s honestly where this gets wildly complicated.  Not surprisingly, fun is different for different people.  Some players will be attracted to story, others to exploration, others to combat with other players.  Most will move back and forth between all of these elements at various times during their retention.  There simply is not enough time and resources to make content to appeal to everyone at all times.  Even if a game developer decides to focus on appealing to a narrow population group, players consume this content far faster than developers can make it.  Consider the quote below from Ralph Koster:

If you write a static story (or indeed include any static element) in your game, everyone in the world will know how it ends in a matter of days. Mathematically, it is not possible for a design team to create stories fast enough to supply everyone playing. This is the traditional approach to this sort of game nonetheless. You can try a sim-style game which doesn’t supply stories but instead supplies freedom to make them. This is a lot harder and arguably has never been done successfully.

Koster is specifically talking about stories, but this holds true for if you substitute any kind of content for stories. Even the most successful MMO development teams today struggle content fast enough to keep their players from consuming it too quickly. At best, they skirt keeping their populations above the healthy line with injections of content as expansions. At worst, they experience Bust-ville, where their initial content release and subsequent content production is too slow to keep player retention up long enough to see population stability. Repetition and pseudo-random elements in the static content can alleviate this somewhat, but these are band-aids to the larger issue. Other variables like brand loyalty or lack of competitors can also extend the life of this content, but they still cannot compete with new content.  Even the best roller coaster in the world gets boring after the one hundred forty-seventh time for all but the most extreme roller coaster enthusiasts.

Continue reading more Part 2: Building the Theory or head back to the Introduction to navigate from there.

End-Game Primacy: Introduction

July 8, 2012 3 comments

This month’s posts are going to go a bit more abstract and theoretical than the last few I’ve written. This is intentional. While talking about popular upcoming games might draw more traffic to the site, I feel that recently I have not put enough of myself into this blog. I love talking about other games because I love playing them, but those other games were never meant to be the centerpoint (at least not until I’m making them). So today I want to share a working theory I have about how to improve the quality of MMOs today. This theory has developed over time based on reading, personal observation and experience, and many conversations with friends patient enough to listen to me.  Here is is up front:

End-game primacy is the idea that the bulk of any MMO development time needs to be spent on maximizing end-game content and that this goal is best achieved by embracing complex systems driven by player interaction, rather than static content.  Or put a different way: an MMO’s real story begins after the scripted story ends.

To keep this manageable, I broke my ideas down into three sections.  Publishing each part on different days might drive more traffic to the site, but I decided I would rather put this all out at once since it needs to stand together.  If you already agree with end-game primacy after reading the short version above, free free to skip to part 3 where I offer some ideas on how to implement it.  If you want to see how I came to the theory, go onto part 2.   Or if you want to see me talk about some basic concepts related to MMO business models, head to part 1.  I hope that this breakdown will also make it easier for people to comment on various sections.  Since this is the first time I’m posting this way, please provide feedback if you prefer this format for longer posts.  And with that out of the way, I give you my opus:

I rescued the princess!

July 7, 2012 2 comments

The Quest is usually a tag I use to talk about my personal attempt to break into the game development world.  Today’s post isn’t about that but it has been over a month since I last post here, and I wanted to explain my absence from the site.  As that reason was personal, I’m tagging this as a part of the Quest.

I’ve been grinding you see.

No, not grinding for gear in Diablo 3 or levels in some other game.  Rather, I’ve been sneaking around my girlfriend getting her a ring made; grinding cash into diamonds.  Last weekend, I proposed and she said yes.  And there was much rejoicing!  Many who read this blog regularly already heard that news, but I felt everyone else should know too.

But, wedding planning aside, I’m back now and I have a few irons in the fire that I think will be fairly interesting once I pull them out.  Early next week I plan to post a fairly long piece about storytelling and simulation.  Hopefully shortly after that, I’ll have a piece about social media’s influence on game development (which will have math!).   And to top it all off, my fiancee and I will be going to ComicCon next week.  If I find out anything cool, interesting, or otherwise awesome, that will be included in an update once I get back.

So thanks for your patience and please check back regularly.

Categories: The Quest

Til death do us part: Diablo III Hardcore

June 6, 2012 17 comments

I spent a fair amount of time playing Diablo III over the past month – along with what I can only imagine is one sixth of the world’s population.  Unfortunately, about half of those people have also taken the time to write up detailed reviews of the game.  This deluge of commentary left me struggling to find some way to frame my experience with the game that seemed mildly interesting.  And then I read a blog discussing death penalities in games that made me realize that Diablo III’s optional permanent-death mode, a.k.a hardcore, was so elegant that it has come to completely redefine what I expected from the game and how I played it.

It also confirmed that lawyers are hell-spawn.

First, some context:  Diablo was my first online game way back over a decade ago.  Nostalgia obligates me to play any title in the franchise, even if my tastes in games have moved towards those with persistent worlds.  That’s not to say that I wasn’t excited about the game’s release, but more to point out that I expected to play through once or twice to experience the game and then move onto something else.  At best, I expected a few weeks of gameplay given that it’s largely an updated and more polished version of what is at it’s core a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler.  While some of my friends were keen on pushing through every single difficulty level and were happy to farm demons for gear, I knew that style of gameplay would not hold my attention forever.

