The Great Divide II

Orcs vs Humans
Pick a side, forever.

Last week I wrote about levels dividing players.  This week I’d like to look at another thing that divides players: Lore.

Now, Lore itself doesn’t really divide players, but design decisions made to support Lore does.  In World of Warcraft, you have two sides, the Alliance and the Horde, and every race in the game belongs to one side and not the other.  If you want to play an orc, you are Horde.  If you want to play a human, you are Alliance.  Now, if you want to play a human and your best friend wants to play an orc, you are screwed.  One of you is going to have to cave and play another race.

WoW isn’t the only game that does this.  In almost every game on the market that decides to define “sides” to enable a Realm vs Realm style of PvP play, they draw arbitrary lines in the sand and toss races on one side or the other.  This needs to stop.

Now, when I say Lore is the problem, I’m being a tad flippant.  In truth, from a database and coding viewpoint, it’s probably far easier to assign races to sides than to flag individual characters and then check the flag for any action for which side matters.  But if we assume the problem isn’t technical, that a human could be on either Horde or Alliance, then the only thing holding us back is Lore.  Humans and Orcs are on different sides because the Lore says so.

Of course, the solution to Lore problems is… Lore!

Why not have the majority of humans be Alliance, but a splinter faction have gone to the Horde?  Apply to same logic to each and every race in each and every game.  Even if you don’t want the Lore of your game to support a race being on both sides, you should allow your players to “betray” their side and go to the other.

Some people will say that dividing people into sides by race it to make finding enemies easier during those PvP/RvR interaction.  And yes, spotting an orc and knowing he’s a friend or foe at a glance is easy.  Know what else is easy to spot?  The same thing FPS games have been using for a long time: colors.  When a player enters an area of contention, just slap a colored tabard on them, red for one side and blue for the other.

Dividing players into sides is a perfectly valid design decision, but there really isn’t any good reason, in my opinion, to divide them along other lines as well.

Strafing to Victory!

Over at Horriftic Intentions, brannagar has posted a bit about what he thinks the community wants.  My first mistake in getting involved in that discussion was that I was sent a link to the post and didn’t pay attention to the fact that the blog is a Rift fanboy site.  I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense like some people might.  I just mean that the author is clearly excited for the game, has already taken the stance that Trion (the makers of Rift) knows all (and agrees with him).  Had I known, I probably would never have commented there at all and instead come straight here to talk about the issues at hand.

Essentially, of the four points he makes, I completely agree with three of them.  Two, flying mounts and arenas, on the grounds that just because one game (and for most people that one game is WoW) has them that every game should have them.  The third, the random dungeon finder, because while I’m certain it leads to more progress in games like WoW, I ultimately feel that the implementation destroys community.  Why bother meeting people and making connections when you can just use the tool, get a group, and then never play with those people again?

The fourth point of his, the one I disagree with, is that some people are asking for an Auto-Face or Stick function for PvP.  As you can see from the comments once I stuck my nose in and the two of us bantered back and forth, clearly brannagar likes circle strafing.  I’ve mentioned my views on circle strafing on here before.  And if you dig around you’ll find a few more times I’ve brought it up, especially where I say that Fallen Earth actually does it well in that you actually move slower while strafing.

Upon reflection, I see that I was actually mistaken.  There shouldn’t be accuracy and damage penalties for movement.  Yes, it is more realistic, but it would serve mainly to irritate players.  Looking back at my old posts, I do think a speed penalty should apply for various reasons, but even so there are much better ways to handle this.

You see, circle strafing has plagued FPS games for a long, long time.  The solution on the PC where people use a keyboard and mouse was for players to crank up the sensitivity of their mouse so that small twitches left and right would rotate their character through wider arcs more quickly and allow them to keep the strafing player in sight.  However, when FPS games became more popular on consoles, and especially after the introduction of the double stick controller which allowed for much better circle strafing, asking people to crank up the sensitivity of their controllers actually had an adverse affect on the rest of game play.  So, FPS games innovated by adding in the ability for players to perform a 180 degree turn with a single button.  While not completely nullifying circle strafing as a tactic, it allowed the target player a fighting chance to catch their attacker on the flip side.

This is what MMOs need for PvP.  A 180 degree flip would do wonders to level the playing field as immobile casters have to deal with highly mobile melee characters while still allowing attentive melees to change direction of movement and not giving the immobile players automated assistance.

