Rethinking Tanking

Getting back into traditional fantasy MMOs has of course led me to thinking about their flaws and my desire to correct them.

One of the long standing issues with the genre since EverQuest is the holy trinity of design: damage taking, damage prevention/recovery, damage dealing.  And while games continue to try to include crafting and other non-combat elements, the vast majority of people actually want to kill things, so combat remains, and will remain, at the center of most game design.  In this trinity mold, you end up with a tank, a healer, and then assorted damage dealing classes.  Fighting runs the same, tank taunts to control where the damage goes, the healer heals the tank, and everyone else tries their best to make the tank’s job very very difficult.

Right now, tanking is all about hitting taunt abilities to focus the attention of the target on to the player and keep its damage output in one place where it can be measurably tracked and dealt with.  As games have advanced over the years, taunt abilities have become more varied and interesting, but at their base they are about manipulation of the aggro list (the priority in which an NPC “hates” players) to put the tank at the top.

What I’m considering, and by no means is this a finished idea, but one that needs discussion, so please, discuss, is to replace taunt with a cover system.  If Monster A is attacking Player B, rather than having Tank X target Monster A and click a taunt ability, saying “Hey stupid! Come get me!” (which always just seemed idiotic to me, from the stance of someone who enjoys role playing in games), you instead have Tank X target (or secondary target, or target of target, or whatever) Player B and click one of his new protection abilities, putting himself between Monster A and Player B and taking the damage.

This appeals most to me because it eliminates taunt, which from a role play and logic standpoint has always been broken.  Why would a monster ever stop beating on the healer just because the invulnerable turtle is calling him names?  Nope.  Healers first, then those pesky damage dealing people who are killing me and lastly I’ll deal with the invulnerable turtle when he’s a little less invulnerable.  On the other hand, the idea of a monster going after the healer and the invulnerable turtle stepping in between them, now that has merit.  Effectively, we are taking away the roll of tank as we know it, and turning him into a healer type who utilizes shield/rune spells, preventing damage but not recovering it.

The main downside I see with this is the creation of the new role of DPS Tank.  That’s where the player with the highest DPS becomes the defacto tank by virtue of doing the most damage while the healer heals him and the old tank protects him.


As an aside, this is ironic because over at Big Bear Butt, he recently posted about giving everyone taunt and eliminating healing.  Which just goes to show that this is a problem with many solutions.


InfectedI’m going to start the review of Scott Sigler’s Infected by simply saying that I enjoyed it.  I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with a weak stomach as parts of the book are fairly graphic in detailing damage to the human body, but it is a good read.  The book follows two main threads.  The first thread is about a typical team of government folks tracking down the source of a possible virus that might be a terrorist weapon.  The second thread follows one of the people who is infected with what the government is trying to track down.

You might want to stop reading here as I’m about to go all spoilery.  Yep, spoilers from this point.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Perry Dawsey is the name of the infected man.  A former football player and survivor of a childhood of abuse at his father’s hands have made him a tough son of a bitch, which is how he manages to make it through so many of the things that happen to him… or rather, that he does to himself.  The virus is this book is actually an alien life form.  Microscopic seeds land on a person, and given the right mix of temperature and moisture and other conditions, they can dig in and start their work.  Dawsey gets covered in these spores, it is never said how, and eight of them manage to begin their work.  These spores are like machines, they read DNA and adapt and begin building the structures they need do their work.  Dawsey’s spores are on his forehead (though that one dies off early), his right shin, his left thigh, his chest (near the collar bone), his back (high, right over the spine), his ass cheek, his forearm and his testicle.  As the story progresses, and as the spores develop into rashes, then bizarre orange scaly skin, then to blue triangles beneath the surface that start talking to him as they awaken, Dawsey takes them out, one by one.  Tearing one out, then another, stabbing, burning and more.  All of which Sigler describes in fantastic detail.  Did I mention there was one on his balls?  Reading it was uncomfortable to say the least.  Unsettling.  And yet, the story drew me in as Dawsey persevered, almost thrived on survival.

The other half of the book, about the team trying to find and fight this new threat, is well written, but fairly standard for this type of book.  That isn’t to say it’s bad, it’s just… unsurprising.  The only real breath of fresh air here is that the tale lacks a fresh young recruit who shows up the older members.  And this is a good thing.  The story doesn’t need it.

