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Friday, December 28, 2007

A Return...

I realize that I haven’t posted nearly regularly in the last month, and I think I know the problem. I’ve devoted myself to VG theory, but honestly, MMORPG theory interests me much more. MMORPGs are a microcosm of society, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in them.

Something I was thinking about was the economics of a brand new server. I’m going to do an in-depth analysis of what happens in a new WOW server in my next post. Also I am going to look at how things develop over time in these economies.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gun Types

FPS games and any games that revolve around guns and shooting have a few key gun types. Most of these guns appear in every FPS in some form, and they all have their uses (and abuses).

1. The Unlimited Gun: While not technically always a gun, there's usually some weapon that can always be used when you run out of ammo. In Wolfenstein it was the combat knife, in Republic Commando it was both the pistol and the knife/melee, and in Halo is was a melee strike. Of course, who can forget the devastating Impact Hammer of Unreal Tournament. These are last resort weapons, and a lifesaver when you are out of ammo.

2. The Rifle: The long range gun that remains accurate, but fires painfully slow compared to everything else. This gun has the largest variety, from various Sniper Rifles to the Shock Rifle of UT. Whether it's got a scope or not, this gun is designed to take out a target from a long range. It works best when the enemy doesn't know you've got him in your sights.

3. The SMG/Minigun: A tornado of bullets is the best way to describe the SMG/Minigun. Putting as many bullets in the air as possible, hoping that some hit the target, and scaring the enemy to death are the goals of these beautiful weapons. The aptly named minigun from UT, and Return to Castle Wolfenstein's Venom Gun are both beautiful examples of the suppressing fire of the minigun.

4. The rocket launcher/grenade launcher: Lots of enemies call for lots of explosives. Panzerfausts, Rocket Launchers, Brute Launchers all have one purpose: blow people up. The pinnacle of this weapon type is the UT rocket launcher, which can launch grenades as a secondary fire.

5. The BFG: The big one. It has severely limited ammo, and a grudge against anything that is alive. UT's pocket-nuke the Devastator and Return to Castle Wolfenstein's Tesla gun show this vengeance.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gun Limit

I've played a lot of first person shooters, and while they take place in varied environments (space, WW2, Lairs of Evil Genuises) they play similarly. You go, you shoot, you kill...rinse the blood off your suit or armor and repeat. I'm going to spend the next few blogs on the differences in the game types of this genre.

And to kick this off, I'm going to talk about gun limits. The basics are this: Some games let you have every weapon in the game and somehow lug them around (Wolfenstein, Goldeneye 64, Perfect Dark), others let you have a few weapons (Bond Nightfire let you have 4 plus grenades and mines), and finally some just let you have two (namely Call of Duty and America's Army). There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of story-based logic to this. Wolfenstein and Call of Duty are both WW2 shooters, yet in Wolfenstein the player can lug around a gattling gun, RPGs, various submachine guns, pistols, and a dagger (Special Service guys are really fit), and in Call of Duty, the heaviest load you can get is a bazooka and a Tommy gun with a barrel magazine (which oddly enough the Russians get, but the Americans are stuck with clips?). And between Goldeneye 64 and Nightfire, Bond stops going to the gym, and can only lug around four guns.

Now, there is rhyme and reason to all this (I hope at least, I'm just throwing out theories here). In older games, especially console games, controls were more difficult and aiming was harder (on the N64, aiming anywhere but dead ahead required you to stop and hold down the R button while moving the analog stick). Also, games like Wolfenstein were difficult, and the extra weapons you got had limited ammo and use (like the Panzerfaust for killing SuperSoldats). More modern games focus on aiming and tactical movement, as this is what makes the multiplayer so much more fun than single-player. Instead of running at you shooting, enemies hide behind boxes and throw grenades (More grenades have been thrown at me in COD 2 than were used in WW2). If you had 4 or 6 guns, you could just run in and instead of reloading, switch weapons. Now this is possible with 2 SMG in COD 2, but only effective in Easy mode. Otherwise, you'll need the balance a rifle brings to long range fights.

Less guns means more choices. More choices means the game feels more real and the difficulty increases. It also means you can play fun variations like a "Rifles only" game of COD. FPS should always be about the challenge, because unless you are in the army or police force, chances are you won't be in a situation where you are required to kill in the same way you are in a FPS. There is a twisted, masochistic fun to running low or out of ammo, and the adrenaline surge in knowing that your virtual life is ending if you don't do something soon.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Limited Ammo

I brought up this subject when talking about Call of Duty 4, and I think it is a very important aspect to FPS: Limited Ammo. The worst kind of FPS is the kind where you can run and gun and never run dry on ammo. Now, most games do allow you to have a lot of ammo for the basic guns, and most have a pistol or knife that can be used limitlessly, but a FPS should never have a lot of ammo for the big guns. Why? The challenge.

In Return to Castle Wolfenstein, there were SuperSoldats, big genetically engineered soldiers with many fun weapons to kill you with and armor to keep them alive. They are a huge problem if all you have is a SubMachine Gun, but if you have a Panzerfaust (RPG), their armor is blown off and they become mincemeat. Sounds easy, right? Well, if the Panzerfaust ammo was more readily available, then yes, but the usefullness of this bazooka is so great that the ammo has to be kept to a bare minimum even on easy. And believe me, when you find one, you know a SuperSoldat is around the corner.

Having just finished playing Call of Duty 2, I'll use it as an example. In every mission, you are given an initial load out of ammunition that is far from sufficient. You can carry two weapons (though you pick up ammo for any weapons up to your max load for that ammo, or at least that's what I've observed). Usually you start out with one good weapon and one crappy weapon (read: a SMG and a rifle or pistol), and that SMG runs out of ammo fast. If it's a Thompson or other allied gun, you will run out of ammunition very quickly, which is sad because the Tommy sounds so cool. You are almost forced to pick up a german SMG from the first mission because the ammo is so available. The best guns in this game (notably the BAR, Sniper Rifles, and even at times the MP44) are very limited on ammo and require good marksmanship and conservation techniques. Even picking up an enemy gun doesn't guarantee success, as a lot of enemy soldiers carry rifles. Using a rifle in WW2 is a lot like spitting against a fire hose, and I drop the rifle (unless it's a sniper rifle) almost immediately.


The reason I like this sort of a mechanic is simple. If I can run through a map killing everything in sight and not have to worry about finding their dropped weapons to grab ammo, I'll finish the game in a matter of hours, and not pick it up again. However, if I have to shoot straight and conserve ammo, I feel more immersed and will play a mission again and again.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This just saddens me...

I was playing Heroes of Might and Magic V: Tribes of the East earlier today, and it just saddens me. Why? Well, it's basically just a rehash of the last two Might and Magic games, with nicer graphics. No real improvement to the base system has been made. That said, Might and Magic has basically been the same game through every incarnation, so I don't know quite what I was expecting, but the screenshots just looked so good, I assumed there'd be some major changes.


I'm not saying there weren't any changes, mind you, the game got a much needed graphics overhaul that makes it very pretty to look at. Additionally, combat has been mildly retooled (to the point that there's a comabt queue and creatures can become traitors and fight for the other side while in combat). The game just simply doesn't have enough new stuff to really warrant buying it. I mean, if you've played the last five games in the series, you've played this.


The one thing I do like that is new is the racial abilities. Some of these have been in games before and some have not, but they haven't ever really had the mechanics they do now. Stronghold units (read: Orcs & Centaur) get the rage ability, which acts as both a damage shield and a buff. Basically, the more they kill the more powerful they get, and the more they act passively and get hit, the less powerful they get. If you play as an orc would, and smash until you can't smash anymore, you will love this ability. The other races have abilities (the only one I've played around with is the Necromancers faction, and they have a dark magic spell bar that lets them raise dead units, similar to the ability death heroes got in previous games).

I'm going to play it more and give it a full review later, I just wanted to vent a bit about it now.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Elder Scrolls MMORPG

While my focus is on First Person Shooters, I’m still keeping an ear out for VG rumors, and I heard one that interests me: An Elder Scrolls MMORPG. Now, I know that Morrowind and Oblivion especially have hordes of fans, and that the game would certainly be purchased en masse, regardless of it’s actual quality just because it’s an Elder Scrolls title, but I question whether or not the same feel that exists in Morrowind and Oblivion is even possible in an MMORPG.