In the end though, while I’m glad for the outcome in that it let me realize what is really missing from MMO PvP combat, I was also reminded how annoying it is to argue with the faithful.  It’s possible that brannagar could read this (that’s the downside to linking to things, the authors can find out you are talking about them), and he might even come here to tell me how wrong I am and that a 180 flip would be stupid or game breaking and how Trion is luckily smart enough to never consider putting something like it in.  And that’s a shame, because I’d much rather discuss how to make PvP fun for everyone without breaking it for anyone, and as it stands, circle strafing makes the game broken for people who can’t defend against it.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch on collision detection and line of sight issues.  Being able to break a caster’s spell by stepping through the caster is totally broken design, and yet is the way most games work.  Maybe we’ll cover that in another post.

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.

Why Do I Play?

Tobold has a great series of posts up called “Why Do We Play?” (that link goes to the summary, which links to the earlier parts because Tobold didn’t go back and put links in his introduction post) wherein he examines several aspects of gaming and how those aspect are realized.  Of course, its mostly great if you aren’t a big gaming blog reader.  Nothing in there is revolutionary, and most of it has been talked before in many places, but its not a bad read.  Here is my rebuttal, of sorts…

I’m there for the social.  I want to play with other people, and if I’m not going to play with other people, then I want a strong narrative which I am unlikely to find in an MMO and will more easily find in a single player game.  One of the things I loved about EverQuest, and I’ve talked about it before, is that the game wasn’t quest driven.  Yes, there were quests, and yes, I’ve said before that there was not a single day of playing EQ where I was not working on a quest of some sort.  However, quests are personal.  It is in their design to be so.  A quest is started by you, it is on your quest tracker, and you will complete it.  Someone can help you kill raptors and collect hides, but in the end, even if you both have the quest, you both need your own hides (whether the item is shared or not) and you will both talk to the NPC separately to complete the quest.  The reason EverQuest worked so much better as a social game than WoW or other modern games is that while a player could always be questing, the bulk of the game was in fighting monsters, and fighting monsters is something you actually do together.  When the monster dies, it may drop an item that is lootable by all group members, but still each of them loots the item for their own quest, they don’t complete the quest together, but they do kill the monster as a team.  Especially in games like WoW, when you’ve collected all your items, you are best off running back to the NPC and doing the turn in as soon as possible because the next quest he gives may very well be in the same area you are already fighting in to kill monsters you are already killing but are getting no credit for since you don’t yet have the quest.  And quests reward the player better than the killing.

To that end, I was very excited about Warhammer Online’s public quest system, where a quest wasn’t assigned to you but just happened in a specific area and to be a part of it you only needed to be there.  Of course, that game also had a ton of traditional quests and the heavy PvE and quest focus of the game, plus it being level based like most every other MMO, lead pretty quickly to people not socializing, racing through content on the traditional quests.  The saving grace of the game was supposed to be the PvP aspects, but with so much focus on PvE, and trying a bunch of PvP elements to PvE sieges, it didn’t really work too well.  Honestly, I hope they keep plugging away at the game and don’t close it down any time soon.  If they just accept that they are not going to defeat WoW at the PvE game and work on making the PvP game fun and rewarding, they might manage to carve themselves out a very nice niche, and I might go back to the game.

Despite my distaste for the gameplay of EVE Online, I am repeatedly drawn to the game because the social aspects of the game carry so much weight.  And by “social” I don’t just mean hanging around chatting with people, though I do mean that too, but in how the player economy involves interaction with other players, even when done through an auction/buy/sell interface there are still other players on the other side of those transactions.  Similarly, its why I am drawn toward Fallen Earth and why I’m so disappointed that I experience so much lag in towns.  Hopefully they’ll resolve that, or I’ll be able to buy a super PC (when I win the lottery), and I can join in.

But that’s it in a nutshell.  Of all the reasons to play an MMO, the reason I’m there is for the social interactions, and not just between me and my friends from previous games talking on our private chat server while playing in guild groups, but for the random happenstance of playing with and around other people, whoever they may be.

Changing Sides

The Internet exploded this week as Blizzard announced that they are working on a way to let people change factions in World of Warcraft.  If you are unaware, WoW has always been a 2-sided dynamic, built in part on PvP play between the two factions of Horde and Alliance.  On PvE servers, players have always been able to create characters on both factions, but on the PvP realms, once you created a character on one side you were locked out of the other.  (I want to say all realms were like that at launch, but if they were it has since changed.)  Of course, like their server transfer, this faction change will be done for a fee.  In the announcement, two key pieces of information are missing.  First, how much will it cost?  Second, how will it work?

