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.