The problem doesn’t lie in making the games, the difficulty lies in translating the fun parts of Elder Scrolls into an MMORPG. These games are entirely single player, where the player has a huge impact on the rest of the world. You can attack and kill anyone you want (with consequences, but the game doesn’t stop you), and you can reach an insanely high skill and statistic level (with potions and just playing to an extreme point). The world is largely your oyster, and you can do with it what you will.

The things that would translate well are pretty strong. The skill system could be made into a good MMORPG skill system (though the leveling system should be changed to a more experience based system, I think that a World of Warcraft like system would work, with individual skills capped by character level), but I also think that unlike other MMORPGs, you should be able to choose what stats to increase (similar to the choices given when you leveled in the single player games).

The guild system would translate in a good way. I’m thinking Morrowind’s guild and house system, where you could join any or all of the guilds and houses, but ultimately you had to choose one. That gives some freedom, but ultimately you must remain an initiate or you must choose to ally yourself with one of them. This could be a good basis for PVP.

The bad things, sadly, are the things that make the game great. The Elder Scrolls series was great about scaling enemies in the world to your level. If you were lvl 1, there would be low level mobs, but if you were lvl 20, there were much harder mobs. This is unlikely to work in an MMORPG, as you would have high level characters standing in newbie areas just to spawn high level mobs (because it’s funny in a sadistic way). The MMORPG would have to stick to a more traditional level restriction of mobs to certain areas. This was one of the elements that made the original games fun and exciting, as you could travel anywhere and still find a challenge.

Another bad aspect is that with hundreds of thousands of players, it is highly unlikely that the players can feel like they have a real impact on the game. At best case, only those players who play all the time will feel like they have an impact. The immersion factor of Elder Scrolls games would be largely gone.

Ultimately, while I would love to see an Elder Scrolls MMORPG, I doubt it will happen. At best case, it seems like we’d get a WOW clone in the Elder Scrolls universe, which probably would sell well, but it’s doubtful many people would play it. The Elder Scrolls made you a hero, but let you save the world and have your own adventure and you had the time to explore the world and enjoy it. That is very far from the description of any MMORPG, and I just simply don’t think it’s workable. However, if Bethesda develops one, I will at least take a look at it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Demo


The Call of Duty series has always had a home as a WW 2 Shooter, but it finally reaches towards new heights in it's fourth iteration: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. For the fan of the series, I must warn you that this is a very different game than 1-3, and the combat is much more intense. If this demo is any indication (or the intro movie for that matter) this game promises heavy action punctuated by periods of stillness that are just as terrifying as the firefights.


I don't know if it's just been too long since I've played COD 2, but it seems like the guns in this demo are far less accurate than the WW2 guns of the earlier games. This could just be the fact that the enemy is everywhere and it's hard to see them die if they're in buildings, or the fact that I use them in full auto because of the number of enemies, it's just something I noticed. I don't like the fact that you're given so much ammo for this demo mission. The hardest part about the earlier games is the limiting factor of ammunition, especially on higher difficulty. I don't think I worried about ammo when playing this mission at all. That said, even if I ran out of ammo, I'd just have to wait for an ally to die, or pick up one of the plentiful AK-47's. It makes the game almost too easy from an ammo standpoint, especially special ammo like grenade rounds. Either a lot of marines are dying or this city is growing grenade rounds.

Which brings me to a final point about this game: the AI sucks. I mean badly. The enemies basically just swarm you (though it's a nice touch that they do melee if they are close) and your allies move in an organized way, which would be better if it was tactically too. Marines tend to move by enemies, then turn around to shoot them...if they are still alive. They also tend to stand in front of windows and fire, usually dying violently. It's really iritating to have your squad eliminated by swarms of enemies that you have to largely kill.


Overall the game is intense and will make for a nice shooter, but I don't think it will be a great shooter. The pace and impact of the setting will do it's job and it will keep you on your toes, and I have no doubts a lot of people will buy the game, I just don't think it fully meets my expectations for a new game. Maybe some of these problems will be hammered out before it's released, but I doubt it will be fully fixed.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The First of our FPS

Now, to kick start the First Person Shooter blogs, I've decided to dust off one of my old favorites: Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. This is the latest multiplayer version of the Wolfenstein series, and features six maps for players to fight on. The basics are simple: You are an Allied or Axis soldier, and each map has objectives. Invariably, these objectives are defensively or offensively related. For instance, in the Gold Rush map, the Allies are striving to break into an Axis vault and steal their gold, and the Axis are trying to stop them.

I like this system because you can choose one of five classes every time you respawn, and you gain experience and bonuses as the campaign rolls on. There are even modded servers that keep your experience even after the map cycle resets, so you can get every single bonus. These bonuses range from Improved Stamina to better Gun Control, and my favorite, Dual Wield Pistols.

The classes in game are all available to any player, but a mix of classes provides the best fire team. Ideally, a team will have at least one of every class, and be heavier on Engineers and Medics (depending on the mission).














Soldiers are the grunts on the front line. They carry the big guns and can do the most sustainable collateral damage. A single well supplied Soldier with a MG-42 can hold critical chokepoints, and a solder with a Panzerfaust (bazooka/RPG) can wipe out an entire squad. Soldiers get upgraded with better fire control and the ability to use their weapons more (either by reducing gun overheat or reducing the amount of the power bar they use). Oh, and while in the begining they can only lug around a pistol and their big gun, at max level, they get a Thompson/MP-44 and their big gun, which just makes them even deadlier.















The Medic is the class that keeps the team alive longer, and that means more enemies are killed and more objectives are completed. The medic class can only carry a submachine gun and starts with a small ammo load, but they aren't in the fight to kill, they're in the fight to heal. The medic does get some killer abilities, though. The get upgraded with additional ammunition, a full revive, and self adrenaline, which turns them into unfeeling killing machines for a period of time. A good medic is almost an assurance of victory.
















Engineer is probably the most used class, and every player will play as an engineer in their career. Why? Because blowing stuff up is fun, and vital to the war effort. In every mission, an engineer is needed for something, and engineers have access to the widest array of explosives. Land mines, dynamite, and rifle grenades are unique to this class. Their upgrades are nice too. They get loaded down with even more grenades, improved demolition speed, and their final upgrade is a flak jacket that greatly reduces their damage from shrapnel and bullets.
















Field Ops is another very fun class, as you carry a radio that lets you call in air and artillery strikes. What's better is that you carry ammo packs, which means you have virtually limitless ammo. The downside? None of your abilities are that good until about lvl 3 in Signals, and by then you've been playing the class for a bit. The upside? By then, Ammo packs take almost none of your power bar, artillery strikes for two rounds, and air strikes are twice as powerful. The downside again? At max level you get Enemy Recognition....which is like opening a box full of socks on Christmas. If it weren't for the last upgrade, I'd play this class 24/7.















Finally, Covert Ops is the last class you can play as. Now, when selecting the class almost every player thinks it's a sniper class. Fact is, it's probably easier to snipe with the SMG than it is with an actual sniper rifle. Since so many of the Sniping Positions on the released maps are known, they are usually blanketed with fire every time someone steps near them. The good news is that the class was actually designed more for sneaking around than sniping, and you can take enemy uniforms and pose as their team, open enemy doors, and cause confusion. Oh, and you have Detonation Packs, which make for some fun ambushes. The rewards for Covert Ops aren't that great, basically you get more bullets, less special cost on smoke grenades and det packs, and better gun handling. However, the final upgrade allows you to insta kill anyone with your knife, if you're attacking from behind. It's a good ability, but frankly you can kill anyone with two quick knife strokes to the back, so fighting through 4 levels of covert ops for that seems tedious to me.

This is a fun and free game I suggest anyone at least try out. Lately, I've been using it with a mod called Bobots that creates a group of skilled bot opponents. It eliminates the need to find a server with enough players and low lag, and also greatly improves your skills, as these bots are deadly accurate and have great vision. Don't know quite what I'm reviewing next, but I have been playing around with the COD 4 demo.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Top 5 MMORPGs

As a closer to MMORPGs, here is the top 5 list of MMORPGs.

5. Star Wars Galaxies NGE: While not a good game technically, the attempts to turn it from a total disaster into something playable make this worth a top spot. That and Smedley apologized for it, which is a step in the right direction.


