Monday, April 19, 2010

Permadeath: The Answer to Our Prayers

I’ve figured it out! I’ve solved all of our problems! I have singlehandedly saved the MMORPG genre! The answer we were looking for the entire time was the one thing we didn’t want to address! The solution to our problem is PERMADEATH!

Deep breath, hooooooo… whewwwwwww. Okay.

After thinking about MMOs as well as Greek Mythology over the weekend (kept seeing commercials for Clash of the Titans) I remembered a quote from the 2004 movie Troy,

“Let me tell you a secret, something they don't teach you in your temple. The Gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be more lovely than you are now. We will never be here again” –Achilles

How excited were you the first time you faced down a dungeon boss? You had (relatively) no idea what was coming, you only knew that this intimidating monster was probably going to hand you your ass. Remember the exhilaration? Remember the fear and adrenaline pumping through your veins? What about when you first ran from a mob, realizing you were in over your head and couldn’t win the fight? Or when you peered over a hill to find an elite mob, knew you had little chance of beating it, and decided to charge it anyway? The thrill existed only because fear accompanied it. But without consequence or risk, the thrill diminishes when you realize you can die again and again and it doesn't change anything, you can always try again.

Imagine an MMO that is a bit easier than WoW, but if you die you have to start over. How much more fun would it be to do a dungeon raid or run through a higher level zone if you knew that your character really was risking his life? More importantly, how much more rewarding would it be when you succeeded? Victories would be sweeter, rewards would be even more valuable, groups would be closer, and playtime would be much more memorable.

Naturally we have to take into account that humans are terribly risk averse and might be scared to venture out if they're faced with permadeath. An inheritance system might help cushion the blow, where you can roll a new character that is the son or daughter of your freshly-killed warrior, and while they do start at beginning level, they progress faster based on how high their parent's level was. Eventually characters would be able to track their lineage back several generations and be able to level extra fast. As for gear, a "Vengeance System" could be implemented to retrieve lost gear, where a descendant could defeat the faction/boss/mob type that felled their parent and reclaim the gear they were wearing.

There are ways to slightly cushion the blow of permadeath, but its major impact is exactly what we need in games to bring back the fear and excitement

Disclaimer: I am not egotistical enough to actually think I have solved the problems of MMOs, its obviously a (bad) joke.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bring the Narrative!

What are the common elements of a good fantasy story?

-A hero taking one earth-changing quest to save everyone from utter destruction

-An uber evil end boss

-A damsel in distress (or a longing love interest)

-A band of allies and travel buddies, including

-The quirky comic relief

-The reserved badass

-The knowing mentor

-The loyal best friend

-A nemesis of equal power/status with a mission directly counter to the hero’s

-An origin that explains the hero’s motivations and provides context to the action

All of these elements are familiar territory in classic fantasy tales, and each serve their purpose in building drama, context, tension and significance for the actions the hero takes in the story. Cut even a few of these elements from a story and you begin to lose the impact of the narrative.

Now, how many of these are in your favorite MMO? Hero, check. Ultimate Endboss, check. Anything else? Not really. We wonder why players skip quest text and hate cutscenes.

Honestly, how hard would it be to include a better defined macro quest, a choice of origins that determines certain quests, and scripted encounters with a romantic interest, a sidekick, a nemesis, a mysterious badass and a mentor? Are we even trying?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Count to Five, Let the Fear In

Permadeath. Reading that word these days is more likely to make you roll your eyes than crap your pants in fear, and that’s unfortunate. I’m not pro-pants-crapping, nor am I pro-death, but I do wish there was still respect and fear attached to the concept of permadeath in video games. Instead its now viewed as an MMO taboo that is simply ridiculous to consider viable. Why? Because when a player loses a character they’ve invested dozens and dozens of hours in, the game will lose that player, because they couldn’t possibly handle the stress of such a loss, nor would he be willing to start over anew?


The level of achievement a person feels when they overcome a challenge is directly proportional to the level of risk taken. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. When the greatest risk you run in an MMO is a very temporary death (which equates to a corpse run time sink and relatively small maintenance costs for equipment), how sweet is any victory? When you defeat a dungeon boss, how rewarding is it when you know that if you had failed again you would have had an infinite number of chances to try again? What greater risk is there than losing your character forever? Now this is probably the line where people stop reading, thinking that I’m one of countless people on the far end of the permadeath ideology spectrum, but keep your shirt on for a second. Psychology aside, if you institute across the board permadeath, you’ll never have a playerbase. No one wants to HAVE to lose their character forever, especially in the normal course of the normal game for normal rewards.