Personally, I don’t care about the first question.  No matter how much it costs, I’ll never use it, just like I will never use their server transfer.  But the second question interests me greatly, especially as it relates to a couple of posts I made previously on the idea of limiting a player to a single character per account.  (I sometimes feel bad about not continuing that series, but no one agreed with me and I even got a couple of emails to the effect that I should never be allowed to design a game or even work in the game industry.)

So, let’s take a look at what I consider to be the only two logical solutions for changing factions in WoW.

The first option would be to leave the game as it is and simply let the user change their race.  Since they introduced the Draenei and the Blood Elves in The Burning Crusade, every class is represented on both sides by at least one race, so it is possible as there are no gaps.  However, that means that any Alliance Paladin, Human, Dwarf or Draenei, would have to switch to be a Blood Elf in order to go Horde.  The main issue that I have here is for people like myself who actually choose race before class.  I tend to always play human in any game, mostly because playing as a fantasy race just doesn’t appeal to me much.  I want to be “me” in another world, not to be someone else.  If this is the method they choose to use, I would never use it because my choice of race is actually more important to me than my class.  While I might jump at the option to make my level 60 priest a level 60 paladin, making my level 60 human a level 60 undead, troll or blood elf is unappealing.  Of course, I am probably in the minority, so for many players a race switch would be just fine as long as there are options they won’t hate.

The second option is the more complicated one, and that is to let the player keep their race and to just change the side they belong to.  Now, if Blizzard is lucky, this could be extremely easy and every character has a single bit flag that says “0 = Alliance, 1 = Horde” and all game interactions build off of that.  The chat channels, the side you play on in Battlegrounds, who you can attack, which NPCs will talk to you, etc.  That would be awesome.  However, given that the game was likely built with the idea that faction was the ultimate dividing point, I doubt that bit exists.  So, either Blizzard will spend the next few months implementing that bit so they can flip it, or they’ll have to come up with a more complicated and convoluted solution.  Being able to keep my race would appeal to me, seeing as how I identify more closely with my race than my class in these games, but I think it could also cause more damage to the game.  Right now, in PvP, if you are on the Alliance side and you see two people fighting, you can tell which person to help by their race.  I’m human, I see a tauren and a gnome engaged in combat.  I heal the gnome or fight the tauren.  Simple.  Now imagine that same scenario after a race keeping faction switch.  Now I’ll need some other cue to tell me who to fight and who to heal, because that could be Horde gnome fighting an Alliance tauren.  Letting races switch factions muddies distance visual identification for PvP.  So even if they had the “faction bit” that made switching factions easy, they’ll still need to do a considerable amount of work to ensure that playing the game doesn’t become confusing, at least for PvP.

Overall, since the game was not designed from the ground up with this in mind, introducing it now is, in my opinion, not a good move from a gameplay perspective.  From a business perspective, it is an excellent idea, they’ll make money off it and make a number of people very happy.  I do think that if anyone can solve the problems of the second option, Blizzard can.  So now we just have to wait and see which path they take.

Revisiting Travian

Back in October, I reviewed my experience with the web based game Travian, and now that I am no longer going to be playing it, I would like to say just a bit more.

If you decide to play Travian, bring friends.  If you don’t have friends to bring, make friends, fast.  And if the friends you bring or the friends you make do not play seriously and begin immediately amassing power and strength, dump them and get new friends.

That may seem a little hardcore, but it is pretty much true.  Travian is a PvP game.  Building cities takes more time than conquering cities.  So if you don’t join a big alliance and start conquering other people, other people will start conquering you.

So, to that end, while I said previously that I wouldn’t be playing the game anymore, I won’t… but I would consider it if a big group of people were planning to play it and let me join in with them.

One World

After watching the blogging storm over the problems and successes of Warhammer, I am again certain that one of the major advancements in traditional MMOs that can’t come too soon is that of getting every player on to one single world server.

If nothing else, I think games should have one single master account server and then run the entire game as instances of areas instead of separate world servers.  Warhammer, in my opinion, exemplifies exactly why this is needed.  The game, while maintaining a decent level of PvE style game play, is focused on PvP style game play.  When players are the content, you have to give the players every possible tool to solve their own problems.  And the biggest problem in PvP is population and imbalance.