4. Final Fantasy XI: The game has a nice levelling system, where once you gain a level in a class, you don't loose it, and can change classes at will. The community aspect is great at the end-game levels, and the crafting system is unique.


3. Anarchy Online: Base game without any expansions is 100% free for life, and their base game has over 200 levels per character and a ton of classes and races for free. AO level system gives you total control over your character. Biggest failure is that the game almost went under when it was released, but now is fairing pretty well. Bad graphics, but a good game


2. World of Warcraft: I can't disagree with their marketing and their numbers. They are one of the most successful, if not the most successful MMORPG on the market currently, and they are still growing and learning.


1. Star Wars Galaxies Classic: The extensive skill system is what is amazing about this title. The plans that were made for it originally were extensive and amazing. The community is where it really wins out, as the entire game revolves around the community from the beginning.

Friday, November 2, 2007

PVP

First some housekeeping, I will be leaving the realm of MMORPG discussion soon, and move on to other areas as a focus. Drop me a comment if there's a subject you think I should cover. Additionally, I will be adding some game reviews when I get the chance, and expect some more top 5 lists. Also, my profile has been updated. Believe it or not, I'm not an Accountant from Afghanistan, rather blogger has those as the default values for profession and location.

Now, on to PVP. I think that any MMORPG needs some element of actual competition. Player vs. Player combat is the easiest way to do this. A lot of ideas about PVP have been thrown around over the years, and every existing PVP system could use improvement. Let's take a look at a few.

Star Wars Galaxies has had several types of combat and PVP systems. The system has majorly revolved around the war between the Empire and the Rebels (The Galactic Civil War). Players could choose to be overtly a member of their faction, or be a covert operative. Overt players could kill other overt players and enemy NPCs, and covert players could kill overt playuers and enemy NPCs. However, when a covert player killed an enemy of the other faction, or aided an overt ally, they got flagged temporarily as overt (called a Temporary Enemy Flag or TEF). They could be then killed by the other faction as if they were overt. The system was hard on those who didn't want to PVP, but wanted to be members of a faction (as the easiest way to get faction points was to kill enemy NPCs). Also, Rebels had the additional problem of being turned overt if scanned by imperial stormtroopers and found to be a rebel.

The later incarnations of SWG removed the TEF, instead players could be combatants (non-PVP) or Special Forces (PVP) members of their faction. An imperial Special Forces would have to sit and watch as a Rebel Combatant killed stormtrooper NPCs. It was largely the end to real PVP in the GCW, as the non-PVP players were immune to retribution. Later, Sony Online Entertainment released a specific PVP area for the purpose of furthering the GCW. The Reustess Conflict is a very popular area, and largely the reason for playing the game anymore. However, the only change to the PVP system is that Reustess is a quest-based area where PVP has goals (similar to battlegrounds in WoW) and everyone is flagged Special Forces.

It should be noted that SWG also has always had a bounty system (in the begining just against Jedi) that allows Bounty Hunters to track down other playesr and engage in battle against them. If they kill their target, Bounty Hunters get paid. In the early phases, Bounty Hunters could group up to kill their targets (they had to to kill Jedi players) but now it's strictly 1 vs 1 PVP (things have been roughly rebalanced so that it is far more equal now than it was before). Also, there is a duel system for 1 vs 1 combat.

World of Warcraft's PVP system is simple and complex. In specialized battlegrounds, you are flagged, and directly competing against members of the other faction. In the world, it gets more complicated. On a PVP server, there are zones for each faction and neutral zones. In your zones, you are unflagged unless you choose to be flagged, but the enemy is always flagged. In their zones they are unflagged unless they choose to be flagged, and you are always flagged. In neutral or contested zones, everyone is flagged. On non-PVP servers, you are only flagged if you choose to be, or you attack a flagged character or heal a flagged ally.

There are other examples of PVP types out there (one I will be looking at soon is Warhammer Online, but I need more research on it), but these two examples show some of the important parts. PVP needs to be fun and engaging, with an element of real danger to be fun. However, you shouldn't loose all that much in forced PVP, or else fewer players will want to play. Also, it shouldn't be possible to kill enemy NPCs and heal your over allies without becoming overt youself, or else the other faction will be frustrated and stop playing.

A final note: PVP shouldn't feel like a football game. That's the biggest problem with WOW's battlegrounds: I don't feel like I'm fighting for my life, I feel like I'm trying to win points (and largely I am). In SWG classic, most PVP revolved around defending your faction's bases (usually bases your guild spent months getting faction points to buy, and even more time supporting and using as a base of operations). Beating off attacks actually mattered. A lot of players hate grinding honor in WOW, and honestly, that's not something I'd loose sleep over. However, to defend my guild's faction bases, I'd stay up all night. One of the best times I had in SWG was as a newbie, trying to do anything I could to help the guild defend our bases. I didn't get to do much before being killed, but I'd clone and head right back out. If I tossed on good heal, I considered it a good job.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Guilded

Since I kinda bashed guilds in general in the last post, and Rich made a comment about it, I've decided to talk briefly about guild/Player Association systems.

Guilds in most MMORPGs serve only for organization and bragging purposes. Most games just have them delegated to purely social aspects. Most Guilds don't own or control anything, and most don't innately have the ability to tax or require dues from their members. These aspects have to be controlled by the actual players, and enforcement is difficult at best.

In World of Wacraft, guild leaders have to delegate who sets up the guild bank character, who is in control of what and largely create most of the ranking and title system in the game. The guild doesn't have a place to call home, nor any place to display their trophies. Social Networking and mutual support are about all that's available here.

In Star Wars Galaxies, the Player Associations have a set location, their Guild Hall, which they can decorate and use for storage, but players have to act as a money storage, and there is still no way to tax or require dues from players, short of charging an entrance fee to the Guild Hall. Most Player Associations use faction bases as their unofficial HQ, as they can be defended and destroyed and it adds a bit of flair to the game.

City of Heroes gives Supergroups the ability to build and design a base (and pay for it). I don't know off hand if they have a tax system, but they do have a banking and item storage system in the game for Supergroup bases. These bases can be attacked and defended, and loot rewards can even be stolen. It adds a fun PVP availability.


I, for one, believe that guilds should have some playability beyond just being a social group. I don't join a guild to raid, I join one to have fun, and not having a physical place in the virtual world to call a guild HQ really bothers me as a player. Leave a comment and tell me what you want out of a guild.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Addiction

Video Game addiction is a touchy issue. Many people see it as a downside to video games, and countless breakups have been blamed on addiction. Video game addiction isn't any different from getting really into a book or movie, with the exception of online play. Addiction really isn't the right word, but since it's commonly used in this case, I will use it.

When you're playing a single-player game, you are able to stop or pause whenever you want. Or at least, there will be a save point somewhere within the next hour. These kind of games are almost analogous to a good book or movie. You play them and keep playing them for hours on end, not because you have to be playing at that time to win, nor do you have to be playing at all, but rather because you want to. You don't want to put down the game because exciting stuff is just around the corner, or you want to see the next gory fight. Your play isn't regulated by your guild or server times, rather your play time is regulated by how much you want to put into the game. (Note: certain MMORPGs fall into this category, namely those that have little or no community involvement).

Group MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, rely on groups of players being on at once to play together. Most US guilds raid at around 7-8 PM CST, and raids last around 3-4 hours. Since there are still 4-5 end game instances, players are raiding every night to get the best gear. Most guilds run a participation system, where you get points for each raid you go to and use points to bid on gear that drops. So, in order to get the best gear, you have to be on at a certain time most nights. Since your time will be taken up in the raid, in order to make money in the game to raid, you'll have to devote even more hours to the game. This cycle repeats until you spend almost all your time in the game and loose track of the real world. Other players are largely determining when you play, and that is where the addiction lies. You become addicted to the quest for the coolest gear and obsession with your guild and raids. Because you devote the prime hours for going out and having fun every night to WOW, you loose your girlfriend, go to your job tired, and stagnate at life. There are players who can manage all of that, but it is difficult, and many more people have WOW being the dominate force in their life. I know personally someone who lost a fiancee (who was living with him, and his wife in all but the legal sense) over the breakup of their guild and the fact that the guild in game was more important than her out of game.