In the end, I’m satisfied with the book and looking forward to reading the sequel in the future.

Stop! Socialize!

Back when I played EverQuest, I often described the game as a chat server with a D&D style game tacked on to it.  This felt right because most of the game could be played without paying specific attention to the graphics.  Most of the action happened in your chat window.  People talked, the NPC text scrolled by, even damage output was all in this little window (until they allowed you to customize the UI, at which point I shoved all the damage output into a tiny window that I barely paid any attention to so I could focus more on the chatting).  With World of Warcraft they put more of combat into the hotkey bar, made you care about refresh timers and started dragging your attention away from the chat window.  They even eliminated the wall-sitting exp grind and forced you to keep moving around, so you had to actually watch the screen instead of just waiting for the puller to get back with a mob to fight.  In Free Realms, the mini game design requires so much attention that I find myself playing for an hour and realizing that I haven’t been reading the chat window.  I complain about not being able to find my friends in Free Realms, but to be perfectly honest, they might have come on and sent me tells, but I missed it because I was too busy chasing NPCs or looking for quests, or in mini games where I’m too busy playing a game to be watching chat.

The progression of MMOs that I am seeing is to get people more involved with the game, but less involved with the people.  In order to socialize in Free Realms, I have to actually stop playing and stand around.  In EQ, progression and socialization could happen (did happen) simultaneously.  And we won’t even go into the fact that I have not once grouped with anyone in Free Realms, even when I’ve wanted to and tried, it just doesn’t seem to be something people care about… or maybe they simply aren’t seeing my area chat asking for a group because no one is reading.

One of the best things about the Xbox 360 is the built in voice chat that works by default in all games.  If you play multi-player, you can chat with the other players.  It would be nice if MMOs could integrate voice chat more fully since they are taking our eyes away from the chat box and using our keyboard more for play than talking.  Ideally, a game would have some sort of spacial chat, similar to the way “say” worked in EQ (and other MMOs), so people within a certain distance would hear you.  That way when you were hanging out with your group in a dungeon, your group hears you, and when you walk in to town you hear players within an X foot radius, approaching people you want to hear, moving away from people you don’t.

I’d love to see it happen, because the current trend of having to choose between playing and socializing is killing my interest in their games.

Combat Revised

Tobold has an interesting post up today about making combat in MMOs better.  I’d like to take his combat cards design a step further, and use it to support a classless design as well.

Think about it, if all your attacks, defences and utility moves in combat were based on a deck of skill/action cards, you can go a step further and make each card have requirements.  For example, a defensive card called “Shield Block” that would buff you an absorb the damage of the next incoming attack (or X amount of damage) would require you to have a shield equipped to use.  A “Fireball” card could require a wand be in your primary hand, while a “Backstab” requires a dagger.  I’m sure we could spitball and come up with many things like this.  As an added bonus, the items could have a modifier.  Using a flat shield with “Shield Block” has no bonus, but if you had a Spiked Shield your “Shield Block” would inflict X damage if the attack absorbed was a melee attack.  Again, let your mind run wild on all the things you could do.

The result would be that your “class” would be defined by your equipment and the deck that you carry.  New cards and new items could be found through questing and adventuring, and made through crafting.  Crafting itself could be made up as card game combat using a separate deck and crafter’s tools.

To throw another element into the mix, you could allow for character level to affect the bonus on cards, or even add a “card level” where the cards in your deck gain experience through use, the more you use a card the higher level it gets the better the bonus.  Card level would, in effect, mirror a skill based system, while your character level would carry a bonus on all cards.  So if you had been heavily magic focused and decided to become a plate tank by switching your gear and cards, the 50 levels you earned as a mage would transfer as a level 50 warrior, you’d only be lacking card levels.

Another thing this design would allow for is a structure where any opponent can be non-trivial.  If defence and mitigation are card effects, an unlucky draw could leave you open to attacks by even the “lowest level” foes.  The reverse is also true, that low level characters can fight even high level foes with a good deck and a lucky draw.

This design would even allow for RMT in the form of selling booster packs of random cards (or buying specific cards for larger amounts), but restricts the power of “bought goods” through the equipment requirements and card level bonuses.  (Traded cards would not retain their level.)