Thus there are three coMMOndments for Permadeath in MMO’s:
Thou shalt make all instances of Permadeath occur in optional endeavors
Thou shalt make the rewards for risking Permadeath phat and epic
Thou shalt make a big deal of Permadeath endeavors to the rest of the game world

What do these mean? The first coMMOndment means you should never ever force permadeath on someone. There should be no activity that a player must accept the risk of permadeath to take part in. Make a permadeath version of an activity, but never a simply permadeath activity.

The second coMMOndment is the simplest. Make the rewards match the risk. And don’t underestimate the aversion players have to losing a character forever. The rewards for permadeath risk don’t scale like other types of difficulty, this shoots it through the roof, so loot drop rates, experience, and any other rewards should flow like wine for the risk takers.

The third coMMOndment will justify Permadeath’s presence in the game explicitly (complementing the implicit justification that hardcore elite player’s won’t be able to whine about difficulty). We always hear people whining that their quests and actions have no significance because everyone is doing the same thing. But if the first person to achieve a major quest in permadeath mode closes that quest forever and moves the story forward, that would give significance to questing, and would allow for lots of people to try to be heroes, and only one to succeed.

So here are my five ideas for applications of Permadeath in MMOs:

1) Gladiators- Have your typical arena setup with teams, prizes, individual matches, rankings, etc. But offer the option for any player to enter the Big League, where they fight one on one with the loser dying permanently, and the winner getting huge rewards and fame. People could issue challenges, move up the rankings and gain real notoriety. Any Permadeath match should be prescheduled and publicized at least a day in advance, and any player would be able to watch the match live.

2) Difficulty Meter- Meter for each player that they can adjust any time out of battle, which determines their game difficulty and the rewards they get from battle. Highest level is permadeath. Groups play at the average difficulty level of each individual.

3) Dragonslayer- Taking a specific group quest and attempting to beat a dungeon and slay the final boss under threat of permadeath. Failing would mean permadeath, victory would result in that boss being gone forever and the story being advanced further to open new content. Even if there was success, any players lost in the attempt would be gone forever. Victors (even dead ones) would be immortalized in the history books of that server, and celebrated as heroes.

4) Highlander- Players can permanently designate themselves as “Chosen” once they reach a particular level/time played. A Chosen player can attack ANY other Chosen player, and when one kills another, that character is gone for good. The winner gets all of the loser’s equipment and money (Even bound items), a big portion of their experience/skill, and positive boosts to any factions that the loser was very friendly with.

5) Protector- This I saw on another person’s blog, if you’re reading this and it was your idea (you described it as trees), please email me so I can give you credit. A player can opt to sacrifice their character forever to create a permanent guardian for a city or town. The power of the guardian is directly related to the sacrificed character’s power. This would work best in a game with player towns and/or faction bases.

6) BONUS: Progeny. Inheritance is a concept sometimes linked with permadeath as a way of cushioning the blow, and while I haven’t heard of a system I like yet, I really believe there is a system out there somewhere that will work perfectly and make this a really fun mechanic.

So you see, Permadeath should not be shunned and laughed at, it has the potential to bring heroicism and significance back to MMOs, as long as its done right.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Statistics Galore(y)!

Ravious is talking about leaderboards, data collection and elitism today, so I thought I’d throw my two cents in. I think data collection is a key to long term survival for an MMO, and its fortunate byproduct should be player accessible stats, both about themselves and the community at large. Its been argued before that players don’t care about the MMO’s fictional story as much as they care about their own stories and memories from the game. Player stat devices like the Tome of Knowledge and even WoW Achievements reinforce the players’ own history, reminding them of what they have achieved.

Unfortunately even a system as mindless as WoW Achievements can be perverted by players’ darker sides, as seen in the current trend of only allowing players to join a PUG for a dungeon if they can show the achievement for the dungeon.

As long as stats have been recorded, they’ve been used for comparison, its just natural human behavior. Its also human nature to pursue what’s best for yourself, and when these two instincts are combined its only natural for people to exclude based on statistical thresholds. It becomes a problem when there is no way for people to improve their important statistics. In this case it means that players who are just reaching level cap cannot improve their gearscore or complete dungeon achievements since no one will group with them. Ravious (and Sanya) mention a solution to the problem, tracking everything. I agree, and offer two more solutions.

First, don’t just report all stats, reward all stats! Johnny Newbie may not be able to kill the UberDragon within his first week of play, but if he manages to fall off cliffs and get himself killed more than any other player, he deserves some recognition. Give him the weekly title of “Johnny the Fragile, Chief Inspector of Gravity” and watch him be proud to show off his title. Even if he’s showing his title off to other new players with equally lame titles, they’ll be happy because they are unique, for that week they are the absolute best (or worst) at something. With any statistic there can be only one leader, so if no other statistics are shown (or are shown but without possibility of recognition or incentive) they are naturally going to gravitate towards the one or two stats they are told matter.