Now, I'm not saying games shouldn't be interesting, I'm just saying that getting too far into a game is bad. A game should be immersive, that's why they are fun, but not reliant so much on other players that you can only really get the best gear by playing at a certain time and devoting a certain number of hours to it. It's a difficult balancing act, and I've yet to see a game that does it well enough.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Top 5 MMORPG Elements

Here’s a list of what I consider the most important MMORPG content elements.

5. Well Designed Character Advancement: Whether it’s skills-based or level-based, character advancement must be balanced and timely. Players will not stick around if it takes days to get their first few levels or skills, and if the game is too hard to advance in, they will switch to an easier game.


4. Constantly Expanding Content: In-game content must expand as the game ages and grows. Whether this is through expansion packs or in-game patches, there needs to be a growing amount of experiences, or old players will get bored and leave. World of Warcraft did an excellent job of this, releasing many high-level dungeons for the first two years, and finally releasing an extensive and amazing expansion pack.


3. PVP/Hall of Fame System: Some sort of direct PVP or rankings system should be present so that you can see how your character ranks against others. I’ve seen quality PVP systems that award ranks (like warlord/commander/private) based on your activity and success in PVP, and I think it is a good reward for making characters that are strong against others, and/or having skill playing your character.


2. Quality Crafting System: Some sort of player crafting that makes unique items tagged with the creating player’s name. This is a failing of World of Warcraft, as the crafting system isn’t nearly complex enough for my tastes. Star Wars Galaxies and Final Fantasy XI are more along the lines of quality crafting systems.


1. Strong Community: While not technically an MMORPG game element, it is a vital component to a successful MMORPG. Games without community interaction usually fall apart, and/or don’t keep players for very long. With the release of the NGE, Star Wars Galaxies lost a good portion of it’s player base and community, and it has scarred the game ever since. Without a strong community to pay for and play the game, the game will not last long.


Well that’s my short list. If you agree or disagree drop a comment, I’m interested in seeing what you think is vital to an MMORPG.

If You Build It….

Beyond the resource system is the crafting system. This allows players to combine raw materials to make useable items. Whether they are making a toy or a weapon, it is something made by their electronic hands. The crafting system is becoming more and more common among MMORPGs. Like the resource system, there aren’t strict types of crafting systems. Each system is different.

The crafting system of World of Warcraft is pretty simple. When you start a crafting profession, you are given a small amount of recipes in your crafting repertoire. As you gain levels in the crafting skill, you can buy more advanced recipes. Higher skill also lets you learn higher looted recipes. With this crafting system, there is no experimentation, there is no creation of a unique item. If you set our to craft a pair of Copper Pants, they will have the same stats regardless of your skill level (though there is a chance they will have +1 more stat here or there, but that is luck based, not skill-based). Crafting resources have no quality, and if you make 10000 of the same item, they will all turn out roughly the same. This makes a relatively simple crafting system that is easy to use.

Final Fantasy XI on the other hand has a very complex crafting system. In it, you use crystals to combine materials to make items. You don’t have to buy patterns, but have to discover them (or find a database of them online). If your skill isn’t high enough, you will fail a lot, or not be able to craft at all. If your skill is high enough, you might get an exceptional High Quality result, and have a +1 item that is better than it’s normal version. The hardest part about this is leveling your skill, as there is a random chance that it will level if the item you are crafting is within a certain difficulty level (theories have it that the day and direction you’re facing has an effect on this as well). Overall, this is a more adventurous type of crafting, but still not that difficult. It is tedious to grind out skill levels, but not hard if you have resources or money.

Finally, Star Wars Galaxies. This game has THE best crafting system I’ve ever seen. As stated in the last post, SWG resources have qualities. In crafting, these qualities are used to determine the stats of the final product. In addition to the qualities, the skill of the crafter, luck, experimentation points, quality of the crafting tool, and quality of the crafting station all come into play. It is extremely rare that two items, even made with the same resources and player, would have the same stats. This crafting system is extremely complex and has players fighting over the best resources to use. You gain new blueprints as you gain skill automatically, but there are some limited use blueprints available as loot. This system is not for the faint of heart, and is intended for advanced players.

Each crafting system brings something to the table. Whether it’s simplicity of use and design or being a game in it’s own right, crafting systems are vital parts. Up next: A top 5 list of MMORPG elements.

We Gather Together

Before I talk about crafting, I have to discuss resource gathering. Gathering is vital to crafting, and the choice of a gathering system must mesh well. There aren’t pure gathering types for MMORPGs, and every game seems to use a different system.

World of Warcraft uses a resource system based partly on mob drops and partly on resource nodes. A character with a gathering skill goes out, finds a copper node or a silverleaf bush and collects it. They then turn those items over to crafters or make items themselves. Cloth raw materials drop off of humanoid mobs, and useable items drop off of just about everything. These items come together to fuel the fires of industry. This system is good from an economic standpoint. If you are a gatherer, you will have money as long as you’re gathering. Crafters always have the option to gather themselves, and with enough gatherers the market price will be stable.

Final Fantasy XI uses a similar system. Gather Points spawn where resources can be gathered, and mobs drop useable loot. The difference between this an WOW is that as long as you have a tool, you can try to use a gather point. In WOW, you have to have a gathering skill to get resources. The good part about this is that anyone can gather, there is no restriction on it. The bad news is that anyone can gather, and there are no resource nodes that aren’t fought over. Also, since so much of the crafting materials are drops off of higher level mobs, a character either has to have a lot of money or has to be high enough level to go and get those items. Market prices are still largely stable, but availability of certain items is left to chance.

Star Wars Galaxies is unique for it’s gathering system in that resources have a quality value. In the game, resources spawn on planets and stay for a period of a few days to a few weeks. Each resource is given a name, and unique stats within a range for it’s type. For instance, Polysteel Copper will have a very high conductivity rate. A particular spawn of Polysteel Copper may have a conductivity rating of 950, and a different spawn later will only have 780 conductivity. When crafting, certain statistics of a resource are used and others are not. Copper is great for wiring and electronics, but not that great for insulation. Most resources come from the ground, pulled up by harvesters that anyone can place, or manually by traders who have the survey/sample skill. Creature resources can be harvested from any creature you kill. There are also special drops that can be used for crafting (such as krayt dragon tissues for more powerful weapons). All resources have some sort of quality, and that is what makes SWG crafting so complex and fun (more on that later). The benefit is that the game has great crafting and gathering depth. The downside is that it gets horribly complex if you obsess about being the best. People would devote large portions of their day to locating the best resources before they despawned.

Up next is crafting (for real this time).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mass Bannings

I just heard the news that SquareEnix banned 7900 accounts in Final Fantasy XI, and that got me thinking. Most MMORPGs have some form of permaban, and they go through banning waves where many accounts will get hit at once. Every few months a company will ban a bunch of players to combat the illegal use of their game (the FFXI report focuses on currency selling and botting). The real question is why? Why have these huge banning waves instead of just banning people as you discover they are using the game illegally?

In any MMORPG with a tradeable currency system and the ability to get really good and cool stuff with that currency, there will be people trying to sell it outside the game. Also, with any game that has a difficult levelling system (such as World of Warcraft) or something to unlock (like Jedi in classic Star Wars Galaxies) there will be people trying to sell accounts that are max level or unlocked. People will try to use the game to make money in real life, and they will try to take advantage of the players of the MMORPG. No matter how many accounts are banned, currency selling is still a major business in almost every MMORPG, with a few exceptions.

The question remains: Why use banning waves to try and get rid of these activities instead of just shutting them down when you find them? I can't count the number of times I've seen and reported botters and people selling currency in-game. I can count the number of times those accounts were banned: zero. I have a habit of adding the botter to my friends list to see when they get banned, and have yet to see an account go grey for more than a day. Even after massive bans, they usually are still there (and still botting in the same areas). So why release these huge ban waves that don't really even do anything?

Well, the simple answer is PR. If a company does nothing, they are negligent. The player base largely grumbles against currency and account sellers, as well as power levelling services. Developers could go and take very affirmative action against accounts that are suspect, but they don't. Every account is generating money for the company, and if they ban every farming account, it would take a significant chunk out of their pocket. So instead of banning every account, they ban a large number of accounts every 3-6 months. I wonder how many of these accounts actually have subscriptions on them and are playable. The other thing that gets me is that gold farmers seem to know when a ban wave is coming. When poking around for information on this post, I found this which shows a number of times that a gold farmer had a "hunch" about a ban wave.