Lastly, similar to the way Guild Wars handles things, make the places you can swap equipment and decks be limited to the adventuring hubs, so that a player picks a role and outfits themselves prior to heading out.  (This works fantastically with my thoughts on towncentric design with judicious use of instancing.)

The more I think about it, the more I like this.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance

I realize this game is not new.  I even got it over a year ago, but I am just now getting around to playing it and I think I broke it.

My understanding is that if you play through the story of the game as designed, it will provide a moderate level of difficulty all the way through, perhaps even getting harder toward the end.  However, I didn’t do that.  I played through the first section of the game (immediately switching my team out for the West Coast Avengers inspired team of Hawkeye, Moon Knight, Spider-Woman and Iron Man), but once I got to Stark Tower, the first HQ and mission hub in the game, I went exploring instead of taking the next mission immediately.

One of the features of the game are the Comic Book missions.  These are short (20 minutes max) training simulation missions that you discover while playing through the game.  However, they do also give you six of them to start.  Because they are given to you, there are no rewards for these missions.  You don’t unlock extra gear or suits, but you will gain experience and cash while playing them.  I played all six (and I had to repeat one because I fell about three hundred points shy of getting the Gold level on it, so I actually did seven missions).  The result of this detour was that when I went to do mission number two I wasn’t level 4 or 5 like a player should be when going through the story missions alone, I was level 14 or 15.  For the next two story missions I ripped through them like a hot knife through butter.  I take enemies out in two or three hits easily, sometimes less.  Boss fights are a breeze as I am doing 60-80 points of damage with one of Moon Knight’s special attacks (he’s my favored character on whom I dump all point spending and the best items).

I’ve just moved from Act 1 to Act 2, Dr. Strange’s house, and I am hoping that maybe the game will get a tad harder.  We’ll have to wait and see.

But, this brings up a discussion of game design.  The question is, did the designers put in the training missions expressly for the purpose of giving players who can’t progress in the story a place to play and level up a bit, or is this leveling path I have discovered unintentional?  I would like to think it was intentional since it can be extremely frustrating to get stuck in a game, however since I managed to get 10 levels in just a few missions, I think they may have misjudged them and made them too rewarding.

Of course, I may have also broken the game design through my method of play in that I am dumping all my power and money into one character and treating the other three members of my team as “additional damage”.  So many years of playing MMOs with the tank/healer mentality leaks over in to every game I play.  I can’t blame that entirely, though, as mathematically and logically it makes sense to play this way, if defeating the content is your goal.

In any event, despite the game being “easy”, I am still enjoying playing it.  And that’s the important thing…

Breaking the Mold

A post over on Aggro Me about City of Heroes got me to thinking…

One of the things I enjoyed most about City of Heroes was that it was very hard to put together a group that didn’t work. Even if you didn’t have a “healer” the group could still do well. Since just about any character could solo, unless you got unlucky, any group of characters can pretty much make a team. All this is said with one caveat: as long as the players were willing to adjust and learn as they went.

The biggest downfall of CoH was, in my opinion, the fact that it did break the mold. It wasn’t your traditional tank/heal/dps game, and people who insisted on playing it as such usually got more frustrated than people who were open to the more freeform style that CoH thrived on.

How it dealt with healing was one of the major breaks from the norm. Since combat was fast and furious, so was healing, and more focus of the game was spent on the prevention of damage than pure healing. Buffs for friends and debuffs for enemies, with healing as something you do when things go bad.

Aggro’s post talks about the Kinetics method of healing, and my experience in the game was similar, yet different. Throughout beta and for over a year after release, the character build I played most was the Dark Miasma/Dark Blast Defender, or Dark/Dark. The playstyle of the Dark/Dark mainly consisted of charging your team into a group of enemies and then making one of them your bitch, dropping a handful of area effect debuffs making him and his friends less accurate (damage prevention) and easier to hit (damage increase). When allowed to do my job, it was a thing of beauty. Clouds of dark fog slowed and blinded our enemies and if it was necessary I would leech health from them. If things went bad, I could even mass revive the group while draining the bad guys. But, all of this requires that I keep one enemy locked with all my debuffs running on him… most players had this horrible habit of just wildly picking targets and taking them down or worse, assisting me, and causing my powers to drop. After a while of being blue in the face trying to explain this to people, I simply gave up grouping with strangers, and later nearly gave up grouping alltogether.