When playing the game requires not only for you to have a dozen players on your team but also a dozen players on the other team, in the same place, at the same time, it is completely unfun to be on a server where you always have a dozen people and the other side never does.  Even more so when you hear that another server is having the exact same problem, but diametrically opposed: they always have a dozen on the side your server lacks, and never have anyone on your side.

I admit, the first time I logged in to City of Heroes on a stress test day in beta and saw 12 of the same city zone instance, I didn’t like it.  Grouping up and then trying to get everyone in the same instance was a pain in the ass.  Of course, I believe they have overcome much of that now.  It can’t really be that hard anyway… if you are in the same zone but a different instance that your group leader, all the players need is a “Join Leader” option that will zone them to the proper instance, or display a message if the action can’t be performed (like if the instance is already at the hard cap for player totals).  But seeing games that want PvP elements having to struggle because they have erected an iron wall between their players makes me realize that instancing can actually be a better solution.

I’m still against the idea of overly instancing PvE content, letting players go off into their own private areas and hide from the world, but I definitely think instancing in some overarching way is going to be the solution for PvP content.  Give the players the ability to solve their own problems… one that doesn’t include “start a new character on another server” and one that doesn’t require you, the developer, to write exception code to force some sort of cross server matching like WoW has done.  Sure, it fixed some of the queue issues, but you still end up playing against people that ultimately are not part of your server community.

One World.  I think its a design well worth pursuing, and in some cases is absolutely needed.

Going back to Azeroth…

… nah, I don’t think so.

There are many reasons I stopped playing WoW.  The first and foremost was that there were so many blasted servers that after the initial scatter, and then several re-homes, of all my previous-MMO friends, I ended up being invested too much in a server where few of them played, and I didn’t want to start over again, again.  Then the friends I did have on the server I was on stopped playing, or did move servers and started over.  I tried making new friends and joining new guilds, but frankly everywhere I ended up was full of one of two kinds of people, 1) hardcore, you must play now, fanatics who wanted everyone to be on all the time and either farming or raiding, or 2) people who were so casual that the guild was little more than a chat channel while everyone played alone together, soloing their way to glory.  Then when Battleground turned into nothing by a grinding gear-fest, I lost my last reason to play.  I wanted to PvP, but I didn’t want to spend the time, effort, or money required to gear up enough to be able to last more than a few seconds.  And the game supports no method by which you can PvP against only similarly geared people.

Despite my distaste for how things ended, World of Warcraft has remained installed on my PC even though my account is cancelled.  But not anymore.  I’m just removed it and I’m never going back.

For one, I’m going to be picking up Warhammer Online, and I’ve put myself in with a fairly organized group of people who don’t seem to be hardcore slave-driving raid-mongers nor solo-only chatoholics.  For another reason, you need only see the direction WoW has decided to continue heading… and by that I mean into silliness.  With the next expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard is putting motorcycles into the game.  WoW has always been a pun filled humorous type game.  Even back in its origins at an RTS game, humor was embedding in the voices of the units (if you kept clicking the same unit over and over again they eventually got upset with you and demanded you stop touching them), but WoW has always been a step further.  Mostly, the things in game could be easily ignored, or avoided.  Or, most importantly, they were things you sought out, saw, and then went back to not seeing them.  Funny names and odd sites are great fun when they pop up from time to time.  But this is different… how often do you see people on mounts?  Your answer is probably like mine, “All the time.”  So now, we are going to have motorcycles riding around all over the place.  Not being a flying mount, they will probably be unrestricted, meaning you can ride them around the old world.

If they really wanted to put motorcycles in the game, have them be funny, but not have them be ubiquitous, they could have put in a gnome somewhere, with a motorcycle, who will help you build one.  It would be a series of quests that would give out a couple rewards, but ultimately give out a motorcycle mount, limited uses (10 or 20), non-repeatable.  Of course, people would cry about not being able to keep the mount, but a few people crying is better than unleashing the World of Motorcyclecraft, in my opinion.

With that, I’m done.  And I’m never going back.

Welcome to Town (US) (PvP) (14)

If you don’t understand the title, well, I wouldn’t blame you, I just made it up. But the idea behind is has to do with instancing.

One of the best elements of the game Guild Wars is that as long as you and another player are playing in the same expansion, you can play together. When I see games utilize instancing only to produce an infinite number of copies of Random_Dungeon_X or to produce seventeen copies of “town” to keep the populations low and yet they run a dozen or many dozens of world servers, I see it as an opportunity lost.