Why tolerate gold farming at all? Well, the simple fact is that it is a lot of free advertising. Each gold farming website hits high on certain google searches. Having power levellers and gold sellers makes the game easier for those with money, and people who don't have to grind through 70 levels and get a bunch of gold will pick up the game sooner than those worried about a grind. When you think about it, if it weren't for gold farmers, the economies of many servers wouldn't be nearly as developped as they are. Gold farmers go out there and find rare loot and raw materials and sell them to make gold. In turn, those materials would be far costlier and less available without them. Gold farmers have their benefits, I guess.

The best explanation for why MMORPG companies ban in waves seems to be so that they can keep gold farmers in the game spending money and making money, but still seem like they're taking care of their players. The moderators of the game cannot be so inept that they get lucky every few months but otherwise ban nobody. The only way to keep gold farming low is to actively ban those that do it, and not ban in mass waves every few months. They are in a catch-22, they cannot state that gold farming is legal according to the terms and conditions of the game, because that would upset a lot of players, but they cannot ban them all outright because the farmers benefit the developers.

Frankly, I wonder how much of what I've proposed is true. I guess if I get sued by Sony, Blizzard, and every other gaming company I'll know that it was all true.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

End-game

I was talking today with my friend, Rich, and an interesting topic came up: The End-game to MMORPGs. Between the two of us, we’ve played a lot of MMORPGs (indeed almost all the major titles) and they seem to largely come in two types: Those with a definitive end game, and those with no real end goal.

For those games that have an end game, there’s a definite rush to get to the max level and then start getting together gear to play the hardest content. World of Warcraft is *the* incarnation of this concept. In WOW, you play through a semi-linear world, chaining from leveling area to leveling area. From about lvl 15 on, there is always an instance you can get some xp and gear from. Then when you reach 70, you can start on the end-game lvl 70+ instances. These also chain in a series of difficulty, and guilds spend months or years learning and mastering them. Then once they finally beat the final instance’s last boss, they feel the need to master their technique and farm him for the coolest stuff. This cycle repeats with each expansion pack or added end-game instance. Blizzard is getting very good at making end-game bosses difficult, but beatable (See also: Ironic Bonds)

Other games have no real end game, or an end game that is up to the player to create. To beat a dead horse some more, the original Star Wars Galaxies was this type of game. Players could decide what they wanted to do, and how to do it. Even with character being able to unlock and make Jedi characters, there was no real end game. Many players simply decided not to care about the Jedi system, and for a while Jedi were very rare (as they should be). Players could decide if end game was to become the best crafter on the server, or to become a feared bounty hunter. They could just want to collect a lot of cool stuff or get all the in-game badges. It was up to them.

To add another perspective, there are also games like Project Entropia. This game has no real skill cap, and no level system. There is no innate point to this game, only what the player wants. The player has ultimate control on what he wants to skill in and what he wants to do. A player can spend his entire existence gathering dung and fruit or he can become a millionaire businessman, or a master hunter. It all is what the player wants.

The differences aren’t that great in enjoyability. All three types are enjoyable, but cater to different audiences. Younger audiences need the structure of an end-game based MMO. Older and more inquisitive players would enjoy the more free-form games. Structured MMOs are easier to learn and play (though game difficulty varies) and free-form games have a harder learning curve. It is largely up to preference, although I think a more free-form game requires less patch-based content addition and will keep players for a longer time.

Coming up soon: a look at crafting. Love it or hate it, it’s present in almost every MMO that’s been released lately.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

long weekend

I'm working a lot this weekend, so posting will be down. Good ideas are brewing in my head though.



And I've been feeling really tired, but I'm working on a post or two now. Hopefully will return to my posting schedule tonight.

Friday, October 19, 2007

MMO-conomics 101: c: Crafting in a galaxy far far away

The final major type of economy is the player-based economy. This sort of economy embodies capitalism to the extreme. Most of a players armor, weapons, and other gear come from other player making them. This system offers a large basis for a community. If you get a really good gun from a crafter, you will remember them when you need another weapon. If your armor server you well, you will remember the armorsmith when your friends need gear.

The old version of Star Wars Galaxies shows this economy well. On day 1 (for the lucky few who got to log on), they spawned into a world that had no weapons except those they spawned with, and absolutely no armor. The players made do. Crafters made their own tools and slowly cobbled together armor and weapons, and sold them. The hunters then could kill bigger things and bring back loot components to make better gear. The cycle continued until there were regular hunters and crafters working together to make really amazing gear. The bare worlds that were spotted with tiny NPC outposts were soon paved with player cities and harvesters.

The community factor of the original version of Star Wars Galaxies was impressive. The forums and in-game dialogues were the epitome of what an MMORPG should be (to me at least). You could buy armor and weapons without talking to anyone, but you could usually get a much better deal and a crafter to meet your specific needs if you just asked.

There is a downside to this economy type. It is slow to start. Sony had to set up a vendor to sell tracking droids a few months into the game, so that the bounty hunter profession could do their missions because droid engineers hadn't gotten to the point where they could mass produce the droids. To make the first armors and weapons, players had to experiment and the initial development was expensive (relative the amount of economy). However, those who made the first sets of bone armor sold them for a good profit. The first architects made a killing in the market in the early days.

The economy is good for a MMORPG that is just starting, and will have many new features added later. With Star Wars Galaxies, mounts and vehicles hadn't been added yet, so players didn't have means to travel far from civilization unless they walked. That meant that they were fighting lower level mobs, and needed lower level equipment. As the game develops, the economy develops. In the end, the economy is an amazing addition to the game, and the community that goes with it is even better.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

MMO-conomics 101:1B: Phat Lewt

Loot is the kind of driving force that can make forty people get together in a game once a week to spend four hours of their lives trying to kill very difficult mobs, dying several times. Loot is the kind of thing that builds guilds and rips them apart. Loot is a very fickle mistress, and the holy grail to some players.

A lot of games have economies based off of loot. In Neverwinter Nights and the Elder Scrolls games, you’re encouraged to take everything that’s not bolted down and sell it. In the MMORPG genre, loot usually comes from killing mobs or finding a treasure chest. This loot is usually better than items that can be crafted (for a loot-based economic system at least) and crafted items exist to fill slots and compliment loot, or to temporarily provide benefit until the character can loot something better.

The system for loot dropping is usually based on some formula and chance. Item X will drop Y% of the time off of mob Z. When mob Z is killed, a check is made to see if item X is there. If it is, the player loots the corpse and finds it. If not, there might be something else or nothing. Most systems have trash loot drop very often with good loot dropping a less percentage of the time. World of Warcraft uses a system where each mob has several loot tables associated with it. There are instance/area loot tables, where the area the mob lives in determines drops, there are creature type loot tables, e.g. dogs will drop wolf meat, and there are global loot tables, e.g. items that rarely drop but can drop off of any mob in the world.

What makes this an economic system is the fact that players usually get items that are useless to their class or character, and that they can trade these items to a vendor or another player. In games with this economy type, there are usually very low drop rate, very useful items that sell for huge amounts. The economy runs off of the relatively low availability of specific items. Sure, there are usually a number of items that are good, and available, but those really good items are very expensive and/or difficult to obtain.

This economy type has the benefit of forcing players to explore the world and kill mobs. Usually only endgame mobs have the best loot, and with loot drops being low, players will spend a lot of time playing for that loot item. If players are playing for a long time, they are paying the developers for a long time to play the game. For a developer, that’s good. For a player, not so much. However, a free MMORPG would be good for a player to have a loot-based economy.

Up next, the infamous SWG example: The player based economy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Just a note

Just a note to all my viewers, if you have something to say, speak up. Leave me a comment. I'm very good about responding to them, and if a comment is interesting enough, raises a good enough point, or if a lot of people agree with it, it may get some attention in a blog post. Thanks for reading.-VGP

Monday, October 15, 2007

MMO-conomics 101a:Vendor-Based Economies

As stated in my last post, vendor-based economies rely almost completely on NPCs to provide weapons, armor, and anything else you use in-game. Think back to the first few RPGs that existed, where every mob you killed earned you gold, and you used gold to buy stuff in town (DragonWarrior comes to mind). In an MMO based on this idea, players get everything they need from the NPCs.

This is a very stable economy. The developers control how much things cost, and their relative availability. This setup usually involves there only being money as loot, and maybe the rare (and usually useless) item drops. It also lends itself very readily to the item shop sort of revenue system, as players only have one source for equipment, why not have them pay a little to get better gear?

