Oh Captain, My Captain

I am the Captain
One ugly mutha fu--

I have long said that I think EVE Online is one of the best MMO game designs out there. Being able to train skills while offline and the entire game being of the “you are what you wear” style where you can take a character with all the skills in the world but if you put him in the shittiest new player frigate, he’s not much better than a new player in the shittiest new player frigate – aside from game knowledge and actual skill at playing. The one thing that always irked me about EVE though is that, essentially, you play a ship.

Yeah, you get to make a picture for yourself, and with the newer expansions you can now walk around in your captain’s quarters. Did they add space station ambulation yet? But for most of the game, you are a ship. A ship with no crew but you.

Two years ago, Cryptic launched Star Trek Online. I had played in the beta, but it hadn’t impressed me enough to be worth $15 a month. But now it’s gone “Free to Play” and I’ve gone back in. They’ve made some updates and I like what I’m seeing.

I am the Captain

The major element that makes STO good, for me, is that I am just the guy in charge. I’m not the ship. Yes, when I do ship combat the difference between Star Trek and EVE are fairly trivial, but to me they are important. The graphics lend themselves to the idea that I’m not actually in a 3rd person view of the ship, but that I’m at the helm looking at a simulation of what all my sensors are telling me. There are pictures of my crew at the bottom of the screen, on whom I can call to use their special abilities to assist in the battle.

Every bit of this game makes me feel like I am leading a team, as opposed to that I’m controlling a single unit. And it feels good.

When we get to ground combat, I have my Away Team, which other games would call henchmen. Except I get to train them and equipment. I get to build, to raise a team to get the job done. I know their names, and when I get new gear or they earn experience, I get excited to help them be better crew members.

Aside from the senior officers, there are also duty officers. Not originally part of the game, they are probably one of my favorite bits of it now. I find tasks that need doing, either on board the ship or away, and I assign my crew to do them. Picking the right crew is important as it affects the outcomes, and when they succeed they bring in experience, credits, items and more. Critical successes can result in double rewards or even buffs for me and our ship. Most importantly, it is another thing that makes me feel like a captain. (I also earned a couple of levels on my character just by logging in a few minutes a day and using my Duty Officers during a week or so when I couldn’t play for real.)

Until the Next Episode

Recently, the MMO world has been abuzz with Star Wars: The Old Republic, and mostly for their focus on story. By this, people really mean that you get to choose answers to dialog trees that lead you toward either the dark or the light. For me, that is completely uninteresting because I would probably 99% of the time pick the light side answer. In general, I just don’t play games to be the bad guy. I like being the hero, and face it, the Sith side aren’t the heroes.

For me, good story simply means it’s told well enough that I become engaged to the story. And one thing Star Trek Online does well is tell engaging stories – if you read them, that is. Although, some missions do have voice overs. But another thing they do that I like is that their “accept” answers are simple, matter of fact “Accept this mission” and “Beam down to planet” and not more involved, essentially putting words in my mouth. I like it when my MMO lets me be me, instead of trying to tell me who I am (I’m looking directly at you, Cataclysm Goblin Starter Area).

Even more, while the game does have its share of random and daily quests (we’ll come back to those in a second), there are chunks of content that are doled out in episodic form. I sit down, start the next episode, and in a half hour to an hour, I’ve played out a whole plot. Very much like an episode of a Star Trek TV show. I love it!

The Non-Repetitive Dailies

Some games have implemented a form of Daily Quest, things you can do once a day, every day. In a few games it is literally the same quest over and over. In other games, it’s a selection of quests that rotate through on a schedule – it looks random at first, but every one is getting the same random quest, so what’s really happening is that the server is cycling through a list of quests.

STOs Daily Quests are more along the lines of what you would expect from a foundation of a continuing mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. You are asked to go to a cluster or sector of space, seek out random spawning anomalies and systems, and complete three adventures. Sometimes you are just scanning unusual formations. Sometimes you deliver supplied to people in need. Other times you defend outposts under attack. Just the other day, I had to beam down to the surface of a planet that was only in the Stone Age level of technology and retrieve a fallen probe before they discovered it, without being detected myself.

Sure, I get repeats now and then, but there appear to be enough of them, a few dozen at least, that it doesn’t happen often. Oh, and there is a daily to do three player created missions.

That’s right. Players have the ability to create content in The Foundry.

Free to Play Pay

I still find the “Free to Play” moniker to be a bit troublesome. Yes, you can play for free, but there are, as always, limitations. Though these may be some of the most lenient limits I’ve seen. Some of them are even lifted by simply buying something, once from the store. I already bought one thing, and I can see myself buying access to certain ships or other things in the future.