Given those expectations, I surprised myself after finishing normal mode by making a new character and selecting hardcore mode.  I never played hardcore mode in Diablo II because the idea of investing time in a character only to have them deleted after one death seemed pointless.  This time though, the knowledge that I would eventually stop playing the game looming at the front of my mind put the loss of a character into a new context.  I realized that the second I stopped playing Diablo III, any character I had invested time in might as well have been deleted anyway.  Armed with this realization, I took my new hardcore character – a Wizard – into the now much more dangerous game world.   I pushed past normal mode spending every coin, potion, and crafting material I came across knowing that there was no point to holding anything back.   If I died, I was dead.  About mid-way through Act 1 in nightmare difficulty, I was cut down by a pack of elite spiderlings who cornered me in a cave.  My death happened so fast and so unexpectedly, that I was unable to process what had happened.  But I experienced neither rage or disappointment; instead, I felt catharsis.  The permanent death of my character was somehow more satisfying than actually beating any boss in the game on my normal mode character.

Curse you, spiderlings. Curse you.

This experience in a game was so unique that I knew I had to try it again.  I made several more characters, trying new classes each time to experience the game in a new way.  These characters made it to various levels, though never very far due to a bit of recklessness on my part and unfamiliarity with their play styles.   I started to become a little frustrated until I noticed that despite each of my characters having to start back at the beginning of the game, my account was still still getting more powerful.  My bank and gold carrying over between character deaths started to let me arm and equip my new characters faster.  Hardcore purists from Diablo II will argue that this negates some of the challenge, but it was just enough continuity to keep me interested.  The game had changed for me.

Despite the simplicity of clicking a mouse over and over,  Diablo III’s gameplay at higher difficulties comes down to solving dynamic problems.   The game sends new waves of opponents with complex and random abilities and you address these challenges with a finite set of tools.  The most powerful of these tools is also the one you appreciate the least until it’s gone:  trial and error.  If your character cannot truly die, you can brute force your way past some of  the more challenging puzzles thrown at you.  I love problem solving, but even trying to learn the game’s intricacies, I leaned on the crutch of trial and error when I played through normal difficulty the first time.  Hardcore showed me how to get at the good stuff, the uncut version of the game.  My most recent hardcore character, a level 51 Witch Doctor, is now in Act I of Hell mode and I absolutely cannot wait to come across the puzzle that finally beats me.

Mostly because I cannot stand the way this guy yells in combat.

The Diablo III developers have said that it was never intended that hardcore characters would beat the game’s higher difficulties, so it’s unlikely that I will ever “complete” the game.   But playing hardcore has artificially extended the game’s life for me.   Where some of my friends are already getting bored,  I feel like I am just coming into best parts of the game and I do not see an immediate end in sight because I can keep pushing the bar further.   Playing hardcore has made me appreciate that sometimes even a simple design on the surface can achieve elegant results and that we gamers have probably taken our digital immortality for granted far too long.

The Elder Scroll of Speculation

May 3, 2012 2 comments

Game Informer today confirmed the not-so-secret existence of an an already-in-development Elder Scrolls Online MMO.  Porting the highly successful single-player Elder Scrolls franchise to a massively-multiplayer environment is a high risk, high reward move for ZeniMax Studios.  On one hand, already having a huge fan base to draw on means that the studio can count on a fair amount of revenue up front on release as long as they deliver a working game.  On the other hand, those same fans are going to demand the kind of game experience that they’ve come to expect from other games in the franchise: a rich open world where players decide how they want to play.   Translating that single-player experience into a multi-player environment may not be simple, so ZeniMax will have to come up with some fairly creative solutions to bring the Elder Scrolls alive in a way that mediates the demands of the MMO genre with expectations of their players.

While ZeniMax probably won’t give away too many details about specific game mechanics this far out from release, we can probably expect to hear soon about overarching design concepts and major game features.  When Game Informer releases an exclusive trailer tomorrow, my biggest fear is that we’ll see a game that resembles another attempt to piggy-back off World of Warcraft.  While this approach has arguably worked for some MMO franchises (e.g. Rift and SWTOR), it also tends to draw a lot of criticism from MMO players and probably cut hard into those franchises’s potential growth than if they’d tried a different approach.  Don’t get me wrong, WoW is a great game even seven years after release – but if I want to play it, I’ll play Blizzard’s version and I believe many other players feel the same way.   Blizzard had seven years to flesh out what is, at its core, a very structured MMO experience.  Even a great emulation of that style of game play, especially without those seven extra years of development, is probably going to pale in comparison to precedent set by the open worlds of previous Elder Scrolls game.

Tomorrow, if we’re comparing ZeniMax’s Elder Scrolls MMO to any other game on the market, I hope we’re talking about EVE Online.  While I do not want ZeniMax to copy EVE wholesale, for many of the same reasons I do not want want them to copy WoW, there are definitely lessons to be learned and some features which may be too useful to pass up when moving Tamriel to the internet.  EVE is probably the best implementation of a massive open online world where players can have direct impact on the world itself.  Instead of picking classes as in other more structured MMOs, EVE’s players choose how to develop their character using an expansive skill-tree system.  They can specialize or diversify across skills that impact various aspects of the game’s social, economic, and combat systems, gaining more depth the longer they play.  This flexibility in game play and character development are the same reasons why everyone I know enjoyed Skyrim.   As the last Elder Scrolls game to be released, players will almost definitely expect similar flexibility in the Elder Scrolls Online.

As I said earlier, what works in a single player game may not work in an MMO, but the reverse is also true.  Trying to give players an open world like EVE’s without losing the richness of content and story is a challenge in itself.   It’s a lot easier to account for one player’s actions in a game world than it is for thousands, and if it’s a true open world, that’s thousands of opportunities for players to undo any work developers put into the game.  Game Informer’s tease about The Elder Scrolls says that ZeniMax has already decided structure the player versus player aspect the game with three set factions.  This design is not entirely surprising given that ZeniMax’s president used to work on Dark Ages of Camelot, which also featured a three-faction PvP system.  It remains to be seen, however, if the studio will cede more freedom to players in other aspects of the Elder Scrolls Online experience.

If nothing else, the next year will be interesting to see how ZeniMax chooses to balance these competing forces.