The only game I've played lately that shows this system in effect as an MMO is MapleStory. Though I haven't played it much (like 15 minutes when I was bored) the system works well for that type of game. Because the world is so unbelievable and looks like a game, the mechanics can be very RPG-like, and there is no need for player immersion.

Which leads me to a major flaw in the vendor-based economy: Lack of a Community. Any game where you do not *need* to talk to another person in your entire course of play will not have a strong community. I will be going more in depth with the need for a community in MMORPGs later, but for now, let's just say I value communities highly. As you get everything from vendors, and nothing from another player, there's no reason to know another player in the game, short of grouping up. These games are largely meant to be played alone, and not in groups. Without the glue of a player community, these games are a passing fancy.


Up next is the loot-based economy. Maybe those Ogre Boots of the Bandit +30 will drop while you're reading it.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

MMO-conomics 101:

Anyone who has played an MMO knows that there's an economy involved. Now, players usually have some influence over these. Economies come in a couple of major flavors. Vendor-based, loot-based, and player-based.

Here's the long and the short of it. A vendor-based economy means that a majority of the weapons, armor, and items used in the game are sold through NPC vendors. A loot-based economy means that the majority of the weapons, armor, and items used in the game are dropped from creatures that you have to kill. The player-based economy is a system in which the majority of weapons, armor, and itemse used in the game are created or generated by the players.

Each system has it's benefits and it's problems. The vendor-based has equality amongst players, as everything is available for a set price, and doesn't run out. The loot-based rewards player who work for it, and get lucky. The player-based economy is the most complex and fun, it is alsmo the most unpredictable.

I will be looking at each of these in depth in the coming posts. Tomorrow, we will look at the vendor-based economy. This is the most primitive of the three economies, and is based off of single-player games where you rely on an item shop in-game.

Star-Warsy

Star Wars Galaxies used to be the pinnacle of skills-based gaming. Your character could select skills from 33 professions. To balance things, you could only have a certain amount of total skill points, and each skill had a different amount of points it cost. So you could be very diverse and have little skill in a lot of things, or very concentrated and be extrodinarily good at one or two things.

Your characters grew and changed as your desires change. You could be an architect one day and a rifleman the next. You don't have to create a new character to enjoy a different part of the game, which is a major improvement over class and level systems. Because of this versatility, chracters make names for themselves in their galaxy, and they are around for a long time, building a huge community. The SWG community was the best part of the original game.

However, after two years of success, the game developers decided to retool the combat system. They instituted combat levels and combat changes. They added levels and damage mitigation by level. So a lvl 1 character getting hit by a lvl 5 mob takes a lot more damage than a lvl 5 character getting hit by a lvl 5 mob. This started to turn the game into a more level-based system, as xp was majorly effected by level of characters in your group.

Six months later, the executives at LucasArts decided that the game wasn't "StarWarsy" enough, and instead of being their own individual characters, everyone really just wants to be one of several iconic figures from star wars history. SO instead of being able to be a smuggler and architect, you have to be Han Solo OR Lando Calrissian, not both. Thus was born the New Game Enchancements. The combat system changed to a twitch based FPS, and the skill system was removed. In it's place was a WoW-based system of core classes and a thinly disguised talent system (called "Expertise" instead).

Most of the playerbase left because of this. After six months of the Combat Upgrade, SOny Online Entertainment and LucasArts pushed basically a beta build of a new MMO out to every SWG subscriber. This was also weeks after the release of The Trials of Obiwan, a third expansion to SWG. The expansion included content for several classes that were removed from the game, and sparked mass protest.

Smedley, the head developer of SWG in it's current incarnation, recently issued an apology in regards to the NGE. He said that it was a mistake not to listen to the playerbase (who liked the skill based system) and that while there would not be a return to the skill system, they would be listening closely to the remaining playerbase.


It's actually a belief of mine that if Sony released the original game code as Star Wars Galaxies 2, they would recoup a few hundred thousand subscriptions.

Friday, October 12, 2007

It's Quite a Project

On the opposite side of the spectrum, is Project Entropia. This is a game based entirely on skills. In the beginning, you start with almost nothing, with lvl 1 skills in everything and not a penny to your name. Every skill has a very high skill cap (2000 for most I think), and if you want to be very good at it, your skill needs to be very high.

To earn skill levels and points, you have to use the skill. For mining, you have to use your mining tool and find ore resources, for rifle damage you have to shoot stuff and hit with a rifle, for sweat gathering (yes, that’s a real skill) you have to mind meld with animals and steal their mind sweat. This is good as everyone starts at the same place, and what you do in the game determines what you are good at. The bad part is that in the beginning, it is very difficult to get those first few skill levels of skills that can fail a lot (like mind sweating). Also, near the upper levels of skills, it becomes hard because you need to earn enough skill-up points to get a full skill level, and the requirements increase rapidly.

Another part of the game is the ability to sell your skills. Basically, you pop an implant into your brain, it absorbs some of your skills in a certain thing (like mining) and you put it on the market to sell to someone who doesn’t want to level their mining skill. It is dangerous to use (you loose 10% of your skill level). I’m not a huge fan of this method, but it works well.

The benefits of a skill system like this are pretty basic. It provides a more involved game, as your character is developing his skills as you play. Skills level up gradually, and as opposed to a level-based system, you abilities don’t jump every time you level. The game encourages play (where level-based encourage grinding or Power leveling). Project Entropia’s skill system is also very challenging for the experienced player. You feel rewarded for leveling your skills up.

The bad of it is that it is very difficult to earn your first few skill levels in certain skills. It took two hours of animal sweating to get my first skill up (and that was only half of a skill level, not even a full one). With being able to sell your skills, there’s a chance that you can make money with just that (not really, as the margins are too low for it, but you can try) however this also means that players with a lot of money can just buy their skills and become super powerful almost instantly.

It’s largely a mixed bag with the base system. Which you will use depends on your player base and goals. MindArc’s goals are to make money by encouraging people to invest in the game, and making the game hard enough that people will spend their money. This lends itself to a more mature audience, and so the game system should be more complex and harder.

Coming up next, I will dust off my Star Wars Galaxies memories and show exactly what I mean by choosing for your player base and goals, and the benefits and consequences.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The World......Of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is by far the most popular commercial MMO in existence. It uses a class and level system that is completely permanent. Unless the server gets rolled back, you will never regress in level, nor can you change your class without deleting your character or starting a new character.

The system used is pretty basic. There are a number of character classes (nine at the time of writing with a tenth to be released with the coming expansion, Wrath of the Lich King) that the character can choose from. Those classes are unique from one another with unique abilities and capable of using different combinations of equipment. Each class also has a slightly different mechanics for ability scores. A warrior, for instance, gets twice the attack power from strength that a mage or rogue would.

This system is good because each class is using different equipment, and each class is needed in it’s own way. It is balanced as each class has a role and even the hybrid classes cannot do everything. Everyone has equal opportunity, and no knowledge of the game is needed to play. The game is easy from the beginning, and gets harder as you play longer, as challenges become greater.

WOW does have a skill side, though. Weapon use and defense rating are based off of use. Every time you swing your axe, your axe skill can go up to the cap. Your weapon skill also determines how often and how hard you will hit. However, this is largely just an annoyance than an actual mechanice, as it takes about 15 minutes to level a skill from 1 to the max.

WOW also has an aspect called talent points. This allows a character to customize his or her abilities with small bonuses and extra abilities. For instance, warriors can increase their defense and attacking abilities, rogues can become sneakier or more combat oriented. The characters gain their own niche, and in theory every single character could have a unique talent combination. The problem with this is that there are still only a handful of talent combinations that are useful, leading to very similar characters.

I will be going more in depth with other aspects of WOW later. However, we see here that a class system is good for balance, and that it gives each character a niche. The game is easy to get into, and gets more challenging as you go. This is a game type that is good for beginning players and a more casual gaming experience.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Level With Me, I Got Skills

MMORPGs are based around characters that advance in some form, and become more powerful. There are two methods that are commonly used for this progression: Levels and Skills. Characters will progress by either gainin a level, or by acquiring skills. There are benefits and consequences of either system, and I will be going in depth with each system, as well as some specific examples.