In the end, I applaud CoH for doing its own thing and breaking the tried and true triumverate, but I have to hang my head in shame at the players who seemed to want the exact thing they complain about in every game and refuse to learn to play the game on its own.

One of these days, when I finally do upgrade our PCs, the wife and I will go back to City of Heroes (and City of Villains) because it really was the most fun I’ve had in an MMO, despite the problems. And who knows, maybe at this late date people might finally know better.

Defeat Not Death

There is a really great post over on the Tattered Page that I want to post about, but my head isn’t very clear today and I have too many meetings to attend, so I’m going to put that off and return to a subject I have hit before…

I want to touch again on “the Death Mechanic”. No, that is not a new horror film, nor is it a job title. It is the unfortunate moniker given to the question “How does your game handle player defeat?” Sadly, too many games have, possibly due to the moniker, limited this to player death. And so, as I’ve said before, I feel games need to feature alot more variety in player defeat so that not everything equates to death. One specific thing I would like to see in games, especially in PvP, is player defeat resulting in a temporarily unconscious/immobile player who then returns to full health but with a penalty, like a limp (slower movement) or an injured arm (slower attacks) or even a head injury (lower accuracy). In this way, defeat stings, but since the defeated player would “catch a second wind” and put him up to full health, they’d also be given a temporary boon to attempt to avoid repeated ass kickings (since, logically, if a player lost a fight, he would have done some kind of damage to his opponent before going down).

The main reason I want to see this type of change is to throw a wrench into the current game dynamic. How would PvP and even PvE be affected if a player had to be defeated (reduced to zero hit points), say, three times before they were more permanently removed from the action (knocked out for 3 minutes instead of 10 seconds)? What if players couldn’t actually kill other players, only knock them out and loot them, unless both players (attacker and target) were both flagged to allow death, but experience or other rewards for PvP were greater when flagged? Then throw possible permanent death into the mix… Perhaps not every outcome would be desirable, but it certainly would be different from the bulk of current games.

I really think that many games have boxed themselves into a corner with their death mechanics. Think about it… if a player dies as part of normal activity of the game, what must you do? First, you have to create, both in function and in lore, a way for players to return from the dead. Sure, you could just go the first person shooter route and just have people respawn *bam* with no reason, but this isn’t an FPS, this is an MMORPG. Role Playing Game. In addition to that, since you have defined defeated as dead, hit points are really life points (or blood points). The character is being hit and bleeding to death, so now you need magical healing (or at least, people have come to expect it).

So, lets take hit points back, all the way to the beginning, back when they were not intended to mean your life literally, but were meant to be the character’s ability to move and avoid death by rolling with blows, taking a punch. Now, only critical hits are actual bleeding hits (and they’ll carry with them a damage over time component unless bandaged), and the rest just means you are taking blows or ducking out of the way tiring yourself out. Now, instead of magical healing, players can hit you with toughness, invigoration, agility… and these things will increase your hit points because they are extending the amount of ducking and taking blows you can do.

Yes, in the actual function of “healing” in the game not much will change, but once you disassociate the combat from bleeding and death, it opens up many other possibilities for how to handle defeat in the game and the directions your story can take. As I’ve mentioned before, wouldn’t it be cool if when you are attacking an enemy city and your group wiped out, they captured you instead of you being dead and resurrecting/respawning? I think it would…

A Real Class Act

Okay… with a few recent posts around the internet on Classes vs Skills for characters in MMOs, I decided to go dig up the post I made on one of the previous incarnations of my site about how I would design classes in my game, if I ever got to make one. I’m a little pressed for time this morning, so what you are getting is actually two posts I made mushed into a single post, so make sure you read all of it before you comment. Read more

Stay Classy

Over at the Zen of Design, a post has been made and hopefully a violent and bloody discussion will ensue. The post is about Classes in MMOs.

Somewhere around my room I’ve got a document I started about class design. See, I really hate the way many games implement classes. You make one choice, at creation, and you are stuck. A warrior is a warrior, a cleric is a cleric. You are what you are and so is everyone else. Basically, EverQuest. World of Warcraft managed to do one better and essentially each class is actually three classes since you can choose to focus your talent points in one of three trees. I like this flexibility, so much so that I play a shadow priest in WoW… that’s a priest who is okay at healing, but better at dealing damage. I love it.