Second, don’t show statistics that can be easily improved simply by playing the game a long time. Total number of times a player has killed a dungeon boss is a number that should really be more depressing the higher it is, because its just a neon sign screaming LACK OF CONTENT, but instead it would be (and is) used to gauge how worthy a player is. Why not instead track a players success rate at a dungeon, or fastest time to clear a boss, or largest damage healed/dealt/tanked in a single boss fight? These still measure the success and relative skill of a player, but do it in a way that at least limits the impact of longer time /played. And if you absolutely must show quantity stats, show them over a standardized period, like the week or month. That way players who suffer from EPeen Redundant Incessant Comparison Ketosis (EPRICK) will still have something to show for it.

I’ll throw in a third solution just for good measure. Role Proficiency Ratings! See my previous post for details, but it addresses these same types of problems of socialization gated by arbitrary statistics.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Quick Shot: Qualifying for a PUG

What do "elite" raiding guilds and pretentious PUGs use now to determine who qualifies to join them? Gearscore and Achievements? This creates the often mentioned paradox of “Can’t do the dungeon until you’ve done the dungeon”. Why is this the case? Why don’t elite players have faith the majority of the players at level cap? Most likely because a huge portion of those capped players are accustomed to the leveling game, and hardly ever touched group mechanics. Thus the learning curve for a player’s group role is incredibly steep at level cap, leading to a lot of crappy PUGs and even more exclusion. Here’s an idea that will break the paradox and reduce the number of ill prepared group members in most PUGs.

Group Role Ratings. At any time (or maybe just in main hubs) a player can access a sort of military academy where they can take “role tests” that test how high their skill as a tank/DPS/healer/buffer/debuffer/controller is. There would be at least 25 tests for each role, and each test would be a small lesson in how the mechanics of the role works, with a staged group battle to test the mechanics in. A low level tank test would be something as simple as using a taunt, with tips on how to do it most effectively, while higher level tank tests would have NPC allies accidentally drawing aggro away from you and requiring you to get back control, or switch off to another tank. They would need to be scaled by level/gear, or ignore them altogether, allowing a low level player with true player skill to show their high rating early on.

This would also allow particularly talented special builds to show that they are just as worth taking along as the “role standard” class. If a warlock can somehow achieve a higher tank rating than a warrior, he would then actually have a chance of being picked up, because the Group Role Level would be a standardized indicator of skill.

If a player reached level cap without doing any group work, they would quickly see that no PUG or serious guild would take them along unless they were of a certain role rating. So they would start taking the tests, learning how to play their group role step by step, redoing tests they fail until they master the concepts and execution. They’re learning with NPC groups instead of human groups, giving them growth opportunities without risking other players’ lives.

You could call the program Group Role Rating Education And Testing. GRREAT! Have a tiger instruct it and you’re good to go.

Come to think of it, this could also work (almost as well) for PvP roles.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Another Thought on Old News

It was reported a while ago that 70% of WoW trial players never make it to level 10. There are a couple of interesting observations you can make about this statistic, and some important inferences to be made as well. First and most obviously, WoW is losing an enormous chunk of their potential customer base. Second, players are losing interest so fast that they aren't even willing to play for free.

Perhaps one of the important questions to ask is, why use level 10 as the benchmark? It may be the case that 99% of trial players make it to level 9 and quit, but its far more likely that this was chosen because its when Talents become available, and when many classes gain a key ability that defines their class. In other words, level 10 is when "the good stuff" starts. Its also the very first opportunity for a player to make their character different from all the other new characters of that class and race. If you're hiding the fun and player identity behind hours of initial grind, what would you expect to happen?

Cataclysm sounds like a brilliant idea, one which will revamp the starting areas and bring veterans back into old Azeroth, giving the current playerbase a great reason to invest more time and keep paying those subs. But for a brand new player the visuals and quests will be taken for granted, and if the initial grind-to-fun and grind-to-identity of 1-10 is still there, WoW will still let a huge amount of potential subs slip through their fingers.