The Levelling system is a tried and true method of progression. It makes limiting equipment and balancing PVP easy. For the developer, it is easy to use and for the players there is something rewarding about “dinging” the next level. A big downside is that it is easy to tell whether you are more powerful than another individual or mob. There is less challenge in this game, as a good amount of the mechanics are visibly on the table. The level system plays like a computer game. (For our purposes, I’m including the class system as part of the level system)

A Skills based system is something different. There are many ways to use a skill system, but several things are constant. First, skills systems are hard to balance and usually there are skill sets and combinations that are more powerful than were intended. It is also hard to tell the difference between a character with a lot of skills and another character with none, and it is also difficult to see mob strength. The Skill system feels more real and lifelike.

My next few blog posts will be looking at specific examples of these systems, and the benefits and effects. I will also be examining one of my favorite examples, Star Wars Galaxies, which went from an established skill system with some semblance of balance, to a class and level system. Though the class and level system was poorly implemented, the current mechanics and the results show the variance between these systems.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Shop Around

Another common option for MMORPG game developers is the “Item Store” method. With this marketing strategy, the game itself is free and fully playable. You are able to get basic and decent items and succeed relatively well. However, if you are willing to pay a small amount of cash, you can get the uber sword +10 of dragon slaying that does 10 times more damage than anything you can find in the game.

This means that the people willing to pay are going to be the best at the game in terms of gear. They don’t even have to explore all the content, they can just buy the gear and grind out levels being able to kill things well above their own level. And PVP is seriously unbalanced, as those that pay can do more damage and survive more damage than those who don’t.

Still, the base game is free, and that attracts a lot of players. People will play almost anything if it’s free, and being owned by a bunch of noobs who bought their gear at the store is still better than being owned by the same noobs while paying to play the game.

I’ve got a couple more fianancing posts, then I’ll start analyzing the benefits and consequences of using different class and skill systems.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Quest for More Money

Most traditional games use a subscription or pay for software scheme, but that is not the only successful way to make money for the gaming companies. Case in point is a little game called Project Entropia by MindArc

The premise is simple: have a game where players can trade real money for online currency and the reverse. The company makes money whenever a player deposits and looses it when a player cashes out. The marketing strategy is very similar to an online casino.

Players start with no money and nothing but clothes and a debit card to their name. They have abilities, but all but one of them require tools purchased from other players or from an NPC. The only thing a new player can do to make money besides depositing is harvesting mind sweat from local creatures. This usually ends in two hours of playing and sweating before the first few bottles are collected. These items sell for ridiculously low amounts, as anyone can create the sweat by sweating creatures and if the price is too high, market factors will balance it out.

Beyond the bad initial income, players will loose money if they do anything and sell to the NPC traders. The wholesale prices are so low that it is almost impossible to turn a profit that way. Any profit must be made from other players. The most successful players haven't made that much money off of MindArc, instead they've made almost all their money off of players in one way or another.

The model has successful players leeching off of new players, or players who are bent on depositing and having fun. From a playing perspective, the game is free, but hard to play if you don't deposit. From a company perspective, you will be making much more money than you're paying.

Some suggestions, though, for this model. If you choose to impliment it, make sure to strike a balance so that it is more profitable to sell or buy from a player than a general store, but some specific and neccesary items are only purchasable from the general store. You want to maximize the drains on the economy, so that more money is removed from the economy and into your company's pockets.

MMO Profitability

For a game company to stay in business, they need a source of income. Mainstream games have relied on sold copies to cover the costs of development and support, and that worked well for a while. However, an MMORPG title has additional expense, most notably caused by the servers and support team to keep the game running. Developers have created a number of strategies to generate revenue to cover these costs, and make startling profits.

The typical means of profit for MMORPG developers is in the monthly fee. In World of Warcraft, you have to buy the base game, which comes with a free 30 day trial of the game. For each additional month, you have to pay $14.99. Not only is Blizzard getting $40 for each copy, but they're also getting $15/month per subscription. With their player base in the millions, that's a considerable sum, and one reason this method is so popular.

A second method comes from the earlier concept of games: Pay once, play forever. Guild Wars is the only title that comes to mind that is actually an MMORPG. The benefit is that you can charge more for the main game and expansions, and players will put up with less content, because it's "cheaper." You lower costs, and have no real incentive to keep players playing the game. Works great if you think your MMORPG will go out of style in a few years, so you curtail the cost of further development and setting up a lot of servers.

Those are the two main forms of MMORPG revenue. These are used by mainstream developers and make good, steady profits from them. Tomorrow, I'll explore the non-traditional methods of MMORPG Revenue. Most of these involve a freely available base games, so if you're looking for free MMORPG fun, stay tuned.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

On to the MMO's

After a respite from this blog, I'm back to delve further into the labyrinth of game design and theory. For the immediate future, I'll be looking at MMORPGs, a class of game that is still largely in the beta stage, having developed within the last ten years.

MMORPG development initially was born through two sources: online, browser-based games and chatrooms, and games that allowed users to play with others over internet or ethernet connections. A game that comes to mind is Neverwinter Nights, which allowed users to set up a server on their computer to allow others to play on. Once the players logged off, their characters were saved, and if the server was still running, they could return and play them.

Nowadays there is a MMORPG for every flavor, from ones designed for hardcore gamers to the casual gamers. Games designed for children and games designed with adult content. As the forefront of popularity and profitability, an understanding of MMORPGs is key to cornering a game market.

In the coming posts, I will be exploring some interesting aspects of MMO's. Stay tuned, more is coming soon.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

It Is Our Divine Right to Expand

In playing Warcraft 3, I've come to that point at the end of Reign of Chaos, where I'm pretty good at the basic game and unit control. And then, unit balances all change hands and places with The Frozen Throne expansion. Suddenly, I'm forced to deal with new units and a new hero for every race, as well as an increased itemization brought on by shops. The game takes on a new sense of balance, but the tables are shifted enough that I'm thrown off by the difference.

Obviously, this happens every time I play through the campaigns and finish the battle of Mount Hijal, and move on to Frozen Throne. I do really enjoy the campaigns and enjoy the storyline, but it brings up an interesting concept. In Warcraft 3, the Frozen Throne changes everything about multiplayer balance, and strategy, but it leaves the core game completely untouched. In fact, Reign of Chaos is a seperate game from Frozen Throne, so seperate that if you want to play the original campaigns you must use a different program (although the Frozen Throne play disk will still run Reign of Chaos).

This is a stark contrast to the expansions of games like Neverwinter Nights, and Morrowind, where the game balance and original gameplay were drastically changed by the introduction of the expansion. In Morrowind's case, new items and mobs change player abilities, and in Neverwinter Nights, the new classes are only partially balanced with the original campaign, and the doubled max level cap means that bosses and random spawns become more powerful for the begining campaign than those that were intended (and in most cases, the player exceeds the maximum level of spawn, and is just killing epic dragons left and right, or insanely large amounts of lower level creatures).

The problem with the expansion packs is that it is entirely new content and extended gameplay, but you are really stuck with three options. The first is to make it play as a seperate game, which makes the original or vanilla game useful for nostolgia. The second way is to just combine the two, and hope for the best, which leads to unbalanced gameplay. The final way is to take the time and effort to incorporate the expansion into the main game and make sure it is a balanced, but unique, addition. The last point is difficult in terms of money and time. No developer wants to spend two or three years on an expansion just to turn around and have to spend another incoprorating it.

I am a big fan of expanding content that expansion packs provide, but I can see the biggest problem is in their integration. Without proper integration, it's basically just a new game or mod over an old skin, or else it's a bunch of uber loot that makes the original stuff worthless.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Content, Content, Content...

Video games are inherently limited by two things: Their implimentation and their content. Implimentation is a simple thing to fix: re-release an improved version of the game on a newer, faster, or better console/operating system and rework the mechanics of it. The base game doesn't change much, just the means of playing it.

Content, on the other hand, is not as readily fixable. At shipping, each game has a finite amount of content. Even games like Neverwinter Nights and the Elder Scrolls series have limited content, even if they have huge worlds. There's only so much that can exist in these game discs, and only so much that random creature generators can do for these games.

There are two solutions to this problem. The first is randomness. There's an ASCII graphic game called Dwarf Fortress that can generate from scratch it's own random game world with random towns, people, and places. Now, this does allow the player, if they tire of a world, to create an entirely new world, but at the moment, the world has very little impact on the actual game. There's an adventure mode where you can wander around and interact with the world, but it really doesn't matter that much.