I’m enjoying it. Here are a few screen shots of my current ship.

Fantasy Fantasy MMO

If I were to set about trying to build yet another fantasy MMORPG, here is what I would do…

I’d start with EVE Online.  There are many reasons for this, the first being that I don’t mind having zones.  Lots of people will tell you that you have to have a giant seamless world, but I always ask them “What seamless worlds are you playing in?”  They always say World of Warcraft.  But they are only half right.  Yes, you can run from one end of a continent to the other without zoning.  You can fly on a griffin or other travel beast and cross no zone lines.  But how do you play the game?  Most people are in instances, dungeons and battlegrounds, and crossing from one continent to another makes you zone.  Warcraft has seams, they’ve just gone a long way to hide them from you.  EVE does too, but thankfully for them their Sci-Fi setting makes it easy to throw up gates and wormholes and faster than light travel and hide them in plain sight.  In my fantasy world, I’d have large sprawling zones.  Some zones would be city zones where a large city rests at the center and is surrounded by farmland and sparse wilderness.  Some zones would be town zones where it is mostly wilderness with a sprinkling of small villages and towns, two to five per zone, just a small cluster of buildings or an inn at a cross roads.  And some zones would be full on wilderness with caves and dungeons and evil.

Players would be able to own and run the small villages and towns, possibly even city blocks in the large cities (but not the whole city – the advantage of controlling part of a city would be in the nearness of so many other people, the disadvantage would be that you have to share the city – think of cities as being the trade hubs of the game).

When you want to leave a zone, you would go to a “crossroads”, of which there might be several on each zone at the edges.  From the crossroads you would use the signpost and it would tell you which zones you could get to from here.  Players would be allowed to choose if their journey was “safe” or “unsafe”.  A “safe” journey would simply zone you directly to your destination.  An “unsafe” journey would randomly generate an adventure zone with one or more encounters that you would need to cross.  These unsafe adventure zones would have two exits, one where you start would be back to where you came from and the one at the other end (not necessarily the opposite side, the path through could wind around and end up anywhere on the zone perimeter) would take you to your destination.

The point here is that there would exist in the game shared content raids (the zones I mentioned earlier with caves and dungeons and evil) with spawn timers and event cycles and so on, and there would exist instanced travel content where a player or group of players (or raid full of players) could go thwart evil unhindered by other players (an added bonus could be that clearing a road of bandits and other nasties could have an impact on the prices of NPC trade goods between the two end points of the journey).  As well there could also be “pocket” zones that would work more like traditional instances in other game – perhaps players, from a village or town, can accept a posted bounty or task that sends them either immediately into their own instance or directs them to a nearby crossroads where they can select their instance from the signpost.

Of course, I’m just spit-balling here.  But I think this sort of thing would be a very interesting idea to pursue.  Another day, I’ll go into how I’d apply EVE’s character design/building to a fantasy game as well…

Dragon*Con 2010: Day Three

Day One, 8am post… Day Two, 8am post… Day Three? Not 8am.  We’ll get to that in a minute.

Today I’ll be work the Guild Q & A with Vork and Zaboo and then I’m done.  The track has a few nifty things for the MMO-inclined like a Global Agenda panel, EVE Online, City of Heroes, a session about guild management and more.  Then of course, we have the Kingdom of Loathing party tonight, which was great last year so I’d expect it to be great again.

Now, let’s talk about Day Two… We had almost 600 people show up to see us show off Cataclysm.  Then nearly 200 to hear Sandeep Parikh talk about The Legend of Neil.  180 came to hear about the best WoW Addons.  At 5:30, we did the WoW Meet & Greet with fun and prizes, which I don’t have numbers for because I worked the camera instead of the door.  This was such a blast, especially the dance content due to the insane guy who actually did the WoW Troll dance.  Then we had over a hundred people for a second night of machinima.  And then… At 10pm we opened the doors on our MMO Gathering of Heroes.  I don’t have any final numbers, but I hear over 1,000 people dropped by throughout the evening.  We danced.  We drank.  We danced some more.  I stumbled back to the room around 3am.  It was a great day.

The Single Shard

One of the people from over at CCP, the people who brought us EVE Online, has written up An Argument for Single-Sharded Architecture in MMOs.  I fully support this idea.

The main reason I like it is the one thing that irritates me most of most MMOs is when I meet a new person in real life, realize we both play the same game and then realize that we can’t play together unless we a) start over/start new characters or b) one of us pays to move servers and leaves all our other friends behind.  Even the people with whom I played EQ with for many years can’t seem to get themselves on the same server when a new game starts, mostly because thanks to other games they have a couple of different circles of friends, and they want to play with all of them, but when twenty of their friends from WoW want to play on LotRO server X, and twenty of their EQ friends want to play on LotRO server Y, they have to choose.  And that sucks.

