Leader

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.