The concept of a random world/plot is a dangerous one to rely on as well. Random generators are flawed because they are random. Yes, you cannot tell where it is going, and you will be surprised, but more often than not, the random generator creates something that defies logic and doesn't work well for a game basis. A randomly generated game is very rarely balanced, and a lot of work has to go into it to make it work.

The other option is to use player generated content, a la Spore and most MMORPGs. The idea is that other players will create content and fun for players that is beyond the standard gameplay. For MMORPGs, this is anything social and interactive, whether it's raids, guilds, contests, or just the experience of seeing a hundred adventurers standing around in their various gear, and seeing the potential of the game.

For a game like Spore, the content is directly created by other players based on the same rules you are playing with. Spore creates predator and prey creatures around your creature based on profiles pulled from their web server. These profiles were creatures generated by other players, using the rules that you are bound by. This creates unique, but relatively balanced ecosystems. The problem will arise when someone finally breaks the mechanics of the game and generates a super-predator or unkillable/uncatchable prey. There will be problems with this system, and it will need to be monitored carefully.

Content is a serious issue with video games, as if a game runs out of content, the player will not keep playing it. Along this same token, next time I will look at the viability of expansion packs to solve this problem.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Starting Up Da Shield!

Let me recount one of the most fun experiences I've had in a game. A long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there was a lone, Imperial Starbase orbitting an Imperial stronghold. It was a dull day, as usual for this starbase. It wasn't responsible for producing any of the mighty ships of the imperial fleet, nor were any based here. It was just a simple outpost, guarding a remote sector. Until, of course, a Rebel contigent of blockade runners and frigates, accompanied by a few squadrons of fighters dropped out of hyperspace. I thought my space station was doomed. Little did I know how well the station alone could defend itself.

In Empire at War, space stations can call in a limitless supply of reinforcements. The level of the station determines what kind of reinforcements it can call in. The smallest stations have only fighters, while the bigger stations can call in Acclamator-class cruisers (the ships the clone troopers shipped out on in Episodes 2 and 3), each of which also has a squadron of bombers and fighters. These space stations, if used properly, can defend your sectors with relative ease. I've had one amazing showdown between a large rebel fleet, including Home One and another Mon Cal cruiser, and my lvl 5 space station. I won, but not without taking a lot of damage. The defensibility of the space station makes defense a fun task, instead of a chore.

I have to admit, this concept is only really applicable to space and sector-based games, and it very well may only work well with a game like Empire at War. However, I think it is a very awesome feature, and certainly makes an enemy assault fun, instead of something to dread. The dread comes in when your space station is damaged heavily, and your reinforcements are minutes away.

Imperial Bastion

So, Star Wars: Rebellion has an inherent flaw. It is almost impossible to gain control of a well fortified planet without literally blasting it to pieces. I experienced this aspect just the other day, when trying to gain control of Commenor, an Imperial held planet with a dozen squadrons of TIE fighters and intercepters, as well as twelve squads of various imperial troops and a General Veers in command.

Let me explain some things to you about this situation. First, a planet blockaded with an enemy fleet, or with fighters is harder to run missions on (because units have trouble getting there). Secondly, every additional unit of troopers on a planet makes each mission harder to succeed at. The third problem, is having an enemy General on the planet, which increases the chances your mission will be detected and foiled. So, all three of these aspects make it extremely difficult to run a mission on the enemy planet. So, running missions on the planet to kill troops, destroy facilities, and capture the enemy general is just a waste of units.

So, what is left to do? Invade with a space force, and take decisive action by planetary bombardment or assault. The first problem, is taking out the opposing space force. At this time, I was running around with a few frigates and an escort carrier, with very few starfighters left operational. Once invading the system is complete, the planet is still sitting there as a fortress.

Planetary bombardment is often difficult. It has many problems, especially if the enemy has planetary shields and laser batteries. Your fleet is likely to be heavily damaged from the space battle, and you will loose ships if the enemy has a laser battery. Also, bombardment lessens your opinion in that system, and will cause neutral planets to join your enemy.

Alternatively, you can invade before bombardment. This means that the units you can carry with you will take on the entire enemy force. They have two disavantages: the enemy general and the defensive power of the planet. Both of these things make anything but an overwhelming invasion (2 or 3 times as many troops) impossible.

What's the point of this discourse? Simple, a nearly impenetrable base should not exist in any game. Difficult to crack, yes, but never so difficult to crack that it takes a significant part of your resources and actually hinders your ability to play the game. Let's face it, it's easier to blockade that planet, and any other fortresses, and wait for the units to be destroyed from lack of maintanance resources. There needs to be a way in to defeat the enemy.

Monday, March 19, 2007

We Can Rebuild Him...

Progress must invariably be made, and in Video Games, nothing is better than seeing your old units get upgraded and become better and better. Let's face it, we like it when our stuff gets bigger and better.

We looked at the research system in Evil Genius already, but the research system in Star Wars: Rebellion is much different. In Rebellion, you don't so much select individual projects as assign research teams to start work in one of three areas: facility deisgn, ship design, and troop design. To progress, you must assign a hero to work on design, and wait...and wait...and wait. Your hero will provide you with regular progress reports, and ask if you want to continue research. Eventually, you'll unlock more and more ships and facitlities and troops. At the end of everything, your hero will tell you that there's no more research potential, and you can stop researching.

The benefit of this type of research is that it feels real, and it doesn't tie up too many of your resources. Yes, you can assign multiple heroes to research, but you really only need one. You can research everything and only tie up three of your heroes. The minimal resources for research is very nice in a strategy game where every hero counts.

What is also nice is that you are told if you still have any research potential, or if everything is researched. More often than not, you aren't told that you're done with research, and still send funding to it, wasting those resources. Knowing when your research is done is almost vital to accurate resources management.

So, to recap Rebellion's research style is very user friendly. You can set a hero to research, and forget about him until he mentions that progress has or hasn't been made. You'll be made very aware that your research is done, as well. This system works well, and was remarkable for it's time. For newer games, however, there's a need for further interactivity in research. The simplicity is both boon and bane of Rebellion.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Rebel Scum

For those of us who enjoy Star Wars, we know that the heroes are everything. Let's face it, the whole damned universe revolves around the plot involving Luke and Vader. All the supporting plot elements involve huge characters as well. Boba Fett, Han Solo, Leia, Mara Jade, Wedge Antilles, etc. We all know that these names make the universe what it is.

Which is why it's no surprise that heroes are such a big deal in Star Wars: Rebellion. Basically, each side has about 30 unlockable heroes, each of which is free, compared to units that can accomplish comporable missions, and can grow in power, as opposed to units which stay the same. Also, special forces are limited to one kind of mission, whereas heroes can go on two or more types of missions. Also, while there's a chance that heroes can be killed outright, it is rare, whereas special forces are cannon fodder. Heroes are much more likely to be injured or captured than killed.

In Empire At War, heroes take a lesser role. Yes, they are still powerful (there's one mission where the emperor alone takes on a whole planet of bothans), but far from unbeatable. Damage them enough, and they'll retreat and be unavailable on the galactic map for a short time. In tactical mode, they provide a definate advantage or raw combat power, but never enough so that they're unbalanced. EAW turns unbalanced, superhuman heroes and brings them more in line with the rest of the units. They're still heroic, but not to the point of being Gods.

Which brings us to the concept here. Heroes can work well in a game. They're present in ever-increasing numbers these days, and in some cases it works really well. The thing to note, however, is that heroes alone should not be able to win the game, and they need to be kept in balance with the other units in the game. Command and Conquer: Generals did a good job of this. Colonol Burten, Black Lotus, and Jarmen Kell are all very powerful, and damned deadly when micromanaged. However, Burten is very vulnerable, especially to gattling fire, when he's setting bombs. Black Lotus can't defend herself, and is vulnerable when using any of her abilities. Jarmen Kell's ability only works on vehicles every 30 seconds, and leaves him open long enough to be hit and killed.

Balance is key to heroes, as with everything. They must not be the entire game. Even Neverwinter Nights relied on henchmen, NPCs, and pets to some extent, and that was a game entirely about heroes. Heroes are an addition to the game, not a game maker.

Next time: I'll explore Research as it applies in a Rebellion and an Empire At War.