On the other hand, in a game like EVE, it is impossible for me to run into another EVE player that I technologically cannot play with (unless they play only on the test server).  All I need to do is warp to them and we play.  Even in Wizard 101 and Free Realms, which technically have multiple play shards, you can switch shards whenever you want and play with anyone you want.

Another reason for my like of a single shard comes to light every time I talk about EQ for very long to other people.  During my time in EQ I played on 4 servers.  My main server was E’Ci and I spent the bulk of my time there.  But I also piddled around on one of the PvP servers (one of the team ones, not the free for all) and one of the RP servers (were I spent most of my time in the bars of Neriak spinning tales for those who would listen – which surprisingly was more than I expected going into it, but unsurprisingly didn’t last long as power gamers flooded the RP server since RPers are much easier to push around and less likely to race to max level thus leaving high end content more available).  I also did time as a guide.  Each server had a distinct personality.  As a guide I was called in to deal with situations that didn’t happen on my main server, E’Ci.  E’Ci had a strong public grouping/raiding system, where other servers were entirely guild controlled.  E’Ci had, at the upper levels, guilds that, for the most part, maintained relations and raid schedules to give everyone a shot rather than fight, where other servers had guilds training each other and swiping raid mobs from each other and camping entire zones for days/weeks on end to monopolize spawns.  When I talk about the game of EverQuest, I’ve come to realize that not everyone played the same game that I did.  But a game like EVE or Wizard 101 or Free Realms or any other unified player base game, my stories are their stories.  If I talk about getting ganked in some system in EVE, I can bet another EVE player will know what I mean.  But when I talk about hanging out in the East Commons tunnel looking for deals back in the day, some people will say, “Don’t you mean Greater Faydark?” or “You mean the North Freeport bank, right?” or “North Karana was better.” because not every server evolved exactly the same locations for community gatherings.  But in EVE, the best place for you to go to buy stuff is the best place that everyone goes to buy stuff.

I hope more games take the single-shard design route.  Multiple servers were fine back in the EQ days when there wasn’t really much competition, but these days, even if I went back to EQ I’d have to choose which friends to play with since I’ve got friends on two or three different servers.  When I look at new games, my friends and I usually try to get on the same server, but eventually some of them vanish to other servers to play with other groups.  For me, this usually ends up with me losing interest in the game and quitting because I can’t play with all of my friends.

An MMO cannot exist on PvP alone

We’ve all heard the terms of “wolves” and “sheep” before.  Its the core of PvP.  No one wants to be the sheep, but sometimes you are.  In PvP games, you can learn from defeat and become a better player, but you cannot learn from being crushed.  In the FPS world, if you hop on a TF2 server and spend most of the game dead, you are less likely to return unless the game chat was just so awesome.  However, you can go to another server very easily, for no charge and no need to grind back up any levels.  For an MMO example, if you are in a battleground in WoW and your level 80 shadow priest meets a level 80 frost wizard on the battle field and you go toe to toe and lose, you can learn from that.  Pick different spells if it happens again, approach them from another tack.  But if you are out in the world on a PvP server and a level 80 warrior swings by and ganks your level 12 warrior, you aren’t going to learn anything from that beyond the fact that some people are power tripping assholes.  So, to keep sheep around, you need something for them to do, something for them to succeed at so that their faceplants in PvP don’t sting so badly.  And the wolves need the sheep, because if the “true sheep” start quitting, the “weaker wolves” are the “new sheep”.

Lots of PvP advocates love to trot out EVE Online as their example of how PvP totally owns and can be successful.  They conveniently forget that as a pure PvP game, EVE failed, and that over the years of its existence and continued development much of that has been spent making tutorials and NPC missions and trade skills.  The PvP of EVE has succeeded in the long term because the people at CCP worked on finding ways for the sheep to stick around.  Yeah, you might have attacked and destroyed my hauler and taken my load of goods.  You might have just set me back several days.  But I made twenty-seven successful heart-pounding runs through zero space before you got me.  And my rep as a guy who gets goods where they need to be is growing.  You are playing a PvP game, but to me you are just a new form of AI that I need to avoid in my PvE smuggler game.

The road to success is littered with the carcasses of failed PvP MMOs, and most of them end up failing for the same reason: they built a game for wolves and forgot to create a place for the sheep.