Back to my document. The idea I had for class design involved giving the players more on an illusion of control. What you would do is group skills together into sets, or schools as I called them. All melee weapons would be in a melee combat school, wearing armor and armor types falls into the defence school, healing arts both magic and non-magic fall into a healing school, and so on. In the end I had 6 or 7 schools that covered most things. Then each player would choose the ranks of his schools. They could put defence first, and melee combat second… making them a warrior… putting healing third might make them a minor paladin type, if they went defence then healing and melee combat third that would be a major paladin, healing first then defence then melee makes them a cleric, healing/melee/defence makes them a healing monk, melee/healing/defence makes them a fighting monk… and so on, involving all the schools. At first glance this looks like a ridiculous amount of freedom for the players, but in reality it is a very finite number of “classes” and all balance can be approached from that angle. No need to worry about someone maxing healing and melee and defence and damage spell casting because its not possible, if fact the ranking can inherantly reduce the effectiveness of the skills in that school, and since everyone will have to place one school at the lowest rank it means that everybody will suck at something.

Essentially, all I’m really saying is… totally unrestricted skill systems are bad, and totally rigid class systems are bad. A good system is just floating somewhere in the middle, a nice balance between player freedom and developer control.


If you read my entry about my wedding, you’ll recall that my car got broken into. If you have read my weblog for a decent length of time you’ll know that this is the fourth time in just over a year that my car has been broken into. The first time, they broke a window. The second time, they broke a window and stole my stereo. The third time, they broke a window, bent the dividing bar between two paines of glass and stole my stereo. This last time, they jammed something in the lock, pushed down until the lock popped, then stole my tire gauge, a multi-tool and three packs of gum.

I have insurance. Sometimes I pay the monthly on it and I think to myself, “What a waste of money!” For many years I paid and got nothing out of it… well, my insurance has 100% break glass coverage, so maybe twice over the years I had my windshield replaced because of a crack caused by road junk. Each time my car was broken into my insurance has paid for it. Each broken window was replaced. Each stereo was upgraded. And when I get around to buying a new tire gauge and multi-tool, they’ll refund me for that too. All in all, as I’ve seen the bills for these pass through my hands, the amounts of damage have been fairly small. Even without insurance I’d have covered it just fine. This time that changed.

I wish I had a picture to show, but the damage to my car looked minor. The door panel around the lock looked bent, and the lock itself wouldn’t turn when the key was put in. However, the lock mechanism worked just fine from the inside, and did in fact lock the door. So when I dropped the car off to have it fixed, covered 100% for vandalism by my insurance, I figured they’d hammer out the door, maybe have to replace the lock cylinder. I was wrong.

In the end, they had to replace the lock (which also involved rekeying the lock to match my key), replace a bunch of stuff inside the door, hammer and repaint the door panel (repainting meant redoing the trim and decals as well), and a handfull of other things. $791. Anyway, I’m glad for my insurance.

There is, however, one thing that my insurance can’t replace, and its something I may never get back. I don’t like driving any more. Driving somewhere means parking, even at my own home (this last break in was literally right outside my front door), and parking means leaving my car unattended, which leads to anxiety upon returning to my car. As I approach my vehicle now I’m looking at the windows for breaks, checking the doors for damage, nervously looking in the window to see if my stereo is still there or if my glovebox has been rifled through. Its been suggested that I get an alarm, but even with the alarm my anxiety wouldn’t go away, it would just be a different anxiety… all the break in stuff plus a new “Is my alarm working?” anxiety. I don’t even want to own a car anymore. And I don’t think this feeling will go away until I catch someone trying to break into my car and I beat them soundly before calling the police.

Or perhaps witness a thief getting caught, because I think part of my issues stems from the lack of concern I get from police. I understand that they hear this stuff alot, and that there is so little evidence and statistically my missing objects will never be recovered, but they always take the report with such indifference, they never collect any evidence, they just fill out the form and leave. They never say if there have been a rash of break ins lately and their working the case or anything like that. In fact, the last two times my car was broken into they didn’t even come, instead just took my information over the phone. The is no compassion, no “bedside manner”. I’ve just bee violated, my car vandalized and items stolen and they don’t say a single thing to possibly help me get beyond it. Facts, forms and forgotten.

I guess, all that I really want, is when it happens, for someone in authority to tell me its going to be all right, even if it isn’t true.