Removing Barriers

The wife and I have been discussing the future of our gaming. First and foremost has been the question of where to continue our gaming. Do we want to move to console gaming or stick with PCs? It is not an easy question, and of course we can not afford to do both.

The main pro on our pros and cons list for sticking with PCs is MMOs. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, my interest in the existing games is waning. While talking things over with the wife, I came to the realization that the biggest hurdle for us in most games is the fact that we have to play together if we want to play together. Did that make sense?

See, sometimes I have to work and the wife wants to play, but if she plays with her main character and this happens too many days in a row, she will out-level me (unless we are at max level) and now I will need to play catch up in order for us to play together and both of us have fun. The key being both of us having fun… being too low is never fun, swinging weapons and casting and not affecting much, neither is being too high, swatting away monsters without fear of losing. City of Heroes solved that; halfway at first with side kicking, and then the rest of the way later with Mentoring. It’s not a perfect system, but it worked well enough that when we were playing CoH, the wife and I never had to worry much about who leveled when. Of course, as I have said a few times in this blog, we stopped playing CoH when the graphics engine upgrade for CoV was just enough to force us to turn the details down just enough to make the game unappealing.

The alternative in most games is for us to play a secondary character when we can not play together, but personally, I think this causes more problems than it solves. What happens when I have been having a blast with my secondary for five days and now when the wife wants to play I still would rather play my second? It also serves to hinder a player/character relationship. If my best friend is on, I would rather see him and him see me than for me to have to look for one of his seven characters and him to keep an eye out for my five. It is a further disconnect from how real life works. Not that I am saying I want to emulate life 100%… holding a job and paying a mortgage in game as well as real life would be frustrating.

What is the solution?

My thoughts would be to begin designing any system with either a sidekick/mentor construct in mind, or with an eye on removing or reducing playability gaps between players. I am going to try to focus on the playability gaps…

First step, remove the direct link between player level and player power. Still have experience points in a game, earned when fighting or questing or crafting or anywhere the game can determine you have completed some defined task and reward you for it. Have levels with some mathematical formula for determining experience needed to level. 100 exp for level 1 (because everyone starts at level 0), 300 for 2, 600 for 3, 1200 for 4… until you reach some point where you just say “every level beyond X takes Y experience” where X could be 50 and Y could be 10,000,000 or something. No level cap. If someone wants to grind to level 999,999,999 so be it, if that is what they enjoy. But, you do not want to entirely remove player level’s ability to affect player power, because then people who like grinding will complain that grinding is pointless, so with every level you earn a “skill point”. And since experience is rewarded for more than combat, it would be possible for a crafting minded player to still be able to grind out those 999,999,999 levels by making swords instead of using, if they were so inclined. Once this link is severed, there is no reason not to allow players of any level to play together in groups.

Skill points are the second step. You can earn them with leveling. We will also allow people to earn them with training, similar to the way EVE Online skill training works, you select a skill to train the “next point” in and the point takes time, both in and out of game, with two major changes. One, allow people to train more than one skill at a time. The way that would work is, say a skill takes 1 hour to train, and you have 5 of those types of skills, so, in EVE Online world, you would have to log in (or still be logged in) each hour to switch skills. We would let someone select all 5 skills and in five hours they would all go up one point. Time of training times number of skills in training equals length of time for point. Oh, and training stops if your account expires, but will start again the moment the account is made active again picking up right where it left off. Now, if you are training a skill and then level and buy the skill you have been training, the time you have spent training will be applied to the next point. So, say you have that 1 hour skill training for 30 minutes, and then buy the point. The next point of the skill, which normally would have taken 2 hours to train, will now show only 1 and a half hours remaining. Two, unlike EVE, if training completes and there is no change made by the user, training will continue into the next point of the skill(s) selected. So, yes, conceivably, someone could start a character, set all skills to train and then not log in for a year and return with a fairly well decked out level 0 character. If they really want to pay for a game for a year and not play, more power to them.

So, what are the skills? Well, skills would allow you to use items or perform tasks, there can and will be huge hierarchy trees of skills, special and advanced skills that must be quested or learned from a master (maybe even allow that master to be another player). But how important will they be? This will vary… some skills would have to be proprietary, meaning you have to have the skill (and possibly even of a certain level) to use or do something. Other skills would be “untrained” skills, for example, in a fantasy setting wielding a sword could be an untrained skill, meaning that everyone can swing a sword, but gaining levels in swordplay and other advance skills will make your character “better” at sword use by affecting calculations (perhaps each level of skill gives you a +1 bonus to some section of the “to hit” formula that allows you to be more accurate) or by opening special moves (the use and timing of which can translate into “player skill” allowing players who practice with their combat to become more effective so that they might be able to trump the numerical calculated predictability of standard “auto-attack” combat). Of course, skills are not all combat related… there can and would be crafting, social, and other skill trees.

Back to the leveling… with the multitude of ways to gain experience, do we need to worry about power leveling? No, because, honestly, who cares? If a player wishes to become the “apprentice” to a local tailor and grind out eleventy billion hats so that he can gain a bunch of skill points, why not? If someone wants to “squire” for a powerful knight assisting him in combat while the knight does most of the real fighting work, why not? You could even encourage power leveling through an apprentice/master (or sidekick/mentor) system! While the squire is fighting with the knight, any skills he has set for training (you know, the timed training, not level based earning) that the knight uses he will get a training bonus, very small at first but growing larger the more a skill is used. So, while the knight and squire are out grinding experience killing monsters, eventually the squire would ratchet up to a double (or even triple) training rate, and he would be cranking out the combat skills at twice (or thrice) the normal rate, as long as they remained grouped (so yes, the bonus would be lost between gaming sessions, but we would give it like a 15 or 30 minute cool down window to account for temporary loss of connection).

But what about classes, you might be asking… especially since I wrote a post a while back about staying with classes, and another on my version of a class system. I still think players should have to pick starting attributes, and I think they should still have to pick a class, for lack of a better term, and award them with a bonus to certain skills when it comes to training. And I would even still do that by grouping the skills into sets and having the players rank the sets. And yes, I would still allow players to change their set rankings later in game (through quest or something). Would this allow players to game the system? Sure. They could rank combat the highest and train combat, then change ranks to merchant skills and train crafting. But, to me, it would not matter… no matter what system you come up with, some players will learn how to game it, how to maximize the systems to minimize risk and time and effort, because it is what they like to do. It’s on the shoulders of the designer to make game play and the world a compelling enough distraction that it keeps the player’s focus off the mechanics and off the desire to game it.

3 comments

  1. Chas says:

    For what it’s worth, when I got a chance to meet with Jack Emmert at a conference, I ended the conversation (he was rather in-demand) I commented that it was awful difficult to maintain 2 PC’s at gaming-quality- the system requirements were too steep. He acknowledged that that was a mistake. You’re not the only couple I knew that stopped playing because of the system requirements leap.

    As for the rest of your post… so much in common with a brainstorming session that went on over the holidays… so much solid stuff there. I’m less class-centric than you, but now I’m going to have to hurry up and start getting my ideas typed out. More on this later.

  2. Jason says:

    The funniest thing is, after writing this, I was struck with inspiration and started a whole new design doc for an MMO without levels, classes, or skill trees that I think would actually work. Like the Sims or Second Life, only with an actual story and goals and stuff for people to accomplish. Now I just need someone to fund it… or win the lottery…

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