EVE adding a ground game

If you dig around this site you’ll find that I occasionally praise the design of EVE Online.  Which is funny, considering that I don’t play it.  I did, at one point, but unless you have the desire and time to get involved in the forums, corporations and politics of the game or like the economy jockeying, the mechanics of the game are fairly boring.

CCP, the company that makes EVE, is looking to change that… sort of…

Enter, DUST 514.  I read about this over at Fidgit, and here is what was said:

DUST 514, featuring first-person shooter and RTS-style gameplay, will interact directly with EVE Online, CCP’s critically acclaimed flagship MMO. This interplay between the two games opens the EVE universe to console gamers and gives them a chance to become part of one of the most massive cooperative play and social experiences ever.

The primary gameplay of DUST 514 features brutal ground combat that takes place on the surface of planets from EVE, delivering the visceral, adrenaline-fueled experience of futuristic firefights. Developed for the current generation of consoles, DUST 514 combines equal parts battlefield reflexes and strategic planning, giving commanders and ground infantry real-time configurable weapons and modular vehicles to manage dynamic battlefield conditions.

Again, CCP seems to be taking risks by trying something that isn’t exactly mainstream.  Sure, console FPS games are old hat, but the idea of integrating that console FPS with a PC MMO and tossing in some RTS style elements has my interest piqued.

This article includes a video showing what I can only hope is in-game footage of combat.

I am excited to hear more, which they say we will at CCP’s Fanfest in October.

The Tools You Need

There is an old saying that goes something like this:

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

Throughout my career in computers, I have often referred to various tasks as “handing out fish” or “fishing lessons” depending on how I decided to approach it.  In recent years, I have often leaned toward fishing lessons over handing out fish because I hate having to repeat work, though sometimes if a task will never need to be repeated obviously teaching is a waste.

More recently, I’ve come to realize that I enjoy working with people who can figure things out, where I don’t need to actually teach them, but I can just give them the tools they need and they’ll teach themselves.  This I have come to refer to as “giving them a pole and showing them the ocean.”  Of course, this technique does require that the person is familiar in the arena.  I couldn’t do this for a programming job with the guy who cuts my neighbor’s lawn, but if I’m talking to another programmer then he should already be familiar with enough basics that if I give them a language and a goal they should be able to fill in all the missing steps themselves.

Since I put this in the gaming category, how does this pertain?

I’ve always admired EVE Online, even if I didn’t overly enjoy the game, because the game itself is little more than a set of mechanics and some tutorials in how to use them.  If that is all the effort you even put into the game, EVE is shallow, bland, repetitive and boring.  However, using the tools of the game and the Internet (in the form of message boards and other bits) and stepping outside the safeguards of high security space, the players have crafted themselves a very deep game of social interactions and political intrigue that rivals the plots of many popular novels.  And it is a game you can’t teach.  You can’t be an EVE player and teach someone how to get involved in the machinations of the social entities.  You can only give them a pole and show them the ocean.

MechWarrior: An Exercise in Game Design

The purpose of this post is simple: If I were to design an MMO for a MechWarrior game, how would I approach it?  Please feel free to point out my flaws, add your own thoughts, or propose your own designs.

If I had to tackle this as a game designer, I don’t think I would bother trying to do any kind of class or archtype system beyond possibly giving some initial choice of a small (2-5%) bonus in certain skills.  But then, what would I do?

First off, I would completely and absolutely separate character level from character power.  As a player does things in the game, be it quests, or crafting, or combat (both PvE and PvP), they would earn experience which would go toward a “rank”.  I’d probably steal ranks from the military, and for each rank I’d have a few mini-levels inside, like to move from Private to Private First Class you might only fill the exp bar once, but going from something like Sergeant Major to Second Lieutenant you might have to fill it 5 times signifying the harder jump from Noncommissioned Officer to Commissioned Officer.  This level would largely be a measure of how much ass you have kicked, but without a real relation to the power of the character.  Meeting a Brigadier General on the field as a Colonel doesn’t mean he’s going to win, it just means he’s been doing this longer or more than you.

Second, I would tie the player’s power into sort of an “item level” system.  As a MechWarrior, you pilot a Mech (giant powered robot armor), and if you like your wrist mounted pulse lasers, the more you use them, the more experience you earn with them, and you’ll level up your wrist mounted pulse laser skill which directly would affect your accuracy with the lasers, but indirectly would allow you to use more complicated and intricate wrist mounted pulse lasers.  On the other hand, if you prefered wrist mounted welders and repair kits, you’d get similar skill levels, but with wrist mounted welders and repair kits instead of lasers.  The key here being, if you can level up both if you want to spend the time, but you can only have one equiped when you leave the garage.