Cataclysm should change the starting point for talents (and key abilities) to five, right around the time players are finishing the initial cave quests and leaving the very first area of the starting zones. Any sooner and they would be overwhelmed by too many features (there is a learning curve, small as it may be). At level five there should be a quick tutorial explaining the classes different talent trees, with a brief overview of each. This way the player will be less than two hours into the game and will already have their "cool abilities" and at least the beginnings of a sense of uniqueness in a 10 class world. Come to think of it, veteran players are so used to spending a talent point immediately after they level up, they're probably Pavloved into opening their talent menus, which will lead to exactly 9 instances per character of "…oh right, I don't get to do that yet. *sniffle*". Cataclysm is supposed to reinvigorate the current playerbase, so why not surprise them with talent points earlier?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Greatest Threat to the Economy: Ursus Americanus

People wonder why MMO economies are fickle and screwy while also wondering why there are so many immature, selfish people in these games. What is the common answer to both of these questions? Dumbed down tradeskills on the developer’s backburner? A suboptimal auction house mechanic? A marked absence of quantum balancing systems mitigating the sinusoidal variance of markets in constant flux?

False. Black bears.

How often do you go into Walmart and see someone dumping a dozen or so Rotting Bear Carcasses on the checkout counter, asking the associate to give him dozens of pieces of silver in return? That’s essentially what happens thousands of times every day in WoW, and people have come to accept it as normal. If you told me I could go outside and kill every living thing in the woods and sell all the useless parts and scraps to Walmart (or Barnes and Noble, or Gamestop, or any other store because they all pay the same for everything) for loads of silver and maybe even gold, I might break out the old 12 gauge and use Bambi’s inedible parts to pay down my mortgage. WoW enables people to do just that, and we wonder why a certain kind of powerfantasizing selfish teenage demographic is attracted to the genre? When a consistent way of making money is wholesale slaughter for steady vendor trash, there are going to be problems with the playerbase.

Far more important is the effect this has on the economy. Lets review:
1) Killing animals rewards you with vendor trash, which serves no other purpose than generating money for players
2) Vendors will never stop buying vendor trash, and all vendors will all pay the same amount. That bread lady walking around between the Ironforge Mailbox and Auction House must be funded by a Goblin Trade Prince, because I can’t imagine how much crap she has bought from people looking for extra cash.
3) Animals respawn and multiply like Tribbles in heat, so the source of money is self replenishing and literally endless

Combine these three completely unrealistic elements and you have a recipe for financial disaster. People consider mudflation to be a problem with regards to expansions, but the problems obviously exist well before any expansions come out. So what is a designer to do?

(un)Realistically in most MMOs they will never make animals have perma death. There has to be fairly rapid respawning of mobs in order to allow more players to slaughter them. So Problem #3 is not going to change. What can change is what drops from these mobs. Vendor trash serves one purpose only, and in the end it is more of a detriment to the game than a benefit to the players, so axe it, and slightly increase drop rates for useful items. Players will enjoy the freed up inventory space and the less frequent trips back to town to offload inventory for money.

The other step that can be taken is to strive for a zero sum economy. Any time more money is introduced to a static population, the effects of inflation will haunt the economy, and the poor (new players) will suffer. Developers should try to make sure that if X people are playing in any given month, the total amount of money in the system is Y. If the population goes up or down by 25%, the total amount of wealth should follow suit. Sound impossible? Not at all, it just requires a little bit of creativity and unconventional thought (developers hiss and shield their eyes).

The first step is to make NPC buyers more realistic in their needs and wants. I have a hard time believing that a barkeeper has as much need for stacks of leather as a master leatherworker. I think that all NPCs should still be willing to buy any and all items, just at proportionally lower prices depending on the item and their own specialty.

The next step is to keep a serverwide tally of the number of active characters (not players) each week, and the total money amongst them. An optimal “wealth per character” number should be calculated ahead of time, and compared to the actual average wealth per character for each server each week. If the W/C figure for a server is too high, adjust vendor buying prices down accordingly, and vice versa if W/C is too low. This shouldn’t just effect vendor prices and sellback prices, but whatever other NPC moneysinks exist in the game as well. You could even do it on a per city/faction basis to make things fairer and to create a realistic sense of locale (“I’m going to Stormwind, I hear they’re selling Item X for cheap this week!”)

The last step is to manage NPC vendor inventory intelligently. If the auction house is flooded with Linen Cloth, don’t let NPCs sell any for a while so that players will buy from the auction house until supplies drop again and the price rises back up. If Mageroyal is selling at its usual perma-premium, allow more vendors to sell more of it, increasing supply and dropping the price. All this would require is calculated optimal price ranges for each major crafting component and a function that adjusts vendor inventory based on auction house quantity and price. At first glance this may sound too controlling and micromanaging, but realistically you’re just letting those NPC vendors act like real people, buying when they want to, paying as much as they see fair, and selling when the prices are high.

Sometimes realism can actually help a situation! Gasp.