Where are the MMOs that utilize instancing as a method to eliminate the need for multiple servers? Worlds where everyone lives in the same place, they simply choose how they want to experience it when they leave “safety”. The title of this blog would indicate that you have entered “Town”, the localization is for the US (American English), its a PvP enabled instance, and it is the 14th of its kind because US PvP instances of “Town” are popular.

Of course, a game like WoW that has worked so hard to eliminate zoning except when going into little pocket dungeons and raid zones, this idea wouldn’t really work. And I realize that putting in a UI chunk that deals with switching instances, be it to join friends or escape crowds, might be off putting to some, but I think the idea has merit if only to avoid playing a game only to discover you can’t play with any of the people you meet at work or a party or wherever without someone (or several someones) having to pay to switch servers or start all over again. People might be resistant to it at first, but overall in the longterm I think it would be better for the virtual world of the MMO.

I hope to see it some day in more than just Guild Wars…

Who Loves You And Who Do You Love?

I love that quote from The Running Man.  Its the tag line/catch phrase for the host of a game show where criminals are allowed to try to win their freedom by out foxing a gang of hunters who chase them, all while an audience wins cash and prizes.

“Who loves you and who do you love?”

When building, and then running, an MMO, this is probably the single most important question to ask, and ask often.  Its the mantra of watching the trends, both the short and the long, to see where the tide is going to flow and hope your game continues riding the crest of the wave and not washing out.

Ryan Shwayder and Grimwell both recently posted about if an aging demographic should affect a game in production and future game design, and there has been much recent discussion about change in WoW by Heartless, Foton and others.

As it comes to the age stuff, I think both Ryan and Grimwell are fairly dead on, if your game got successful on a certain demographic, you shouldn’t change based on them growing up unless you aren’t gaining new people at the entry level.  If your game once appealed to teens and young adults but is no longer attracting those people, then you have to choose either to change to try to attract them again, or change to continue appealing to the people already playing your game and maybe attract more people at that demographic.  And that leads into the other discussion…

When it comes to World of Warcraft, just as with many games before it that mix PvE and PvP styles of play, changes are sometimes made to favor either the PvE or PvP side of the game over the other, often to the detriment of the other.  A spell might be too powerful against other players so they need to reduce its power, thus affecting the power of the player in combat with NPCs as well.  It does indeed suck when changes are made to favor the side of the game you don’t favor.  However, of all the companies out there making MMOs, Blizzard is the only one I inherently trust to completely understand their entire player base and do what is best for the bottom line of the company.  They didn’t get their reputation for wildly successful polished fun games for nothing…

So, why is it that they seem to be favoring the PvP side of the game so much with changes to classes and abilities?

While WoW has always been a casually friendly game, is has also long been accepted that rolling into large scale PvE content (raiding) at the high end was where the “real game” was.  More recently, however, the Battlegrounds and Arenas seem to have taken more focus.  For one, it often takes less people to participate in, and a pick up Alterac Valley is more likely to succeed than a pick up Kazharan raid.  For another, their restructuring of the reward system of PvP has made the PvP gear much more accessible to the casual player than raid gear.  This denotes an understanding from Blizzard that BGs and Arenas are much more accessible to the majority of players than raids, and will net them the largest continuous player base.  I know if I were back playing WoW, I’d be over in the PvP elements of the game as often as possible, if for no other reason than a few rounds of Arathi Basin would be more productive, personally, than a night of raiding with a guild.

Another aspect to keep in mind with WoW, is that unlike many other MMOs out there, it is truly a global game.  And in the Asian countries, professional gaming is much more a reality than it is here in the United States.  I wish I could find it again, but there was a video a while back showing some (Korean, I think) professional gamer (national Starcraft champion or something) getting mobbed by girls in the street.  I’ve seen pictures of the audiences that will come to watch pro-gaming over there.  I doubt girls will scream or audiences will come watch a carefully orchestrated 3 hour long raid bound to net the guy with the worst items and/or the most points an item upgrade.  But for Arena matches… they will come.  So when you consider that more than half of WoW’s 10 million subscribers are in the Asian markets, markets where previous PvP Blizzard Games like Warcraft and Starcraft were monstrous successes, it really is no surprise that they might be giving WoW a little PvP nudge and luvin’.

In the end, it all comes back to the quote… Who loves you and who do you love?  Answer that, and keep answering that, and you can run a successful game.