In a way, this would mirror Eve Online’s system of skills and things you can attach to your ship and which ships you can drive, but without the forced delay of a strictly time based advancement system.  Think of Eve but also being able to actively grind out the skill instead of logging out one day and coming back a week later when Frigate level 5 is done training.

Anyway, as will the item skills, there would also be rig skill.  Items attach to slots on your rig, rigs come in various shapes and sizes.  As the game expands, more and different rigs could be added, new items and item groups, specialized items.

Because experience given is based on usage (you plus item used plus target of item use times the success of the usage in some formula), there would be no need formalize grouping or raid structures for the dividing of experience points, so groups would end up being just communications channels.  Then you could even add in skills and items to support “hacking” so that you can “tap in” to an enemy’s chat, and of course to monitor for taps and counter them.

I think the entirety of the game would be PvP.  The beginning focus would be on One on One gladiator style combat, expanding into Two on Two, Five on Five, 3 or more Teams, Free for All or whatever.  Then, just like they have for first person shooter and racing games (or for that matter, World of Warcraft’s Battlegrounds), you can add “mission” types.  Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, Marked Man/Escort, anything you can think of.  In fact, the game might go so far as to run contests for player designed submissions for maps and rulesets.

If a “larger” game is needed for people to play, you can make a robust guild system having people swear allegience to an army and fight for them in massive battles.  The guilds/armies can build their own bases, run scrimmages for themselves or against other teams.  Blending that in with the “missions” from above, you can actually throw in leader boards and seasons to turn them from random battles into an organized sport.

Outside of the Mechs, players would have an avatar, a character, to run around “the city” in, to meet up with other people and talk.  Or not… you could also go the route of EVE Online and just have an avatar image, a picture of you, with no animation (although, even EVE is adding in stuff for people to walk around space stations).  The world outside of the combat zones becomes just a simple chatroom.  If you really wanted to get crazy, you could even drop the text and have it all be voice chat.  If you did that, and made the game playable with a controller, you might even get an MMO you could run on a console, cross platform even.

So there, in a completely un-fleshed out outline is what I would do for an MMO based around a MechWarrior style mythos.  Feel free to comment…

Pirates of the Burning Sea

I was going to write up my thoughts on the game, as I’ve been in the beta for a long while now, but Tobold already did a fine job of it, and he covered pretty much all I wanted to say.

To me, the game felt like City of Heroes crossed with EVE Online. Towns, missions, character creation, all of that feels like it is right out of City of Heroes. The economy is player run like EVE Online. The major difference, and the biggest innovation, is how “winning” the PvP game is handled. If one side dominates the game, holding control of enough ports, they “win”, the ports reset control, and the other teams all get a leg up for the next round.

Over all, I’m not horribly impressed, but I’m also not disappointed. If you have been wanting a Pirate game that isn’t Puzzle Pirates, this is a well built game, much in the way that City of Heroes is a well built superhero game. However, if you are looking for breakthrough, innovative MMOs, this probably won’t blow your skirt up.

I won’t officially give this game a rating unless I play it after release, because they still have more beta time and things could change. But if I were to rate it, right now it would be a 9 or 10 out of 13.

Pete and Re-Pete

Pete and Re-Pete were paddling a canoe when Pete fell out, who was left in the canoe?
-first grade humor

Now take a moment to consider that. If you don’t get that joke, please, please… stop reading my blog. Encapsulated in that joke is the one thing that really irritates me most about MMOs. Just the other night in World of Warcraft, my group and I went off to collect the heads of some thieves. Now, when we killed each of the offending people and take their heads, my suspension of disbelief allows me to equate that fact that each of us gets a head to be taken as we have evidence of the head, or since we all plan to go back together that there is really only one head that we share. Of course, one of our group had killed them and taken their heads and turned them in for the reward two days prior.

People in EverQuest used to make jokes… “Oh thank you!” quest giver Sarah tells you. “You found my mother’s locket!” She tosses it over her shoulder into a box full of identical lockets.

I realize that designed content is limited, and players will exhaust content faster than it can be created, so I’m not sure what the answer is here… except to stop generating content. The one thing that EVE Online does better than any other game I have played is to encourage you to get involved in PvP. Honestly, unless you really enjoy playing the economy game of buying and selling goods (I have a friend who makes a billion isk a month and rarely ever leaves his hanger), or grinding the same twenty missions over and over, there isn’t anything else to do. Of course, EVE Online is a niche game.

And that comes to the real point… its one I’ve made before and will continue to make: the world needs more niche games. We need more companies who plan properly and would be happy with fifty to one-hundred thousand players, maybe less, maybe more. We need more companies who actively do NOT want to be the next big thing.